Week 1: hope and faith

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Hope in His Coming


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“We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom.” – Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 AD)

 

Have you ever read the Apocrypha? The Apocrypha is a group of historical books that tells the “intertestamental” tale, that is, the stories of Israel that take place between Malachi and Matthew. One of the wildest features of the Apocrypha, at least the parts I have read, is the absence of God’s voice. A strong feature of Israelite literature is dialogue. Stories are told in quotes, so to speak. Yet, in these apocryphal texts, there is a strange absence of God’s voice in quotes. A whole lot of history but a tragic lack of God’s voice. A whole lot of tribulation but a great lack of Divine intervention.


Can you imagine living in these 400 years of history with God’s loud silence ringing in your ears as your people and land undergo horrible hardship? What could one cling to in a time like this?


Hope

Hope is the great tradition of the Israelite people. For thousands of years God’s people in Israel clung to stubborn hope that YHWH would be faithful to His promises to be with them and to deliver them, no matter the trial that faced them.


Now imagine you’re a lowly shepherd watching your sheep on a quiet night. Imagine you’re a vulnerable teenage girl who just received word of an impossible pregnancy. Imagine you are this girl’s to-be husband struggling to figure out how to deal with this righteously.


Now imagine the voice of God finally, after four centuries, speaks into this silent night one word:


“Immanuel”


The same Word by which God created the world was the Word by which Israel’s hope was answered! After long suffering, “God with us” broke the silence. And the beauty of it all is that the answer to Israel’s hope would turn out to be the hope of the entire world…


I do not know much about our friend Cyril who is quoted above. He existed at a time of great theological turmoil and controversy. He was apparently exiled from Jerusalem a couple times and welcome back a couple times. Even in his time of great turmoil, Cyril was noted for his focus on God’s love and forgiveness, which was apparently unusual for his time. And, as the above quote reveals, Cyril was a man of great hope in the second coming of Christ. Cyril continues:


“We look then beyond the first coming and await the second… Our Lord Jesus Christ will therefore come from heaven. He will come at the end of the world, in glory, at the last day. For there will be an end to this world, and the created world will be made new.”


I love the way Cyril points us this Advent season to place our hope in Christ’s return. As we celebrate His first coming and His faithful response to centuries of hope amid chaos, I pray we lean back on hope again. Through the chaos of 2020, of pandemics, elections, and civil unrest, there is only one hope we have, and it remains in “Immanuel,” God with us in Christ, the God who lived, died, rose from the grave, ascended, and stands ready to return to this world, to renew it in the resurrection and renewal of all things. That, church, is a hope worth having.


Reflect:

  • In what things do I place hope? Are there things I hope for more than Christ’s second coming?
  • Do I live my life with the stubborn hope in Christ? What do I do when things go bad or God seems silent?
  • What do I need hope for today? What quality of Christ’s character and promises can be an anchor of hope in this Advent season?
  • Read: Matthew 1:18-25 and Titus 2:11-14

WEEK 2: peace

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Kingdom of Shalom


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“It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (AD 1929-1968)


From Genesis to Revelation and onward, one of the most enduring qualities of God’s kingdom is “peace.” Often, when we think about peace, we think about an absence of violence or the absence of war. But did you know that the peace we read about in the Bible is actually not just about the absence of violence but the absence of absence itself? Let me explain.


In the Hebrew, the word for “peace” is shalom, and it means “completeness, soundness, welfare, safety in body, peace in relationships, peace with God.” The biblical idea of peace is much deeper than an absence of violence! The peace God wills for us is actually the completion and fulfillment of us and all our needs. Peace is about all of Creation becoming whole in Christ, lacking nothing!


So why do we so often view peace as the opposite of violence? Perhaps because violence is the perfect case study for how God’s peace is broken. To commit violence, at home or at war, in word or in action, is to violate God’s intended shalom. Violence flies in the face of God’s desired peace for all things and all people in Christ. Where we see it, the breaking of shalom should be obvious.


Church history is filled with men and women who chose shalom over violence, who chose to take Jesus seriously when He said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” In a world filled with violence and the clear disregard of shalom, disciples of Christ are inheritors of a great tradition of peacemaking, from Jesus to the Martyrs, from the Martyrs to the Anabaptists, from the Anabaptists to the nonviolent resistance of the 1960s.


