Advent


“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

   who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Matthew 2: 6

To the best of my understanding, Jesus was never formally tended sheep; yet, he shepherds a flock that numbers in the millions. As Matthew refers to the prophet Micah’s comment about the birthplace of the coming Messiah, he also mentions a distinctive that stood out in the first century and that remains remarkable today. In Jesus we have a king, a person with great authority and holding the power to exercise that authority to its fullest extent. However, this king chooses to tend to the needs of His people and to guide them to the safety of righteousness. He could have made things much easier if He had simply taken control of this world and utilized His remarkable might and control over all of the forces of nature and of humanity to accomplish His wishes. Instead, Jesus lived a humble existence and experienced the death of a criminal so that people for all time hence would have direct and immediate access to God.

Jesus leads us into the presence of all that is holy, righteous, and loving as He operates as the shepherd of the human flock. There are many of us sheep that choose to follow Jesus as our ruler and king, but there are also many more that reject Him. Despite the rejection of so many, Jesus continues to seek after each and every person on this earth. He is that shepherd who never stops searching and seeking after all that are lost. His heart breaks at the thought of not sharing this life and the eternity to follow with each of the people that walk upon the earth. Frankly, this love and devotion is impossible for me to fully grasp or to understand. I do not care for or about people to this degree. Yet, God does, and He determined to do something about our rebellion and rejection. Thus, Jesus was sent into this world, lived as He did, and was crucified as the perfect sacrifice for all of our sinfulness. In His death we have the payment for our forgiveness, and in His resurrection we have rebirth into true and everlasting life.

This is the life that Jesus shepherds us into. He provides us with the wisdom and the understanding that is required to live well and to love greatly. Christ grants gifts of the Spirit to each of His people, and He guides us into using those gifts in a place and a manner that demonstrate the presence of God to others and that bring honor and glory to Christ’s name. Jesus is a shepherd for our hearts, minds, and souls, and His care and provision are with us through all of the journeys that we take in life. There is no valley too deep or mountain too steep for Christ to travel there with us. We will encounter nothing in this life that is beyond Christ’s capability or capacity to overcome. The victory may not look like what we would design or describe it to be from our perspective; yet, it will be the one that accomplishes God’s objectives and that fits into His plan for eternity. We can truly rest in the comfort of our shepherd’s care as we also seek to live with bold confidence by proclaiming Christ as our Lord, King, and Good Shepherd.  

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1: 1-5

As we have just entered into the season of Advent, this time of waiting and of anticipation, I want to look at its inception. I admit that when I have considered this idea in the past that I have usually started the thread of this part of the story with the coming of the angel to Mary. This is then traced backward in time to Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah which are founded in God’s words about the crushing of the serpent’s head in Genesis 3. All of this would seem to ground the narrative of God’s plan and design for our salvation and restoration into the earliest days of humanity’s earthly existence. Yet, it occurs to me that there is a quality to this that is somewhat like crisis management. By the third chapter of Genesis our ancestors have already defied God and are being set out on their long and wandering journey through life.

Although God is the ever-present and only true answer to all of the crisis that come in life, the God that I know is not surprised or caught short by anything that we do or by what happens in the world. He knows and sees and is prepared to respond to all of it. Even in His power, knowledge, and absolute capacity and capability the Lord God is always the Father. Everything in His dealings with people is framed and motivated by His unending desire for us to have a deeply intimate relationship with Him. God yearns for the time when each of us will surrender our stubborn, isolationist ways and turn to Christ in humility and submission to His righteousness. God knew from a time when the concept that we consider as time had not been created that there would be a fatal break in our relationship with Him. Yet, He proceeded with the creation of humanity, but God did so with our restoration to a relationship with Him in full view.

This point in absolute pre-history would seem to be the true inception of Advent. God always knew that He would come to dwell among humanity. He was actively preparing for that time from before the moment that he first touched the soil of the new born earth in order to form the man whose descendant we all are. God imparted the life that came from His breath, that is His Spirit, into us, and He determined that we would be brought back to life from the self-imposed grave that we entered through disobedience. In our time, God has already come. Christ entered into our world, and the way to salvation and the means to transformation is present with us. Now we wait in anticipation of even more. The advent to come is the one in which all that is broken and diseased in all of Creation will be destroyed and heaven and the new earth will become one. Today we can live in the hope of the light that is Christ in us and the promise of His glory which truly overcomes all that is darkness in our world. 

And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Luke 2: 47

Jesus was mature for His age. He was in the temple talking with the teachers, asking questions, and entering into the ongoing discussion of God’s Word and the Law with the wise men of Israel. Yet, He was only twelve. His knowledge and understanding came from a place far beyond the usual teaching that a boy in those days received from the rabbi who served the local community. Deep within Jesus held the wisdom of all time, and He also heard God speaking to Him with guidance and with counsel that was pertinent to all matters and situations that the young Jesus encountered. It is admittedly hard to grasp what it must have been like to live with Jesus as He was growing up, but this glimpse into His early adolescence suggests just how special He must have been. 

This extraordinary understanding of things that were pertaining to God and to the application of His Word in life is something that people do not always seem to appreciate. In this we are not all that different from Jesus’ parents. If I think about this scene, I am taken aback at the surprise that Mary and Joseph exhibit here, for they were there from the beginning of the story when the angel came to each of them to explain how a young virgin woman would conceive a child and the role that her fiancé was to play in this grand miracle that God was starting to carry out in the history of creation. Now, all of that seems to have become a dim and a distant memory, and the realities of raising a boy into manhood had taken over their thinking. Whatever the thoughts and the feelings that Mary and Joseph may have had, they were as equally amazed at Jesus’ capacity to think and to discuss matters related to God as they were also worried about the safety of their son. They did not seem to fully appreciate who and what Jesus was about in this world.

Most of us have heard the story of Jesus’ miraculous beginning on earth, and we have been exposed to the way that He conducted Himself during those thirty plus years of life that God allotted to Jesus as He lived among us. Yet, we too often fail to grasp how significant His wisdom and understanding truly are to us. The twelve year old who was leaving the wise men of His day in a state of awe and wonder did mature into the man whose life gave us the perfect picture of righteous and just living, whose death brought about the possibility of acceptance for each of us in the presence of a holy God, and whose resurrection overcame the oppression of sin in this world. We too can sit at the feet of Jesus and hear the same sort of counsel that is wise in all matters and that is more than sufficient for any situation or circumstance that we might be encountering. Jesus speaks to us out of God’s Word, He counsels us and leads us into the deep places of understanding as the Spirit speaks to our hearts and minds, and Jesus is also present in the conversation and the prayer of His body, the fellowship of believers. So, let us cease to be amazed at the understanding that comes from the mouth of Jesus, and instead, draw near to Him and seek out that same wisdom as it applies to all that we think, say, and do in life.  

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to preserve you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Jude 24, 25

 

There is real wonder and magic in the air as we tell the story of Jesus’ humble birth to the specially and specifically chosen young virgin woman. The enormity of God’s desire to reconcile humanity and the rest of creation to himself is written all over the way that these events transpired, and God’s heart for that redemptive work continues to be on full view throughout the life and especially in the death that Jesus was to encounter. So, it is of little wonder to me that God’s real intent in all of this is found in Jude’s few simple words of praise, for there is only one being who can do what is stated here. Jesus is the answer to all people’s need to become blameless before God just as He is the singular source of the wisdom, strength, and grace that are required daily to make it through life while living out those days righteously.

 

This redeemed life that Jude is praising is the point behind all that God did by and through Jesus. God did not need to demonstrate Himself to the world for any other purpose. He certainly did not need to undergo the pain and the suffering of living out a short lifespan in human flesh in order to be able to relate to us or to understand us, for these are things that God has been capable of doing in ways that are deep and profound from the dawn of our inception at His hand. Jesus was with us and journeyed along our pathways so that we would be more fully able to grasp the enormity of what has been lost to sin’s death and decay. In Christ, we are also provided with a tangible means of return to a now and an eternal place of right standing before our Lord as it is through faith in Jesus the Christ that all sin is forgiven and that our lives are transformed into ones that follow God’s design for living in the full appreciation of the Lord’s intent for us.

