Woodland Baptist Church was the beginners class for this pastor, Ministry 101, Introduction to Pastoral Leadership. Those wonderful people took this thirty year old business man and his family into their lives and taught us the elementary rubrics of congregational life. Harriet and I fondly remember our first wedding, funeral, baptism, covered dish supper, and the learning curve of our first Christmas season. Being geographically near the seminary campus Woodland was attuned to the worship and mission of a church in a rich educational environment. They taught me about Advent, Chrismons, the Hanging of the Greens, and the ancient disciplines of personal preparation in anticipation of Christ's adventus, his coming. They were lessons is the heart shift that would help us greet the season of Christmas with expectant hearts.
Expectancy was central to the early church. Theologians and historians reference the imminent return of Christ and the up-look as the bloom of hope for believers in those very hard times. They were not strengthened by a mere sense of waiting, impatience being a natural bent of humans even then. No, it was a knowing certainty, the genuine yearning for his coming that produced endurance in them, the truth of a crown of righteousness he would provide for those who loved his appearing (see 2 Timothy 4:8, ESV). The air of expectation shifted their eyes, heart, and minds from the urgencies of the moment so that they could seek his Kingdom and his righteousness till that day.
Historians estimate that Advent became an element of early church worship by the fifth century. It's earliest design was to instigate longing for the Messiah in the hearts of believers. Therefore, the three comings of Christ were the base-line of Advent worship: his coming in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory when God finalizes his redemptive plan. In time the four Sundays before Christmas were assigned Scriptures, colors, and symbols to bring the character of his coming into each weekly observance. The varied liturgical systems differed the weekly themes but each was to prepare the worshiper for the celebration of his coming on Christmas morning.
Like any other liturgical rite Advent can become perfunctory too. Jesus warned his disciples about meaningless repetitions in prayer (see Matthew 6:7, ESV) and the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians about the many ways human expectations can distort the meaning and practice of worship, no matter the intent. Still, observance of Advent in some Christ centered format can create a spirit of expectation as our culture leans more secular by the day. Several thoughts carry the day in this consideration---
1. Advent is a fresh reminder of God's redemptive plan.
The promise of Messiah is perhaps the longest standing promise of Scripture.
That this promise was fulfilled in the fullness of time (see Galatians 4:4)
confirms the care and providence of God in all of history. To acknowledge
Christ's birth, his presence in our lives day by day, and the promise of his
second coming are power points that this redemptive plan is happening in the
here and now, and that we are part of it.
2. Advent shifts our seasonal focus to the substance of things, Christ.
To say we are distracted in the Christmas season is an understatement if there
ever was one. Just as Paul reminded the Colossians, "the substance belongs to
Christ" (Colossians 2:17), meaning that our worship observances, what Paul
called "a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath" (Colossoans 2:16), can easily
transition us to things of little consequence. The observance of Advent should
be worship of Christ and longing for his Kingdom come. Period.
3. Advent creates a pause in a chaotic season.
Life shifts into high gear after thanksgiving. Everything assumes a new pace in
the Christmas rush. A family Advent wreath and devotional can provide a
meaningful time of prayer and Scripture reading that will slow the gears even
for a moment, and permit moments of Christ centered family time. This can
also be a time of family instruction. Remember God's words to Moses and
Israel: "You shall teach them diligently to your children..." (Deuteronomy 6:7,
4. Advent refreshes our confidence in the promises of God.
The doctrine of the imminent return of Christ has slipped to the edges of our
faith. Impatient humans can't always handle the intricacies of time. This is
especially true of Americans who live by the clock. Moments each week in a
time of Advent worship can affirm the certainly of God's promises and the
truth that Paul penned to the Thessalonians: "He who calls you is faithful; he
will surely do it" (1 Thessalonians 5:24, ESV).
5. Advent turns our hearts toward the Gospel.
Celebrating the birth of Christ must advance our hearts to the reason he came.
Jesus said it with great clarity: "For even the Son of Man came not to be served
but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45, ESV). We
must not disconnect the manger from the cross. Advent connects these
important dots so that we can fully understand the depth of God's provision in
Yes, the Thanksgiving decorations are stored away for another year. The house is alive with holiday festivity. There's plenty of glitter and ornaments to remind us of the season. Plenty of manger scenes too. But, the most strategic transition is the one that must take place in my heart. It is to behold, worship, and long for Christ. Perhaps celebrating Advent can help me yearn for him in 2016.
You know, anticipation.