Advent – the four weeks prior to Christmas – is celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists, a large majority of the Body of Christ. Orthodoxy – another fifth of the Body – celebrates it as The Fast of Christmas. The season originated somewhere between the middle of the second century and the middle of the sixth. It focuses on two realities – active anticipation of celebrating the birth of Messiah–or Christ, the Son of God, and active anticipation of Messiah’s return as King. The name means “coming” or “anticipation,” and it operates through the scriptural lens of the life and ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus said of John that no greater prophet had ever arisen. Why is this important?
John’s ministry has three features that mark him as a kind of second coming of Elijah; and again, it is Jesus Himself who so identifies him. First, he recognizes Jesus as the incarnation of God Himself when the latter comes to him seeking baptism. He speaks as God speaks, identifying acts of compassion and mercy as the fruit of repentance and thus the road to authentic worship. Second, he treats Jesus as family; they are cousins after all. And when God comes among us this way, He expects to be treated as He treats us. This is what Richard Foster describes as real worship. And finally, he says that he must decrease as Messiah increases – in other words, he both humbles and empties himself before God, which is genuine worship. All this makes John a forerunner of Messiah – then and now.
Jesus Christ says mercy trumps sacrifice in one Bible passage, while obedience does the trumping in another. But He speaks of trumping the kinds of sacrifice that passes through ceremonial motions simply because it is that time of year. When we actually recognize Him in the services of Lessons and Carols, the lighting of special candles, and the absence of certain frills in our worship, we are led back to appreciate the spirit of John the Baptist. When we take it a step further and begin sharing our food with the hungry, carrying the packs of the needy, and visiting the sick and the lonely before going home to a warm place of rest, we begin to actively refocus on God – the essence of repentance – and pragmatically anticipate the return of the King.
The world is based on an economy of sacrifice, not survival of the fittest; and this should be as visible to people of no faith as to the most faithful Christians. The vestiges have survived the epochs since the accelerating Fall of Mankind. Astronomers know our planet is the fruit of the sacrifice of multitudes of stars that went nova over the billions of years since our universe has lived and kicked just the right amount of heavy and light elements into this sector of our galaxy, so that a rocky and watery planet is born to enable the human race to walk and talk with God. In the animal world, zoologists know that parents routinely sacrifice their lives for the sake of their children – as do most human parents. Every human body is born of the sacrifice of individual and living egg and sperm, and your white blood cells sacrifice themselves in a kamikaze attack on anything that breaks into your body. We reserve maximum admiration for the person who risks or gives his life for another. Jesus Himself came into the world to ignite restoration of this world as it was intended by its Creator.
Our generation of the Church, however we define ourselves, is clearly a John the Baptist generation. The dark signs Jesus identified as signaling His near return are wars and rumors of wars, men calling evil good and good evil, and hatred focused on those who name His name worldwide. Although no one can predict when or how soon He returns, we are clearly and factually in the last act of world history from that standpoint. As the numbers of miracles and decisions for Jesus escalate, we have to recall His apocalyptic prediction (John 14:12-14 and other places) that His return would be foretold in this way as well. Likewise, the prophetic witness is overwhelming that we need to become ready with every hour left to us – whether a week or centuries. And, as in John’s day, so the Church practices Jesus’ commands selectively and coldly.
Candles and carols are important if they light the season. But the spirit on John is crucial – now more than ever. The fruit of repentance is actively awaiting the Awakening in a season and lifestyle called Advent.
James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships and The Holy Spirit and the End Times – available at local bookstores or by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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