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When Advent Isn’t Optional

The ceiling is dark and beyond my vision as I lay awake in bed. Yet I stare at it, trying to make out its distance and depth while my mind turns over the week’s happenings and to-do lists. Is it 2am? 4am? 10pm? I don’t know. All I am aware of is that at some point the 5am alarm will sound with both relief for my fitful tossing and remorse for another unproductive night of rest. 

When the alarm does sound, I hear my husband stir on the other side of the bed. He promptly reaches for the screeching iPhone on his nightstand and silences it, and his immediate dexterity tells me: he has been awake as long as I have, if not longer.

We rise to the day, make coffee, pet the dog and start our quiet times. Though we occupy separate living spaces during our time of prayer, I know the shared theme of our requests is the church plant God has given us. I sit in the front room of our house and stare out into the dimly lit streets, asking God for the same things I asked for yesterday: for discernment, direction, growth, wisdom, someone to help with kids ministry this week, someone to help us set up this week. My hand rests on my pregnant belly and I’m reminded to ask the Lord for someone to help my husband unload the kids ministry supplies car this week, too. 

I circle back to the kitchen to warm up my coffee and catch a glimpse of my husband in the family room. He’s on his knees in prayer, bending low over the seat of the couch, head drooped, hands folded, and the dog snoring beside him. I can’t make out his prayers, but I can see his lips moving, shaping the same requests I’ve grown familiar with: leading, humility, growth, a permanent place to meet on Sundays, elders to shepherd alongside him, small group leaders, faith. 

My coffee warmed, I return to the living room and stare at the Christmas tree. 

I didn’t grow up with Advent. My family was as ceremonial as the rest of our non-denom tribe, but Advent didn’t enter my vocabulary until I found my way to a higher-liturgy church in college. There, I learned to savor the season that leads up to Christmas, marking out the days of anticipation until the arrival (or, “Advent”) of Christ. We lit Advent candles and sung Christmas hymns, all in reflection of the time when Christ came as the long-awaited Savior born in a manger. This first exposure to Advent shaped in me a posture of reflection each December season. I savored the opportunity to look back to when the world waited for a Savior, and when that Savior came. 

But this isn’t the full picture of Advent. For church traditions that observe the season in full, Advent is a time marked out in the church calendar to look back at Christ’s first coming while anticipating when He will come again. It’s the hefty portion of the ministry year fully committed to an increasing awareness that the King is on His way — that He has promised to come, that He came, and that He will assuredly come again. It’s a season of personal and corporate repentance in the light of His pending return, and a season of decided anticipation of His Kingdom come in full form. 

As my gaze shifts from the tree to the lightening sky outside my windows, I’m reminded of how N.T. Wright describes the coming of God’s Kingdom:

We who live after Calvary and Easter know that God did indeed act suddenly and dramatically at that moment. When today we long for God to act, to put the world to rights, we must remind ourselves that God has already done so, and that what we are now awaiting is the full outworking of those events. We wait with patience, not like people in a dark room wondering if anyone will ever come with a lighted candle, but like people in early morning who know that the sun has arisen and are now waiting for the full brightness of midday.

As the sun slowly infiltrates the night sky, I whisper a prayer that the Lord would bring His Kingdom light to bear here in Greenville, NC, the place of our church planting calling. I ask Him to fill this city with His glory and ready us, His Church, for His soon-coming return.

And while the prayers are still on my lips, I’m more aware than I have ever been before: in ministry, Advent isn’t optional.

Where the season was full of sweet sentiment for me previously, the discipline of Advent is now a relished imperative. The ministry calendar and weekly schedule throughout the year are full of good, hard work — ministries to develop, leaders to train, programs to run, spaces to rent, buildings to maintain, meeting agendas to write — which is why we need Advent to set our sights on something higher. We need the blocked-off section of our calendars to remind us of this eclipsing truth: He is on His way.

Because Christ came in the manger, the Church has the hope of salvation and power for discipleship. This is why we joyfully host small groups and schedule lunch meetings and answer emails — because of the good news that Jesus actually came to earth to be our Savior, the Church has been birthed, and we are glad participants in her life of Christian formation and discipleship. And yet … it’s the second Advent of Christ that allows all of ministry to fall into proper perspective. When we fix our eyes on the horizon of redemptive history, our daily ministry is given new hope, power, and vantage point.

With our eyes fixed on the second coming of Christ, we notice the burdens of timelines and goals and budgets fade as discipleship and sanctification and submission to God come to the fore. Our personal pet projects, need for affirmation or acclaim, and desire for recognition pale in comparison to the weighty calling to present the bride of Christ pure before the throne of God at His return. Our allegiances, affiliations, church territories, and social media strategies reveal themselves for the silly, flabby distractions that they are as we are reminded of our personal need to bend our knees, bow our hearts, and yield to the Great Shepherd of the flock of God. 

Advent isn’t a trendy season for young churches to capitalize on, but a sobering reminder of our ministry calling. For my husband, as a pastor and church planter, Advent will keep him on his knees in our family room, huddled over that couch in pursuit of God’s aid, forgiveness, sanctification, and joy. For me, a ministry director and church planter, Advent will serve as my corrective scale — an annual reminder to reset my ministry compass according to the truth North of Christ’s return. And together, as we lumber through the repentance and reorientation of the Advent season, we’ll turn our faces toward that brightening horizon in hopeful anticipation of the full light of day.