Today we start a new series called “The Cast of Christmas.” During this series we’ll experience the anticipation of the prophets, the joyful proclamation by the angels, the journey of the shepherds and wise men to honor him, all as we prepare and celebrate Christmas.
Advent is the four weeks before Christmas, set aside as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The term advent is a Latin word that means “coming.”
But Advent is not just an extension of Christmas, it is a season that links the past, present and future. Advent offers us the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, to celebrate His birth, and to be alert for His second coming.
So no matter what the department stores try to tell us, Christmas has not yet arrived. There is value as well as excitement in patient, expectant waiting.
Now in saying that, you do officially have twenty-five days of shopping until Christmas. Don’t worry if you’re a busy person and that very thought ramps up your anxiety, because today we have such conveniences where we can shop any time of the day or night by just the click of a few buttons and then just wait for the packages to arrive on our doorsteps. UPS, FedEx, they’ll take care of it for you; all you have to do is wait.
If you have friends or family who just love waiting for packages, I’ve got a great gift idea you can give them. It’s called gift-of-the-month club. That right, there are clubs you can buy a membership from so that every month for an entire year your loved one will get a gift delivered to them. For about $50 per month, you can sign your loved one up for the bacon-of-the-month club where he or she will receive two one-pound selections of artisan bacon every month. There are chocolate clubs, coffee clubs, meat, cheeses, fruit, flowers and even a pizza club. There’s a pickle-of-the-month club and even a PB-and-J-of-the-month club. Just think of all the expectation you can give for Christmas as your parents or children check every day to see if their gourmet peanut butter and jelly has arrived in the mail.
A number of years ago, you may have heard the story of a man named Charles McKinley and his attempt at another approach to expectation by mail—which I highly do not recommend. He decided to ship, not just any package, but himself in a crate from his home in New York to his parents’ home in Dallas, TX. Somehow, he actually made it to Dallas, TX, but the final deliveryman saw Mr. McKinley through a crack in the crate and called the police. Unfortunately, he was arrested for an unrelated and outstanding warrant.
Christmas is certainly a time of waiting and expectation. And as we prepare and wait, it occurs to me that the vast majority of our lives is filled with waiting and preparation while only a fraction is filled with actual experience, celebration, and doing stuff. Consider the Thanksgiving meal many of us recently enjoyed. How long did it take to prepare it? Hours, days. How long did it take to eat it? 20 minutes.
Often when we think we’re doing stuff, we’re actually just preparing and waiting for the next thing. Take camping for example. When you tent camp, you prepare the tent making sure you have all the poles, all the meals you’ll need, all the bed clothes you’ll need, all the games to entertain the family, all the things you’ll need in case it rains, the first aid kit in case someone gets hurt or gets poison ivy. You arrive at the campsite, you decide where you’ll put up the tent, you prepare that space, you put up the tent, prepare the beds to sleep in, prepare the table and meal necessities, wait till it’s meal time, cook a meal, clean up, wait…..prepare all the meal necessities again, prepare the meal, wait…..prepare the fire…before you know it, it’s dark and you’re not only exhausted, but you’ve only prepared and waited all day. But that’s camping. It feels like you are constantly doing something, only to prepare and wait for the next thing.
If we stop to think about it, we really shouldn’t be surprised that life is filled with so much more preparation and waiting than actual doing, because in some ways, preparation is the doing. In fact, preparation is often the point. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that our short time on earth is more about preparation for eternity in heaven than what we accomplish or do here on this earth. In fact, the best use of our time on earth is to prepare our hearts to become more like Jesus and to help other people get prepared to meet Jesus in heaven.
The primary point of the Old Testament is preparation for one moment. It starts in the very beginning of Genesis. The first announcement of the Gospel takes place directly after Adam and Eve fell into sin. God declared to the serpent in Genesis 3:15: “And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
The work the serpent began that was expressed through Adam and Eve’s conscious choice to sin, would one day be crushed through the arrival of her offspring. That offspring, of course, is the very One whom Christmas points to and celebrates. From the moment of the very first sin, the entire Old Testament prepares and points us to the great moment when our Savior and Messiah came to save us from the curse of sin. The law and all the temple sacrifices show our need for a Savior. The slavery and sorrow of the Israelites point to the bondage we all face before we acknowledge His arrival.
All the prophets of the Old Testament looked and longed for His coming. Prophets were chosen people who God spoke to and sent to His people in order to prepare the people to turn back to God.
In fact, 700 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Micah was inspired by God to look forward to Jesus’ birth. In Micah 5:2, he wrote, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah (Eph-ra-thah), though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me, one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Isaiah, another prophet, predicted a ton about Jesus’ birth trying to give hope and understanding of God’s promise. He prophesied that the way through the wilderness will be prepared by one – John the Baptist…
Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken!”
That Jesus would come from the line of Jesse…
Out of the stump of the line of Jesse will grow a shoot—yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root. And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
That He would be born of a virgin…
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Meaning God with us.
And probably the most famous prediction…
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen!
