It’s more than presents and trees and ornaments. It’s more than parties with family and friends. It’s more than an excuse to eat sweets and put peppermint in your hot chocolate. None of these things are necessarily bad, but they don’t paint the whole picture of what Christmas is—or, at least, what Christmas could be.
Christmas is one of the most exciting, anticipated, and wonderful times of the year. But for Christians, it’s full of even more excitement, anticipation, and wonder. If we step back and embrace it, Christmas can be one of the most important seasons in our spiritual life!
For centuries, Christians all over the world have called the weeks leading up to Christmas Day “Advent.” And that word “advent” simply means “coming.” We might think that’s a fitting title for Christmastime because you can feel it coming like a freight train, whether you’re ready or not! You have gifts to buy, pies to bake, and parties to attend. You have decorations to put up, travel to book, and vacation time to schedule—although sometimes it may not end up feeling like much of a vacation at all!
But, of course, that’s not really what the word “Advent” means. The early Christians called the time celebrating the birth of Jesus “Advent” because it was the time God came to Earth.
Promise and Preparation
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night, it changed the course of history forever. What once was a promise now became reality. God came to Earth at last to bring about justice, to reign over all people, to show us His love, and to make a way for eternal salvation. But while we celebrate Christmas—the coming of God—it doesn’t stop there. Because Christmas is only half of the story of God’s coming into the world.
We know that Jesus came at Christmas, but we long for Him to come again one day. And that’s what Advent is all about.
In a lot of ways, following Jesus is a life lived in between. We read God’s promises in Scripture, but we haven’t experienced them fully yet. We know God has made a way for us to be saved from our sin, but we still struggle. We live in Creation, but we read in Scripture that some day there will be a New Creation!
In the meantime, we live in between what God has done and what God will do. Advent is a celebration of God’s coming—both at Christmas and His future return. We live in between those two hinges of history.
As the Old Testament expectation grew for a deliverer—a Messiah—God called His people not only to watch, wait, and look for His coming, but He also called them to prepare themselves. As they were living in between God’s promise and God’s coming, that’s how they were asked by God to carry themselves: in preparation.
Everything they knew about the world would change when God sent His Son to Earth, so God told them to prepare their hearts to receive Him. In Isaiah 45:22, God tells the people to prepare themselves by saying, “Turn to me and be saved….” In Amos 4:12, God says that He will come to bring justice to the Earth, and He tells His people, “…prepare to meet your God, O Israel.”
For God’s ancient people, living in between God’s promise and God’s coming meant preparing their own hearts so that they could be the kind of people who were ready when God came to Earth. And, as you probably remember from Jesus’ life, a lot of people weren’t ready when Jesus came to Earth. Since their hearts weren’t prepared, they missed Him completely.
Past Praises, Future Glory
As the early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, they remembered what it was like to wait for His arrival. They remembered what it was like to prepare themselves for the Lord, living in between God’s promise and His coming. And they knew that, even though the course of history had changed forever at the birth of Christ, the climax of history is still to come: Jesus will return to finish His work of redemption forever.
Surely they had John 14:3 (NIV®) in mind: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you with me….” They thought of Matthew 24:44 (NIV®), “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” They likely had Revelation 22:12 (ESV) in their hearts, when Jesus said, “Behold! I am coming soon.”
So when the early Christians celebrated Advent, they didn’t just celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. They also celebrated the second coming of Jesus that is still yet to happen. God had done something amazing that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, but followers of Jesus know that something even more amazing is still coming. He will return in glory, and all creation will finally be made whole.
Prepare the Way for the Lord
Just as God’s ancient people waited for His coming by preparing their hearts, you can take time this Advent season to remember God’s love for you and purposely prepare your own heart to be ready for Him when He comes again.
When the Prophet Isaiah looked forward to the Messiah’s first arrival, he declared, “’In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3 ESV)
This passage was fulfilled when John the Baptist came on the scene to prepare the way for Jesus. But John didn’t sweep sand off the desert streets to get ready. He told people that it was time to repent, time to be baptized as a sign of their purified hearts, and time to get ready for the course of history to change. God was coming to Earth. And it was time to prepare the way for the Lord!
“The way” for God to come wasn’t a road or highway. It wasn’t a camel or a donkey or a black SUV. The primary way the Lord came was into the hearts of people. And that’s just as true today.
Trading Pressure for Preparation
Christmas is often a time of busyness, full schedules, stress, and sometimes distraction from the purpose of the celebration in the first place. But if we can prepare our hearts to receive Jesus—if we can learn to live in between Jesus’ promise and Jesus’ coming—then maybe we can have a different kind of Christmas altogether.
