The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light.
On those living in a pitch-dark land,
light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian,
you’ve shattered the yoke
that burdened them,
the staff on their shoulders,
and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot
of the thundering warriors,
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us,
a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority
and endless peace
for David’s throne
and for his kingdom,
establishing and sustaining it
with justice and righteousness
now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of heavenly forces will do this.
-Isaiah 9:2-7 (CEB)
The promise of Christmas Eve: endless peace for the throne of David—not once upon a time, but endless peace now for all God’s Davids and Davidas, all God’s children everywhere. Humans can talk about peace, pray for peace, even (alas) fight for peace. God comes to bringpeace. God comes as a child, the Prince of Peace—the Wonderful Counselor who alone can reconcile everything. God is the one who can make peace happen. But where is God’s endless peace?
When is it? Now, says God.
It is a gift.
Take it and rejoice.
Take it and live.
Take it and use it well.
The glory and brilliance of the night sky is a great comfort. I am always thrilled to walk under a dark clear night sky and observe the grandeur of the universe on display. The familiar constellations and the band of our galaxy – the Milky Way – inspire awe and acknowledgement of our place in the universe. I am at peace – surrounded by the God who created the cosmos as an expression of love.
When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt. When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving. Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were no more. After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.The text is filled with nighttime experiences for Joseph, Mary and the child, Jesus. It contains fear, intrigue, visions and a longing for home. I believe that the night sky provided a way to find direction for this family seeking to avoid danger. Imagine the brilliance of the stars over the desert with no light pollution at that time! As the family traveled alone, the comfort of the Universe Maker guided their way. -Matthew 2:13-23 (CEB)
The night sky was a map in the night. Joseph knew the constellations and how to follow them to arrive safely in Egypt and in Galilee. The wise men from the East had followed the unexpected star to find the child king. In an interesting contrast, the holy family followed the constancy of the constellations in the night sky to find protection.
The tenuous nature of Jesus’ early years – that of being forever threatened – reminds me that God understands us when the pressures of life perplex us. Taking a walk under the night sky is a way of reengaging our connection with the God who cares and provides a way.
It was always about this point in December when I just knew I was going to crack under all the pressure. Christmas is still three days away. Three more days I have to be kind and courteous. And, of course, three more days of trying to concentrate enough to finish school! And if I crack and do something bad there’s a good chance I’ll find a lump of coal in my stocking and no presents under the tree. It’s a terrible strain to be a kid three days before Christmas!
Don’t complain about each other, brothers and sisters, so that you won’t be judged. Look! The judge is standing at the door! Brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord as an example of patient resolve and steadfastness.Look at how we honor those who have practiced endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job. And you have seen what the Lord has accomplished, for the Lord is full of compassion and mercy. -James 5:9-11 (CEB)
Growing up doesn’t remove the impatience from life, especially when we are suffering. And many people find the Christmas season actually seems to increase their suffering. These issues include sickness, depression, grief, and being misunderstood by the people we care about.
That’s what happened to the prophets who spoke in God’s Name before Christ came into this world. They warned the people of their sins, and they called them to turn and repent. But the people of Israel didn’t want to hear what they had to say. They rejected God’s messengers, mistreating them, beating them, imprisoning them, and even putting some of them to death.
Still the prophets faithfully warned the people about God’s coming wrath and punishment. But Israel continued its stubborn rebellion. The prophets kept preaching and nothing happened. Days turned into months, months turned into years, and yet sinners kept on sinning and everything remained the same. The prophets were ridiculed because their message didn’t seem to be coming true.
But the prophets learned patience. Though they suffered they knew God was true. When His time was right, all their prophecies would come true-both the warnings God had given in patience and the promises of a Savior God had made in love for His people.
We can learn from their patience. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God has given us many great promises. These include a final victory over sin, death, and hell and an eternal life with Him in the new heavens and the new earth. Christmas is a great reminder of God’s faithfulness. He keeps every promise He makes. God grant you patience through your sufferings, especially this Christmas.
I grew up thinking our living room was the natural place for a Christmas tree. But after I had grown up it finally dawned on me-a tree is not supposed to be sitting right in the middle of your living room! It’s totally out of place there! Trees belong outside in the yard! In fact, in recent years we decorated one evergreen tree in our front yard with lights, ornaments, and bows. The tree belongs outside-where it can live and grow year round. Cutting a tree down and setting it up inside a house is an out of place location for a tree.
He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said: The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.” John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. -Matthew 3:3-5 (CEB)
That phrase “out of place” fit John the Baptist perfectly. John wore different clothing from everyone else, and he ate very different food from everyone else, and he lived in a very different place than everyone else. Why? Because John was the prophet God sent to prepare the way for His Son. His message was repent! In other words, reverse the direction of your life because the Kingdom of God is at hand.
