Where There’s Smoke …7 min read

Many Christians have bemoaned how early Christmas celebrating begins in our commercialized culture. In the stores, and in the front yards of many of our neighbors, as soon as the Halloween decorations come down the Christmas decorations go up. Round the clock Christmas music can be heard on satellite radio in early November, and frankly I’ve began listening to it in the car myself since before Thanksgiving. But if we’re honest about it, not many Christians are enamored with Advent music. With the exception of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I think it’s safe to say that most of us would much rather sing Christmas songs like “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” than Advent songs like “When All the World Was Cursed.”

But the fact is we all need preparation for Christmas that goes beyond decorating and shopping. We need the time of Spiritual preparation that Advent provides us so that we will truly appreciate God’s gift to the world in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the nature of gifts. If someone gives you, for example, a golf range finder and you don’t play golf, you’re not going to appreciate it. But if you are an avid golfer who struggles to know how far from the pin you are on your approach shots, if someone gets you a really nice range finder (hint, hint), you’ll really appreciate the gift and be very grateful for it.


When you go Christmas shopping for jewelry, and the jewelers want to display for you an exquisite diamond bracelet, they always set it against a dark background so that it really stands out. The dark backdrop for God’s gift of the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46) is our sin. When we know we’re sinners, as Luther put it, “lost and condemned creatures,” then we appreciate it when we get a Savior from sin in the person of Jesus Christ. But if we don’t know we’re sinners, we won’t appreciate the forgiveness that comes only on account of God’s holy Son making a personal appearance into our sinful world and living the righteous life for us that God demands, and then suffering the eternal death penalty we deserve for our sinfulness so that we do not have to ourselves.

So Advent is a penitential season not unlike Lent. It’s a time to appreciate how much we need the Savior whose birth we excitedly celebrate at Christmas. Advent is a time of waiting, longing, and deliberately delaying the full-blown joy of Christ’s coming into our world. But I must admit, over the years I’ve not been a big stickler about postponing Christmas decorating and songs in worship. While I do like to delay it for a couple Sundays in Advent, but by the time we get to our third Wednesday night Advent service, it’s historically been our particularly musical one in which we pretty well pull out all the stops. I’ve found that people welcome and appreciate that, maybe especially in these troubled times in which “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute.”

We Need a Little Advent Too

But the fact is, we need a little Advent too. If we put ourselves through a little pain on purpose, delaying our gratification for a time of quiet contemplation, it is indeed a good thing for us Spiritually. One way we do this is by imagining ourselves back in the Old Testament. In our Advent Bible readings, we tend to give particular attention to the ancient prophets who anticipated the coming of the Messiah long before He appeared. Readings from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah help us to that. Even though John the Baptist is in the New Testament, his message and ministry was one of pointing to the Lamb of God who was yet to come (albeit very soon).

When we do this, we’re finding Jesus in the Old Testament, which may surprise some people. But Jesus Himself said that the entire Old Testament is about Him (John 5:31). So that means not only are certain specific “messianic prophecies” about Jesus, but so also are prominent people, places, and practices in the Old Testament. After all, Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Old Testament but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). St. Paul spells this out for us in his letter to the Colossians when he writes that Old Testament dietary strictures and festive observances were all merely a “shadow of the things to come, but the substance (which casts the shadow) belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). This is why, for example, Jesus called Himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8)—because the Sabbath was designed to point to Him and prepare God’s people for His coming. Likewise, it was no mere coincidence that Jesus used the Old Testament Passover celebration as the occasion for instituting the Lord’s Supper for the Sacrament of the Altar. That is clearly congruent with what the Passover was really all about. In Christ we are delivered from our bondage to sin, death, and Satan, for when the innocent blood of Jesus, as a “lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19), is applied to us in our Baptism, God passes over our sin (“for Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed” for us—1 Corinthians 5:7).

Smoke and Fire

In our Advent worship, we can try switching up the metaphor a bit. Christ is still the Substance that casts His shadow back into the Old Testament. But we can find that shadow in the smoke that is in the Old Testament, “Holy Smoke,” if you will. Then recall the old saying that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Jesus is the fire that produces the smoke. But from a distance, the distance of thousands of years of Old Testament history, all that can be seen is the smoke. But it is nonetheless a Spiritual smoke signal that there is in fact a fire that is producing it, the fire that is Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Consider the smoke that no doubt emanated from the burning bush. In Exodus 3 we read that “the angel of the LORD appeared” to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” and that “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). Now granted, there is no mention in this context of smoke, but it’s a fair assumption that while the bush was not consumed the fire did in fact produce smoke. The point, really, is that there’s a picture of the coming Christ in this appearance of “the angel of the LORD” to Moses in that burning bush and we don’t want to miss it. Go back with Moses to Mt. Sinai after the exodus, and this time smoke will be a very prominent feature as the holy mountain is now “wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire” and “the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln” (Exodus 19:18).

Again, our focus is not ultimately on the smoke per se but on the fire that produces the smoke, the fire that is Christ Jesus Himself, for “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). If you have occasion to sit in front of a fireplace this Advent and Christmas season, or maybe even an outdoor fire pit, think about these things. Allow the distant fragrance of smoke move you to reflect upon the thousands of years of Advent anticipation that God’s people endured until the coming of our long-awaited Savior. Allow the warm glow of the lively fire that produces the smoke to fascinate you, and then focus you upon the “true Light which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9). Jesus is the Light of the world who has come to reveal God to the nations, and as the glory of His people Israel (Luke 2:32).

Photo © Siim Lukka/Unsplash

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About the Author

Rev. Dr. Paul R. Naumann currently serves as Senior Pastor at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Portage, Mich. During his over thirty-five years of ministry, Naumann has been active in positions in the Circuit, District, and Synod, working especially in the areas of Youth Ministry, Outreach, Worship, Campus Ministry, and Small Group Ministry. He has been published in various periodicals and has been a speaker at a number of seminars and workshops.

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