Show me Your Hands

By Leonard Sweet
(European Nazarene College, January 18, 2011)

I was reading Psalm 51:10 to my mother when she died: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a right spirit within me.”

Now the key to the holiness movement is a clean heart.  So give me an image for a clean heart.  What does a clean heart go with? Now the holiest person that has ever lived is named Jesus.  Pure holiness.

And what happens here with Jesus is that God comes down to earth.  How far down? How far down does the Incarnation go? Well, from the very beginning how far down does it go?  Where was Jesus born? In a royal palace? In a bassinet? How far down does the Incarnation go? Where does the Incarnation happen? It happens in a smelly stable, where the first thing Jesus experiences as an infant is what? Straw ticks. Little lice that live in straw. They bite your flesh.  And the smell of dung and animals.

But Jesus in the Incarnation went further than that because it not only went down to the very lowest of the human, but Jesus did something that no other Rabbi in history had done or allowed to happen.  In fact, it really bothered the disciples that he did this.  How far down did the Incarnation go? Jesus was the first Rabbi in history to do what? Wash his disciples feet.  That’s how far Jesus went.  All the way down.

And let me tell you, sisters and brothers, you don’t wash anybody’s feet without getting your hands dirty and wet.

Manos sucias.jpg

This is holiness!  You want an image of holiness? You have a clean heart? OK, here’s what goes with a clean heart – dirty hands.  You say you have a clean heart? I say, “What? Show me your hands.”

Leonard_Sweet.jpg

Leonard Sweet

You are keeping your hands clean? “Oh, I wouldn’t want to get dirty.  We are supposed to be in the world and not of it…” What?! So your hands are too clean to get in the dirt? Oh, we need cleansing rituals all the time to clean us up.  But the whole purpose of cleaning us up is so that we can get dirty…

…Matthew 25 tells us what the question at judgment day will be.  “In as much as you did it to the least of these…”  In other words, here is the question at judgment day – Show me your hands.  You got clean hands? Go someplace else.  Because a clean heart means dirty hands.  Now this is an image of holiness.

How I Knew God Was with Me in My Parents’ Divorce

By Scott Armstrong

September 1993.  I was 15 years old.  My dad and mom call a family meeting after supper.  My brother and I came down from our rooms, wondering what’s going on.  We usually had the famous “family meetings” once a year when some new rule was being enforced or when a vacation needed to be planned or discussed.

This time was different.  There was an eerie vibe to the room.  My dad exhaled audibly while my mom fidgeted with her hands.  Then—BOOM!—my world changed forever.  They were getting a divorce.  They just couldn’t work things out.  They had too many differences.  Blah, blah, blah.  Although it doesn’t make sense, part of me was hearing every word perfectly even while another part instantly tuned out the drone of their voices.

 

 

Then it was my turn.  “What do you mean, you can’t work out your differences? Are you some sort of teenage fling that is on today, off tomorrow? Did those vows you made years ago mean anything?” I was furious.  I was sad. I was numb.

That is reality #1.  That actually happened.  And I will never be the same again because of it.

So here is reality #2.  God with us.  “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you…the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:5,9).  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  We hear a lot about this second reality around Christmas time, don’t we? The “Incarnation.”  God with us.  It kind of makes us feel warm inside, especially when things are going particularly well in life.

But what happens when Reality #1 and Reality #2 collide? As a teenager, I knew Reality #2 was true—I had heard about it every Christmas since I had been born. And I certainly knew Reality #1 was true—I was experiencing it like tumbleweed experiences a tornado.  And let me be honest: it was pretty tough to see how the reality of “God with us” could be right when the reality of the divorce was in my face every day.  The shouting. Mom moving out.  First time I had two Thanksgiving dinners, two Christmas trees, two houses where I did not feel at home in either.  Where was God in all this?

81114-where-is-God-in-my-loneliness-720x481.jpg

 I have no easy answer.  I knew in my head that God was with me, but my heart and my life told me different. People at church with good intentions but little tact would come up to me and assure me, “You know, God is always with us, no matter what.  You will get through this.”  That’s what I really needed—a mini-sermon to make me feel better!  I already knew from Scripture that God was somewhere to be found in this whole muddle of loneliness and anger, but where?

I can look back now and see some indicators of God’s presence in that whole mess.  First, I learned that God “incarnates himself” in and through other people.  He is with us because other Christians give of their time and their tears to be with us too.  We always say that we are “the body of Christ” and that we need to be Christ’s “hands and feet” in the world, so why are we surprised when it actually happens? Through the love and compassion of my youth pastor and other teens and adults, I sensed God’s presence.

That does not mean people knew what to say; a lot of times they said some pretty stupid things.  It also does not mean I was not upset, frustrated, or even depressed at various points.  Yet, while some in my situation choose to hibernate and never talk to fellow churchgoers again, I had to get to church services every week.  That was where I sensed God’s presence—through music and preaching, of course, but also through God’s people that surrounded me with love on Sundays and throughout the week.

Second, I knew God was with me through my personal times with him. Before my parents’ divorce, I have to be truthful: I was a good Christian boy who did all of the right things.  Still, I did not have a deep relationship with Christ.  Well, all that changed when I found myself hopeless and with no one to talk to.  Normally in tough circumstances I would confide in my parents.  That wasn’t going to happen now; they did not exactly possess an objective perspective of the divorce!  I was able to talk to my youth pastor, but he did not really know what I was going through because his parents were still happily married.  So who could I turn to?

My only answer was God.  I started approaching my devotional times not as something to check off my list, but as the one time I could truly be myself.  I wept before God.  I yelled at him.  I began to wrestle with the words that I was reading in his Scripture.  Sometimes what I read made me mad; other times it comforted me.  I did not always hear a response.  I never heard voices from heaven nor did I receive some other tangible proof of his existence.  But in my quiet times, I began to trust him more.  In the toughest moments of my life, he became my closest friend, and he remains so to this day.

God with us.  It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? Especially when you are experiencing the reality of a life filled with brokenness and emptiness.  But that is what makes the second reality even stronger—God specializes in being with us not only in the good times when we “feel” him, but in the dark times filled with fear and loneliness. Let God speak his reality into your reality today.  God. With.  Us.

Joan Chittister: Reflections on the Importance of the Christian calendar

anillos-del-árbolWe begin the Christian calendar with Advent.  From my perspective, no one expresses the meaning of this reality better perhaps than Joan Chittister en her book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life.

Every year is a distinct growth point in life, the shedding of another shell of life.  Each year brings something unique to us and calls for something different from us…

The church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which normally begins in late November…The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus.

The civic new year as we know it is a purely solar event, a chart of the planet’s journey around the sun.  But it is not, except in the most private and personal of ways, the story of the rest of us, the narrative of our spiritual lives.  That story begins and ends and begins again annually with the journey of the soul through the liturgical year, the year that marks the major moments in Christian spirituality and so points our own lives in the same direction.

The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ.  It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God.  The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening.

I know now that it is possible to grow physically older by the day but, at the same time, stay spiritually juvenile, if our lives are not directed by a schema far beyond the march of our planet around the sun.  Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.

If we are open and alert to the Christian calendar, it will lead us higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe.

Christmas From Eternity

By Hiram Vega

The gospels tell us the story of the birth of the promised Messiah, placing it in the context of the Israelite people with historical details and long genealogies intended to prove that he was a legitimate descendant of King David. The book of John shows something different. John pulls back the curtain of time and tells us about a story that began in eternity:

In the beginning was the Word.

And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

John begins his story by establishing and affirming the divinity of Jesus Christ.

“In the beginning . . .” speaks of His eternity.

“. . . was with God . . .” demonstrates that He is part of the Trinity.

“. . . the Word was God” confirms that Jesus is God.

“Through him all things were made . . .” affirms that creation is His handiwork. 

What an exciting perspective! The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, came to the world.  Ancient people worshiped the sun because without light there would be no life on earth.  They could not conceive of a world without light, but John presents someone infinitely greater than creation; the Creator of the sun, moon and starts.  He, the Word, has made men and has come to live among them.

lights-1088141_960_720.jpg

Faced with this revelation, surely the world would anxiously await his arrival, grateful for his presence, correct? Reality proved the opposite to be the case.  He came to the world he created, but the world did not recognize him. He came to his own people, but they rejected him. 

The majority of people did not recognize him, and even the religious leaders couldn’t identify him. Did everything end there? Of course not. Light shines in the darkness, and darkness will not be overcome by it!