We too must recognize how often we are going the wrong way in life because of our sinful nature. We often see it pretty clearly in our broken family relationships, our strained friendships, and our divided congregations. Just like an evergreen tree that is cut down and then propped up in a living room and decorated, we are all dying.
John came to show us why we need a Savior. So John dressed differently, and he preached out in the wilderness. And if you wanted to hear what God had to say to you through John, you had to go out of place too. You had to join him in the wilderness. His location teaches us to leave our old way of thinking and our old way of life to meet and travel together with our humble King.
Just as John the Baptist left his home in the hill country of Judea to live in the wilderness, Jesus left His heavenly throne and lived among us. The glorious Son of God, Creator of all, became a human baby and lived out His earthly life among us in poverty and want. He was rejected, suffered, and died that we might find peace and forgiveness. Jesus was out of place on earth so that you and I would be made right for heaven, His home.
As we travel through these final days of Advent, let us recognize our sinful nature and repent. May these final days of Advent be a time of reflection and recognition.
Isaiah 12 has been called the Thanksgiving hymn. It is a surrendering to the Messiah and enjoys the benefits of that surrender.
God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid. Yah, the LORD, is my strength and my shield; he has become my salvation.” You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. And you will say on that day: “Thank the LORD; call on God’s name; proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples; declare that God’s name is exalted. Sing to the LORD, who has done glorious things; proclaim this throughout all the earth.” Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the holy one of Israel is great among you. -Isaiah 12:2-6 (CEB)
In this section of Isaiah, the people of Israel are coming out of a time when God was angry with them for their arrogance and lack of trust in him. What God demonstrates and the people discover is that even through the anger, God still loves them and wants to comfort them. Once that love and caring is rediscovered, we read in Isaiah 12, great joy is exclaimed.
The story in Isaiah has often played out for me to see in my own life. Even though I am many years past childhood, I still wonder, how many times growing up did I anger my parents, the very people that wanted to love and comfort me? At the time of their anger, my world seemed out of balance and bleak. As the anger dissipated and I again felt their love and comfort, my life again regained its balance. Joy returned as I realized the depth of their love.
The same can be said for my relationship with the Lord. When I don’t trust, act arrogant, rely on myself and forget to give thanks, then the Lord reminds me of this and my life feels out of balance. Once I remember that the Lord wants to love and comfort me, then I feel that joy.
At the time of Isaiah, the Lord Jesus was being prophesied. The people of Israel very clearly felt the wrath and anger of God. I am living in a different time, one where I still know that God can become angry at his children, but a time when the Messiah that was prophesied in Isaiah has come and is my peace. How blessed am I that I can live in this peace.
Christmas is so close we can feel it. There is a glimmer of light and hope and it is so close that we can feel it. But there is still darkness around us and it is hard to have hope at times. Today is one of those mornings. My wife’s stepfather passed away early this morning and people are grieving his death. Despite the coming of the Messiah it seems there is little hope and the darkness closes in again around us.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Revelation 21:1-4 (CEB)
It is tough to think about suffering, pain, and dying because the Messiah has come already. That is what Christmas is all about. We celebrate the birth of our Savior with a deep sense of hope and gratitude because things are set right. So we think but the birth of Christ was just the beginning of the renewal of Creation. Christ’s coming was the first note sounding long ago. It is this hope that allows to continue day to day in the hope of God’s grace.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. He’s the first crop of the harvest of those who have died. Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ. Each event will happen in the right order: Christ, the first crop of the harvest, then those who belong to Christ at his coming, and then the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he brings every form of rule, every authority and power to an end. It is necessary for him to rule until he puts all enemies under his feet. Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end. -1 Corinthians 15:20-26 (CEB)
It is these words from Paul that I believe give us the best sense of Advent and the waiting. You see God has already started the work of the renewal of Creation. It began with Christ and is spreading out from there. All those who die in Christ do not die without hope but with the hope of a resurrection. Those of us who are still here know this and we hope in that resurrection. All will be set right when Jesus comes again. That is the true hope of Advent. We still live in a time of darkness but there is a time of light that is coming. We know this and we hope for this. The final enemy to be destroyed in the end is death. It will bring us back to Revelation – death will be no more.
As we quickly move towards Christmas, let us together hope for the end of death. Let us look, in joyful anticipation, for the coming of the Lord.
