In the 1970s, when Interstate 20 opened between Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., many local residents were looking forward to faster travel on the new freeway.
For years, my family had traveled to Birmingham from Anniston, Ala., on old Highway 78, a two-lane road that would take us past Lake Logan Martin near Pell City, Ala., and over the mountains near Chula Vista.
After I-20 opened, I was excited to accompany my grandparents on our annual trip to the Eastwood Mall to see “the real Santa,” to ride the escalator in Pizitz Department Store and to do a little Christmas shopping.
I was surprised, however, to find that my grandfather preferred to drive the old two-lane highway rather than the new expressway.
He would often say something like, “The freeway is for people who are in a rush. The scenic route is for people who want to enjoy the trip.”
I didn’t know anything about Advent back then, but now I understand that, in a sense, Advent really is the scenic route to Christmas.
There seems to be a subtle force in the ethos of our economy that pushes us to travel toward Christmas in the fast lane, implying that the season is all about shopping, spending, acquiring and accumulating.
Advent encourages us to go slow and breathe in the scenery en route to Bethlehem.
As a young pastor, I was introduced to the colors and candles of Advent, and my journey toward Christmas changed drastically.
Today, I am convinced more than ever that as mission-driven Christians who live in a market-driven culture, we need the reflective disciplines of Advent to keep us alert to stealth influences like materialism, busyness and greed.
These are illusive forces that aim to cloak the real message of the season and replace it with superficial slogans and commercial clichés.
Advent is a time to listen for a truth that is bigger than words and to long for a gift that is other than stuff.
By helping us reconnect with the heart of the Christmas story, Advent challenges us to reject cultural notions of a Jesus who promises prosperity, success and self-fulfillment and calls us to follow the biblical Jesus who offers forgiveness, exemplifies simplicity and teaches self-denial.
For the Christian, the season of Advent is like a scenic tour that begins with the promises of the prophets and concludes with the nativity narrative.
Advent is a journey of emerging expectation that culminates when the Christ candle is lighted and the Christmas Star shines over the manger in Bethlehem.
Somehow, when we revisit the prophets and we re-read the gospels, we are better equipped to empathize with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph and to feel the labor pains of God.
By observing Advent, when we celebrate the birth of the most renowned newborn in history, we can hear both the joyful sounds of angels singing (see Luke 2:8-14) and the repercussive sobs of Rachel weeping (see Matthew 2:18).
If we dare to avoid the expressway and we take the scenic route to Christmas, we may discover that we are willing to follow Jesus from the cradle to the cross and beyond.
Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.