Advent: Preparing for His Coming

Every year many American Christians complain about the corrupting busyness and materialism of Christmas. For a few decades we Americans have begun our modern “Christmas season” on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving (a modern American holiday) when shopping begins in earnest. We equate the Christmas Season with the Christmas shopping season. We’ve been corrupted by our materialistic culture. The best antidote ever found for this corruption of a holy season has been around for over 1,600 years. That antidote is to enter deeply into the season of the Christian Year that immediately precedes Christmas, the season known in the Western church as Advent.

Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus” which means “coming.” Ancient Christians knew that Christ’s redemptive work had changed everything, including the way we should mark time itself.  From Christ forward, as God’s people we would mark our year independently of secular calendars. In our Christian Year we would celebrate the great redeeming acts of Jesus Christ. This would organize and guide our lives, our worship, and our discipleship. Every year the essential, foundational doctrines of our Faith would be taught to us during, and by, these seasons. Every year we would re-live the life of Jesus. Therefore, our year would begin with Advent, preparing our hearts to celebrate the Incarnation, Christ’s first coming into this world.

Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, and ends on Christmas Eve. During these four Sundays and the surrounding days, the preaching, teaching, and devotions remind us of Christ’s First and Second Comings. Through God’s Word, our worship, and our meditations we remember God’s promises to Israel to come as Savior and deliver them from captivity. We also remember Christ’s promises to someday come again to deliver his people and judge the world. We prepare our hearts to properly celebrate Christ’s birth, and to meet him when he comes again. Advent is a time of remembrance, repentance, longing, and hope.

Advent is a powerful antidote to the busyness, selfishness, materialism, and greed that pollute the weeks leading up to Christmas. We take a long look back through the history of God’s people, examine our hearts, and reflect on our desperate need for God’s intervention. We repent of sin, long for Christ to come, and hope steadfastly. Finally, we rejoice with great joy at the birth of Jesus the Christ. All of this directly contradicts most of what our culture promotes in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Advent requires us to look deeply into God’s Word, in both the Old and New Testaments, and find there the glorious prophecies of all that God’s Messiah was to be and do in his First and Second Comings. Each year we cycle through a different set of Scripture passages learning how absolutely central Jesus is to all of Scripture and all of redemptive history.

Advent reminds us that we are an ancient-future pilgrim people with an ancient-future faith, stretching back through Christ into Israel, and forward through Christ into the eternal new creation. Such Advent hymns as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” join our longing with ancient Israel’s and with God’s people through the ages. Each week a new candle is lit in the Advent wreath reminding us that God’s light once came, and is coming again, into this present darkness.

Advent reminds us that however wealthy or powerful we appear to be, all of this is fleeting, and will never satisfy our souls. True life is only found in knowing as Savior and Lord this Christ who came that first time. Even then, this world in its present state is not our perfect, permanent home. Here we have no continuing city, but we look for an eternal city whose creator is God. We long for the Second Coming of Jesus, our King of Light, who shall forever banish darkness, defilement, disease, and death.

Advent reminds us that, though we are called to clearly witness to the gospel of Christ’s first coming, diligently work to better our communities, and expectantly wait for our King, on our own we can never save ourselves or our world. We long for our King who alone can forever deliver his people and his creation from bondage and injustice, and establish his everlasting kingdom of light.

Advent embeds Christmas, and us along with it, in the only proper context. Advent provides the best possible means for preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth acceptably. When you have fully experienced Advent, Christmas Eve and Morn pulse with joy as never before. Christ Jesus, the Light of the World, has come! God has kept his promise by giving his Son, and Christ shall keep his promise to come again. The risen Christ Jesus is the beginning of God’s New Creation, and what God has begun he will complete someday on the Day of the Lord. Until then, we remember the long wait of God’s People before Christ’s First Advent, and we continue to wait in patient expectation for Christ’s Second Advent, which shall surely come!

There is no better way to prepare for and to celebrate Christmas than to fully enter into the Advent Season. Doing this deepens your appreciation, your gratitude, your hope,  longing, and joy year after year. It powerfully pushes back against the selfish intrusions of greed, materialism, and shortsighted impatience in ways far too numerous to mention here. It joins you to the worship and life of hundreds of millions of Christians around the world and across many cultures and two millennia. Annually celebrating Advent continually teaches you wonderful new truths about God’s redemption story.

It is tragic that some early evangelicals chose to celebrate only Easter and Christmas, and to forget the rest of the Christian Year. Tearing these two holy days out of their seasonal context and away from the holy days that immediately precede and follow them has destroyed much of their power to form us as Christians. As a result the celebration of many American Christians is shallow, rootless, ahistorical, and truncated. Christmas was cut off from the depth of Scripture and history, stripped of much of its beauty and power, defined by culture, and not truly by Christ.

