The Tension of Advent (Hebrews 11:32-40)

What else can I say? There isn’t enough time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Their faith helped them conquer kingdoms, and because they did right, God made promises to them. They closed the jaws of lions and put out raging fires and escaped from the swords of their enemies. Although they were weak, they were given the strength and power to chase foreign armies away.

Some women received their loved ones back from death. Many of these people were tortured, but they refused to be released. They were sure they would get a better reward when the dead are raised to life. Others were made fun of and beaten with whips, and some were chained in jail. Still others were stoned to death or sawed in two or killed with swords. Some had nothing but sheep skins or goat skins to wear. They were poor, mistreated, and tortured. The world did not deserve these good people, who had to wander in deserts and on mountains and had to live in caves and holes in the ground.

All of them pleased God because of their faith! But still they died without being given what had been promised. This was because God had something better in store for us. And he did not want them to reach the goal of their faith without us. (Contemporary English Version)

God has entered history through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In this season of Advent, Christians everywhere enter a time of anticipation, waiting, and hoping. Advent is meant to stir our awareness of God’s actions – past, present, and future.

During this time of year, we need to feel the tension between what is and what is yet to come. Christ has come, in his first advent, to seek and save the lost. And yet, not all things have reached completion. Our deliverance from sin, death, and hell has been accomplished through the cross of Christ; yet this salvation isn’t here in it’s fullness. That will come when Jesus returns in his second advent to judge the living and the dead.

Which is why today’s New Testament lesson is perfect for the Advent season. It captures this awkward tension between already having something but not yet possessing it. It’s the tension of the Christian life. Celebration and hope are practiced together because we rejoice in what is, while confidently expecting what is not yet.

Throughout every era, people of faith have lived with the rubber band existence of feeling the extreme stretch without being broken by the pressure. Our spiritual ancestors didn’t break because of their hope. And the persons mentioned by the author of Hebrews inspire us to join them on this journey of perseverance until the promises of God are fully realized.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah all defeated large armies with just a few people because their robust faith melted circumstantial fear.

David, Samuel, and the prophets proclaimed truth, justice, and righteousness, knowing there would be adverse circumstances to speaking up and out.

People overcome dark times, establish what is just and right, gain what is promised, and do incredible things because they are looking beyond the present here-and-now of their difficulty to see something better. They know that their actions now will connect to better times ahead.

That’s what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in the face of overwhelming heat in a fiery furnace. It’s what Moses, Elijah, and David did by escaping the edge of the sword. They all refused to be thwarted in their mission and purpose for the world.

There were those who willingly endured torture and death rather than get sidetracked from their purpose. They were able to do it because they truly believed that their suffering and death was not the end of it. Better days were ahead and not even death could stop it.

This tends to make our own proclivities toward giving up when things are hard look really wimpy. Far too many folks have their focus in the wrong place – trying to change circumstances and other people – instead of focusing on simply being faithful to what God calls us to do.

We likely won’t have to undergo joint dislocations, torture racks, crushed bones, catapults, thumbscrews, branding irons, and a hundred other devious devices for trying to make a human’s spirit break.

Yet, we are presently enduring the subtly evil machinations of gaslighting, emotional manipulation, mental torture, spiritual abuse, and a hundred other sinister ways of attempting to break our will and commitment to what is right, just, and true.

The present awful consequences mean little whenever we’re able to connect what we’re doing to our coming heavenly reward. If the faithful people of the past could live and die in faith, no matter the circumstances, so can we.

Someday, everything will be made right by God. And when that day happens, we will experience it together as one people of God – all the believers of the past and us together. Right now, this present moment, the saints who have gone before us are patiently waiting for us….

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may all rise together to eternal life, through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope, and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings that God keeps for his people. He keeps them for you in heaven, where they cannot decay or spoil or fade away. They are for you, who through faith are kept safe by God’s power for the salvation which is ready to be revealed at the end of time.

Be glad about this, even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of the many kinds of trials you suffer. Their purpose is to prove that your faith is genuine. Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure. Then you will receive praise and glory and honor on the Day when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

You love him, although you have not seen him, and you believe in him, although you do not now see him. So you rejoice with a great and glorious joy which words cannot express, because you are receiving the salvation of your souls, which is the purpose of your faith in him. (Good News Translation)

There’s no need for hope if everything’s going just the way you like it. I remember when I was a college undergraduate, I hoped for Christ’s return toward the end of every semester. The prospect of all those final exams and the pressure of grades had me longing for heaven.

