Sunday, December 25, 2022

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Blue Christmas: The Light Will Overcome

I first heard the name, “Blue Christmas” in 2015. Before that, I hadn’t given the Winter Solstice much thought. It didn’t seem to connect to anything I saw in my faith traditions. But when I learned about the longest night of the year’s place in the church year calendar, I knew it was something I needed to embrace.

Blue Christmas falls on the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is a time to reflect and lament the hurt and brokenness that exists in the world and acknowledge that God hears and sees us calling out to Him in our deepest need. Everything about this echoes the heart of Advent.

Historically, Jesus wasn’t born in the middle of December. It wasn’t until the year 336 AD that emperor Constantine formalized the celebration on December 25. But nothing is created in a vacuum. Within the Greco-Roman world, this was already a time for celebrating a return to the longer days of light.

Author and speaker Kate Bowler comments on this in her Advent devotional, The Season of Waiting, and waiting . . . and waiting . . .:

“When the early church chose December 25 as the date to celebrate the Nativity, they must have been aware of the powerful symbolism of midwinter, when the seasons turn, when darkness, at long last, begins to diminish.

In one of the early medieval antiphons sung on the seven evenings before Christmas Eve, Jesus is hailed as 'O, dawn of the east, splendor of light eternal, sun of justice.'

We still sing in our carol, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:
'O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer Our spirits
by thine Advent here, And drive away the shades of
night and pierce the clouds and bring us light.'

. . . Light is so much a part of the Advent season.”
(p. 20)
But before the Light, it was dark. And if Advent teaches us anything, it’s that we need darkness in order to more clearly see the Light.

It’s more than a study in contrasts, however. It goes deeper than that. On the first day of Creation we learn that the Earth was “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). And then God says, “'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light 'day,' and the darkness he called 'night.' And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day." (Genesis 1:3b-5).

Peeling away the darkness, bringing order to chaos, restoring life—these are all acts of creation and redemption.

The answer to the darkness of grief and loneliness, fear and pain, suffering and loss is not about less darkness. The answer is found with the arrival of Light.

This is the model God initiated with Jesus’ birth. His answer to the age-old cries of His people was not to take away the oppression of empires, the casualties of disasters, famines, and wars, the chronic stain of sin. Instead, He introduced something new: The Firstborn of Creation, the Light of the World. Not to be a conquering superhero, but to sympathize with our weaknesses and enter the darkness like one of us.

Kelley Nikondeha writes in The First Advent in Palestine,
“He (Jesus) didn’t escape the heartbreak or the haunting presence of empire. He was not spared the personal trauma of loss or the difficult learning of how to live without a loved one. . . Before he carried the cross through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, his body carried loss in Nazareth. This is incarnation. Not inhabiting a body of privilege, exempt from poverty and violence, but living in a body thick with the trauma common to most in Galilee and Judea. God incarnated this pain in his own human body. It became a part of His human experience and was woven into God’s eternal memory." (p. 96)

This is vital in our understanding of Jesus’ humanity, and speaks volumes about His all-encompassing love for us. Only, there is a difference between Jesus and the common human. While He walked this Earth marked by trauma and suffering, He also carried within Himself the Light of Life.

When the Gospel-writer John chose to bypass a record of the Nativity story, he created a beautiful exploration of these truths. He opens his book with a parallel to Genesis 1:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Further on, John ends chapter 16 of his Gospel with this verse, a promise from Jesus to His disciples. And to us also:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

Tonight is long. Our numerous dark nights seem to stretch endlessly before us. But tonight we name them. We acknowledge the brokenness and pain in this world and in our lives. And then we hold on to this promise: the Light will overcome.

Monday, December 19, 2022

". . . Weeps and Waits, in Hope"

This evening I want to share something to prepare us for Blue Christmas on the 21st. This is a quote from Sherri Gragg's book, Advent: The Christmas Story.


Saturday, December 17, 2022

Fleeing in the Dark

In a few days we will observe Blue Christmas, or the Longest Night of the Year. It is a time within Advent to reflect on suffering and pain and to express grief and heartbreak—while simultaneously focusing on Jesus’ promised hope.

In some ways, these last few years have felt like one long Blue Christmas. This has been a very, very long longest night. I suppose reading about Advent from a trauma-informed perspective this season hasn’t helped brighten the mood, but I am a firm believer that the muck and mire of Advent is much more real and relevant to our healing than any amount of holiday cheer and tinsel. I love twinkle lights. I love the way they softly light a room. But they only spread their glow in a darkened space.

We often talk about light piercing the darkness. And that is exactly what Jesus, Light of the World, did. But because he came to us as fully God and fully human, at Advent we celebrate “God with Us”—Immanuel. Jesus joined us in the darkness. And yes, He leads us towards the Light. But when he was still a baby and even a young man in Judea, not much had changed. He experienced heartbreak, the oppression of an empire, poverty and violence.

Kelly Nikondeha writes,

“These advent narratives reveal the Incarnation as more than God entering a human frame. They are also the revelation of God engaging with human trauma of a specific place and specific people. God experienced the excruciating reality of empires and economies from the position of the weak and powerless ones. God absorbed loss and pain in that body. The Incarnation positions Jesus among the most vulnerable people, the bereft and threatened of society. The first advent shows God wrestling with the struggles common to many the world over” (p. 102).
That first Advent, Jesus and his family had to flee for their lives. They became refugees in a foreign land. They left everything behind.

We know this was God’s will. Baby Jesus could not have been killed by Herod (the Great) before Herod Antipas got to witness his death sentence 30-odd years later. But I have always wondered at this part of the Advent story—or rather it’s brief reference. I just finished talking about Emmanuel, God with us, but when Joseph received the dream-message that Herod was on the look-out for Jewish baby boys, they quickly left. Jesus left. If ever a time was needed for saving, this was it. Mass murder happened that week. And everyone wondered, “where is God in our suffering?”