The one whom Micah and Isaiah wrote about has more than one hundred different names in the Bible. He’s called the Alpha and the Omega, the Word of Life, the Bright Morning Star, the Light of the World, I Am, the Ancient of Days, Jesus. And when Jesus arrived, He came humbly, quietly, in a small and forgotten town that didn’t even have a proper room for His arrival. But let’s not allow the circumstances God chose to fulfill these prophecies confuse what child this is. He is the Ancient One, the Creator, the Author and Giver of Life, the Word of God. For hundreds of years, the Israelites and the prophets looked to Him and waited for His rescue. And there are many other prophesies of Jesus’ live, death, resurrection, and the throne he sits on now.
Advent is the perfect time for us to wait and prepare. As the prophets waited for Jesus’ arrival, we wait and prepare for His Second Coming. In some ways we know what Micah, Isaiah, Daniel, and so many who looked for Jesus went through. Like them, we know Jesus is coming again, yet we don’t know when. Like them, we need to prepare our hearts to receive and grow in Him now as we anticipate the day when we will meet Him face-to-face. Look, we’ve all heard talk about this time we are in being the Last Days. I am not preaching that by any means, as we do not know for sure when that will be. Jesus doesn’t even know when that will be. But you can be certain that we all are in our own Last Days. We will soon either witness His arrival, or we will soon meet Him at the end of our own lives. Either way, we must be prepared! So let’s talk about getting prepared.
Preparation Begins with Repentance
You might say that John the Baptist was the last prophet who had to wait for Jesus’s first arrival. He shows us how to prepare our hearts for Jesus in our lives now and how to prepare our hearts for Jesus’s return. In Matthew 3:2, John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In verse 8, John says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In verse 11, he declares, “I baptize you with water for repentance.”
Repentance in its simplest definition means “to turn.” So, John isn’t calling out, “You all better start feeling really guilty for all the things you’ve done.” He’s not saying, “I want you to feel really bad.” Understand that repentance certainly can begin with feeling really bad. But what John is saying is, “Change your approach. Reconsider how you think about things, and begin to think and act differently.”
In the same way, Advent gives us an opportunity to consider our approach and make a change. Is this Christmas going to be like all the rest? Rushed? Stressful? Overwhelming? Or will we take our cue from the prophets of old who were waiting and preparing for His arrival? Will we allow this season to be one of reflection, adoration, and repentance? There is no better way to Jesus than on a broken road with humility, understanding of our need, and repentance.
Psalm 51:17 says:
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
Despite the vast array of Old Testament prophecies describing the birth, life, death, and purpose of the Messiah, there was at least one idea that caused the vast majority of the religious leaders to miss the gift when it came. Strangely enough, they didn’t really understand the significance of original sin.
We know that regulations were incredibly important to them. Avoiding sin was the most important. But redemption for sin was nearly ignored. When they looked for salvation, they weren’t really thinking about their need for salvation from sin. Instead, they were looking for salvation from the Roman rule, the oppressive, foreign government. They believed the Messiah would come in like a knight on a white horse and save them from the Roman oppression. Their mistaken belief about the mission of the Messiah, became their biggest reason to convict Him.
Let’s not make the same mistake. Let’s remember that we are in desperate need. Although our feelings may tell us otherwise, it’s not the need for a way to pay all our Christmas bills. We’re not so desperate for a way to get everything done that needs to be accomplished before Christmas. We are desperate for a Savior who will cleanse us from our sin once and for all. We are in need of the Messiah who came to die for what we have done and how we have failed.
Preparation Increases with Expectation
When the Chinese were getting ready to host the 2008 Olympics, they had the vision and expectation to show the entire world that they had become a world power. In 2001, the International Olympic Committee announced China would host the games. And preparation began immediately. By 2007, China had built a new National Stadium, a new National Swimming Center, a new shooting range, a new cycling velodrome, a new National Tennis Center, and a new National Hockey Stadium.
China used more than fifteen thousand performers for the opening ceremonies. Of those performers, 2,200 had a small part in demonstrating martial arts. That group lived and prepared together in an army camp for three solid months, and they practiced for sixteen hours every day. Many of the performers were given diapers to wear during rehearsals so they didn’t have to take breaks. One rehearsal lasted fifty-one hours straight during a rainstorm.
There is much to be said about China’s human rights record, but I have to admit that they delivered during the opening ceremony. They had huge expectations, they made tremendous preparations, and they delivered amazing results.
Have you ever considered how you would prepare for work or school if you expected Jesus to be sitting there when you arrived? How would you prepare for church if you knew that God Almighty was going to show up and meet you when you got here? How would you spend your time getting ready in the morning if you knew the Holy Spirit was just waiting to tell you something amazing as soon as you were ready to listen? If you knew you were living in the Last Days, would you do things differently? If we had such expectations, surely it would affect our preparations for each season and even each day.
Actually, Jesus will indeed be at work and school when you arrive this week. God is always ready to meet you as you reach out to meet Him. God’s Word is alive and active, and God is willing to speak to you if you’re willing to read and listen. We can be certain that all of us are in our own individual Last Days regardless of how long it takes for Jesus to return. Perhaps knowing that Emmanuel is here with us now, was here with us yesterday, and will be here with us tomorrow should change the way we prepare for Christmas, for work, for school, church, and even this afternoon.
