Advent is here, and Christmas is approaching. It’s very easy for us to overlook Advent because of Christmas. This is a bit unfortunate in a way, and in another way it is actually very fitting.
It is unfortunate, because the significance of Christmas is not really grasped fully without Advent. Advent is a season of repentance and comfort in anticipation of the Word becoming flesh. Advent means “coming.” Jesus came. He comes, and he is coming. He came in the flesh. He continues to come in the flesh through his Supper as his Word is proclaimed among us by his Spirit. And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Advent gives us the awareness that we are standing before our God who comes to draw near to us. We learn from John the Baptist to repent of our sins and make straight the way of the Lord. Advent is therefore a very important season for us to observe so that we might appreciate the significance of Christmas. Christmas is about God claiming our own flesh and blood as his own in order to redeem us from sin and death. As the hymn goes, “He whom the sea and wind obey doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness. Thou, God’s own Son, with us art one, dost join us and our children in our weakness.” Advent teaches us about our weakness, and it therefore directs us to take great comfort in the Son of God becoming flesh in order to serve us and give his life as a ransom for us.
On the other hand, it is fitting that Advent doesn’t receive as much attention as Christmas. In Advent we devote two Gospel lessons to John the Baptist. John was the forerunner to Christ who preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He pointed to Christ as the one who brings that forgiveness by taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He prepared the way for the Lord by preaching repentance. Repentance consists of a broken and contrite spirit, which God does not despise (Ps 51:17). This broken heart is the heart that Christ honors and adorns with the joy of his birth, death, and resurrection. As we sing in the hymn, “I lay in fetters, groaning; You came to set me free. I stood, my shame bemoaning; You came to honor me.”
All of John’s ministry, and indeed all of Advent, is about preparing us for Christmas, in which God claims our flesh and blood as his most treasured possession, so dear to him that he suffers his own wrath to redeem it from sin and hell. This is why John said (John 3:30), “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John the Baptist would sooner have us not even remember him, but only remember Christ. This is why he called himself a voice, just as Isaiah prophesied (Is 40:3). The Word, which he proclaimed, and the baptism which he preached, find their fulfillment on the cross of Christ where he fulfilled all righteousness (Matt 3:15). Just as our Lord said (Luke 12:50), “I have a baptism to undergo,” a baptism of fire in which God’s wrath was satisfied for us. Therefore, because of the Christ whom John proclaimed, our baptism is a baptism into his death and resurrection (Rom 6:4).
Thus everything that John did decreased so that Christ would increase and fulfill our salvation. And this brings us to why it is fitting that Advent is overshadowed by Christmas. John must decrease, and Christ must increase. Likewise, Advent must decrease, and Christmas must increase.
We don’t learn repentance for the sake of repentance. We learn repentance for the sake of the joy of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who fills our broken hearts with the cheer of Christmas, the cheer of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life and salvation.
So on the one hand, don’t neglect Advent. If you haven’t made it to the midweek services, make it a priority to come. And urge your brothers and sisters in Christ to come to church during this blesséd season. But on the other hand, let Advent prepare you for Christmas. As it decreases, as the days get shorter, look forward to Christmas in which the Sun of Righteousness increases your confidence before God even as the daylight increases.
- Rejoice, then ye sad hearted
Who sit in deepest gloom,
Who mourn o’er joys departed
And tremble at your doom.
Despair not! He is near you,
Yea standing at the door,
Who best can help and cheer you
And bids you weep no more!
- If our blessed Lord and Maker
Hated men, Would He then
Be of flesh partaker?
If He in our woe delighted,
Would He bear All the care
Of our race benighted?
- Come, then, banish all your sadness!
One and all,
Great and small,
Come with songs of gladness.
We shall live with Him forever
There on high
In that joy
Which will vanish never.