First Sunday in Advent

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. (Isa 64:1-3)

If we’re ever going to practice what some Pietists have called “active expectation,” it’s going to be in the season of Advent: when Christians wait together in gathering darkness, remembering Jesus’ first coming in order to anticipate his second. If we can’t be people of hope now, with texts like Isaiah 64 ringing in our ears, we’re never going to be such people.

But I wonder if we aren’t waiting for the wrong kind of advent, if we’re not repeating a historical pattern…

Even the most faithful Jews of the 1st century — those trained by centuries of study, prayer, and worship to recognize the long-awaited coming of their savior — entirely missed his nativity. Thirty years later they were startled to find Messiah already in their midst.

Isaiah’s signs had been there, but not in forms that most would notice. Fire had kindled brushwood — not sweeping waves of flame scorching a dry earth, but poor shepherds trying their best to keep warm as they kept watch. Fire had caused water to boil — not in the form of roiling oceans, but in the gently bubbling pot of a poor family with a new mouth to feed.

Bloemaert, "The announcement to the shepherds"
Abraham Bloemaert, “The Announcement to the Shepherds” (ca. 1600) – Wikimedia

To be sure, the heavens had torn apart to give those shepherds a brief, bewildering burst of angelic song. “Glory to the newborn king,” one famous paraphrase later put it. But “mild” that king would “lay his glory by”: for that newborn grew into an adult who truly “did awesome deeds that we did not expect” —  none more awesome than making “his name known to [his] adversaries” by letting them murder him.

The signs of our king’s return may already be here. But waiting to “see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26), might we miss the unexpected ways that he comes to us already?

This Advent, may you keep awake to Christ’s coming. May you learn the lesson Jesus taught from the fig tree: “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28). Look for the subtle signs of growth and tenderness, and you might be ready to greet Jesus in his great power and glory.

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