Your Light Will Break Forth Like The Dawn

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Advent begins in the dark”? Essentially it’s a way of saying that the season of Advent is a time of consolidated anticipation. This means that Advent focuses our attention for hopefulness toward that evening long ago when the Savior of the world would be born, the dreadful day on Golgotha’s hill when that same Savior would go into the darkness of sin and be crucified, and finally the Last Day when the Lord returns and the world is judged.

Each of these points is one that bears hopefulness, but each also has the sense of a tinge of blindness. In a Law sense, the blindness is the sin nature. The Word of God is clear that without the recreating work of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel, we’re not able to wait because we don’t really want to wait. We’re not even the slightest bit interested in seeking the love that God is bringing. But that right there is a wonderful doorway for a Gospel transition. Shakespeare said it well. “Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better” (Twelfth Night, III, i, 170). We did not seek the Lord’s love, but He reached to us in Jesus and gave it anyway. When that message has its way with us, it changes the nature of the darkness we’re in—at least as far as the message of Advent is concerned. We’re in the darkness of anticipation, now, rather than sinful ignorance. We’re waiting for Christmas. We can’t see it yet, but we know it’s coming. We’re waiting for Holy Week. We’re not there yet, but we know it will arrive. We’re always watching for the Last Day. It hasn’t arrived yet. But still, “Your light will break forth like the dawn,” the Prophet Isaiah says of these things. He means to say that even as we are in the dark, each of these moments sits at the edge of arrival. Believers know this. We’re past midnight and the blackness of night is turning into day. As time is concerned, Christmas and Holy Week will be here soon enough. As far as the Last Day, Jesus said, “Be ready.” And so, by faith, Christians are ready.

I know I’ve mentioned to you before that I love the liturgical color blue that adorns the Lord’s house for Advent. It’s because of everything I mentioned already. The deep, dark blue that we use here at Our Savior is the perfect color for communicating this hopeful anticipation. Still, this is the last year in our three-year cycle for blue. We’ll return to using violet next year. Violet’s a good color, too. In fact, I often get razzed by fellow Lutherans because we’re using blue when violet is the more traditional color. Well, okay.

Anyway, no matter the liturgical color, my prayer for you is that the season of Advent will carry you in these wonderful theological currents. For the one who trusts in the merits of Jesus, each current ends in a good place. Each ends one brings us to the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross and the wonderful reward of eternal life given, whether that be when we die or if the Lord returns first in glory.

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.

The Color of Advent

Advent is upon us, and with that, Christmas is just around the corner. Also, you probably noticed that we’re using the blue paraments again this year instead of the violet ones. We’ll probably do it again one more year and then switch back.

Violet is a great color for Advent, and it’s the more traditional one when it comes to LCMS congregations. When the guys in the confessional circles in which I swim begin to hassle me about it, I just start singing the Magnificat. I think it makes them itch. This is true because when folks see the blue paraments—especially Lutheran folks—sometimes they attribute the color to the Roman Catholic Church’s choices with regard to liturgical colors. I get that. Blue has sort of been hijacked to reference, among other things, adoration of the Virgin Mary. But if you were here in worship this past Sunday, then you know that’s not what we’re doing here by this selection. In fact, blue has been used by the church for a good long while. And one interesting fact is that since violet was the color of royalty, it was very expensive and harder to acquire by the poverty stricken Christian churches. Blue was more accessible. In a sense, it was a very pragmatic choice, and so naturally, it was incorporated.

But it wasn’t used without purpose. And as was preached yesterday, you’ll notice that the traditional blue of Advent isn’t the bright baby blue most folks associate with the Roman Catholic images of the blessed virgin mother of our Lord. Advent’s blue is a deep, dark blue. It is reminiscent of the deepest, clearest blue that can only be seen for those few moments just after the darkest part of the night and just before the sky changes and softens and begins to glow with the new sunrise. This midnight blue color symbolizes that while the light of dawn is coming, and in a sense, we are still in the dark, nevertheless, the rising sun is only moments away. Christ is coming—both at Christmas and at the Last Day.

In my opinion, the midnight blue does more to teach the two-fold heart of Advent than most other colors. That is, as long as you get the right color blue and you know why it’s the right color.

In the end, I think it’s grand that everything in the nave is designed to hone our senses and direct our attention to the One who has given His life that we would have life in His name. That’s pretty great. Even the color of the paraments plays a part in the proclamation of this wonderful drama revealed by the holy Word of God!

