Advent: The Season of Expectant Waiting

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The waiting of Advent isn’t just for Christmas; it’s for God’s reversal of all sin and evil and his renewal of all things.

I’m not very good at waiting for Christmas to give or receive presents. I wasn’t when I was a child, and I’m not now as a father and husband. I always angle to give or open one present sometime before Christmas Eve. So you can see why I say I’m not very good at waiting for Christmas, at least not patiently.

Advent is a season of waiting, but it is a season in which we are allowed—even called—to wait impatiently. Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures this sentiment well in a sermon he preached on the First Sunday in Advent in 1928 while serving as vicar in Barcelona, Spain. Although this sermon is now nearly a century old, its descriptions of Advent as a season of expectant waiting and its proclamation of Christ as the fulfillment of that waiting are as fresh and life-giving as they were when Bonhoeffer first preached it.

Bonhoeffer begins this sermon with the pronouncement that waiting “is an art our impatient age has forgotten.” If this statement accurately describes the tenor of the times in Europe between the two world wars, how much more aptly does it describe and indict the impulsive attitude of our own day? In our age, we are constantly attached to the internet through our omnipresent smartphones, and our indulgence in instant gratification seems to know no bounds. Most of us can order just about any food—via a food delivery service—to our table and in our stomachs within an hour. If this isn’t possible where you live, never fear! You can order almost any food imaginable that requires little prep from a meal delivery service with overnight shipping. If food isn’t what you crave, that’s okay. You can buy just about anything online and have it shipped to you the next day (so long as you are willing to pay the shipping charge and the theoretically endless supply chain holds up). We live in an age of immediacy, when—for the right price—we can instantly get our hands on anything we want.

Yet we know Bonhoeffer is right when he says some of the best things in life still come with a wait and are worth the wait: the growing of plants, the blossoming of romance, and the maturing of children. Indeed, as we await these things, we usually find great enjoyment in the waiting. For who wants to rush gardening for sub-par vegetables? Who wants to shortchange the course of romantic love? Who wants to see their kids grow up too quickly?

During Advent, we are familiar with the idea of awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth among us as God’s coming in human flesh to give his life to forgive our sins. Yet, there is something else we await during the Advent season. We also await our Lord’s final coming. We await the return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead and restore all of creation. The waiting of Advent isn’t just for Christmas; it’s for God’s reversal of all sin and evil and his renewal of all things.

Bonhoeffer describes the mood brought about by the expectant waiting during Advent for the arrival of Christmas as a special kind of Christian homesickness. It’s a mood in which “even the hardest hearts are softened.” It’s not just homesickness for times past and family holiday celebrations. It goes beyond that. It is, says Bonhoeffer, a homesickness “for our home beyond the clouds, to the eternal house of our Father.” Such homesickness is deeper than a mere emotional response to familiar hymns, traditions, and liturgical rituals. It’s a homesickness for everything wrong in the world to be made right, as God has promised us in Christ. It’s homesickness in which the whole creation groans together for its ultimate redemption and renewal (Rom. 8:19-23).

In this Advent homesickness, says Bonhoeffer, we see with heightened clarity how fallen, lost, broken, and dead our world is and how desperately it needs the redemption that can only dawn through the coming of Christ. “All around us we see wintry death and coldness.” This is still true for us today as it was for Bonhoeffer in the 1920s. The immediacy of our day and age doesn’t mean that our expectant Advent waiting has eased any. Indeed, today’s immediacy of information ensures that the sinfulness and brokenness of the world are even more clearly evident than it has been in the past. For now, we can see it on display 24/7. Perhaps more than ever, we are aware of the world’s great need for redemption.

It isn’t just the world’s need for saving that we notice at Advent. Sin, brokenness, and death aren’t just rampant within our world; they are resident within us too. “We see within ourselves something uncanny, looking at us from a thousand terrible eyes.” We see within ourselves “evil that we cannot get beyond no matter how hard we try.” Put simply, we see that we, too, are in desperate need of redemption, and so we anxiously await the coming of our Lord Jesus.

In the present, we receive that redemption by faith in the Christ who was born for us, died and rose for us, and who comes to us through his Word of promise and with his own body and blood. In expectant Advent faith, we receive this Christ who gives himself to us, even as we await his final coming. For in that consummate moment, our redemption will be complete. Our ultimate and complete healing and resurrection will be completely accomplished at last. Finally, our expectant waiting will be fulfilled. Until that time, we hang on to the promise of Jesus: “Surely, I am coming soon.” As we trust this promise in faith, we join our voices with that of Bonhoeffer and all Christians who have gone before us, praying: “Amen, come, Lord Jesus!”