On this side of the Biblical account, we know that God was not absent. But we also know that it never seems that way in the midst of disaster and trauma. Maybe this is an example we can share when people (or ourselves) ask, “why does God allow suffering?” or “where was God when that happened?”

Jesus had arrived as a baby. It was glorious, good news of great joy! But the story wasn’t over.

The story isn’t over.

Our God is a good who prepares the way.

The long night will not last forever. But without it, we cannot see the Light.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Called to be a Shepherd

The shepherds are some of my favorite characters in the Advent story, mostly because they show so clearly that God often uses the lowly and despised among us to demonstrate His power and righteousness.

Paul explains in 1 Corinthians: 

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
The night of Jesus’ birth is described in songs as quiet and peaceful. I can’t imagine Bethlehem was actually calm with so many people milling about the town for the census. Maybe the countryside was quiet. But Kelly Nikondeha warns us about interpreting the “silent and holy night” as calm. She explains,
“It is a signature of privilege to associate peace with a quiet night. For those who live on the edges of the empire, nightfall increases the possibility of danger. Snapping branches, unexpected pops, unidentified rumbling of poachers and natural predators you cannot see through the darkness make for uneasy nights. Trouble can come from any direction. Silence for shepherds is always thick with jeopardy. They know what can be lost before the dawn” (p. 90).
We talk so much about the shepherd’s humble status and their astonishing arrival as Jesus’ first guests—but I often wonder at their occupation. It was lowly work. The work of sons for a father. When a grown man was a shepherd, he worked as a hired hand. It is clear that shepherding was not a calling.

And yet, God called (and prepared) these particular laborers to be the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth.

We cannot confuse lowly with easy, however. A shepherd had to always be on high alert, almost becoming one with their sheep to better observe any changes or dangers in their midst. Nikondeha describes it this way: “These shepherds, who never made the mistake of equating quiet with peace, minded the sheep and the dark with equal vigilance” (p. 91).

What about being a shepherd was preparing them for what would happen next?

We know from Luke’s account in chapter 2 that the shepherds were terrified when the angels appeared (as anyone would be!). But I wonder if they were relieved and thankful for the obvious light and noise. This was no revelation sulking in the shadows. It was bold and glorious. And it provided something new.

We know Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be His disciples after watching them fish. He declared they would no longer fish for fish, but that they would be fishers of men.

I wonder if God was preparing these shepherds to become shepherds of people.

Luke 2:16-18, and 20 reads:

“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. . . The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
We don’t know anything about the shepherds after this—whether they remained shepherds in the fields, or whether God’s revelation transformed their work. But we do know this: Nothing in God’s story is insignificant. He prepared each one of the shepherds for their role and their participation that day. And because of that, their lives were forever changed.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Good Portion

The theme of this third week is Preparing.

I borrowed this quartet of themes (Waiting, Anticipating, Preparing, Celebrating), and to be honest, I’ve had a hard time incorporating them into my writings. They are a little unfamiliar. But sometimes the unfamiliar can shake us up a bit. A new perspective can help gain insight.

Thinking about the theme of preparing, my mind immediately goes to shopping lists, recipes, and in my own particular career—library storytime planning. I spend a large chunk of my workdays finding engaging read-aloud picture books, designing flannel stories, and selecting relevant songs and rhymes—all to educate and entertain. The finished product is so much the better for my well-organized plan. The structure helps regular attendees learn the songs and rhymes with ease. The careful selection accommodates childrens’ ages and backgrounds. Everything from the time of day and room setting to the length of time and volume is intentional. Everything has a purpose.

And that makes me think of the Master Orchestrator of our well-known Advent narrative. Our God is a God who prepares. Not because He couldn’t snap His fingers for everything He has designed to instantly appear. No, God prepares because everything He does is building, layer upon layer, towards His plan for humanity’s salvation.

In her fifth day Advent devotional, “No Random Days,” Hannah Brencher writes, “Our God is a God who orchestrates redemption stories. He is constantly up to something. Where we see random days, God sees hidden pockets of purpose. Where we see random lines in a story, God reads between those lines and fills our days with hidden meanings.”

Now, here’s the flip-side of a life-style drenched in preparation. It’s something we commonly see during the holidays. In the hustle and bustle of exerting all our energies for one special day, we neglect to be present. It can become impossible to see God’s “pockets of purpose” when we are so busy preparing for a purposeful day.

I wonder how things would have looked for Mary and Joseph if God hadn’t prepared a place for them in Bethlehem—a place in which most of their autonomy was removed. Would the days leading up to Jesus’ birth have been so full of preparations and ministrations that they missed the significance of the day?

In a town filled to the brim with people registering for the census, they didn’t get to arrange the perfect birthing room. Sharing a dwelling with livestock, there was only one choice for a crib. They only had one option to clean and wrap the baby. They didn’t get to decide who would be the first to visit their newborn son. They didn’t even get to select his name. All these preparations were made by bigger Hands.

Maybe in the moment, Mary was frustrated and anxious. The angel hadn’t said anything about this part of birthing God’s Son! But later in chapter 2, Luke records that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (v.19). Mary had a lot to ponder. She had not been able to prepare for this day’s practical details. But she had prepared her heart for the magnitude of this role with each faith-filled step towards Bethlehem. She responded to God’s call with joy and hope. She had sought the wisdom and encouragement of her cousin, Elizabeth. She had trusted in a God who is mindful and mighty and full of mercy (from the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55).