The one who bears witness to these things says, “Yes, I’m coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! -Revelation 22:20 (CEB)
Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from heaven! Praise God on the heights! Praise God, all of you who are his messengers! Praise God, all of you who comprise his heavenly forces! Sun and moon, praise God! All of you bright stars, praise God! You highest heaven, praise God! Do the same, you waters that are above the sky! Let all of these praise the LORD’s name because God gave the command and they were created! God set them in place always and forever. God made a law that will not be broken. Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all you ocean depths! Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke, stormy wind that does what God says! Do the same, you mountains, every single hill, fruit trees, and every single cedar! Do the same, you animals— wild or tame— you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly! Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person, you princes and every single ruler on earth! Do the same, you young men— young women too!— you who are old together with you who are young! Let all of these praise the LORD’s name because only God’s name is high over all. Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven. God raised the strength of his people, the praise of all his faithful ones— that’s the Israelites, the people who are close to him. Praise the LORD! -Psalm 148 (CEB)
During Advent, we typically focus closely on the coming of God’s gift, his son Jesus. We praise him for that and show our gratitude in different ways. God has given us more than his Son, but he has blessed us with such a beautiful earth to live on. God burst in and created the heavens and the earth, and we give him our ultimate praise.
The language of this passage is beautiful because it begins with the exclaiming praises of the heavens, and continues on, describing the different parts of God’s creation that are showing praise. The skies and waters, the mountains and trees, the animals that cover the earth, princes and kings, people of all kinds, even the stormy weather and sea monsters of the great deep. God is above all creation, and deserves to be honored and praised. Whenever I step outside, I cannot help but be amazed at God’s incredibly beautiful world. Even in the pouring rain, God’s creation is exclaiming his name. I feel God’s presence and hear creation’s praise through the roaring of the wind, the beauty of the white snow and the chirping of the birds. God shows his light on the earth both physically and spiritually. He sent his son to be a light to us, and as we anticipate the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we can praise God for all of his wonderful gifts to us.
In this last week of Advent, we are filled with hope that leads us to praise God for all he has done. Let us rejoice in the last week as we look towards Christmas and keep our focus on what truly matters. Don’t stress the big or little stuff, enjoy the time, enjoy the darkness, enjoy the hope of the season. Praise the LORD!
This is not only a time of waiting and preparing; it is also a time of joyful anticipation. A sense of expectancy is most deeply felt on this the fourth Sunday of Advent – both because we are moving close to the birth of Jesus and begin this Sunday the readings from the Old and New Testament focus on the coming of the Messiah as fulfilled in the birth of Christ.
The prophecy of Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes to pass at the moment when Mary hears the angel’s message and conceives Christ. The fourth Sunday of Advent is traditionally the Sunday when the annunciation is read in church. The archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become pregnant and give birth to the Son of God.
When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” -Luke 1:26-38 (CEB)
Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”
Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
In hearing the Gospel account, we marvel along with Mary at hearing the words of the angel – and we enter the same hope. In our human experience, there is no form of anticipation more cherished than that of an expectant mother. As with pregnancy, so with our spiritual lives: the thing anticipated in already forming within us. Along with Mary, our waiting is transformed into an intimately felt presence.
During this week, then, focus shifts: we begin to prepare for the nativity of Christ. The coming of the Lord is near. Our anticipation is embodied in the liturgy during this final week in the form of ancient antiphons such as O Radiant Dawn and ultimately O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
During the last days of Advent, popular customs around the world also orient our attention to the events immediately leading up to Jesus’ birth. The Hispanic tradition of Las Posadas is an example of communal preparation for Christ’s birth: the whole community re-enacts Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay. The couple wander from home to home in the neighborhood and households refuse to let them. The procession ends at the designated home that finally lets them in. Then begins the celebration in which carols are sung and Scripture is read, especially passages describing Mary and Joseph’s journey.
In this final Advent Sunday, we open our doors to the arriving Savior. “God with us” has become a reality in the womb of a young girl. As we attend to the events leading up to Christmas, our sense of anticipation turns to joy.
Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.Don’t be anxious about anything; rather bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 4:4-7 (CEB)
What does “The Lord is near” mean in verse 5 of today’s Scripture?
This phrase first stuck in my memory when someone shared it with me when I was having a rough day. Things were going wrong and this person said, “Take heart, the Lord is near.” What an odd thing to say. Did he mean that God is around me? Did he mean that Jesus’ return was soon? Did he mean both?
Some scholars think this phrase is about timing and is connected to the previous two sentences in today’s Scripture passage. They say that “The Lord is near” means “Jesus is coming again very soon,” so rejoice always and treat others gently in preparation for his coming.
Some scholars think that “The Lord is near” is about proximity and is connected to the following verses. It means “God is present and attentive to us” so don’t worry about anything. Take your needs and your gratefulness to God in prayer. The Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson expresses this thought memorably in his poem “The Higher Pantheism:”
Speak to Him for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet.
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.
Either way, the words bring comfort as we near the final week of Advent. As we look to celebrate both the incarnation of Jesus and the joyful hope that the Lord is near, we know we can take comfort that he is around us. Jesus is coming soon. God is present here and now. These are both beautiful truths to ponder and proclaim during Advent.