But that’s life. Maturity, resilience, perseverance, and just about every virtue you can think of comes as a result of life’s trials and sufferings. The Christian has hope, precisely because things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.

Faith has to be tried and tested. And hard circumstances are the way of purifying it. Like gold being purged of any dross by being exposed to extreme heat, so our faith becomes strong, robust, and genuine by the purgative fires of life’s many large and small sufferings.

The whole point of it all is to make us people worthy of our spiritual calling. Resurrection only happens because there’s been a death. Glory is only realized through suffering.

New life, the Christian life, isn’t a matter of making a new set of resolutions, as if it were nothing more than aspirations at the beginning of a calendar year. Rather, Christian faith is a response to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a story of grace and new life, of a hopeless man given the chance at hope.

The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter and cynical man. After his release, Jean Valjean has nowhere to go. 

In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit. In the middle of the night, he steals the bishop’s silver and skedaddles. 

The next day, however, Valjean is caught by the police. When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Jean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.” 

After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.” In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken. Hope springs to life.

Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life. The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a redeemed life. Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done. Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life. 

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Throughout Jean Valjean’s new life, there are trials and temptations all along the way. Yet, mercy keeps his faith strong, and hope kindled. Whereas before, Valjean responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – he responds to each case of unjust suffering with gratitude, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

Hope is kept alive because of suffering. Faith is strengthened by means of adversity. And both originate because of mercy and grace.

Christianity is a worldview perspective that enables one to rejoice in difficulty. For the Christian, there is no empty meaningless grief; there is the hope that our suffering means something. Like the athlete who endures all the painful practice in order to realize a future hope, so the believer in Jesus goes into strict training for the development of faith – all in the confident expectation of a fulfilled salvation.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, this seemingly weird alchemy of faith, suffering, hope, joy, and new life. And every generation of Christians needs to experientially discover it. Each believer eventually learns, in the crucible of hard circumstances, that the promises of God are the ballast to persevere in faith and patience throughout life.

Christian hope is a confident expectation that the promises of God will be completely realized.

A Christian’s salvation encompasses past, present, and future.

We were saved back there in the past when Christ died on the cross for us. We were crucified with him.

We are presently being saved from the world, the sinful nature, and the devil, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit in making us holy.

And we will be saved in the future when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, our salvation will be fully realized. Since that hasn’t happened yet, we have hope to sustain us.

It was hope that sustained me in college. I endured all the hours of study, all the exams, all the various courses taken, with the confident expectation that I would someday walk across that stage, receive my diploma, and graduate with my intended degree.

We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:23-25, NIV)

The Christian’s hope for ultimate deliverance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. This means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or a year, or even decades, with spiritual endurance. Our goal shall come in all its fullness. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4, NRSV)

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith. 

Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.

Heavenly Father, you created us and lovingly care for us. We accept all our sufferings willingly, and as truly obedient children we submit ourselves to your holy will. Give us the strength to accept your loving visitation to us through adversity, and never let us grieve your heart by giving-in to impatience. We offer you our pains to be used for your honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Get Me Out of This Scary Dungeon Cave! (Psalm 142)

I pray to you, Lord.
    I beg for mercy.
I tell you all my worries
    and my troubles,
and whenever I feel low,
    you are there to guide me.

A trap has been hidden
    along my pathway.
Even if you look,
    you won’t see anyone
who cares enough
    to walk beside me.
There is no place to hide,
    and no one who really cares.

I pray to you, Lord!
    You are my place of safety,
and you are my choice
    in the land of the living.
Please answer my prayer.
    I am completely helpless.

Help! They are chasing me,
    and they are too strong.
Rescue me from this prison,
    so I can praise your name.
And when your people notice
your wonderful kindness to me,
    they will rush to my side. (Contemporary English Version)

The modern holiday of Halloween is kitschy with a funny sort of scary. But there’s nothing funny about being truly frightened and feeling helpless. Its anything but a holiday.

