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The Advent Inversion: How Those on the Inside Missed the Birth of Christ (And Still Do)

Christmas and 2020 are over now, but what about the aftermath? Reflecting back, the distinction between Christmas and Advent felt particularly noticeable. Christmas is a mixture of religious and cultural traditions of celebration and cheer, warmth and light. Then there is Advent - a tension between waiting and hope, uncertainty and peace, where separation and darkness culminates in the joy and love of the light of Christ arriving.

Advent is a season for connecting with the experiences of those first awaiting the birth of Christ. What challenges did they face? And how might our experience intersect with theirs?

Jesus was born in the midst of a community of religious leaders who had been called to be a light and blessing to the world and reveal God to the nations, but instead they shut themselves away - they stopped listening, stopped connecting, stopped engaging with the world.

“In the instruction given through Moses, God had placed restrictions upon their association with idolaters; but this teaching had been misinterpreted. It was intended to prevent them from conforming to the practices of the heathen. But it was used to build up a wall of separation between Israel and all other nations.” (Desire of Ages 28)

This is especially ironic as we read the Advent stories of Christ, because it is from among those very “heathen” that we see some of the first true seekers of Christ emerge. The magi who came seeking Christ were philosophers and leaders in wealth and learning.

“The light of God is ever shining amid the darkness of heathenism. As these magi studied the starry heavens, and sought to fathom the mystery hidden in their bright paths, they beheld the glory of the Creator. Seeking clearer knowledge, they turned to the Hebrew Scriptures. In their own land were treasured prophetic writings that predicted the coming of a divine teacher. ... But in the Old Testament the Saviour's advent was more clearly revealed. The magi learned with joy that His coming was near, and that the whole world was to be filled with a knowledge of the glory of the Lord.” (DA 59)

While the religious were staying safe from the heathens, the heathens were seeking God. The magi had to seek out answers on their own. They looked in nature. They looked in their own culture’s writings, which contained echoes of truth from long ago. And finally they were able to connect with the Hebrew Scriptures.

Do you notice what is missing? Tragically, they were not able to seek God through observance or direct contact with the people of God themselves! This became abundantly clear as they arrived in Israel, seeking Christ.

“To their amazement they find none who seem to have a knowledge of the newborn king. Their questions call forth no expressions of joy, but rather of surprise and fear, not unmingled with contempt. ...The priests are rehearsing traditions. They extol their religion and their own piety, while they denounce the Greeks and Romans as heathen, and sinners above others. The wise men are not idolaters, and in the sight of God they stand far higher than do these, His professed worshipers; yet they are looked upon by the Jews as heathen. Even among the appointed guardians of the Holy Oracles their eager questionings touch no chord of sympathy.” (DA 60-61)

What’s more, not only are the magi confronted with surprise, fear, and contempt, but the religious leaders then dig in their heels in reaction to this new light coming from outside themselves:

“Now pride and envy closed the door against the light. If the reports brought by the shepherds and the wise men were credited, they would place the priests and rabbis in a most unenviable position, disproving their claim to be the exponents of the truth of God. These learned teachers would not stoop to be instructed by those whom they termed heathen. It could not be, they said, that God had passed them by, to communicate with ignorant shepherds or uncircumcised Gentiles. They determined to show their contempt for the reports that were exciting King Herod and all Jerusalem. They would not even go to Bethlehem to see whether these things were so. And they led the people to regard the interest in Jesus as a fanatical excitement. Here began the rejection of Christ by the priests and rabbis. From this point their pride and stubbornness grew into a settled hatred of the Saviour. While God was opening the door to the Gentiles, the Jewish leaders were closing the door to themselves.” (DA 62)

I don’t know about you, but the parallels here between the religious leaders of Christ’s time and our own experience in Christianity and Adventism is striking. We have a deep distrust of “outsiders” - not because the light of God is absent there, but because we’ve built a wall of separation between ourselves and them. We, too, often respond with pride and automatically discredit new ideas or different perspectives without even listening, because if they could be true, that means we must have missed the truth - that we don’t have all the truth and maybe we haven’t cornered the market on God like we thought.

