Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2015.
“I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my savior.” The words are Micah’s, and they were written almost eight centuries before his Savior finally appeared in an unlikely, unexpected place — as a newborn baby in a manger.
Of course, Micah’s expectant words could just as well have been written by you or me. Our savior — Micah’s savior — promised to come back. And today we wait for His return. Waiting is a part of faith. Just as we await the Savior’s second coming, the prophets, patriarchs, and everyday people awaited His first. With the Christmas season upon us, are we ready to welcome the Messiah?
Dwelling Among Us
That question can be taken — and is intended — in two ways.
First, Christmas is an opportunity for us to open more of ourselves, more of our hearts, to Jesus. It’s a time to renew and rekindle our lives in the source of abundant life. It’s a time to rejoice in the incomprehensible wonder of Immanuel — “God with us.”
The message of Christmas is that God entered into our humanness. In some mysterious, miraculous way, the Creator became one of the created — one of us. He is not some distant deity. He is near. He is here. He is on our side. He is for us. He is with us.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
The message of Christmas is that God entered into our humanness. In some mysterious, miraculous way, the Creator became one of the created — one of us.
Ponder that. Reflect on it. Savor it. Rejoice in it. John’s words thunder across creation and whisper into the heart of the created. They stretch the mind, overwhelm the heart, upend the world, divide history, and demand a response from the created.
Christmas is the Creator’s way of grabbing us by the shoulders and shouting: “I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?”
The Terminal Generation
There’s another way to take that question about being ready for the Messiah. And it has to do with His return.
What’s happening around us causes anxiety and fear. Nonbelievers sense that the world is spinning out of control, while some believers sense that Christ’s return is imminent. The events of the last decade-plus are dramatic: natural disasters of supernatural strength in Japan, Haiti, Indonesia, and Louisiana; mass murder and mayhem in Mumbai and Manhattan, Bali and Boston and Beslan, San Bernardino and Spain, Paris and Peshawar; man-made famine in North Korea and Somalia; the Pandora’s box of chemical warfare reopened in Syria; pandemics in West Africa; wars and rumors of war in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and all across Africa.
It’s enough to make a believer scan the eastern sky for the King of Kings. After all, in Luke 21, Jesus talks about a time of “earthquakes, famines and pestilences,” a time of “terror” when “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”
When we place the words of our Savior alongside the events of our time, it’s easy to think we are the revelation generation, the terminal generation. Of course, the first generation of Christians thought the same thing. So did those who endured Rome’s brutal persecution of Christians. So did those who saw Rome convert to Christianity. So did those who survived the Crusades and the Plague. So did those who lived through the Great War. Indeed, if anything looked like the Apocalypse, it was the war to end all wars: Like Revelation’s Four Horsemen, it brought conflict (28 nations were engaged, representing most of the world’s landmass), famine (Belgium starved; Germany survived on turnips), death (10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians died, more than the combat dead from all the wars of the preceding century combined) and pestilence (the 1918-19 influenza pandemic claimed 50 million).
The list of generations that thought they were living in the very last days goes on. Those who lived through the Depression and World War II and the Holocaust thought Christ’s return was imminent. So did those who witnessed the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign state. So did all those preachers and pastors — many of them well-intentioned but misguided — who have, over the centuries, tried to tie Christ’s return to our calendar.
In short, we are not the first to think we will experience His return. We are not the only generation to plead “Maranatha! Our Lord, come!” We are not the only ones to wonder if what we experience are the birth pangs marking the beginning of eternity. To be sure, Jesus wants us to wait expectantly, to be ready. But we can be sure of only two things about His return: As my dad says, “It’s closer today than it was yesterday.” And as my Savior said, “No one knows the day or hour … not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.”
He Arrived Unnoticed
Even so, waiting is difficult. Waiting can lead to distraction and even doubt. Jesus warned about this when He shared a story about a bridegroom arriving to embrace his bride. The attendants expected him yet somehow were unprepared for his arrival. Likewise, He talked about servants waiting for their master to return from a banquet. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready,” He warned. And He compared His return to a thief coming in the dead of night, again suggesting the perils of unpreparedness.
There’s a sobering parallel here to the Lord’s first coming: God’s people, by and large, didn’t notice. Sure, some kings from a foreign land and shepherds in the fields saw the signs, but few others allowed themselves to be distracted. There was, quite literally, no room for the Messiah in Bethlehem. There were no priests to confirm the miracle of heaven colliding with earth, no physicians to make sure the healer was healthy, no scribes to capture the story of the ages.
“Though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him,” as John poignantly explained decades later. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” What a heartbreaking sentence.
As time passed, some heard and accepted the Word wrapped in human flesh, but most stayed focused on their little lives. Even the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth failed to take notice. As Matthew’s account reminds us, when Jesus returned to Nazareth as a grown man, the people were amazed that He had wisdom and power. In other words, they had never taken any time to know Him. Mark’s Gospel adds that they expressed more contempt and doubt than pride in their native son. A disappointed Jesus left “amazed by their lack of faith.”
As we celebrate the first coming and await the second, we must guard against being like the people of Bethlehem and Nazareth — so focused on ourselves we cannot glimpse the wonder of the Word invading the world, so certain of our little versions of the Messiah that we miss what the real Messiah is doing.
We Wait and Watch in Hope
If the Messiah was overlooked the first time He came to us, He won’t be next time. Jesus Himself explains, “As lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Christ promises to return not in the humble obscurity of a manger, but “on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.” John adds, “Every eye will see Him.”
Every eye: Micah and the prophets, Gabriel and the angels, the innkeeper and the rest of an indifferent world, John the Baptist and the martyrs, Thomas and the doubters, Caiaphas and the holy men, Pilate and the postmodernists, you and me.
Until then, we wait and, like Micah, “watch in hope for the Lord.” While we wait, we make the most of the days He has given us, knowing that the longer He puts off His return, the more of the world can hear the Word. The Lord is patient with mankind, Peter writes, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance … our Lord’s patience means salvation.” As C.S. Lewis observed, “He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. … God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever.”
While we wait, we make the most of the days He has given us, knowing that the longer He puts off His return, the more of the world can hear the Word.
In a sense, Christ’s followers have stood at a crossroads since He ascended into heaven, promising only that He would return but not telling us when. “What the disciples experienced in small scale, we now live through on cosmic scale,” Philip Yancey observes in his book “The Jesus I Never Knew.” “We live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name.” Like those first disciples, we can endure today because we know what our Lord did yesterday and because we know He holds tomorrow. But that may not be true for our neighbors.
At Christmastime and throughout the year, we are called to be Christ’s ambassadors to the weary and worried, the distracted and disinterested and doubtful, the faithless and fearful — to reflect our Savior, to carry a message of hope, to share the promise of peace. This is not the world’s definition of peace; it’s not the absence of war; it’s not enemies being forced to shake hands; it’s not good and evil, right and wrong, coexisting in some gray middle ground. It’s the peace that transcends all understanding, the peace that can reign in our hearts, even amidst the storms and wars and terrors of today, the peace that will reign on earth when Christ returns to make all things new. “Our Lord has come! Our Lord, come!”