“Till we meet, till we meet,
Till we meet at Jesus’ feet;
Till we meet, till we meet,
God be with you till we meet again.”
I love this old hymn by 19th-century abolitionist and Congregationalist minister Jeremiah Rankin. The old hymns offer something we often miss is our fast paced world. This is a wonderful prayer of hope and love that is perfect for this season of the year.
To sing these words is to remind ourselves of the promise that we do not walk alone on the journey of life. Wherever we go, however far we wander from the warm embraces of those we know and love, we are held in the unfailing arms of the God who knows and loves us, the God who became fully human to walk beside us as Emmanuel, “God with us.”
A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. -Isaiah 9:6 (CEB)
The Bible tells the stories of people desperate for the promise of “God with us”: a novice king fearing for his life; an upright Jewish man with a pregnant fiance; a suffering people longing for restoration. Perhaps these stories, and many others throughout Scripture, remind us of our own. Forces beyond our control threaten our safety and well-being. A sudden change in our relationships leaves us feeling lost and confused. Grief, anger and worry overwhelm us. How quickly we forget that the Word became flesh and lived as one of us, sharing in our sadness and our joy, our triumphs and failures, our fear and our hope.
During this Advent season, in the midst of our uncertain lives, may we hope and trust in the promise of Emmanuel. God is with us all, now and forever.
The title of this post comes from The Magnificat or Mary’s song as found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. If you would like a little background on it here it is. Mary, after a visit from Gabriel, has journeyed to be with her cousin Elizabeth who offers prayer and joy when she sees Mary. In response, Mary sings/prays the Magnificat. The rest of the text follows below:
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” -Luke 1:46-55 (CEB)
During the third week of Advent, we have been on this journey for some time. We are looking for the light; we are looking for the Savior and Messiah. We have traveled through darkness waiting as we reflect and prepare ourselves. It may seem that there is no hope but then we have a glimmer of light. This week we have lit the rose candle. This week, we have turned towards Christmas and we look to Mary and her example. This week, we have hope.
In some traditions, Mary is the focus of this week while in other traditions, she is simply given a quick look and they move in. I am not here to criticize the views of traditions but I would like to look at the example of Mary and how we can apply it to our own lives.
Most people agree that Mary was around 14 or so when Gabriel visited her. She lived in a culture where women had no rights outside of their fathers/brothers/husbands control. While not considered property, they were not always considered humans either. Mary was promised to Joseph as was the tradition and suddenly she was pregnant! She brought dishonor to her family and Joseph. In a culture that took pride in honor, this was serious business. Mary brought shame to her family (no one was worried about the shame she brought to herself but that is another story).
The question for us to consider is why. Why did she do this to her family? Why did she do this to herself? What qualities did she have that would allow her to accept this humiliation? The easy answer would be to say that if an angel of the Lord came and visited, I might accept what was told to me and go and do it. That is an easy answer but I think it is the wrong answer because it does not give Mary enough credit.
Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. -Luke 1:38 (CEB)
Could it be that Mary had a deep faith in God? The kind of faith that would allow her to accept God’s will is a faith we all should strive for. I am not saying she blindly accepted God’s will but she was willing to accept it knowing the consequences. That is not blind faith but rather a strong faith.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind;
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When halfspent was the night
We are in the home stretch towards Christmas. We are preparing (hopefully more than just our houses and shopping lists) to welcome the Messiah. We are reflecting on what it means to be a Christian as we look in joyful hope towards the coming of our Christ. As we travel through the remainder of Advent, may Mary’s example be a light to us. May we grow in faith – a faith that will allow us to be not of this world or at least not to be concerned with what this world things – and welcome God’s presence into our lives.
To some people, the Church seems to focus on the negative this time of the year. As we move through Advent, many of the scriptures read and pondered focus not only on darkness but on death and destruction. We look towards the end of the world which frankly terrifies many people because we read the book of Revelation. While this may be a focus of the Church, it is not one of terror but one of hope.
…and then the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he brings every form of rule, every authority and power to an end. It is necessary for him to rule until he puts all enemies under his feet. Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end…-1 Corinthians 15:24-26 (CEB)
We understand that life as we know it cannot go on forever. It is a reality of our existence – we die and so do all the people and things around us. Death is simply a part of life even though we do not like it.
To me, that is the significance of Advent. Our waiting and focus on darkness is because we do live in a world of darkness. We have war, famine, death, and economic troubles. We live in dark times just like this season of Advent is a time of darkness. But we also wait in joyful hope that Jesus is coming again (soon or not, he is coming) and when we does, things will be made new. Things will be set right. Things will be as God intended for creation to be in the beginning.