We lost a richness that can only be restored by marking time “in Christ” once more. Thankfully, more and more evangelicals are relearning the power and beauty of Advent itself, and the tremendous depth it adds to the celebration of the Christmas Season that follows. Celebrating Advent and the Christian Year has powerfully impacted my family and our church. We didn’t know what we were missing when we were ignorant of Advent, but we have been immeasurably enriched since we found it. We could not imagine celebrating Christmas Season without preparing through Advent, and completing with Epiphany.

(And, yes Christmas, like Easter, is a season, not just a day! Christmas is a season of twelve days that begins on Christmas Day, and extends all the way to Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany celebrates the coming of the gentile Magi to worship the Christ child, as Israel’s Messiah becomes the Light to the Gentiles, the Light of the World. Here at Epiphany God’s mission to save the nations, and our participation in that mission, are reaffirmed year after year, until Christ returns. We look away from ourselves toward a lost world, and are thrust outward in mission. That is yet another of many wonderful stories in the Christian Year.)

So, I urge you to learn more about Advent before next year’s season arrives, and celebrate the fullness of the Cycle of Light – the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and the Day of Epiphany. Stop letting non-Christian ideas and practices push you around during these holy days. Don’t let previous ignorance or this materialistic culture replace the holy, repentant Season of Advent with the “christmas” shopping season. Don’t suddenly end Christmas on December 26 by quickly tearing down your tree and returning gifts, and then be surprised that you’re blue or depressed. “It was over so fast, it’s just so empty now, like something’s missing.” D’Ya think?!??!! Finish the Christmas Season with its teaching and devotions, then celebrate Epiphany, and end with a purpose, a new beginning – taking the Light of Life to the nations!

Finally, don’t try to invent your own personal, local, or denominational ways to resist the culture’s corruption of this season. That’s just being prideful. Walk humbly through all of these seasons with Jesus and his great Church. We’re meant to remember deeply and fully together this time in the life of Christ. Make this season truly, completely His time at last.

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The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus

The latest media dust storm over supposedly ancient gnostic texts is gradually being deconstructed by more careful analysis and good scholarship. The following Gospel Coalition link contains an excellent scholarly article and links to several other articles of varying difficulty. If you are interested in this subject I encourage you to access these links.  http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2012/09/22/the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-how-a-fake-gospel-fragment-was-composed/

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My Possessions Are Not My Own

The only things more dangerous than unrestrained capitalism are unrestrained lawlessness, and unrestrained government. The powerful must be restrained and regulated to protect the less powerful and powerless. This is a fundamental teaching of Christian Scripture and a self-evident lesson from human history.  Our disagreements are over the degree of that restraint and regulation, and for Christians, how much of God’s Kingdom principles should be enacted into laws of the state.  It is difficult to say where the God-like drive to create, bless, grow, prosper, bless, and increase our personal and communal world ends, and fallen human greed begins.  All of these dynamics are parts of what drives free markets and capitalism.

As to God’s kingdom or His People, the Church, Scripture and Church history are clear. Continuing, and filling out, the types and trajectories of the Old Testament, God’s New Testament People are stewards, not owners, of all things we “possess,” including the earth and all aspects of God’s creation. However rich we are, and however hard we worked to obtain that wealth, it remains God’s and is held in trust for God’s People, God’s mission, and God’s poor. A standing call exists upon the Christian’s resources to meet the needs in these areas. This applies first in the covenant community of the local church, and then extends throughout the work of God. For Christians, the title to and control over our wealth which we retain does not mean it is ours to do with as we please. In my opinion, this same stewardship should apply to Christian-owned businesses, at least as the ultimate reason-for-being of the business.  God’s kingdom rule extends into every facet of a Christian’s life and being.

However, just as the principles of this present evil age cannot be used to structure or govern the life and relationships of the Church, in the same way the kingdom principles mentioned above will not work very well among people who are not disciples of Jesus. The issues of regeneration and accountability are key. The unregenerate poor are as greedy and rapacious as the unregenerate rich, and our inability to make the poor-at-large accountable for their lifestyles means transfers of wealth to them will be squandered again and again.

That economic opportunities must be afforded and help to the destitute given is unquestionable.  That those who are sick, elderly, physically or mentally challenged, and so forth, should be in some way cared for cannot be doubted.  Nevertheless, there are parameters throughout Scripture describing who among God’s People should and should not be supported by others.   When ongoing support is suggested, a personal knowledge of those to be supported, a lifestyle of following Jesus, and accountability for help received would normally be considered foundational requirements. When these are present, and when Christ the King issues a call through His Church, the resources of the stewards should be released to meet the need.

This is most easily seen among those people who live by rivers. There, you don’t have to worry ’cause you have no money, people on the river are happy to give.

