Advent is Bi-polar

The Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent, is Matthew 21:1-9, which is also the Gospel reading appointed for Palm Sunday.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem. Strange, huh?

I think it’s perfect, primarily because the only other time in the Church Year that is as neurotically bi-polar as Advent is Palm Sunday. Like Advent, Palm Sunday is celebratory in that we shout hosannas and rejoice in the Lord’s arrival to the Holy City, but very soon thereafter, in the very same service, the tones of our voices change as we realize the dreadfully sad march to the cross. In the midst of all of it, we don’t know if we should laugh or cry.

This reading serves the season of Advent well because it combines hopefulness and final judgement. It looks backward in time to the Lord’s first coming while looking forward to His second coming—all at the same time. And in the end, by this reading, the lectionary’s designers knew not to begin the new Church Year without first dropping us at the doorstep of holy week, the shortest of all seasons of the Church Year, the one that truly pinpoints the heart of all of the promises of both the first and second comings of Jesus. Advent teaches that everything about where we’ve been and where we’re going lands at Golgotha, which is the singular event that launches its hopefully divine life rafts through the bloody mess of Christ’s death to all believers of all time both before and after the event itself. In other words, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, all the way through to you and me, we’re all in reach of the Lord’s work on the cross. We saved by trust—looking forward or backward to the Messiah’s loving act—no matter who we are or where we are on the timeline.

So, as you can see, Advent is terribly bi-polar. It’s all over the place. But in so many wonderful ways. There’s a lot to preach on in this season.

With this, you should be prepared to strap on your spiritual seatbelt. This means going to church during Advent. Don’t wait until Christmas. If you do, you’ll miss a good portion of the best stuff that makes Christmas worth your while. Yes, you should make it a point to go to church during Advent. And you should listen carefully. You’re sure to be rewarded. You’ll learn of a love that begins and ends in the person and work of Jesus Christ born in Bethlehem, born to give Himself as your ransom on the cross. The preaching—if the pastor can manage the season’s neurosis well enough—will tell you of the Lord’s immeasurably loving desire to come in the flesh to save you through a most humiliating sacrifice. Simultaneously, the assurance is that you’ll be changed by that wonderful Gospel to know of Christ’s desire to keep His promises to you until the end of time. He promises that His victory train doesn’t end at the Ascension, but rather He will return again in glory to bring all things to completion. The end is no end. He comes to take all believers to Himself for all eternity, which is the time outside of time.

Advent is meant to be a time of blessings for you and your family. If your church isn’t celebrating Advent, go somewhere else. Go to a church that has her heart set on giving and clinging to those blessings. Insist that the outside-of-time wonder that Advent brings is a part of your family’s life right here at this moment on the timeline.

Even the Sun Will Blush

I hope you had a wonderful and restful Thanksgiving time with your family. I know I did. I had a chance to play with the kids, do a little reading and writing, and enjoy the Christmas décor we managed to get into place the weekend before.

Speaking of reading, if there were ever a reason to read from Luther besides his theology, it would be because of his practiced handling of language. He sure has a way with words.

I recently read a small devotional portion from one of his sermons from 1532. In particular, he was dealing with the text of 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 in which Paul describes the resurrection at the Last Day:

“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that was sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Luther said a lot of things about this text. Still, there were two parts that peeked through to the forefront. The first was the following:

“If we stand firmly in (Christ) and do not waver, our righteousness is so great that all our sins, whatever their name and nature may be, are like a little spark, and our righteousness is like an ocean…”

Did you catch that? He just set forth a most splendid image of what it means to be counted righteous before God at the Last Day because of Jesus. Imagine the ability of a tiny spark to maintain its life let alone grow to become a fire while the entirety of an ocean’s vastness is washing over it. That spark is anything and everything pertaining to your Sin. Covered in the ocean-sized righteousness of Christ, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Simply wonderful.

The other portion that resonated with me was this:

“Further, our shame which we shall bury so ingloriously is covered with a glory that is called ‘The Resurrection of Christ,’ and with this it is so beautifully adorned that even the sun will blush when it sees it and the angels will never be able to turn their eyes away from it.”

Wow. Even the sun will blush. Even the angels will be entranced, their attention held captive.

