byFaith | 12.21.15
By Alan Dowd
“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 a most 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?
That question can be
taken—and is intended—in two different 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.”
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?”
There’s another way to take that question about being ready for the Messiah.
And it has to do with his return visit.
What’s happening around us is
causing anxiousness and fear. Non-believers 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 indeed 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 9,
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, Paul and 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
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
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.”
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, deflated
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.
If the Messiah was overlooked the first time he came to us, he won’t be next
time around. 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
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, Peterwrites, “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.”
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 Christmas time 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 is 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!”