Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Into the Mess

“To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.” –Tish Harrison Warren

Enter Isaiah chapter 9:
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon[d] his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called[e]
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
If anyone knew darkness, it was David’s ancestor Ruth. Things in her life went from bad to worse, yet her (and Naomi’s) story is woven with strands of light that can only be acknowledged as God moving in the midst of their suffering.

In her book, The Meaning is in the Waiting, Paula Gooder comments on this passage of Isaiah: “Isaiah knew that the disaster awaiting Judah—a disaster largely of their own making—had to be faced in the knowledge that woven into it and beyond it were signs of hope” (p. 62).

Graciously, Ruth and Naomi saw hope in their own lifetime. They were saved through the lovingkindness of a kinsman redeemer—their deepest needs fulfilled because of Boaz’ commitment to his covenant. Does that sound familiar? Indeed, Boaz is one of many Old Testament characters pointing the way to Christ.

God sent His son to step into the mess with us; into the burdens, the fears, the wastelands. He didn’t sweep it away or start the world over again as with the flood. He sent a redeemer. To make right the cosmic ache the world had known since sin entered Eden.

Gooder continues, “As is so often the case, Jesus fulfills these ancient prophecies in a surprising way, and it is through weaving light into the shade of our present world that he evokes wonder by the wisdom of his counsel (Wonderful Counselor), shows the power of God in the world (Mighty God), cares eternally just like a parent (Everlasting Father), and is the source of all well-being for God's people (Prince of Peace).”

Jesus daily fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy by embodying these attributes, but so often we cannot see them. It is blinding work living in a despairing world. Advent is about readjusting our eyes in the darkness so we can see more clearly. The prophets can show us the way. They knew a thing or two about hoping and waiting for God in the dark.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Expecting the Light

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)

These verses aren’t the Nativity narrative we are used to at Christmas time, but they are some of the most poignant interpretations of what we mean when we say “Immanuel.” Let’s focus on the second half—the image of light.

Throughout Scripture, the presence of God is shown with light. Sometimes God wields His creation to display His glory; other times, the light is God’s very presence. With the Incarnation, God humbly wrapped the Light in a baby’s body, that He might show us the way. Yet before Jesus was born his relative, Zechariah, had more to tell.

In the first chapter of Luke, when the people were outside of the temple waiting for Zechariah to emerge, they were praying and anticipating a blessing. After lighting the incense on behalf of the people it was customary for the priest to bestow the ancient blessing passed down from Aaron:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Number 6:24-26)
But Zechariah was never able to speak those words. All he could do was gesture and point. The people surmised that he had seen a vision. How many people left that day wondering what that vision might be? They didn’t seem curious enough to ask Zechariah to spell it out. But fast forward nine months. Those near him on the eighth day after John was born finally got to hear a blessing from the priest:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

(Luke 1:76-79)
It says “fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts. . .” (Luke 1:65-66a)

Aaron’s blessing was a regular reminder that God was shining His face on His people. That His very presence (countenance) would give them peace. R.C. Sproul teaches on this idea in one of his sermons about the crucifixion. He says, “The Israelite understood blessedness concretely: to be blessed was to be able to behold the face of God.” It was a present truth. And it was a future promise.

On that day, Zechariah did not bless the people but instead showed them that God was turning His face towards them in the biggest way possible. Their prayers were being answered. A Light was coming to shine in the darkness.

As we look forward to the second Advent, the day when Christ returns, we are anticipating the fullest revelation of that Light. Sproul concludes, “someday [we will] experience the fullness of the benediction of Israel. We will look unveiled into the light of the countenance of God.” Until that day, we wait. Like the people outside the temple, we wait with expectation.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Promises and Preparing

Immanuel: God with us.

What made that moment in history perfect for God to come down in human form? Could the Incarnation have taken place earlier, during the exile in Babylon? Could it have been later?

In Galatians, Paul tells us, “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.” (Galatians 4:4-5)

What does “fullness of time” mean? At my church we are going through an Advent sermon series named just that—“In the Fullness of Time.” It is a beautiful image, ripe for exploration. This morning, our pastor preached on Luke 1:5-23. However, it wasn’t a regular sermon. It was a message directed towards the children in our congregation. Just like any good children’s book can open the eyes and hearts of adult readers with a fresh perspective, the sermon gave new insight to a familiar story. With the children, we were asked to ponder, “What did God do in this story?”
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah,[a] of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
In Luke 1:5-7, God hadn’t allowed Elizabeth to become pregnant.
In verses 8-11 At just the right time, God caused Zechariah to be appointed the priest who would enter the temple and burn incense. He also prompted the whole multitude of people to pray outside the temple.
In verses 12-17 God sent an angel to tell Zechariah His promise and we discover that He had heard Zechariah’s prayers, and Israel’s prayers for centuries.
In Luke 1:18-23 God made Zechariah mute.

What is God doing?
“God is unfolding things,” our pastor tells the children.

The last book of the Old Testament is Malachi. In Malachi 4, at the very end, God speaks through the prophet:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Malachi 4:5-6

And then Israel experiences 400 years of silence from God. For context, that’s the same length of time between now and when the pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. The last thing the people of God heard was a prophecy, a promise, a message of peace. But life didn’t look peace-ful for the Israelites. It seemed exactly the opposite.

Although God was silent, He was still working. He was unfolding a plan to make a way for a Peace deeper than anyone could have imagined.

This is where we meet Zechariah. And God begins to speak. Only Zechariah can’t believe the words the angel tells him. Not only does he wonder at the chance of having a baby at his old age, but Zechariah probably knows prophecy backwards and forwards, so when he says, “how shall I know this?” he is so very doubtful that the deepest desire and the deepest desire of his people was actually going to come true, and that his son would play a major part in it.

This is a story we’ve heard time and time again. But there is something hidden here that the early readers would have understood. My pastor put it like this: “When God is unfolding a plan, He always does two things: 1. He always keeps His promises, and 2. He always prepares His people.

Since God has been unfolding the plan of “Immanuel” since the very minute sin entered the world in the Garden of Eden, that means the Old Testament is full of two very big things: promises and preparing.

The very last thing Israel heard God speak was, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers…” (Malachi 4:5-6a).

400 years later, to a “random” priest fulfilling his once-in-a lifetime selected duty, God repeats His promise and says, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17)

How amazing is that? If anyone was uncertain, this was surely a sign.

Only, Zechariah was uncertain, enough to verbally doubt the angel of the Lord.

But God was not done preparing His people, nor was he finished preparing Zechariah. So he stilled Zechariah. He muted his speech, slowed him down. For nine months, all he could do was ponder. Zechariah knew the prophecies. He knew the promise. He had been waiting for it his whole life.

The sermon this morning concluded with this truth: “God wants us to wait with Him while we wait for Him.”

We can look upon this story as God working through a series of impossible situations (Elizabeth’s age and barrenness, for example) or we can see that everything was exactly where it needed to be for the “fullness of time.”

Alongside Zechariah and Elizabeth, alongside each of us, Immanuel waits with us. He sees us and knows us as we wait.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Welcome to Advent 2021

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 chose to reflect on the themes of Longing, Preparation, Proclamation, and Joy. This year, I am trying something a little different and focusing on one all-encompassing word: Immanuel. I will explore the theme of “God with us” as it was perceived by the prophets and those who lived during the Old Testament, announced to the key players of the Nativity story, demonstrated by the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and remains a firm truth for us today.

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!