Certain things make us people watchers. Like a rare family trip to the mall, for instance, particularly when the young, female contingency wants to stop by Claire’s. For the uninitiated, Clare’s is the “you too can be a pop princess” store. Not all bad, just not our shtick. I gave it a valiant five minutes. Just long enough for my “no’s” to be rightly understood not as particular, but categorical. Then I found myself a nice bench just outside, regretting that I forgot to bring a book.
Suddenly I’m surrounded. People. Lot’s of people. From every walk of life.
Let’s just say it. Unless it was some kind of unique “flash mob” thing, the majority of people are just not happy. No eye contact. Kind of an empty, bewildered look. It stands out particularly in the Christmas season. Noticeable are those with a glimmer of joy, a genuine smile, a kind word.
So, we’re not just talking an individual on a rare, bad day. One can’t help but wonder, with our unprecedented wealth and comfort, surrounded by all the material promise of fulfillment- and still evidently not happy, what does happiness really take?
The origins of unhappiness.
In our home unhappiness typically begins with a brother simply being mischievous (or someone doing something mildly annoying, but let’s go with mischievous). He’s bored. Suddenly he sees concentric circles around a particular sister. Boys like gadgets, and there aren’t many in our house. He figures she’ll do. The button is pressed. The nerve is tapped. She gives it back. Within moments our home becomes an audio armageddon.
A small, little example paints a very big picture about us, and our world.
When one decides to be unkind, the other is wounded. They become protective and defensive. Their soul, meant to behold greater things, is jaded. Now add over a lifetime numerous instances of unkindness. Seeds destined to reach for the heavens are overtaken by weeds. They choke off life. They become a defining, embedded part of one’s wiring. We lose our sensitivity. We become callous. We find ourselves in captivity.
Here’s the thing. An insight that can further ennoble our souls: Hurting people hurt people. Unkindness says a lot more about the unkind person than anyone else.
And captivity is contagious. All it takes is something as small as someone cutting us off the road and we’ve likely been infected. Even if only for a moment, we become carriers, ready to pass it along to the next person. Now blow this up on the grand scale of human experience. Multiple times. Deeper levels. And is this not what we see played out every day in individual souls, extended to relationships, families, schools, places of work… nations?
Look within. Look around. Are we not a people being held captive? Do we not need to be set free?
Freedom. At the heart is an awareness that our souls were fashioned for greater things. God didn’t make our souls for junk. He didn’t make us to be jaded. He didn’t make us to be closed, protective, defensive or on edge. He gave us appetites for greater things. Though it’s obvious, it needs to be stated. We are what we eat. If we’re “eating” junk, we’re going to be unhappy. A steady diet of junk has the capacity to form us for captivity.
It really is all about image.
Miley Cyrus. Bill Gates. Harry Styles. Mother Teresa. Stephen Hawking. Katy Perry. LeBron James. Taylor Swift. We’re not only bombarded with images, the underlying message is that our value is in our becoming like those images. Modern entertainment and advertising is really the successor of the first apple in the first garden offered to the first people. Forget your lame image. You can be like god! The object of other’s worship! There’s a tragic irony here. What image could possibly surpass your true image? You were fashioned in the image of God!
The generic name “satan” literally means “adversary.” Consider his situation before he became so. You’re one of the highest angels in the heavenly realm. Your name “Lucifer” literally means “light.” You are supremely attractive – brilliant and beautiful. You are gifted and tasked for the highest calling, leading the heavenly choirs to worship God. You have the capacity to arouse and direct the deepest sentiment. In short, you’re the mac-daddy in the celestial realm. Now, all of a sudden, looking over the span of time, you see that the Almighty and Eternal God will fashion beings called humans… in His own image! Even more, could it be? No! You gasp in awe as you see God actually becoming — taking on the nature — one of those beings!
You’re insanely jealous. You rebel and take a multitude of others with you. Note, your nature and gifts are not taken away. You remain supremely attractive, and you have the capacity to arouse and direct sentiment… to lead us in a kind of worship. You have no real power, so how do you live your vile contempt? You prey upon their weakness and seduce them with your great beauty, attracting them to alternate images, arousing their sentiment to worship alternate things, thereby denying their supreme, true, God-likeness.
Back to us.
God fashioned us for His indwelling Spirit. Yet, so many wounds, so many distractions have caused us amnesia. We’ve forgotten who we are. Advent and Christmas should be an occasion to recover this awareness. It’s about so much more than presents, but Presence. And we need to do this while inundated with the strong, pervasive promise of artificial counterfeits.
I experienced all this one particular Christmas as a child. That year my parents pulled out the stops. We were inundated with material abundance. The excessive amount commanded our affections. It made promises. Needless to say, it left me bewildered. Unhappy.
Now as a parent I observe this among our own children, validated by other parents: material abundance and spiritual abundance tend to be mutually exclusive. Put more directly, material stuff just doesn’t do it. After the initial jubilation, often we see the unhappiness manifest in a lack of gratitude, entitlement, self-centeredness, unkindness. Captivity.
If we’re perceptive enough, we recognize that excessive stuff doesn’t make our kids like us more. Doesn’t make them better kids. In fact, it does the opposite. It frustrates them. It turns them in on themselves. It insulates them from the capacity to truly be fed with the right stuff. It diminishes their sensitivity. It removes their confidence in our vision and ability as parents to help them navigate a happy life. It leaves their world darker. In captivity.
Whether it be the Jewish people thousands of years ago, or our modern civilizations, the story is the same. When we’re in need, we are truly alive and rich with an awareness of God. Our prayers are earnest. Our lives are God-centered, directed toward other. All is right in our interior world. But then, with God’s provision, when we are blessed with an abundance of material things, our eyes are averted from the Blesser to the blessing. We become self-centered. In this, we are robbed of our awareness of God.
And so with captivity, it wasn’t enough for God to merely set us free in the material realm. In short, God doesn’t merely want to communicate with us. He desired to commune in us. He desired to give us His very Presence.
We need to be saved.
Hear and understand the words of the prophet speaking across ageless time – the promise of a savior:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1-3)
Herein is the great gift of Advent. If we are mindful of our captivity, we might be saved.
The extent to which we’re not aware of our captivity is the extent to which we really don’t need a Savior, much less a Lord. To that extent Advent is empty. As is Christmas. Disconnected from the real, transforming power of Jesus Christ.
Remember Christ our Savior
was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s power
when we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy!
Advent is an opportunity for more than religious observance, but a relational occurrence.
Make straight the way of the Lord! We need to invite the grace of God to help us go there. We need to open the door to those life-moments that left us wounded in a way that became chains of fear that have been holding us captive.
Imagine what freedom looks like. Free from captivity. Imagine not being a victim to what happens around us, but being victorious because of Him who reigns within us. Imagine having the full freedom to be the amazing, beautiful, wonderful, unique person God created us to be. Imagine.
In this we can more fully understand the victory of the cross. He was in chains, but completely free. He spoke not a word. He endured His suffering. He took all of our sins upon Himself. He forgave us. He set us free from captivity.
We don’t need to plug into lesser entertainment. In this ultimate drama we are not mere spectators, each of us are participants. For a world in captivity, He invites us, needs us, created us to not only be free from ourselves, but to participate in His mission of freeing the world.
Emmanuel! God is with us!