The psalmist, David, was in both a literal and a metaphorical cave. Before he ever became king of Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul. He hid in a cave. He had more suspense and was on the edge of his seat much more than any horror slasher film could portray.

David was hiding and just trying to stay alive. There was nothing in his life which deserved such maltreatment. It was sheer jealousy on Saul’s end of things that caused him to give his soul over to oppressive pride. And David was the brunt of that oppression.

As biblical readers, we know the end of the story. Saul is eventually killed in battle and David is exalted as the new king. Yet, here, in today’s psalm, we have the genuine cry of a desperate man who longed for the justice of God – not knowing what the end of it all would be.

One of the reasons David was a person after God’s own heart is that he was humble and remained connected to God without succumbing to the bitterness of his situation. I strongly suggest that David was able to keep his life free from pride because he regularly liberated his spirit through real and raw expressions of his emotions and experiences to God.

Spiritual confidence cannot be ginned-up through pretending that all is well, and everything is okay. Rather, spiritual courage is forged in the most awful of circumstances through loud cries of emotional pain to the God who truly hears it all.

Anyone who tells you different is flimsily trying to maintain their puny sense of delusional power. God sees you in the dark place and he hears your cry for mercy. He knows your dark cave better than you know it yourself.

One of the reasons I love the psalms so dearly is that they know the human condition. There is no pretense with the psalmist, David. He opens his mind and heart. He lets the genuine feelings of his life pour out in an offering to the God who pays attention to the humble and contrite.

The proud and arrogant will forever be flummoxed by the psalms, not understanding why they are even in the canon of Holy Scripture.

Yet, here they are, for all to examine and experience. Whereas the piously insincere are continually putting up a false front of godliness and keeping up appearances of superior spirituality, here we have authentic religion smack in front of our faces.

For me, the psalms liberate us from the shackles of trying to be someone I am not and enable us to connect with a God who encourages us in our strange wonderings, our emotional pain, and our sometimes horrific situations.

The Lord is perfectly at home with hearing loud cries, agonizing shouts, and desperate prayers directed to heaven.

Those who oppress others, I believe, are easy to spot because they:

  • Ask rhetorical questions to make a point.
  • Assume their thoughts and ways are always best.
  • Accuse without evidence based on their faulty assumptions.
  • Seek to harm and destroy.
  • Enjoy chaos and thrive on taking advantage of others’ misfortune.
  • Refuse to listen and learn from others.
  • Suppress all competing voices contrary to their own.

Autocrats are too smug and too far into their delusions of power, authority, and self-righteousness to be able to hear any voice other than their own.

A self-absorbed despot in power feels like being in a dingy dank prison cave with no ability to leverage a release.

A self-abnegated deliverer in authority feels like being in a wide open field with freedom to help others in bondage.

God hears when others don’t. The Lord advocates on behalf of those caught in the crosshairs of tyrannical injustice and maltreatment. Divine benevolence is always on the lookout for those being oppressed.

The Almighty uses power to listen and respond when distressed persons are scared silly with maltreatment. Voices raised to heaven shall never go unheard.

Since God listens to those in need of mercy, this is precisely the disposition we are to adopt, as well.

The proud, convinced of their superiority, either cannot or will not see those languishing underneath unjust power structures. There is no space within arrogant hearts to accommodate the cries for justice from people beneath them.

Therefore, recourse for the oppressed comes from God – because God acts with equity, integrity, and justice.

It is not the oppressed who need our pity; it is the ungodly, because they don’t know anything about pity, or empathy, or mercy. Oppressors have no stomach for any of that. So, they keep people locked in systems of oppression. They maintain relational distance and turn a blind eye to the genuine frightened screams of those under their boot.

The weak, the distressed, and the spiritually tired in this corrupt world, however, have the chance for appeal. They can call out to the God who knows them and their situations.

Although cries for deliverance may not happen immediately, we can be assured that divine help is forthcoming. And that is scary good stuff.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you made my earthly pain sacred and gave me the example of humility. Be near to me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to your will. Loving Jesus, as you cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in my desperation. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief and preserve me in your perfect peace. Amen.

Comfort For Those with Troubles (2 Corinthians 1:1-11)

St. Paul, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1657

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.

But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (New International Version)

You probably didn’t sign-up for trouble.

