Countercultural, Counterintuitive Christmas

Fourth Advent CandleHenry Wadsworth Longfellow was in the midst of despair. His wife had recently died in a fire, and against his wishes, their son enlisted in the Union army during the American Civil war and was severely wounded in November 1863. On Christmas morning Longfellow heard ringing bells, “their old familiar carols” playing the message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” His response was like our own during these 2015 chaotic times:

In despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Did he weep before going on?

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the right prevail…”

To believe that, to have deep faith in that truth is countercultural and counterintuitive. Everything within us wants to wail that if God is alive, if he is awake, he would do something to stop the chaos, the killing, the despair. One skeptic screams, “An all powerful God would be able to get points across and teach lessons and improve our character without placing us in a world of such tremendous suffering.”

On a dark Bethlehem night, with chaos reigning supreme, the unbelievable happened and was announced by equally unbelievable heavenly messengers. First one angel’s proclamation to shepherds:

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you;
he is the Messiah, the Lord.

 Then, almost as though the news was too profound to be limited to just one herald, a host—a throng—of angels joined the song:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.

Yesterday morning in our church we didn’t sing Longfellow’s words. Instead, the modern words of Travis Cottrell rang out:

Freedom’s calling
Chains are falling
Hope is dawning
Bright and true
Day is breaking
Night is quaking
God is making all things new
Jesus saves.

It goes against our skeptical culture, it confounds our conscious reasoning, but when we believe that Jesus came to save, that Jesus still saves, that “God is making all things new,” we light the candle of peace and God’s countercultural, counterintuitive peace reigns in our hearts. And we pray and work toward peace on all the earth.

Love = Emmanuel

Third Advent CandleChurch traditions vary in terms of what topic is emphasized each Advent Sunday. Yesterday in our church when the third candle was lit, the minister said it was the candle of love. But then all the music, every prayer, each Bible reading, and most definitely the sermon, called attention to Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us.

When I finally quieted myself sufficiently (it takes longer some Sundays), when I determinedly called my mind back from the scattered tasks still to be done this week—those eternally important things like baking cookies and making candy for the neighbors, cooking soup for lunch guests, writing notes on Christmas cards, at least swishing at gathering dust—when I began to center on the meaning of “God with us,” wisps of stillness settled over me.

While faithful Jews like Simeon and Anna, patiently, obediently waited for the promised Messiah, most others considered the waiting too long, the promises too unfulfilled. Some became zealots, fighting to bring about the promised kingdom. Others turned to means of self-fulfillment like the gathering of wealth or the pursuit of religious or political power. And I’m positive that many others just gave up hope that God would intervene. And even the few who in the quiet midnight hours yet believed, did they really think that God—Jehovah—would come as a helpless, crying, blood-covered baby?

John, the man who so deeply and intimately loved Jesus, who left his career and family to follow Jesus—even to the cross—one of those who with his own eyes “beheld his glory,” wrote that this long-awaited one came in human form, in flesh. Historians say that John was born when Jesus was about six years old. Did he hear stories about this expected one? About the strange circumstances surrounding his birth? Did he ever anticipate that he would become Jesus’ follower?

John described Jesus’ “Emmanuelness” this way: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood (Eugene Peterson’s parapharase of John 1:14). There is profound meaning and implication of the word Emmanuel, but as we enter this third week of Advent, I’m simply struck with the fact that God choosing to live in my neighborhood, in this chaotic, fear-crazed world, within me, is unadulterated, sacrificial, mysterious LOVE. And so we light the third candle and call it love: God with us.

The Road to Joy

Second Advent CandleDarkness, poverty, fear, homelessness, tyranny, hatred, desperation. It is into this time that the outrageous announcement was made, “I bring you good news of great JOY.” The pronouncement was not made by a robed, human king on a jeweled throne nor by a boasting general leading well armed troops. No, it was an angel of God himself who spoke the words of joy. Soon that one angelic being was joined by others of the heavenly “congregation” as though just one wasn’t enough to break into earth’s darkness with the message of joy.

And the news was not given to power hungry representatives of earthly kingdoms. Nor to the educated or wealthy. Smelly, bearded shepherds—many the outcasts of society—“living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night,” they first heard the news of coming joy.

These shepherds were given instructions on how to find the embodiment of this joy: “Today…a Savior has been born to you, he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Another gospel writer identifies him further as “…Jesus (who) will save his people from their sins.”

The connection is complete: joy is coming; joy is found in Jesus; joy is experienced when we accept not only that he can and will save us from our sins, but also when we recognize that we need saving. Saving from ourselves and our impetuous and never-ending pursuit of producing our own brand of joy. Americans early learn that her citizens have “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Many have discovered, however, that such pursuit without submission to the only One who promises—indeed, is—joy becomes a futile and fruitless quest.

Jesus told a story that succinctly describes the reaction in heaven when just one of us admits that the road to self fulfillment has been unsuccessful: …there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. The road to joy means hearing the same message given to the shepherds. Then believing it enough to respond as did those shepherds: Let’s go see this thing that has happened

Light the second Advent candle and ponder joy.