What Advent Is All About
This past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. For those of you who have not observed Advent before–and I’m assuming that most folks did not grow up doing so– it’s the season of the church year that comes before Christmas. While it certainly has a connection to Christmas, it is really a distinct time with its own themes. It is very important to say what Advent is not. Advent is not a time to “prepare for Christmas.” And there’s one other thing that Advent is definitely not–Advent is not a time to “get ready for Jesus to be born.” Ack! Yuck! NO! Jesus was already born, and He doesn’t do that again and again. Advent is not about repeating history.
No instead, Advent is a time to remember that Jesus was born. It is a time to remember that His birth was the first “coming” of the messiah, the king of Israel and savior of the world. We testify that Jesus is the Christ, and we believe that He did the work of the messiah. He brought in the kingdom, He restored the throne of David, and He destroyed and rebuilt the temple. Jesus was the one prophesied by the Old Testament.
What Advent is is a “preparation” for something else. Advent is a preparation for the second coming of Christ and the last judgment. We look back in memory, and we look forward in expectation. I’d like to explain a little bit more about why this is appropriate for this time of year and then what it should mean for how we live our lives.
John the Baptist
One reason that Advent has a sort of “end of the world” feel to it is that the gospels begin with this atmosphere. Matthew and Luke have the nativity and infancy narratives of Jesus, but Mark and John do not. They jump right to Jesus’ ministry, and they both preface that with a section on John the Baptist. Matthew’s gospel has a very brief section on Jesus’ birth, and then it moves quickly to John the Baptist. Luke does have a longer Christmas story at the beginning. It’s where most of us go to do our Christmas Eve readings. But even in Luke, John the Baptist comes first. John’s birth is given first, and he gets his own prophetic birth story too. So in all four gospels, John the Baptist is a key figure at the very beginning.
Now, what is John the Baptist all about? Well, he’s kind of a crazy man.
Now, I don’t mean that in the literal sense. John the Baptist was neither insane nor irrational. He was inspired by God. But he was certainly a woolly booger. Just look at how he’s described: “Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matt. 3:4).
More than just his looks, John the Baptist preached like a backwoods prophet. Here’s what he said:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
…Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matt. 3:2, 7-12)
Make no mistake, John the Baptist is calling out established religious people and telling them that they are imposters who are in danger of going to hell. He says that the messiah is coming, and that when the messiah gets here, He will judge people. He will separate the wheat from the chaff, and “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
This is final judgment stuff. It’s hellfire and brimstone. John the Baptist is preaching an eschatological message of urgency. You better repent. The messiah is almost here. The kingdom is at hand.
The word “advent” literally means “coming.” As such, it applies to both the first and second coming. The second coming is something we associate with the “end times.” But as we have just seen, John the Baptist was preparing people in the 1st century for a lot of “end times” stuff. This means that the first coming of Christ was a sort of end times event. It was a fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy. We see lots of quotations from the Old Testament prophets in Matthew 1 and 2. There’s Isaiah 7:14 (quoted in Matt. 1:23), Micah 5:2 (quoted in Matt. 2:6), Hosea 11:1 (quoted in Matt. 2:15), and Jeremiah 31:15 (quoted in Matt. 2:18), all of which are applied to the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. And if you read those Old Testament prophecies in their original context, you will notice that they sure sound like “end times” stuff.
When we call Jesus “Christ,” we are already applying end times language to him, by the way. “Christ” is the Greek translation for “messiah,” and when we say “Jesus Christ,” we are saying that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-prophesied messiah. He is the descendant of David who will restore the kingdom. He will lead Israel out of exile. He will be the suffering servant. He will even, strange as it seems, shake up the stars in heaven and create a new heavens and a new earth. Luke 3 applies this prophecy to Christ’s first arrival:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough ways smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6)
If you take that prophecy literally, then Jesus was supposed to shake up the word. Mountains should fall. Everything should be flattened and straightened out. And then God would show up.
