Advent Promises

Monday, December 14
…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”  Acts 1:11

I grew up in a church with a heavy emphasis on end times teaching complete with charts of the various events: the return of Christ, the tribulation, the reign of Christ, etc. While I applaud the church’s effort to teach biblical truth, unfortunately I was left with the impression that its version was the only viable option. It was only after personal study and the influence of wise Christians who hold alternative views that I began to understand the rich depth of other perspectives.

The angels’ question to the disciples revs my imagination into high gear! These precious followers have walked and talked and eaten with Jesus for forty days, but their understanding is still blurry—Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?

It’s good to remember that we don’t have a record of every word Jesus said, every act he accomplished. There are so many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, each of them, one by one, I can’t imagine a world big enough to hold such a library of books (John 21:25). While remembering that Luke wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did he omit something between Jesus’ mild rebuke (It’s not for you to know the times or dates…), and his ascension? Did the angels’ words hold just a trace of holy sarcasm? Could they mean—perhaps by tone of voice?—OK people, you have all the information you need now to get to work. Just go to Jerusalem because you’ll soon have more power than you’ve ever imagined. Don’t keep looking into the heavens for information you don’t really need now.

I’m afraid all the charts from my childhood tended to emphasize the important but neglect the urgent: Stop peering into what I’m keeping mysterious. Just go. Good words as we celebrate the first advent and anticipate the second.

Advent Promises

Sunday, December 13
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Luke 2:10 

Joy is the traditional emphasis on this third Sunday of Advent, and years after that hillside experience, the Apostle Paul from a Roman prison exudes joy while writing to his distant Philippian friends. But is this merely an admonition to “suck it up” or “put on a happy face”? One source describes joy more convincingly as “a state of mind and orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.”

Those sheep herders on Bethlehem hills were terrified when awakened by an angel. Scholars differ on the subject of shepherds’ place in society, but the reaction to an angel is indisputable: they were terrified. Have you ever awakened from a dream that seemed more real than reality? Or comforted a child screaming in the night? It’s no wonder that the angel immediately said, Do not be afraid…

The angel’s nighttime declaration first brought terror but concluded with promise: I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. All the people. Not just the wealthy and healthy. Not just the religious and right living. Not just the Democrats or Republicans, the white, brown, or black. The angel pronounced a radical wake-up call, a post-Eden re-adjustment to all of culture. I believe the shepherds were still weak kneed and stumbling as the skies filled with a great company of the heavenly host. This was a wake-up call beyond all others.

Matt Erickson comments: Sometimes, real joy requires a wake-up call. A study of people who had breakthroughs to greater meaning and joy in their lives…showed that these breakthroughs were often triggered by some form of psychological turmoil, such as stress, loss, or bereavement… C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Difficulty, even suffering, can serve as a wake-up call to joy.

Are you experiencing a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope this Sunday? Could God be calling for a re-orientation of your heart?

Advent Promises

Saturday, December 12
He energizes those who get tired, gives fresh strength to dropouts…those who wait upon God get fresh strengthIsaiah 40:29 (The Message)

With less than two weeks before Christmas, God’s message to Isaiah is not a promise for us to whip through stores, frantically search Amazon, or stay awake in morning’s wee hours to finish a project. Maybe you’ve already followed Dave Ramsey’s holiday advice:

  • Make a list (Lost my lists weeks ago.)
  • Avoid too many commitments (How to say no to her, Dave?)
  • Don’t wait until the last minute (Ha!)
  • Make a budget (What budget?)
  • Decorate minimally (I’m already down to pinecones & wrinkled ribbon.)
  • Get rid of clutter (Where do you suggest I put it?)
  • Ask for help (People run as I approach.)
  • Avoid family conflict (What world do you live in, Dave?)
  • Don’t overeat (No comment.)

You’re still tired and ready to drop out!

Could it be that Christians’ ranting at the “secularization” of Christmas, our refusals to declare “Happy Holidays,” our vigorous shouting at the world about the real meaning of Christmas contributes to the drain of our energy? In our attempts to keep Christ in Christmas (was he ever absent?), our energy is focused on what’s outside rather than on the source of fresh strength.

Lists, budgets, clutter removal, all can help make the holiday truly more a holy-day, but all are externals. It’s Isaiah’s last phrase that contains the foolproof prescription: those who wait upon God get fresh strength. Determine now to place WAIT at the top of the daily To Do List.

Advent Promises

Friday, December 11

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. Luke 1:46-47

Do you ever feel as though no one is listening to you? When we lived in Germany and my personal ministry involved developing relationships with women in the international diplomatic community, I made myself available to newcomers as they adjusted to a new culture and language. One day I accompanied an African woman to the grocery store to help her identify and choose products. After the items were placed on the counter, the cashier ignored my highly educated, beautifully dressed friend, turning to me with the request for payment accompanied by an obvious racial remark.

