I have finally learned the Christmas lesson my father taught me as a child. Whenever I would whine about my Christmas gifts, he would speak these words to me: “Son, it is more blessed to give than to receive.” The joy of Christmas is in the giving. But this realization has brought me a new Christmas concern: Will the gifts I place under the tree be well-received by my loved ones? Will the toys, the clothes, or the gadgets thrill my children? Will my wife’s special gift make her eyes sparkle?
In much the same way, Christian worshipers have often worried about how their beloved Lord will receive them as they bring their gifts of praise before Him. You can hear this concern in David’s prayer: “Do not cast me away from Your presence …” (Ps. 51:11a). And you can hear it in the liturgical expressions of the church across the centuries: “Lord, heed my prayer. And let my cry be heard by thee” (Missale Romanum); “Behold us in Thy tender mercies. Despise us not, though unworthy.… Receive us graciously” (The Savoy Liturgy); “We earnestly desire Thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (The Book of Common Prayer).
Are we acceptable to God as we approach Him in worship? The answer is a resounding yes! The three comings of Christ for His people that we celebrate during Advent (His “arrival” or “coming”) encourage us that we are well-received by the Father indeed!
The first coming of Christ in which we rejoice during Advent is His coming on the first Christmas in human flesh. When Christ came to Bethlehem, He began His great work of redemption. His Incarnation was the “Grand Miracle” (C.S. Lewis), for He came:
• To live a perfect life of obedience to the law of God, from the first moments of conception to the last moments on His cross, in which He made His cry of dereliction to the Father. If there were no Incarnation, there would have been no active obedience of Christ—and no righteousness for us.
• To die in our place, enduring the wrath of God poured out justly against all our sins. As St. Augustine noted, if Jesus had not been born, He could neither have suffered nor died for our sins. If there were no Incarnation, there would have been no Cross of Christ—and no forgiveness for us.
• To be raised for our justification. Jesus’ resurrection assures that we, too, will be vindicated before God in resurrection glory. If there were no Incarnation, there would have been no resurrection of Christ—and no certain future for us.
Thus, Christ’s purpose in His first coming was bound up in His very name, as the angel revealed to Joseph in a dream: “ ‘You shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins’ ” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus came to save us from our sins, as Zacharias prophesied, in order “ ‘to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies [the world, the flesh, and the devil], might serve [worship] Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life’ ” (Luke 1:74–75). Jesus humbled Himself from manger to grave so that we might find forgiveness and gain the privilege of worshiping before Him now and forever.
The second coming of Christ that we celebrate is His Second Advent—His coming again to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day. The Day of the Lord will be a great day of fear and trembling for those who have rejected Christ. Yet it will be a joyful day of final deliverance and total renewal for the elect. Jesus’ Second Advent will be a royal visit from our King, in which He will come with power from on high to destroy His enemies forever and to bring His followers into the full pleasures of His kingdom. His coming will be visible and triumphant. And we who have lived (or have lived and died) looking for His return will be caught up into His triumphal procession together with Him: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:16–17a). We are to comfort one another with these words, because they remind us of our destiny, that we shall always be with the Lord.
We will not be idle in God’s presence. Having brought us through judgment based upon the merits of His own righteousness, Christ will place us in the heavenly chorus. Together with the angelic beings, we will form the great voice of heaven, a voice like the sound of mighty waters, a voice like the sound of loud thunder singing a new song of praise (Rev. 14:2). If our destiny is to enter into the perfect worship of heaven upon Christ’s return, can we not be certain that the Lord will receive our lisps of praise in the present as we offer them in Jesus’ name? Just as a father delights in his young child’s drawing, both because of his artistic ability now and because of what it one day may become, so our heavenly Father delights in our childish praises, because of what they are now and because of what they will one day most assuredly become.
There is a third sense of Christ’s coming that we celebrate at Advent: His continual coming to us in worship. Like a shepherd going to find his lost sheep, like a woman sweeping the floor for her lost coin, like a father running to meet his wayward son, so Jesus comes joyfully to meet us as we gather to worship in His name (see Luke 15). If Christ runs to greet poor sinners so, then we may joyfully approach His throne of grace, knowing that we are well received.