It seems peculiar that the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent centers not on Christ’s first coming, but his second. In all three liturgical years, the gospel passage is taken from the Olivet Discourse—Jesus’s lengthy response to the eschatological curiosities of the disciples. But maybe this is not as peculiar as it seems.
In arresting prose, the synoptic writers report the Creator of all things privileging the disciples with secrets about last things. Interweaving predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem and his future return to earth, Jesus tells them of wars, famines, false Christs, and more. His purpose was not to shock or frighten them, but to prepare them—and not just for the far off events that had provoked their curiosity.
Punctuating his revelations are warnings to be watchful, ready, and engaged in faithful service—imperatives for God’s people in every age. But for the disciples those warnings had immediate relevance which, as many times before, went unheeded.
For, in a matter of hours, Jesus would be prostrate in the garden praying, while his disciples slept; he would be hauled away by an angry mob, while his disciples fled in panic; he would be brought before a kangaroo court to be ridiculed, spat upon, and struck, while one of his closest intimates vehemently and repeatedly denied him; and he would be scourged, marched to Golgotha, and nailed to the cross, while men who had been his constant companions cowered in an upper room, abandoning him to his persecutors.
Incredibly, after three years at the feet of their master, the disciples were no better prepared for the unfolding of prophetic history than they were at the beginning of their tutelage. This should trigger questions in us: Are we prepared? Situated in history between the Incarnation and the Parousia, are we advancing his kingdom as we watch for his return?
More to the point, are we even expecting his return? Given the 2,000 year lapse, have his warnings slipped into the cluttered closets of our memory or, worse, has the delay eroded our confidence in his prophesy or, for that matter, in him?
If those questions cause hesitation, it signals the need to revisit God’s story—the biblical record of divine activity throughout the course of human history. The historical record of what God has done provides a rational basis for confidence in what he has said he will do.
Playing Back God’s Story
Reading the history of Israel is like listening to a CD stuck on “repeat.” Over and over again, widespread apostasy led to divine discipline, provoking national repentance followed by a brief period of revival.
Despite the withering warnings of prophets, the Israelites repeatedly succumbed to pagan influences when they should have been attending to God’s word, they adopted pagan practices when they should have been transforming pagan culture, and they became a stumbling block to their pagan neighbors when they should have been a blessing to them.
To break the cycle, Israel’s leaders continually played back God’s story, reminding the people of God’s benevolence toward the nation: the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, water from the rock, manna from heaven, deliverance from their enemies, and the conquest of the Promised Land, to name just a few.
The leaders also proclaimed prophesies, hundreds of them, among the people. Some were given as warnings about the consequences of disobedience while others were given as assurances of God’s ultimate plan for restoring all things.
Two things are extraordinary about the latter: first, they were made far in advance of the events they described; and, second, many of the fulfillments of prophecy—including dozens concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—were recorded and passed on to people contemporary to those events.
From Public to Personal
God’s story is more than a record of past and future works on behalf of mankind; it includes personal testimonies of his working in the lives of individuals in the present.
Daniel, who prophesied about events in the near and far future, gave witness to God’s faithfulness in the present—answering his prayers and delivering him and his friends from capital punishment. In the Psalms, David repeatedly praises God for guiding, protecting, and strengthening him. Jeremiah’s lamentations over the sins of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem include praises to God for comforting him during imprisonment and rescuing him from his enemies.
Nevertheless, spiritual vacillation produced a generation that was ill-prepared for the coming Messiah. Instead of watching for the Lamb of God who would deliver them from sin, first-century Jews were expecting a conquering King who would deliver them from Gentile subjugation.
A generation later, eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ detailed, in four independent narratives, how he fulfilled the promises in Scripture from Genesis 3:15 to Malachi 3:1. And for those who failed to notice, Paul explained how the fulfillments of prophecy occurred among individuals, still living, who could contest any fictions or correct any errors.
Like the Old Testament writers, Paul also shared how God’s story had played out in his own life. In his letter to the Romans, Paul gives witness to Jesus for freeing him from the law of sin and death. He told the Corinthian church how God had encouraged and strengthened him during a time of personal torment. And to the Philippians, Paul testifies to his Source of contentment and efficacy in all things.
The gospel readings for the first Sunday of Advent remind us that God’s story did not end at Golgotha, the death of the apostles, or the completion of Scripture, but continues on the cosmic stage.
They also remind us that Christians are to be an expectant people, living in the sure hope that as God “showed up” once, he will show up again. Until then, he is active in the lives of individuals who are waiting, watching, and working to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
A Personal Testimony
Most Christians can point to times in their lives when God “showed up”—maybe in an answered prayer, a healing, an encouraging word, or a needed revelation. Throughout my Christian life, I have had a number of such occurrences, of which I’ll share one.
I had been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. My timeline, according to the oncologist, was three weeks. But three weeks turned into three months, then three years, and now, ten years after being declared in clinical remission, I remain cancer-free.
Prior to that declaration, however, two questions hung in the air like the scent of decaying flesh: “Why did this happen?” and “How will it turn out?” I had a strong inkling as to the “why” (as I’ll explain in a moment), but the uncertainty of “how” lingered. Then, one night, both questions were answered for me along with a room full of people.
Joanne and I had joined a group of twenty or so intercessors for an evening of prayer. As we got ready to pray, someone suggested, off the cuff, that we read Psalm 118, which in my NIV Bible has the rather inviting heading, “The loving kindness of God.” It was further suggested that each person read a verse, in succession, according to how they were seated. Since our seating was not prearranged, neither was the verse individuals would read.
As it so happened, my turn fell on verse 18: “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” The words left my lips and, for a moment, failed to register in my brain. When the next person seated failed to continue, I looked around. It was as if all the oxygen had been sucked from the room: mouths were agape, chests were clutched, eyes were tearing, and praises were going up. Then, I, too, was undone.
Earlier in the year, I had confessed to a church class that the greatest obstacle to my spiritual growth was overconfidence in myself. Less than one month later, I was lying in a hospital bed tethered to IVs, listening to an oncologist talk around the hopelessness of my condition, and coming to the realization that this “thorn” was beyond my ability and that of medical science to remove.
The shock of my utter helplessness was met, almost instantly, by a comforting word: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Privately, the message was clear: God was addressing my greatest need—total dependence on him—with his limitless love. Publicly, this message was confirmed to a small gathering of individuals who were watching and waiting for God to “show up.”
Each year Advent draws the world’s attention afresh to God’s story. It’s a story that Christians should be telling “in season and out of season,” through their words and their lives.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Prayer in the Garden” painted by Andrea Mantegna in 1431.