All of this matters to us as we come up and out of the Last Sunday of the Church Year in preparation for the holy season of Advent. Both of these have as their focus the return of our Lord in glory, but also the fulfillment of the promise that we, too, will see the resurrection of our bodies at the Last Day and will stand before the throne of Christ and behold him with eyes of flesh. Not with failing eyes, but rather with perfected and gloriously restored eyes. We will be united with our bodies that went into the ground, but in an instant, they will be changed and fashioned as unto the Lord’s own body for all eternity. Luther says that the glory of this event and all who comprise it will be an astounding emittance, a shining of magnificence that outpaces the sun in its brightness. Even the angels will be amazed.

Again, wow. Can you imagine it? By the inspired Word of God through Saint Paul we know it’s true. With Luther’s skillful help, we can almost see it.

I pray that this wonderful Gospel brings you peace as you enter into a time in the new Church Year designed to remind you of your salvation while at the same time setting your heart in anticipation of the coming Lord, not only in Bethlehem, but at the Last Day. I pray that your anticipating heart is filled with a faith that stands firmly in Christ and the knowledge of His immense love. I pray that by that same love, you will be stilled to know by faith you have a place with Him in the glories of heaven when your last breath comes.

We’re In This Together

Can you believe that Thanksgiving is already upon us? I can’t. It sure seems like yesterday my calendar was set to July, but now, a furious whirlwind having blown through, its pages are open to November—and December is beginning to flutter.

It’s dizzying.

Speaking of, I must confess something to you. It’s a little embarrassing. Although, having recently skimmed the introduction to The Merchant of Venice, which is somewhat built on the platform of embarrassment, I was enlightened to embarrassment’s teaching ability.

Essentially, the Sunday before last, I was (and I suppose I still am) dealing with a pretty bad cold. I woke up feeling terrible, and I think the potential for such a level of terrible was something shared with me on the homebound plane ride from D.C. the previous week. The person right behind me spent a good deal of the hour and half of the flight coughing. I’m almost certain I caught it. But anyway, right before the sermon that Sunday, I took two Dayquil liquigel capsules with the hope that they would help keep me on my toes through the rest of the service and the subsequent Bible studies afterward.

But I made a terrible miscalculation. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that at the conclusion of the Lord’s Supper I was most likely going to be finishing off the remainder of two chalices of wine. And as if that weren’t enough, earlier that morning I’d taken a Gabapentin for my back. Needless to say, by the time I got to the Benediction, I was starting to notice I was having some difficulties.

The first thing I noticed was that both of my ears began to ring while shaking hands in line. At one point, they were ringing so loudly it was difficult to hear what folks were saying. It subsided somewhat when I got into the Bible Study in that I only heard the ringing in my right ear. The next thing I noticed was that during the study there were a couple of moments when I found it somewhat difficult to breathe. Only maybe two or three times, but each time, I turned toward the doors of the ECC entryway to take a deep breath. The last, and perhaps the weirdest symptom, was that I had a hard time remembering any of your names. I don’t know if you noticed, but rather than calling on folks by name, I simply pointed. I did that because I just couldn’t seem to get the names to form. This all continued through the Adult Membership class that took place right after the Adult Bible study.

Yeah, I know. Weird.

I told Jen about it. She wasn’t too pleased with me. Her unhappiness, of course, was driven by concern.

“You should’ve said something,” she said, revealing her irritation. “You could’ve been having a stroke or something!”

“Yeah, I know,” was my reply. “But I just kinda kept on with stuff, anyway.”

Still, I haven’t even told you the awkward part of the story. What actually embarrasses me is that I made a poor decision and drove home while all of this was happening. I was just too busy “keeping on” with things to see that something was maybe more wrong with me than I was willing to admit. And therein lies the center of gravity to the point I want to make by all of this.

In 1 Corinthians 11:31, Saint Paul wrote, “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” I read that in a devotion that very same morning before worship. What Paul means to say is that as sinners, we have a hard time looking at ourselves and seeing that something is wrong. We have a tendency to employ our constricted points of view in ways that see the trouble with others but doesn’t really see the trouble within ourselves. In other words, if we are to be the judges of ourselves, we won’t come under judgment. That’s just a bad way to live.