 

As I know this Jesus whose birth is celebrated in the festivities of Christmas, the true importance of Jude’s words of praise take on greater meaning for me. These are not just some spiritually right sounding words and phrases to recite in rote liturgical fashion; they are the essence of the calling that Christ has placed upon my life. Christ is shown most fully in His glory, majesty, dominion, and authority as I and other people of faith live out the love, grace, mercy, justice, and righteousness that the Lord has pour over and into us. The point of Christmas is that the lives of people in this world would be changed. The focus of that long-ago birth is the salvation of the people of this world from our separation from our Creator and thus from a death that starts at birth and that knows no end. We are each and all called upon to live out the salvation that God has gifted to us through Jesus. We do this by making Jude’s words of praise the on-going descriptor of the manner that we conduct our lives.

 

Blessings in Christ, and Merry Christmas.

For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;

at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

Psalm 92: 4

 

God was working out His will in the ancient world of the psalmists, and He is still doing the same to this day. From the dawn of time the Lord has been engaged with His creation on all levels; so, it is not surprising to me to see His hand at work in the affairs of the world where I live. God cares about each of us, and He is very concerned about the way that we live out our lives. This concern and engagement were so great that God, Himself, lived among us to provide everyone with the way and the means to enter into on-going and eternal peace with Him. That baby, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate was the singular greatest work that God’s hand of mercy and grace has accomplished; yet, that work was intended to bring joy to the hearts of people such as myself.

 

My greatest joy is known through the presence of Christ in the world where I dwell, and it is made very real by His Spirit as He dwells within me. For God’s redemptive work is carried out on a grand, universal scale in our world, and it is also rendered on an intimately personal scale within the lives of individuals as we enter into relationship with Christ. It is in and through this relationship that gladness is brought to life, and it is in the companionship of the Spirit that life with its ups and downs, its trials and challenges, is perceived as a joyous event. God works in us to change our perspective on the events and the circumstances of life so that all of it can be understood as valuable and useful in our journey of faith. I know that without Christ in me, I would view my days very differently than I do in light of God’s wisdom, truth, and love.

 

When I consider God’s gift of Jesus, I am not taken immediately into a seasonal story and the festive activities that tend to surround its telling. Instead, I am made humble and also filled with peace and the joy that the writer of this psalm is expressing. In Christ, I have come to know that joy is internally generated by Christ’s Spirit, and so the true and lasting source of my joy is Christ in me. He works to transform my perspective on life to one that seeks to bring His love into all that I think and do. Although my efforts along these lines are weak and highly flawed, I know that Christ is at work to redeem even my poor attempts at spreading His joy in the world.

 

 

Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Isaiah 42: 1

Here the prophet Isaiah is giving us a forward-looking picture of Jesus which states God’s perspective on the Savior. This is the Messiah that God was going to send into our defeated world. Yet, I think that Isaiah was also telling us considerably more than just how the Father would view the Son, Jesus the Christ, for I think that we can see some really great things about how our Lord views us, as well.

Jesus came into this world as a man in order to make God tangible and to connect us totally with our Creator. So, when we enter into a relationship with Christ, we gain much of these same blessings that God granted to Jesus. With Christ in us, we are viewed by God as His chosen ones, and the Lord will literally move heaven and earth in order to hold us up in and through everything that life brings our way. We become the delight of God’s eye. We also become workers in the Lord’s field and keepers of His kingdom come to earth.

