During Advent I’ll be doing a few things differently. At church we’ll be having midweek Morning Prayer services looking at the four characters traditionally depicted by the four candles on an Advent Wreath. I’ll also be linking up with Tanya Marlow as part of her ‘Advent Thoughts’ series on Thorns and Gold. To top it all I’m reading Paula Gooder’s book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent’. Paula’s meditations explore the same characters, so any similarity to what I’m writing is entirely intentional.
The first candle on the Advent Wreath represents Abraham. We first meet Abraham in Genesis chapter 11, but it is at the start of chapter 12 that Abraham’s story really begins as God calls him to leave behind the ordinary and live an extraordinary life of faith. Even his name will change to reflect his new calling, from Abram (Exalted Father) to Abraham (Father of Many).
Throughout the portion of his life which is recorded in Genesis, the dominant verbs are about movement: go; he went; he took; he set out; he arrived; and that’s just in the first four verses of chapter 12. What is extraordinary about Abraham is that his willingness to go is based on nothing less than his faith that God would keep his promises. And what promises they were:
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. ”
Abraham’s faith in the promises of God is why he is a model of waiting for us. I’m going to look at three words from his life which give meaning to our waiting: Promise, Hope and Groaning.
After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Can you imagine an expensive but really inappropriate gift? Maybe a hand-made sofa for someone who is about to emigrate to Australia, or a hot air ballon ride fro someone who is afraid of heights. That’s how Abraham seems to be responding to God’s ongoing promises to him: ‘What’s the point of giving me anything, even the world, because I can’t keep it in my family – all my property will pass to a servant in my household”.
But God makes another game-changing promise to Abraham, not only will he have a son (and not an adopted son, but his own flesh and blood) but his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Abraham believed God’s promise and it was ‘credited to him as righteousness’.
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God,being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Oh! So that’s why Abraham’s faith is such a big deal. At 100 years old, Abraham was well past the age when anyone could reasonably expect to have children, so was his wife Sarah. Humanly speaking, Abraham’s faith was ‘against all hope’, but Abraham was the first person in the Bible to use reason to interpret the Word of God. Abraham reasons that God has the power to do what He has promised. He was fully persuaded that God could bring expectancy out of barrenness, and so Abraham trusts God.
This is where Abraham’s example informs our waiting. Christians are waiting for Jesus to return and as time passes, humanly speaking, this looks to be against all hope. “Yet Abraham did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” We are called to the same faith as we wait.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling,because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:1–5
Abraham was a nomad and his life was spent under canvas, but that wasn’t all he had to look forward to. Hebrews 11:10 tells us that Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”. The Christian life is supposed to be marked by dissatisfaction. Not in the sense that we are not content with what God has given us, but that we are longing for something better, an eternal house build by heavenly hands, rather than the ‘tent’ of this mortal life. So our waiting is characterised by hope, but it is driven by longing, and punctuated by groaning. As we move towards the nativity narratives during Advent we have licence to use the richness of imagery or childbirth and elsewhere Paul talks about our longing for heaven as groaning as in labour. So this groaning is hopeful, labour should lead to new life and so our longing for heaven is a longing that death is swallowed up in life.
In the mean time, we are not left alone to trust all on our own. “God … has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come”.
So we wait, trusting the promise, reasoning that our hope is well founded and groaning as our longing for heaven eclipses our comfort and satisfaction with this world.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face
and the things of this world
will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
Helen H. Lemmel, 1922