Before the angels appeared to the shepherds on the hillside, there had been 400 years of silence. Between the pages of the Old Testament, and the New—a mere second for us to flip—lived a people waiting in anticipation of their Messiah.
In those four hundred years, there had been no new word from God, no prophets, no revelation, no signs. I imagine that generations of Israelites got used to the silence, made peace with the longing in the waiting. I wonder if they tired of hoping, grew weary of searching for signs, despaired of being rescued.
Are we waiting well?
The lowly shepherds who set out with their flock that day were preoccupied with their tasks—I doubt the coming of the Messiah was in any way on their minds, which makes the loud and bright appearance of the angels all the more spectacular of an event. Angels plus four hundred years of silence plus shepherds minding their own business equals one mind-blowing story.
I sometimes wonder if God sent us a sign like that today—angels in the sky, or a bright star like he sent to the magi—would we notice? There’s a good chance I’d be the woman walking along and checking my phone, like the lady walking along the water’s edge at the beach the other day who completely missed the pod of dolphins swimming by.
More than just our everyday distractions, I wonder if we have lost our sense of eager anticipation for Jesus’ return to us, if we have become so accustomed to filling the void in our souls with worldly things that we have forgotten who can ultimately satisfy.
Advent is a time in the liturgical calendar when we remember and celebrate Jesus’ first coming and look forward to his second coming. In this season, we are reminded of the tension of living in the now AND the not-yet of God’s kingdom. This, too, is the season when holiday busy-ness creeps into my daily life and I become preoccupied with holiday preparations, distracted by all the fun things, the good things, that this season brings.
Preparing him room
But in all these preparations, I don’t want to neglect preparing my heart. At Christmas time, we sing about preparing him room, but what does that actually mean? You could fill in the blank with a lot of good words here, but for me, I need to acknowledge the many cares of this world that are crowding the space in my heart.
1 John 2:28 says: “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”
Far from being one more item on a spiritual checklist, abiding in him connotes resting in his presence. When we live with an awareness of God’s presence with us, we are more prone to be on the lookout for his movement in our lives.
These days, God doesn’t usually choose to speak to us through angels and supernatural occurrences. Instead, he has sent his Holy Spirit to us, he has given us his scriptures, and he even speaks through his creation by way of nature and other people.
But if the eyes of hearts are not open and alert enough to notice, we may miss it.
The spiritual practice of noticing
Noticing is part of our spiritual practice in that it brings us closer to God and to others. Paying attention to what is going on around us and inside us helps us to hear what God is saying to us, what God wants to show us.
Noticing others—whether it be a stranger or a friend—helps us to love them well, to offer encouragement and validation, to share someone’s burden to lighten the load. Indeed, noticing is the first step before action, and we cannot engage in this foundational practice when we are preoccupied with Self or when we are hurried or distracted.
A.W Tozer in his book The Pursuit of God calls this the “self-veil” and claims that it hides the face of God from us: our self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration. He argues that, in order to experience the presence of God, “We must confess, forsake, repudiate the self-life and then reckon it crucified.”
I don’t think Tozer meant that we should hate ourselves. Rather, I think it means we put our Selves in right relation to the God who made us. It’s acknowledging that we aren’t righteous by anything we can do on our own, that we are nothing without God, that we have nothing without God, that any good thing in our lives is put there by God himself.
Noticing the presence of God and noticing others begins with removing our Self from the pedestal of our hearts and humbly acknowledging the One who should be enthroned. This Advent season, may we redirect our hearts towards our Savior Emmanuel who came to us first as a baby in a manger… and may we learn to abide in his presence.