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

Advertisements

The Coming of the Savior

christmas-1185912 (2)Christians around the world are observing the season of Advent. This is not the same as Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation and birth of our Savior. Traditionally, Christmastide begins on December 25 and runs for 12 days (hence the song with the partridge) until Epiphany on January 6. Christmas is a time to celebrate that Jesus has come; Advent is a time to look forward to his coming. So we take time to remember the longing of prophets and saints of the Old Testament for Jesus to come, and we experience afresh our own longing for Christ’s second coming, when he will make all things new.

The thing is, Christians aren’t always all that excited about the thought of Jesus coming back.

There can be a couple of reasons for this. One can be that we don’t want Jesus to interrupt our own plans. There’s something we want to do or achieve, something we are looking forward to more than we are longing for his appearing. We have our own kingdom to build; we don’t want God’s kingdom to come until we’ve finished.

Of course, very often our dreams for life in this world are good and worthwhile, even laudable. We may hope to glorify God and bless our neighbor through our labors, and we may long for our loved ones to come to faith. These are, indeed, godly desires that every Christian should have. The problem comes when we want these things more than we want Jesus. When we would rather Jesus stay away until we’re finished, when we demand that he come when we say it’s time, and not a minute before.

God’s word promises “the crown of righteousness” to those “who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). Too often, we tolerate his appearing on certain conditions. Sometimes, we may even dread it. Instead of crying out, “Maranatha!” we plead, “Not yet, Lord!”

Another reason for being less than thrilled about the prospect of Christ’s return is not about our plans for the future, but our regrets about the past. We know that when Christ comes, all secrets will be revealed, and our sins will come to light. And we just can’t bear that thought.

A couple Sundays ago we were talking at church about Christ’s return, and one of my friends voiced this kind of feeling with the statement that he didn’t know how he could look Jesus in the eyes when he comes back. I get where he’s coming from. I have enough trouble with keeping the good opinion of the ordinary people around me – how can I possibly face the Judge and Maker of all things, who sees my heart and knows me better than I know myself?

When we feel that way, we need to remember that we are looking forward to Jesus’ second advent. Jesus didn’t just show up in power to sweep away all sin and unrighteousness in one final judgment. No, before he was to come in glory, Jesus came in humility and in weakness. Before coming to condemn sin, he came to bear it in our place. Before coming as the Judge, he came as one of us, born as a baby and crucified as a man so that we could face judgment unafraid.

Yes, we are sinners. “If you, O Lord, kept a record of iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3) But here is “a saying that is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

God’s judgment should indeed humble us; but if we are in Christ, it shouldn’t frighten us. Least of all should it keep us from longing for the appearing of the Savior who loved us and gave himself for us.

Maybe, in your mind’s eye, you find it hard to look Jesus in the eyes. If that’s so, look him in the hands. What you see there will be enough to assure you that he will never stop loving you, no matter what you have done, as long as you keep on trusting in him. And it should be enough to get you longing to see him face-to-face at last.

“‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

Image credit: Martin Boose, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/christmas-1185912