Christmas: Getting ready for Advent
By Matthew Roberts, 01 Dec 2016
Our children opened their Advent Calendars this morning for the first time this year. In our family, the arrival of advent is marked by nothing so much as an annual struggle to assemble, late at night on 30th November, a family heirloom advent calendar in the shape of a windmill with a bewildering array of cardboard slots and tags. It never takes less than two hours. But it’s worth it, because the kids love it, it’s a family tradition, and after all, Advent is all about getting ready for Christmas.
Except that it isn’t. Christmas is of course when Christians traditionally remember the glory of God’s eternal Son becoming man and coming to live with us. Advent is when Christians traditionally remember that God’s eternal Son in human flesh is coming back from heaven in the future. Now, traditions are optional for Christians, so if anyone would rather not celebrate Christmas and Advent at this certain time of year, I won’t argue. But if you’re going to do Christmas at all, you’d better not forget Advent. Because we don’t understand Christmas if we don’t realise that Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas, Christmas is about getting ready for Advent.
Advent means ‘coming’, and the point is that history will not be marked by God’s Son coming to earth once, but twice. The Old Testament usually speaks of both together: ‘The Day of the Lord’ as the prophets called it (e.g. Joel 2:30-32) was the day on which the God of Israel would come to earth, deliver judgment on all the wicked of the world, and save his faithful people. Even John the Baptist, immediately before Jesus, who in many ways is the last prophet of the Old Testament, thought that Jesus was coming to judge and save at the same time (e.g. Matthew 3:12).
But as soon as Jesus began his ministry we discover that what Joel and John the Baptist the other prophets foresaw as one day is in fact two. Jesus will indeed both judge and save; but the surprise (including to John himself, Matthew 11:3) was that he will do those things separately, on two different visits to earth. He will indeed come to judge, but he came the first time to save. There will be a time for condemnation; but he didn’t come into the world at Christmas to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). Saved from what? Jesus was perfectly clear (e.g. Mark 8:38): from the coming day of judgment, the day when Christ will return to bring all rebellion against God to an end, when he will bring a perfect restoration of righteousness to the world, which requires (as it obviously must if we think clearly about it) just punishment on all of the evildoers of the world. There can be no peace if evil has not been punished. The Kingdom of God which Jesus came to bring is about the restoration of God's righteous rule over a rebellious world. That restoration will require judgment.
Which is why he had to come first to save. Because when we realise what judgment must entail – that rebellion against God will end in the way that rebellion against the totally good, and totally just and totally sovereign God must end – then we realise that if we faced it alone we would have no hope. If God had come to visit Earth only once, we would all have been among those he quite rightly condemned.
So God’s Word became flesh. He became one of us, and came to his own and lived among us. He came to offer his human flesh as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of all those who would come to him. He came in order to prepare those he calls ‘his sheep’ for his second coming; to cleanse them with his blood, provide forgiveness for their sins, take away God’s righteous wrath, call them to himself by the witness of his apostles and the work of the Holy Spirit. So that when he returns to judge there will be a great multitude who stand before his throne of judgment not clothed in their own, filthy clothes but in his pure, spotless ones. Who will be sheltered from the wrath of the lamb by the lamb’s own blood (Revelation 5:9-10; 6:15-17).
I don’t know whose idea it was to spend several weeks before Christmas remembering not that first ‘advent’ of Jesus but his future, second one. But whoever it was understood this point well. Get Advent in our heads and we’ll get Christmas when it arrives. We don’t understand Christmas at all if we don’t realise that it is about the first coming out of two. That second is not here yet; Jesus came that first time to get us ready for it. So that when he comes back from heaven to judge the world and establish his kingdom, we will face him not as his enemies, but as his delighted servants, his friends and his brothers and sisters.