However, there are responsibilities that come with our position as God’s chosen ones. We are called upon by the Lord to bring His grace, love, mercy, and justice into the world. Thus, most of us will be required to live differently than we have in the past in that we are being asked by God to care little for ourselves and to be totally involved in demonstrating His redemptive love by and in all of our lives. Standing up for justice, for peace, and for redemptive love in a world that values oppressive power and restrictive rules can be a very lonely and even a dangerous thing to do, but when we do that, we are accomplishing exactly what God wants us to do, and we are standing squarely in the center of His delight.

 

But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

1 Corinthians 8: 3

 

This idea is somewhat the opposite of the way that we often view our relationship with God. At least I tend to think in terms of loving God and so seeking to know Him ever more fully, deeply, and completely. Yet, if I think about it, consider what Paul is saying, and meditate upon these few simple words, it begins to make sense. Love is something that changes people. It reshapes the way that we see the world round us as it takes us into a deeper form of engagement with its object. In love, we seek out the beloved, and we desire to know that person very well, but love also opens up the lover to the other. This is true in romantic love relationships, and it is also true in other forms of deep, personal relationships.

 

In fact, there should be no place where this confident openness is more present than in our love for God. There is no one who is more trustworthy than is the Lord, and there is no other relationship that we can enter into that has the same degree of commitment inherent in the nature of the beloved than that which is present in God. God is in relationship with each of us who know Him for the duration of time, and there is nothing that can change His perspective on loving and on being present with us. The Lord is the definition of the sort of unfaltering promise of loving others that is missing in our world, for He does not hold our weakness, failure, and inconsistency as a form of ransom over us so that we think that we need to perform in order to retain that affection. Instead, God gave Himself up as a ransom of love in order to set us free for all of eternity from our own sinfulness and its shame.

 

So, my love for God leads to giving Him my heart, mind, and soul. I allow Him into my inner life in a way that is not even possible for any other to do. As Christ has given each of us who know Him His Spirit to dwell with and in us, we are inhabited by God’s love as it is poured out upon His people. There is no other experience in this life that is like this in its fullness and totality. God’s love is what brings this rare element into our world, and His love given to me is what defines, enables, and empowers all of the love that I have to give to others. Thus, as I love God, I come to relax the protective barriers that life in this world has taught me to place around my heart, and I allow Christ access to the full range of my feelings, my responses to others, and to my willingness to trust and to engage with people. In Christ, I know perfect love, and He pours Himself into me so that I can, in turn, be that sort of committed lover in all of my other relationships.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Hebrews 11: 6

 

This past weekend we worked on taking down the last of our Christmas decorations. I know, it is already a month after Christmas and Saint Valentine’s Day is the theme around most of our neighborhood; in truth, winter and its snowy vistas are the real theme in my world this year. One of the last décor items to go back into storage for next year is a little wooden sign that has been hanging on the outside of our house near the front door. It reads, “Wise men still seek Him.” We know that it is a reference to the coming of those eastern mystics and astronomers that God specifically called to come to meet their newborn king and the savior of their souls. These were learned men. They studied the heavens for its signs and they searched their world in order to gain its wisdom and to understand the truths that God had implanted in it from the dawn of creation. Now they traveled a great distance on nothing more than faith in order to meet the person who was the greatest advent in all of history.

 

God sought them out, and He presented to them a message that required the utilization of all of their wisdom to comprehend and to interpret. Yet, acting upon that knowledge was not an act of intellect alone, for critical thinking would tend to lead to the rejection of this strange and wondrous idea of God come to dwell with people as one of us in order to bring all who would believe into a restored relationship with our Creator. This idea is too wild and impossible to act upon, and these societally well-placed and highly regarded Iranian or Iraqi scholars would be risking much to follow the prompts in the heavens in pursuit of Daniel’s prophesy about Messiah. Yet God called to them, and their faith in the reality of His existence and in the relationship that He desires to have with each person on this earth led them to pack up and set out along the hard road of discovery that took them to the deep humility of submission to the singular Great King of the Universe.

