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.

God with Us

God with Us

I haven’t always been a Christian.  I know what it is like to feel alone and feel like there is no God, as if I were in a deep, dark pit with no way out and no one there to hear.   I resonate with David in Psalm 40 when he said that God “lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

I have had many people have often asked me the question: “where is God?” in reference to their own slimy pit experience.  What I have learned since in my own dark night of the soul is that God was there all the time.  So, in response to that question of where God is, I can say with both confidence and compassion that he is right here, weeping with you; he is right here, walking alongside you; he is right here, sitting beside you; right here with you if you will have the eyes of faith to see.  I know God is here because it is Christmas; God came down and moved into the neighborhood with us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us (John 1:14).

It was not just Mary that was pregnant with Jesus, but history itself was pregnant because the time had fully come for the kingdom of God to break into this world through a child who would save the people from sin, through an infant, Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:1:21).

What I believe we need to know more than anything is that God is with us!  God is so great that he is not somehow trapped in heaven; he can come down; he wants to come down; he did come down, literally becoming one of us – he is Emmanuel, God with us.

God did not come to this earth with a big advertising campaign letting us know of the grand opening, or with a huge and expensive party to draw attention.  Neither did God come through a rich and powerful family.  Instead, so that he would fully relate to us, to genuinely be with us, he came in through a lowly stable.  There are many theologians and scholars who articulate this truth for all kinds of curious intellects of how this could take place, that God became man.  Yet, sometimes it simply takes a personal story, a testimony so to speak, to bring clarity.  Bono is the lead singer for the pop/rock band U2.  He tells of a time when he returned to his native Dublin, Ireland for Christmas and, on a whim, decided to sit in a church service.  At some point in the worship, he came upon the great realization, with tears streaming down his face, of what it is all about; he says,

“The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough.  That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty, in manure and straw, a child, I just thought, ‘wow!’  I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…. Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered…. Love has to become an action or something concrete.  It would have to happen.  There must be an incarnation.  Love must be made flesh and dwell among us.”

God has descended to our messy, mixed up, broken world, standing with us in our suffering and shame, plunging head long into our pain and hurt and loneliness.  Biblical scholar, Paul Louis Metzger, has wisely pointed out that a God who is simply nice and decent would take pity and send some help, maybe an angel or a prophet – at least some sage advice for us.  And, we would respect that, maybe even be satisfied with it.  But the good news is that God went far beyond nice and decent.  On this very day God became a naked baby.  He was a fetus, then an unwanted pregnancy, then a slimy, screaming baby – he grew up and ended up a criminal, stripped naked, tortured by those who knew not who he was, and condemned to die.  There is nothing nice and decent about that!  It was done for us.

Perhaps you are not feeling close to God this holiday season, but rather far from God.  Perhaps this holiday season brings you more sorrow than joy.  Perhaps the weight of a situation that seems beyond your control has caused you immeasurable worry and concern.  Maybe you are wondering where he is.  I will tell you:  he is right here.  And he is waiting for you to respond to his coming, his Advent, his incarnation.  Throughout the New Testament Gospels Jesus is presented as God with us.  He was with the disciples when the storm struck and threatened their lives, and he rebuked the wind and the waves and saved them; Jesus was with his people as they were rejected by others for preaching that the kingdom of God had broken into this world through the Emmanuel.  Jesus is not an idea, not a myth, not a historical figure to be debated, not a nice guy with some pithy wisdom; he is Emmanuel, God with us!  And he is with us to the point that whatever happens to us, happens to him.

Since he is here, since Jesus is Emmanuel, now is the time to recognize him for who he is.  God with us means that God is here!  Since he is present with us, we can and must respond to his presence by admitting that we have made a mess of things through living by the illusion that we are in control of our lives and living as if he weren’t here at all.  But God is here, and he is looking for us all to center our lives on the person of Jesus, and to give up going our own way and instead pursue knowing God in Christ.

Maybe you are a person who has gone to church all your life, and like me years ago, are familiar with the baby Jesus and Advent wreaths and Christmas carols and worship services.  Yet, you have not come to the point in your life where you seriously and deliberately responded to the presence of God in Jesus and devoted your life to him so that everything centers on him and not you.  One of the realities of Christmas is that God is calling us all to feel the impact of the baby Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and to let that joy fill our souls to overflowing.  The Christmas story is a story of invitation.  We are invited into the story of Jesus.  Come and see the angels singing glory to God; come and see the shepherds praising God for what they have seen and heard; come and see Mary and Joseph rejoicing in the birth of Jesus; come and bend down and see the smelly, lowly manger, and you will see God with us.   You are invited into a new life.

Is There Hope?

manger

Every single hope and longing of your heart is to be found with a baby born two-thousand years ago.  The birth of Jesus Christ is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum on which the entire history of humanity hinges for its purpose and fulfillment.  Come and take-a-peek inside of a smelly room with stinky sheep and the distinct aroma of fresh hay – a dimly lit room which could be the place of any ordinary ancient family – and gaze upon the infant born.  The Christ child entered this world, this banal common space, just for you – to bring to fulfillment all your hopes and dreams.  The hope of the nations, the anticipation of peace on earth is just beginning….

