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.

Not God’s Favorite

By Scott Armstrong

Jesus Comes Home with a Sobering Message

Christmas is a time when many of us return home.  We laugh with relatives and gorge ourselves on excellent food.  Grandmas grab our cheeks and tell us we’ve grown sooooo big, which is awkward when you’re 8, but try when you are 40!

Luke 4 tells us of a time when Jesus returned to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.  The little carpenter’s apprentice had grown up and now was an excellent preacher, and the people were amazed at his eloquence.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked (v. 22).  Surely this can’t be the same little kid that was playing in the sandbox back in the day!

So, as is often Jesus’ custom, instead of basking in the praise from everyone, he turns it on its head.  In fact, he immediately transitions his sermon from good news to judgement.  “I’m here to change the world just as Isaiah foretold” (see v. 18-21) quickly becomes “If you think you’re better than anyone else, I’m here to tell you you’re dead-wrong.”

The result is jarring.  The crowd’s transformation is stark.  The church folk are enraged, throw him out of their town, and are ready to throw him off a cliff (v. 28-29).  Wow! What made them convert from admirers to attempted murderers in the blink of an eye?!

Essentially, he yelled out, “You are not God’s favorite! Stop acting like it!”

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It’s a message that’s painfully appropriate and quite controversial even today.  Christian authors have made a lot of money writing that you and I are God’s favorites.  Preachers use that phrase to try to explain God’s boundless love for you and me.  It all seems obvious, right? And anyway, it feels good to know I am God’s favorite child; it kind of gives me a spring in my step as I leave the service on Sunday!

Here’s the problem: Baked into the definition of the word “favorite” is the singling out of something to the exclusion of something else.  When I ask you what your favorite food is, if you say, “They’re all my favorites,” it makes no sense.  You are either trying to hide something or way too indecisive.  Saying “I like all foods the same” would seem implausible, but it’s at least better than claiming that all foods are your absolute favorite.  Selecting a favorite by necessity means something else has not been selected: it is, thus, not your favorite.

When pressed on this, the authors and preachers insist that, well, when they say, “YOU are God’s favorite,” they actually mean that we are ALL His favorites.  It’s an effective communication technique, but it completely dilutes the word.  In fact, using the word “favorite” in this way can actually have some serious, unintended consequences.

When we start to view ourselves as God’s favorites, we subtly begin to believe that he likes us more than others.  The product of such thinking is ethnocentrism and religious selfishness, exactly what Jesus railed against in verses 24-27.

My political party is right.

My race is better.

My denomination is the best.

My way of viewing the world is the only real way anyone should see it.

And it also makes us spoiled.  We start to expect God to be at our beck-and-call.  The “favorite” child at Christmas demands that his parents save the last piece of pie for him.  Every gift becomes boring within a few hours. Nothing is appreciated. Everything is deserved.  Jesus says it this way, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum’” (v. 23).  We are here for the show, Jesus! Come on, we prayed; why won’t you grant us our every wish?

God lavishes his love on all of us in the same measure.

That’s the point.

He has no favorites.

As we near Christmas, hear again those amazing words from Jesus’ homecoming sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v.18-19).

Interesting last word: “favor.”

Our God comes to the poor, to the prisoners, to the blind and oppressed.  His favor is offered to all in abounding measure.

What if you were actually not God’s favorite?

It’s painful and humbling to acknowledge.  But maybe admitting it would open you up to truly receiving God’s favor for the first time.  Maybe it would allow the God who plays no favorites to anoint YOU, as well, to go to the broken-hearted and usher in the Lord’s favor.

May today this scripture be indeed fulfilled in your hearing.

 

So, What Is a Nazarene?

Today marks the first day of the Church of the Nazarene’s Global Conventions and General Assembly.  These events are held once every four years and this time in Indianapolis, Indiana we are expecting more than 15,000 attendees and delegates for times of corporate worship, training, fellowship, and business.  However, maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Some may ask, “What is a Nazarene anyway?” On an exciting day such as today, Rev. Daron Brown reminds us of our equally exciting origins.

Written by Daron Brown
From his column Pressing On

A few days into my freshman year at Trevecca Nazarene College, one of the guys in my dorm suite pulled me aside. He was unchurched, attending TNC on a baseball scholarship. He spent his first week wide-eyed, watching us Church of the Nazarene folks, wondering what he had gotten himself into. With a hushed voice, half embarrassed and half amused, he whispered, “What is a Nazarene?”

Since then I have been asked the question dozens of times. While there are different ways to answer it, perhaps the best response is to look back at how we got the name.

In the first century, the town of Nazareth in Galilee was considered a second-class community. This attitude can be seen in Nathaniel’s response to Phillip when he spoke to his friend about “Jesus of Nazareth.” Phillip evidenced his skepticism with, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46, NIV). The assumed answer to Phillip’s rhetorical question was “Of course not. Nothing worthwhile ever happens in Nazareth.”

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In Luke 4 when Jesus returned to Nazareth, he was physically rejected and nearly killed by citizens of his own hometown. Their response might be described as, “Why should we listen to you? You’re no better than us.” To be a “Nazarene” in the first century didn’t win you much credibility.

It is remarkable that the Second Person of the Trinity would come to us by way of a remote place like Nazareth. God himself chose to reside in a community where people believed goodness did not exist. In doing so, He reminded us that we are not always so quick at distinguishing good from evil. It’s a problem we’ve had since the first chapters of Genesis.

Some 700 years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah foresaw the life of Christ with the words, “He was despised and rejected by humankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3). In embracing the role of an outcast, Jesus the Nazarene showed His solidarity with those who were marginalized, persecuted, and without hope.

Nineteen centuries later, in Los Angeles, California, a Methodist Episcopal Church preacher named Phineas F. Bresee felt the call to take the message of Holiness to poor families—urban outcasts who likely were not welcomed by well-heeled folks in prominent fellowships. Leaving his denomination over the issue, he partnered with a well-known physician and former president of the University of Southern California, Joseph P. Widney. In 1895, they joined with others in the community to start a new church. The late historian Timothy Smith said that in doing so Bresee “declared that the only thing new in the movement was its determination to preach the gospel to the needy, and to give that class a church they could call their own” (Called Unto Holiness, Vol. 1, p. 110). The name they chose for their movement was suggested by Widney, who said the term “Nazarene” symbolized “the toiling, lowly mission of Christ… to whom the world in its misery and despair turns, that it may have hope” (Ibid. p. 111).

Since that time almost 122 years ago, our fellowship has expanded into more than 160 areas around the world. You’ll find Nazarenes of diverse ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds, worshiping in beautiful sanctuaries, cinder block buildings, and strip malls. Our thousands of churches may have different personalities and programs, but we continue to share a common aspiration. First and foremost, we are driven to take the message of Holiness to the poor and needy around us. Secondly, we embrace the identity of the God who himself became an outcast in order to reach the outcasts of this world—people like ourselves.

Since my freshman year at TNC, I have gotten better at responding to “What is a Nazarene?” These days, the best answer I can give is: “Come with us into the neighborhoods. Let us show you the jail ministry, the community garden, the food pantry, the mentoring and backpack feeding programs. Come join us as we work alongside those who suffer—the sick, the aging, and the addict—and then you will clearly understand what it means to be a Nazarene.

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.

This article was originally posted at: pbusa.org