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  • Writer's pictureNijay K. Gupta

Great Expectation: An Advent Devotional 2023 | HOPE


This stunning illustration is "Incarnate" by Kate Lab. You can find it and purchase it for yourself here.


The Lectionary is a tool used by many churches for reading through Scripture following the liturgical calendar. Each week there are usually two Old Testament readings and two New Testament readings. Many Christians appreciate the “balanced diet” of the lectionary, and the idea that millions of believers and churches around the world read, study, and meditate on the same biblical texts at the same time. I find it especially meaningful to read the lectionary during Advent, the four weeks leading up to the birth of Christ. In this series, I (Nijay Gupta) will offer 4 biblical texts for each week of Advent, adding not only the text in the New Living Translation, but also theological reflections and some questions and exercises for processing the texts. This resource can be used for group interaction or personal meditation or both. Since there are four texts, I suggest reading the reflections about every other day.


For those who are not familiar with the liturgical terminology, “Advent” comes from the Latin word for “arrival,” representing the coming of Christ to earth in the incarnation. So, Advent points backwards to the birth of Christ. But Advent also looks ahead to the Return, or Second Coming, of Christ. Traditionally, four candles are lit for each week of Advent, each candle representing one of four themes: hope—peace—joy—love. We begin with “hope.”


I encourage you to complete the first set of devotional readings by Sunday night, December 3, 2023. After that, you can start reading Week 2 (on the theme of “peace”).


If you'd like to see The Lectionary you can find it here.


Advent Devotional Week 1: Hope


Scripture Reading 1: Isaiah 64:1-9


Is. 64:1 Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!

How the mountains would quake in your presence!

2 As fire causes wood to burn

and water to boil,

your coming would make the nations tremble.

Then your enemies would learn the reason for your fame!

3 When you came down long ago,

you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations.

And oh, how the mountains quaked!

4 For since the world began,

no ear has heard

and no eye has seen a God like you,

who works for those who wait for him!

5 You welcome those who gladly do good,

who follow godly ways.

But you have been very angry with us,

for we are not godly.

We are constant sinners;

how can people like us be saved?

6 We are all infected and impure with sin.

When we display our righteous deeds,

they are nothing but filthy rags.

Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,

and our sins sweep us away like the wind.

7 Yet no one calls on your name

or pleads with you for mercy.

Therefore, you have turned away from us

and turned us over to our sins.

8 And yet, O LORD, you are our Father.

We are the clay, and you are the potter.

We all are formed by your hand.

9 Don’t be so angry with us, LORD.

Please don’t remember our sins forever.

Look at us, we pray,

and see that we are all your people.

10 Your holy cities are destroyed.

Zion is a wilderness;

yes, Jerusalem is a desolate ruin.

11 The holy and beautiful Temple

where our ancestors praised you

has been burned down,

and all the things of beauty are destroyed.

12 After all this, LORD, must you still refuse to help us?

Will you continue to be silent and punish us?


Advent Reflection 1: No Longer Silent Night


Silence can be good. That’s why we take a vacation or steal a few hours away from the hustle and bustle of life in search of “peace and quiet.” But when we open up our first advent reading to hear from the prophet Isaiah in the “BC” era, we encounter a different sort of quiet— Israel’s lament over the silence of God in the midst of their misery. God warned Israel that if they stubbornly defied God’s commands and chased after other gods, and refused to repent, He would let them walk away for a time and reap the consequences of their sin. When he finally let them walk away, there came a sort of face-off; Israel was waiting for God to cave in and come running to them, and God was continuing to let Israel drift further and further away until…silence.

Have you ever been lost in the woods all alone? Like really lost, the scary kind where you don’t know where you are, and no one else is around, and at least for a short while you don’t know what the future holds? It’s terrifying: the quiet, the loneliness, the disorientation. Israel was experiencing this in their relationship with God. And like being deep in the woods alone, you can yell all you want, but all you get back are echoes and silence. And what made the divine blackout worse for Israel was the memory of the times God did arrive in power, like the Exodus events: fire, plagues, the sea giving way to a path of dry ground. For good reason Isaiah reminds them that God’s rescue was awesome. Do that again, God! Tear open the heavens and come down! God would indeed hear the cries of his people and He would come down to earth in the most incredible and unexpected way, but not in earthquakes and tremulous phenomena. It would be in the simple form of a baby, born to a commoner from nowhere Nazareth. It wouldn’t be “shock and awe” loud, no, the Great Coming would be quiet. But…It wouldn’t be silent; the curse of distance from God turned to blessing of God dwelling among them, and that silence that exiled Israel experienced would be broken by the voice of the incarnate Word. Reading Isaiah 49:1-9 reminds us that the birth of Jesus is indeed a holy night, but not a silent one.


Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Conversation

  1. Do you recall a time of being lost physically? How did you feel?

  2. Have you ever experienced pure silence? Do you find it soothing, or uncomfortable?

  3. What sorts of experiences today make you wish that God would tear open the heavens and come down to fix things?

  4. If you are with a group: sing a favorite Advent or Christmas song to “break the silence” and anticipate the coming of the Word.

 

Scripture Reading 2: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19


Psa. 80:1 Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,

you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.

O God, enthroned above the cherubim,

display your radiant glory

2 to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.

Show us your mighty power.

Come to rescue us!

3 Turn us again to yourself, O God.

Make your face shine down upon us.

Only then will we be saved.

4 O LORD God of Heaven’s Armies,

how long will you be angry with our prayers?

5 You have fed us with sorrow

and made us drink tears by the bucketful.

6 You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.

Our enemies treat us as a joke.

7 Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.

Make your face shine down upon us.

Only then will we be saved.


Psa. 80:17 Strengthen the man you love,

the son of your choice.

18 Then we will never abandon you again.

Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

19 Turn us again to yourself, O LORD God of Heaven’s Armies.

Make your face shine down upon us.

Only then will we be saved.


Advent Reflection 2: The Shepherd and the King


The second Old Testament reading for this week (Ps 80:1-7, 17-19) runs parallel to the first reading (Isa 64:1-12). Again, we find ourselves in the period before Christ, where all Israel joins together in lament. There is an urgent plea for rescue, and the savior is called “Shepherd of Israel.” This may be intentionally reminiscent of the famous opening lines of Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (23:1-3 KJV).

In a way, Psalm 80 is the inverse of Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is what life with God looks like when there is trust, cooperation, and obedience between sheep and shepherd; and Psalm 80 is what you get when trust, cooperation, and obedience are nowhere to be found. I can’t help but also think of Isaiah 53:6, where Israel confesses, “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.” And the people of God must face the consequences of abandoning the Shepherd to find their own way.

The Old Testament often portrays a covenantal cycle: God commands Israel to be obedient, Israel disobeys, God punishes Israel and lets them reap the consequences, Israel repents and cries out for help, God scolds Israel, but is faithful to His promises and shows compassion. And as the cycle continues, the question remains, how will it end? Psalm 80 contains an important clue. In verse 17, the psalmist acknowledges the answer: “Strengthen the man you love, the son of your choice.” This is a reference to the king of Israel, the leader who functioned as a representative of God to the people, and a representative of the people to God. Israel knew, if the king is good, then we will find our way back to God. David was seen as the closest Israel ever got to the ideal king, though he was far from a perfect man. Israel’s hopes were set on a greater David, someone empowered by God who could finally lead the lost sheep back into trust, cooperation, and obedience with the great Shepherd.

Advent, in part, is a time of longing. Psalm 80 reminds us that God’s people recognized an ache, or a hole in their lives that needed to be filled in order for them to thrive in their life with God. Take some time today to feel that ache with Israel.


Questions and Exercises for Personal Reflection and Group Conversation

  1. Lament is a powerful spiritual practice of expressing sorrow and weakness before God. Notice that both Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80 are full of questions, directed to God. Take a few minutes and write your own lament to God. The key to lament is honesty. Tell God exactly how you feel. If you are willing, share your lament with a friend.

  2. The role of shepherd was a dominant figure in the ancient world, so it was an easy association to imagine God as a shepherd. What kinds of jobs and roles exist in society today that resemble some of the guiding and leading aspects that are similar to a shepherd? Come up with a few options. Is it helpful to imagine God in that kind of role?

 

Scripture Reading 3: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9


May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. 5 Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. 6 This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. 7 Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. 9 God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.



Advent Reflection 3: Still Looking (and Living) Forward in Hope


When we turn to the third Bible reading for the first week of Advent, we leap forward from the lamentations of exiled and penitent Israel to the lavishly blessed Corinthian Christians. It’s a bit like sitting in a dark room for a long time, and then suddenly someone turns on bright lights. Before Christ, Israel in exile experienced a poverty of God’s blessings and presence; the Corinthians had an abundance. Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians with the “floodlights” of the blessings they experience by the Spirit because of Jesus Christ: you’ve been given so many gifts, more than you could ask for or even imagine! We learn later in the letter that the Spirit bestowed amazing gifts on their church like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus explained to his disciples that he must go away, but he would send a special “Advocate” to be with them, the Spirit, who would enrich their lives and guide them (John 16:5-15). The Corinthians were spoiled with gifts from the Holy Spirit. Paul points in particular to their intellectual gifts, there were clearly some smart people in their church. But “smarts” isn’t everything. In fact, just a few verses after Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians, he criticizes them for stoking rivalries in the church and pitting one leader against another (1 Cor 1:10-29). Later in the same letter Paul rebukes them with this reminder: “while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church” (1 Cor 8:1). Being “gifted” and being mature are not the same thing. The Corinthians were some of the most talented Christians around, but they still had a lot of growing up to do to make good use of their gifts.