Now, this prophecy didn’t literally happen when Jesus showed up. But it was fulfilled in important ways. Jesus preached humility. He called the great people to make themselves lowly. He also predicted that the Temple would be destroyed. In fact, He predicted that the nation of Israel would be attacked and demolished as well (Luke 21:5-36).
Interestingly, when Jesus was crucified, several of these end times images did literally happen. The sun went dark for three hours (Matt. 27:45), there was an earthquake (Matt .27:51), and dead people actually rose from their graves and walked around the city of Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52-53). Had you been around at the time, you would have been wholly justified in believing that the end of the world had arrived!
But the end did not come, at least not all at once. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, He ascended to heaven and left the church behind on earth. So now the church expects a second coming. We have work to do in the mean time, but we know that some parts of our salvation will not be complete until the final end, the second advent of the messiah.
Therefore there are two important advents. There is the first advent, which is very important. We look backwards to it and learn about Jesus’ ministry through it. But there is also a second advent, and it is in our future. We look forward to it, and we use the time we have to prepare ourselves for it.
A Time of Preparation
So having said all of that, what does it mean to prepare for the second advent? It doesn’t have to mean that we rush to our calendars and try to plot a date for the rapture. (The rapture isn’t even a biblical idea, btw, but that’s another essay…) We can take notice that the church has been expecting Christ’s return for a long time now, and we can have a proportionate sense of all of the necessary work that the church still needs to do. We’ve been given a global commission after all, and so we should focus on making progress following that out. When Jesus decides to come back is entirely His prerogative.
But in another sense, we should always be “prepared” for the second coming. We should live our lives in such a way that were Christ to return, we would “be ready.” This means that we have our spiritual house in order. While we know we are not perfect, we should never be content to remain as we are. We shouldn’t be staying still in our sin. Instead, we should be urgently fighting against sin, urgently seeking to do good works, and urgently evangelizing others and telling them about Jesus. As Paul puts it in Ephesians, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).
Romans 13 also uses eschatology as a foundation for living a life of godliness. It says this:
Do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Rom. 13:11-14)
Your sanctification is not going to “speed up” the second coming. That’s not the point. But you should think about your sanctification in terms of a timer that’s already started. Since “our salvation is nearer than when we first believed,” then we need to walk properly. We need to get serious about repentance. And getting serious about repentance must mean changing our lifestyle. We have to stop living the kind of life that the world lived–revelry, drunkenness, lewdness, lust, strife, and envy. We don’t have time to waste with that stuff any more, and we certainly don’t want Jesus to return while we are practicing those things.
In fact, you might ask yourself this question, “What if Jesus saw me doing this?” Do you like that thought? Well, I have news for you. He did! But He has also promised to return again bodily, and He has given us the time prior to that to trust Him and to keep the commandments He has left us. We should be doing that, and we should desire to make progress before Jesus returns.
Finally, we should tell other people about Jesus’ return. That might sound a little too “fundamentalist” to you. But the second coming should really be a very basic and universal doctrine. After all, it’s something all men share in common. We will all meet our maker. More than that, though, the second coming means that Jesus is going to fix things. He is not going to leave this world “as is.” The pain and sorrow we experience is temporary. It will come to an end. Evil will not win.
Jesus is coming back to complete His work, defeat the devil, and establish a world of true justice for all. That should be a point of hope for us. But we have to know that it can’t happen without judgment, specially our judgment. So we all need to “get right” before then. Sooner or later, as the song says, God’s gonna cut you down. How can we be saved? Repent and believe. Trust Jesus. Find salvation in Him.
So let us make the most of this Advent season. Let’s remember what it’s all about, the work of the messiah in Jesus Christ. Worship Him. Serve Him. Celebrate His first coming.
But also pay attention to what still needs to be done. Look around. Take notice. And look for the ways that Jesus will finish His work when He returns. Prepare yourself for the second coming, and tell others about it as well.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when He shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.