The Advent season focuses on expectation and serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. As you look forward to Christmas day, take a few moments to meditate on this Advent Devotional.
Advent Week 1—Know Thyself “Know thyself.” This Socratic call is the fountainhead of the Western philosophic tradition. But it is a call without a compass. How, in other words, do we come to know ourselves? Socrates’ answer is contained in his other famous maxim: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But again, how do you examine your life and, more urgently, what will you discover if you succeed in finding it?
The different answers to these questions represent a parting of the ways between Socrates and Scripture. The Socratic call to understand the self through the examination of life has the human—the “I”—as the active agent of self-discovery. Question, think, observe, examine: these are, in the Socratic way, verbs with human subjects. You are summoned to examine your life with the result that you will come to know you.
Scripture, however, tells a different story. “The heart is deceitful,” says Jeremiah, and we are fundamentally hidden from ourselves by the lies we tell. For this reason, who we are—our core condition as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve—is something that needs to be “revealed from heaven” (Rom 1:18). As one theologian put it, “we need to be told who we are.” Like Socrates, Scripture emphasizes the necessity of honest self-knowledge, but unlike the Socratic call to “know thyself” Scripture insists that “I” cannot find “me.” Like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we need the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to show us our true selves. And, again like Scrooge, we will not like what we see.
Advent Week 2—Go away, Jesus
God’s way of showing us ourselves is by speaking his law. Romans 3:10-18 paints a “realist” portrait of the human race: none are righteous, no one seeks God, all are worthless, they’re quick to kill and the list goes on. The severity of this situation, however, is exactly what the lies of the deceitful human heart keep us from seeing. This is why, again, “the wrath of God” must be “revealed from heaven” (Rom 1:18). This is something we do not know—“we must be told who we are.” And God’s way of telling us is by speaking his holy and good law: “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). The result of an unholy person seeing his reflection in the mirror of God’s holiness is the realization of the Socratic quest: self-knowledge. But as Johann Georg Hamann writes, this revelatory experience is not to make it up to heaven; it is “a descent into the hell of self-knowledge.”
Hamann knew this from experience, but it’s also the experience witnessed in Scripture. When Isaiah encountered the God whom the seraphim call “holy, holy, holy,” his response was “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:2-5). In seeing the holiness of God Isaiah saw himself: unholy. The Apostle Peter has a similar experience when, in meeting Jesus, he meets himself. Catching a glimpse of the power and purity of Jesus in the fishing miracle recounted in Luke 5:1-7, Peter sees himself: “I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).
Peter says something else, however, and it’s worth listening to as we approach Advent, that time of year when we remember that Jesus came and pray for him to come again. When Peter, by seeing Jesus, saw himself, his initial response is the antithesis of Advent: “Depart from me” (Luke 5:8). This is an honest first word. The natural reaction to the descent into the hell of “self-knowledge” that happens as our sinfulness is revealed to us in the mirror of God’s holiness is not the Advent motto — “Come, Lord Jesus” — but its opposite: “Go away, Jesus.”
Advent Week 3—What’s in Two Names?
But Jesus just won’t go away, especially not from sinful people — from the hurting and the hurtful, from the victims and victimizers. Peter’s confession that he was “a sinful man” didn’t convince Jesus to heed his request to “depart.” On the contrary, the Jesus who said that he came as a doctor for the sick and to call the unrighteous (Luke 5:31-32) answered Peter’s frightened plea and honest confession with a word of compassion: “Do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10). Jesus’ presence, the simple fact that he was there in his power and purity, terrified Peter. But Jesus’ person, expressed here in his word of comfort, freed the frightened fisherman to become (an often failing) fisher of men (Luke 5:10).
This same dynamic is captured by Matthew in the two names given to the one he calls “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). The name Immanuel, which as Matthew explains, means “God with us” (Matt 1:23), is, on its own, a terrifying thought. It is the presence of the holy God that left Isaiah undone, that made Peter command Jesus to depart and forced the unclean spirit of Mark 1:21-28 to ask if “the holy One of God” was there to destroy him. The name Immanuel, in other words, raises a question: Should I be afraid? The answer to this question is the second name, Jesus (Matt 1:21). The God who is with us is present “to save his people from their sins.” The name Immanuel, because it says God is here among us, evokes fear. The name Jesus, because it says that the God who is with us is also for us, says “Do not be afraid.”
Advent Week 4—Come, Lord Jesus
Now the Advent cry. The self-knowledge that is given to us in our confrontation with “the holy One of God” is a revelation that engenders a fearful response: “Go away, Jesus.” That God is with us, that Jesus is Immanuel, means that he sees our secrets and our shame. He knows what his presence compels us to confess: I am a sinful man. But the one who as Immanuel says “I see your sin” also says, as Jesus, “I came to save you from your sin.”
Our deceitful hearts cannot tell the truth. We’re too scared to even ask our deepest questions. What if God is really “with us” in our relationship with our child that just isn’t getting better; in the struggle to lose the weight that we just can’t win; in the secrets we’ve kept from our spouse for years? What if God is there in our real lives? The name Immanuel says that he is. This is what caused Peter’s fear and forced him to say “Go away, Jesus.” But Jesus didn’t go away, and he answered that fear by saying “Do not be afraid.” “He came into the world” — he is Immanuel. “But he did not come to condemn the world; he came to save the world” — He is Jesus (John 3:17).
Seeing our sin makes us say “Go away, Jesus.” Seeing that Immanuel is here to save us from our sins, seeing that the God who is with us is also forever for us, makes us say “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Dr. Jonathan “Jono” Linebaugh is dean of students and associate professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary. He can be reached at [email protected].