Once, while teaching an Advent lesson in a Wednesday night children’s program, I put a question to the kids. “Do you know what Immanuel means?” I asked. The children were gathered around a tiny table with squat chairs. The neighbor girl gave me a cross look. “Of course I don’t know what Immanuel means!” she said. “That’s what I’m here for: to learn!”
True story. I promise I didn’t get it from a preacher’s book.
Advent is about Immanuel, and most of us probably aren’t aware of all that Immanuel means. Immanuel is God-with-us, the presence of the eternal God born into the human life of Jesus. We celebrate God-with-us at Advent: remembering God-with-us-past, laid in that long-ago manger; anticipating God-with-us-future, when Jesus will come again on the Last Day; and inviting God-with-us-present, when Jesus shows up in our lives right here, right now. Perhaps the last prayer of the Bible is our most fitting Advent prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
But if we ask Jesus to come to us during Advent–to be our Immanuel–then so too we have to be ready to turn and go to him. Thus Advent is also a season of repentance, which means turning. It’s turning away from sin and turning toward Christ. Repentance sounds like grit-your-teeth and roll-up-your-sleeves kind of soul scrubbing–hard work. But repentance also has to emphasize healing. We’re not only forgiven of our sin; we’re healed of it.
To speak of healing from sin is to get at the heart of the nature of sin. It’s one of the reasons sin is such a rich and precise biblical word. Accept no imitations. Sin is not just something out there, some this-side-down box in our souls that we can deal with and then get on with life. Heft it out. Excise it. None of that will work, because sin is wrapped up with who we are, our desires and our anxieties. Sin is wired into our longings, baked into our hurts.
All of this is to say that Advent, this traditional season that hovers in a repentant register, is about praying for Jesus the Immanuel to come into our lives–strength, mind, soul, and heart–and work his redemptive healing. We won’t get to choose in advance what Jesus will work on. Because sin is so closely bound up with our identities, we won’t necessarily even know what needs fixing.
Sure, we can grub around in our spiritual pocketses and come up with a few choice, but tidy, tidbits of sin. It’s the spiritual equivalent of claiming in a job interview that “working too hard” is our greatest weakness. But real transparency, the kind of transparency that reveals root causes and base issues–that’s not something we can generate on our own. In this way, Come, Lord Jesus is a cry for help. It’s a statement of the fact of our limitations. We need healing, and we don’t even know where or how to begin.
What I’ve discovered along the way is that it’s only in prayer, fueled by the words of Scripture, that we open ourselves up in a meaningful way to the pragmatic love of Christ. It won’t happen in the five minute drive to work. The TV can’t be on. When we really sit down and recollect ourselves to God, we may find that we nod off and are distracted. But if we’re willing to still ourselves, Jesus shows up in his own way and on his own terms and brings to completion the good work he’s already begun (Philippians 1:6).
Come, Lord Jesus, our Immanuel, to heal us during this Advent season!