A Reflection for Advent

December hosts the season of Advent that encourages an expectation that Jesus is due to return. Paul’s 1st letter to Corinth closes with the Aramaic word ‘Maranatha’ meaning, ‘Come Lord’, and the book of Revelation closes the New Testament with the cry, ‘He who gives this message says “Yes, I am coming soon”. Amen. Come Lord Jesus!’

Although we cannot predict the timescale of God’s plan for this, we are encouraged to urgently expect God’s intervention and the return of Jesus. Many of us are sensing an urgent need to be freshly alert to God’s purpose, in part revealed through Covid19, as we become aware of the huge challenges that our world is facing. 

Photo showing sunbeams breaking through cloud over a rugged coastline

I found myself praying about this recently—and my mind turned to the famous German chorale ‘Sleepers Wake’ that is specially associated with Advent. The original lyrics and tune were written in 1588 by a Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai, in Unna in the German Rhineland, and in 1731 J.S. Bach made Nicolai’s composition the basis of his stunning cantata by the same name, when he was musical director of St Thomas’ Church Leipzig. Bach’s weaving of the rolling orchestral melody with the original stately chorale tune is a magnificent piece of composition and, as ever with Bach, he stated it to have been written ‘SDG’—‘Soli Deo Gloria’—to the glory of God alone. 

Nicolai’s text was written during a terrible outbreak of the bubonic plague in that area of Germany. Half of the population of Unna died from the plague eight years later in 1597. After writing the text Nicolai recorded: ‘Day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God, wonderfully well, comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content… to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as a token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort other sufferers whom He should also visit with the pestilence.’

In his poem Nicolai draws from Jesus’ parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matthew, urging Christian people to find a new level of expectation of Jesus’ coming. The first verse urges:

Sleepers, wake! the watch cry pealeth,
While slumber deep each eyelid sealeth:
Awake, Jerusalem, awake!
Midnight’s solemn hour is tolling,
And seraph-notes are onward rolling;
They call on us our part to take.
Come forth, ye virgins wise:
The Bridegroom comes, arise!
Alleluia! Each lamp be bright with ready light
To grace the marriage feast tonight.

I feel very convicted by Nicolai’s words, and I commend them to you. I believe strongly that there is need for Jesus’ followers today to discover a new level of alertness to his presence and purposes. In too many places the church is sleeping walking into oblivion, with little expectation of God’s power and presence. We might say that the following has become their watchword:  ‘Blessed are those who expect nothing from God… they will not be disappointed!’  Rather we must cry ‘Maranatha’ with ever greater firmness and expectation, as we realise that we are his Bride and he is the Bridegroom, and ensure we have fresh oil in our lamps in our Jesus arrival celebrations.

Advent must therefore be a time of rich and important renewal for us as we approach our Festival of the Incarnation. If this is what we experience together in Advent, then maybe Christmas will prove to be a time when we will see many others attracted into new faith ‘adventures’ also.