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Advent

Do not fear, but behold

Do not fear, but behold

The Advent season is one of dichotomy.

In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, we experience less daylight than any other time of year these months, making Christmas lights most brilliant. The weather itself is also coldest during this time, making fires and the warmth of friends and family all the more precious.

Something about the end of the year also elicits introspection. Anticipation for Christmas Day builds up. There’s expectation. Then, on December 26th –– and 27th and 28th, and so on –– there are questions. Did I give enough? Did I love enough? Did I accomplish enough? And, perhaps, am I lovable enough?

During Advent, we spend increased time with friends and family, and we see them more clearly, whether in flaw or flourish, feat or fall. This season challenges us. It shines light on darkness. And it makes us all the more aware of our desire for something greater than a present, or the present.

The dichotomy of Advent highlights our tendency to get excited over a new shirt, or watch, or toy, before feeling the inescapable letdown of 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, or December 26th, or 27th. In these moments, we innately know that the gifts we just received are only a shadow; the moment we just experienced is but a glimmer.

Thank God, there’s a flip side. This is Advent, and during Advent, there is light.

We see this in Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah: “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” (Isaiah 9:2).

Rather than dwelling on the dimness of our situations –– our family dynamics, or the insufficiency of the gifts we unwrapped, or the cold, dark season –– we are to behold the light. If we are instructed in Advent at all, we will learn that darkness and winter will soon pass and light will come. We don’t have to fear the bleakness we face. Instead, during Advent, we behold. We turn our eyes up, to where our help comes from (Psalm 121).

Our hope, very simply, is Jesus, the great Light. He alone can deliver us from loneliness, darkness, bleakness, guilt, and unmet expectations.

Indeed, at Christmas, the message for us should be the one which was also given to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus: “Fear not… Behold!”

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

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. 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.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 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. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.’

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 of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.”’ (Luke 1:5-38)

The Greatest Feast of Christmas

The Greatest Feast of Christmas

What are your family Christmas get-togethers like?  For some people, they’re the most anticipated event of the year, full of traditions, giving, and joy.  For others, Christmas is a season that brings anxiety, stress, and awkward interactions with lots of tap-dancing around conversational landmines.  And for some, it’s a season of heavy grief, as they grapple with loneliness or loss.  But whatever type of emotion you associate with Christmas and family gatherings, I think Christmas should also point us to a totally different kind of feast.  A feast that sounds too good to be true, like something from a fairy tale, but that is real, and even better than fiction.

Advent means “entrance” or “introduction,” and begins a new chapter in the broader Story, of course, with the King’s humble arrival as a baby, born in a stable.  We focus a ton on the beginning, and for good reason since it’s a mind-blowing story.  We connect the dots with Easter, and recognize that this baby King came on a mission to die and redeem.  But that’s not the end of the Story.  And when we forget about the end, we miss some of the power in the earlier chapters.  

Toward the end of the Story is a legendary feast, an epic gathering for the ages.  “On this mountain, the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.”  (Isaiah 25:6)   Maybe you’re thinking “hold up – the Christmas spread that we feast on at my Grandma’s house is pretty legendary in its own right!”  But there’s a lot more to this feast in Isaiah than a baked ham, a strong dessert line-up, and that bottle of wine you’re saving for a special occasion.

This feast is more than a meal; it’s a celebration, and there will be no shortage of things to celebrate.  The Lord “will swallow up death forever” and “will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  He “will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.”  (Isaiah 25:8).  When we feel overwhelmed, or crushed under the weight of grief and disappointment, this is what we cry out for:  no more tears, and no more pain.  

Can you imagine what your Christmas gatherings would be like if there were no more pain, no more anxiety, no more bitter judgment or insecurity?    

This gathering is also described as a feast “for all peoples.”  Some of the best parties I’ve been to had people from lots of different countries and backgrounds, each bringing their own cuisine, culture, and dance moves.  Can you imagine a party table with food from every nation and tribe?  The beautiful part of the diversity is that all of the barriers that divide us today will be gone.  After death is swallowed up and the tears are wiped away, we can celebrate together, unhindered by the baggage of bias that we all carry, whether we realize it or not.  

 

In a way, our views of Thanksgiving speak to this desire for unity, as we like to celebrate a folkloric fiesta, where the European pilgrims and Native Americans set aside any differences for the feast.  But imagine a feast that is not just a temporary pause on prejudice, but a feast where together we celebrate that death, sin, and brokenness are no more.

We say that Christmas is a season of peace, joy, and hope.  Yet we rarely link Christmas to this time of joy and feast of peace that Isaiah describes.  Christmas jump-starts the march to this feast, albeit in a surprising way.  Far from the fanfare fit for a King, a scared teenage couple held a baby who would one day complete the Story.   That’s why Advent is the entrance of hope, and why Christmas points to a feast that’s beyond what we can even imagine.

A Great Light

A Great Light

 In Isaiah 9:2-7, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel. They were living in the shadow of the Assyrian empire, an empire that would soon become the instrument of God’s judgement for their idolatrous, unrepentant, covenant-forsaking ways. Yet God shows a great mercy and kindness to his people in giving them hope before the coming judgement, before the coming time of darkness and despair:

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 his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

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."

   The source of hope for Israel is in the coming Messiah, Jesus, who will be born as a child. Yet this child will be called the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. The government shall rest upon his shoulder, and it will be a government marked by justice, righteousness, and peace that causes the garments of soldiers to be burned forevermore. God speaks and light, perspective, and hope is given to the people of Israel. The coming judgement will not be the final word from God. He has planned, prepared, and promised a Messiah. 

   This verse has brought hope to countless people since it was uttered by the prophet Isaiah, and the power and hope in them still stand today. In what areas are you hopeless? You may not be facing an enemy army invasion like the Israelites, (although those in the Middle East may), but maybe you have been struggling with sickness, anxiety, or depression. Maybe your hopelessness stems from financial problems. Maybe you are mourning the loss of a loved one. Or maybe the mundane rhythm of life, days that bleed into weeks, months, and years has led to a general hopelessness. Whatever it may be, Isaiah’s words imbue even the darkest circumstances with hope. For the prophecy given has yet to be fulfilled in its entirety. The child has, indeed, been born and given to us and we look back on this promised fulfilled and allow it to fill us with hope that God will keep the rest of the promise: that one day our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, and our Prince of Peace will come and rule and reign in perfect justice, righteousness, peace. All that is wrong will be made right in that time. There will be no more sickness, no more death, no more sorrow. And this is the beauty of Christ’s Advents. They infuse our situations with a greater hope and reminder that one day all will come under Christ’s perfect rule. 

Abraham: God’s Promise Fulfilled

Abraham: God’s Promise Fulfilled

They were in a grim, desperate situation - it’d be vain to try and deny it.  Day-by-day, year-by-year what little hope they had was melting away, burning like morning’s dew under a relentless desert sun.  Abram’s arms were thrown wide around his wife’s heaving shoulders, Sarai’s breath haphazardly catching itself between rolling sobs of pain.  His eyes, shot red with grief, sullenly circled the tent stretched wide about them.  Fine skins were strewn about in one corner, tiny gold cups sparkled away in the waning torchlight, small specks of spice danced out of their bowls as the breeze flowed freely through. The beauty of it all astounded him; it broke him.  All this, all that I have received in 75 years of life and no sweet child of mine to give it to… how terribly cruel this world truly is.

But, thankfully, the final voice to speak would not be Abram’s - the Lord was up to something profound, something unbreakable.  In Genesis 12:1-2 the Word of the Lord came in awesome power to Abram and proclaimed to him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Here it is, the man utterly devoid of lasting legacy will be established by the Lord to have a heritage that will impact every single family of the earth.

The Word comes to Abram again and pushes promise to an even greater, richer depth.  In Genesis 22:17 the Lord commits, “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offsprings as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”  The promises of God to Abram, who would later become known as Abraham by the Lord’s grace, were irrevocable and unstoppable; neither Abraham’s age, his faltering obedience, or Sarah’s doubt would destroy what the Lord had set to establishing.

Here at Advent we celebrate the God who keeps His Word.  We acknowledge an even more incredible birth: the Son of God Incarnate.  And, we resound in joy that the Lord has kept His promises to us - that the Serpent lies crushed beneath His feet.


Hallelujah - our God keeps His promises forevermore!

Advent: Entering Into The Slow and Sacred

Advent: Entering Into The Slow and Sacred

I think we all can agree that our culture tells us christmas is a time to busy ourselves, to spend a lot of money, and be stressed out. A few years ago, our family decided to counteract those natural tendencies and chose to focus on discovering what it really means to celebrate advent, including creating new traditions and rhythms that fit into that value. 

Advent means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. The focus of this season is to prepare to celebrate the first coming of christ and the anticipation of the return of Christ for the ‘second advent’. The celebration of advent is marked by a spirit anticipation, expectation, preparation and longing. It is a time to remember that we have not yet ‘arrived’, and that we still live in a broken and fragmented world filled with sin. It is a time to be in touch with the deep yearning in each of our hearts for the ‘wrong’ things to be made ‘right’. It is a cry for those who have and are experiencing the tyranny and injustice of a world that is still under the curse of sin. 

It is also a time to remember where our hope lies. To remember that this isn’t the end of the story. Though weeping lasts for the night joy is promised to us in the morning. This hope is what causes us to anticipate the return of our Messiah, who will bring peace and justice to the earth when He returns. How can we be in touch with our longing and need for our Savior, if we busy ourselves to the point of soul neglect? Advent is an invitation to slow down and treasure the sacred truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Here are a few ways that our family has reordered our ‘christmas season’ to embrace the essence and purpose of Advent. First, we shifted our focus from a christmas morning build up with lots of presents and the inevitable post-christmas-morning blues to create fun and more meaningful traditions. We are still doing ‘christmas morning’ but only a few gifts and trying to emphasize the value of time spent together as a family. We are blocking off our Sunday evenings to devote to family advent readings. We will pop some popcorn and make hot chocolate and gather around our fire and read scripture that teach us about the anticipation of the first and second coming of Christ. This is our opportunity to teach our children about the meaning of Advent and why we celebrate it. Then, on a personal level, I will be going through a book or devotional centered around advent that will guide me on entering into this season. Here are some resources that you can look into that you may find helpful as you plan how you want to celebrate Advent this season!

Personal (adult) daily devotional:
Download the app “She Reads Truth"  for an advent study that will provide you with daily scripture readings.
The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp
The Dawning of Indestructible Joy by John Piper(available online)
Waiting Here for You by Louie Giglio

Family:
Unwrapping The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp - daily devotional readings with pictures
Kids Read Truth: Advent 2016 Table Cards - available to purchase on shereadstruth.com 

'Tis The Season of Accidental Theologians

'Tis The Season of Accidental Theologians

Have you ever noticed how American Pop Culture never ceases to produce something new? When I was young, Americans enriched the rest of the world with the glories of T.G.I.F., Vanilla Ice, the Real World, and Saved By the Bell. And in the recent past we've exported gems like Call Me Maybe, Reality Television, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and What Does the Fox Say? And let's be honest, that list could go on and on and on. Social media has made earning our 15 minutes of fame as easy as posting a video to YouTube. Culture-at-large is masterful at pumping out the latest fad and the newest gimmick.

Which is why I'm amused that Americans have been singing the same Christmas songs for decades. In fact, almost all of our most beloved Christmas carols were written in the 18th or 19th centuries. In a culture that overvalues what's next and undervalues almost everything that's old, it's surprising that the Christmas songs we know and love are the same songs that our great-great-grandparents knew and loved.

ACCIDENTAL THEOLOGY

But as is the case with anything that's been around for a while, Christmas songs are easy to sing without ever thinking about the words. The lines of what we categorize as "traditional Christmas carols" are actually filled with deep theological truths. So every year at Christmas unsuspecting Americans everywhere suddenly become Accidental Theologians.

Consider these few lines from the 1st verse of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (written by Charles Wesley in 1739):

"Hark, the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"

So when families sing carols around the tree, who knew that Uncle Fred, who hasn't been to church since Easter, had such strong opinions about Jesus' Kingship? Or that Aunt Susie, who claims to be a Buddhist Catholic, had formed such deep thoughts on the nature of humanity and how true peace can only come from being reconciled to God?

Wesley continues in the 2nd Verse:

"Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel"

And we thought celebrities were just using old Christmas carols as an excuse to sell another album. All this time they were simply making counter-cultural statements about the miracle of the virgin birth. And if we can't count on the likes of Mariah Carey, Boz II Men, and N'Sync to teach us about the mysterious dual nature of the God-Man Christ Jesus, then really, who can we count on?

Accidental Theologians indeed.

ACCIDENTAL WORSHIP

Of course it's easy to poke fun at pop culture mindlessly singing theological truths, but I believe many Christians are guilty of something similar. Recognizing an Accidental Theologian is simple. But remembering that there is no such thing as an Accidental Worshiper could be a little more intrusive for most of us. Because whether we're singing the words of a carol from the 18th century or a few lines right from the pages of Scripture, if our hearts aren't engaged with the words coming out of our mouths and we aren't singing as a response to the nature and character of God, then it isn't worship at all. It's just a really old song.

Culture may accidentally stumble across theological truth from time to time, but no one accidentally stumbles across authentic worship. A disciple of Jesus can only worship to the degree that their heart is in love and engaged with the One that they're worshiping. Worship is a real response to a real God we really love.

So as we celebrate Advent as a church community or if your family is celebrating together throughout this month, be aware of the times your heart is disconnected from the words you're singing. Don't just settle for another year of Christmas carols for tradition's sake. Rather, let's sing those songs as a response to our great God and Savior for all that He is and for all that He's done. Let's teach our children the words of our favorite carol, but let's also teach them about the God who is worthy of the songs that our great-great-grandparents sang.

And as we sing, let's drink deeply from the well of God's goodness and mercy and allow this Advent season to give us the courage to fight to keep our hearts alive in the midst of American materialistic marketing madness. Let's go to great lengths to avoid being Accidental Worshipers for fear of creating the next generation of Accidental Theologians.

I dare you to take the "Advent Challenge"

I dare you to take the "Advent Challenge"

This is my second year where I have celebrated the season of Advent. This 1600 year old Christian tradition is designed to be a breath of fresh air for those who seek to follow and grow with Christ. It was only recently when I saw the gift that this Advent season can be for myself and my family.

The chaos of Christmas time. 
Unless you live in North Dakota you have experienced the ridiculously chaotic speed of our culture during the preceding weeks leading up to Christmas. It is the social norm to be frazzled and to live off of quadruple shots of espresso. Christmas morning finally arrives after watching Christmas vacation for the 87th time, many hours of shopping, hours more of sitting in traffic after leaving the place we just shopped, several parties with people we don’t really know and an unwanted friend of 10 lbs around our waist. After the presents are unwrapped, the stockings are emptied, and the cinnamon rolls are eaten, we are left with this unsettling question in our soul, “was that it?” It’s like that morning after hangover minus an evening with Mr. Jack Daniel’s.

Advent is the remedy to avoid the Christmas blues. It is a rhythm in this season that if done correctly can produce gratitude and joy in us that only the Spirit of Christ can give. Advent is designed to create space in our lives to point us to the substance of Jesus and not primarily to the good gifts that he has given us.

What is the Advent challenge?
In considering how beneficial Advent has become for me, I want to propose a dare to you. I dare you to take what I am calling the Advent Challenge. Advent is celebrated the four weeks leading up to Christmas, so in these four weeks my dare is for you to choose to create space to intentionally celebrate this season. I am convinced that if you create space for Advent, you will leave Christmas morning with a satisfaction in your soul that even the most expensive gift couldn't give you.

How to celebrate Advent?
There are many ways to celebrate Advent. My wife and I are going to partake in Ann Voskamp’s Jesse Tree. We will also be reading through Sojourn church’s advent guide and John Piper’s Advent devotional. Above all things, Advent is a test for me to guard my heart. I can read all of these things, but if I don’t guard my affections, Advent will not increase my joy in Christ. My prayer for my family and for you is that Advent will become a means to awaken fresh love for Christ by His Spirit. To read more about Advent, click here