This brings to mind the story of Mary and Martha:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
I don’t know if this was so much mother Mary’s choice as God’s orchestrating, but like her name-twin, Mary indeed chose the good portion.

This season, may our Advent preparations include the quiet actions of both Marys. Treasuring and pondering, mother Mary looked to the manger, awed by tiny baby feet who would one day save the world. Sitting at adult Jesus’ feet, sister Mary listened, welcoming the Lord into her home through meaningful patience and praise.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

". . . And just when everything is bearing down on us"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ wrote extensively on theological topics, including the incarnation and birth of Christ and Advent. Some of his great sermons where from the times he left Germany and traveled throughout Europe and across the ocean to the United States.

But when World War II began, Bonhoeffer’s deep and practical faith fueled an active resistance to Hitler’s regime. In 1943 he was imprisoned and spent much of his last years incarcerated before being killed in 1945 at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Rather than diminishing his faith, his imprisonment bolstered his commitment to sharing a theology of suffering with those who would listen. Much of his writing from these years was in the form of letters.

The following are two quotes. One from a sermon in 1928, the other from a letter to his fiancée in 1943. Both are deeply insightful examples of trauma-informed theology, reminding us that Jesus and the Advent characters are no strangers to the hardships and pain of this world.

“Celebrating Advent means being able to wait.
Waiting is an art that our impatient age has
forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when
it has hardly finished planting the shoot.... For the
greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the
world, we must wait. It happens not here in a
storm but according to the divine laws of sprouting,
growing, and becoming.”

- from an Advent sermon, December 1928, compiled in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons.

“…And just when everything is bearing down on us to
such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it,
the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our
ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil
and dark is really good and light because it comes
from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in
the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness,
succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us;
whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve
the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the
world and our lives.”

- from a letter to fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer from prison, December 13, 1943, compiled in God is in the Manger.


Monday, December 12, 2022

"Like Every Newborn"

I began my Advent blog in 2009 with a desire to share poetry of the season, especially poems by one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L'Engle. Each year I seem to find a poem I've never read before. This year I stumbled upon this one, "Like Every Newborn," first published in one of L'Engle's collections of poems, The Weather of the Heart. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Anchor of Hope

I want to explore something I haven’t had time to research or think about; a topic I may blunder a bit. I also want to be cognizant of the women (and men) who reading these thoughts may be triggered by current or former pain. You are seen and loved.

In her chapter on Mary, Kelly Nikondeha makes a brief comment about the gospel writer’s contrast between Mary’s virginity with Elizabeth’s barrenness (p.46). I don’t know if I have ever picked up on that comparison before. Both circumstances bring to mind a sense of longing, and buried pain. We may immediately feel more empathy for Elizabeth who had dealt with unexplainable infertility for her whole married life. Possibly Mary’s longing was rooted in her desire for the protection of a husband in the tough and wild landscape of Roman-run Galilee. Only, before her marriage could be finalized, she was “found to be with child”—a scandalous offense, and the very opposite of security in the home of a husband. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about how Mary was treated when her family and community found out she was expecting a baby outside of marriage (I wonder if they would have even wrapped their minds around the idea at her still being a virgin—that wasn’t how biology worked), but we don’t have to look far to understand the cultural expectations of the time.

For both women, virginity (though pregnant) and barrenness were huge burdens to bear.

We aren’t given a glimpse at Elizabeth’s mind and heart prior to hearing Zechariah’s message from the Angel Gabriel, but during her confinement she remarks, “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:25). Being the wife of a priest, she held some regard in her own rite. But in a culture so centered on the blessing of children, surely her childlessness was a topic of shameful gossip among her neighbors.

Even after receiving news of such a miraculous promise and beginning to feel the quivering of a baby in her womb, a lesser woman would have held doubt and pessimism. Thoughts like, “this is too good to be true,” or “I don’t deserve this” could have swum through her mind.

Yet, when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, we are told in Luke’s gospel that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:41-45)

Her joy is doubled. And it is infectious. (The Holy Spirit was definitely helping a lot.) Mary’s next words (according to the writing of Luke’s gospel) are what we call the Magnificat—from the Latin, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Instead of laying out a litany of her woes: scary visit from an angel, pregnant before being with Joseph, Joseph wanting to divorce her (though graciously quietly), any and all scorn from her community, Mary only has praise for her Lord.

In her Advent devotional, The Season of Waiting (and waiting, and waiting . . .) writer, professor, and speaker Kate Bowler explains longing as “the experience of feeling the lack, the recognition, that things are not as they should be” (p. 18). She describes this as the quintessential feeling of Advent. “Advent recognizes the absence of peace, yet the exquisite certainty of its coming” (p. 19).

On this eve before the third week of Advent, I wonder at the ways God prepared Mary and Elizabeth for their separate “comings.” We aren’t privy to their inner thoughts, their hopes and dreams; only the way they choose to respond.

In this case, their actions speak louder than their words (and their words are glorious!)

The virginity of Mary and the barrenness of Elizabeth aren’t perfect opposites, but their contrast can help us see God’s response to all of our waitings, especially those rooted in “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

I’ll end with this from Kate Bowler’s devotional:
“Sometimes in the darkness, we dare not hope because it feels too expensive.
There is no energy available for that, humanly speaking.
But hope isn’t wishful thinking.
It’s an anchor into the future.
Because of this, we can bless even our darkening days,
knowing that the earth will once again tilt toward the light.
And it will be a glory that blazes everywhere,
though now we catch only glimpses.
In the meantime, and that’s what we have—the meantime—
let’s come into the light and bless the waiting, because it will not be in vain”
Mary and Elizabeth’s pain was redeemed in miraculous ways. We can’t expect anything less for women in Jesus’ family tree (look at Ruth and Rahab!). Yet on this side of eternity, many of us won’t see the newness God promises as an Earthly blessing. His blessings are both miraculous and mysterious. And because of that, we can both rejoice with these Advent women, and be Advent women ourselves, longing in hope.

