[For Advent: updated from the archives.]
Christmas carols. They’re all over. From the radio to shopping malls and even in churches. Yes, I said even in churches. We sing about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, angels proclaiming and shepherds watching and a manger holding the God of Creation in its straw; we celebrate our Savior’s birth, the miracle of God with us, what theologians call the incarnation. But I like to look on this time of year – the weeks leading up to Christmas Day – as a time to anticipate his coming, not yet celebrating it as happening. So when it comes to songs of the season, one that helps me live in that anticipation is Charles Wesley’s Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Release from our fears and sins, finding our rest in him, dear desire, and the joy of longing hearts. Those who know Jesus know what it means to wait for and want these things. But even before his birth there were those who lived in the anticipation of his coming, people who knew prophecies such as this:
“I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:7, one of the bases for Wesley’s hymn.)
Here are a few people from Scripture that I’d like to focus on: one not yet aware that she will be giving birth, one not yet born, and a pair of people whose years had been dedicated to nothing less than looking forward to the fulfillment of their hearts’ desires.
The angel tells Mary, who’s under contract to marry Joseph, that she’s going to have a baby. Not just any baby, but the Messiah who will fulfill all prophecies, the “Son of the Most High” who will “sit on the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:32.) Mary explains that she’s never had sex (as if God didn’t know!). The angel announces that God will take care of it. Mary responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38.)
Did you catch that? Mary says she now desires the fulfillment of God’s word, even if it means being pregnant, a pregnancy that could very well lead to divorce, shame, becoming an outcast among her people. She looked forward to God’s fulfillment of his promise, the Messiah, despite these possibilities. She knows that God will take care of everything, even though she may not understand how, and she looks forward to the fulfillment of his promise to her and to his people. She anticipates his goodness being fulfilled.
I want to live in constant anticipation of God’s goodness being fulfilled.
Mary hurried to her older cousin, Elizabeth, to tell her the news. The interesting thing is that before Mary had a chance to explain anything, Elizabeth already knew something was up.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:41-45.)
John (the Baptizer, not the Apostle) leaped for joy. In the womb! Now that’s anticipation.
I wonder sometimes why I do not have that same sense of urgent anticipation about Jesus.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. (Luke 2:25-26.)
Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple and God brings Simeon to the young family. Simeon is almost overcome with the fulfillment of his heart’s desire:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32.)
This is serious anticipation: “waiting for the consolation of Israel”, “would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”, “you may now dismiss your servant in peace”.
I want to know that type of satisfaction that comes from faithfully waiting for my Savior.
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38.)
Anna had been waiting a long time, wanting nothing more than to be in God’s temple as she waited for the Messiah. Do you see what she did? She gave thanks to God, which is something we could have guessed would happen. But Anna knew there were others like her, other people who had been waiting and wanting, and she let them in on the good news, speaking “about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She was eighty-four years old and still active in her ministry as God’s prophet.
Will I spend the rest of my days, even if they are long and I live to eighty-four or beyond, telling people that God’s redemption is at hand? That is anticipation worth living out.
Song of Anticipation
So here’s a song I don’t mind singing in the weeks approaching Christmas:
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
Most people sing it as a Christmas carol of Jesus’ coming, but I sing it as a reminder that we also still await our Savior. After all, this song was written not about the Messiah’s birth but about his return as prophesied in Psalm 98. I like to sing it at Christmas because it reminds me as we celebrate our Savior’s birth – the miracle of incarnation, God with us in the flesh – that we still wait and want, that we still anticipate his return, and when he does return all heaven and nature will “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” (Psalm 98:1.)
What does Advent mean for you?