Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent...A Season to Wait

It's not even a week after Thanksgiving and already the "traditional" Christmas songs that we all know and "love" seem to have been infiltrating our radio stations for close to a month now. The "Christmas season" has been slowly spreading out and consuming the preceding months and holidays. From October on we are encouraged by commercials and culture to get ready, start shopping, because before we know it Christmas will be upon us. Unfortunately in our rush to get to the "big day" on December 25th we miss out on an important element of the true spirit of the Christmas season, the waiting. I think in general our culture has a natural aversion to waiting, to being patient. We want our meals, our coffee, our relationships, with no inconvenience, no hang-ups, and no delays. We live in a culture of instant-gratification and so when we think of all the good feelings, memories, food, and (if were honest) gifts of Christmas, we want those things without having to wait for Christmas day get here.

In recent years, every Christmas Eve when our extended family gets together, someone will always remind me of what I was like as a child on Christmas Eve. Ignoring family and food (well family more than food), I would spend most of the evening sitting in front of the tree staring at the presents so clearly marked with my name. At the time the anticipation was too much to handle and all I focused on all evening was that moment when I would get to open those gifts. In hindsight I realize how much I missed out on while waiting for that moment to tear into those presents under the tree. I missed out on family and memories.

What do we miss out on as we rush to Christmas day? It think it's simply, the waiting. Anticipation and waiting is a part of the Christmas experience and a beautiful element in God's plan to redeem the world.

Israel waited for centuries for the promised Messiah. The 400 years leading up to the birth of Christ is known as "the Silence of God" because for all that time not once did God speak to His people through a prophet. During those 400 years the people of Israel waited for their God to speak and their Messiah to arrive. We are reminded of this waiting in the life of Mary as she waits the term of her pregnancy to deliver the Savior of the world.

The season leading up to Christmas day, when we celebrate the arrival of our Savior, can be filled with more then shopping and baking and clay-mation TV specials. The Advent Season can be filled with waiting! Maybe not the most appealing addition to the holiday season (humanly speaking) but I think when we meditate on and participate in the waiting of God's people throughout history we plug into an age old practice of waiting on God. All of this culminates in the celebration of the First Advent (arrival) of our Savior Jesus Christ on Christmas. My hope is two fold; first, that we would connect with the waiting of God's people for the Advent of Christ and second, that we would be reminded of our current waiting as we anticipate the 2nd Advent of Our Lord Jesus Christ when he returns for His own at the end of history.

How do we do this?

Here is a daily scripture reading list and family activities that can be taken advantage of during the advent season.

And below is a short list of songs we can add to our Christmas playlist (or even make a separate "Advent" playlist like I have) I've come across that speak to this season of waiting and anticipating the Advent of our Savior. If I find any more good "Advent" songs I'll update this list. If you have any you might think would be good please tell me the name and artist in the comments below.

  • Passover Us - Andrew Peterson 
  • So Long Moses - Andrew Peterson 
  • Deliver Us - Andrew Peterson 
  • O Come, O Come, Emmanuel 
  • This Is Jesus - Brook Hills Music 
  • Come Like You Promised - Ascend the Hill 
  • Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing 
  • Psalm 35 - Sons of Korah 
  • This is War - Dustin Kensrue 
  • Suffering Servant - Dustin Kensrue 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tombs and Temples

In the movie version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Gandalf and Pippin are walking through the levels of the city of Minas Tirith which is a massive seven-tiered city built into the side of a mountain. The white stones of the city shine bright in the rising sun and burn as with fire at the it's setting. On the highest level of the city is a courtyard in which stands the White Tree of Gondor, a symbol of the cities rich heritage and history. Unfortunately this tree has not blossomed since the last king sat on the throne many years earlier. Before the failing tree Pippin asks Gandalf why they still guard it if it's dead. Gandalf responds, "They guard it because they have hopeFaith and fading hope that one day it will flower. That a king will come and this city will be as it once was before it fell into decay. The old wisdom that was borne out of the West was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry or in high, cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin. The line of Kings failed, the White Tree withered, and the rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men."

While there are a ton of sermon illustrations in that single quote alone, one line has always struck me in a powerful way, "kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living". To me that is a very sad picture of the state of a once magnificent kingdom. When a kingdom venerates the halls of the dead and neglects the slums of the living there is something wrong. When Gondor placed a greater priority on remembering the glories of the past they neglected the suffering of the present and thus doomed their future. Now they are waiting and hoping for the king to return to Minas Tirith to bring life to a dying city and diminishing people. 