Think to the incarnation of God into the world. Jesus came as the Messiah to bring people back to God. He taught and healed all with the purpose of showing people the path back to God – through him. His teachings were radical for this time (and for ours as well) and the people in power put him to death. It was through this death that God did an amazing thing – Jesus was resurrected from the dead thus beginning the destruction of death. The hope of that first Christmas led to the hope of Easter (we can’t have one without the other).
During Advent, we look at ourselves and prepare to meet Christ wherever and however he comes. We wait in joyful hope of his coming again to renew creation and bring us into the full reality of the presence of God. It may be a time of darkness but it is a hopeful darkness because at the end, there will be everlasting Light and everlasting life as we live with God forever.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. -Revelation 21:4 (CEB)
Jesus’ coming is not something to be feared but something to be hoped for because in the end there will be no more tears and even death will be no more. Come, Lord Jesus, come!
that breathtaking space in-between
what has been, what is, what is-to-come.
Where winter dreams reveal secret longings
and winged angels announce the coming of Love.
You draw us to the edge of Advent possibility
like the song of angels drawing shepherds—
eyes wide and breath held—
Come, settle into our living for awhile
and do not let us settle for too little.
-Pamela C. Hawkins
When we get to advent, it is a time of great anticipation for the Church. Often, we hear that the whole world is looking forward with anticipation for the arrival of Christ, the redeemer, the Human One. Sometimes, in our excitement, we assume it was the same some 2000 years ago…
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. -Luke 1:1-7 (CEB)
If we cast our imaginations back to the first Christmas, the idea that all of creation is waiting with bated breath for the coming of the Messiah seems only natural. But I want to suggest that this could not be further from the truth.
Mary and Joseph, first of all, were on the long journey from Nazareth, in Galilee to Bethlehem, in Judea (a journey of some 70 miles as the crow flies). Travelling in the last stages of pregnancy, by donkey, would have been horrible: but doing the journey with a baby would have probably cost the child its life, and maybe Mary hers as well. They needed to reach their destination before Mary could safely give birth, and before they would have had the necessary provisions for the baby. Giving birth on the road was unthinkable. Far from looking forward with anticipation to his birth, Mary and Joseph were almost certainly dreading it happening early.
The friends and family of Mary and Joseph would have been busy fussing about, getting to their own places of birth for the census. There would not have been time for a baby shower, no gifts or old toys and clothes to inherit from family members and close friends. This was the most inconvenient time for their friends to have a baby.
When the young couple finally arrived in Bethlehem, all the inns were full up. They had nowhere to go except a cave, used for housing animals. ‘I’m sorry that you’re pregnant, I really am, but there’s not a lot I can do…’ you can hear the poor, over-burdened receptionist saying it now.
Even the Magi, contrary to popular wisdom, are not due to arrive on the scene for a couple of years yet. Herod killed all the toddlers because Jesus would have been 2 or 3 by the time the Magi got there.
And so it came to pass, in those days, that in the cave used to shelter and feed the animals, the Son of God entered into this earth, incarnate as a frail, human baby. His two earthly parents were exhausted, the inn was full, and this was no occasion for a great celebration. The whole fabric of creation did not tremble before the Human One; the world kept turning, and this insignificant event passed by without anyone even turning their head…
Christ entered this world the way he spent most of his life in it: in secret. Even Mary and Joseph, who had been told by an angel that their son was going to be special, seemed frequently to forget it. When the young Jesus, for example, decided to stay in the Temple with the teachers, and his parents thought he was lost, they did not understand him when he said ‘Did you not know I would be in my Father’s house?’
The life of Jesus was not particularly unique. There were many wandering prophets, teachers and healers in Galilee and Judea in that period of history. Even Jesus’ teachings were not particularly unique. Rabbi Hillel the Elder had taught in the 1st Century BCE that the totality of the Torah could be explained by the phrase “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”. Throughout his ‘active’ life, most of the people Jesus encountered addressed him as ‘Rabbi’, meaning ‘teacher’. Prior to this, of course, he was simply the local carpenter, son of the local master carpenter.
In Mark’s Gospel, the Disciples do not realize that Jesus is the Christ until exactly halfway through the written text, and very much toward the end of Jesus’ life. When they finally figure it out, Jesus’ response is both joyful, but cautionary: ‘finally you’ve worked it out! now do not tell anyone!’
And so the coming of God into the world of men, as a man, was a largely unanticipated event, and was largely unknown to anyone who met the Human One. He came and lived among us, and went undetected.
It is this, I believe, that points us ultimately to the story of Easter. The Secret Christ- not hidden, not playing games, not being deceitful- came; and we, sinful as we are, could not notice the real deal. The whole of creation was oblivious. And so, when Christ was nailed to a tree, having been beaten and broken by the world, sin and evil appear to have won another victory: another act of hatred, violence, death.