There were others that saw the light and trusted in him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, to them he gave the right to become children of God. 

The story of salvation is not over.  The true light continues to blaze.  There are many bearers of that light, bringing it to places of intense darkness.  Some reject it, but others accept it.  Darkness cannot extinguish the light.  The bearers of the light are men, women, elderly people, youth and children who, in all places and at all times, proclaim the marvelous works of the One who called them from darkness into glorious light.

Let us continue to illuminate our world with the light of Christ!

Waiting on the World to Change – Part 2 of 2

*This is part two of the previous article.

To everything, there is a season (turn, turn, turn)

Human beings are “time-bound” creatures by Divine design. We naturally tend to organize our lives around rhythms that play out in time. Depending upon our vocation, different seasons bring different expectations and demands.

I come from a line of farmers on one side of my family and pastors on the other. I have observed that with pastors and farmers alike, the changing seasons determined much of the way we lived our lives.

Accountants have to deal with the tax season. Politicians and civil servants have election cycles. The semesters and breaks of the school year measure time for students and teachers. And sometimes our recreation, rather than our vocation, determines which seasons matter most: when we get to hunt or fish, which sports we get to follow, whether we’re able to get out the boat or the motorcycle or the snow skis.

Growing up as a pastor’s kid in the Church of the Nazarene, I didn’t rigorously follow the Christian year; but without fail, we did observe Advent. Every year, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving we would enter a sanctuary decorated for Christmas: trees and garland alongside nativities and the wreath of Advent candles, the popular traditions intermingled with the sacred. For each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we lit the candles, usually punctuated by readings from Old Testament prophecy, and we sang songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”

Sometimes we would lose the plot a bit, and sing “Away in a Manger” or “We Three Kings of Orient Are” during Advent. It’s hard to resist the urge to fast-forward to the climax of Christmas Day, just as it’s difficult during Holy Week to dwell in the despair of Good Friday and Holy Saturday when we know “Sunday’s coming!”

But Advent is about waiting.

pexels-photo-280263.jpeg

Patience and hope are oft-neglected virtues in our day and age, but this is precisely what Advent seeks to cultivate in us: patient, hopeful anticipation that our God is trustworthy and does not make empty promises.

Looking forward while looking back

During Advent, not only do we anticipate an event that has already taken place—Jesus’ first coming—but we also look forward to and anticipate His second coming! The next time you sing “Joy to the World,” pay attention to the explicit references to Christmas. Guess what? You won’t find any! Isaac Watts’ hymn actually looks forward to Christ’s second coming, made clear in the third stanza (which, ironically, is the verse most often omitted): “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

The reign of Christ over heaven and earth is inaugurated in His nativity, to be sure, but “Joy to the World” is a vision of its future fulfillment, the reversal of the Fall, and the restoration of all creation.

This Advent, as we prepare to welcome the God who comes to us, I wish us all a “Happy New Year,” and invite us to begin a journey through God’s salvation history as told through the rhythms of the Christian calendar. In so doing, we join with countless Christians across space and time who have ordered their lives and their worship according to this pattern, all to the glory of God.

This article was originally published at: Holiness Today

Waiting on the World to Change – Part 1 of 2

By Brannon Hancock

The season of Advent—a word that means arrival—is the season of waiting.

“We can hardly stand the wait! / Please Christmas, don’t be late.” Most of you can hear the song in your head immediately, can’t you? Those squeaky, aggravating chipmunk voices singing the Christmas song we all love to hate. The song is a trite (and annoyingly persistent!) example of secular culture’s approach to Christmas commercialism. But for Christians with eyes to see and ears to hear, it may serve as a reminder that the season of Advent—a word that means arrival—is precisely a season of waiting, of anticipation, and of preparation for the Big Day, the day after which nothing was ever the same.

Our culture practices this anticipation, even while entirely missing the point. The Christmas decorations hit store shelves immediately after Halloween (and seemingly earlier each year). The radio stations start their Christmas programming as soon as Thanksgiving passes. School children begin rehearsing “holiday songs” for their end-of-semester programs. Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales call forth the early shoppers, and the coupons and sales continue even up until Christmas Eve for procrastinators.

