Monday, November 30, 2020

An Equal Measure of Faith

Every year there is a new kind of waiting to experience alongside Advent. It may be a long, unfulfilled yearning marked by deep ache and sadness. It may be the tight anticipation of a goal almost realized. It may be, like this year, the slow tread of seasons distanced from tradition, routine, and loved ones. We only have to wait one year for the next Advent to roll around. But our longings recognize the reality of the first Advent, thousands of years in the making. From Eden to Bethlehem, the Israelites waited.

God didn’t leave His people alone in their waiting. After all, they needed someone to steer them back from the precipice of their wanderings, wonderings, and sin. The prophets became God’s mouthpiece. Along the way, the arrival of a Messiah was foretold. Even a pagan prophet spoke of the One who was to come!

In Numbers 22, the Moabite King Balak seeks out the famous prophet Balaam to come and curse Israel. But God has other plans. Sending in a talking donkey, Balaam is warned to not disobey the God of Israel. When the time of cursing comes, a blessing pours forth instead. And then, doing what prophets do, Balaam utters a prophecy--first pertaining to David and finally to his descendant, Christ:

“The prophecy of Balaam son of Beor,
    the prophecy of one whose eye sees clearly,
 the prophecy of one who hears the words of God,
    who has knowledge from the Most High,
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
    who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:

 “I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
    a scepter will rise out of Israel.

A ruler will come out of Jacob
    and destroy the survivors of the city.”

-Numbers 24:15-17,19a

Even for the Israelites, chosen by God, the Lord’s promises had a timeline outside of human understanding. The “not now’s” and “not nears” must have made their hearers cringe. Really? Not yet? But a prophecy is still a promise. And so the people waited, trusting in the same God who could make a donkey speak and a wicked man proclaim praise.

The things we are waiting for (at least those rooted in grace)? . . . Perhaps we can learn to hold them before the Lord with an equal measure of faith. 


(Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s Faithful Facts for Advent, Thursday, Week 1)


Sunday, November 29, 2020

Finding our Footing in the Familiar

This year, nothing is familiar. Phrases like “the new normal” have been thrown around since March. It’s probable that things will never go back to the same normal we had before. And I don’t think we want them to, not really. We need to grow, to learn, to redeem, to heal.

But still the familiar draws us in. I’ve been re-watching favorite TV shows, re-reading favorite books, returning to recipes I love. There is comfort in the familiar.

Maybe that’s why the holiday season holds so much nostalgia. But there is another sameness that can have a true impact on us this Advent season.

The themes of Advent and the narrative of the Christmas story are like a comfortable, well-worn sweater. They hold cherished memories, make us feel secure, they feel like an old friend. At the same time, they carry pain and longing, fear and confusion. But Advent is a place where my weary heart can rest without anxiety or doubt. My waitings journey along with Israel’s waiting thousands of years ago. My fears echo Mary’s, and Joseph’s, and Zechariah’s, and the shepherds’. I can reflect and worship the God-who-became-man in a composition where I already know the tune. There are no surprises. And this familiarity is an excuse to step outside my self-sufficiency and self-absorption. It is a call to rest. The work has already been done.

I read a book this past Fall in which the protagonist had such a deep relationship with God—He knew her, and she knew Him so well—that she was totally in tune with His method of speaking to her. The simplest of sights or sounds would be to her a burst of inspiration and grace.

I am nowhere near that. So many things distract and discourage. But during the season of Advent, I can feel pretty close. I have friends who call this a “thin place.” A place where the barriers are less. Where glimpses of eternity weave their way through the chaos. May we settle into this narrative, the story we know so well, and allow the Spirit’s revelations to hit less like a catapult breaking through an iron-clad wall and more like a gentle wave washing over this familiar shore.

In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

When the New Testament opens, the people of Israel are groaning under the power of a foreign king. God’s people are a waiting people, but having returned from Exile in Babylonian and then waited 400 years in silence (with no prophets to point the way), things seem even more dire.

Rome had no love for God’s people. It was a miserable time to live in Israel. But through it all, God was sovereign. Indeed, it was some of Rome’s very triumphs—universal language, widespread travel—that paved the way for Jesus’ arrival. The known world was finally ready to spread the Good News of God’s son. The fullness of time had come.

It is not hard to see that these are miserable times as well. Daily, we encounter the effects of a global pandemic, political egotism, widespread systemic racism, individual battles with mental illness, poverty, and illiteracy. And though it doesn’t always help to compare these times with other eras of global panic, disease, and fear, it should help to acknowledge that we carry a very limited understanding of God’s sovereign time.

Two thousand plus years later, we are no longer surprised by the Christmas story. But as the story unfolded in real time, no one could have believed this was the setting for the promised Messiah. Though the prophets hinted at a lack of splendor, those in Israel still sought a conquering king. What they forgot, was the planting of seeds, as far back as Eden. It should have been familiar, this motif, this long-woven plan for a Servant King.

Welcome to Advent

Dear friends (and those who may have stumbled upon this blog), 

If you've joined me for any of the past eleven years, then you are probably familiar with Advent. If you are a new reader, this will serve as an introduction:

In latin the word "adventus" means "coming." Within the context of western Christianity, Advent is the season of four weeks leading up to Christmas—the celebration of Christ's birth. It is a time of joyful expectation and preparation. The four weeks are marked by the four Sundays, on which the candles of the Advent wreath are lit.

The first candle is traditionally the candle of Hope, followed by Peace, Love, and Joy. However, with so many church traditions comes a variety of names for each candle. Usually they are organized around characters or themes as a way to unfold the story and direct attention to the celebrations and worship in the season. So, the sequence might be Prophets, Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels; Expectation, Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfillment; or Prophets, John the Baptist, Mary, the Magi.

Last year I used children’s picture books to help introduce the characters and themes of the Nativity. This year, I’m going back to my original format and have chosen to reflect on the themes of Longing, Preparation, Proclamation, and Joy.

For four short weeks every year, we stop and see—with amazing clarity—God’s miraculous hand shaping the trajectory of human history. I have a hard time seeing this kind of perspective in daily life. Even with God’s sustaining grace, I am so often numb to the repercussions of Christ’s advent in my own life. This blog is an attempt to peel back the layers of those truths and meditate on the everlasting love God showed humanity when he sent forth His son. And as we do that together, may our hearts be directed towards the greater Advent still to come.

Let us enter this season with expectation, ever blessed by those who have paved the way. I’m glad you have chosen to join me on the journey!