The Advent Wreath
Over the next month we will be been celebrating the season by using Advent candles to mark the weeks preceding Christmas. I’ve appreciated doing this over the past years because I believe they are a wonderful tool to remind us about what Christmas is all about. The Advent wreath is rich with imagery that reminds us that Christmas is about Jesus – and not just Jesus, the baby in the manger, but the story of Jesus which encompasses the whole gospel.
Some traditions have different colours and meanings, but they all contain a round wreath and candles — sometimes four, sometimes five, and sometimes more. Historically, there is some evidence to suggest the round wreath with candles predates Christianity, and, like many Christmas traditions, was adopted by the church sometime in the Middle Ages.
The wrath is made of evergreens to signify the continuous life we have because of the coming of Jesus. They are shaped in a circle which looks like a Laurel – which was a woven branch worn on as a crown to mark someone as a victor (like in the Olympics) or someone of great honour (like when you see an image of Caesar). So it symbolizes Christ – immortal, victorious, worthy of praise, giving us everlasting life.
On our wreath are five candles, representing the four weeks of advent and the coming of Jesus at Christmas. The smoke rising from them symbolizes our prayers. The light represents Jesus. Three candles are purple, one is pink, and one is white – each have their own meanings, and traditionally, these were the same colours worn by the priest as he presided over Mass.
The Christ candle, which we light on Christmas Eve, is white and at the centre of the wreath. The outside candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace surround the Christ Candle to remind us that all of those things are ultimately and perfectly found in Christ.
What I appreciate most about the season of Advent is that instead of jumping straight into Christmas, our forefathers set aside four weeks where all believers could take some time to practice two important things that we don’t normally do unless we have to: Wait.
As a culture we aren’t very good at waiting. In fact, we’ve almost turned waiting into a dirty word. Consider how the commercial industry begins the Christmas season. While the church is saying it’s time to slow down and reflect, to pause and prepare ourselves for celebrating the amazing story of the coming of Jesus Christ… to take a whole month to get our homes and hearts ready… to meditate over one aspect of the gospel for an entire week – one whole week on the Love of God, another week on what it means that Jesus is the Prince of Peace… everywhere else seems to be ramping us up with as much commercialism, noise, and craziness they can.
The unofficial inauguration the season is called “Black Friday” which is essentially an all-night shopping spree. And even that they couldn’t wait for this year as they pushed the sales back into the week prior!
“Don’t wait… get it now. Don’t even wait until the store opens! Go ahead and camp outside and we’ll open extra early so you can stampede over people to be first to get what you want. Stay up all night on Sunday, sitting in front of your computer so you can get the best of Cyber Monday. And since you probably won’t get what you want for Christmas, and it’s so far away – use this as a day to buy things for yourself!”
Not exactly the “true meaning of Christmas”, is it? Advent is a time where we remember that being first, getting the most, and filling up our homes and credit cards isn’t what Christmas is all about. Advent tells us to stop, listen and prioritize what really matters: our relationships with Jesus and with each other. Those relationships aren’t built at the pace this world wants us to move – true love requires time and patience.
I know my kids are learning this. The tree is up, lights are going on houses, the Christmas music is playing, the schedule is filling up … they know Christmas is coming. The countdown to Christmas Eve – the day they get to open one present after the Candlelight service – has begun. So my encouragement this season is to ask you to practice waiting, practice not getting what you want when you want it. To slow down, evaluate your priorities, reawaken the lost art of waiting.
That’s good practice for building our relationship with God because He doesn’t work on our schedule, but instead invites us to step outside of our agendas and live by His timetable instead. He loves to teach us patience, because He is patient.
I know our temptation is to start ramping up, but let me encourage you to relax this season. To evaluate the motivations, to ask Jesus to set your heart and mind on what matters this year. To worship Jesus and care for people first – before worrying about the trappings of Christmas.
