Advent Then and Now
It is clear from reading the New Testament epistles that the early church looked ahead to Christ’s second advent. “Advent” is Latin from the Greek word parousia, and literally means “coming” or “arrival”—usually of some noble person or king into the city. The early church was looking ahead to Christ’s return to the world as the King. But somewhere in the Middle Ages the posture shifted, and the church started to look back during the season that came to be called Advent. Advent became faith gazing in the rear-view mirror.
The church ought to cultivate its memory of Christ’s first coming, and do so with celebrative rituals and songs. But one liability of this season in our consumer culture is that it becomes nostalgic, and a wave of sentimentality floods over our faith, and Christ’s coming becomes too cute, and unfortunately lost in the past as only a memory.
We intended this Advent series to be a recovery of the early tradition of looking ahead and a corrective to the nostalgic default. We wanted to get the full picture: Christ has come, Christ comes today, and someday Christ will come most fully and in great glory. “Advent then and now” means we commemorate the first coming of Christ, but we also anticipate his second coming. We are people of both memory and hope.
This series highlights both the continuities and discontinuities between Christ’s two arrivals, with the goal of boosting our sense of urgency, readiness, and delight in a full-orbed “Advent.” It suggests a mood of both surprise and trepidation. Christ’s coming is mysterious, with uncertain timing, and some of the images we have from Scripture are simply frightening. Advent is the coming of the King, and he is good, but he is not necessarily safe (to paraphrase what Mr. Beaver said about Aslan in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe).
The series outline that follows has a very simple structure. Every Sunday is framed as a question about Christ’s coming: who, when, how, where, and, finally, why? The response to the question each Sunday comes in two parts with two corresponding texts, the first relating to Advent past, and the second relating to Advent future. The purpose of this exercise, however, is firmly fixed in the present: to encourage believers to lean and live into God’s future, the new creation. If “eschatology” is the proper word for describing the final events of history, then this series teaches congregation members to live in the “eschatological now”—seeking first the coming kingdom of God and its justice, right-eousness, and peace right where they live, today.
This series comes with a strong Reformed accent. Drawing on theologians like Richard Middleton (A New Heaven and a New Earth) and N. T. Wright (Surprised by Scripture, Surprised by Hope) we invited the Scriptures to remind us that the future is not an annihilated creation but, in fact, a new creation. The Second Advent is about Christ descending to earth to establish his kingdom, not rapturing people away to another unearthly place but leading them in the renewal of a broken and bleeding creation.
Advent is engagement with the travails of creation, not escape from God’s good world. The series will have fulfilled its purpose if a sense of intrigue and expectation builds in the congregation from week to week and if it shifts the mood of Christmas from nostalgia to longing, anticipation, and kingdom-living hope.
First Sunday: Who Is Coming?
The Judge of all the earth
“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” LUYH 78, PH 309, PsH 342, TH 162, WR 181, GTG 108
“Rejoice, the Lord Is King” LUYH 224, PH 155, PsH 408, SWM 140, TH 309, WR 342, GTG 363
“Soon and Very Soon” LUYH 482, SWM 149, SNC 106, WR 523, GTG 384
“Hallelujah, Salvation, and Glory” LUYH 491
“King of Heaven” (Baloche)
This teaching began with a reference to Handel’s Messiah—specifically the lines from Haggai that promise the shaking of the earth, the expectation of fire from a text in Malachi, and Psalm 2’s “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” These quotes grind against the “sweetness” of the Christmas season. One thing we often forget at Christmas is that it celebrates the coming of a Messiah, a King who would free the people from oppression and judge nations. In Advent past, the Jews expected a messiah who would free them from the yoke of the Romans. In Advent future, we continually read prophetic texts about judging nations and separating sheep from goats. In fact, Christ’s return to “judge the living and the dead” is in both the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creeds.
In the first Advent, people were surprised by a Messiah who came in a humble stable and whose destiny was to suffer. What will our surprise be at the second Advent? As Reformed Christians, we believe that those who think Christ comes to extract people from a doomed creation will be surprised on Judgment Day. But Matthew 25 states that everyone will be surprised, and Reformed Christians most certainly will be too.
One thing that modern Christians have a hard time understanding is that God’s coming judgment is a joyful event in the Bible. Says N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope:
“. . . God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy, and indeed the trees of the field to clap their hands. In a world of systematic injustice, violence, bullying, arrogance and oppression, the thought that there might be a coming day when the wicked are finally put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment” (p. 137).
And so the climax of Handel’s Messiah is absolutely fitting: “King of kings! Lord of lords! And he shall reign forever and ever!”