Friday, December 9, 2022

"The only song that can set Terra free"

In 1975, pastor, professor, and writer, Calvin Miller penned the beginning of what would become the The Singer Trilogy. It is a mythic, allegorical, and poetic retelling of the New Testament. Not something you encounter every day! If you’ve never read the trilogy, I highly recommend it. Here is a lengthy quote from the first volume, The Singer, which sets the stage for the Troubadour’s coming:

“The Father and his Troubadour sat down
Upon the outer rim of space.
"And here, My Singer," said Earthmaker, "is the crown
Of all my endless skies—the green, brown sphere
Of all my hopes." He reached and took the round
New planet down, and held it to his ear.
"They're crying, Troubadour," he said. "They cry
So hopelessly." He gave the little ball
Unto his Son, who also held it by His ear.
"Year after weary year they all
Keep crying.
They seem born to weep then die.
Our new man taught them crying in the Fall.
"It is a peaceless globe. Some are sincere
In desperate desire to see her freed
Of her absurdity. But war is here.
Men die in conflict, bathed in blood and greed."
Then with his nail he scraped the atmosphere
And both of them beheld the planet bleed.
Earthmaker set earth spinning on its way
And said, "Give me your vast infinity
My son; I'll wrap it in a bit of clay.
Then enter Terra microscopically
To love the little souls who weep away
Their lives."
"I will," I said, "set Terra free."
And then I fell asleep and all awareness fled.
I felt my very being shrinking down.
My vastness ebbed away.
In dwindling dread,
All size decayed. The universe around
Drew back. I woke upon a tiny bed
Of straw in one of Terra's smaller towns.
And now the great reduction has begun:
Earthmaker and his Troubadour are one.
And here's the new redeeming melody—
The only song that can set Terra free.

― Calvin Miller, The Singer: A Classic Retelling of Cosmic Conflict


Thursday, December 8, 2022

Who Could Have Anticipated?

I wish I could share Kelley Nikondeha’s whole chapter on Mary. She approaches the young girl from Galilee with a perspective I’ve never thought of before. It’s within her whole premise: that the first Advent was born out of a land and a people burdened by trauma and tragedy. Overlaying the history of the region with cultural norms and a heavy dose of pessimism against the Romans, Nikondeha presents a Mary among women who most likely experienced verbal, physical, and even sexual abuses at the hands of soldiers stationed around Nazareth. Women at the time had so few rights (girls even less), and up against an Empire, Judean men didn’t stand a chance either.

Nikondeha describes village life in Galilee as “Tense and taut. A toxic mingling of woe, want and waiting for the next act of aggression created cycles of inescapable trauma for all the inhabitants. It was the last place anyone expected to be on God's map for a peace campaign.” (p. 41).

Life became a resistance of its own. Each day’s perseverance and hope in God’s future justice was an act of rebellion. Messianic expectations blossomed during this time (as we saw with the Maccabees in week one). But what actually began to unfold in the Advent story astounded everyone who took notice.

To recap, first, “God came to an ordinary priest, bypassing the high priest and elites, to begin a new kind of peace campaign. Next, God reached towards Galilee to find a suitable collaborator in the ongoing peace operation. In a culture and set of stories where priests and patriarchs were given celebrity status . . . No one anticipated this move—the place or the person God would approach next—least of all the girl in Galilee.” (p. 39)

Mary’s stability and hope have been tossed about, pushed by force through years of violence and trauma. We can’t pretend to understand. Not feeling safe in your own town, in your own home, in your own body. But millions across time and place, even in this last year know what that kind of fear and uncertainty feel like.

So, when the Angel Gabriel suddenly appears to Mary, she finds herself, for perhaps the first time, being pulled towards something. It shimmers like peace and shines with God’s grace.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[f] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

-Luke 1:26-37

The Christmas carols and serene Nativity scenes paint Mary to be “meek and mild.” She may have been unimportant within village life, but if we look at what comes next and the way she ultimately responds, we clearly see a girl shaped by courage and strength.  

And while Mary is intelligently cautious and inquisitive in the presence of an angel, Nikondeha reasons, “Maybe only a young rebel would be willing to accept such a mission.” (p. 52)

The very site of trauma and tragedy was to become the first Earthly dwelling of the Incarnation. Not by anything she had done, or been done to her, but by the Spirit’s overshadowing. “From deep pain would come impossible goodness for the world.” (p. 51)
For nothing is impossible with God.

Surpassing the Ordinary

My small group at church is going through the abridged book, What Does it Mean to Fear the Lord? by Michael Reeves. This evening, in the chapter centering on our response to God the Creator, Reeves writes,

“. . . the knowledge of God as a humble, gracious, and compassionate Redeemer beautifies the sight of his transcendent majesty as Creator” (p. 38).

The main argument of the chapter is that this type of “right” fear of the Lord must include both a fear of God the Creator and of God the Redeemer.

At the beginning of Genesis we have God the Creator. Everything He makes He calls good. But it is not long before sin enters the world (through human choice) and God begins to roll out His plan for Redemption. Each foreshadowing, each step closer to Christ expands our view of God’s intricate artistry—His weaving together of time and space, people and promise, sorrow and courage, miracle and mundane.

Until we find ourselves at Advent, re-reading the story of the Nativity, and wondering at the Mind that metered out just the right rhythm for the birth of His redeeming grace.

