“And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16-17 ESV).

Everywhere I go, Christmas is in full swing. The bollards in front of Walmart have been wrapped to look like peppermint sticks emerging from the ground; the ringing of Salvation Army bells has commenced; and Christmas trees have sprung up in stores, living rooms, and rooftops all around. Preparations in many families have been underway for months—my family, in particular, has been preparing for Christmas since early September, when we first started listening to Christmas music and watching old standards like “White Christmas.”

But trimmings and music and movies and festivities aside, are we a “people prepared” for Christmas?

Of course, we’re prepared for the season in a certain sense. But are we spiritually prepared to celebrate His birth? Luke 1 foretells the coming of John the Baptist, and what John the Baptist was able to accomplish for the people of Israel—“to make ready for the Lord a people prepared”—we are able to experience through the season of Advent.

While we may typically relegate the word “advent” to a cute calendar in our home that counts down the days to Christmas, Advent is so much more than that. Advent is a season, beginning the sixth Sunday before Christmas, observed in many Christian churches as a time of waiting, expectancy, and preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ nativity. It takes its name from a form of the Latin word “adventum,” meaning “coming.” It’s much more than a countdown to a day of historical significance, however. Yes, there’s the joyful anticipation for Christmas Day, and we join in the “longing” for the coming of Messiah. The double meaning of Advent, however, is that we are also anticipating and preparing for His second appearing.

Perhaps now more than ever in my life, I appreciate the second meaning even more than the first.

Meditating on Our Need

So how do we become spiritually prepared for Christmas? It requires, first of all, meditation on the fact that we are a people in need of a Savior. As John Piper wrote recently, we must realize “Christmas is an indictment before it becomes a delight.” We can’t be prepared until we recognize, and feel desperately, our need for someone or something to deliver us from our plight. His coming is all the more precious to us when we understand that, without Him, all is lost.

For the majority of us, we’ve never felt the need for a search and rescue team. We may have an intellectual understanding of it, and would certainly never say they are unnecessary, we’ve simply never experienced the need for one. But imagine the desperation of a man or woman stranded on some remote island, or trapped by the environment on a mountainside. They are supremely aware of their situation and dependence on someone else searching them out to remove them from what would otherwise be a certain death. And imagine, if it’s possible, the rapturous joy of having spent some long amount of time in that location, and finally seeing your rescuer appear. We need a Savior even more than that.

“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 1:1-3).

Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians by drawing this picture of our lostness. The language paints a bleak landscape: “dead in trespasses and sins; walked according to the course of this world; children of disobedience; children of wrath.” But he continues in verse 11, “Wherefore remember…”

Even after we’ve been rescued, we’re to remember what it was like before He arrived on the scene. Remember! “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (v.12).

Examine the Man

Our need for a Savior is more than a one-time encounter, of course. It’s an ongoing process that requires daily, sober examination.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

This is an uncomfortable prayer to pray—inviting the Lord of Glory into our thoughts—but one that we must pray and commit ourselves to daily in the hopes of being a people prepared. Without the process of self-examination, the celebration of Christmas is at risk of becoming just another employment for gift-giving, frivolity, and self-generated “cheer” (and has very quickly become just that in the hearts of too many).

“And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:28).

Building Anticipation

With six children, I fully appreciate the desire to increase and multiply the joy of Christmas. I want to make them happy. I want to give them good gifts that excite their imagination and satisfy their desires. I have to fight, however, against the urge of giving them everything they want and overindulging them. As a father, I want to make them happy. But as the priest of our home, I want to make them holy—and I recognize that I am in danger of teaching them that the excitement of Christmas is centered on the material.

Just as our children have learned to expect gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, are we building and creating in them an expectancy and God-centered anticipation for His return?

Are we gathering around with them in our living room and singing the final stanza of “O, Holy Night” with tears of joy and wonder and expectant delight streaming down our faces?

“Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace;
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease;
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name”

Rejecting Substitutes

The reason for this desire I’m trying to foster in my children for more than the material is that it’s the easiest way for me to teach them to reject substitutes. But while it’s an obvious (yet hard to resist) ploy of the enemy to replace the eternal with the temporal, we must also guard ourselves against allowing all the intangible goodness we experience in this season to be substitutionary for the real, lasting, and all-satisfying return of our King.

I’m thankful for every meal with friends and family I’ll experience this season, and for the time I’ll spend with family laughing and giving and receiving…but I’ll also remind myself, I hope, as I experience these things that they are glimpses and foretastes and reflections of a great and ultimate Homecoming. That’s not to take away from those experiences, or frame them as lesser than. Glimpses of Heaven are beautiful and to be cherished! But they are not substitutes.

I love the experience of National Youth Convention each November. It’s a step away from the pressure and burden of day-to-day life, and connects me with people I love. My room is made perfect each day by unseen hands; I eat meals which I did not prepare; and enjoy services, songs, and messages I didn’t have to conduct, sing, or study for over three glorious days. But as much as I love being surrounded by my dear friends in this great organization, and as much as I love the experience of convention, and the comfort of the hotel—I find myself, towards the end of the week, getting a little discontented. It’s not a lack of gratitude. I simply want to sleep in my own bed again, and have access to my fridge in the middle of the night and regain all the comforts of home. As beautiful as the Gaylord Opryland Hotel is, and as much as I enjoy the gorgeous views of the JW Marriott, they are poor substitutes for my home.

One day, and it simply can’t be very long now, He will return. In theses days of Advent, I pray that I will do all I can to prepare myself for His arriving, and be ready to make the journey Home.