I need Advent. I’m not sure I always want it. But I need it.
I need Advent because waiting has always been difficult for me. I struggle to delay gratification. And persisting in watching and waiting is a challenge. If I was preaching, I’d ask if any of you could relate.
Waiting is hard, maybe especially so in contemporary American culture. We don’t do waiting very well. In fact, we often take having to wait as a personal offense or insult.
But Advent is most fundamentally about waiting, even in the midst of a parallel season of hurrying, scurrying, and general business.
In Advent, we wait with hope and expectation.
We wait for Jesus, the Messiah. Advent is not primarily about waiting for the baby Jesus to be born in a manger. That has already happened.
In Advent we are waiting for the return of Jesus the Christ, the coming King. In Advent, we anticipate the return of Christ. Advent is about the future, the end, the “Christ shall come again in final victory” part of our faith. And so in Advent, we practice waiting. We remind ourselves that Jesus is coming back and that we don’t know the day or the hour when he will return. It might even be before Santa reappears.
This Advent I’ve been both captivated and haunted by the parable of the ten young bridesmaids in Matthew 25 and its contrast of ways of waiting.
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.
When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, “Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.”
Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, “Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.”
But the wise bridesmaids replied, “No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.
Later the other bridesmaids came and said, “Lord, lord, open the door for us.”
But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour. – Matthew 25:1-13, CEB
In this story, we want to be like the wise bridesmaids and not the foolish ones. In my initial reading of the story, I focused on the part where the bridesmaids become drowsy and go to sleep. But then I realized that the text says that they all, the wise and foolish, fell asleep. Falling asleep wasn’t the problem. It was that when they awoke with the news of the groom’s arrival, some of them were not prepared. Both waited, but some were proactive and some were not.
So, how can we wait expectantly? Given that we cannot predict when Jesus will return, how can we be prepared for his arrival, even though it will come when we don’t expect it?
The answer is actually unsurprising and largely predictable. We prepare ourselves for Christ’s return by practicing now the kind of life we will live forever when he does return.
For Wesleyans, this is grounded in the means of grace, both works of piety and mercy. We prepare by searching Scripture, praying, worshiping, fasting, watching over one another in love, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are in distress.
At our best, these practices help us keep watch for the return of Jesus, the one who will finally and completely make all things new and right. Preparing for the return of Christ is not at all the same thing as making his coming redundant. Only Jesus saves. But he graciously enables us to prepare and to participate in the work that he will bring to final completion.
Waiting is hard. I suspect many of us are tempted to either wait passively, like the foolish bridesmaids, or to take over and attempt to save ourselves by our own effort. Advent challenges both our complacency and our self-sufficiency.
As I seek to actively wait for Christ’s return, I am noticing two things. First, I am finding a deep yearning for Christ to come back. All is not well, not even close. I yearn for my Jesus to set things to rights. Second, I am asked, “Am I ready to greet Jesus when he returns?” This question pierces through both frenetic action and subtle idolatries.
By the work of the Holy Spirit, our souls are gently drawn forth to sing the beautiful words, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
May we wait expectantly and be found as those who are ready!