Imagine standing in the arrivals area at the airport, your heart pounding. Your beloved has been away on a long trip, and any second he or she is going to walk through those doors. In your mind you can already see the dear, tired face lighting up as your eyes meet.
What a sense of excitement there is when something eagerly anticipated finally arrives! That same kind of anticipatory joy characterizes our waiting for Jesus in Advent. In fact, our sense of joy during longed-for events in our lives is mild compared to the joy of what God has done, and is still doing, in Jesus.
Centuries of prophesy and of waiting were fulfilled when a small boy was born in Bethlehem almost 2,000 years ago—a boy named Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.” He came. He has come. He is here—in our hearts, in our churches, and in this world by the power of his Spirit.
Advent is a Latin word that means “going toward” or “moving toward.” It indicates a period of anticipation, of expectancy. For believers it’s a period of waiting that leads up to Christmas Day. As in a pregnancy, we are expecting—communally waiting for Jesus to come. True, there is something artificial about that, because Jesus is already here, but like our own birthdays, we want to anticipate and celebrate Jesus’ arrival anew this year, and every year.
Jesus is coming. What does that really mean for us? I think it includes two opposite yet connected attitudes.
We’ve already imagined the sense of anticipatory joy we feel when we’ve been eagerly waiting for someone. Here’s another example: A roomful of guests is waiting for the guest of honor to show up at a surprise party. “Ssshhhh! Sshh! Quiet! I hear something. . . .” And then, with rising intensity: “Somebody’s coming!” Everyone hides in the dark until the door opens and we can all yell together, “Surprise!”
But there’s also another kind of waiting, and it’s the kind that evokes not anticipatory joy but rather a prick of anxiety or even of naked fear:
“Somebody’s coming! Run!”
“Somebody’s coming! Quick! Clean up!”
“Somebody’s coming! Hide!”
“Somebody’s coming! Get back to work!”
Think of the classic scene where the teacher leaves the room and the whole class erupts: paper airplanes, spitballs, running around, yelling. Inevitably one or two kids become the lookout. All the fun and games quickly end when the lookout yells, “The teacher’s coming!” When you’re doing something you shouldn’t, you don’t want to be caught. In that case, the words “somebody’s coming” induce fear or even panic.
Jesus is coming. There’s definitely a “Look out!” element to the imminent arrival of Jesus as well. His cousin, John, uses some vivid images to describe the ministry of the One who is coming: a purifying fire, a winnowing fork, even a trap. “Watch out!” says John. “Don’t get caught unawares.”
Because Jesus is also the judge, his coming requires reflection, examination, repentance, and purification. For the arrival of such an eminent person, we need to get ready. Things need to be cleaned up to make room for the increase of the kingdom in our lives, in our churches, in our world. This kind of preparation should also characterize our Advent waiting.
This year, let’s not get so caught up in “being ready for Christmas” that we are not ready for Christ.
And so we prayerfully sing Charles Wesley’s hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” as a prayer of preparation during this Advent season. Even though Jesus is already here, we still need him to release us more and more from “our fears and sins.” We need to declare once again that he was “born to reign in us forever.” We need to affirm our commitment to fervently pray and work so that he can bring his “gracious kingdom” in us, in our church, and in our world. We still wait for that kingdom to be all and in all.
But we do so with hope, with joy, and with excitement at what God has already done among us, and will yet do.