Maybe we don’t have to get caught up in the hustle and bustle. Maybe we don’t have to lose sight of the manger in the midst of the madness. Maybe we don’t need to let another Christmas go by marked mostly by stress and exhaustion. Instead, maybe we can have an Advent-kind-of-Christmas. Maybe we can prepare our hearts to be people who are ready for Jesus in a new way. Maybe we can reflect on God’s first coming as we prepare for His second coming.
As we learn to live in between, God will meet us in the waiting. And we’ll soon rediscover that Christmas is full of hope, joy, peace, and love—just the way it was always meant to be.
So, what does it look like to prepare the way for the Lord in our hearts? How can we trade the pressure of a normal Christmas celebration for the preparation of an Advent celebration?
Four Attitudes of Advent
Ever since Christians started celebrating Advent, four words have been central at Christmastime: hope, peace, joy, and love. Each of the four weeks of Advent is marked by one of these themes. As we embrace the celebration again this year, we want to have the same focus that Christians have had for centuries before us.
In a world of despair, we choose hope instead. In a world of chaos, we choose peace. In a world that pursues personal happiness, we pursue the joy of the Lord. In a world of hatred, division, separation, violence, and bitterness, we choose love.
Advent is a time to celebrate the fact that Jesus came long ago, to anticipate the fact that Jesus will come again someday, and to cultivate these four attitudes in our hearts as we prepare ourselves to be ready when He comes.
Too often, Christians get caught up in the despair, the dread, and the depression of contemporary culture. We see the news headlines and we worry. We see the political scene and we dread the future. We see the world around us and we lose hope. But rest assured, people of God—we will never lose our reason to hope!
Having Everyday Hope
· Balance every fear, concern, and worry you have with the living hope you have in Christ.
· When you find yourself losing hope amidst difficult seasons and circumstances, ask God to refill you with hope in His promises.
· Make your world better because of the hope you have!
Does the word “peace” usually describe your Christmas experiences? (No, that’s not a joke!) We sing “Silent night…all is calm” and “sleep in heavenly peace.” But whoever wrote those lyrics clearly never saw a shopping mall or to-do list in 21st Century, All-American December. Nevertheless, Advent is the perfect time to move our hearts from chaos to peace. We know that Christmas isn’t about presents; it’s about the presenceof God. As we embrace the truth about Christmas, we can find peace in the midst of chaos.
Being People of Peace
· Try to cut back on the shopping and remind yourself that material things can’t satisfy spiritual needs.
· Take a day as a family to serve a meal at a homeless shelter to remind yourself that Christmas is all about serving and giving.
· Say no to some opportunities and intentionally stay home with your family at least one night each week. Give yourselves peace in the midst of the chaos.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” For many of us, the attitude of joy makes the most sense out of any of these four Advent attitudes. We’re used to Christmas being a time of joy, so it might be a little easier to cultivate. But this Advent season, prepare your heart to welcome the Lord by making sure you monitor the subtle difference between pursuing circumstantial happiness and pursuing eternal joy.
· Thank God for the gift of happiness and the greater gift of joy.
· Search your heart: Is your Christmas more about finding happiness in positive circumstances or having unshakable joy in God’s promises?
· Be encouraged! Jesus came and is coming again—nothing can steal your joy!
Few places in the story of God show His love more clearly and more deeply than at Christmas. When Jesus laid aside His majesty to come to Earth in human skin, we see that God loved humanity enough to go to any lengths necessary to reach us and save us. And Advent is a time to search our own hearts, probing ourselves to see if we have received that love and learned how to share it with others.
Growing in Love
· Every morning, take a moment to stop and thank God for His amazing, immeasurable love for you. The Good News is sweet, and worth savoring every day!
· Ask God to open your eyes to the people around you who need to be loved this Christmas, who need to be noticed and cared about.
· Look for opportunities to live out God’s love! Visit neighbors in a nursing home or a hospital—someone who might otherwise feel forgotten, overlooked, unloved.
A Different Kind of Christmas
What if this Christmas was a little different than usual? What if this year, we focused our hearts on the Advent of Jesus and we prepared our hearts more and more to receive Him? What would be different for you?
We all have the opportunity now to cultivate hearts of hope, peace, joy, and love this Christmas. Don’t let yourself get caught up with the rest of the world—running ragged, keeping up, and missing out on the real point of it all!
We believe that the true celebration of Christmas is the fact that God kept His promise, came to Earth, and made a way for us to experience freedom from sin and death. And we believe that He has promised to come again. While we wait, while we live in between the promise and the fulfillment, while we prepare our hearts to receive Him, we celebrate Advent. And we pray with centuries of Christians who have come before us as we say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of our NEXT magazine. Pick up a copy at any Southeast location or download the tablet app by searching for “Southeast Next” in the App Store or Google Play.