You Are Loved
So, to prepare you for this season, I want to do something a little different and give you something to think and pray about. Next week we are going to start a series based on the book I just gave you where we are going to explore “The Purpose of Christmas”. I’m hoping that we can all read it together – it’s short, interesting, has lots of stories, only has 4 chapters and has lots of pictures, so we should be able to do this – and meditate on the true meaning of Christmas.
But this week I want to whet your appetite by setting up the Christmas season with the reminder that you are loved – first through scripture, and then with a story.
The Amplified Version of John 3:16 reads like this:
“For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life.”
You are “greatly loved and dearly prized” by your Father in Heaven. So much so that He “gave up” His Son for you – to die in your place so that you could be with Him forever.
Romans 5:1-8 tells us that Jesus came to earth on purpose, to save us, even when we didn’t deserve it. That anyone who would believe that they are a sinner in need of a Saviour, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and then was resurrected on the third day to save them from that sin, would be saved. The free gift of salvation that cost so much. Let me read that to you:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s the love that Jesus has for you. He didn’t just come to save “the world” in general, but you in particular. Not everyone will be saved, but He gives everyone the opportunity to be saved. He created you, designed you, knew you before you were born, picked your parents, your skills and talents, gave you gifts and hopes and dreams, and then invited you into a long-term relationship with Him so He could pour out His love for you, give you a purpose, build you and transform you into the image of Son Jesus Christ.
And nothing can take you away from Him. Romans 8:38-39 says,
“…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In this world, distance and death can separate us from our loved ones… but there is no distance – not even death – that can separate you from the love of God. There is no cavern into which you can fall that He cannot pull you out of, there is no darkness to deep that He cannot shine His light in. No temptation that He will not help you in. No fear He will not give you the strength to overcome. No need He will not fulfill. The world may come against you, and foes may assail you, all of creation may try to push you away from Him, Satan himself may try to drive a wedge between you and Him – but He will never, ever let you go.
The King and His Son
To close this morning I want to tell you a story that illustrates the kind of love God has for you. I heard this illustration used by a pastor named Steve Brown and was moved by it and want to pass it on to you to, hopefully, help you understand Christmas a little better. Please remember that this is an illustration, so it isn’t perfect, but I do hope it’s helpful.
There once was a king who loved being king. He liked sitting on the throne and making decisions; he liked living in the castle, he liked the symbolic functions of his office, he liked visiting the towns and villages of the kingdom and meeting his subjects, he liked the authority and power because he could use them to help his people.
Not only did the king like being king, but his people throughout the kingdom praised him for ruling so benevolently and wisely. The people knew they could trust their king to do the right thing for them and for the kingdom, and they were right. Because of the king’s wisdom, the kingdom was prosperous and peaceful.
When the king’s son was born, the people put on a great celebration. Now there was an heir! The people knew the king would be a good father and that his son would someday be as great and wise as his father. The king loved his son more than his own life. His greatest joy was to spend time with his son. Each evening after the day’s duties were accomplished, the king would go out into the formal gardens and play with his son. The thought of those times with his son often made the hard task of ruling a little easier. Sometimes when he faced a difficult decision or had to settle a dispute or complete a project, the king would think, when this is over, I can be with my son, and he would smile.
One day the king’s son got lost. It was one of the most tragic days that had ever passed in the kingdom. He didn’t mean to get lost. He loved his father as much as his father loved him.
But one day his father had a particularly busy day and was late for their daily meeting in the castle gardens. So the boy decided to explore…. It happened before he knew it. He was just walking and thinking about his father when, looking up, he found himself in the forest behind the castle. Nothing looked familiar! At first he was calm because his father would come soon and find him, but, as he waited, he began to panic. In his confusion he began to run away from the castle. His clothes caught on broken limbs and tore. A couple of times he fell in mud holes, and once he cut himself on a jagged rock.
Eventually the little boy wandered into one of the villages of the kingdom. To be perfectly honest, by that time he looked more like a beggar than a prince. The little boy would go up behind someone, grab his coat, pull on it and say, “Mister, I’m the king’s son. Would you help me get home?”
“Sure you are, kid.”
