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.

All Saints Day

All Saints Day by Vasily Kandinsky, 1911

In all times and every place throughout history God has specialized in taking imperfect or broken people and transforming their lives. On the Christian Calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us. This day is meant to be a way of not forgetting the people, friends, and family, as well as long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant impact in our spiritual lives.

All Saints Day is much more than a focus on extraordinary persons; it highlights the work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives and persevered to the end. We give thanks for the gift of how they daily lived their faith. We also remember that all believers in Jesus are united and connected.

Remembering is a prominent theme in Holy Scripture. Over a hundred times we are told to remember God’s covenant with people and redemptive actions on their behalf; to remember the needy and those less fortunate; and, to remember the significant persons who influenced us in our journey of faith.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)

The saints of the past are an inspiration to us in the present. They serve us as a model of faithfulness in persevering in our Christian lives. Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were dedicated to God in service, we gain motivation and patience until Jesus returns.

Who were the people in your life that went out of their way to communicate God’s love to you with both words and actions?  Who were those persons who labored behind the scenes in prayer so that you and others would know Jesus? 

If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them. Drop them a note. Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life. You will not only encourage that person – it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

Gordon McDonald, a Christian pastor and writer, at the passing of a lifelong mentor, recalled his loyalty and the crucial counsel he gave in a crisis: “He was there when, many years later, my life fell apart because of a failure for which I was totally responsible. In our worst moments of shame and humiliation, he came and lived in my home for a week and helped me do a searing examination of my wife. I will always remember his words: ‘You are momentarily in a great darkness. You have a choice to make. You can—as do so many—deny this terrible pain, or blame it on others, or run away from it. Or you can embrace this pain and let it do its purifying work as you hear the things God means to whisper into your heart during the process. If you choose the latter, I expect you will have an adventurous future modeling what true repentance and grace is all about.’”

We truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith and patience. We will continue to persevere and thrive in faith when we remember them and allow those here in the present to journey with us along this road of faith.

Today is an intentional day of remembrance. We remember answered prayer and salvation. We recollect the people who gave us the life-giving gospel message in both word and deed. We remember the death of Christ and recall that he said he is coming back.

All Saints Day by Kandinsky, 1913

It is sage to recall events of rescue and pull them forward into the present so that all God’s worshipers can taste and see that the Lord is good. This is exactly what the Apostle Peter did for a church which needed to recall and remember the mighty acts of God:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:2-5, NIV)

Our memories are accessed through symbols and with taste and sight. God uses symbols as a means of revelation. For example, when the Lord wanted to demonstrate the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told the Israelites to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar. It sounds awful. Yet, the worshiper never walked away from the experience scratching his head and wondering what it was all about because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption. His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 

Symbols have the power to access other parts of our being in knowing God. We are more than thinking beings; we are also emotional and sensory creatures. We need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals. Every year faithful Jews gather to remember and re-enact the Passover – the story of how they were enslaved in Egypt, oppressed by Pharaoh, and set free by God. To this day pious Jews still remember the Passover by eating and drinking together and telling stories.

We need both words and sacraments. Therefore, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of kindness and gratitude in giving gifts and sharing food. Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people. Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together. Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of care and redemption. Jesus told the disciples about his upcoming death and provided symbols which reinforced the words. 

“Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – drink from it, all of you” (Luke 22:7-20). Rather than analyzing the bread and discussing the wine’s vintage, the disciples simply ate and drank. They tasted real food and drink. They also tasted real spiritual food. It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.

God is good, all the time; and, all the time, God is good. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us. Christ is present with us through our ritual of fellowship and food. When the sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin was asked how Jesus is present to us at the Lord’s Supper he explained, “Now if anyone asks me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either the mind to comprehend or my words to declare….  I rather experience it than understand it.”

The taste of real bread reminds us of the physical incarnation of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and death. Drinking from the tangible cup reminds us of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, the drops of blood which Jesus sweat in Gethsemane, and the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that caused the bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when celebrating communion reminds us that our sins are forgiven, we are united to Christ, and we are united together. 

