Every Christmas our family reads aloud from the Bible. the story of Jesus’ birth. So as I was seeking fresh revelation this Advent season, this story seemed like the obvious place to begin. But as I dove into the scriptures, I realized that only two of the four gospels actually account the Christmas story. How could such an important, history-altering event be excluded from half of the gospels? And what is even more perplexing…all four gospel books, within the first three chapters, do account for the advent of John the Baptist. I’m not suggesting that John is in any way elevated above Jesus; even John said emphatically that he is not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. But I do think that all of this reveals something really significant about God’s heart for Christmas. John’s entire existence was centered on building anticipation for the coming of Jesus—to ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths for Him.’ God wanted His people to be prepared and excited for His arrival, so He announced His advent ahead of time through the life of John.
God cares about our anticipation.
One of my favorite Christmas memories growing up was journeying the 16 hours from our home in Florida to our grandparents’ home in Illinois to spend the holidays with family. Our arrival was highly anticipated. Every year, as soon as we pulled into their snowy driveway, through the windows we would see our grandma throw her hands in the air. Overjoyed. Then she would scurry over to the dial-up telephone and call all of our family to tell them we had arrived. We could hear her announcing, ‘They’re here! They’re here!’ And as our road-weary family entered their farmhouse, she and grandpa would rush to greet us with smiles and tears.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.
In the same way, God enjoys being received well. He wants me to look for Him with joy and anticipation! He wants me to stay sensitive to the subtle movements of His presence in my life—watching and waiting—so that when He arrives in a fresh way, I am ready to receive and announce His coming. But all of this begins with an initial anticipation of a Holy Spirit advent in my life. I have to look for Him.
John the Baptist modeled this kind of watchful anticipation. But, his parents on the other hand, well… I think the gospel of Luke includes the story of John’s parents—Zechariah and Elizabeth—before the story of Jesus’ birth for a reason. Zechariah served in the temple as a priest, and according to the scriptures both he and Elizabeth were ‘upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly’ (Luke 1:6). They were busy with the work of God and lived above reproach.
One day while serving in the temple, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah and prophesied that, though barren and old in age, his wife Elizabeth would bear a child—and they were to name him John. He would be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth and go before the Lord to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ What a visitation; what a promise! But Zechariah was not anticipating this advent. In fact, the Bible says when he saw the angel, ’He was startled and was gripped with fear’ (Luke 1: 12).
Unprepared. Inattentive. Zechariah was surrounded by the things of God everyday, and yet he was still caught sleeping when heaven showed up. Taken by surprise. ‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it’ (Genesis 28:16)
I don’t know whether God attempted to get Zechariah’s attention in more subtle ways before this angel visitation. Perhaps Zechariah was so preoccupied with his priestly work, that he was missing God’s everyday advent all around him. Maybe this was God’s grand gesture to finally, unmistakably get his attention. After all, He commanded the angel to appear ‘to the right of the altar of incense’—an advent, smack dab in the middle of Zechariah’s ministry-work. (The mercy in all of this: God meets us where we are and does whatever it takes to capture our attention and affections. What a Grace.)
I have a Zechariah heart, too. It’s easy to lose my anticipation for God in the midst of my plans and routines, especially in ministry. And especially at Christmas. I often miss fresh advents in my life because I have neglected looking and listening for Him. I become busier doing the work of God at the ‘altar of incense’ than I am on my knees—listening for His voice, eagerly awaiting Him to reveal more of Himself to me. This advent season, God has been calling me to forsake the things that distract. To slow my pace. To remind my heart to be present where my body is. And to look for His advent all around me.
He is here, but am I?