Advent is the time of the year when Christians recognise and celebrate our heritage in the life and times of the people of God –Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews.
It is not enough to follow the lead of the New Testament writers and plunder the Old Testament for quotations that seem to point to the arrival of Jesus the Christ. They were doing more than that. The Old Testament is more than a data-bank from which we can extract relevant texts which will advance the Christian interpretation of scripture.
It is the record of a faith-journey. It is about the faith God placed in his people, the family of Abraham. It is also the faith-story of their struggles, courage, inconsistencies and trust.
In Advent we thank God for their story.
Luke and Matthew composed wonderful fables to surround the birth of Jesus. They were about devout believers, overwhelmed shepherds and long-distance travellers. A Jew reading them would notice the echoes of his own people’s story.
The Gospel writers are saying: here is our heritage, here’s where our faith comes from. The life of Jesus is not a new story but the continuation of an old one.
As Methodist hymn-writer Andrew Murphy puts it
Through the Holy Story spoken,
of God’s people called as one,
gathered, exiled, saved and broken,
this we learn: his love goes on.
Recently I returned to Regents Park College in Oxford where I was a student. With me were a group of High School pupils. We went into the hall. It is hung with paintings of early Baptists, college tutors and principals.
I asked the teenagers what they thought of the people they were looking at or rather who seemed to be looking at us.
“There aren’t any women”.
“ Why aren’t they smiling”?
“ Are they real”?
They are real to me, I told them and tried to explain that they were my heritage and my spiritual and theological mentors. I did not know them all but in their books and studies, decisions and prayer was the shaping of my faith.
I hesitate to say it because some are still alive and very contemporary; but in a certain way they are my Old Testament. I would not own all their views and insights nor would they mine – but there is absolute continuity – the journey of a faith-community.They are, in the words of the Prophet of the Exile Isaiah ‘the quarry from which I was hewn’.
I would want to include others of course but for that moment standing in the hall with the smell of the lunchtime meal lingering, I remembered their legacy and was grateful.