As a kid I grew up with an Advent calendar. There are several varieties, but most have a door or flap that is opened or removed as you count down the days to Christmas. I can remember the excitement building each day as me or my sister got to open the next door that revealed part of the nativity scene. The anticipation grew and grew until that Christmas morning when the final door was opened to reveal a baby laid in a manger.
Growing up in a non-denominational brotherhood of churches, my knowledge of Advent never spread beyond that calendar. I had friends at school that talked about Advent, but I chalked it up to some mysterious practice that many followed but few understood, and would proudly think to myself, 'I am glad that my church is above these silly traditions.'
Now I serve at a church that has a history that precedes the Restoration Movement by nearly 100 years, and one of their traditions is lighting a candle on an Advent wreath every Sunday leading up to Christmas. Immediately upon hearing this tradition my 'churchianity' detector kicked into overdrive as I sought out how to best handle this 'denominational' tradition. (Even I amaze myself at my overly pious pride), but as I researched this tradition I found some surprisingly Biblical insights.
The roots of this tradition are found in the meaning of the word 'advent'. It is based on the Latin for 'coming'. The leaders of the 5th-6th century church wanted to tie together the parallels between the Old Testament Jews waiting for the coming of the Messiah and the modern Church waiting for His second-coming. The time of year where we celebrate His first 'advent' seemed an appropriate time for this teaching. Over the centuries many more traditions became attached, some good, some not so good, but I think it is good to think about four 'advents' as we approach Christmas.
1. The First Advent of Jesus- His birth in a manger to a virgin mother is a miraculous fulfillment of prophecy (Is. 7:14). But that birth would mean nothing apart from His death, burial and resurrection. This is a great time of year to remember, and be thankful for the greatest gift ever given to us: Grace. And let us remember that grace is free, but not cheap. It required the life of Jesus and demands the life of His followers.
2. The Advent of the Holy Spirit- One of the great promises Jesus gave His followers is that He would not leave them alone, but that He would leave them a helper, companion and counselor: the Holy Spirit (for more read John 14 and John 16). The prophets spoke of a day when God would place His Spirit inside men (see Ezekiel 36:25-27 and Joel 2:28-32) and the coming, or advent, of that is found in Acts 2 when Peter and the rest of the apostles experience God's Holy Spirit and preach the first gospel sermon. It is in this sermon that we are told how we can enjoy the benefits of this 'advent', "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (emphasis mine). The days the prophets long for are here and now. We enjoy the fulfillment of promises that were eagerly waited upon for centuries!
3. The Advent of the Church- Not only did God provide His Spirit to comfort and guide, but He established a Divine Institution to encourage and disciple us to maturity. This institution is the Church. The Church, after Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is perhaps God's greatest gift to man. In her we find community, fellowship, love and opportunities to make a difference. Within the Church we are instructed with the Word of God so that we may carry out the Will of God. I am not saying that every congregation is perfect, but I have had the privilege of serving and seeing congregations that truly seek out God's plan and purpose for them. Yes, we could sit around and swap horror stories of congregation that have abused God's grace, but I prefer to focus on the positive and strive to lift up the bride of Christ as a vehicle through which the Gospel is presented. If you aren't a member of a local congregation, than you are missing out on some great opportunities to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ!
4. The Second Advent of Jesus- Just as the Messiah was promised to come to the Jews, He has promised to return for His Bride, the Church. We can count on this second coming because God has established a track record of keeping His promises. The imminent nature of this second Advent should spur us on to evangelism. As the old hymn says, "There are souls to rescue, there are souls to save. Send the Light! Send the Light!" The Church was not established to give us Spiritual food so we can be fat and happy and content. We are to feed, and then give that food to others! God has sent us as servants so that His table might be full (see Luke 14:15-24). As laborers, we look forward to the rest this coming will bring, but as faithful stewards of the Gospel, we work to make sure that every person has an opportunity to accept the invitation of God!
What I have discovered is that this Christmas season, known as Advent by our denominational friends, should serve as a reminder that God has called us to a great adventure of serving, evangelizing and building for His Kingdom. There are preparations to be made and souls to be saved. But, there is also joyful anticipation as we wait for God to open that final door as He calls His children home to be with Him for eternity. Please keep this in mind as you enjoy this holiday season.