“. . . if God’s judgment is the form his mercy takes when faced with a world out of joint, God’s mercy is the form his judgment takes when faced with penitent sinners.” (Taken from a sermon, “Jesus the Risen Judge—and Forgiver,” delivered on 4/8/2007 by N.T. Wright)
Second Sunday: When Is He Coming?
4 B.C., under Roman occupation
Like a thief in the night
1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
“In the Bleak Midwinter” WR 196, GTG 144
“Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding” LUYH 478, PsH 332
“Beams of Heaven” LUYH 454, PsH 577
“View the Present through the Promise” LUYH 470, SNC 90
“Jesus Christ Is the Way” LUYH 471
“Shine, Jesus, Shine” (Richard) SNC 128, WR 319, GTG 192
The focus this Sunday is on the element of surprise. One might begin by mentioning the many false advents—when either Jews or Christians predicted exact dates of the Messiah’s coming. The Scriptures say the first Advent promised the “Anointed One” would enter into the world of exiles and refugees after “seven ‘sevens’” and “sixty-two ‘sevens’”—a mysterious time of completeness; and “the end will come like a flood” that will “destroy the city and the sanctuary” (Dan. 9:26). This prophesies a time for the Messiah’s coming that is both uncertain and calamitous. Indeed, Jesus was born into a world of adversity and insecurity, and the Roman occupation ended in the ruin of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Likewise, in passages that speak of the second Advent, there are images of violence and distress. Paul says in Thessalonians that some will promise “peace and safety” but there will be only destruction. In the midst of this calamity, the Messiah will come, although no one knows the day or the hour (Matt. 24:36). He will come like “a thief in the night.” The purpose of this “coming of the Lord”—in Greek the word is parousia (1 Thess. 4:15)—is not to rapture believers away into the sky. Says Middleton in A New Heaven and a New Earth, first-century readers would have understood the scene as “those who went out to meet the dignitary returned with him, escorting him in grand procession into their city” (p. 224). In other words, Paul is saying that Jesus returns to renew the earth as its rightful King.
This contrasts with our predictable, comfortable Christmas rituals and holidays. But these rituals, seen in the light of the grief of terrorism, earthquakes, and current economic crises, can be pastoral markers of promise—that we need not fear, and that we ought to live into the coming of the Messiah, by offering testimony of his loving reign. We can do this by “encouraging one another and building each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11). Again, we must live into the grace and peace of the new creation, born through difficult labor. Our response to the mystery need not be anxiety or self-protection, but rather inspired solidarity, purpose, and hope.
Third Sunday: How Is He Coming?
Through ignoble means
In the sky with trumpets
2 Thessalonians 2:3
“Once in Royal David’s City” LUYH 87, PFAS 866, PH 49, PsH 346, TH 225, WR 183, GTG 140
“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” LUYH 479, PH 6, TH 318, GTG 348
“The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns” LUYH 476, PsH 615
“My Lord, What a Morning” LUYH 481, TH 328, WR 537, GTG 352
“Wait for the Lord” LUYH 480, SNC 96, WR 166, GTG 90
“From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable” (Townend)
The focus this Sunday is on the difference between how Jesus came the first time and how Jesus will come at the end of time. The most obvious difference is the almost unknown or hidden entrance of Jesus into this world in the stable in Bethlehem, contrasted with the triumphal entry that will be universally known when Christ returns.
Christ’s first advent is one that is quiet, almost subversive in nature, perhaps meant to escape the notice of the empire that was under the illusion it was in control. The first people who are told of Jesus’ birth are the shepherds—the poor, marginalized, and lowly. They are amazed at the news, yet in it see the possibility of new life.
The second advent, as outlined in Thessalonians, is one heralded by trumpets. It’s sudden, yet universally visible. While Jesus came the first time as poor and unknown, the second time he returns as a conquering hero. The first advent is one that announces, quietly and subversively, the coming of the kingdom of God; the second advent declares its arrival with fanfare and triumph. Jesus comes, at the second advent, as the one who sets all things right.
Both advents have an element of surprise. The first contains the surprise of a stealthy entrance. The second surprise is a matter of the timing; as if we are turning the crank on a jack-in-the-box. We know that at some point the lid will fly open and the “jack” will pop out, and we may be taken aback when it does. Yet knowing that Jesus is coming and that he will set all things right gives us hope as we live now. Knowing how Jesus will come, as a conquering King, calls us to live as citizens of the kingdom now, prepared to meet the King.
Fourth Sunday: Where Is He Coming?
