Advent

Annunciation by Chinese artist He Qi

I began my pastoral career several decades ago, paying little attention toward the season of Advent. It seems I needed to discover for myself that Advent is a special season anticipating the arrival of the Lord Jesus. So now, for the past many years, I have thoroughly embraced the season. I will tell you why Advent is of such significance to me.

I found in Advent a solution to the problem of secular Christmas vs. spiritual Christmas. Well, really, I did not find it because it was always there, recognized and celebrated by the Church for two thousand years. Christians recognize that Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is a holiday focusing on the meaning of the Incarnation. Yet, given the secular traditions of Christmas, we spend much of our time preparing, not for a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but for fulfilling the demands of the holidays.

We buy lots of presents for lots of people and make sure they are all wrapped and delivered. We attend and host holiday parties. We have relatives who come to visit, and/or we are the relatives who go elsewhere to visit.  Christmas cards need to get out, and the annual Christmas letter often turns into a project for next year. Our holiday season requires lots of planning and energy, and it can end up being downright exhausting. If we have younger children, we may very well spend hours trying to assemble gifts on Christmas Day that come with sketchy instructions which need to be read over more than once.

Christ can, ironically, get pushed out of Christmas, not by unchurched non-Christians, but by Christians themselves. It is Advent which helps us come back to God and put our focus and our delight where it rightly belongs in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Embedded within the season of Advent are a message and a mission. The Gospel of John begins with the great proclamation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  God entered human history in the person of Jesus.  It is a message of grace and hope, completely centering around Christ.  It is a story – the greatest ever told – of God loving humanity so much as to become one of them.  This redemption narrative gives shape to our own witness.  We simply observe and tell the story of God’s love to humanity through the sending of the Son, Jesus, to deliver us from sin, death, and hell and bringing us into a kingdom full of grace, joy, wholeness, and love.

So, how, then, do we keep our focus where it needs to be during the month of December and observe the Advent season?  We might (virtually) attend Advent services. In our observance, we can pay attention to the Advent Wreath and candles, the special readings, and all the heightened awareness of Christ’s coming. 

Another way to focus on Jesus is by enjoying Advent music. This sounds easy, yet not so much. There are hundreds of popular Christmas songs and carols, played everywhere during Advent, from churches, to gas stations and shopping centers. There are comparatively few Advent songs, though many songs and carols do touch upon Advent themes of waiting, hoping, and yearning for God. 

Other ideas for Advent may include putting together an Advent Wreath at home and/or using a Nativity scene with lots of pieces as an Advent Calendar, adding one character to the scene every day.

A practical way, in years past, I discovered in remembering Advent is standing in the long lines of stores during the holidays. I realize this year will likely not have this experience. We are more likely to have a long wait on the phone – much longer than a physical line in a store. A few years back I was going nuts waiting in a crazy long line with a cashier who was clearly seasonal help.  As my frustration mounted, God did what God often does with me, and asked a question.

“Tim, why are you so upset?” “Duh, God! This stupid line and slow cashier!” “Tim, what is my Advent really all about?”  Busted. As a Pastor, I tell others about the time of waiting and anticipation, but here I was selfishly impatient.

Go ahead and try it out this season.  Let the inevitable times of waiting on a customer service person, or even a family member, be a reminder that Advent is about patiently anticipating the coming of the Lord Jesus. 

Honestly, we already know we are going to have times of waiting, whether we like it, or not. If by God’s grace we avoid some long wait, we will probably end up in holiday traffic moving at a snail’s pace. But you and I have a choice.  Either the wait will form us for naught or for good. So, let us allow the time of waiting to bring a fresh Advent spirit into our lives this season so that our Christmas will be a glorious one.

1 Corinthians 14:20-25 – Becoming Spiritually Mature

To be perfectly frank, I’m getting exasperated with your infantile thinking. How long before you grow up and use your head—your adult head? It’s all right to have a childlike unfamiliarity with evil; a simple no is all that’s needed there. But there’s far more to saying yes to something. Only mature and well-exercised intelligence can save you from falling into gullibility. It’s written in Scripture that God said,

In strange tongues
    and from the mouths of strangers
I will preach to this people,
    but they’ll neither listen nor believe.

So where does it get you, all this speaking in tongues no one understands? It doesn’t help believers, and it only gives unbelievers something to gawk at. Plain truth-speaking, on the other hand, goes straight to the heart of believers and doesn’t get in the way of unbelievers. If you come together as a congregation and some unbelieving outsiders walk in on you as you’re all praying in tongues, unintelligible to each other and to them, won’t they assume you’ve taken leave of your senses and get out of there as fast as they can? But if some unbelieving outsiders walk in on a service where people are speaking out God’s truth, the plain words will bring them up against the truth and probe their hearts. Before you know it, they’re going to be on their faces before God, recognizing that God is among you. (MSG)

Throughout the history of Christianity there have been faithful saints committed to the cause of Christ, and there also has been professing believers who are inconsistent and irresponsible in their observance of faith. In other words, the church always has been a mix of spiritually mature and immature people.

