Advent - the start of the church's year, comprising four Sundays before Christmas - is upon us. 'Advent' means 'coming', and refers to the coming of the Messiah, both his first coming in the incarnation, and his return. These are the first and second Advents.
The service readings set for this season do two things.
On the one hand they take us back to the prophets, to Isaiah, Malachi, Jeremiah, standing with Israel looking forward to her redemption. The call is to get ready, to prepare for the Day of the Lord, when he will visit and rescue his people. This is a time of both liberation and retribution, a season of great joy, and also the most painful regret over sin unrepented.
On the other hand, the set readings take us to Jesus' announcements of future judgment, when he tells of his return as judge, to complete the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. His reflections are full of foreboding and concern lest his listeners be found unready on that great and terrible day. These tie back into the prophets, as their culmination.
In Advent the church looks forward to the incarnation – to the first coming of the Messiah – as if standing with Israel centuries BC, but the key energy in the season of Advent, the great power which speaks from the readings, is a focus on his Second Coming. The sense of anticipation originates with the Hebrew prophets, and flows through the gospels towards God's future for the world.
The thing is, the Christian church in the West today seems to find it a lot easier to focus on the incarnation and Christmas during Advent, than on the Second Coming and future judgement. So Advent gets subverted into a kind of pre-Christmas shopping, cooking frenzy, instead of a season of fasting, self-examination, repentence and solemn reflection, which is where a focus on the Second Coming leads us. What we end up with is a truncated, frozen-in-time perspective on God's saving plan, held in suspended animation somewhere near Bethlehem. It is good - indeed essential - to remember, to reflect deeply on the incarnation, but the amazing event of the birth of the Messiah is a signpost into God's future, to his saving intentions for the whole world. For this season, let our focus be to look forward at this time, towards Christ's Second Advent. Let us get our hearts ready, not simply to celebrate Christmas, but to await his Second Coming. The real question for each heart who follows Christ in this season is not 'Am I ready for Christmas, celebrating Christ's First Coming' but 'Am I ready for his Second Coming.'