Still, God knows we do things this way. That’s one reason why He places us into the context of a worshipping community. He sets us down into the midst of a people gathered together by objectively true things. All of us are in it together, and in part, all of us are enabled to continue in it for service to one another. And as a family, it’s supposed to be somewhat natural for us to encourage and build one another up, to reprove and rebuke in love when we’re traveling a road that could be dangerous, and to keep an eye of care turned to one another so that we can be ready in times of need to help. As members of this fellowship of human need, the last thing we want to do is to hide behind a façade of “I don’t need help from anyone. I can do this alone.”

We need each other around here. I need you to keep an eye on me and make sure I’m okay. And you need me to keep an eye on you and make sure you’re okay. We’re in this together. We’re family, and we shouldn’t be so embarrassed to say, “Hey, folks, I think we’re going to just cancel Bible Study today because, well, I’m in some sort of a mind fog and I honestly don’t recognize any of you.”

Well, maybe I wouldn’t say it that way. But, hey, you know me.

In summary, don’t feel as though you must go it alone. You don’t have to. Look to your Christian family. Trust them enough to know that they love you and will be ready to help.

Thoughts from the Airport

I’m writing this while sitting at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C., and as one sits in such a place, there are plenty of other things to think about. Even better, there are plenty of things to observe—people, restaurants, shops, golf carts letting out siren chirps to get through the crowds without incident, and even some animals. I’m guessing that someone very important is about to arrive on the flight pulling up to my terminal because a rather large contingent of police officers is gathering near the door to the ramp. There’s a small dog in someone’s lap about ten seats away. I’m kind of hoping it isn’t a “comfort animal” that I’ll be sitting next to for the next two hours on the plane.  There’s also a bird hopping from one ceiling joist to the next above me in the domed ceiling. It’s pretty rainy and cold outside right now, so I’m guessing the little guy is trying to keep warm and dry like the rest of us. And as far as I’m concerned, as long as he doesn’t drop anything on me, he’s welcome to stay.

Airports are unusual. But they’re also thought provoking. Looking at the bustle, the never-ending fluidity of things in motion—people moving from one location to the next, seeking a destination and its goals or profits or social company—it’s easy to see how someone like Shakespeare would observe humanity and write: “The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream” (Hamlet, II, ii, 11).

I know he’s not writing from a Biblical perspective, but as I’m sure I’ve shared with you before, folks like Shakespeare—and others for that matter—are worthy of our attention because they have a way of setting objective truths before us even though they may be using somewhat of an existential lens to see them. In other words, sometimes the world betrays a knowledge that there are such things as up and down, yes and no, right and wrong. In context, I think Shakespeare wrote this because he knew that deep down inside of every human being, no matter what we’re chasing in this life, it is most certainly transient. They are shadows of dreams that are here one night and gone the next. And something very important to keep in mind is that Shakespeare is using the term “shadow” to imply the presence of something real casting the shadow. This means that behind all of our pursuits, there’s something else at work, something that would drive the human spirit to continue to chase after things that just won’t last.

This is where the Word of God steps in to offer divine insight. We need God to reveal this to us, otherwise we’ll never truly know the inner workings of the things that matter most—we’ll never really know what’s at stake.

Of course we might be tempted right away to say that “Sin” is the driving force behind all of this, but that would be too easily dismissed by anyone here at the airport who is bustling along because he or she is trying to get home to be with family. In that circumstance, I’d keep it simple and say the love of family is what’s casting the shadow. I wouldn’t even be so hasty as to say that the gentleman down a few seats and across the aisle from me right now, someone I’m guessing is a fairly successful politician or businessman, is motivated to move from one locale to the next because of a greedy heart or a lust for power. For all I know, he could be on his way to a charitable event to give away millions to help people in need, and it could be that he can barely contain himself for the joy of such a thing because he knows how it will glorify Christ.