Celebrating Advent is not just about being relieved that we live today in the “AD” era (Latin: anno domini, “the year of [our] Lord”). For Christians, Advent is a double-facing season. We look back with appreciation for the incarnation, the gift of Word made flesh that forever changed the world. But Advent also looks ahead, just as Paul reminded the Corinthians of the “return of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Second Coming, or Second Advent. Christ came the first time to destroy the power of death, to break the bonds of sin. He will come again in judgment to extinguish evil once and for all. So, we celebrate the past, we cherish the gifts of the Spirit, we walk by faith and love, and we look ahead with hope.


Questions and Exercises for Personal Reflection and Group Conversation

  1. How do you think God has uniquely gifted you to serve others?

  2. What are some areas you want to grow in as you mature as a Christian?

  3. How can Christians live their lives with vigilance, wisdom, and hope as they look ahead to the Second Coming?

 

Scripture Reading 4: Mark 13:24-37


Mark 13:24 “At that time, after the anguish of those days,

the sun will be darkened,

the moon will give no light,

25 the stars will fall from the sky,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven.

28 “Now learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches bud and its leaves begin to sprout, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that his return is very near, right at the door. 30 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear.

32 “However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. 33 And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert!

34 “The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. 35 You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. 36 Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. 37 I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!”


Advent Reflection 4: On Hope and Always Being At the Ready


Every now and again, I get a hankering for having toast for breakfast. Unfortunately, our toaster settings are not very reliable so you have to keep an eye on the toast. About half the time I get busy checking a text or making coffee and when the toast finally pops, it’s burnt. The worst is when I throw away the burnt toast—I’m not a “scraper”—and then put another piece of bread in the toaster, and then…get distracted again and it’s burnt again. I know that I need a new toaster, but the point here is that getting distracted has its consequences. In this case, it’s a waste of dough (pun intended!), but when Jesus taught his disciples about the great Second Coming, the stakes were far higher. The Return of Christ, the Second Advent, will so transform our existence that everything we know will be turned upside down: things we take for granted, like the sun shining bright and warm, and the stars twinkling high up in the sky. On that very day, the final day before a whole new reality, it will be too late to prepare. But because you cannot know the exact day and hour it will come, the best thing is to be ready at all times.

One of the earliest symbols found in Christian art is the image of the crane. There was a popular conception at the time that a crane and its sedge—yes, I looked up what a group of cranes is—would protect each other at night. In rotations, one crane would stand watch. To prevent it from falling asleep, it would stand on one leg, and hold a rock in the raised leg. Theoretically, if the crane fell asleep, it would drop the rock, and the noise would startle it awake. The one-legged crane became a spiritual symbol of Christian vigilance, or alertness. To be “awake” spiritually means to take seriously every hour we have on earth. We don’t want to be caught sleepwalking when the Master returns. We want to be able to say, “I did what you asked me to do while you were away, I stayed true to you.”

Sometimes my spiritual alertness wanes during the holidays. I tend to get into nostalgia mode at Christmas time, it’s comfortable and easy to focus on my holiday experience, my yule-joy—me, me, me. This reading from Mark lacks the warm fuzzies I expect to experience during the holidays. But it’s also a sobering reminder that Jesus didn’t come as a baby to make us comfortable. He came to save us, and part of that is starting and continuing faithfully on a journey of obedience. The Magi at the manger came to worship Jesus and then left and went back home. We don’t know if they ever came back. But we worshippers are followers of Jesus for a lifetime and beyond. May we be alert and vigilant, not only longing for the Return of Christ, but ready for him as well.


Questions and Exercises for Personal Reflection and Group Conversation

  1. When was the last time you missed something because you just weren’t paying attention?

  2. The early Christians thought of the crane. Are there other creatures or object lessons that you can think of that help us symbolize readiness?

  3. Part of “readiness” for the Return of Christ is praying, especially every day. But a good practice today is praying the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). Whether in a group or by yourself, pray the Lord’s Prayer with Mark 13:24-37 in mind.



*Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.



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