Although varying from person to person and from group to group, all of us experience trouble in this world.

The Apostle Paul experienced a lot of trouble throughout his Christian life:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.

I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 

I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28, NIV)

Why didn’t Paul get cynical or jaded by his awful troubles?

What was the secret to Paul’s incredible resilience in the face of such trouble?

How did Paul get through all of that nasty trouble?

Paul, in my opinion, was the consummate Christian. He is the model missionary, mentor, pastor, and caregiver. Yet, it wasn’t his superior giftedness or dogged personality which got him through the tough times.

The Apostle persevered through trouble without succumbing to despondency by receiving help.

Let’s be honest: Most people would rather give than receive – and that is a good thing. Yet, what isn’t a good thing is continual caregiving without yourself receiving care.

We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves. 

The caregiving Christian needs to be vigilant about practicing selfcare and understanding their limitations. One must not pretend to be super-spiritual, with unlimited super-strength and super-compassion, extended to others 24/7 with super-skill. It’s neither realistic, nor smart. 

Caregivers, and not only care recipients, need to accept comfort from both God and others.

“We must accept our vulnerability and limitations in regard to others.  We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves.”

Mother Teresa

The word dominating today’s New Testament lesson is “comfort.” It’s used by Paul ten times in these verses. Comfort involves both speech and action, words and deeds. For comfort to happen, someone comes alongside another and helps them with both loving actions and encouraging words.

We can only give what we have – which means that if we want to continue helping and caring for others, there will need to be continual healthy rhythms of receiving comfort yourself. We provide for others from the largess of grace given to us by the God of abundance.

Sometimes people get stuck in their grief. The troubles have caused such a change and loss that they need help getting out. And the way people get unstuck and resolve their troubles, is through telling their story – which requires someone else to listen. 

St. Paul, by Rembrandt, 1630

Through my own experience of trouble, as well as helping others through their trouble (and sometimes being a troublemaker!) I have developed a checklist of things to do, to allow, and to keep in mind as a caregiver:

  • Live a balanced life. Live in the tension between caring for others and caring for self – without assigning any judgment, shame, or guilt to any of it.
  • Learn to trust other people. You aren’t the only person on earth who can care for the people you care for. Let them contribute so that you can take have a respite.
  • Make a list of needs and concerns. Do this both for yourself and those you care for. Delete those needs that you personally cannot meet. Of the remaining needs, determine the ones for which you are primarily responsible, then, decide which ones are the most important.
  • Contact your Pastor. That’s what he/she is there for. Reach out. You aren’t in a John Wayne movie or an episode of the Lone Ranger. By the way, you know they’re fictional characters, right?
  • Carry your own backpack. Other people have their own backpacks to carry filled with troubles and responsibilities. Although you can help shoulder their load, taking the weight completely off is Christ’s job, not yours. What’s more, don’t fill your own backpack with rocks that leave you with a crushing weight. Be realistic and confident in what you can and ought to do, as well as what you cannot and should not do.
  • Listen to others. Trusted family members and friends usually see the signs of stress in your life before you do. When they speak up, give them your attention. They know what they’re talking about.
  • Accept help. The fast track to bitterness and burnout is refusing the assistance of others who can give you a break in your constant caregiving.
  • Involve others. There are individuals willing and ready to participate if you would just inform them as to what would be helpful.
  • Talk to a therapist. We all get overwhelmed in particular seasons of life. If caregiving has become a compulsion, then take one hour per week to meet with a good therapist or counselor to talk through things in your life.
  • Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Then, delegate some more.
  • Recharge your soul. Find personal time for yourself daily. Engage in things that feed your spirit and energize your inner person.
  • Don’t waste your time and energy. Some people aren’t going to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it; and they don’t really want to understand. And it is not our job to make them understand.
  • Don’t manipulate others. A common temptation is to try and force family, friends, and faith communities to do what we want them to do, whenever we are heavy into ministry. Instead, focus on your own responsibilities and don’t worry about everybody else’s.

God always has a listening ear. The Lord knows grief better than all of us. Jesus understands trouble. In Christ, hope is kindled, care is received, and comfort abounds.

May you, by faith, enter into abundant life – despite the circumstances – so that your overwhelming trouble is transformed into overflowing comfort. Amen.