So, I guess that as I sit here trying to parse these emerging thoughts as I type—thinking out loud on my computer screen—in the end, I land on the somewhat general condition of the human heart as the Word of God reveals it. Yes, the heart is corrupt and sinful. As Christians we already know that any pursuit born of the sinful heart is as a filthy rag (Isaiah 64:6). Still, the Bible teaches that God is, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, recreating the hearts of believers to be in pursuit of the life to come even as we must keep the proper perspective in our pursuit of things here on earth (Matthew 6:19-34). Without God reaching into us and accomplishing this, even the attempts to get home to be with a loving family are fruitless endeavors because in the end, outside of His redeeming work, everything comes to an end and is lost. Everything in front of me right now is passing away. This means that outside of faith in Jesus, Death will forever separate the family I see right now standing at the desk at Gate 22 asking for help. But for a family of believers—for people in forward motion seeking to get to an earthly home—such a pursuit can be seen as a mere foreshadowing of their eternal home and the eternal togetherness with those they love to be experienced in the joys of heaven with Christ forever.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. Who knows? I guess that’s what happens when you’re sitting in an airport and have nothing to do but type.

Nevertheless, I guess I’d encourage you to keep these thoughts from your pastor in mind. I’m writing them for your spiritual digestion. Chew on the words. And as you do, ask yourself what is behind your pursuits. Better yet, and at a healthier depth, maybe consider if your pursuits are in some way disconnecting you from Christ and the means by which He feeds you with what is necessary for the recreation of your heart and the hearts of the members of your family. If what you are chasing after is separating you from Jesus, by all means, I beg you to jettison it from your life right now! Stop before it’s too late to see that it’s killing you and your family spiritually. Don’t become so invested in such a pursuit that it becomes your all-in-all in comparison to Christ and casts a shadow from very real spiritual starvation and oncoming doom.

I guess since I’m sort of saying it already, I’ll go ahead and say that I find it strange how Christian families dedicate so much time and effort to things that do this, and then a few years down the line, the parents can’t seem to understand why their kids left the faith altogether. I’ll tell you why they left. The parents taught them what was important to pursue. They learned what was important from mom and dad. I sometimes wish I could arrange a meeting between older parents who are now experiencing heartache from this and younger parents who are right in the middle of making it happen. I think it would be a Jakob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge moment for some. I think eyes would be opened to the dangers, and perhaps this tragedy that’s more than reaching epidemic proportion in churches across America would be somewhat averted, or at least sent into a time of subsiding.

Either way, be encouraged to know that even as we fail to pursue Christ, He still pursues us. He’s doing it right now through these words. Listen to Him. Know that He loves you, and know that His love casts a huge shadow in this life, and it is one that promises safekeeping for the next (Psalm 17:8). Don’t stand outside of that shadow. I can promise you, in the sweltering heat of this mortal life, it’s much better in the shade of Christ’s love.

A Prayer Before and During the 2018 Mid-term Elections

Heavenly Father, look down and see the ferocity of this world and its hunger for our ruin. Be merciful to us in the midst of the waning moments before this crucial election—one that will determine at the highest levels in Michigan and across the nation the value of the unborn, an election that will either defend or further concede the objective truth of Your natural laws, one that will result in the guarding or the further sacrificing of the sanctity of holy marriage, one that will either shield or surrender the religious liberties born from Your Word that are foundational to this state and nation.

Merciful God, know that we aren’t so vain in this very simple moment of prayer as to believe that we are somehow capable of anything good and right and true without Your blessing, without Your wisdom, and without the perfect love that descends only from You. To believe anything else is vanity. In these moments before November 6, we confess intimate knowledge of the weakness of our own flesh for success in the contest before us. We admit to our awareness of the power of the true enemy, that old evil foe, the devil, who is ever seeking to advance against us. We acknowledge that if we are to look to ourselves for strength in the forthcoming combat, then all is already lost.

But you have made clear by the signal of Your Holy Word that Your people must step forth to face off with the challenges ahead; and we have staked a claim in this call. Even now, so many in our ranks are taking up positions in the frontline trenches. But they do not take their places and we do not seek to join them because we desire glory, but rather we stand together hoping to be a bronze wall of faithfulness to You for the sake of Your Gospel and the good of our neighbors. We do this knowing that with each new day before us, as the sun rises and sets, in stride with a government that can rightly be called “good,” Your purposes for salvation will have the freedom to be extended into a world in need.

This is our charge as Christian citizens.