But God Won’t

Can you believe that the Fourth Sunday in Advent is already upon us? I sure can’t. The days seem to have flown by, and before you know it, the New Year will arrive. I wonder what the Lord has in store for us in 2017. I know one thing He’s planning: Word and Sacrament. That never changes. And that’s good, because we need Him to be consistent, predictable, steady and sure. Why? Because we aren’t. And neither is the world in which we live.

Sure, the sun keeps rising and shining, the seasons keep changing so predictably, and the whole world seems to be about its regular business. But remember, the Lord is the One maintaining these things. The fabric of the world—all that comprises its nature—has been corrupted by sin. With this, it is both unsteady and untrustworthy. The world and its mammonous things will fail us.

But God won’t.

The next time you have doubts about this, take a quick look at a crucifix. You might not feel anything in particular, but you’ll see something. You’ll see in the image a hint as to God’s current and future plans for you because of the giving of His Son for your salvation. You may even be reminded that while everything else was and is even now sometimes very unsure—even our own selves—God acted on our behalf. Jesus, Bethlehem’s infant champion, set His face like flint to the edge and then into an utter darkness from which no one could ever emerge. His death beamed brightly in that blackness. It shattered the unsteady swirls and the unreliable messes that we not only make for ourselves, but those that we endure at the hands of the unholy trinity: the Devil, the World, and the Sinful Flesh.

My prayer for you is that you will behold the light of Christ each and every day, that you will be reinvigorated by the Christmas celebration soon to be upon us, and that you will be made keen to behold and expect the simple and mundane, but saving and most powerful gifts God gives with such regularity day in and day out throughout the year. Word and Sacrament is where it’s at, my friends—Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Baptism—all God’s Word given in wonderfully tangible ways.

2017 is sure to be a medley of completely different challenges, but thanks be to God that our Lord will never let up with all that’s required for navigating into the safe harbors of His wonderful grace.

You Belong Here

I pray all is well and that the Lord is blessing your Adventide devotion with the peace of Christ.

Admittedly and obviously, as the pastor here at Our Savior, I have a very different perspective than most when it comes to the Lord’s house. Now, I don’t mean that it’s better. I mean it’s different. For example, the view from the altar, pulpit, and lectern is very different than the view from the pews or the choir loft. Another example, and this one is bit stranger…

Maybe you knew and maybe you didn’t, but the last few years, with the ferocious weather we’ve endured, there were four or five nights when I found it necessary to spend the night here at the church in order to assure that the lights would be on and the doors would be open for Sunday worship the very next day. Pastor Pies, Sr. and Pastor Pies, Jr. made it a point that if a Divine Service was scheduled, it was going to happen, and the only thing that would be cause for canceling would be the Lord’s return in glory. I’m of the same mind, and so I don’t intend to let a cancellation ever happen on my watch. The problem is that I live considerably further away than the Pies family, and so with that, a sleepover is necessary.

Nevertheless, the point of this little narrative is to say that at 2 AM, when the lights are out and the snow is crackling against the windows, when the howling winds are creeping in and echoing in the empty halls, the church building becomes a very different place—almost alien. When it’s empty and dark and the voices of the day have all gone, this place is only half itself. Its guts are gone and you can feel it.

But when it’s bright and full—when the children are giggling in the school classrooms and corridors, when the worshippers are gathering together to sing their full-throated praises, when the sermon is booming and the organ is rattling the seams of the stained glass, when the study-goers are calling out in discussion and the whole group is learning and laughing together—this place becomes otherworldly in a different sense, almost heavenly. It becomes the fullness of its identity when its innards—you, the body of believers—return. And in this return, the Lord proves Himself to be at work by His Holy Spirit gathering His people to a place where He can be with them, where eternal life will beam because the gift of forgiveness through Word and Sacrament is being doled out with such plenty that you’d never think these hallways could ever be dark or that there could ever be silence in the rafters.

In the end, this place is what it is because of Christ and not us. And yet, Christ gathers people. And it is into people that Christ places His mercy—the light and life of His love—so that when the building’s rooms are dark and the noise is much less, we know that the true light hasn’t been extinguished. It’s simply gone out with those to whom God has given it (Matthew 5:14).

With that, know that you belong here. When you’re gone, you’re missed. Your light is a big deal to me and to the rest of your Christian family. I certainly ponder this while lying on the cot in my office in the middle of a blustery winter’s night.