At the heart of Advent is this “beautifying” sense of wonder. With modern holiday lens, we call the quaint stable, the loyal shepherds, the meek and mild virgin girl, the census-swarmed town of Bethlehem all “beautiful.” But at the time, the unfolding story appeared as a crazy plan only thinkable in God’s upside-down economy.

Surpassing the ordinary. Outside of common experience or perception.

I don’t know about you, but I am abundantly thankful (especially at Advent) that God is a transcendent Creator and Redeemer. From Christ’s birthplace and parentage to the first lowly visitors, and back through a lineage of unlikely characters, the Lord has been confounding both the mighty and the wise since the beginning of time.

Something deep within Mary recognized this as she sang the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

- Luke 1: 46-55

Before meeting the Angel Gabriel and hearing his message of promise, it’s likely that Mary revered and feared the Lord as Creator. But something miraculous changed within her spirit as she said Yes to God’s plan. Her understanding of God’s character expanded, and He became Redeemer. A God with the power, humility, and compassion to make all things new.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Inhabited Eternity

Today I offer a simple quote from Lilias Trotter, an artist and missionary to Algeria at the end of the 19th Century. She spent lengths of time in Palestine, and wrote Advent-themed reflections as she looked at the land.

The full quote, from her journals on March 26, 1924, reads:

"The first impression of Palestine was of the strangely small scale of everything. But before nightfall one came to realize that this is an intrinsic part – that God wants to show us that nothing is great or small to Him who inhabited eternity in its dimensions of space as well as of time.  It is a pivot land – and pivots are apt to be small things in the eyes of those who do not understand their meaning.” 



Monday, December 5, 2022

With Healing in His Wings

Webster’s dictionary defines “anticipate” as “expected or looking-forward to.” There is a positive connotation. But anticipation also conjures images of prediction, knowing ahead of time, and supposing.

This second set of meanings reminds me of Naomi, the matriarch we meet in the book of Ruth. My church is going through this short but powerful book during Advent. I have always loved the way Ruth is woven together with deep messianic foreshadowing. It is a perfect addition to our Advent journey.

Back to this week’s theme: When I think of Naomi’s desire to be called Mara (bitter), I don’t see her response as the antithesis of anticipation. I don’t see her doubting or questioning. She is acting too much the realist for that. She seems to have anticipated that this was just how things were going to be for her after the death of her husband and sons. Her return to Bethlehem was based on logic. Bread had returned to Bethlehem; the famine is over. She had nothing to keep her in Moab.

Naomi was not looking forward to anything, but she was expecting bitterness to wrap around her like a shroud. Maybe, she thinks, she could at least finish her days in her ancestral home. Yet, in her extreme practicality, she doesn’t want to drag anyone, especially her daughters-in-law down with her.

God, in His divine happenstance, however, places Ruth as a faithful companion to Naomi and unfolds a story full of grace and redemption. My pastor explores this idea, saying, “Naomi calls herself empty, but knowing what we know about Ruth, she (Naomi) is actually more full than ever before.”

The book of Ruth contains the word “return” twelve times. It is a major theme. And it is the same Hebrew word as “repent.” Whether through the consequences of life’s circumstances or sin, Naomi has great need to return. Little does she know, her practical homecoming to the “House of Bread” will usher in a lineage culminating in the ultimate “Bread of Life,” Jesus.

As the story unfolds, we meet another important character: Boaz. He is a worthy and righteous man, and he just so happens to be a relative of Naomi. In his kindness, he shows great favor to Ruth when she randomly chooses his field in which to harvest barley behind the reapers.

Here we see another perspective on the word “anticipate.” Any anticipation of Ruth’s part is so saturated by faith that she almost seems naïve. Maybe it’s that this kind of deep trust in God’s way forward is so new to her, or more likely, the path is so steeped in God’s leading that she is earnestly expecting anything.

(It sort of reminds me of the scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Harry takes the felix felicis potion and blissfully ambles towards the exact circumstances he needs.)

When Ruth asks Boaz why he has shown her such favor, he responds,
“I have been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:11-12).
Naomi was returning. But Ruth was taking refuge. Rather than running from something (after all the famine was over), she was pressing towards something. Ruth was expecting, through faith, a refuge in the land of a God she did not yet know. And the closest thing to that God was her mother-in-law, who herself carried such a shallow faith. Ruth doesn’t know what to expect, but she finds herself under a shadow of grace. My pastor draws out the analogy: “Ruth doesn’t understand why it is so dark under the wing, but she somehow knows this is exactly where she is supposed to be.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Ruth and Naomi had experienced a crash course in suffering. It is a woe Scripture urges us to expect; to anticipate. But that was not the end of their story, and it is not the end of ours. 

The third verse of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing reads:

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His Wings.
Now He lays His Glory by,
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

This Advent, may we be a people who anticipate the redemption found only under His healing wings.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Paradox and Promise

Today we light the second candle of Advent. As we move from Waiting to Anticipating, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth as told by Luke acts as a hinge between these two themes. Luke jumps right into his book with Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story. In modern Bibles, the header reads, “The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold”, but let’s pretend for a little while that we don’t know that. Let us walk with this elderly couple as they step out the door that special day, having no idea what news was going to greet them.

In a society where it was expected that righteousness resulted in blessings, Zechariah the priest, a figure head of righteousness in his community, was missing out on one of the biggest blessing of all: children. Kelley Nikondeha’s second chapter of The First Advent in Palestine helps shape the context of Zechariah’s predicament:

“This dissonance is deafening. Righteous and barren. The advent narrative of Luke begins here, with a paradox.” (p. 28)

As a priest, Zechariah could expect a certain standing within the social structure maintained by the Romans in Judea. However, Zechariah was not of the priestly elite, but an ordinary community priest. On this particular day, he was chosen to fulfill his twice-annual duty in the inner holy areas of the temple.  

“Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense” (Luke 1:8-9).

Part of Zechariah’s duty included praying for the people as the incense was lit. The very people represented by those standing outside the temple—fellow Judeans living oppressed lives under Caesar’s Pax Romana and under the puppet king, Herod.

Nikondeha observes: 

“As an ordinary priest he stood in a unique position in Judaean society, able to see the economic inequity and just feel its pressure. Perhaps these paradoxes were the heaviness he carried into the temple as he stood in front of the altar of incense. . . Zechariah entered the holy space yoked with barrenness: unfruitful land, sterile futures caused by Caesar’s so-called peace, and the absence of future generations in his own priestly line. He carried the ache with him as he went inside to the altar. The first whiff of holy smoke escaped and ascended like a prayer.” (p. 29-30)
Zechariah was there to intercede for his community and that of the holy city of Jerusalem, but we all know from experience how hard it is to compartmentalize a worry. It seeps into our thoughts, unbidden, at the least opportune times. But this was a house of prayer. . . God had been hearing Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayers for as long as they had been praying them, but this was the time and place He chose to enact the next phase of His plan to change the course of history.
“And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 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.  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.’

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ 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. 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.’”
(Luke 1:11-20).
You can imagine the chaos that ensued as Zechariah exited the temple. Maybe earnest onlookers were hoping to hear a prophetic word from Zechariah’s the deep sanctums of the temple, or to receive the Aaronic Blessing from the priest as a benediction. But Zechariah could do neither. He must have had a thousand things he wanted to say, but God had taken away his voice.

I’ve never stopped to wonder about those silent days as Zechariah finished his bi-annual course of service at the temple. He must have had time remaining in his duties. Was he given special compensation due to his inability to pray out loud? And what about Zechariah’s second priestly course, six months after the first? He would have still been speechless.

Speechless. But still a learned man. I wonder how he spent his days. Did he dig deep into the Scriptures to learn more about what the angel had said? How much more attentive must he have been to Elizabeth and the growing child in her womb. And when cousin Mary arrived with a miraculous pregnancy story of her own, Zechariah could only sit in dumbfounded wonder as the women vocalized prayers and praises not regularly heard from women at that time. Had anything he’d learned about God prepared him for this?

But one thing was true: Zechariah and Elizabeth were no longer just waiting. The Lord had blessed them with a miraculous promise—a promise they would see fulfilled in a short nine month, and a larger promise that would start to take root with the help of their son. Anticipation and hope—feelings not felt in Judea for quite some time. In this first chapter of Luke’s gospel, things were already beginning to change.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Waiting in Traffic with Immanuel

It’s been a few days since I’ve written. I set out to write something last night, but before I would even begin to type, I felt my eyes drooping into sleep. . .

As the workdays end, I often feel like I have sufficient energy to tackle the evening with dinner-making, dishing-washing, and (this season) Advent-writing. But then I get into my car and head out on my commute home. By the time I’ve parked on my street, lethargy is seeping in. There are many reasons for this; chronic pain and the early setting sun don’t help. But this being Advent, I began reflecting on the longness of journeys home and the reality that chaos and uncertainty are exhausting. Commuting is essentially an exercise in perseverance (and often long-suffering!). For those two take a train or bus, it can be s fairly passive waiting for movement from point A to point B. Driving, one gets the added disadvantage of contributing to the ebb and flow of with little to no ability to adjust course or speed up.

All I want to do is get home. I don’t want to wait.

How much of life is like that? And how much of Advent is like that? I often find myself wanting to rush through Week 1 of Advent, to get the “waiting” theme over with. While there is rich theology in the exploration of hope and longing, and it’s pretty much the principal motif of this blog, sometimes I just want to “arrive” at the Nativity narrative. It seems a little more ordered, less open for interpretation, yet at the same time ready for deep contemplation.

Writer Laura Jean Truman reflects on this idea of waiting (in traffic). She says,

“Brake lights all the way down. . . I want to reach into this picture and wipe away everything in front of this sunset like ugly doodles on a whiteboard—clean out cars and utility polls with a wet rag and see the sunset that’s all clogged up behind chaos.

Instead, here we are in Christmas traffic, vibrating with bad news and family drama and fears for ourselves, our neighbors, and our earth.

I used to try to make holy and tidy Advent seasons, to wipe away everything unpleasant or ugly or too-human.

But if God was born in a garage during tax season on a roadtrip—maybe the work of Advent isn’t trying (uselessly) to wipe away everything chaotic. Maybe Advent is crying in the walk-in closet - wondering if Mary cried, too, that she had her first baby so far from home and family and friends. Maybe it’s showing up imperfectly, reminding ourselves that if something is worth doing it’s worth doing poorly, tending gently to our shame - wondering if Joseph felt shame, too, about inadequacies and imperfections as a dad raising this Messiah.

Advent isn’t for the ones who have succeed in wiping chaos away. The good news of Advent is “this too shall pass”. . . We are the weary world that isn’t rejoicing yet. Advent is for us. We are the people walking in darkness who don’t even believe we’ll see light. Advent is for us.

Advent honors the ugly and chaotic, and doesn’t tell us to pretend it’s OK when it’s not. Advent doesn’t say “act hopeful!” Advent doesn’t tell us to stop crying.

Advent whispers:
whether you feel hope or fear,
whether you wait patiently or anxiously,
whether you’re trudging forward or gave up and sat down on the path,  
the good news is that God comes anyway—right in the ugly. Right in the mess.”
I’ve never felt like my practice of Advent writing has shied away from the messiness of life, but this year it’s been really hard to focus. It feels a little bit like being in a traffic jam.