 

God called these men from a foreign land with their strange language and different customs out of their ancient religious practices, beliefs, and understanding into the presence of Christ. They were truly wise in that they did not allow any of those strong traditions and long-held beliefs to keep them from coming to that place and time for their encounter with God, Himself. This same sort of wisdom when combined with faith is what leads each of us to turn from the life that we have been leading and the culture that is supporting it and to come to Christ. For some people this is a new journey, and it leads them away from the comfort of old practices and associations and into the new dawn of life that reflects eternity. For everyone who does know Christ, regardless of whether that relationship is newly formed or life-long in duration, we are still called to seek out Christ as we surrender more and more of ourselves and our old ways of thinking and acting to God’s ancient will and desire for peace on this earth and for reconciliation with all of its inhabitants.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6: 10

 

God’s will can seem to be a strange and a mysterious thing. This earth just doesn’t feel like it is present all that much of the time, and if it is what prevails here much of the time then I just might not want to have anything to do with it. Perhaps Jesus is talking about some ideal situation, or an understanding of the future, or perhaps He is telling us about the reality in heaven where God resides full time. For from what I can see as I look outside my door, this world is willfully calling its own shots much of the time, and God is not very visible in what transpires as a result.

 

Yet, I think that Jesus was not merely setting out a model for prayer form or talking about some sort of visionary ideal. He was speaking about a central idea that related to His presence among us. Jesus was God’s Kingdom come to earth in its fullest form and expression. Although Jesus was a person in the same way that you and I are also people, He was also God among and God with us. Jesus, the Christ, walked our streets and felt our pains and our joys. He also brought the truth, righteousness, and love of God to a place where they and their Creator touch our lives and effect the way that we conduct them. God’s perfect will was present here in Jesus, and it remains with us in the real and tangible presence of Christ’s Spirit.

 

So, God’s will is really not so strange, except when considered from the point of view of a world that has lost its righteous way, and its mystery is resolved by knowing Christ deeply, intimately, and personally. God’s will is manifest in Christ, and it is carried out through the committed prayer, words, and actions of people like you and I who seek to know it and who courageously live as Christ calls and leads us to do. God’s will brings the love, the grace, the right living, and the peacemaking of His Kingdom to the streets of this world. God’s will is expressed as we love Him completely and so love others sacrificially. It also brings people to a place where we no longer view ourselves as citizens of this world, but instead, we know that our true home is found in the presence of Christ both now and into eternity.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”

Exodus 33: 18

 

This is the moment when it all turns. The wandering is over as God and Moses dialogue in the wilderness of the Sinai. This time of seemingly endless drifting and seeking was not caused by God but came about because the people were not ready to trust in the Lord fully. They thought that they needed more when, in fact, they already had everything that would be required for survival and to thrive in the land of their deliverance from slavery. Finally, Moses is ready to stop bargaining with God and opened up himself to be fully in the presence of the Lord.

 

This holding back and holding onto control is too human a characteristic. We can even know in our minds that God is real, we can accept the fact of salvation as coming through Christ, and we are able to claim the heritage of Christian faith as our own; yet, we are still not ready to let these facts become the identity of our passions. So, we love the Lord, our God with most of our mind and with a faltering heart and with a dispassionate soul. This all continues so long as the strength of our grip on the things of this world that we treasure can hold out. It is this approach to faith that often keeps us from entering into life as people who are truly and strangely different from our world. On the one hand, we may belong to the social order known as Christian, but on the other one, we are embedded in the flow of our culture in a manner that makes little to no difference in the world.

 

Yet, when Moses was ready to leave the worldly journey behind and was prepared to pay the price of being distinctive in a hostile land, he turned to the Lord and asked God to reveal Himself fully to His servant. God’s glory is powerful and brilliant beyond the words of our languages. God in His glory demands that we do fully surrender to Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength so that we can be the lovers of others that He is. The glory that Moses was seeking is present in our world. It was fully revealed in the person of the risen Christ, and He is with us to this day. Just as the Lord did with Moses so does Christ with us, He demands that the totality of our passions be turned toward Him. Seeking the glory of Christ means that we worship Him and do this by following His great commandment to love others as the natural outworking of our absolute and total love of our Lord.

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