Nothing revitalizes the wonder of an old story like telling it to someone who is hearing it for the first time.
The anticipation of Advent hit my heart during a special season of retelling this Story to friends who had not yet heard. “Come, oh, come, Emmanuel!” was the heart-cry of my listeners as they learned of our need of a Rescuer and waded through the long history of humanity’s constant choice to turn from God. “When will He come? When?!” they longingly asked me, and I found myself beginning to enter into expectant waiting with them. The story of His birth in the stable was greeted with explosive joy and moments of wonder; the wait was over, and He really had come to rescue us!
While my friends celebrated the news of His coming, I realized that this was the first time I had entered into the expectancy, waiting and longing of Advent. Born on this side of the manger, I had always taken His arrival for granted; now I realized that the wait-time had been tangibly real. Throughout generations, God had re-iterated His promise that He would send a Rescuer, but the delay seemed endless, and some had stopped expecting Him at all.
While God’s people longed for the cosmic event of a Savior’s coming, they experienced very personal times of waiting as well. Elizabeth and Zechariah spent the many years of their marriage asking God to give them a child. During these years of God’s silence, perhaps Zechariah the priest no longer expected God’s communication while he served in the temple. He definitely did not expect a divine message relating to his own personal desire for a son! And yet, Gabriel’s announcement of John’s arrival is couched in very personal terms: “Your prayer has been heard” (Luke 1:13, ESV). Elizabeth’s response first makes reference to her own longtime wait: “Thus the Lord has done for me … to take away my reproach” (Luke 1:25, ESV). It blesses my heart to see that, in the midst of God’s great purpose, He brought fulfillment to a personal dream.
Have I dismissed the longings of my heart as too trivial for God to notice? Do I believe that He is able to amaze me with the personal nature of His grand plan? Do I use cynicism to steel myself against disappointment? If Gabriel told me that my long wait was over, would I respond in disbelief as Zechariah did?
During the few hundred years of silence that sits between Malachi’s message and Gabriel’s first visit, some of God’s people probably wondered if He had forgotten His promise to send Messiah. Others tried to force His blessing by living scrupulously legalistic lives. Many looked for a Savior who would fit their idea of a Rescuer. And most of the world wasn’t waiting at all. In the book God is in the Manger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them and people who look up to the greatest in the world. Thus Advent can be celebrated only by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself towards us—the Holy One himself […]”.
Jesus didn’t come in the way anyone expected, and so most people were too blind to notice that the long wait was over. This fact makes me wonder: Do I cling too tightly to my own idea of God’s promise-fulfillment, or am I willing for Him to surprise me? Am I waiting on God Himself, or a rescuer of my own imagining? Will I recognize God’s hand as Simeon and Anna did, praising Him with ecstatic joy?
The wait of Advent is all about what God alone can do. This kind of waiting balances humility with faith; I am waiting for God to work, and I believe that He is indeed working on my behalf, in His own way, in His own time. Bonhoeffer writes, “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes and does this, that or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”
Waiting is hardest when we know there is nothing else we can do, and if there was one Event in history which had us helpless, it was God becoming Man. How amazing to realize that even this came to pass “when the set time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4, NIV).