Earlier this week we celebrated our Advent Service – famously a service held predominantly in darkness, with just a few candles to light the way. And it brought to mind Derby County’s infamous 2007 season in the Premier League.
They started with such promise! They had just been promoted to the top tier of football, they had momentum behind them, and a handful of exciting new signings. But very quickly, things started to go wrong.
The side only won one of their first 14 games. The players were getting frustrated. The owners wanted results. They sacked their manager (Billy Davies), and replaced him with Paul Jewell – who had an excellent track record at Wigan, but unfortunately that was just the beginning of their woes…
The club lost the next match, and the next match, and the one after that. And they went on to forge the longest-ever streak in Premier League history without a win; going a (quite incredible) 32 games without victory.
As well as that, they accumulated the league's lowest ever point total, with a pathetic 11 points at the end of the season. They had the fewest ever wins (one in 38 matches). They scored the fewest number of goals (20) and conceded the most ever recorded (89). And because their season went so badly, they were also the earliest team be relegated out of the Premier League – a full 6 weeks before the end of the season.
Having started with such promise, things quickly went from bad to worse for Derby County.
And you could be forgiven for thinking that the Old Testament (the first half of the bible), followed a similar trajectory: in the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth, and it was good! God made mankind in his image, and they were very good! And they lived in paradise in the garden of Eden. But it didn’t take long for Adam and Eve to mess it all up: they ignored God’s commands, they believed the lies of the devil, and they were thrown out of the garden, out of God’s presence.
But unfortunately, that was just the beginning…
Within a generation Cain kills his own brother in cold blood. God is so upset by the wickedness of mankind that he wipes-out almost everyone, with a world-wide flood. But even that failed to fix the problem.
All-through the Old Testament, we are given story-after-story of failure. Of sin. Of broken-ness. It ends with God’s people being overthrown by their enemies and living in exile. They lost their temple, they lost the ark of the covenant – in many ways, they really did hit rock bottom.
And that’s when we get to Advent.
Advent is meant to take us back to the time in the Old Testament, just before Jesus arrived. Just before the first Christmas.
It was a dark time: the world was a mess. The Old Testament had demonstrated that humans are not good, that we need God’s help, that we need God’s salvation.
But unlike that fateful ’07 season for Derby County, there was hope.
Scattered throughout the Old Testament, God had sent reminders that he had not forgotten or abandoned his people. Writing 700 years before Jesus was born, the Prophet Isaiah wrote:
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The prophet Isaiah foretold of a day when the light of the world would arrive and would banish the darkness. Advent is therefore a time of waiting; we wait in the darkness, for the light of Christmas to arrive.
I recently flew to California with my young family. The ten-hour flight certainly had its dark moments! But it was all worth it, because at the end of it, we were in California. In the same way, the Old Testament is long, and much of it is dark, because it shows us what life is like without God. But it has a happy ending.
At that first Christmas, Jesus came down to earth. He lived the perfect life we never could. On the cross he died to take away our sins so that we could be at-peace with God. After all those years of waiting, the Light of the World arrived, and made a way for us to be reconciled to God.
So, this Advent, no matter how difficult our current situation, I pray that we might be able to hold-on to the promises of God. He tells us that there is always hope, that the future is bright, and that he has not forgotten us, or abandoned us. There is always a way back to God.
Mr J Soper | Chaplain and Head of Academic Music