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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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. 

 

Advent: Four Elements of “Wait Training”

In the previous post, we heard from Pastor Rich Villodas as he taught us about how Advent is a season for “Wait Training.” In part two of his article, originally published at Missio Alliance, we now look at four practical ways we can learn to bear fruit in our spiritual lives as we wait during this season.

By Rich Villodas

Four Important Elements of Waiting

1. Reflective Prayer

Henri Nouwen has said, “Active waiting is waiting that pays attention, is fully present to what is really going on, even when to all outward appearances, nothing is going on.”

One of the primary ways of this kind of waiting that pays attention is in reflective prayer. Prayer is not simply articulating our needs before God. It’s also making ourselves available for God to articulate his movements before us.

Advent is a season of waiting in a posture of prayerful attention. It’s often when we get silent that we can finally begin to trace God’s movements in our lives.

2. Friends on the Journey

Waiting is much easier when done in community. This is one of the reasons Jesus asked his disciples to join him as he awaited his death (unfortunately they fell asleep on him!). Advent is a reminder that waiting is a communal act.

Mary and Elizabeth wait together.

Simeon and Anna wait in community.

The people of God expectantly waited together.

Advent is an invitation to seek out friends on the journey who will help us process, discern and sit in silence with us as we discern God’s activity.

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3. The Hearing of the Gospel Preached

As we wait, our souls need to be grounded in hope that comes from the proclamation of the gospel. We each need a word spoken to us regularly that reminds us of God’s faithful coming in Jesus.

Sunday worship is not a time to get religious goodies and head home. It’s an opportunity to open ourselves to God’s creative word, which is to anchor us in a story that is often at odds with the stories we tell ourselves.

4. Waiting is an Active Activity 

To wait on the Lord doesn’t mean inactivity. It doesn’t mean a refusal to take initiative, or to seek and search for opportunities (a new job, a romantic relationship, etc.). Rather, it’s a refusal to move without connecting our lives to God in prayer and reflection, first and often.

Eugene Peterson has said, “Waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to act before God acts.”

Sometimes waiting on the Lord means “staying put” in a particular situation until you get further instructions. At other times, it requires us to move forward—but in a way that is grounded in prayer.

Ultimately, to wait on the Lord is a way of life that comes against our tendencies to be impulsive, to be anxiously reactive, and wise in our own eyes.

If decisions are being made that are anxiously reactive and impulsive, chances are we need some practice in waiting on the Lord.

Advent reminds us that God has come, is coming, and will come again. It’s a great opportunity to train our souls in waiting.

This article was originally published at: Missio Alliance.

Advent: A Season of “Wait Training”

By Rich Villodas (originally published on Missio Alliance)

There’s nothing that unites us in the experience of being human quite like waiting. No matter our age, our education, our accomplishments, or time spent following Jesus, we will have to wait.

This is why the Advent season is necessary for the shaping of our lives.

Each of the seasons of the Liturgical Calendar leads us in paying particular attention to Christian themes and practices. Lent reminds us, among many things, to place God’s way—and not our appetites—as the guiding principle for our lives. Eastertide calls us to live a spirituality of feasting and joy anchored in Christ’s resurrection. Pentecost gives us a vision of life filled with God’s power because the Spirit has been poured out on us.

The Advent season is one in which God trains us in waiting.

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Wait Training

This training is oriented towards the formation of our lives because what God does in us as we wait is more important than what we are waiting for.

Many of the stories of scripture point to the excruciating pain and trouble experienced by the people of God because of their refusal to wait for God. This has been our story to this day.

For example, in Exodus 32 (the story of the golden calf), the Israelites, in a moment of anxiety, impulsively fashion an idol to provide security for themselves because Moses was nowhere to be found. This idol creation came days after God informed them that this kind of religious practice was off limits now that they were delivered from Pharaoh.

Anxiety will make us do irrational things.

Their waiting was difficult because they couldn’t see what God was up to. 

It’s hard for us to wait—and not just because we are impatient.

It’s hard to wait because we often don’t believe God is at work in our lives.

But Advent reminds us that God has come, is coming, and will come again. It’s the annual reminder that God is for creation and moves towards us.

Even so, it’s hard to wait. One of the primary reasons it’s hard to wait is because our understanding of waiting has been incomplete.

As a pastor, I’m frequently asked to help people understand what it means to wait on the Lord. In the next post I will share four elements that I have learned along the way about WAITING. 

Welcoming the Wilderness During Advent

The following excerpt is from “Advent is a Season of Longing,” written by Carolyn Arends and published in Christianity Today.

People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.

If the latter is the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.

Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.

In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1). And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).

This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. To the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John’s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.

It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.

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So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around—or better yet, in the temple—and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?

Maybe John chose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.

After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.

John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.

So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait. If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.

–Carolyn Arends is director of education at the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. She is also a recording artist, speaker, author, and college instructor.