If you have children or have ever been around a couple preparing to welcome a child into the world, you’ve experienced this. We receive the big news. Then, we wait. We begin to prepare. We paint the walls and decorate the nursery, and excitement builds. We buy a crib and assemble it. And we wait. We read parenting books with titles like What to Expect When You’re Expecting…and we wait. Those last few weeks seem to last forever. Alas, we wait. Imagine what Mary and Joseph must have felt!

pexels-photo-100733.jpeg

Time keeps on slippin’…into the future

Advent must be considered in the context of the Christian calendar in order to be fully appreciated. The Christian calendar, also called the liturgical calendar or the Christian year, is a pattern through which the Church narrates the story of the God who was in Christ. While some churches have followed this pattern for centuries, many evangelical congregations are just beginning to (re)discover and embrace the Christian calendar, and have found it enriching to their worship and discipleship. It is simply one more way we can “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

The Christian calendar isn’t prescribed in the Bible, and it wasn’t handed down by Divine fiat with the command that we slavishly submit to it. But it is biblical, and it was handed down through the Church we call “one, holy, universal, and apostolic,” which, sourced by the Spirit, gave us our Bible.

Scripture reveals that God gave time as a good gift. According to the creation account in Genesis 1, on the fourth day, God declares: “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years….”

Time has a purpose, and that purpose has to do with how we worship and how we observe sacred time.

In Scripture, we find ample evidence of the appropriateness of holy days, religious feasts, fasts, rituals, and rhythms, particularly in the worship of the people of Israel. However, on a larger scale, we see that the story told through the Christian calendar is the Bible’s story—the story of God’s saving work down through the ages.

The Christian calendar is one way the Church has sought to “tell time” as God’s time. For Christians, January 1 is not a significant day; it is simply the eighth day of Christmas! Four Sundays before Christmas, the first Sunday of Advent, is actually “New Year’s Day” for the Church. We then journey through Christmas and Epiphany before entering the season of Lent. During Lent, we join Jesus on His 40 days of fasting in the wilderness in preparation for His years of earthly ministry. We seek to draw closer to God by purifying and simplifying our lives, repenting of our sins, and preparing our hearts to experience the events of Holy Week. 

The days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday can take us on a roller-coaster of emotions as we walk through Jesus’ final days: the Last Supper, Gethsemane, His arrest and crucifixion, His entombment, and finally His resurrection on Easter morning. From there, we careen on toward Christ’s Ascension to the Father (40 days after Easter), and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (50 days after Easter), followed by the lengthy season known as Ordinary Time, during which we focus on how God has worked in the life and mission of the Church.

*This article will continue on the next post.

 

You Will not die Before you see Him

By Hiram Vega

Prophets, priests, kings and peasants – they all waited for the signs of the coming Messiah.

Their constant question was, “When will the Messiah come?” He was to be the Anointed One of God who would end the disgrace of the people of God.  Four hundred years had passed since the Prophet Malachi, and God had not spoken.

Well, he did continue to speak, but only to a few chosen people.  It seemed that one in particular, an enigma named Simeon, had a direct line to heaven.  How important of a person must he have been to have God himself share what was going to take place?  Humanly speaking, he was completely unimportant.  He was a common old man with an even more common name. He was unknown on earth, but known and respected in heaven.  His character was of the same caliber as Joseph and Mary’s.  The gospel tells us that he was an upright man.  Not only that, he was a sincere seeker of God. Heaven took note, and God poured his Holy Spirit out on him.  Did you think that the Holy Spirit first came at Pentecost?  God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

christ-presented-to-simeon-at-the-temple-medium.jpg

We know almost nothing about this elderly man except that the Holy Spirit confirmed to him that he would not die until he saw the Anointed One of the Lord.

Today Christians await the return of the Lord, and no one knows the day or the hour of his second coming.  But Simeon was waiting for his first coming.  When the moment arrived, the Holy Spirit guided him to the temple just in time to find a humble carpenter from Bethlehem and his wife presenting a newborn.  On earth there was no fanfare, no great chorus, no royal assembly to commemorate the moment.  Heaven gave this aged worshiper the privilege that kings and prophets longed for: he was the first to recognize the Messiah.

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.  For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

People continue to live in darkness today. Millions have not experienced the salvation of our Lord.  God continues to speak to his Simeons—men and women who long to know God and to make him known.  Their hearts desire for more people to be saved, until the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.