ARE YOU READY?
Rev. Gary Chorpenning
It isn’t really supposed to be a happy season – Advent isn’t. But we have tended to make it that way. Well, who can blame us? Our world has been feeling rather grim lately. Who could blame us for grabbing hold of any little occasion for happiness we can find?
I certainly don’t want to confirm the stereotypes of Presbyterian ministers as dour, stern-faced, kill joys. But there really is value in reclaiming the ancient understanding of Advent.
You know, “advent” is not really such a strange word. We use it every time we talk about “adventure.” “Advent” comes down to us from Latin. (Hey! Snap to! I saw those eyes of yours glazing over.) Advent in its simplest sense means an arrival. When used in “adventure,” it has come to mean an arrival at a place of danger, risk, or excitement. But as the simple word, advent, it just refers to an arrival.
We do still use the word in that simple, nonreligious way. We do, for example, sometimes talk about the “advent of television” or the “advent of modern dentistry” (a thing I, for one, am very glad happened before I grew teeth). When we use the word that way, we mean by it something like “the beginning of television or of modern dentistry.” But literally, what we are talking about is the “arrival” of those things into our world.
So, then, we see that advent means an arrival, and we use it before the Christmas holy day because we want to have a special season to prepare for the arrival of Christ in our world. There is, however, a bit of a catch at this point. The ancient Church did not think of the Advent season as a time to prepare for Christ’s arrival in the world as an infant in Bethlehem. That advent of Christ, that arrival has already happened. Christ’s arrival at Bethlehem took place in the past, and you can hardly prepare for something that has already happened. Preparing is something you do before the thing actually happens. You cannot prepare for something after it has happened.
Advent the season cannot be a season of preparation for the incarnation of Christ as an infant at Bethlehem. We can, of course, use it as a season for reflecting on what it means to us that the eternal Son of God has come in human flesh into our world. And we do use the Advent season for that. So did the ancients. Using advent in that way can be helpful and comforting.
But the fact that Christ has come in the flesh to inaugurate his kingdom on earth presses upon us a truth that is far more urgent, a truth that requires us to prepare and to respond in concrete action.
Christ did not come once into our world, inaugurate his kingdom, then depart to watch from a distance to see what would happen next. Christ will come again. There will be another Advent of Christ. There will be yet another arrival of Christ into our world. At that Advent Christ will gather his people from the four corners of the earth and bring his kingdom to fulfillment. At that Advent, we will all stand before him, but he will be no infant swaddled in bands of cloth and lying helpless in a manger. He will come then in power and glory, and we shall stand before him.
I don’t know how you feel about that. But to me that prospect is something I’d like to be well-prepared for ahead of time. It was this concern that guided the ancient church in its use of the Advent season.
From a very early time, Christians have used Advent as a season of self-examination. I think there’s a lot to commend that approach to us. And I don’t believe that such an approach to the observance of Advent would mean that Advent most necessarily become a grim, unhappy time.
A key point to hold onto when approaching Advent in this way would be that all self-examination must be done with a continual remembrance also of God’s all-conquering grace. John reminds us in chapter three of his gospel that God gave his Son in the first place and always to save the world not to condemn it.
Whenever we seriously examine our lives, our minds, our hearts, every inclination of our wills, we will find things that are quite revolting. If we are unshrinkingly honest with ourselves in our self-examination, we will certainly not be very happy about what we find. But that is all the more reason to conduct such a self-searching while we are under the shelter of the holy day of Christmas.
Christmas, the celebration of the first Advent of Christ, is one of the church’s great celebrations of God’s acts of saving grace toward us. “You shall call his name Jesus [literally, “One Who Saves”] for he will save his people from their sins.” Matt. 1:21. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:11.
Christmas is all about the great saving love, the great saving act, of God toward us in our sin and need. God has done this unimaginable thing for us. That demonstrates to us how God is disposed toward us. He is determined to save us from our sin, to redeem us, to salvage us from the wreckage of our sin-sickness and brokenness. We don’t need to be afraid of our sin. We don’t need to dread lifting the lid of our lives and rummaging around in there to find and get rid of the nasty things that have accumulated there. We do the work under the loving, grace-filled gaze of our Father who sent his Son to achieve our salvation for us.
So, slow down. Don’t get so caught up in the foam and froth of the “X-mas” season that you neglect the things that really matter. Jesus is coming again. He will gather to himself all those for whom he gave his live. Do you want to be prepared to greet him? Do you want to bring to your Savior a life that has been neglected – a life full of shameful and nasty things? Or do you want lay before him a life that you have lovingly and diligently cared for? He suffered the cross to save your life. It is precious to him. Is it any less precious to you?
Search your life for those things that are not beautiful in God’s sight. Search out the things you will be ashamed of when you stand before Christ your Savior.
© 2011 Gary A. Chorpenning. All rights reserved.
“Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Matt. 24:44
“Therefore stay awake . . . lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Mark 13:36-37