This is a season of craving. Whether it is the delicious treats that Grandma makes or the latest, must-have tech gadget that we asked for. This is also the season of Advent, a season Christians have historically used as a time to examine our craving.
“He gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul.” (Psalm 106:18) This verse in Psalm 106 comments on that incident in the wilderness in which the Israelites demanded that God provide meat for them to eat rather than the mysterious manna that was provided by God each day. They cried out, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6). Essentially, the people were longing for the days of slavery in Egypt because the food tasted better there.
The Israelites were missing the big picture. The one God rescued them from slavery and was leading them to the Promised Land, yet they were focused on how their food tasted.
Advent is a time that allows us to remember the big picture, and, culturally, there is no better time for this than the season between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. At this time of year, to use the language of Numbers 11 describing the Israelites, a “strong craving” often overtakes us, as savvy marketing campaigns prey on our innate desire for the newer, shinier, faster, and, yes, tastier.
The first Sunday in Advent focuses our attention on the second coming of Christ. One of the “habits” commended by the late Steven Covey in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is “Begin with the end in mind.” If “the end” is, as N.T. Wright suggests in his book Surprised by Hope, “God doing for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter,” there are clear implications for our day-to-day lives – how we spend our time, our energy, and our money.
The second Sunday of Advent roots us firmly in the story of Israel in the first century, a story of God’s people in exile, away from God’s intention for them, which was to be a light to nations, revealing the glory, goodness, and love of the one God. The power of sin had overtaken them, and, even though they had returned to the Promised Land, the metaphor of exile was still used to describe their spiritual state. The cry of the exiles is captured in the well-known Advent hymn: “O come O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.”
We find ourselves in that story, a story of a broken creation longing for deliverance; a creation, to use St Paul’s words, waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:19-22).
The tone of Advent shifts, however, on the third Sunday, pointing us toward the longed-for rescue of the broken creation and its broken divine image-bearing humans. John the Baptist calls the people to repent, to turn, in order to be ready for the immanent return of the one God to save his people.
And, on the fourth Sunday, we hear the story of Mary, of her openness to the will of God, even in her womb, where the shocking plan of God to rescue creation begins.
The question, then, that I’d like to encourage each of us to ask this Advent is this: “What is it that we ‘strongly crave’?” It is so easy to crave the newer, faster, and tastier, yet the inevitable result of craving such things is “leanness of soul.” Jesus’ rhetorical question to his disciples gets at this as well, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26).
My prayer is that God would put a craving in each of our hearts for that time when, to quote N.T. Wright again, “God does for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus on Easter.” Or, put another way, that we would, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33a), trusting that, as we do, we might see glimpses of that kingdom coming “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Advent gives us the opportunity to re-orient our “strong craving.” I pray that ours might be for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, because that, ultimately, is what is coming, and that, ultimately, will remain long after the newest has become old, the shiniest no longer shines, and the tastiest food has rotted. As Jesus told his disciples after the miraculous feeding of 5,000 people, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). God longs to satisfy that craving, and this Advent, let us open ourselves to receive him anew.
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