When evil entered into the broken man on the tree, it expected nothing out of the ordinary. It did not perceive that it had entered into the Human One, could not, perhaps, have anticipated that God would ever become incarnate. Evil, tricked by its own blindness, as was all of creation, entered into God and was consumed by him. Death was unable to hold the Human One, and so it was overcome.
Advent and Christmas point us, always, to Easter. It is in the story of Easter that the Christ becomes revealed fully. Prior to Easter, all we have are whispers on the wind…
Waiting is a big part of the Bible. It’s a theme that comes to the fore between Ascension Day and Pentecost, when Jesus told his disciples to go and WAIT in Jerusalem. He was none too specific about how long to wait, or even what to wait for. “Power from on high” was the mysterious promise. But wait they did, and when the curious promise was fulfilled, they were in no doubt that it had happened.
Lent is also about waiting, but not so much waiting FOR as waiting ON - putting the rest of life on hold to wait in a consciously devoted way for the presence of God to pervade the soul. Lent waiting has a wilderness quality to it – a deprivation of the things of ordinary life in order to become one with God.
Advent waiting has a subtly different touch to it. This is a waiting with hope and anticipation for God to break into our world. According to Christian tradition, the first waiting is for the Messiah or Saviour to enter the world – a waiting and anticipation reflected in the promises of God to the Patriarchs, the dreams of the prophets, and the prayers of generations of saints. The second waiting is for the return of Christ in glory, heralding the end of this era. Advent is waiting for Christmas, but it’s also waiting for the great maranatha.
Waiting for the Messiah was not a passive waiting, but an aching, a longing, a reaching-towards. I love the words of Simeon, a very, very old man who had spent his whole life waiting and longing for the salvation of Israel. Did he know what he was waiting for? Probably not, in exact terms. But somehow when he saw the child Jesus he just knew that this, at last, was what he had been waiting for.
A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” -Luke 2:25-32 (CEB)
There is a paradox in this that sums up so much of our faith – the drive to reach out, move forwards and make something happen is constrained by the need to wait on, wait for, the initiative of God’s spirit. You can’t force the work of God. Neither can you go to sleep on the job. I suppose that gives us our model of waiting for Christ in glory too – although here, perhaps like waiting for Pentecost, or for death, the promise has very little tangible shape to it because it is a matter of waiting for something beyond our experience. We have no categories or pictures with which to describe what it means that Christ will come again in glory. We just know, somehow, that while we live in celebration that God has broken into our world, yet we are still waiting and longing for something more. Like Bono said, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Not a passive waiting though – not just lying back despondently, waiting for God to come and fix things. Living to the full, building the “kingdom of heaven” here and now, in the only life that we know we have. But doing it from a well of hopeful dissatisfaction. Waiting and longing.
Yup, you read that right. I said “Merry …..mas!” There is a movement that has been around for some time to keep Christ in Christmas and it makes sense or we would celebrate …..mas. I am suggesting that we do just the opposite and keep Christ out of Christmas. That’s right. Keep him out. For those who have their suspicions about me, I suppose this confirms what you think but let me explain more about what I am thinking.
Look around you this time of year. You see people rushing around to find the perfect gifts (not to mention going into debt to buy them). People have parties, concerts, programs, and dinners to attend to. People have to find just the right decorations and Christmas cards to send. All the while, they totally miss the ‘reason for the season’ because they are just too busy.
I think of today’s lectionary Gospel text from John which says:
A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’” -John 1:6-15 (CEB)
If you read carefully, you will notice that I emphasized a certain verse. I think that sums up the season better than anything else. We are so busy that we have failed to recognize the light coming into the world. We are so busy preparing for Christmas that we have forgotten about Christ.
Now, we could put Christ back into Christmas as the movement suggests but I don’t think that is the right answer. Christmas was never about Jesus to begin with. It was the Church’s answer to a pagan holiday. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love this time of year but I want to remind you that Jesus came into the world and people didn’t notice. Remember the verse above? The light came to his own people who had been waiting for over 400 years for the Messiah and yet they didn’t know it was him. He came in a stable in the night and no one noticed because they were too busy living their lives.
Sound familiar? We are doing exactly the same thing as we prepare for Christmas. We are too busy to notice Jesus entering into the world around us. Literally during Advent, we are awaiting the second coming of Jesus but then Jesus is already here and present around us – we just don’t notice.
Crowded street, busy feet hustle by him
Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh
There he sits all alone on the sidewalk
Hoping that you won’t pass him by
Should you stop?, better not, much too busy
You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly
In the distance the ringing of laughter
And in the midst of the laughter he cries
How often do you rush by someone and fail to see Jesus? When was the last time you stopped and noticed the joy of creation singing praises to God. This year, I invite you to separate Christ from Christmas and celebrate the incarnation by stopping and looking and noticing that Jesus is already here among us.
