A Devotion for the Fourth Week in Advent

An Advent 4 Devotional

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
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 Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:1-7


They say that familiarity breeds contempt. Or at least indifference, which is actually a form of contempt. The well-worn tends to lose its power to catch my attention. I remember one Christmas not long after my conversion to Christ, when we were singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in church. This carol was well known to me growing up—familiar, to use the word in question. That Christmas, I was arrested by these words I had read, heard, and sung hundreds of times:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

In this familiar carol, to which I had been indifferent, I encountered the wonder of the Gospel: descend to us, cast out our sin, be born in us. It had been there all along, all the other times I had seen it, but familiarity had bred contempt.

Consider another example, taken from the Isaiah lesson appointed for Christmas:

 For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Many of us have heard this hundreds of times. Some of us cannot read it without also hearing the—also familiar—chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Reading it this year, I was tempted to that place of indifference (contempt): “Yeah, yeah, this again.” It is a grace of God that I noticed the indifference, and that noticing made me pay attention again. Isaiah preaches the Gospel here: A son, who is all of these things, is born to us. It is a WONDER.

The aforementioned Handel, many centuries after Isaiah and even after the Nativity, was so struck by this familiar text that he wrote that chorus—which is anything but indifferent. Handel’s treatment reminds us that this is the miracle that changes EVERYTHING. For me and for you.

John Betjeman, the one-time British Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called “Christmas,” in which he chronicles many of the familiar things of the holiday. He also prophetically critiques the indifference created by that familiarity. You can find the whole poem here, but I will quote a portion:

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

This Christmas I invite us all to stop and notice this miraculous familiar, to get beyond the indifference and to remember again that in Jesus Christ, God has come to be with us, to save us. May he give us grace to repent of our indifference and enter afresh into wonder, awe, and praise.