Advent – Looking For Restoration

We have reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent in this year’s journey around the sun.

The weather in my part of the world was cold and dark for most of the past week, but as the week of Christmas dawns we are in the middle of a warm up period. I am still not feeling like the reformed Ebinezer Scrooge full of the spirit of Christmas, but I am far from feeling like the Grinch whose heart was down a size and a half. I would say that my heart is feeling warmer as Christmas approaches.

This year has been one of great struggles, stresses, and changes for me and my family. Along the way I have found help and have worked through griefs that have accumulated over many years.  I am slowly finding acceptance for who I am and where I am at in this life within myself. All of these things have been present during my advent waiting and reflecting.

And that is okay.

That is advent – reflecting on the good and the bad and trying to make sense of it all while looking for the light and love of the world that arrived here on earth on Christmas day over two thousand years ago.

Resetting and restoring our place within ourselves and within the world around us.

Many times along this journey, I have found myself exclaiming why me? Why us?  As I read the lectionary readings in Matthew for this Sunday I began to wonder how often did Mary and Joseph say those exact words? Why me? Why us?

Our passage for today is found in Matthew 1:18-25(NRSV):


Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: look, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us”. When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


I began this series of Advent reflections commenting on Mary who despite her dreams chose to be the handmaiden of God. In today’s passage we see Joseph showing the same willingness to say yes to God. Regardless of what his dreams in life were, he too accepted willingly the assignment God gave him to be the earthly father of Jesus.

There is a Christmas song called A Strange Way To Save The World and in its lyrics we hear Joseph asking the same types of “why me” questions we all ask:


Why me, I’m just a simple man of trade
Why him with all the rulers in the world
Why here inside the stable filled with hay
Why her, she’s just an ordinary girl
Now I’m not one to second-guess what angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the world.

And indeed it is!

Do you ever wonder if after the fall God spent time coming up with different plans for redeeming Humanity? Did the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit sit around the great conference room table in the sky brainstorming ?  Or did God always know the plan from the start was to send the Son into the world in the form of a human? Out of all the ways he could have possibly redeemed humanity, he chose to become human like us.

What wondrous love is this?

When I reflect on God’s plan to come himself to earth and redeem us by taking on the human form I realize it probably was the only way he could do it to completely repair what was broken in Eden.  By becoming human and fulfilling the promise of a new Adam, Jesus came to not only redeem the fallen human race but to also restore us to wholeness, righteousness, and holiness.

Wholeness within ourselves.

Wholeness within our relationships with others.

Wholeness within our relationships with God.

Jesus removed the humiliation, disgrace, and shame that came to Adam and Eve at the fall. The same humiliation, disgrace, and shame that follows all of their descendants.

He removes it all and he does so with loving kindness. He restores humankind’s dignity with his love. Whether you are the woman with the issues of blood, the woman at the well, or the tax collectors Zacchaeus and Matthew, Jesus removes all our humiliation, digrace, and shame by lovingly restoring our dignity as God’s creation – human beings.

It doesn’t matter how low we have sunk. Jesus is waiting for us, reaching out his hand to redeem us. Whether we struggle spiritually, physically, mentally, or financially, Jesus comes to restore us with the dignity of our peoplehood and stands with us to support us with his love and guidance.

No situation or circumstance can take us to far for God’s loving embrace to find us.

Jesus restores the worth and dignity of humanity as a whole and for each of us as individuals. He does this because he is a God who understands all of our human needs and struggles. He has been there, done that, and triumphed over it all.


The traditional meanings of each of the four candles of Advent are hope, love, joy, and peace. We all seek these things in our lives. And they are all there for us in the long-awaited Savior we have been waiting for and seeking to find this Advent season.

In the midst of the struggles and turmoil in our lives we can find hope, love, joy, and peace in our relationship with Jesus.

We live in a fallen world where trials and tribulations find us all, and fill us with despare, loneliness, and longings. When we pause long enough to breathe and turn to God, we will find what we seek.

The strength to go on in the broken world.

The courage that we need to continue on with each task at hand.

The empathy and compassion to shine in the world around us.

We find that with Jesus we can become candles of hope, love, joy, and peace in our world for other people all around us. We find our dignity restored and our shame removed.