There are historical events which happened and are forgotten. Then, there are past actions which linger with continual results into the present. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Lord Jesus are past redemptive events which continue to exert powerful force into the here and now.

Saints throughout church history moved the message of Christ along and demonstrated for us that the past is alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Along with them we proclaim that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. And God has something planned for those who have gone before us, along with us, so that together we will experience the perfect righteousness of Christ forever. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Believers are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ until he comes again. So, let us respond to God’s wooing invitation to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through faith, hope, and love. For God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help.

Genesis 49:1-33 – The Long View

Blessing of the Twelve Tribes

Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.

“Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob;
listen to your father Israel.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, the first sign of my strength,
excelling in honor, excelling in power.
Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
for you went up onto your father’s bed,
onto my couch and defiled it.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
He will tether his donkey to a vine,
his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes will be darker than wine,
his teeth whiter than milk.

“Zebulun will live by the seashore
and become a haven for ships;
his border will extend toward Sidon.

“Issachar is a rawboned donkey
lying down among the sheep pens.
When he sees how good his resting place is
and how pleasant is his land,
he will bend his shoulder to the burden
and submit to forced labor.

“Dan will provide justice for his people
as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan will be a snake by the roadside,
a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
so that its rider tumbles backward.

“I look for your deliverance, Lord.

“Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders,
but he will attack them at their heels.

“Asher’s food will be rich;
he will provide delicacies fit for a king.

“Naphtali is a doe set free
that bears beautiful fawns.

“Joseph is a fruitful vine,
a fruitful vine near a spring,
whose branches climb over a wall.
With bitterness archers attacked him;
they shot at him with hostility.
But his bow remained steady,
his strong arms stayed limber,
because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob,
because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,
because of your father’s God, who helps you,
because of the Almighty, who blesses you
with blessings of the skies above,
blessings of the deep springs below,
blessings of the breast and womb.
Your father’s blessings are greater
than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
than the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the brow of the prince among his brothers.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;
in the morning he devours the prey,
in the evening he divides the plunder.”

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.

Then he gave them these instructions: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.”

When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people. (NIV)

The theme of confidence works its way through the patriarch Jacob’s deathbed prophecies and blessings – a resolute conviction in the promises of God, that he will accomplish what he said he would do. Jacob expressed the hope and sure belief that God would bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan as their inheritance – and, ultimately to the City of God, the eternal inheritance.

The Christian will find much in Judah’s blessing as the promise of the coming Christ, Jesus. Mentioning the implements of “staff” and “scepter” are symbols of authority. And, the reference to a donkey communicated a ruler was coming, as donkeys were the preferred mounts of royalty in ancient times. What is more, the washing of garments in wine, and eyes darker than wine, are allusions to the future blessing and abundance there will be through the tribe of Judah. In fact, the first miracle of Jesus was turning water into wine – a deliberate attempt by the Apostle John to connect Jesus with Old Testament messianic prophecies of abundance and blessing. (John 2:1-12)

long hallway

It is important for us to take the long view of life, keeping in mind that it took eighteen centuries for Jacob’s prophecy of Judah to occur. This long view is what gives us our confidence in life and provides the patience and perseverance we need right now.  Keeping in mind the big picture of God’s work in this world is necessary because if we do not, we will likely become discouraged with the circumstances we face right now.

The reason Jacob makes it into the great Hall of Faith is not because he was squeaky clean and perfect in how he lived his life, but because he took the long view, the big picture, and saw that God was going to fulfill his promises to Israel:

By an act of faith, Jacob on his deathbed blessed each of Joseph’s sons in turn, blessing them with God’s blessing, not his own—as he bowed in worship upon his staff. (Hebrews 11:21, MSG)

Furthermore, when we string the following three verses together across both Testaments, we see the long view of God’s purposes:

It is true that you planned to do something bad to me. But really, God was planning good things. God’s plan was to use me to save the lives of many people. And that is what happened. (Genesis 50:20, ERV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)  

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NKJV)

In the Christian faith tradition, all God’s promises come together and are fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. He is our salvation, our inheritance, and our hope.  To give our lives to him in complete trust of faith is both our challenge and our privilege.