Jesus didn’t have to deal with cars during his time on Earth, but he did do his fair share of traveling (even with caravans as a small child). And He never declared those journeys as lost time. Maybe a part of His divine nature wished He could move through time and space in the blink of an eye, but as a human, he was humbly walking under the Father’s lead. And in God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

If we’ve learning anything from Scripture it’s that God uses any and all thing for His glory and our good. It’s on the journeys that we learn unexpected lessons. Some journeys take longer than others. Some feel more full of chaos. But the good news is that Jesus is there, right alongside us. Immanuel, God with us.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Life-Cycle of a Tree Stump

Seeds are really good at waiting. The seeds of trees have to have amazing perseverance. From the time they are dropped in the ground (by human hand, animal droppings, or “buried treasure”) until the tiniest sprout becomes a towering tree, most trees in the forest span years longer than a human life.

There are many images of trees and seeds in the Bible. The tree of life, the faith of a mustard seed, the cedars of Lebanon, the fig tree. But what about the tree when all that’s left is a stump? How many more years before a mighty cedar (or maybe it was a cypress, sycamore, acacia, balsam, or juniper) falls from storm or carpenter’s hand. And all that’s left is a stump.

Isaiah writes in chapter 11 (v.1-10):
"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
    as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”
It sounds like something, or Someone, magnificent is going to come from a withered tree stump. What does that mean? There is historical and theological significance to this motif, as we’ll see in a moment. But agriculturally, this is not necessarily an anomaly. New branches shoot up from tree stumps all the time. What’s amazing is the time it takes. Time that cannot be rushed because the Creator created the life-cycle of seeds and plants just the way he did.

On R.C. Sproul’s ministry website, Ligonier, there is a devotional based on this passage of scripture. The author writes,
“Let us not miss the significance of all the prophet is saying. First, Isaiah speaks of ‘the stump of Jesse’ (v. 1). The image here is of a tree that has been so devastated that only a stump remains. Jesse, of course, was the father of King David (1 Sam. 16:1–13), so Isaiah is speaking of the Davidic line of kings. . . [But] David's line would decline to such a degree that it would be essentially left for dead. History tells us this is exactly what happened, with David's royal dynasty all but dying out as a result of God's judgment of His people through Assyria and Babylon. Nevertheless, Isaiah also saw that while the Davidic line would seem to be dead, life would remain within the stump. A shoot—life barely detectable at first—would emerge. But once this shoot went forth, it would become a mighty tree. A king of humble origins would be a signal for the nations after the exile (Isa. 11:2–10).”
The author goes on to reference John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah. He emphasizes that the shoot from the stump will come “from Jesse”, not “from David.” Calvin believes this speaks to how low the family line had sunk. It no longer appeared to be a royal family (emphasis on David the king), but a lowly peasant family (which they were, emphasis on Jesse the patriarch).

Sound familiar? A peasant family from the line of Jesse? When David was first anointed king he was truly the least obvious choice. As Jesus grew in his ministry, he was certainly not the leader-type or messiah people expected.

Humble beginnings. Small seeds. Miraculous outcomes.

One of the things that fascinates me the most is when I see my smallness against God's bigness. The movement of time and space and history up against God's eternal plan. Scripture is full of these images we can see woven through the Old and New Testaments, all adding up to the story we are retelling this season. The story of Jesus’ arrival.

When sin first entered the Garden of Eden (another tree!), God could have enacted his plan of salvation right then and there. But instead, He demonstrated great patience in order to unfold a plan that would teach us important lessons about faith and hope and love. For those who celebrate Advent with a Jesse Tree, the ornaments do just that: recount the rich story of God’s faithful and often astounding redemption design.

God is in the business of making all things new. And while supernatural shortcuts (miracles) are known to occur, in His providence, the normal, garden-variety life is lived according to the Creator’s intended rhythm. Things take time. The cycle of living things takes time.

I don’t think a tree knows what it means to be impatient, but the waiting still takes perseverance and care from outside of itself. Human waiting is hard. But just as a gardener watches over the things in his garden, we can rest assured that God is with us as we wait. He is holding this promise in His open hands: because of the Shoot that sprung from Jesse’ stump, we too have the hope of new life. And the resting place will be glorious.


Monday, November 28, 2022

"A Thrill of Hope the Weary World Rejoices"

Many of the songs we sing during Advent and Christmas carry deep theology, but we often miss it for the comforting and catchy tunes, as well as the nostalgia and tradition.

Have you ever stopped to read the lyrics to “O Holy Night?” Originally written as a French poem in 1843, the text was soon put to music, and then in 1855 it was translated into English by John Dwight, who was a minister, abolitionist, and music critic. His translation is a song of juxtapositions, showcasing the light of Jesus’ birth against the world’s darkness. It reminds us that Jesus’ coming changes everything.

And then, in the fifth line of verse one: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.”

There is no punctuation to help us determine the causality of this simple, yet impactful, phrase. Does a thrill of hope cause the weary world to rejoice? Is the weary world proclaiming, “a thrill of hope!”? Should we just enjoy the poetic rhythm and not try to analyze the meaning?

I did a quick Google search for this fifth line. I shouldn’t have been surprised. In the last few years, a lot of people have been writing about our weary world, and wondering when we will be able to rejoice again, and what we will have to rejoice about. These have been hard years. Hope has not felt like a thrill, sudden and exciting. Often, hope has been hesitant and held tightly with uncertainty. That has been our reality as humans prone to disease, disaster, and disorder on this planet Earth.

But if we were to take our view beyond ourselves, to the far reaches of heaven, from whence Jesus came, wouldn’t we see hope differently? Jesus did not come for a world full of hope and promise. He came for a world full of weariness and worry.