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church at Corinth precisely because there was a large chunk of people who were just flat out childish. He wanted them to grow up. We anticipate babies are going to cry, poop, sleep, and have others caring for their basic needs. When adults act like babies, it is unacceptable and, well, offensive. We expect better. We need them to pull their weight and be responsible.

Paul addressed the Corinthian’s lack of unity, paucity of wisdom, too much worldliness, inattention to each other, abuse of freedom, and impropriety in worship. To correct this, he pointed them squarely toward love, the one permanent attribute that binds all things together. (1 Corinthians 13)

So, when it came to worshiping together, the church needed a more mature way of handling their meetings. The last thing they needed was worship which made no sense to most people. “I would rather speak five intelligible words that makes sense than ten thousand words in a language other people don’t know,” Paul said. (1 Corinthians 14:19, CEV)

Ministry is to be done guided by love and concern for another’s well-being. Spiritual gifts are not given for one’s own benefit but are provided for the encouragement and edification of others. The exercise of speaking plain truth with exorbitant love to each other does this; and it influences outsiders looking on from the margins. Sensitivity to the needs of those foreign to the church was a premium concern for Paul.

However, there is more to the outsider than simply observing what Christians are doing – the other will speak into the life of the believer. This, of course, ought to surprise no one. After all, God can speak through whomever or whatever, including people from all kinds of ethnic groups (Acts 2:1-12) and even a donkey (Numbers 22:28).

The New Testament lesson for today concerns respecting persons both within the church and outside. For fellow believers, we are to continually speak and act in ways which build up the entire Body of Christ. And, for those who are alien to the church, we are to pay attention to them and have a healthy repartee with them which acknowledges their inherent worth as fellow persons created in the image of God.

Churches and faith communities tend to be full of “insiders.” If they fail to listen to the “outsiders” then ultimately a similar situation to the Corinthian Church will occur. No one group of people have all the answers, so we all need to take a posture of humility and listening with genuine attention and loving focus. This honors the other and demonstrates basic kindness and respect.

Christian maturity is realized when spiritual growth is sustained over time and produces the fruit of wisdom and love. Wherever you find a group of folks who listen well, are attentive to those on the outside, and have an orientation to serving others in a spirit of love and grace, there you will find the Holy Spirit energizing and empowering people toward good deeds on behalf of both church and world.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Acts 2:42-47 – The Community of the Redeemed

Welcome, friends! I hope you sense the great communion of all the saints past and present during this unique time. Simply click the video below, and let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts.

You can also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube

Click Filipino Choir for an 8,600 community voice expressing their praise to God.

Be safe. Be strong. Be spiritual. We’re all in this together.

The Community of the Redeemed

Devoted to Fellowship

It seems everyone has their own ideas about church – what it is and what it should be – whether one needs to be part of a local congregation, or not. No matter the view, we all intuitively know that:

We are created and hardwired for community.

The book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible presents Christian community as the primary means of becoming spiritually formed (Acts 2:42-47). And that community dynamic revolves around Jesus Christ. From a biblical perspective, Christians are not just any old community and not just some random benevolent organization. Christians together are the Church. They are the Community of the Redeemed, purchased from the slave market of sin with the blood of Christ, and devoted to knowing Jesus and making him known.

The early church possessed a group dynamic second to none. To be sure, they had their issues (e.g. antagonisms between Jews and Greeks, and bogus converts attracted by the power). Yet, problems are to be expected because the Light is always going to attract some bugs.

The early church consisted of new converts, having responded to the Apostle Peter’s preaching about Jesus. The transformation of these early followers of Jesus is nothing less than amazing. Many of these very same people had applauded the murder of Jesus. However, after Christ’s ascension, the people realized they were complicit in the death of Jesus and were cut to the heart and changed their minds. In a mass conversion, thousands embraced the grace of God in Christ. They quickly became a group of Christians:

Committed to learning more and more about Jesus; sharing their burdens and blessings together; enjoying communion and eating together; praying with and for each other, confessing sin and seeing new life and fresh spiritual health come in amazing ways.

Two major commitments of the new believers were the basis of the church: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship. Within that close fellowship were firm undertakings to eat and pray together. It is no wonder this curious bunch of people became noticed. After all, sharing food and providing prayer are compassionate activities. In a world starved for basic human kindness, the believers’ attention to the feelings and needs of others must have been a respite to the people around them.