This Advent season, no matter where we are at in life, be it struggles or triumphs, seasons of joy or pain, may we find places for the love of Jesus in our hearts.

Oh Come, O Come Emmanuel!

Kindle our hearts with hope, love, joy, and peace. May we shine brightly as your candles in a dark lonely world that continues to wait for your coming.

May the candle flames dance brightly with restoration and dignity.


I will light candles this Christmas:
candles of Joy despite all sadness,
candles of courage where fear is ever-present,
candles of Peace for tempest-tossed days,
candles of grace, to ease heavy burdens,
candles of love, to inspire all my living,
candles that will burn all the year-long.
– Howard Thurman

Click here to listen to A Strange Way To Save The World.


Advent – Looking for Patience

It is another grey and cold morning as the third Sunday of Advent arrives.

Outside my window the barren branches of the dogwood tree are scratching against my dining room window.  It is a sorrowful and lonesome sound, and I am reminded again of my sorrows and the struggles of those around me.

Sorrow is a place of loneliness, a place of struggle, whether you are actually alone or surronded by a host of others.  Yet, we are made to feel during this most wonderful time of the year we must be happy and content no matter what.  Joyful always.  This leaves those of us who are struggling feeling outcast and even more lonely.   However, if we buy into this message that we need to make ourselves happy simply for the sake of the season, then we are again missing the message of Advent.


Advent tells us it is okay to be feeling sorrow.

It is okay to be feeling lost.

It is okay to be feeling alone.


In fact, Advent encourages us to embrace all of this, and in our solitude and quiet to bring these sorrows and troubles to our loving Heavenly Father.  He is filled with compassion for each of us, and wants to be our comforter if we will only seek him out.   He is faithful, even when we have not been.  His love is the front porch light that has been left on to welcome us back home.

While reading today’s lectionary readings, I was amazed to see the sorrow and suffering come full circle and turn to rejoicing.  This is a story of choosing the Lord and being his willing child and seeing the promises of God come to fruition in the advent of his Son.  Maybe this isn’t how the lectionary was meant to be read when these verses were put together, but it is what I discovered as I read.

The readings are a journey in God’s story from despair to promise to the promise fulfillment to each of us and instructions for us as we wait.  After all, Advent is the time of waiting and reflecting.

We begin our journey today in Psalm 146:5-10 which begins with the verse:


Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,  whose hope is in the Lord their God, (NRSV)


We are reminded of the ancient people of Israel, who despite God’s best intentions, just couldn’t keep their covenant promises with Him.  As a result, they are no longer a free and chosen people, but an exhiled people wondering if the God of Abraham has abandoned them from good.

THe next stop on our journey this morning is in the book of Isaiah, chapter 35 verses 1-10 where we find a promise from God in verse 4:


“Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.  He will come and save you.”  (NRSV)


God has seen and heard the cries from his people and seen their sorrows during their exhile, and is making them a promise of deliverance.  He will once again rescue his people, sending a Messiah to restore them to the promise.

Continuing on our journey we find our way to Matthew 11:2-11 where Jesus says starting in verse 4:


“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  (NRSV)


Many, many years have passed since the promise of a Messiah had been given.  The Jewish people have been freed from exhile and allowed to return to the promised land.  However, they are not a free people.   They are now under the oppression of the Roman empire and subject to much persecution.  When will the Messiah arrive?  Jesus, in response to John the Baptist’s question, is saying he is in fact the promised Messiah that was fore told by Isaiah.

At this point in our journey we must take a detour and backtrack in the story just a little.  We find ourselves now in Luke 1:46-55, the magnificant, Mary’s humn of praise:


And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (NRSV)


Mary is filled with so much joy at being the handmaiden of the Lord that she can’t contain it!  She is exclaiming of his faithfulness and her amazement of the great purpose she has been given by God that she is willingly able to do through his strength.  The sorrows and oppression are still all around her, but she is seeing God and placing all of her hopes on Him by being a willing participant in his plan.

The final destination on our journey today through God’s promises to us is James 5:7-10 which begins with:


Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. (NRSV)


Just as the farmer must wait out the different seasons we also wait on seasons.  Each season brings us something.  We have seasons of great happiness and also seasons of great sorrow.  Through all of the seasons, be patient.