Author, Shannan Martin writes, “Without the weariness there is no thrill of hope.”
This doesn’t mean we seek out or celebrate weariness. But it does mean there is no shame in our need for a Savior. We can honestly say, “for when I am weak, He is strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10b).

Weary and waiting, let us be a people who expect the thrill of hope that only Jesus can bring.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Awaiting, We Wait on the Lord

Today we lit the first candle of Advent: Wait.

In the following weeks we’ll see Anticipate, and Prepare, and Celebrate.

Looking back, there are many seasons in life that closely mirror these four themes. They are seasons that hold hesitancy, with maybe a splash of pessimism and a heavy dose of realism. We all wait for something. Often not letting hope get the better of us. We don’t want to be disappointed, after all. But then we are given a glimpse of what’s ahead, and our hearts shift towards anticipation. There is something worth hoping for. And yet, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, so our expectation remains passive and hesitant. Then, all at once, things begin to move. The patterns shift and things start falling into place. It’s time to prepare. To ready the stage for what is coming next. We are still waiting, but now it is active, and full of palatable hope. There is an assurance that all this waiting has been worthwhile and valuable. Then one day, we realize we have cause to celebrate. The thing we have been waiting for has arrived!

As humans, we are prone to such fickle emotions. If only we could sustain this joy infinitely. Instead, our celebrations often peter out and we find ourselves back at square one much sooner than we’d wish.

Were it not for divine intervention, we would get nowhere with this model of expectation.

And so, God placed eternity in our hearts. A seed of longing that pulls (and sometimes drags) us on this life journey from Waiting to Celebration. During Advent we are invited to literally “act” out our hope, recalling time and again the seasons of lack against the Lord’s abundant faithfulness.

Last year, Tish Harrison Warren wrote, “Advent is a season of hope, and part of practicing hope is noticing where we need it.”

Where do we need hope? What lament are we trying to name?

Those are personal questions. And yet, at Advent they are universal and timeless questions. In Advent, we feel the yearnings of the ancient Israelites alongside our own.

The Advent narrative has its origins way back in the Garden of Eden, however within the geographical timeline of the Biblical history, what springs to mind is the gap between Malachi and Matthew (and Luke, our main Nativity narrator). A single, thin piece of paper separates these two books in most of our Bibles, and yet the calendars tell us about 400 years passed between Malachi’s final prophecy and Zechariah’s priestly obligations recorded in Luke.

In her book, The First Advent in Palestine, Kelley Nikondeha offers a unique, trauma-informed perspective on these so called “silent years.” Drawing from the Apocrypha (books outside of the accepted canon of Scripture), Nikondeha recalls the story of the Maccabees she read about in her mother’s Catholic Bible. If you are familiar with the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, then you’ve probably heard of the Maccabees (“Hammers”) —the guerilla-style fighters who claimed back the temple from the Seleucid Empire.

Even as a student of history, I had forgotten when these events took place along the Biblical timeline. They land smack dab in the middle of the 400 “years of silence.” Only, Israel wasn’t just sitting around peacefully. These were centuries wrought by captivity and pain. Long before the Roman problem we meet in the Gospels, the people of Israel suffered under a long line of empires. So, it seems only natural that “messiah” types would arise to help save the day. The Maccabees definitely fit the bill. They had a miraculous victory and an even more miraculous re-lighting of the temple’s eternal flame (modern day menorah). And yet, their liberation was short lived. Their triumph had come through violence and despite their success in re-kindling the temple light, the Maccabees did not choose to inaugurate God’s peace. Before long, Israel was under the thump of another empire yet again.

Many faith traditions do not have the story of the Maccabees in their canon of Scripture. We may never know this side of heaven why God allowed some stories to be removed and others retained. But the story of the Maccabees shows us that waiting on God should not be passive. We are not called to take up weapons and “hammer” upon our earthly enemies, but there is a much better set of spiritual armor (Ephesians 6:10-18) available to us. Because while we wait, and watch, and work, we do indeed battle darkness.

Nikondeha says,
“The stories told around and about the birth of Jesus set our sights on a deep theology for troubled times, then and now. Advent pays attention to the people, places and politics of generations awaiting God’s arrival. To approach Advent in its fullness, we approach it from an uncommon entry point: the darkness of suffering, the struggle of a long waiting.

Confronting the hard landscapes of the past allows us to understand the terrain God entered one starry night. The first Advent began in darkness and danger. . .  Advent came to a traumatized landscape and people.”
(p. 6)
While God did not send another prophet after Malachi for 400 years, and the Maccabees personally felt that God had no guiding words for them, He was by no means silent. He was upholding His people as they suffered long, with hope and small flickerings of light.

“What does it mean to say, ‘God is with us?’” Nikondeha asks. “It's harder—and more hopeful—than strands of twinkling lights. When we engage the darkness before God's arrival, we come closer not only to the first Advent but also to each one since. In Advent, we learn that God is always coming to our troubled times” (p.23).

So, we end with a different look of the word, Wait. This Advent, as we await whatever we are waiting for, let us remember to wait on the Lord. For, if He is with us, then He surely knows the landscape of our troubles, and holds it all in His hands.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Welcome to Advent

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

If you've joined me for any of the past twelve 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 did something unique and focused on one all-encompassing word: Immanuel. I explored 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. This year I want to return to the more traditionally themed weeks, but again, with a twist. Recently, as I was beginning to gather materials to inspire this year’s writings, I came across Jessica Herberger’s interpretation of the four candles: Wait, Anticipate, Prepare, and Celebrate. So, this year they will be our guides.

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 when he sent us 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!