Martin Luther King Jr. understood this great inheritance well. From the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968, King led a movement based on the shalom of Jesus to oppose and overturn legalized racism in the United States. In his essay “Walk with Freedom,” King recalls the bombing of his house and the attack on his family. He also recounts the moments that followed when his followers were almost driven to violent retaliation. “Even though convicted,” King wrote, “we will not retaliate with hate, but will stand with love in our hearts, and stand resisting injustice…” King understood his inheritance from Christ, the Prince of Peace who willingly died in order to give God’s shalom a chance to restore the hearts of His followers and ultimately the world. King understood that refusing violence is the most obvious and evident way to affirm the wholeness and dignity of another person. He recognized peace as the way to point people toward God’s kingdom of shalom amid a world of violence and division.


An ancient rabbinical tradition holds that God created the world in shalom, but when humanity sinned, the shalom of the world was shattered and its pieces scattered throughout the world. In time, with careful searching, they believed God’s people must rediscover the pieces of shalom and replant them as a sign of the shalom kingdom God would bring in the Messiah.


We Christians know Jesus to be this Messiah. We know through men like King, that because of Jesus the Messiah, the violence of the world can and must be met with radical peacemaking. We know that in Christ, the violence of sin and death that dismembers our hearts, rends our souls from our bodies, and diminishes our spirits is overturned once and for all. As we sing of “peace on earth” this Advent, may we not just rejoice in God’s promise to end all violence and war. May we rejoice in the fullness of God’s shalom that makes us and all Creation whole again, the shalom of His kingdom come.


Reflect:

  • How have you experienced peace in life? How has peace been challenged in your life?
  • How did Jesus demonstrate peace in His life and teaching?
  • What promise of peace can you get excited about this Advent season?
  • Read: Luke 2:8-20; John 14:27; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; 1 Peter 3:8-18

Transcendent Joy


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“Let us, then, celebrate the Lord’s birthday with the full attendance and enthusiasm that we should give it.”– St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)


The word “gospel” in ancient Greek was used a variety of ways. Often defined as “good news,” a gospel was a message of “glad tidings” usually relating to a visit from a king, the forthcoming deliverance of a people by their king, or the birth of a Caesar. Regardless of who you were, there was an expectation that when you heard the latest “gospel,” your response would be one of joy.


In the New Testament, the word “gospel” is used to announce God’s kingdom come in Christ. It is used to describe the deliverance of God’s people from sin through the work of King Jesus. For Christians, the gospel is the joyful news that God has come and our deliverance from suffering, sin, and death is at hand!


What great news this is! What an occasion for joy! The God of the universe saw fit to be born among us, as us, to bring His kingdom close, and to continue His liberation of humanity and indeed the whole of creation from the chains of slavery and death wage our sin earned. Joy itself has drawn close to us!


The sufferings of this present time, however, remain all too real. The allure of sin seems all too powerful. Death has yet to surrender. This “good news” may be cause for joy in some lives, but surely my circumstances are the exception, right? Augustine, the north African theologian and bishop during the fourth and fifth century, tells us this:


“Rejoice, you who are just. It is the birthday of Him who justifies…Rejoice, you who are weak and sick. It is the birthday of Him who makes well… Rejoice, you who are in captivity. It is the birthday of the Redeemer… Rejoice, you who are slaves. It is the birthday of the Master… Rejoice, you who are free. It is the birthday of Him who makes free… Rejoice, you Christians all. It is Christ’s birthday.”


Augustine’s reflection stands as a deep and abiding call to joy for all Christians, regardless of their circumstances this Advent season. Christ being born is good news and cause for great joy no matter your circumstances, for there is a joy that Christians have that transcends present suffering. As Paul encouraged us many years before Augustine:


“… [in Christ] we also exult [aka rejoice] in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”


I love that Paul calls us to a joyful posture in light of the hope we have in Christ demonstrated by the love of God poured on us through the Holy Spirit. It seems Paul had an understanding of the four weeks of Advent even before this holiday season gained popularity…


All that to say, regardless of what you are going through this Advent season, good or bad, triumph or failure, a worry or a certainty, God’s joy is on offer to you through the promise of His beloved Son. In Him, you can endure any circumstance to His glory, good or bad. And in Him, you can embrace the transcendent joy of God, this December and into the new year. And this, church, is very “good news.”