Patient with God’s timing.

Patient with the circumstances, good or bad.

Patient with ourselves.

As I have been writing this morning, the grey has slowly faded away and the day has taken on a brighter, if not sunny, appearance.  Another example of patience – if we but wait out the grey the light will always return.


Life, too, is a journey.  Advent is just another tool we have in our toolboxes – an atlas to help us find our way on the different roads and paths we find ourselves on.

Perhaps this season you are finding yourself at peace right now and feeling all of the happiness and joy that the season of giving brings.  And that is okay.  Or perhaps you, like me, are finding yourself more in a place of sorrow or struggle.  And that is okay too.

The one constant in all of these seasons is the hand of mercy and compassion of God willing to lead us and guide us as we lean on him.   Whether we are struggling or joyful we can go out, and like the brightening of the grey morning, show those around us that there is still light. If we just keep turning our faces towards it we will eventually find the bright abundance of it shining on us.


In Christ Jesus we find a savior who understands all of our ups and downs and he offers to each of us a place of belonging.

Advent reminds us that we no longer need to seek belonging because we already belong to God.  Each of us is called and chosen already.  No dues necessary, no application process.

Whether in a season of great joy or a season of great sorrow, we are all thirsty.  We all are seeking compassion and understanding.  We are seeking to be patient.

During Advent we remember we are all waiting to rejoice as Mary did, joyful in our blessings and patient in our sorrows, longing to find compassion and acceptance.

All of which we find in the reason for the season.  The King of glory, the Child of the poor.

Click here to listen to What Child Is This, Child of the Poor, one of my favorite hymns at this time of year that came to mind this morning as I was writing.


 

Advent – Looking for Peace

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent.


Christmas preparations are in full swing based on the insane amount of traffic that can now be found in all the shopping areas.

Lights are twinkling on houses.  Baked goods of red, green, silver, and gold line the shelves of bakeries.  Tree lots have almost magically appeared over night and calendars are filling up with holiday parties, Christmas activities, and family gatherings.

We may or may not still be going strong in our Advent devotional readings.


In many churches across our country and around the world believers are listening to messages this morning that include John the Baptist and his voice crying out in the wilderness and his rather interesting fashion choices.  And while this is an important passage where we hear the prophesy of Isaiah coming true in the form of John, that is not the lectionary passage that caught my attention this morning.

It is rather the passage from Romans 15:1-13 , specifically the verses of 4-6 that caught my attention and that I have been meditating on most of this morning:


For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NRSV)


The general theme of this Romans passage as a whole is to be sefless instead of selfish, and to do so without judgement.

We as Christian brothers and sisters should lift each other up and live in peace as the scriptures of old have instructed us to do through the strength and encouragement of God.  The key to this passage I believe is that this can only happen through the strength and encouragement of God.

We must be at peace within ourselves and accept who we are in God in order to be able to extend this same peace and acceptance to those around us.


This is part of the work of Advent.


What is it about our current society that makes this season of peace not very peaceful?  Leave it to us human beings to turn the season of peace and blessings into the season of chaos and competition.

We try to make the perfect Hallmark channel holiday for our families feeling we need to do it all ourselves and come up with an endless to do list:

  • Baking special cookies and treats
  • Preparing elaborate meals
  • Presents for everyone we have ever met beautifully wrapped complete with handmade bows
  • Decking the halls with decorations inside
  • Magical outdoor displays
  • Seasonal must-do activities
  • Partys and get togethers

As much as I love the Hallmark Channel and its Countdown to Christmas movies, real life doesn’t tend to work like this or allow time for all of these things.  Not if we want to have peace.

In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with any of these things.  It is when we allow ourselves to become so caught up in feeling like we have to do all of these things (and do them well) that we become overwhemled and lose the peace the Savior of this season wants to bring to us.


Our God is a God of love and he wants us to live life abundantly and joyfully. 


So decorate the house, bake the cookies, sing in the Christmas choir, but do so with intentionality and moderation.  Have you ever noticed that the characters in the Hallmark Channel movies are almost never seen doing regular housework or cooking evening meals before rushing off to their daily evening Christmas activities in town?