Everywhere across the cosmos
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” LUYH 88, PH 44, TH 201, WR 180, GTG 121
“Jerusalem the Golden” LUYH 488, PsH 618, TH 539
“I Will Rise” LUYH 468
“In the Day of the Lord” LUYH 485
“O Day of Peace” LUYH 487, WR 539, GTG 373
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” LUYH 56, PH 2, PsH 329, SWM 83, TH 196, WR 153, GTG 82
“When Love Came Down to Earth” (Townend)
This sermon highlights the importance of place—the idea that where the Messiah comes is significant and truly matters. While Christ came the first time to the backwater of Bethlehem, he will return the second time not to a single place, but to the whole earth.
The prophet Micah’s main concerns were that worship was being perverted to serve the systems of power and empire, and that injustice, rather than justice, was being practiced by God’s people. Through the advent of the Messiah, Micah declares God’s active sovereignty and the means by which God’s people can once again become righteous, worshiping well and living justly. It’s a lowly beginning, and a strange place for the Incarnation to take place, but this in itself was a reminder of the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom. Micah reminds us, despite the inauspicious place where the Messiah came the first time, that our incomparable God took human form to bring not only judgment but salvation and hope.
If the location of Christ’s first advent was significant in its insignificance, then the location of the second advent bears close attention. To our surprise, no specific place is foretold, at least nothing more specific than the whole earth! The real surprise, however, is that Scripture makes it clear that Christ really is returning to the earth. We are not going to heaven to dwell when Christ returns, but Christ, God, is coming to dwell here. Christ is returning to a renewed, transformed earth. This is what demonstrates the incredible love that God has for humanity and all of creation. We, and creation, will be transformed and God will come and dwell among us.
Knowing where Christ is coming, to the renewed and transformed earth, is what enables us to live well now in this season between the two advents. Our hope is not in escaping from this place, but in living well, caring for one another, and caring for all creation while we await Christ’s return here to this place, at the time when all things will be set right.
Christmas: Why Does Christ Come?
A people under occupation
A groaning creation
“Joy to the World” LUYH 92, PFAS 618, PH 40, PsH 337, SWM 94, TH 195, WR 179, GTG 134, 266
“Love Came Down at Christmas” WR 210
“Let All Things Now Living” LUYH 5, PH 554, PsH 453, TH 125, WR 22, GTG 37
We have dealt with the who, when, how, and where of Christ’s first and second advents in previous weeks. This is the week in which the “good news” character of the Advent needs to rise to a crescendo. What is most important about Christmas is its meaning and purpose for a people—and an entire world—caught in the grip of sin and oppression. This is the day in which the love of God is demonstrated most clearly and sacrificially for God people—and the whole creation.
The first Christmas took place in a nation under occupation by a foreign military superpower. For years the people of Israel had been groaning under the oppressive Roman empire, which in Luke 2 demands their complicity in a census. The lordship of Caesar frames the opening of this beloved text on the coming of the Christ Child, the true Lord of all creation, who comes not to count, tax, and displace people, but to “proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). For God so loved the world, he sent his only begotten Son into the world—to redeem, heal, and save.
The second Advent likewise comes to a groaning creation—a world caught in bondage to decay yet filled with a hope that the pain is part of a cosmic childbirth (Romans 8). We see this struggle in our alienated families, toxic workplaces, fractured churches, in the frenzy of broader culture, and in the coughing planet itself. Yet we know it was God’s love that motivated Christ to come the first time. It was God’s love that was poured out on the cross, absorbing the violence and pain of a creation in turmoil. And someday—as mysterious, miraculous, and far-off as it may seem—God’s love will once more demonstrate itself in Christ’s return to renew all creation. We hang our lives on this promise: “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). It is that undying love—the heart of the Trinity—that overflows to risk coming and then returning to his oppressed but expectant creation.
Looking Ahead by Looking Back
This series may be a good jolt for some congregations, turning heads from facing backward to also facing forward, shifting their focus from history to glory, from memory to hope. Introducing songs in Advent that sing of the Second Coming, of the New Jerusalem, and the renewal of all creation could add energy and anticipation to your services.
We hope, too, that this series will turn people outwards to see the groaning of creation and to seek to live more deeply into its redemption and renewal. Our worship depends on a tradition that recounts the mighty deeds that God performed in the past, but it can simultaneously cultivate a restless anticipation for the mighty deeds that God has yet to perform. This is not an escape from the hurt that haunts our world, but a motivation to enter more deeply and confidently into it, knowing God will help and heal, in part now and, one day, the whole.