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The Fine Art of Blogging

Well, that’s the thing.  It’s not a fine art.  Not an art at all.  What do you call the sound that that previous sentence makes?  Notanartatall.  Gotta be some kinda literary convention name for that.  Anyway, if blogging was a fine art, only fine artists would do it.  But, anybody can do it.  So, it’s not a fine art.  And, if blogging was a fine art, then there would already be a category for it in church fine arts competitions.  There would already be first-in-show awards for the fine art of blogging.  So, this has been a late night, on meds for a cold, tired and irritated anti-blog blog.  All to test a few WordPress thingies and to post something on this blog.  Clearly, no fine art here.  

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J Lee Grady on Discipleship

The following newsletter by former Charisma editor J. Lee Grady first appeared today, Wednesday, in Lee’s Fire In My Bones column in Charisma Online.

Discipleship Is Not a Dirty Word

Wednesday, 09 May 2012 08:54 AM EDT J. Lee Grady Newsletters Fire In My Bones

“Reclaiming the process of discipleship will require a total overhaul of how we do church.

I get funny looks from some charismatic Christians when I tell them I believe God is calling us back to radical discipleship. Those in the over-50 crowd—people who lived through the charismatic movement of the 1970s—are likely to have a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to the dreaded “D word.”

That’s because the so-called Discipleship Movement (also known as the Shepherding Movement) turned a vital biblical principle into a weapon and abused people with it. Churches that embraced the warped doctrines of shepherding required believers to get permission from their pastors before they bought cars, got pregnant or moved to a new city. Immature leaders became dictators, church members became their loyal minions, and the Holy Spirit’s fire was snuffed out because of a pervasive spirit of control.

I don’t ever want to live through that again. I know countless people who are still licking their wounds from the spiritual abuse they suffered while attending hyper-controlling churches in the 1970s and ‘80s. Some of them still cannot trust a pastor today; others walked away from God because leaders misused their authority—all in the name of “discipleship.”

Yet I’m still convinced that relational discipleship—a strategy Jesus and the apostle Paul modeled for us—is as vital as ever. If anything the pendulum has now swung dangerously in the opposite direction. In today’s free-wheeling, come-as-you-are, pick-what-you-want, whatever-floats-your-boat Christianity, we make no demands and enforce no standards. We’re just happy to get warm rumps in seats. As long as people file in and out of the pews and we do the Sunday drill, we think we’ve accomplished something.

But Jesus did not command us to go therefore and attract crowds. He called us to make disciples (see Matt. 28:19), and that cannot be done exclusively in once-a-week meetings, no matter how many times the preacher can get the people to shout or wave handkerchiefs. If we don’t take immature Christians through a discipleship process (which is best done in small groups or one-on-one gatherings), people will end up in a perpetual state of immaturity.

David Kinnaman, author of the excellent book unChristian, articulated the problem this way: “Most people in America, when they are exposed to the Christian faith, are not being transformed. They take one step into the door, and the journey ends. They are not being allowed, encouraged, or equipped to love or to think like Christ. Yet in many ways a focus on spiritual formation fits what a new generation is really seeking. Transformation is a process, a journey, not a one-time decision.”

Reclaiming this process of discipleship is going to require a total overhaul of how we do church. Do we really want to produce mature disciples who have the character of Jesus and are able to do His works? Or are we content with shallow believers and shallow faith?

A friend of mine had to face this question while he was pastoring in Florida. As a young father, he had a habit of putting his infant son in a car seat and driving him around his neighborhood at night in order to lull him to sleep. Once during this ritual the Holy Spirit spoke to this pastor rather bluntly. He said: “This is what you are doing in your church. You are just driving babies around.”

My friend came under conviction. He realized he had fallen into the trap of entertaining his congregation with events and programs, even though the people were not growing spiritually. He was actually content to keep them in infancy. As long as they filled their seats each Sunday, and paid their tithes, he was happy. Yet no one was growing, and they certainly were not producing fruit by reaching others for Christ.

How can we make this paradigm shift in to discipleship? How can we add “the D word” back into our vocabulary?

Churches must stop exclusively focusing on big events and get people involved in small groups, where personal ministry can take place.

We must stop treating people like numbers and get back to valuing relationships.

Leaders must reject the celebrity preacher model and start investing their lives in individuals.

When we stand before Christ and He evaluates our ministries, He will not be asking us how many people sat in our pews, watched our TV programs, gave in our telethons or filled out response cards. He is not going to evaluate us based on how many people fell under the power of God or how many healings we counted in each service. He will ask how many faithful disciples we made. I pray we will make this our priority.”

J. Lee Grady is the former editor of Charisma and the director of The Mordecai Project. You can follow him on Twitter at leegrady. His latest book is 10 Lies Men Believe (Charisma House).

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My first blog.

My first blog.  The end.

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