Preparation Brings Fruit
There is one test that demonstrates whether or not we or anyone has repented: our behaviors change. If a person commits a sin against you, apologizes, and then does the same thing again, has she really repented? We are not talking about forgiveness here. We’re talking about repentance.
Now I’m sure your friend who apologized felt truly sorry. I’m sure she intended not to continue in that sin. However, the fruit of her life shows whether or not she’s had a change of heart. In the same way, the fruit of our lives shows our preparation through repentance. Sometimes the change is incremental, and it takes time until it’s complete. But if you aren’t walking away from the sin, you haven’t repented of that sin. You haven’t turned away from it.
I think the difference between feeling sorry and repenting is found in understanding how ugly and damaging the sin really is. We’re sorry, but the need the sin meets, the draw the sin has on our life, or the habit we’ve built is stronger than our disgust of the sin. That’s why people often have to hit rock bottom before they can turn around. We have to see the real impact and ugliness of the sin. Its ugliness has to become great enough for us to say, “I’ll do whatever it takes to never go there again. Lord God, please help me and show me where I can go and what I can do to turn my back on it and to be free of it.”
And our sincerity is proven in the way we live, the help we seek, the prayers we offer, and the choices we make.
Do you want to know if you’re preparing for Christ’s arrival? Do you want proof that you are getting ready for Advent, for the second coming? Then just answer this question with an honest heart: “Is my life bearing fruit?” That’s not the test for whether or not you’ll be saved. The test for your salvation is found in Romans 10:9.
“If you declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
“Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
We take God at His Word. The test for a heart that is active in its preparation to meet Jesus is the test of whether or not we see evidence of fruit in our lives.
There are all sorts of varieties of spiritual fruit: increased service, a closer relationship with God, a greater ability to encourage or care for others, a stronger family life, victory over sin, greater peace, deeper love. Think of your life three or four Christmases ago. Do you have more fruit in your life now? If so, keep going. You’re getting ready. You are effectively preparing.
If not, it’s not too late to start bearing fruit. Repent of complacency, or anything else holding you back. Draw near to Him with anticipation, and look for ways to fruitfully live out your faith. Christmas is coming. The Second Advent is coming. In our expectation, let’s get prepared.
The promise Malachi and all the other prophets clung to was that they would be rescued. It’s so important that we remember our preparation is not our salvation nor is it our rescue. Rather, our preparation is our response to what Jesus has already done for us and in us.
In 2013, the movie Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks was based on the true story of how Somali pirates seized a cargo ship piloted by Captain Phillips. Through a series of events the captain convinces his captors to let his crew go while he and the pirates leave the cargo ship together on the lifeboat. The pirates then promptly make a beeline with the lifeboat for Somalia, looking to cash in on the captive captain. One of the best moments in the film—and the moment that had to be one of the best moments of the real Captain Phillips’s life—is when out of the darkness the horns of the USS Bainbridge thunder through the sea and floodlights illuminate the ocean and the lifeboat. You can see the relief wash over Captain Phillips’s face.
The USS Bainbridge is one of forty-six guided missile destroyers in the US Navy with massive guns and missile capabilities to destroy more than one hundred targets simultaneously. When the Bainbridge comes to the rescue, you know the pirates are in trouble and that a real hope has finally arrived. And watching the film I thought, “I don’t ever want to be on the wrong side of a fight with the US Navy.”
One thing I hope we understand about Christmas when we see a nativity scene, or sing the sweet song “Away in a Manger” is that Christmas was a rescue mission. And the One who came to our rescue wasn’t some outgunned, outclassed, or hopeless underdog. The One who came to our rescue was Emmanuel—God with us—who had the power and authority to call down all of the angels of heaven for His purposes and desires. The Ancient One humbled Himself to become fully man because we were the hostages being held captive by sin. Christmas was the beginning of a rescue mission that was conceived and carried out on our behalf by none other than God Himself.
So, this Advent I am not expecting and preparing to be stressed out and overwhelmed. I am not expecting things to fall apart. I am not preparing to be defeated.
- I am waiting expectantly for God to come through for you and for me, and for Jesus to be revealed in our lives.
- I am waiting expectantly, knowing that He is preparing me for heaven and chiseling away at the hardness of my heart.
- I am waiting expectantly for the plans He has for me, for you, and for this church.
- I am waiting expectantly for His love to be made known to a hurting and dying world through you, through me, and through His church.
- I am waiting expectantly for His kingdom to advance, and for Jesus to return and to claim His bride.
Emmanuel. God with us. God has come. He is already here. We have already been rescued. Because the rescue is complete, our best response is to prepare with great expectation realizing all that Jesus has accomplished, and being ready to see Him at the Second Advent.
Father, we thank You for sending Your Son to rescue us from our sin. In response and in preparation for our home in Heaven, we pray the prayer of David from Psalm 139:23–24 “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In Jesus’s name we pray, amen.