By the third Sunday in Advent, truthfully, scarcely any of us is really in the mood for what John the Baptist has to say with threats of doom and gloom, with cries for fruit-bearing repentance, and warnings of winnowing forks and unquenchable fire.
Even the late bloomers among us are beginning to get with the program and acknowledge that Christmas is only 13 shopping days away. The parties are underway, the reveling is rolling, and people are fully in the swing of the holiday season.
After all, the pink candle on the Advent wreath is now lit, reminding us to rejoice and to take heart in the night as earth crawls to its darkest day. Today we are reminded that we have just a bit more darkness to go (2 weeks to be exact) until we can celebrate and sing:
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.
So can’t we just stick with the pink candle and rejoice and think happy thoughts of Christmas coming rather than deal with this biblical Scrooge, John? Every other reading from the scriptures for today exhort us to take joy & rejoice. The prophet Zephaniah proclaims:
Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. (3:14 CEB)
Paul reminds us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again he says, Rejoice!” The word Paul uses is gaudete — rejoice, 2nd person plural, all of you! Y’all rejoice! And so for centuries this Sunday has been called Gaudete Sunday. And so we sing and rejoice and light pink candles and “here we go a’wassailing” and eat another Christmas cookie, and…
…And then along comes good ol’ John. Reminding us that in addition to rejoicing, there is that other “R” word that is to be on the tips of our tongues as we are making our way through Advent: and that word is repent. In Greek, metanoia, repentance: to turn, or to turn around. In other words, God allows U-turns.
And though at first hearing we may think we have a party pooper on our hands, wet blanket and all, John’s words from the banks of the Jordan River need to be heard along other peoples’ lives not ours. Rejoice, yes! And repent, yes also! Going the wrong way? Heading in a direction you ought not be headed? Repent! God allows U-turns. Rejoice! The two words need not be mutually exclusive and indeed for John they are not. Gaudete and metanoia. Rejoicing and repentance.
For in order to be ready for the Coming One, John’s word for us is that we maybe need to re-arrange the furniture in our hearts and souls to make room for the one who is to come. Sometimes the clutter gets in the way, and we find ourselves distracted by things that are secondary and forget what is primary. So to us, even as to the crowds along the banks of the Jordan, John says “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” And in every case, to those who asked him “What then should we do,” John’s response was — in essence — “Take stock. Take inventory. Share of your means. Care for the needy. Practice truth and justice. Make unselfish choices. Share. Live within your means. Do the right thing. Keep no more than you need. Share. Be fair. Treat others with care. Be honest and just in all your dealings. Oh, and did I say share?”
To repent is nothing more than turning away from the selfish part of ourselves, our self-directed ways, and to turn once again toward God. And then, says John, when we do that we are in a posture of expectancy and receptivity — ready to receive the One who comes to baptize us with his Holy Spirit and fire: his blazing fire of justice, his enlightening fire of truth, his white-hot fire of love which burns for all the world.
And that, my friends, is a holy fire we can rejoice in.
The LORD your God is in your midst— a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. -Zephaniah 3:17 (CEB)
Repenting is a gift and a joy when we know that the One to whom we are turning is among us as one who does not judge us. Perhaps the best news of this Gaudete Sunday is buried in the words of the prophet Zephaniah who, just after exhorting us to rejoice and exult with all of our hearts, says “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” And not only does God take away all judgment against us, but God also “will rejoice over you with gladness, (God) will renew you in his love; and will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
So you see, not only is this a day of repenting and rejoicing for us, it is also one of repenting and rejoicing for God. For God has repented (turned away) from judgment toward us and has redirected the divine self toward rejoicing over us! Imagine! God exults over you with loud singing! Imagine! God takes joy in you! Imagine! God sings loudly on account of you! In other words, God is simply tickled pink with you. Overjoyed that you are his child. Beside Godself with glee so much so that God came down to be with us, become one of us, in Jesus.
Now that’s cause for true rejoicing.
And a truly happy reason for repenting.
God: tickled pink. For you. For us.
I really am not. It’s that simple. I am not good at waiting. In fact, I am terrible at waiting and Advent 2011, a time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah, is significant for me. I am waiting to go home. I am waiting to see my family. I will have spent most of Advent away from my family but I am waiting in joyful hope and anticipation for that reunion.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. -Isaiah 9:2 (CEB)
As I approached advent this year I have been very conscious of the above words from Isaiah. These words speak of the contrast between dark and light. We don’t easily talk about darkness nor are we comfortable living in darkness. At this time of year we like the sparkle of fairy lights, the warm glow of artifical lights, but not the great light, and certainly not darkness. I’ve wondered what it means to walk in darkness. Is it not knowing where you are walking? Does it mean not knowing what’s ahead of you? Is darkness everything that is not of God – injustice, violence, terror, abuse, disease, and death? And if this is darkness what is deep darkness?