Come and be with us, Lord. Help us, we pray. Take command of our legions. Send Your Holy Spirit to move us to act with courage. Work through us to elect and send candidates into positions of leadership who are fully equipped to drive back and strip from our government’s agenda any and all things that would oppose the cause of truth. According to Your gracious will, accomplish this through them. Give them victory, and then see to their care. As they serve, remind them by the Gospel of Your Son, Jesus Christ, that You love them, too; that they were worth every drop of blood in the His holy veins, and by this blood, they are more than equipped with a nerve that can do nothing less than to plant them firmly so that they might lean forward with an unflinching stare into the eyes of evil and push back against its dreadful appetites.

God, please grant this to us, both in our state and our nation. And still, Your will is best and we pray that it would be done among us. All this we ask through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Our New Heraldry

It may sound a little nerdy, but I’ve set myself a goal of reading a little bit of Shakespeare every day until Christmas. I’m doing this because I’ve been feeling a little like I’ve been using some of the same words too often in my writing, and I know one sure way to expand one’s vocabulary is by reading from finer literature.

I took some time to read a little bit from Othello this morning, which is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and I came across a line that caught my attention.

“Our new heraldry is hands not hearts.” (III, iv. 48)

First of all, this caught my attention because of the word “heraldry.” Of course, I know the word “herald.” It can be both a noun and a verb. At Christmas time you’ll hear it used both ways in one of our most beloved hymns. You’ll hear of angels calling “Hark!” as they serve to herald the good news of the birth of Jesus. Shakespeare uses it here in a way that I’ve never used it, calling various messages into a general school of heralding that has one very important reason for existing.

Second, it caught my attention because of what it actually meant in context, especially since I’ve been spending some time in the adult bible class on Sunday mornings talking about how it’s one thing to believe something, but it’s something entirely different to act on that belief. It’s one thing to preach and teach and claim allegiance to the Gospel while living as though the Gospel has no real sway in your life. Here in this particular sentence, the listener is being urged by a different kind of message. The one speaking is beyond the moment of a rallying cry. He is now heralding that your heart is useless in any cause if you are not also willing to offer your hands to the effort. If you’ve been listening in the adult bible class, you’ve heard this. And I’ve said this same thing before, just in a different way, especially as it meets our efforts to engage as a congregation in challenges both internally and externally. You’ve heard me say before that it’s of little value for you to say to anyone going into a challenge in which you, too, are more than capable of helping, “I’m with you in spirit.” I can assure you that while it sounds nice, it isn’t enough to best the opposing forces, and it might not be all that inspiring to the rest of us in the darkest hours of the sweat and tears of the challenge. What’s needed is for you to get into the match and take every opportunity to drive the effort forward toward the victory, to jump in alongside and help, to rend your hands and not just your heart.

And by the way, all of this should already sound very familiar to any of the regular church goers within earshot of this particular heraldry. I’m not saying anything new, and neither was Shakespeare. Saint James already made this point to the Christians in the second chapter of his epistle when he wrote:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:14-18).

You and I both know we won’t always find ourselves courageous enough to take that little step from comfort into discomfort for the sake of doing what’s right in service to the truth of Christ and His Word. It won’t be easy, especially when it means our reputations could be scarred, our relationships could be jeopardized, and maybe even our pocketbooks made a little thinner. But there’s one thing I can tell you for sure: You’ll never find the courage to live a life born of the Gospel if you aren’t being fed by the Gospel. You’ll never be able to flex the muscle of Christian freedom, service, love, mercy, and all of the other wonders that come from being a child of the living Savior unless you remain a branch firmly attached to Him as the nourishing vine.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)

Jesus wasn’t just saying something that sounded nice. He meant those words. And what’s truly spectacular is that such a heraldry from Jesus Himself has an innate power to convince you to believe the very point His precise vocabulary is in place to communicate.

God’s Word has the power not only to retool you to be one who is mindfully praying for and supporting the effort, but also to be one struck by a courage for rising from your knees, suiting up, and getting into the game.

My prayer for you at this very moment is that you will hear the Lord’s Word, that you will be moved by the Gospel of His wonderful sacrifice for your sins, and you will respond by this wonderfully rich grace to pitch in and help where you can—whether that be by way of your diligent prayers, your tithes and offerings, or your physical service. Stirred by the Gospel, these efforts become good works in the eyes of God because they are efforts born of a humble faith that knows and clings to Jesus alone for salvation.