My friend was not only unheard but judged.

Mary identifies herself as a humble servant. She lived in a town considered inconsequential under the reign of a violent puppet king. She belonged to the peasant class, probably living in an extended family unit in which relatives shared an oven, cistern, and grinding stone. Even as a young teenager, Mary most likely spent daylight hours on domestic chores like carrying water, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals, washing utensils and clothes. Who in the world would listen to her? Be mindful of— care about, show special attention—to her?

At various times in our lives, we feel unheard, unseen. A teenager cries, “You’re not listening to me!” A busy mother hungers for someone to see her, hear her, as a woman beyond a role. As we age, we’re tempted to believe we’ve become invisible.

I love David’s description of God’s attention to those in close relationship with him: Friendship with God is reserved for those who reverence him. With them alone he shares the secrets of his promises (Psalm 25:14, Living Bible). Can you imagine God leaning toward you, sharing a secret? He values you as a friend. Enjoy that friendship and take steps to develop that same stance toward one who feels unheard.

Advent Promises

Thursday, December 10

Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert rivers in the badlands.   
Isaiah 43:19

I watched my friend’s “tween” son model his new soccer outfit. He absolutely strutted in confidence! Do you remember getting new school clothes? A new outfit for Easter? Or what about that new car smell?!

My mother had an unusual attitude toward new clothes. While she happily bought or made new clothing for me, her own new clothes stayed in the closet to be worn “when no one is looking.”

I recall attending our Cru® (Campus Crusade for Christ) summer conferences where we not only celebrated God’s goodness over preceding months, but heard about new plans. Our visionary leader, Dr. Bill Bright, enthusiastically described (with fifteen- or twenty-point outlines!) how he and other ministry leaders believed God was leading. New challenges! New vistas!

According to one personality assessment, I’m an introvert who enjoys routine and structure, takes serious care in making decisions, etc. As a Myers-Briggs ISTJ personality, I am practical, orderly, (I) see to it that everything is well organized. Can you guess my reaction to Cru’s something brand new? I wanted to hide in my mother’s closet along with her new clothes!

But how do I respond to God’s brand-new things? Especially at this age when comfort calls, routine is reassuring, “as is” appeals? Dare I awaken each morning with an attitude like Old Testament Caleb when the Israelites contemplated new challenges: Here I am today, eighty-five years old!… Now give me this hill country… (Joshua 14:10-12). 

How can I respond more correctly to God’s brand-new things? First, listen and look for what God is doing. Be alert, be present, be aware of God’s work in my community, around the world. Second, honestly ask God how he would have me participate in his action. Creatively seek ways to participate, perhaps through active involvement, giving of finances, certainly by prayer. Third, join others in God’s program of making a road through the desert rivers in the badlands.   Don’t hoard God’s new things in the closet!

Advent Promises

Wednesday, December 9

Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, 
I will be exalted in the earth.  Psalm 46:10

Everything—and many of the “everyones”—around us war against God’s be still. Several Hebrew transliterations render those two words let it be. But how can we let it be? If we don’t do something, who will?

God’s fleeing people were being led out of bondage by the hand of Yahweh. They had visual evidence of God’s presence—pillars of cloud by day and pillars of fire by night. But then: …the Israelites looked up and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified… (Exodus 14)

Our “Egyptians” are named Covid, political unrest, economic downturn, loneliness, old age, and—to be honest—we’re sometimes terrified just like the Israelites.  Perhaps we look back on the invisible “good old days”as did the fleeing children of God: What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Back in Egypt didn’t we tell you this would happen? Didn’t we tell you, ‘Leave us alone here in Egypt…’ Years later, David cries out with words familiar to our own: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? (Psalm 13:1)

Psalm 46 introduces a cluster of psalms that all express confidence in the security of God’s people in the midst of a threatening world. Eugene Peterson catches my attention with his summary of verses 10 and 11: Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything. (Our) Jacob-wrestling God fights for us, God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

Stop. Light a candle. BE STILL.

Advent Promises

Tuesday, December 8
I will send rain in season…He made the moon to mark the seasons…the Lord our God who gives autumn and spring rain in season…I will send down showers in season… He changes time and seasons…*

A friend recently said she senses God leading her into a new season. But along with that awareness came questions: What would a new season look like? What life change might occur in a new season? Was she ready—and willing!—for a new season?

If these Advent meditations are about promise, where’s the promise in the Bible phrases above? How can my friend rest in God as he seems to be leading her into new spaces or seasons?

Critical to seeking and understanding biblical truth is to take note of specific words, in this case, who is in charge of the seasons and what are the implications?

Whether it’s the liturgically dated season of Advent or the yet unknown seasons that lie ahead, note the words I, HE, LORD OUR GOD. Our honest questions about the future can—must—be accompanied by trust that is evidenced by gratitude for God’s sovereignty, love, grace, and care.

