Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The First Wednesday in Advent

First Wednesday of Advent
November 30, 2011

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad. (Psalm 14:7)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. (2 Peter 3:8-10)

A few years ago I went to the doctor because of a respiratory infection. I sat on the paper-covered examination table while he checked things out and asked me a series of questions. In the process he discovered that I worked for a theological seminary, so he took advantage of the circumstance of my medical captivity to interrogate me about when Jesus was scheduled to return. As much as I tried to dodge the issue—after all, he was the guy with access to needles and probes and such, and I feared retribution for offering an unacceptable answer—he persisted. I finally reminded him that I was sick and needed repair, so he prescribed some antibiotics and I went on my way, leaving the question of Jesus’ expected return unanswered.

People have been trying to get that date on the calendar for a long time, to no avail. The psalmist doesn’t demand precision in terms of timing, but he echoes the cry of Israel for God to bring deliverance so that their exile and oppression will end. The anticipation was that deliverance looked like the restoration of Israel’s glory days.

The early followers of Jesus saw deliverance in a new light. Rather than expecting to be delivered from the rule of the Roman Empire, they came to understand that God, in and through Jesus, had delivered them from the power of sin and death—all that was behind earthly oppression. Deliverance for them looked like turning to the God who had rescued them from every demanding voice of dominance that was not God, and freed them into a new life.

Still, they anticipated that something the ancient Hebrew people called “the day of the Lord,” when God would upset the order of the earthly kingdoms and make things right, especially for Israel. The early Christians still looked forward to that day, but now with broader scope. The God who would make things right wanted things to be right for all people, “not wanting any to perish.”

Peter spoke of that day in dramatic language, signaling a global change in everything we’ve come to know. His words mirror those of Jesus in Revelation 21, as a new heaven and new earth are established, and he announces, “I am making all things new.”

In this season of Advent, we are drawn into the newness of God’s story. We don’t have to wait for a distant, highly-publicized date of return on the calendar to enter into what God has made new: It’s all here now. As Peter spoke of God’s desire for all people, we are invited to turn (which is the meaning of “repent”) to the God who has made himself known to us in Jesus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The First Tuesday in Advent

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long? (Psalm 6:1-3)

People cry out to God all the time, wondering why in the world (or in the heaven) he doesn’t do something. Doesn’t God know what’s going on here? Doesn’t he see the financial problems, the wars and genocides, the crime, and the discontent? More personally, has God lost track of MY problems?

The psalmist cries out to God, “My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long?” He is terrified, while God does—what? Wait around? Kill some time? Make a few extra planets? Where is he? What is God doing while all this is going on? And how long will he ignore this disastrous situation?

Indeed, how long? The people of ancient Israel would resonate with that cry because they had become a people in exile. Even by Jesus’ day their freedom to live in their own land was limited and controlled by the Romans. They were a people in exile at home. Certainly when the everyday Israelite saw centurions marching through town or, even worse, witnessed the occasional crucifixion of Jewish offenders, the cry would well up: How long, O Lord?

When Jesus was born, few people anticipated that he was the answer to that prayer, How long? Herod saw the birth as a threat to his throne and staged a quick infanticide to address his fears. Years later the religious leaders of Jerusalem would employ the power of Rome to do away with Jesus, again fearing a threat to their dominance. Waiting for God is rarely convenient for those who hold all the power.

In the season of Advent we reflect on the coming of Jesus at his birth. At the same time, we look forward to his coming again, when God recreates the heavens and the earth, and his kingdom comes in its fullness. But what about in between? Are we, like the ancient Israelites, left alone to wonder, How long?

The amazing thing about the two Advents is that the space in between is not devoid of God. God’s presence has been promised to us in another Advent—the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit. It is through God’s Spirit that Jesus’ claim is made good:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b)

We are not left alone, and God has not left the building.

Monday, November 28, 2011

First Monday in Advent

First Monday of Advent
November 28, 2011

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matthew 21:1-5)

Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. (2 Peter 1:10-11)

The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—what most Bibles title, “The Triumphal Entry”—always puzzles me. I think I understand why Jesus did what he did, because he was fulfilling Scripture but also giving the people a different image of their Messiah than they expected. What puzzles me is why the people were so excited at seeing Jesus riding on a donkey. Did they expect that the donkey would suddenly transform into a huge, sweaty stallion with flaring nostrils and iron hooves? And did they think that Jesus would morph into a muscular and deadly ninja who would slaughter the Romans right on the spot? I don’t know. I’m just wondering.

What is clear in the gospels is that the people did expect something from Jesus that was different than what he was offering. People loved his works of healing and deliverance, and marveled at his teachings. But they also wanted to see the kind of power that put Israel right back in the driver’s seat and ran the Romans back to Italy where they could get busy inventing pizza.

In the days of the early church, leaders like Peter had to keep reminding people about their identity as followers of Jesus. Like most of us, they were tempted to expect other things from Jesus than what he was offering. Peter has to remind them about their “election” (not the idea of being chosen at the exclusion of others, but being chosen for the benefit of the world) and that they are to order their lives around traits and values such as faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, mutual affection, and godliness. When people get off track, he says, they “stumble” into things that end up corrupting them.