This line in the movie always reminds me of when Jesus said in Matthew 23:27-28, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." 

This stands in juxtaposition with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, when addressing the topic of sexual purity, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."

What a contrast though, between being a tomb and being a temple. A tomb is filled with death and sorrow,  a temple is filled with life and joy. Though a tomb may appear beautiful on the outside the inside it is filled with "unclean things". Conversely, the adornments and decorations of a temple are superfluous, what makes a temple a temple is the living presence of God residing within it. 

These are two stark spiritual realities, we are either tombs or we are temples. This world has enough tombs as it is, people who walk around and behave as though they are alive but spiritually they are dead in their sins and trespasses. What this world needs is more temples, people who are spiritually alive because God the Holy Spirit has taken up residence inside their hearts. 

I could write a lot more (and I might at a later time) but these are just some thoughts that I have been having lately, but I want to leave you with some words from one of my favorite worship tunes and my hope is that this would be all of our prayers, that we would desire to be temples of the living God and not tombs of death....

"Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving I'll be a living sanctuary for you."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Zombies, Plauges, and the Compassion of Christ!

Hershel Greene; The Walking Dead
For those of you who have not caught the zombie virus yet, here is the quickest synopsis of AMC's  The Walking Dead that I can manage; The world is much as we know it, that is until, as usual, a zombie virus outbreak. People, lots of people, get infected die then come back as zombies. People get bit or scratched by zombies, die, then they too become zombies. People die of the common cold then come back as, yup you guessed it, zombies. If you haven't picked up on the common theme, basically people are becoming mindless flesh eating zombies creating a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by zombies and survivors. The show follows one group of survivors who daily strive to stay alive and create some semblance of normality in a world gone mad. A man named Hershel Greene eventually joins this group, a man of faith and a farmer, he was former veterinarian, who at first struggles to keep his faith in the midst of the madness but quickly emerges as a leader and beacon of compassion and humanity in this savage dog-eat-dog world. While taking refuge in an abandoned prison a flu virus begins to kill the survivors within its walls. Hershel's veterinarian training comes in handy but because of fear of more deaths the sick are quarantined and Hershel is not able to treat and comfort them, or else risk his life. Being the creature of conscience he is, Hershel can not sit idly by while people are suffering that he might be able to comfort, though he has no cure. He determines to enter into the quarantine to administer an elderberry tea in hope of reducing the fevers of the ill. Another leader of the group and Hershel's daughter try to stop him saying that its just too risky, Hershel might get sick and then the group would be worse of with him gone. Hershel stops at the door to the quarantine and turns to confront those who would stop him saying;

"You walk outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. Nowadays you breath and you risk your life. You don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.” Then turning back around he enters into the quarantine. 

In the third century, the ancient world was hit with a devastating plague (though let me state that nowhere do sources say it wasn't a zombie plague). There were many casualties, but perhaps the greatest casualty was that of the human spirit of compassion. In attempts to keep themselves from joining the dead and dying, many people threw infected family members out into the streets to die alone. It was the Christians in the community who took it upon themselves to care for the sick risking their own lives in the process. It's very likely that many of these brothers and sisters contracted the illness and died as a result. I am confident however that were you to ask those Christians who died as a result of risking their lives to comfort the sick, they would have no regrets. They were following the model of a radical self-sacrificing compassionate savior who they loved more than all the health and wealth of this world. 

Jesus was not one to throw the sick out into the street to spare himself. We know that he was able to heal from miles away (Luke 7:1-10), yet he choose to heal the sick, the blind, the "unclean" by touching them (Matt. 8:1-4). We know that Jesus was able to call back people from the dead by the word of his mouth (John11:38) yet in an incredible demonstration of compassion, when he saw the widow mourning over the death of her only son he went and touched the body of the boy and gave him back to his mother alive and well (Luke 7:11-17). 

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too." 

How has God comforted you? I'm sure many of us can think of many times when we felt the warm embrace of our Heavenly Father in our time of need, weather an inner sense of peace, the kind words of a brother or sister, or in some other way. 

The verse above says that God comforts us in all our troubles so that we are able to comfort others in any trouble they are experiencing. 

