An Advent Story

Getting to light the Advent wreath during the service was always a highlight of the Christmas season. Advent was the only time when a candle saw the light of day in Monroe United Brethren Church, and it had four! (Well five when the big white one was placed in the middle of the Advent wreath.) I was the oldest in my family, so I got to carry the candle lighter down the aisle, a sibling on each flank, during the opening hymn to light the Advent wreath. There was always a lot of anxiety involved with the task. It was important to walk slowly, to hold the candle lighter steady, and most importantly to light the correct candles! I never got the privilege of lighting all the candles. Such tasks were reserved for the pastor’s children, but participating at all was a great honor for a young boy.

Not all the kids in the congregation were able to rise to the occasion. I remember one such time when a young comrade took up the task of lighting the Advent wreath, but mistakenly lit all the candles! It was only the third Sunday in Advent, so one candle was supposed to be left unlit. The whole congregation watched in horror as he preceded to light the fourth candle a week early, rendering it ruined and no longer white-wick new. The poor preacher was forced to execute a maneuver traditionally reserved for the theatre and magic shows; quickly licking his fingers, he pinched out the flame of the fourth candle, wincing in pain.

Of course, thinking back on it now, the horror we experienced that day was nothing compared to the horrors that the Israelite people experienced during their years of exile. The stories of exile still ring loudly in my ears, even to this day. Men thrown into a fiery furnace or a lions den because they refused to do things that were contrary to their convictions. And those men were lucky because they served in the court of the king. The stories of the everyday Israelites in exile will forever be lost to history.

And to think, the story of Advent is the story of those people. Waiting for their William Wallace, the person they called “the Messiah” to come and save them. The Messiah was a guy we didn’t talk much about in church. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to put everything together. The Messiah was the person that God promised would come to save the Jewish people. Their prophets talked about him, their poetry talked about him, they couldn’t get enough of him. He was supposed to be their liberator, just like Moses liberated them from their first exile in Egypt, but I learned there was more: The Messiah was also supposed to be a descended of the great Israelite king, David. The shepherd boy who killed Goliath and murdered his mistress’ husband. Israel’s prophets talked about how a new king would rise from the roots of the kings of old. That the Spirit of the Lord would be with him, and he would lead Israel back to the times when the promised land flowed with milk and honey.

I can remember learning about that too, the promised land flowing with milk and honey. VeggieTales even sang a song about it. But it wasn’t until I got older that I understood the blessings of the promised land were from God. Sure, the land was fertile, but God was the giver and the grower. His faithfulness to Israel brought them blessings, even when they didn’t deserve it. Eventually the milk and honey dried up, because Israel forgot God, but the promise of the Messiah was a reminder that God never forgot Israel. Some day he would rise up his Spirit endowed, son of David to rescue Israel.

Here we were, fussing over a candle, when we were supposed to be waiting like the Israelites. Waiting, like them, for the Messiah to come. As it turns out, that is the story of Advent. Like the Israelites in exile, we are supposed to be waiting for the Messiah to come.

And the Messiah did come, and we celebrate his arrive at Christmas. (I guess Christmas isn’t about Jesus’ birthday, but the birth of the Messiah–but that’s a different story!) But then the Messiah left, and after he left his followers began to realize that he didn’t do all the things that Israel’s prophets promised he would do. At first, this confused them, but then they began to put the pieces together. Jesus had left, but he was coming back. He was going to finish what he started when he returned. Advent then also became a waiting game. We, like the Israelites in exile, are waiting for the Messiah to come. We wait to celebrate the Messiah’s birth–Christmas–but we also wait for the Messiah to return.

Israel’s story has became our story. We–the people of the God, the followers of Jesus–are now the ones in exile. Held up in little communities all over the world, awaiting our king’s return. I’ll never forget that Sunday when the preacher pinched out the mistakenly lit Advent candle. It brings me great joy, but I’ve come to understand that the story of Advent is more than candles and wreathes and purple and blue. It’s not just a story, or a memory; its our story, and our living memory. We are exiles, refugees, awaiting the return of our king and savior.

Making Advent more than a Celebration

Advent is the season when we prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus. Just like expecting parents prepare for and anticipate the coming of a child, Christians get to prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus during Advent. And just like expecting parents—who buy baby clothes, stock pile diapers, decorate the nursery, update their health insurance policy, and believe it or not head off on a babymoon—there are things that we can physically do to prepare for Jesus’ birth and return too. Here is a list of simple ideas that can be adopted during Advent (December 2-24) to help our body, mind, and soul prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus.

1. Take the Advent wreath home this year.

One great way to prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus is to have a home Advent wreath. Home Advent wreaths are a great way for families, couples, or individuals to get into the preparation and anticipation mood during Advent. After dinner is a great time to light the Advent wreath and open an Advent devotional. This is a great way for the whole family to get involved in the preparation.

2. Pick up an Advent devotional that stirs your preparation and anticipation.

Devotional material compiled specifically for the Advent season is another great way for families, couples, or individuals to prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus. Even without an Advent wreath, devotionals are a great way to add something to life that causes pause and reflection. There are tones of great Advent devotionals out there. This year I’m working through Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. Other devotionals for the Advent season include Come, Let Us Adore Him: A Daily Advent Devotional by Paul David Tripp, Advent for Everyone: A Journey with the Apostles by N. T. Wright, and God Is in the Manger by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The local Christian bookstore will surly have many titles in addition to these from which to chose. Pick one up today!

3. Follow a specific Bible reading plan.

Some people prefer the good old Bible to devotional material. If that’s you, Advent is a great season to follow a specific Bible reading plan. This need not be complicated. This year the Revised Common Lectionary follows the Gospel of Luke as it recounts the life and work of Jesus. Why not read through the Gospel of Luke this Advent season? Other options are to read through a different book of your choosing, to follow the readings of the daily office (click here table of readings), or to follow a reading plan compiled by a variety of Bible apps on your phone/tablet.

4. Add discipline to your life.

We add things to our lives during Advent to help us disrupt our routine. Spiritual disciplines bring pause and (hopefully with enough work) reflection. They are a way to help us prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus this Advent season. You could practice some sort of fasting throughout the Advent season, take up journaling, prayer, or Christian mediation (intentional reflection upon scripture).

There are many ways that we can prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus this Advent season. The point is that we need to do something! It’s never to late to begin your preparation and anticipation of the birth and return of Jesus.