A good exercise in preparing for the seasons ahead is to make a list of seasons of the past when you had no road map to the future, when you lived in dark doubt, yet God kept whispering “go.” You set out on a path that became rocky with thorns snagging at your determination, people questioning and perhaps mocking, but somewhere deep inside you knew that the God who dictates seasons was beckoning you to a new season.

*Leviticus 26:4; Psalm 104:19; Jeremiah 5:24; Ezekiel 34:26; Daniel 2:21

Advent Promises

Monday, December 7
We saw his star when it rose and we have come to worship him. Matthew 2:2 

If I were inclined to write post-Christmas meditations, this one would appear approximately twelve days after Christmas when much of the Christian church celebrates Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men to worship Jesus. The more accurate date of their arrival would be eighteen to twenty-four months after Christ’s birth as one scholar writes: The Magi’s trip had to have taken a few months through rough mountains and deserts. They would have been in danger of bandits, wild animals, and the elements. …it took them almost two years from the spotting of the star till they arrived in Jerusalem…

These men were astrologers, probably from Persia (modern Iran), always seeking new things in the heavens. The scholar continues: A new star would be a cataclysmic event… What did it mean?… In this unbelievably significant moment in their lives, God interrupts their status quo, attempting to communicate with them.

Stars surround us during these days and not just in the heavens. For several years I’ve been shopping for the perfect (i.e., affordable!) Moravian star to hang on our patio to declare the wonders of Christmas. Our tree topper is a star. Children paste gold stars on handmade cards. We sing star of wonder, star of night… 

Could this be the year God is seeking to communicate with us via significant moments, interrupting our status quo with a virus, with political upheaval?  The Magi were determined to discover truth, in a sense they lived the truth of Jesus’ later promise: Seek and you shall find. 2020 events have been cataclysmic. We dare not let them pass without close examination of what God might be saying to each of us. Are you coming with devout intention to worship? Have you been seeking? What are you finding? About God? About yourself?

Take time today to write answers to those questions. You may discover whispers of God that will profoundly influence the unknown days ahead.

Advent Promises

To those who live as refugees…chosen…to be obedient… I Peter 1:1-2

As Christians settled safely in the West, we can be tempted to rank the three underlined words in Peter’s letter. We love that we’ve been chosen. We understand that we’ve been chosen to be obedient.

But it’s that first underlined word—refugees, translated often as exiles or sojourners—that stops me this Advent Sunday. Have you looked recently at pictures of refugees? Stop right now and type “refugee pictures” in your computer’s search engine, then look long and thoughtfully at what you see. When I did that, I saw people laden with their world’s goods tied up in sheets and blankets, one man carrying a rolled carpet on his shoulders, children bent over hauling family commodities, an obviously pregnant woman faltering under her load.

No brightly lit Christmas trees in a refugee camp. Gifts, if any, will come from compassionate NGOs or Christian relief agencies. No mortgage payments since houses are destroyed. No visits to grandparents unless they live in a nearby tent or under a tarp.

We’re chosen for obedience which includes seeing ourselves as God sees us: as refugees, people living away from the country they long for. And while understanding more about our own status, we look at refugees around the world and see God’s clear Law: The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself… (Leviticus 19:34). Foreigners today live next door. Loving them as myself may require removal of the mask of political ideologies, of economic practicalities. It may mean honest appraisal of how and from whom come my biases. It can mean admitting that grace always offers more. It may mean uncomfortably reaching out to a nearby refugee.

Advent Promises

Saturday, December 5
God has surely listened and has heard my prayer. Psalm 66:19

Do you long for daily, remarkable, awe-filled prayer times? More often—even when I approach the throne with clean hands and heart—I’m unaware of anything more than the walls around me, my open Bible, my current devotional reading. And silence.

Then I’m reminded of Luke’s description of Zechariah’s encounter with God: Once when Zechariah’s division was ON DUTY and he was serving as priest before God… Then an angel of God appeared to him…” (Luke 1:8 and 11).

Three priests, chosen by lot, performed sacred duties in the temple. The first carried away the ashes left on the altar from the preceding service; the second brought in a pan of burning coals from the altar of sacrifice; the third—Zechariah in this case—carried in the incense, sprinkled it on the coals, and, while the smoke ascended, made intercession for the people.

While Zechariah’s part in the service was deemed the most honorable and he understood its gravity, I also imagine that he was aware that this was a duty, an obedient and important act of worship.

We have no details about Mary’s actions on the day Gabriel appeared to her, but it could well be that she, like Zechariah, was also on duty. Drawing water? Grinding grain? Scrubbing clothes? How did she later describe the angel visit day to Jesus? 

Without angelic visitations, it can be enough for me to understand that God has listened and heard. Then go quietly into my duty-filled day.