Devoted to One Another

The Christians were hungry for instruction. They craved teaching and fellowship so much that they met every day. They gathered in the Jewish temple, and in homes. That reality of the church so long ago is a clue for the modern church that both large group meetings and small group gatherings are paramount for healthy spiritual growth and development. The gatherings of the early Christians were characterized by a deep engagement of Scripture with one another and of heartfelt participation in fellowship.

Mutual learning and sharing are for everyone – not just for a select few, or for extroverts.

That is why throughout the New Testament the metaphors used to describe the Church emphasize its communal nature. Church as the Body of Christ (biological metaphor), the Temple of God (building metaphor), and as the army of the Lord (battle metaphor) are all images that emphasize the redeemed community’s vital need to work, worship, and have a wide reach together. Indeed, true discipleship happens because of life together.

Metaphors are important; they pack meaning to ideas. So, it is important to be aware of church metaphors which emphasize only the individual and ignore the community. For example, imagining the church as a gas station where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low neglects the community. Get a good sermon and some energizing worship and hopefully you will make it through the week to another service without running out of gas. For other folks, the church is imagined as a movie theatre – which disregards our contribution to community. The emphasis is on a place that offers an hour of escape, and leaving your problems at the door, with the goal of coming out of church feeling better than when you came in. Or some might imagine the church as a pharmacy – a place where you can fill a prescription which will deal with your pain in a slip-in and slip-out sort of way. Others might opt for imagining the church as a big box retailer – a place that “offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family,” along with a marketing model of evangelism: “Come to our church; we offer great service and great programs at a great low price.”

Please, don’t hear what I’m not saying. The church, without question, ought to serve and meet individual needs. And there are times and seasons of life when all an individual can do is consider their own spiritual and emotional health. The problem arises when we only ever function as independent persons who have no intention of being interdependent with others through living the Christian life together. The early church was faithful to learning the Word of God together. They committed themselves to fellowship with one another. They practiced hospitality. The new Christians prayed with each other every day.

The early church’s teachable spirit along with an emphasis on fellowship brought amazing results. Everyone was filled with awe of God. Everyone saw and experienced miraculous events. Everyone looked out for the common good of all. Everyone was glad and content with their simplicity of life. Everyone praised God. Everyone enjoyed the favor of the non-Christians around them. And, all this behavior brought numerous people to faith. This was a group who demonstrated deliverance from empty lives and presented an alternative way to live – a life filled with receiving grace and giving grace to others.

Stained Glass Window

To have that kind of group dynamic, the path the church took was a dedication to Holy Scripture and Christian community every day! Indeed, for healthy churches everywhere, and in all times, congregations continually exhibited courage and vulnerability. The word “fellowship” in Scripture (κοινωνία – pronounced “coin-o-nee-a”) literally means to be “yoked together.” Just as two oxen in a yoke must work together and plod forward being mindful of each other’s steps, so Christians have the invitation to yoke with Jesus and learn from him. Gentleness and humility are sorely needed in this polarized and often petty world we live in. So, the loving participation of fellowship is more than important and influential – it is vital and urgent.

The earliest Christians are portrayed as a group of people who intensely desired the apostles’ teaching and could not get enough of sharing life together as followers of Jesus. They were such curious learners and had such a depth of love and concern for one another that the poor among them knew no shame, and the rich knew no pride. It was a community where the uneducated felt open and free to discover more about Jesus, and the leadership graciously and humbly gave instruction that they had gained from being with Christ.

The type of community life which the early church had might seem to be an ideal which is not possible today. I wholeheartedly disagree. Because I myself have experienced such a group dynamic in my own life. In my college days there were dozens of us who became Christians in a short period of time, much like in the book of Acts. We were a rag-tag group of new believers who deeply hungered for spiritual food and craved the fellowship of one another. We met every day in dorm rooms and cafeterias, at the student union and in the library, and even sometimes in off-campus bars.

Everything we had we shared with each other – both our possessions as well as our hearts and lives.

And there was a solid two year stretch in which the Lord added to our numbers daily those who were being saved. We were attached to our Bibles as if they were a fifth appendage on our bodies. There was no separating us from each other. We needed one another’s Christian fellowship and spiritual support every day. In fact, we needed one another so much that we all ended up marrying each other so that the fellowship did not end.

Oh, my friends, how much we need one another! How much this old fallen world needs a yoke that is gentle, kind, gracious, and loving! Christian disciples are formed and shaped in the context of community. The collective conversations of our experiences and insights; the use of our hands and feet to work together; and, the sharing of our resources and of our time are all necessary for becoming spiritually mature in Christ and blessing the world. Confidence is gained through practice, and the spiritual practice of community is what’s needed.

May the group dynamic and the results of those earliest believers so long ago be our communal experience, as well, as we devote ourselves to the teaching and to the fellowship.