In this beginning of the Advent season, it might be good for us to stop and consider what we’ve been expecting from Jesus as he comes to us. If we’re expecting prosperity, power, the baptizing of our political party, or anything other than the Jesus who draws us into the new reality of the kingdom of God, then we’ll stumble and experience the corruption that comes from being immersed in the wrong world.

In his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus wrote,

“. . . In this life and in the world to come, those who follow Jesus will receive everything they want, if what they want is to follow Jesus.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Looking for a New Rhythm of Life

The holidays are upon us again, reminding Christians in American that we have only two religious holidays that we are allowed to observe: Christmas and Easter. Along with the rest of the nation, we busily spend our money on holiday-related consumer goods, but we also devote ourselves to a total of approximately two hours of religious observance. That’s all that our calendar will allow.

There is something wrong with this, at least for Christians. What many (particularly those in Protestant, evangelical traditions) seem to forget (or perhaps never realized), is that we are living the rhythms of our lives by the wrong calendar. There is a different calendar for us that meanders and strolls rather than sprints and constantly gasps for breath. It’s a calendar that leads in deep reflection and worship rather than in squirrel cage-demands and mandated national observances.

Christians have something called the Church Year. That calendar begins the year in late November with the observance of Advent (the coming of Jesus), which runs then continuously through Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost, and then something called Ordinary time (the season when our immersion in worship remembers that we live out the Jesus life one day at a time). Churches that observe this calendar do so with colors, prayers, liturgies, music, and even feasts. During the week people have resources of prayer and devotion that follow these seasons throughout each day.

I did not grow up observing the calendar of the Church Year, but I’ve become fascinated with the richness and depth of a shared rhythm of life that is ordered around what we consider to be the greatest story of the ages: The story of God’s redeeming and reconciling work in and through Jesus.

What puzzles me is how often I share my interest in the Church Year and find my Christian friends recoiling from the idea as though I was suggesting a fifty-mile pilgrimage along a hard, rocky road on our bare knees. Cautions against legalism and deadness rise to the surface and the invitation to find the order of life in Jesus’ story often falls flat.

It’s the standard, twelve-month calendar that many seem to prefer. Why would we need a calendar with all that unnecessary religious stuff when we’ve got one that serves both the nation and the church (in that order)? You know that calendar: It’s called the Gregorian Calendar, and it’s months are named after Roman gods and goddesses and even a couple of dead Roman emperors. Yes, indeed—there’s a rhythm of life we Christians should easily embrace.

Of course I’m being just a tad sarcastic (or is it ironic?). I’m not against the Gregorian calendar. After all, it’s how most of the world schedules travel and work days and other movements of human life. But for we who follow Jesus, there should be a deeper rhythm that plays beneath all of that. Observing the Church Year should keep us in a perpetual state of wonder, thanks, and worship. Yes, anything can be degraded so that it is dead and meaningless (even things like marriage, prayer, and “contemporary” worship). That’s no excuse for letting our lives be framed by anything other than Jesus.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Slippery Slope of Generational Churches

There seem to be an increasing number of “dechurched” bands of people getting together to figure out how faith looks once a person feels disenfranchised from church. I’ve read research about this and heard from more than one significant Christian leader about this trend.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone has left church, or that those who have end up in isolated home groups looking for a fresh identity. But there’s enough of it to catch my attention, and certainly the attention of those who watch for these kinds of things.

I was with one such group recently. They were devout in their love of God and faith in Jesus. They expressed love for one another, worshipped and prayed fervently. And all, even after many decades of faithful church connection, found themselves outside of an established church setting.

This got me to thinking about church life in general. There’s been a trend since the 1970’s to reconfigure church and its various practices in order to reach a new generation (at that time, my generation—the Baby Boomers). Of course, the Roman Catholic Church got busy with this a decade earlier, but the Evangelicals eventually honed the practice into a veritable industry.

What has happened since that time is a growing separation of generational cohorts within the church. So, once the Boomers’ offspring came of age, that old Rock ‘n Roll worship vibe was seen by them as outdated and tired. They just couldn’t relate, so new generationally-crafted churches emerged. Or, if that didn’t happen, young people just left church altogether as soon as they got out of high school.

I’m seeing a systemic problem with all of this. I’m not against worship gatherings that are sensitive to their cultural contexts, but when the worshipping life of the church is grounded in the preferences of a particular generation within a culture, then it must reinvent itself for each subsequent generation or die. This is not just a problem for so-called mainline churches, but also for the churches that have emerged over the last thirty or forty years. With each generational change comes the risk of alienating the prior generation and lurching inevitable toward irrelevance when a subsequent generation hits puberty.

It occurs to me that the sacramental and strongly liturgical churches have something to teach us here. In more traditional liturgies, everyone potentially dives deeply into Scripture and communal prayers. Yes, there is a sermon, but it’s usually brief and completely overshadowed by the heart of the worship time: The Eucharist.
All who are present participate—young and old, clergy and non-clergy. Prayers are spoken, songs are sung, confession echoes, bread and wine are shared. There is an ancient and eternal sense about what is happening, something not limited to a particular generational preference.

We all might be helped to rethink the meaning of the word service when it comes to church. Is it service to me and my kind, giving us what we like and serving our preferential needs? Or is it service to God as we rehearse the story of the ages and submit ourselves to his love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness? As the apostle Paul stated so well:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom 12:1)

I believe this is worth thinking about.