Reflect:

  • How is Jesus’ birth “good news” for you? Think on how it is good news now AND later…
  • Are you enduring hardship? Do things seem to be going your way? How is the call to joy in Christ relevant to you in either case?
  • How can you share the joy of Christ with someone else this Christmas season.
  • Read: Matthew 2:7-12; Luke 2:8-10; Romans 5:1-5; 15:8-13

 

An Irresistible Love


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“[By His death on the cross, Jesus] drew everything to himself: he proved his [un]speakable love, and the human heart is always drawn by love. He could not have shown you greater love than by giving his life for you (John 15:13).” – Catherine of Siena (AD 1347-1380)


The magnitude of Christ’s love for us is certainly “unspeakable” in the most beautiful of ways. Go ahead and think about the death Jesus died for you and try to put it into words. I have never fully succeeded in the inner searchings of my heart, the deepest reflections of my mind, or the freest expression of my tongue to ever quite nail it down. The love of Christ is truly “unspeakable.”


Catherine of Siena was an Italian nun that devoted her entire life to serving and searching for Christ. She spent many years in literal silence, lifting her voice only during times of corporate worship and committing the majority of her time to silent prayer and study in her room.


Ultimately, Catherine left behind the silence of the monastery to begin service as a nurse to the poor. She served in hospitals and homes alike, her name was uttered by the poor and the pope, and she even mediated several political and social issues of her day. Through all this, Catherine never lost focus on the deep abiding reality of Christ’s love and her devotion to it.


Catherine did well to remember the Cross of Christ when reflecting on the nature of love. This love has a “draw,” she says, that “You can hardly resist…unless you foolishly refuse to be drawn.” The love of Christ on the Cross draws us in and invites us to life.


As we reflect on His death, may we remember the death of a man is preceded by his life. And that life lived is always preceded by a birth. As we reflect on the profound words of Catherine, I want us to connect the “drawing” love of the Cross back to the “drawing” love of Christ’s birth.


In the immediate years following Jesus’ ascension, there was a common belief that the “physical world” was bad and Christ’s death granted a “spiritual life” that would allow one to leave behind this dirty, physical world and live forever in heaven. This belief, tragically quite often held today, not only undermines the nature of Jesus Christ but also the impact of His “unspeakable” love.


You see, God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to demonstrate His love by becoming man and living with us, dying for us, and rising for us in a very physical sense. The birth of Christ was God’s deep and abiding “YES!” to humanity and the entire world despite its mess. As the verse goes:


“For God so LOVED the kosmos, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal live. For God did not send his Son into the kosmos to condemn the kosmos, but in order that the kosmos might be saved through him.”


The Greek world kosmos is a fairly broad term, but it could generally be described as “the universe, the world, and its inhabitants, namely humanity.” Now, reread the verse above. Do you see now the profound depth of God’s love? By being born a baby and living as a man, God made a way to not just save disembodied souls, but to save the human in body and soul, and indeed to save the entire world. Jesus, by taking His place physically among humanity and the rest of the kosmos, was a loving affirmation of what God had originally created good. And His human birth, perfect life, sinless death, and bodily resurrection taken together is the image of love perfected, a sign of the perfect age to come when He will say “Behold, I am making all things new.”


As we reflect on the birth of our Savior King, may we remember that His perfect choice to become human and live in this world is a profound image of what love looks like. Christ’s birth demonstrates that love enters our situation, affirms all that is good, and offers a path to redemption for all that is corrupt. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were yet sinners, Christ took on the form of man, lived a sinless life, died, and rose again to pave the way to life, a life affirmed and perfected in love. May we take Catherine’s advice and not “foolishly refuse to be drawn” by His love this Advent season.


Reflect:

  • How do you describe God’s love to people? Do you think you have a deep enough understanding of the love of Christ?
  • How does Christ’s birth reveal God’s love for you? Have you ever considered the implications of Christ’s birth for the meaning of love?
  • How are you being “drawn” into Christ’s love this Advent? Are you refusing to be drawn in any way?
  • Read: John 1:9-18; 3:16-17; 15:1-11; Philippians 2:5-8; 1 John 4:7-12