December 20, 2012

Advent Mashup

Truth is, among Christian folk of various stripes, Advent is a mess.

Some say it is the season for preparing for Christmas day, for celebrating the big Birth. In that way, it looks backwards. Others have taught that it is a big block of time for looking forward to what the Bible calls, in the New Testament’s great Greek, the parousia -- a second appearing (some say coming) of the Lord.

Some have said: No carols, no sentiment, no festive celebrations. “Not until Christmas!” Advent is for penitent preparation, a Christian holding-back against the world’s excessive consumption. Fair point. Still others: “Ring the bells, throw your parties, pull out the old familiar tunes sooner than later! Why should Christmas wait until, well, Christmas?” I suppose.

Backward or forward? Restrained or festive? In the words of that great holiday philosopher, Charlie Brown: “We're obviously separated by denominational differences.” 

From the Latin adventus, the word basically means “coming.” The implied arrival indicates a spacial movement that is intended to fire the Christian imagination. “Come, Lord Jesus,” cries the ancient bidding prayer. Whether one imagines the familiar first coming (the nativity scene) or an inexplicable second (the world yet to come), the point of Advent is this: He comes from a place quite other than our own. “[Let it be here] on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray each week in the Jesus-taught prayer. Implication: What is already true there, where he is, is not yet thoroughly true here. 

That fact remains baldly obvious in Newtown, Connecticut; sometimes more subtle in our town, Pennsylvania. But whether there or here, whether wounds are gaping or closed or somewhere in between, still we Advent believers learn to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Make it so in our space what must surely be real in yours.”

For what’s left of Advent: Lay off the sweets and swags and be mindful of a strained, stained world. Or put out the party platter, cue up the Steamroller, and celebrate with all your pals a blessed baby boy. Remember Mary and Joseph and the angels way back when, or ask yourself about tomorrow, “What would I do if I only had one more day?” Backward or forward, doleful or merry ... Either way, until and beyond the 25th of this now ambiguous month, just keep praying,

Lord Jesus ... come.

December 12, 2012


Sweep the walk.
Clean up the bathroom. 
Vacuum around the living room.
Finish preparing another casserole.  
Put fresh sheets on the bed in the guest bedroom.

Most of us—But we might note, not all of us!—have worked our way down this sort of mental list before.  Preparing for guests in your home is no small task.  There is always much to do, assuming  you intend to treat your expected visitors as special guests.  Then again, ‘special guests’ is surely a tautology.  Is there another kind of guest other than special?  (Okay … other than your in-laws.)

I suppose one could choose not to prepare for guests at all:  “Come on in, friends.  Sit on our couch all hairy with cat fuzz.  Rest your feet on our crummy rug.  Enjoy some tasty leftovers, from March.  Come, get some rest on the same sheets you used during your last visit.” Of course not!  None of us would think twice about welcoming a friend or family member into that kind of house if we could help it.  We would go out of our way to make sure that all is ready.  Special guests deserve at least that much.

Perhaps it is not so different for the season of Advent.  In his volume Worship Is a Verb, Robert Webber likens Advent to a time when we anticipate a special guest coming to visit our home. Much hard work and preparation spans several weeks.  But the real burden of that work is offset by the hopeful expectancy of spending time with someone special.  Webber:
I am sure that you, like me, have spent weeks preparing for a visit by loved ones, knowing full well that when they come you will be ready to relax and enjoy their presence. This change in mood from preparing to enjoying is not unlike the shift in spiritual mood from Advent to Christmas. Simply put, Christmas is a season of joy, festivity, and fun. It’s a twelve-day festival from December twenty-fifth to January sixth, the day of Epiphany. And our spiritual experience during this time should be similar to that of enjoying a visit from someone special. It is a time of celebration, of singing Christmas carols, of giving and receiving gifts, of enjoying fellowship with friends and loved ones...during this time we are truly alive and free in the presence of our Guest. And the good news of Jesus Christ deserves a shout, a party, a frolic!
If we are not careful, our Advent and Christmas traditions can easily slip into the realm of the purely sentimental: something good to celebrate if one so chooses, but not altogether necessary for the soul. Yet preparing to receive the Savior is hardly a sentimental trip.  By remembering Christ’s advent (coming) in the past, we learn to “remember the future”— to ready ourselves for the good and great day of the Lord.  Webber’s analogy of preparing for a guest reminds us that there is indeed work to be done – soul work, you might call it.  We are learning, year by year, to live in the expectancy of God’s promised future.