May we live by faith, and not by fear.

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through anxious times, so that we who are wearied by the changes of this life may rest in your eternal steadiness. Keep watch, dear God, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Psalm 130 – Waiting in Hope

waiting

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (NIV)

This psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere. Yet, because the Lord is attentive to the righteous, the cry penetrates heaven and is received. The psalmist only wants to serve God with a new beginning and fresh obedience – and he will wait and hope for liberation from his misery.

We typically use the term “hope” in a wishful thinking sort of way. That is because we are not quite sure if things will shake-out like we want.  But biblical hope is not wishful thinking.  Rather, it is a confident expectation of what is to come. Hope is like anticipating the seasons.  In the dead of winter when it is bitter cold with little sunshine, we hope, and not wish, for Spring because we know it is coming.  It might come in early March, maybe in late April. The trees will bud, the grass will turn green, and the temperature will warm – you can bet your britches on it.

This old world might be messed up and broken right now, but it will not always be this way.  Because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, there is hope, the confident expectation that deliverance from sin, death, and hell will be fully realized. We are saved from the bondage of sin through the cross and resurrection of Christ.  We are delivered into an inheritance which can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for us until the time is right. Meanwhile, we hope with the confident expectation of Christ’s coming again.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:3-6, NIV)

Until our hope is fully realized, we cry out to God and watch for his deliverance. Regarding our salvation, it is accurate to say that we have been saved (from the realm of sin); we are currently being saved (through being made holy in this life); and, we will be saved (when Jesus returns). Liberation from both our personal struggles and the evil machinations of this world is an ongoing process that will only reach its complete fulfillment at the end of the age.

That is why we experience such a weird existence on this earth, a strange amalgam of good and bad.  We not only get mixed messages from the world, but also internally, within our souls, we experience the struggle between right and wrong.  Outwardly, we suffer in all kinds of earthly grief from others who do not understand us.  Inwardly, we have the silent pain and terrible wrestling of wanting to forgive but desiring revenge; of seeking to be gracious but seething with anger; of looking to express kind words but having hate speech blurt out instead.

It will not always be this way. We have a living hope.  Jesus has risen from death. He is alive. He is coming back to judge the living and the dead.  He will take us to be with him forever.  It is the confident expectation of unhindered relationship, with no obstacles of difficult people, and without any systemic evil from organizational structures giving us a hard time.

MLK hope quote

Hope is real. It is just as real as anything we will ever know this side of heaven. We might not always find what we are looking for in this life, yet, in the next life, we shall find the life that is truly life in Jesus Christ, who is our hope. Until then, we are to wait neither idly nor passively. Instead, it is sage for us to do the following:

Occupy the time. One of the best ways to avoid becoming anxious while waiting is to do what we are on this earth to do: be a blessing to others.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited…. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-16, 21, NIV)

Don’t try too hard. Trying to use willpower to squelch anxiety will only prompt even greater anxiety. Accept that we will have to wait and that we are not privy to God’s timetable.

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. (1 Peter 3:7, NLT)

Wait with other people. Waiting with others through talking about our shared hope helps redeem our time in the here and now.

Be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for him to act. Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes. (Psalm 37:7, NLT)

Think of patience as compassion. Becoming impatient about something in life is entirely normal and happens to all of us. Our impatience is a stress response to a situation. Learning to be more patient is a way of being more compassionate to ourselves and others.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12, NIV)

Lord God Almighty, your hope arises with each dawn, pushing back the rubble of our lives. Each new day reminds us of your grace as you paint hope across the sky. Into the deafening cry of hopelessness, you whisper love that catches and holds us. There is no end, just new beginnings. No finish, just new starts. Into your resurrection we follow you into hope. You are alive in the world and in us. So, we carry your hope within our spirits always. Help us to lift our eyes and experience Christ’s resurrection hope arise in our lives through Jesus our Lord. Amen.