When I was a kid, Advent was always marked by an Advent Calendar. My siblings and I took turns opening the tiny door each day, and we appreciated the surprise inside. The real treat, however, was that Christmas was one day closer!
I knew that Christmas was the celebration of Jesus’s birth, went to church, sang Christmas carols, and loved the Christmas story. I believed it. But, what I anticipated throughout December were the family parties, gifts and a couple weeks off of school. Christmas was great fun.
It’s still a wonderful celebration, but during Advent perhaps we should ask ourselves what we are anticipating.
If I’m honest, there is a powerful association between familiar cultural Christmas cues – music, busy shopping malls, bell-ringing Salvation Army volunteers, ads, sales, and more ads, Santa, decorated houses, and images of snow covered beauty – and the many Christmases I’ve celebrated. I am conditioned by those tip-offs to bake cookies, go shopping and fill up my calendar. Without thought, I’d spend long days preparing for a culturally defined Christmas and a few minutes anticipating Jesus.
I’m writing this to remind myself to anticipate Jesus; the celebration of his birth and his future coming again to the earth. Maybe it will help you too.
Anticipation is central to the Advent season, because Israel had been waiting for the Messiah for centuries, and prophets had been speaking of him for even longer. They didn’t know who the Messiah would be, but they believed prophecy such as the following and they waited.
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 11:1-10
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2
Finally, when the time was right, Jesus was born in a humble stable accompanied by an angelic announcement to shepherds. The story is most memorably told in Luke 2.
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'” Luke 2:4-12
I wonder what Mary anticipated during the months before Jesus’s birth. Did she think that God would arrange for the birth to take place in an distinguished place? She might have thought that kings and officials would recognize who he was and honor him. This was God’s child, after all, and maybe she would have expected Jesus to be noticeably royal.
All evidence from Scripture suggests that Jesus was just like any other baby. He had been born in a special place; God arranged for his birth in a Bethlehem stable. Officials would recognize him, but it would be Magi from the east, and not king Herod. In fact, Herod saw Jesus as a threat after the Magi clued him in.
Already in the life of Jesus, God was turning the world on its head. Jewish shepherds, symbolizing those to whom Jesus would minister, Magi from the east, symbolizing his desire to save all people, and Mary and Joseph were the players in his birth. Still, God made his birth majestically known:
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” Luke 2:13-14
It makes me wonder what his second coming will be like. Will there be people who expect to recognize him, but won’t? Will his coming surprise us like it did the Israelites? We have the words of Jesus and Spirit inspired words from New Testament writers, we are wiser now that we’ve learned from his first coming, and we have the indwelling Holy Spirit, but we are still trying to figure it out.
“…and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Hebrews 9:28
Redemption, resurrection, and salvation are ours in part right now, but when Jesus returns we’ll experience them in full. Jesus told his disciples what to expect in his return; after wars, famine, persecution, and shaking of the heavens, Jesus will come back to earth in a cloud.
“At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:27-28
This December, I am anticipating the celebration of Jesus’s birth. It was the beginning of Jesus’s saving work, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth, and God demonstrated the values of his Kingdom that first Christmas in a poor Bethlehem stable.
Advent is also a reminder to watch for Jesus’s return, to stand up, lift up our heads, and wait patiently. Jesus second coming is what we should all be eagerly anticipating every day.