Preparing the heart and mind for the advent of Christ is as important a task as preparing for Christmas guests in your home.  Are our hearts ready for the coming of one who resides among us by his Holy Spirit?  Perhaps the five candles of our traditional Advent wreath – the wreath that always adorns our sanctuary in this season – will serve as a kind of spiritual to do list for preparing for Christ.  With each new candle lighting there is new reason to have good hope.  Let us then prepare, expect, worship, and wait with all that we have to give.

May God grant us an Advent season full of hope and peace.

December 1, 2012


So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.  -- Colossians 3

(Congregation, overhearing this brief interpretation of scripture for these two dear friends of mine on their wedding day will make much more sense when you learn that they have been teaching together a class of Jr. High youth on Sunday mornings here in our congregation.  As a couple, they have been leading their little flock of young believers through the famous wardrobe and into the fabled world of The Chronicles of Narnia, that masterpiece of children’s literature by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.)

And so I want to say to you two, you brave new explorers (Or should I call you Pevensie siblings?) ... Welcome to your new Narnia. That is to say, welcome to the landscape of a staggering new world, a strange and wonderful country known as Christian marriage.

Try to imagine with me that this familiar place, these four walls so well known to both of you — For it is here in the space of word and sacrament that you have worshipped and shared fellowship and served the Lord, here were you are met week to week with the bath, book, and banquet of our generous Jesus — try today to imagine this good place as ... a wardrobe, a divine armoire, a covenantal closet.

Because here, in this time of glad worship, by your outlandish promises to one another, and by your confidence in those outstanding promises God has made to you, here you step into a new world.

It is not the land of Lewis, not the land of Calormen, Telmar, or Narnia.  Rather it is the territories of compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline, and love … all those Christ-shaped arenas laid out on the dependable map that is Colossians 3, your favorite passage.

These are your new domains, these make up the new world you will now inhabit.  Welcome to space for following Jesus through this life, together ... as the Son leads you ever closer to the Father, by way of countless neighbors and communions and even enemies ... all there for you to bless, together.  Dare I say it (and don’t spoil it yet for your class), but Jesus is your Aslan ... the lion of your shared life, that great one who laid down his life for you, whose word is your guide and whose life is your power. 

Now to be clear, and this should be said often among believers, one need not be married to be Christian. There is a long and important and noble place for singleness in the Christian communion and for the ministry of Jesus in the world.

But when Christians marry, that marriage becomes the primary territory in which Christ-shaped faithfulness and ministry are practiced and exercised and brought to perfection. After all, when our Lord calls us to “love our neighbor” — no less than the second great commandment — who else is a closer neighbor than the one beside whom you wake up each morning? In marriage, Christians practice daily that basic ministry to which we baptized folk are called in every other territory of life: faith, hope, and of course that all purpose garment ... love. 

So it is then that your vows send you packing today, through the wardrobe of this wedding, away from your former existence, and out into the land where you will learn to handle the good gifts of God’s in-breaking kingdom: 

Gifts such as forgiveness, when the checking account is overdrawn ... Patience, when the dirty clothes remain piled on the floor ... discipline, to keep you in your vows, when hot dates and hand holding give way to stomach flus and overly-short haircuts ... grace, when you are not the prince or princess you so desire each other to be ... How about mercy, when work in the world has been demanding and there is little left over for love at home ... and especially humility, lest you forget that you are not your spouse’s savior, nor do you need your traveling companion to be one for you.

Why? Because you already have a Savior, both of you, and he has gone on up ahead of you to prepare a good place, a lasting place, and he has left you his Word and Spirit to guide you along.

That news — that you both already belong to him — that is enough to see you through this journey. 

N. and N.,
it has been an honor to walk with you to this day.
Welcome to the threshold of a terrific new world.
Go on now. 
Go on through,