From Longing to Rejoicing: Devotional Readings for Advent & Christmastide

Updated 2/28/2017: After some beta testing, I’ve slightly revised this devotional plan to make some of the readings shorter and more suitable for reading in a single sitting.

Twelve days from now, Christians around the world will begin taking the the four weeks leading up to Christmas to observe the season of Advent. The name “advent” comes from the Latin word for “coming” (adventus). Advent is thus traditionally a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, both as a re-enactment of the expectation of believers in the Old Testament and as an expression of our continued longing for Christ’s second and final coming.

I really love both the anticipation of Advent and the celebration of Christmastide. This year, I’ve designed a new Bible reading plan to guide our family’s observance of this special time of the year. We’ll walk through the grand gospel story of how God prepared the way for the coming of his Son, from the promises to the patriarchs to the deliverance of Israel to the visions of the prophets, culminating in the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. Along the way we’ll be infusing the New Testament descriptions of Christ as Lion and Lamb, Prophet and Priest, Son of David and Seed of Abraham, with the richness of their original Old Testament significance.

If you’re familiar with the Jesse Tree, this is basically the same idea. The key difference is that I’ve planned these readings to reflect the historic distinction between Advent and Christmastide. As I’ve already mentioned, Advent is traditionally a advent-1430862time of preparation, while Christmas is a time of celebration. But this doesn’t mean that we need to cram the whole party into December 25. Christmas Day is actually just the beginning of the season of Christmastide, which runs for a full twelve days (yes, that’s where the song comes from) leading up to the feast of Epiphany on January 6, which is usually associated with the visit of the Wise Men. (In some cultures, Epiphany is known as “Three Kings’ Day.”)

Advent is about longing; Christmastide is about fulfillment. During Advent, our family chants, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” every evening when we light our advent wreath. In Christmastide, we give each other gifts and sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”

I find this distinction really helpful for keeping my focus on Christ during the holiday season. While all the world around is caught up in a frenzy of sentimentality leading up to a big crash on December 26,  we get to experience the rising anticipation of Advent culminating in a full twelve days of feasting to savor and celebrate the good news that the Promised One has finally come to save us and reconcile us to God.

In this new Bible reading plan, the weekdays of Advent are spent tracing the high points of the Old Testament story, while the Sundays highlight visions of the final coming of Christ. Then we spend Christmastide soaking in the first few chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John. Because Advent begins on the fourth Sunday preceding Christmas, it varies in length from 22 to 28 days, so I’ve designed this plan to be able to expand and contract by including several optional readings. As it happens, this year we get the longest possible Advent, so we’ll get to do all 28 readings!

In my last post, I noted the importance of gaining an understanding of the main storyline of the Bible. This reading plan can be one way of building and reinforcing that foundational perspective on the overarching message of Scripture. That’s a big part of why I’m looking forward to leading my family through these readings year after year. Because the Bible is God’s word, I take seriously my calling to feed my kids on it directly every day. We read a chapter of the Bible together every evening after dinner; if we keep it up, each of our kids will have been through the whole Bible three or four times before they leave the house. But, while I love getting my kids into direct contact with all of Scripture, I don’t want them to lose the forest for the trees. Taking a break every year to review the big picture should help us all keep our bearings as we dig into God’s word together.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, you are more than welcome. You can use this plan for either family or personal devotions, and you can even use it at other times of the year if you’re so inclined. If you’re interested in checking it out and giving it a try (or using it as a springboard for creating your own plan), you can download it here.

I hope and pray that reading these passages builds your anticipation of Christ’s coming and joy in the good news that the Lord has come. Let every heart prepare him room!

Image credit: Veronica Moore, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/advent-1430862

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Making Sense of the Bible (including the weird parts)

You need the Bible. If you’re a parent, your children need the Bible too. I’ve written before about the importance of personal and family devotions.

But let’s be honest: the Bible can sometimes be hard to understand. I mean, if you stick to easier parts (most of the New Testament), it’s not so bad. But try making sense of the dietary laws, genealogies, obscure prophecies, and ancient battle records that make up a significant chunk of the Old Testament.

bible-1417720Many Christians, of course, simply avoid those parts of the Bible. They have their favorite books (or maybe just their favorite verses) that they return to again and again. But in this way, they effectively deny that the hard parts are really God’s word. Others, convinced that they really ought to read every part of the Bible, dutifully grit their teeth and force their way through the Leviticus part of their read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, thankful that they can mostly just pay attention to the New Testament and Psalms as they do so.

This isn’t how it is supposed to be. After all, Paul was talking about the Old Testament when he said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, correcting, reproving, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture – not just the parts modern, western Christians find interesting – is not only inspired, but directly beneficial for our daily living. Even Leviticus.

The key to profiting from the reading of each part of Scripture is learning to see how it all connects to the whole. As we see the big picture – the central point and main themes – we can begin to work out how particular details that seem strange and irrelevant connect to the gospel, and thus to our own lives.

Because, as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus is the unifying center of the Bible. He is the goal of every passage from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, he says so himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).

Too, often, we approach the Bible as if it were centered on us. This not surprisingly makes much of the Old Testament seem irrelevant and out of place. But when we approach Scripture as the story of Jesus, we begin to see how things fit together. We see how the events and people of the Old Testament are part of the process of how God brought us salvation through Christ. We see how particular elements of the biblical story foreshadow and reflect the great story at their center. We see why the authors of the New Testament keep bringing in the imagery and categories of the Old Testament to explain the Christ who has finally come.

This switch doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, reading the whole Bible as one great story centered on Jesus is a skill that cannot be mastered in a lifetime. But there are some good tools to help you get started on your way. For adults, God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts is an excellent and approachable road map that charts the major thoroughfares of the Bible’s message. For children and their parents, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible is the best guide I know.

But, of course, these are supplementary tools. There is no substitute for sitting down day after day with God’s great story about Jesus.

Image Credit: zizzy0104, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/bible-1417720