by Rev. Herbert C. Mueller
It fills the air the week before our annual vacation. Time to get out the camping gear. Where did we store the tent? Air it out. Find the fishing poles. Are they in working order?
As our departure approaches, our excitement reaches a fever pitch!
Anticipating our vacation is almost as much fun as the trip itself.
Anticipation. Couples about to be married know the feeling as the special day approaches. The nine months of a pregnancy are filled with anticipation.
The Church of Jesus knows even greater excitement. In fact, we devote a whole season to anticipation. Advent, it’s called, after the Latin adventus, a word the Romans used to describe the “coming,” or “arrival,” of the emperor in a city. During the four weeks before Christmas, the Church anticipates our Lord’s “arrival.” Adventus translates the Greek parousia, the New Testament word for our Lord’s second coming (1 Thess. 5:23).
Quite obviously, Advent anticipates Christmas. Various traditions prepare for the joys of the holiday—the “hanging of the greens,” Advent wreaths, Christmas caroling, children’s programs. Parents love to watch the anticipation in their children’s faces while they decorate the Christmas tree.
Anticipation filled the heart of Mary, mother of our Lord, when she went to her cousin, Elizabeth, and sang: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name” (Luke 1:46–49 ESV).
Think of old Zechariah waiting for the birth of John, struck speechless because he did not believe the word of Gabriel, God’s messenger, and then, when the day came, the Holy Spirit prompted him to say, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:67ff.). Picture Simeon, to whom the Spirit had revealed that he would not die until “he had seen the Lord’s Christ,” now finally holding the Child for whom he had been waiting, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your Word, for my eyes have seen Your salvation” (Luke 2:26, 29–30).
Taking her cue from these saints, the Church in Advent anticipates and prepares for our Lord’s coming. Advent Gospels bring us Zechariah’s son, John, preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), just as Isaiah, the prophet, had anticipated, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (Mark 1:3).
There is much to be done preparing for a trip, just as we have much to do to prepare for Christmas. But the most important preparation for the “arrival” of the Lord is not accomplished by our efforts. The Holy Spirit, by God’s Word, works in our hearts the preparation called repentance.
The Spirit lifts up our eyes from everyday worries to see Jesus coming. “The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15) was Christ’s first message. To repent is to turn, to turn away from pursuing your selfish ways and turn to the Lord, your God, “for He comes to judge . . . the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness” (Ps. 96:13). By the power of the Holy Spirit, hear this Word of God’s prophet: “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Is. 45:22).
Advent repentance opens our hearts for the celebration of our Lord’s coming into the flesh. “I bring you Good News of a great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10) the angels will say. And we will sing, “Joy! Joy! For Christ is born, the Babe, the son of Mary” (LSB 370).
He Will Come Again
What happens, though, when the much-anticipated vacation is over? The tent is packed away, the fishing poles stowed. How long before we begin to anticipate next year? It’s the same with our observance of Christmas. Even as we put up the tree, anticipating the celebration, we know the day is coming, sooner than we might like, when we will take it down again. Is that all there is?
“No, not at all!” is the continuing message of Advent. The anticipation of Christmas is a picture of the Church’s faithful waiting for our Lord’s coming again. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven,” angels tell the disciples on the Mount of Ascension, “will come in the same way you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11), namely, openly, for all to see. Ever since, God’s people have been “on the lookout.” We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” all of which will take place when “He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed).
Oh, the astonishing anticipation that comes with Advent! A new heaven and a new earth “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13), where “they shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Is. 11:9). Our world may be in convulsion and turmoil, but that is only a sign, Jesus says, “that your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
The world will not end in a terrorist attack, nor in a political debacle (even if your party loses the election; it’s not the “end of the world”). High gas prices notwithstanding, the Church finds its comfort, its hope in the promises of God: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
The Church sings her Advent hope in Christ who is coming again:
The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings.
Hail! Christ the Lord! Your people pray:
Come quickly, King of kings!” (LSB 348)
With a wonderful combination of fear and joy we look ahead to watch for our Lord’s coming again. We know what it means for all who believe: “For the trumpet will sound [at the Lord’s ‘arrival’], and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Jesus’ coming, His advent, is our final victory: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:52–53, 57).
What about those who do not yet believe? Does not our Lord send us with His Word to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing . . . and teaching”? And where is He when we go? “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20). Our Lord sends us, but is always with us.
He Is with Us Now
That is why we also remember in Advent how our Lord comes now, comes in His Word, comes with His body and blood in the Supper, comes by His Spirit in the water with the Word in Baptism. One day our own eyes will see Him coming in glory on the clouds of heaven.
But today, right here and now, with the ears of faith we do “hear His coming,” hear His call to “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), hear His promise for ourselves, that though we were “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world,” now “in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12–13).
The Lord Himself comes in His Word to say into our ears, “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but My steadfast love shall not depart from you, and My covenant of peace shall not be removed” (Is. 54:10). And the same Lord now comes through us to tell others, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:6–7).
Celebrate, Trust, Desire
Do you see how Advent anticipates our Lord’s coming in all three ways? First, we celebrate His arrival because Jesus is God in our flesh come to die and rise for us. Second, trusting that our Lord is coming again in glory to take us home, we look ahead with hearts full of hope. But even now, our Lord comes to us in His Word and Sacrament, to comfort and strengthen us for the journey. In faith, we respond with the Church of all ages, Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20).