Now your past, with of all its lack of direction, poor decisions, and missed opportunities can fade away.  “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit… name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Now your present circumstances, whether good or ill, have meaning and are not random events with no purpose.  “And the star they [the wise men] had seen in the east went on ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  They were thrilled and excited to see the star.  When the wise men went into the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother, they knelt down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:9-11).

Now your future, which was so uncertain and filled with worry and anxiety, has direction and a trajectory in which to shape your entire life.  “With my own eyes I have seen what you have done to save your people, and foreign nations will also see this.  Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people” (Luke 2:30-32).  “The Word became a human being and lived here with us.  We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.  From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us” (John 1:14).

I was once in the mass of people who were familiar with Jesus, knew the supposed facts of his birth, and gave no real credence to it.  After all, that was then, and this is now.  What has an ancient birth have to do with me today?  But I found within Jesus all that he claimed to be, and discovered that his words and ways were more than worth following.  What is more, I realized that forgiveness is real, grace is enough, faith is as epistemically sound as my five senses, and that the world really does revolve on the axis of love.  That is, if Jesus is at the center of it all.

This season, this most blessed time of year, is truly a call to all humanity.  It is a summons to awaken to God, to discern that he is there wooing you to himself through his Son, the Lord Jesus.  It is an invitation to forsake the old life and familiar path, to strike out and find your heart’s truest hope.  It is the chance to make a difference as a new person.  Your past does not need to define you forever.  Your present is awaiting your next move.  And your future can be bright.  Catholic nun, Sister Joan Chittester, has wisely said:

“The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to re-enter the human race, to take our part in it knowing that it has as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.  It requires us to understand that misfortune is not failure.  It is at most simply a digression through life intended to make us reassess our course, our goals, our aspirations.”

            That reassessment is the opportunity to hope again with the real hope of Christmas and the Christ child.  It is not a call to a job, or necessarily to do something.  Rather, it is an appeal to becoming fully human and alive to the image of God within, awakened by coming to the manger.

Take some time and withdraw to a quiet place, either sitting down in your favorite chair or walk along a secluded path.  Use your imagination in coming to Jesus and see, smell, taste, touch, and hear the birth of the Savior.  What is the sixth sense of faith telling you as you ponder the scene?  How is Christ filling your heart?   Where are the places of your life Jesus is coming and enlarging?  Is there hope as you find an alternative way of sensing God in your life?

How Has Jesus Touched You?

 
 
Touch is one of those things that we likely take for granted.  Yet, touch is very important to everyday life.  Several years ago, Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book entitled “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.”  It is largely a biography of Dr. Brand who pioneered both the diagnosis and prognosis of leprosy.  He discovered that leprosy occurs because of a lack of feeling – an inability to sense touch.  The delicate nerve endings we all have in our fingers and toes are numb to the leper.  The lack of sensing pain in the extremities leads to small cuts or injuries, which would be immediately treated by someone who feels pain, becoming gangrene with the losing of fingers and toes.
 
            When it comes to the spiritual and the emotional, the ability to feel is vitally important.  A calloused unfeeling heart and soul does not realize the damage that is being done to it.  One of the greatest gifts we have as people is the ability to feel guilt, sorrow, disappointment, and pain – it is actually a gift.  It brings about attention to prayer and addressing the situation.  In Luke’s Gospel account, Elizabeth was a godly woman who was sensitive to God.  She was the wife of Zechariah the priest, and came from a family of priests.  Elizabeth was also old and childless.  She believed her opportunity to be a mother was gone forever, and it pained her (Luke 1:5-25, 39-45).
 
            But God specializes in the impossible, and Elizabeth became pregnant with John the Baptist.  My wife and I are definitely past the child bearing years.  If my wife became pregnant right now it would really be a miracle.  But, when I think about it, the real miracle might not be a conception but in having the strength and energy to raise a newborn, a toddler, and make it through the tweener and teen-age years!
 
            Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the niece of Elizabeth.  As soon as Mary approached Elizabeth, the baby within Elizabeth did not just move but leaped in her womb (Luke 1:41).  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit – she felt the touch of Jesus.  Jesus touched Elizabeth’s life in ways she could never have dreamed.  Jesus changed her life.  Elizabeth was never the same after encountering this miraculous touch.  She knew great joy because she first knew great pain and sorrow.
 
            How has the touch of Jesus impacted your life?  As great as Elizabeth’s story is, and your story and my story, it really only points to a much larger and even more significant story:  the birth of Jesus and its significance.  All of our stories have meaning because of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is what made Elizabeth’s story such a great one.  Elizabeth’s response to being touched by Jesus was joy, thanksgiving, and blessing.  She blessed the whole thing.  To be “blessed” is to have God’s stamp of approval on your life.  There is an emotional component to the word.  It is to be happy.  In other words, to recognize God’s grace and goodness through his merciful approval results in the response of being happy and joyous.
 

 

            How has Jesus touched you?  What is your story?  How has that touch changed your life?  How, in response, have you touched Jesus and blessed his heart?  All of our stories are still being written.  Our lives aren’t over yet.  We still have the opportunity of using our lives in a way that will bless the heart of Jesus.  Having the courage and boldness to share our story with another, even in a church setting, has the possibility of not only affirming your own faith, but impacting someone else’s faith, as well.  May we believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished in us.