In a society that sprints past Halloween and Thanksgiving in order to get to the Christmas season, it should come as little surprise to recognize that we are not good at waiting. Our’s is a generation that has learned that good things come to those who refuse to wait. We have access to more information on the phones in our pockets than our parents and grandparents had in their local libraries. Everything is instant—riches, celebrity, coffee—and if you don’t believe me, just listen to the comments made the next time the wifi gets slow.
With such an embarrassment of riches, more eccentric subsets of our society have embraced a slower, more deliberate pace. They have learned to shave like their grandpa with a safety razor and boar’s hair shaving brush. Others have embraced the slow art of growing a manly beard. Albums available instantly in digital format are eschewed for those etched in vinyl.
But these exceptions prove the rule—as a society, we demand instant gratification. Which helps explain why Advent is so foreign to our understanding.
Advent is a four-week period of preparation in churches—usually of the more liturgical stripe, but has become more popular in recent years—leading up to Christmas.
This Sunday, December 2 is the First Sunday of Advent.
Many churches—perhaps even most churches—will begin to lean into some of the more familiar Christmas hymns this Sunday. Perhaps they’ll sing “Joy to the World” or “Hark the Heralds Angels Sing.” And those are wonderful hymns with a rich history. But like those who camp out on Thanksgiving morning in order to be first in line on Black Friday, they rush to Christmas morning too quickly.
And that temptation is so very real, isn’t it? After all, the Christmas season is a time for joy and laughter, friends and families, gifts and cards. But according to the Christian calendar, that season begins on Christmas morning. It doesn’t begin on the day after Thanksgiving.
Now, I am not a high-church liturgical worship guy. Not even close. But I think there are some aspects of worship found in the Christian calendar foreign to most churches. I am merely suggesting that if that is the case, perhaps it’s worth examining why believers in the past saw this as important and why we don’t. Or, even more indicting, why we may think it important, but not something we want to think on often.
During Advent, We Reflect upon Israel’s Longing
Advent is the season of expectation. It is the four weeks that Christian churches reflect on the silent inter-testamental period. In the Old Testament, we read of God’s activity and proclamation on each page. We see him in Creation and in the Garden. He sends a flood and confuses the speech of the builders of the tower at Babel. He speaks from the bush, thunders from the mountain, demonstrates his power in the whirlwind, and whispers in the stillness. He rules through judges and kings. He pits nation against nation. He raises a nation to discipline his own people, sending them into exile and bringing them back again.
And then, silence.
History is not silent. The inter-testamental period is a fascinating era filled with intrigue and uproar, but there was no revelation from God.
He was silent.
And year after year, they looked for a prophet to come. And year after year, none came. There were some who claimed to have a word from God. There were others claiming to be the Messiah himself. But they did not and they were not. God remained silent.
Years turned to decades; decades to generations; generations to centuries. Prayers were offered, but God was silent.
And the people of God knew that things were not right in the world. They felt the injustice of their situation. They knew their Scripture well enough to know that this was not the way things were supposed to turn out. And they longed for God to come set things right.
Can you imagine?
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
During Advent, we remember Israel’s longing for their Messiah. And while it is a period of remembering, it is also a season of waiting ourselves.
During Advent, We ‘Feel’ Our Own Longing
Many of us, when we sit still long enough and think about the world, can not only appreciate Israel’s longing—their desperate sense that things are not the way they are supposed to be—we feel it too. We look around us and the world seems to be spinning out of control. It doesn’t matter which news station we turn to, the news is bad.
Wars and rumors of wars? Check.
Earthquakes and natural disasters? Check.
Increasing hostility to the people of God? Check.
Everywhere we turn, the reports are negative. The only difference is who gets blamed.
And so politicians of every stripe promise us solutions. False prophets tell us that our faith, or lack thereof, is holding us back and that if we’ll just sow a financial seed of faith into their ministry, we too can experience the blessings of God. But deep down, we know that their promises are empty.
We know that only one thing can set this right.
And that’s what sets Advent apart from hopelessness. There is hope. There is assurance that despite all appearances, the world is not spinning out of control. Christians have the promise that God is not finished with his Creation; he has not washed his hands of our dust. But rather, he is patient and good and at the right time, the Son will rise from his throne and return to this world. But rather than coming in the humility of a child in a manger, he will come in the clouds with power and put all things under his righteous rule.
And so we long for our Messiah. We yearn for his return. We ache to see all that is wrong with the world made right. And that sense of desperation—that groaning that we feel each time someone we know receives that terrible diagnosis, each time a friend receives that call in the middle of the night that we all fear, each time we lay a loved one in the grave—that is Advent.
A Humble Appeal
I am not suggesting that you scratch your Christmas songs this week. I am not suggesting that you adopt the liturgical calendar and invest in a set of candles to light during the worship service. Instead, my hope is that you will remember the silence and darkness that characterizes Advent—that you would feel the hope and longing. And this, in part, because we are so prone to avoid those emotions in worship. They make us feel uncomfortable. In those moments, our Christmas hymns, so full of joy, can create such dissonance with the longing.
But when we allow that longing to settle upon us, when Christmas morning comes, the Incarnation of our Lord reminds us that even in the silence, our prayers have been heard. And our longing turns to joy.
My appeal to you is to make room for Advent in your worship. Perhaps that’s a single sermon (might I suggest Micah 7:1–11 for your text). Perhaps you might choose an entire Sunday morning to feel it. But make room for Advent.
There will be the temptation to rush to sing the happy songs and avoid the darkness. But I’m reminded that almost every year, in order to see the culmination of the candlelight service, we turn the lights down in the sanctuary to experience the light.
That’s the Spirit of Advent.
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
Runner. Cyclist. Roast Master at caffeinatedtheology.com.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.