How have you comforted others with the same comfort you have received?  How have you shown compassion to others with the same compassion shown to you by God? This is a topic that Jesus takes very seriously, we all who are in Christ long for the day when we see our savior face to face and hear him say "Well done my good and faithful servant". But what if you heard this instead; 

"Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me...Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me" (Matt. 25:41-43,45). 

You have faith in God, good! Even the demons believe that God exist and shudder in fear (James 2:19). But unless our faith compels us into action, it is a dead faith that cannot save (James 2:14-26). Martin Luther once said, "We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone". Faith results in action. 

Herschel and the early Church demonstrated their faith in God by risking their own lives to bring the comfort and compassion that Jesus modeled to "the least of these" in society with no regard for their own security or safety. 

Nowadays we walk outside our homes, we risk our lives. We drive down the highway, we risk our lives. We eat and drink, we risk our lives. We breath the air and we risk our lives. We don’t have a choice. The only thing we can choose is what we are risking it for. 

May we put everything on the line and expend our lives loving God and loving others with reckless abandon. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Stinky Church

I’ve heard Christians compared to many different things by pastors and leaders, past and present, from coals in a fireplace to contagious pathogens. But I think by far, my favorite comparison I’ve heard was when I heard Francis Chan compare Christians to manure. Yes that’s right, Christians are like cow poop. Your reaction may have been similar to mine upon hearing that; mildly confused, slightly disgusted, and extremely interested to see where this was going to go. He went on to describe how beneficial manure is to bringing life to a garden when it’s spread out. It gives richness to the soil it touches that it would not have otherwise. But when you leave the manure all piled up in one spot it just stinks, and nothing grows. When we spread out in our communities we take with us the life giving power of Jesus Christ. When we do so we will see people come to life in Christ and we will see God get the glory. But when we huddle together throughout the week, and that is the extent of our “faith in action”, we wind up stinking like that pile of manure. We can go from being a life-giving agent to being an offensive odor to those around us depending on where our focus is.

For those of us who are not gifted with green thumbs let me explain this further using football. My closest friends will tell you right away that I am no NFL expert (though I’m trying to learn) but I do understand the basic elements of the game. And I understand that one of the important moments of the game is the huddle, this is where the team comes together to get organized, to correct mistakes, and the encourage one another to leave the huddle and get in the game with everything they have. When I think of Christian fellowship I often think of a football huddle. Our times together should be spent getting organized in our mission, holding each other accountable to the standard of Christ, and encouraging one another, especially through prayer and the study of God’s Word, to leave our fellowship and go out and be Jesus to our communities. Can you image how ridiculous it would be if a football team never came out of their huddle the whole game. Now, imagine how we look when we cling to our time together, when we bounce from one church event to the next, and huddling together on Sunday mornings becomes the only expression of our faith during a week. A football team would never think to win a game like that and the Church should never think the world will hear about Jesus like that.

Paul writes in Romans 10:14-15, “ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” How can we expect a lost and broken world to hear about the soul saving sacrifice of Christ when we are to busy huddling together to tell them about the only Remedy for the sin that ails them?

Christian fellowship, the Church, is a gift from God, but lets be sure we’re using that gift appropriately. If we come together during the week, stand in a circle, and pat each other on the back but don’t use our time together to support one another and equip one another for our mission to make disciples of all nations, then I think it’s safe to say, we have missed the point.

Check out what the author of Hebrews says about the gathering together of believers “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:23-25). He says that when we come together we should “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” and that we should “encourage one another all the more” as we anticipate the second coming of Christ.

Ultimately it falls to the individuals that make up a community to implement this kind of change in their local gatherings of believers and so instead of pointing to my finger at others I will look in the mirror of God’s Word and ask myself;

Am I showing love regularly to non-believers who I interact with on a regular basis?
Do I interact with non-believers to begin with?
How am I encouraging others to be more loving in their communities?
Do my good works give glory to God?
How am I encouraging others in their good works?
Do I view church as a social club or a training ground?
How am I encouraging others to look to Christ’s return in the midst of trial?

In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus says, “ You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Are we letting the light of Christ shine through us into our school, our jobs, and our neighborhoods or are we keeping that light under the bowel of our church services and small groups.

Like I said before the Church and Christian fellowship are gifts from God, let’s make sure we aren’t squandering that gift on ourselves but rather let us be sure to use our time together to better prepare one another to reach a world in need with the love and truth of Jesus Christ. My prayer is that the Church in America (for that matter around the world) would stink less and promote life more.