“When do we get to sing Christmas carols?”
It is a question that church members usually start asking somewhere around this time of year. And for good reason! The opportunity to sing the beloved carols of the season is an annual highlight for many people. Every year we look forward to plugging in the Christmas tree lights and singing Silent Night or O Little Town of Bethlehem. There is an emotional and spiritual release that comes when, after another year of struggles, we can return to the innocence of a baby in a manger through those familiar melodies we have sung since childhood.
But here lies one of the great pastoral challenges this season poses. Despite what the retailers say it is not Christmas yet. It is still Advent, and part of my job is to hold people just long enough in that uncomfortable place of waiting for one to give way to the other. That may seem like a strange thing for Baptists like us who have generally not paid much attention to the liturgical calendar, but when you consider the meaning behind the observance of Advent you can begin to see why it matters. Advent is about waiting.
For starters, Advent points us back in time to when the long awaited Messiah finally came. The prophets had long foretold of this One who would redeem his people. Jesus’ birth was no accident or coincidence; it was the fulfillment of a promise God had made long, long ago. But that fulfillment did not happen quickly. For centuries the people had waited and waited and waited. In fact, by the time Jesus was born there had not been any prophetic word spoken in over 300 years. That means that generation after generation had come and gone with nothing but the remembrance of some promise about which their grandparents told them. Something about an Anointed One who would save his people from their enemies ? though no one could be sure exactly what that meant or how they would know him when he came. (Which explains why so many people had a hard time recognizing Jesus for who we was when he did finally arrive.)
But Advent is not just about remembering what happened long ago; it is about anticipating what is still yet to come. The baby who was born in a manger long ago will one day return as King to declare victory and final triumph. Christ’s first coming points us to his second coming. The challenge, of course, is that the second Advent has been delayed even longer than the first. Over two millennia have passed and still no “Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13:26).” In fact, so much time has passed that many have given up looking for Him all together. Talk of the second coming seems almost like an embarrassment to folks who like their religion served up respectably and reasonably.
Here, then, is why it is good for the worshipping church to slow down the rush to the manger. We don’t break out the Christmas carols on December 1 because we need to remember what it means to wait. We are programmed to think that anything worth having should be had instantly. A recent smart phone commercial brags of how fast it is by saying of its competitor, “That’s so 27 seconds ago!” If 27 seconds feels like a long time to wait for the latest sports scores to upload, then we don’t stand much of chance at remaining focused on anything for over 2000 years.
There is an art to waiting. We need to recognize that while we are zipping through life with our instant technology most of the world finds itself waiting on something tonight ? waiting for the wound to heal or for the word of forgiveness to be spoken or for the war to end or for justice to roll down like waters or even for just a simple piece of bread to fill their empty stomachs. They are waiting because that is all they can do. The thing they most need is out there, still to come, and they can’t do a thing to speed its arrival. So before we switch on our seasonal autopilot and sing Away In A Manger or about how It Came Upon a Midnight Clear we need to sit for a while with something like the haunting prayer of O Come O Come Emmanuel. We need to wrestle for just a little while with the uncomfortable tension of looking forward to something with great anticipation while being forced to wait on it to get here. Only then will we truly appreciate the meaning of it when we hold Him in our arms.
The good news is that we won’t have to wait for too long. The second coming may have been delayed for a couple of millennia, but by this Sunday ? the fourth in our Advent journey ? we will already be leaning fully into Christmas, complete with some of those tender carols that mean so much to us. My hope is that because we have held back for a few weeks the emotional and spiritual release will be even sweeter and truer.
Then we can sing with full-throated gusto “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king!
Praying for a Blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas,