Archives for posts with tag: Advent

Professional sports and the season of Advent have nothing in common. Some might consider it irreverent to even use one as analogous to the other but then again even the idea of the divine taking on human flesh is kind of irreverent anyway. In exchange for the usual Advent words: peace, joy, hope, and love, I offer four other words for contemplation this Advent season. Each one will be illustrated from the world of sports.

SILENCE

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” No church Christmas season is ever without this classic Christmas carol. Although a human mother giving birth in a stable was probably anything but calm and silent, the aura of a “silent night” as a symbol of Christmas is endearing and enduring. In Canada Christmas is associated with snow; there is nothing more silent than being outside on a cold winter’s night with snow softly falling. I’ve experienced it! One my favourite winter activities that I experienced on the prairies was ice skating on our horseshoe slough in the evening with a full moon overhead. There is no sound but the silent swish, swish of the skate blades on ice. Silence is beautiful. Silence is reverent. Silence is wonderful.

Unfortunately, Canada’s national sport played on ice has been anything but silent of late. The clean ice and the soft white snow have been assaulted with verbal diarrhea. First, it was hockey commentator, Don Cherry, ranting about immigrants on Hockey Night in Canada. Then it was Bill Peters, coach of the Calgary Flames, who was called out on racist comments made while he was a junior coach. Mike Babcock, one of the most respected coaches in the game, was revealed as full of arrogant words and mean-spirited ways. Then reporters and tweeters weighed in with all their opinions, from saying that the “trash-talking” is just part of the game to self-righteous condemnation of the public scapegoats.

Perhaps we should all shut up. Hockey is not the only culprit. Politicians, preachers, party-goers, pontificaters, puny peons… all people, pay attention! We live in a noisy world where one of the most difficult disciplines is to stop and be silent. That first Christmas night may not have been particularly calm and quiet but there is something about the event of Christ’s birth that should cause us to stop our noise and words to pause in reverent silence. “Let all the earth keep silent” is a word we need to hear this Advent season.

 

 

Mary’s Magnificent Protest Song

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.—Luke 1:52

Read: Luke 1:46-55

Reflect: Is the message of Advent becoming clear by now? God’s coming to Earth is about a reversal of status and values. Mary’s song in response to the angel’s announcement continues this theme. Hannah and Mary may seem unlikely singers to be raging against the machine of empirical power, but that is the whole point! God often speaks through the unlikely.

Just as “pride goes before a fall” so the small will be lifted tall. Tommy Douglas was a man of small stature, a small-town Baptist pastor on the Canadian prairies during the Great Depression, yet a few years ago he was voted as the “Greatest Canadian” in a television poll. He once said, “Watch out for the little fellow with an idea.” His idea was that all people, regardless of their wealth or status, should be entitled to equal health care. He left the pastorate and went into politics, working tirelessly for the rights of the poor and marginalized and becoming known as the father of universal health care in Canada.

Mary was the little girl with an idea who, in our text, speaks just as forcefully as any preacher or politician. Did she have an inkling of who her child would become and what he would do? Her protest song is a collage of poetry from the Psalms and prophets and sounds very much like Hannah’s song from generations earlier. Mary’s son Jesus, born in a cave many miles from home, would become the Savior of the world and the Great Leader who would inaugurate the reign of God. How do we respond this advent season?

Respond: My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.—Luke 1:46-47

Abram’s Name Change

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.—Genesis 17:5

Read: Genesis 17:1-8

Reflect: Sometimes people change their names when they convert to another religion, move to another country, or have a significant spiritual awakening experience; for Abraham, it was all three.

Abram became Abraham, which means “father of many nations”, because God had plans to bless many people through his descendants. He left his home in the empire of Babylon for a nomadic life in the desert in order to follow the God who called him. In this new land he had a special encounter with God where God made a covenant with him.

My parents named me Gareth (which means “sword bearer”) when I was born. In my teenage years it was popular to shorten one’s name and so I became Gary instead of Gareth. It was part of an experiment to discover my identity. In my thirties I encountered God through the journey of healing from childhood sexual abuse that had robbed me of my innocence. As a symbol of that healing I reclaimed my given name, Gareth, and felt a new sense of wholeness as a grown man. I also became a preacher who used, or bore, the “sword of the Spirit”!

Although you may not change your name like Abraham did or reclaim your childhood name as I did, we all have significant transformative experiences in our lives. It is important to recognize these experiences and to integrate them into our lives. What transformative experiences have brought you to follow God’s call on your life?

Respond: I will not fear for you have redeemed me; you have called me by name; I am yours.—Isaiah 43:1.

 

I’m finishing off my Sabbath year of mostly reposted blogs with some Advent devotions I wrote for REJOICE! Devotional Magazine some years ago. They are kept in the same style: key verse, the larger Scripture reading, a reflection on the Scripture, a response. With the last Sunday of Advent being the 24th of December, Advent is a bit short this year so I’m starting early. I hope they help you to reflect on the unexpected and “upside-down” nature of the coming of Jesus into our world.

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.—Luke 1:38

Read: Luke 1:26-38

Reflect: The Beatles recognized Mary’s words of wisdom when they sang, “Let it be”. I don’t think it was accidental that God chose a teenage peasant girl to bear salvation to the world, as the unconditional trust of the young is an example for all of us.

The story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to tell her she will bear God’s Son is the central story of the Advent season, and what a story it is! It begins with an affirmation from the angel: “The Lord is with you” (v.28), which perplexes Mary even before the angel tells her the astounding news of her immaculate conception. Mary rightfully wonders, “How can this be?” (v.34). I have a feeling the tone of her question is very different from Zechariah’s doubtful “How will I know?” in the previous scene (v.18). Mary’s trusting “let it be” changes her world forever and, through her, the history of the world in which she lives.

It is good for us to marvel every year at this story: to ask, how does this story speak to us today? What do Mary’s words of wisdom mean for us? I like how Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster put it in their book, The Godbearing Life: “While the coming of Jesus Christ in a virgin’s womb is the unrepeatable mystery of God, God invites all of us to become Godbearers—persons who by the power of the Holy Spirit smuggle Jesus into the world through our own lives, who by virtue of our yes to God find ourselves forever and irrevocably changed.”

Respond: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.—Luke 1:38

 

This past Sunday I preached a sermon on Matthew 11:2-11. The driving exegetical question was: Why is John the Baptist asking Jesus, Are you the one or should we expect someone else? The question for us was, How are we expecting Christ to come this Christmas? Here is my final point and my conclusion:

Perhaps John misunderstood the kind of judgment Jesus was to bring.  John expected a violent, cataclysmic overthrow of the authorities, maybe not unlike the Zealots of his day, and not unlike some of his disciples then and now. John was thinking Jesus would be like Elijah calling down fire from heaven. John, languishing in prison, was confused because he imagined a different kind of messiah than he was getting.

Leon Morris says in his commentary “It was through works of mercy and not spectacular victories over Roman armies that Messiah’s work would be accomplished.” John Howard Yoder concurs “that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history.”

Not everyone, including John caught on to this. Are we catching on? John was getting impatient. He was expecting the enemies of Israel to be destroyed but instead later in the chapter [11:20-24] Jesus proclaims that foreign cities will be better off than Jewish cities at the time of judgment. Surprise! He says that the kingdom will be hidden from the wise and made known to children[11:25]. Surprise!

Jesus’ immediate message for John the Baptist does not include any mention of punishment for the wicked but it is about judgment and justice – restorative justice. He does not say, “Just wait John, when I come back a second time then I’ll do some damage.” No, he says, “People are healed, death is overcome by life, good news is preached to the poor.” This recalls Jesus’ sermon in the temple when he read Isaiah 61:1-2 and claimed he was the fulfillment of this text. It is about the “jubilee,” the year of the Lord’s favor, when all things would be set right. Mercy is at the heart of Jesus’ mission and thus also the church’s mission. But this is not what we were expecting. Surprise!

N.T. Wright says that “Just as wicked people don’t like the message of judgment because they think [rightly] it is aimed at them, so sometimes good people [like John and Jonah and us] don’t like the message of mercy, because they think [wrongly] that people are going to get away with wickedness.”

John, and Jonah, announced a message of judgment and encountered a God of mercy. Jonah complained under his wilting vine. Nineveh was supposed to go up in flames [that would have been justice in his view], but instead God had mercy. John is doubting in prison. He thought Jesus was supposed to get rid of Herod and all other evil tyrants, but instead Jesus healed the sick and proclaimed good news [v.5-6].

What about us? We may feel like John that the injustices we suffer and see in the world need to be avenged. Bad people need to be punished in order for there to be justice. But we misunderstand God’s judgment. That is the world’s view of justice. God does promise to bring justice, but it is not the punishment view of justice; it is God’s restorative view of justice.

Jesus ends his message to John [v.6]. “Don’t stumble over the fact that I don’t fit your expectations of messiahship. Blessed are those who don’t wait for another violent Messiah to come but in faith accept what God is doing through me.” Those who recognize, and are not offended because they expected something else, will be blessed.

After many years in the church we may also like John become tired, disillusioned and confused about God’s judgment. Like the older brother of the prodigal son we are upset when the father extends mercy to the prodigal. We’ve been faithful to the traditions all these years and because of our experiences we have certain ideas and expectations about who Jesus is that keep us from recognizing and fully embracing God’s work today. We become blinded and calloused to the unexpected and surprising grace and mercy of God in Jesus.

What about us in the coming days of Advent? Do we have rigid expectations of what is justice and righteousness look like, thus closing ourselves off from the surprising ways that Jesus might work in our midst? Are we open to recognizing God’s work among us in ways and through people that we might not expect?

Like John we may have doubts and questions about Jesus. John struggled to reclaim his understanding of who Jesus is and that is also the quest of our lives as we anticipate celebrating Christmas. How will Jesus come to you this Christmas? What are you expecting? Are you ready for a surprise?

This is the climax of the semester where the work load reaches a feverish crescendo for both students and faculty, so I post the conclusion to my lecture on Psalm 113. I outlined the psalm thusly: v.1-3 Praise Yahweh: v.4-6 High Above, v.7-9 Far Below. The second stanza is common in our worship but we often have difficulty with praising God for becoming small and insignficant [we are such practical docetists!], yet that is the message of the incarnation which we celebrate at this time of year.

The climax of the psalm comes with the specific history recalled by v.7-9. This is where the high God meets with the poor man who cannot provide for his family and the barren woman who cannot have a family. What is impossible by social custom or human effort is made possible by God. This is the story of Israel and the story of the Bible!

These verses anticipate the “great downward and upward sweep of the Gospel, which was to go even deeper and higher than the dust and the throne of princes – from the grave to the throne of God!” [Derek Kidner] It again illustrates the upside-down nature of God’s ways and God’s power.

God’s glory is not like human glory. “The one who sits enthroned in splendor is known to be peculiarly allied with the broken-hearted, who cannot help themselves” [Isa. 57:15]. [Walter Brueggemann] “God’s glory is equally at home high above the heavens and at the side of one forlorn person.” [Kidner] God’s greatness and majesty is most accurately revealed in his incarnation and death on the cross [Phil.2:6-11]. This is the essence of the Gospel.

I could go on about the implications but I’ll leave that for you to ponder as I did for students.