Be kind and gentle on yourself – you don’t have to do it all on top of your regurlar responsibilities.  It’s okay to buy the cookie tray or leave the tree decorated in only lights if that is all you have the time and energy for this year.  It’s okay to not buy gifts to the point of putting ourselves into financial debt.

Because Advent is a time of preparation – preparation of our hearts:


May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NRSV)


Advent is a time of preparation – not of our homes but of ourselves.  A reset and refresh of our hearts and minds so that we may feel renewed so that when the Prince of Peace arrives our hearts and minds are open to him.  We can gladly invite him into our homes and welcome him into our hearts all over again.

Advent is a time to consider how do I make peace with myself?  How do I make peace with my past, present, and future?  Because it is only when we are at peace within ourselves that we can truly extend peace to others.

And only our heavenly Father can bring us that peace that surpasses all understanding.

O come, o come Emanual.

We long for your peace, justice, and mercy in our hearts and in our world.


A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LordHis delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11:1-5, NRSV)


 


Click here to listen to Welcome To Our World by Michael W. Smith


Advent – Looking for Light

It seems very fitting that this morning we are waking up to rain.  Rain that is leaving the morning grey and dark.

Today marks the beginning of the Season of Advent.  The season of darkness and light, of prayer and reflection.  The season of hope and redemption.

A reminder from God that no matter what darkess we face, he will always return us to the light.

Advent isn’t a celebration.  Rather it is a journey much like life.  It is a pause from the busyness of life to reflect and take stock of where we are at spiritually and emotionally.  It is being attentive and watching and waiting on God and this wondrous mystery of redemption.  God’s promise fulfulled.

Advent gives us a space for acknowleging our disappointments, failures, and hurts.  It gives us space for grief and lament with the promise of hope.  It gives us space to refresh and recharge our relationships with ourselves, those around us, and most importantly, with God.

Advent allows us to be vulnerable with ourselves and each other.

It is as if the heavenly Father is saying to each of us, “Come, tell me all about it.  Let me help you.  I love you.”  An ever present help in our struggles:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
-Isaiah 43:1-3 (NRSV)

Two years ago I marked the start of advent with this post with my reflections on the grief and darkness I was feeling at that time.   This year I find that I am again entering into the season of advent with grief, but of a different nature.  This is grief for my sense of self and self worth that I have realized was lost over the years.  I am trying to find that girl again, and be the woman God created me to be.

Maybe there is something in turning 40 (which I did last year) that makes you stop and reflect on where you are and where you have been and wonder where you are going next.  A kind of life Advent season.  What were my dreams then?  What are they now?  And the realization that regardless of dreams, life just happens.


And isn’t this exactly what happened to Mary, the mother of Jesus, but on a far greater scale?

Mary was a normal teenager.  She was engaged to be married to a fine upstanding man of the community.  Did she dream about the life she would lead with him?  How many babies they would have?  How she would decorate their home?

I am sure that in her plans and dreams she never imagined that she would be pregnant out of wedlock or fleeing for her life with her baby for safety in Egypt.  Nor would she have ever imagined seeing her son disown his family (Mark 3:31-35) making the family Passover celebrations ackward going forward.    But then again, as an unwed mother, Mary herself probably made family celebrations a little ackward for a while.

And even though she lived under the oppressive rule of the Romans, she would never have thought her son would be one of the ones who would be hung from a cross and that she would be standing there in shock watching, greiving, and lamenting for her son.

But Mary was faithful and when the Angel Gabriel asked her if she would be the mother of God, she willingly said yes.  She willingly abandoned her dreams of what she thought her life would be and became the willing servant of God.  By being a faithful light in the darkness of ancient Palestine, Mary brought THE LIGHT into the world.


Many of us are lost, but we are not alone in the darkness. 

We are seeking, and we will be found if we want to be.  Work through the pain and grief.  Lament for the losses you have experienced.  And remember that no matter the darkess, the light always comes.  Have faith and know that you are God’s beloved.

Whether you are a lone soul full of faith or looking for a faith community or are part of a faith community, let us all be light together this Advent season.  Let this light shine out into the darkess of the world around us.

Whether this year finds you grieving or rejoicing or somewhere in between, this space of Advent is for you.

Arise, your light has come!

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
-Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

O come, o come Emanual

Click here to listen to O Come, O Come Emanual by Selah