The church year begins with the season of Advent, which we are in now. Advent is the season of Christmas carols, Christmas shopping, Christmas decorating and Christmas parties. But the most recognizable part of Advent, apart from the Advent wreath, is the Advent Calendar, which counts down to Christmas Day and the birth of Jesus.
Counting down to Christmas should clue us in to the purpose of Advent, which is preparation. But preparation for what? What are we really preparing for? Better still, what is Advent preparing us for?
The obvious answer is Christmas, and Christ’s birth. Christmas is, after all, the celebration of the Greatest Gift Ever Given, when God sent His only Son to earth to be born as a helpless human child. The moment when almighty God broke into our history to become salvation incarnate (incarnate = “in the flesh”) for our sake. Jesus was born for us: in Jesus, God brought the life that would grow up to be the death that would bring life to all. It is truly a great and wonderful thing that God sent us His Son to be found wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
But how can we prepare for something that has already happened? We prepare for the remembrance; the celebration; the festival of His birth – but is that really what Advent is about? Maybe the better question is: is that only what Advent is about? Of course it’s true that the season of Advent gets filled up with all of the ‘doings’ of Christmas, so it is good and right for us to slow down and be still and remember the birth of Jesus, the Name above all names that means “The Lord saves.” But that’s still more about focus than preparation.
We could say that we are preparing our hearts to receive Christ. Stuck in our sin, we need to be reminded that we need a Savior, and we have one in Christ Jesus. As Jesus came into the world, so He will come into our lives, cleansing us with His precious blood. The Christ child who came to save the world also came to save you. And if you do not know Him – if your life is missing that peace – the love and forgiveness that only Jesus can give – then let this Advent be a time when you do prepare yourself to receive Him. Listen to His call, because His love for you is real.
But for those who have been claimed by Him in baptism; for those who already call Him Lord and Savior; for those who already live inside of His holy promise, the fact remains that we have already received Him. The gift of Jesus has already been freely given to us, and His Holy Spirit has been sent into our hearts. Because of Christ alone, we have the gift of eternal life. So what is Advent preparing us for?
Maybe Advent is about preparing for something that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe, as God’s Word works in our hearts, we are being prepared for something yet to come. Maybe preparing for the coming of Jesus is preparing for His coming back. The prophet Isaiah, whose words spoke so much to the coming of the Christ child, also looks beyond to Jesus’ second coming:
“He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).”
Of course, the reason we focus so little on Christ’s return is because it hasn’t happened yet. We look back at an impossibly long period of time – over 2,000 years – and it can be difficult to take seriously the promise that He will return. And, well, actually, God knows this and acknowledges it through the Apostle Peter:
“Remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’ But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3).”
Holding God to our own understanding of time is, of course, ridiculous – and it is indeed an act of mercy that He has not come back yet. There is still time for us to repent of our own sin and to tell others the Good News of salvation. But after 2,000 years, it’s hard to live as though He might actually come back in our lifetime.
Still, the fact that it has been a long time in our limited scope of time before an eternal God does not make it any less of a fact. And just because it hasn’t happened yet does not mean it won’t happen at all. Because God will keep His promise – God always keeps His promises.
And when He does, Isaiah says, things will finally be as they should have been, all the way back in the Garden. The mountain of God will be the focal point of the world. Nations will flow to it. He will judge between nations, and they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. This is no naïve “Give peace a chance” or “Can’t we all just get along” pipe dream. This is an everlasting peace through submission to the rule of God. No more war, no more armies, no more basic training and no more military theory – no more hatred, no more bigotry, racism, sexism or ageism. No more faith – because all will see and know Truth. The Lord will reign in person, in sight and infinitely.
On June 6, 1944, allied forces invaded France. The invasion of Normandy, or D-Day, as it was called, was so devastating to the Germans that at that point, the war was effectively over. The allies had struck such a decisive blow that it was, as they say, all over but the shouting. Now, the shouting went on for quite a while – almost a year, in fact. Despite the fact that they had been defeated, the axis kept fighting in desperation until May 8, 1945, when they finally surrendered. That day, the day the fighting ended, is called V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day.
Christ’s birth was His entry into the fray. His crucifixion and resurrection were His invasion of Normandy. His victory over sin, death and the devil on Easter Sunday, the ultimate D-Day, was so decisive that the war was over, the outcome beyond all doubt.
And even though we are now living in “the shouting”; even though the enemy is desperate in his defeat and the spiritual war on Christ’s Church is all too real, Jesus will return. And His return will be the ultimate V-E Day: Victory on Earth (and in heaven).
That is what Advent is preparing us for. During this season, we remember that Christ came that first Christmas Eve to enter the fray on our behalf, and He delivered the decisive blow to the enemy on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
During Advent, we remember that Christ is coming again. And that day should not bring us fear, but rather fill us with hope – and inspire us to live as God’s children, eager to bring the message of His forgiveness to the wounded who stand upon the battlefield, not yet understanding that the victory has already been won, and the Victor invites them to cross over and share in that victory.
This Advent, as the prophet Isaiah says, let us walk in the light of the Lord, for He is coming back to us. Let us be prepared for His promise to become our reality, Amen.