“But you don’t understand”, the little boy would say to another. “I got lost, and I can’t find my father.”
Most folks simply ignored the little boy, and those who didn’t ignore him laughed at him. Pretty soon the little boy was forced to beg for pennies just so he could buy bread to keep from starving.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king spent a sleepless night looking for his son. He looked everywhere he knew to look, but the boy was nowhere to be found. By morning the king suspected that someone had kidnapped his son and feared that he would never see the boy again.
The king called all his armies together, told them what had happened, and send them into the kingdom looking for his son. He offered great rewards to anyone who could give him information leading to the discovery of his son. But to the king’s great sorrow, the little boy was not found.
Hours blended into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. The little boy was no longer a little boy; he had grown into a strong young man. At first he really had thought he was the king’s son, but so many adults had told him differently that he began to think maybe it had to be a dream. After all, adults knew those kinds of things. As the years passed he forgot about the castle and about his heritage. It didn’t take so many years to forget about the dream altogether.
Then the young man began to run with the wrong crowd. Murder, stealing, rape—nothing was beneath them. But he was still a prince. If you are a prince (even when you don’t know it), it shows. Eventually the young man became the leader of the gang. He surpassed all of his friends in his unlawful acts and spurred them on to even greater acts of lawlessness. Years after he had left the castle and his father, the king’s son had become the most wanted criminal in the kingdom.
Then one day, through a rather complicated set of circumstances, the king found out that his own son was the kingdom’s most wanted criminal. At first he couldn’t believe it, but the more he checked, the more it became clear that he had found his beloved son, and when the authorities finally found him, the king faced a terrible dilemma.
The king loved his son, but he was also fair and just. He knew that if he released his own son who had committed terrible crimes, he would need to release all the others who had committed crimes. That was unacceptable.
And so the king’s son was arrested and brought before a judge who condemned him to be executed for his crimes. The verdict was just. The king’s son was thrown into a dungeon beneath the castle where he had once lived to wait for his execution.
On the night before the young man was to die, the king made his way to the prison beneath the castle. Opening his son’s cell, he walked in and sat on the bunk across from his son. The king sat there a long time looking at his son before he spoke.
“You are my son.”
“Someone told me.”
“Have you ever wondered, over these years, about your parents?”
“Sometimes, but I had a good life, and it wasn’t that important.”
“Well, I have never stopped wondering about you, where you were and what had become of you. You have never been out of my mind and heart.”
The king continued, his voice trembling with emotion and tears running down the age lines in his face, “My son, I loved you with a great love, but you became lost. I did everything I knew to do. I sent out my soldiers; I offered a great reward; I have never ceased to search for you. But now it has come to this and tomorrow you are to die. But, son, I have decided to allow you to go free.”
With those words, the old king got up and walked out of his son’s cell into the crisp night air. The young man went over to the cell door and tested it. Well, what do you know?, he thought, that old man left it open.
The king’s son grabbed his coat, threw it over his shoulder, and with a cynical smile spoke aloud: “That stupid old man! He thinks because he has set me free I will come back to his castle and be his lackey. Well, he is more senile than I thought.” And with that, the young man ran up the stairs and disappeared.
Some two weeks later the kings’ son found out what price his freedom had cost. On the day of his scheduled execution, the requirements of the law had been met. It was his own father that had taken his place before the executioner the next morning, and had literally died so that his beloved child might be free.
You probably have some questions: What did the son do? Did he return to the castle and become king? Did he even care about the price his father had paid for his freedom? Did he decide to obey the law?
I’m not sure because, you see, you are the son and I am the son.
At the very heart of the incarnation [of God becoming man], at the very heart of God himself lies a cross. That is the true meaning of Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2,6) “And they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23)
For us, God took on flesh, coming to earth as a baby…. But the baby didn’t stay that way. For us, the wood of the cradle became the wood of the cross… because of God’s great love.
(Story adapted from Key Life Magazine – Christmas/Winter 2009, Volume 24, #3 Pg 8 & 11)