What happens when God’s people aren’t being the light? What happens when we are actively discrediting God’s truth and light when it is showing up outside our expected circle of control? What happens when we isolate ourselves to keep safe and build a wall between ourselves and the world?

[Note that just because we’re doing “evangelism” or “Bible studies” doesn’t mean we don’t still have a wall. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have the fear, contempt, and pride of the priests and rabbis. We have to ask ourselves: Are we listening? Are we engaging in their lives? Are we responding to the truth and light God has already revealed to them outside of us?]

The gracious reality is that regardless of whether God’s people are shining, the light of God still shines. With or without us. The stones cry out.

We actually see many examples of this in Scripture… Outsiders and Gentiles who God went to or who understood when God’s people didn’t.

  • The widow of Zarephath during the famine of Elijah’s time and Naaman the Syrian who was healed of leprosy (Luke 4:24-27).

  • The Roman Centurion who had greater faith than anyone in Israel (Matthew 8:5-13).

  • Other outsiders like Rahab, Ruth, the Canaanite woman, and the woman at the well. (Interesting how many of these were also women, who were outsiders in their own right).

  • We also have the wisdom of Solomon, which was not all his own original work, but some of which was gathered from Mesopotamia and Egyptian sources (see also: Ecclesiastes 12:9; Proverbs 24:23). Solomon found what was wise - what was the light of God elsewhere - and brought it together, probably added his own touch at times, and now it is Scripture.

When Jesus shares about the widow and Namaan, the people gathered there for “church” try to throw him off a cliff. When he marvels at the faith of the centurion, he also proclaims these shocking words:

“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

The idea that those on the outside might really be on the inside, and those on the inside might really be on the outside… it is unsettling, disturbing, even angering. But this is the way of the kingdom of God, right? The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for the kingdom will save it. Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the outsiders.

Have you noticed lately that the stones are crying out? The light of God is shining from the outside. The reality of God is so powerful that even those who don’t acknowledge it are seeking it. Even those who don’t have all the “truth” are living out the truth.

Huge communities of non-Adventists are making breathtaking strides in not only sharing the reality of the Sabbath but living it out in fresh and expansive ways. Other communities are discovering and digging deeper into the realization that God doesn’t burn people forever in hell. The basic tenets of these ideas are not new to us, but aren’t we at the forefront of these movements?

In the world of health, the benefits of an active plant-based lifestyle are being advocated by many, and the harmful impact of stress and lack of rest are being scientifically linked to our physical and mental well-being. But it isn’t the ones with the “health message” who are leading the way.

The benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and prayer practices are spreading far and wide. The allure of minimalism is calling many to forsake the idols of consumerism. The fight for racial justice, activism on behalf of the marginalized, care for the poor - we who proclaim the eternal gospel to every nation, tribe, language, and people should be on the frontlines. But we’re being left behind.

We who follow the Jesus of the subversive Sermon on the Mount, why do we spend so much time inside our walls? God’s light is shining. We may hide ours under a basket, but all across the dark landscape, beacons of brightness are bursting forth. The harvest is ripe. We are missing out on opportunities to draw people to God through the very principles God designed for us to embrace and thrive through. We are missing the chance to help people see the glorious gospel in so many of these lifegiving avenues.

Ultimately, though, we are the ones who miss out the most. Because God’s light is showing up in the world, and people like the magi are still finding Christ. But we also know that we still bear the original call of God’s people, which is also crucial to the culmination of earth’s history: God’s people must collectively become that light - the gospel must go to all the world, not just in teaching, but in living community.

It is time for us to un-hide our light, take it out from under the bushel. Let us listen, let us seek, let us find God’s light shining before we arrive, and let us celebrate that! Let us lift up Christ, not just in teaching but in living, and Christ will draw all people unto himself. May we be the light in the world that turns the eyes of all to the Light of the world.

Written By: Jason Vanderlaan


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