It seems we start advent walking in darkness. Then as the season unfolds our gaze is lifted upwards to see the greatness of the light that is on the horizon. As we see it is coming on the horizon we recognise we need to rid ourselves of the artifical light to make room for the great light. And as we rid ourselves of the artifical lights so we become conscious of the darkness. As we continue to live in darkness a light dawns. Our eyes are drawn to this light. As the light breaks we start to see again. We might only see a chink or ray but we wait in ancipation of the dawning of the fullness of light. In those chinks and rays we wait. We watch for the brightness of the midday. We become intrigued by the light and how it dispels the darkness. We are in awe of the light for through it we begin to see. Our whole being is uplifted and peace fills our hearts.
In this chink of light we don’t forget the darkness nor do we disregard the coming of the fullness of light. Instead we wait in that mid-point in time. In it we pray “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” My prayer this year is that the light of the world might shine in the darkness; and particularly being with those that experience a chink or a ray admist the darkness.
Veni, veni Emmanuel,
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio
Privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude! Emmanuel
nascetur pro te, Israel.
-Latin hymn, 12th century, tr. John Neale 1818-1866
This carol may have some of the richest of all the Biblical imagery in our Advent hymns. Its ancient, 12th century Latin text is economical and elegant. It is the kind of song that could persuade many Protestants that a bit of Latin is appropriate in worship. (The 15th century tune is beautiful as well.)
The song calls upon Jesus to “ranson captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here.” N.T. Wright has recently underlined the theme of “homecoming from exile” in his writing on Jesus’ ministry and message. The exiles of God’s people were political and spiritual; personal and private. We sing this carol today and remember that the world is full of “exiles,” near and far. Christ comes to gather them all into a new community.
But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name; healing will be in its wings so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall. -Malachi 4:2 (CEB)
The song bids the Lord of Sinai to come to us in the perfect law-keeper, Jesus. It invites the branch of Jesse and the Key of David to once and forever bring the “government” that the prophets promised and that even Abraham longed for. David’s Kingdom is only a shadow of the Kingdom that entered the world in Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of David moved from glory to shame. The Kingdom of Jesus moves from shame to glory. So, to those to whom this child comes, there is something all persons long for: Peace on earth and goodwill among all made in God’s image, but living in the shambles and broken promises of a thousand petty earthly Kingdoms and trembling empires.
He is the Dayspring from on high, the light that those in darkness have waited for. Jesus is the light of life, and his arrival in our world is a time of rejoicing. The lighting of Advent candles is most appropriate to remind us that the light draws near, and will dawn in Bethlehem, on Easter and at the end of history.
He is the incarnate Wisdom of God. Ordering the path of earthly knowledge, but revealing to us the only knowledge that truly matters. He is the great “Desire of Nations,” bringing all the world into himself, and into one Kingdom with one Lord and one Father.
There is no richer hymn anywhere. Every verse suggests a Biblical message. Listen to it often. Meditate on the Christ to whom every word is a prayer. Then be grateful that we can share in the wonderful gift of such music from the church of long ago.
Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. -Isaiah 7:14 (CEB)
Advent is a season to celebrate remembering, to rejoice in the truth that God remembers his people.
This is illustrated time and time again in the Old Testament as this example from Isaiah shows:
If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin. But now, LORD, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. Don’t rage so fiercely, LORD; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us. -Isaiah 64:1-9 (CEB)
Call and response is a familiar worship practice to the community of God. We call and the Lord responds. From the Egyptian captivity onward, the people of God cried out to God for salvation. They cried out and waited for the day of deliverance, and like verse 4 declares, God Almighty is the only god who acts for those who wait for him.
At Sinai, the sky was rent, the earth shook, and fire blazed as Yahweh declared, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” He had not forgotten the words of promise spoken to Abraham and he proved the He indeed remembers his people and hears when we call.
This call has always ultimately been for a messiah to deal with our broken relationship with God. More than deliverance from slavery to other nations, we need salvation from our slavery to sin. And once again, God has heard our cries. He has not forgotten that we need healing to our humanity, forgiveness of our sins, and a a true shepherd to lead is into the way of peace.
God has not forgotten. In fact, he has already given us forgiveness, healing, salvation in the incarnation. Zechariah heard the first whispers of this fulfillment, and after nine months of silence he extolled the Lord saying:
John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, “Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.” -Luke 1:67-79
Far from God forgetting, he has chosen our savior to be Emmanuel: God made flesh to save us from our sin and give us true healing and deliverance. Jesus is our savior. He is Christ the Lord, and his birth is the fulfillment of God’s word to man.
Advent is our celebration and remembrance of the incarnation. We rejoice that God has remembered man kind, and has chosen to make all who believe in this savior a community that draws life and hope from the humble act of the Son of God.