Advent: A Highlight, not the Apex, of the Christian Year

“We are not here…because Christmas is the high point of every church year, and Advent its most profound season.  The church year does not start here because Christmas is coming.  The church year starts here to remind us why Jesus was born in the first place.”1

With this short, poignant statement we are reminded of the true essence of Christ’s incarnation.  The significance of God becoming man would be lost but for the true character of Christ’s mission on earth, that is, His death, burial and resurrection.  That Christ was born in real time and space, as Francis Schaeffer liked to say, is the reality of His incarnation that leads Him to the cross.It is the very reason that He became man.

Certainly this is confirmed by many Scripture passages.  The writer of Hebrews notes:

“Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself (i.e., Jesus) likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through the fear of death were subject to slavery (i.e., sin) all their lives…Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God… (Hebrews 2:14, 15, 17).

As our merciful and faithful high priest, Jesus Christ intercedes and intervenes for us before the Father.  The writer of Hebrews underscores this point as well:  “He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Throughout the argument in the book of Hebrews, the writer shows the holistic results of Christ’s work as He performed the functions of His priesthood perfectly.  Martin Luther often summarized the work of Christ as conquering “sin, death and the devil.”  In so doing, he was not focusing on the Babe in the manger, but upon the finished work of Christ which opens a door for reconciliation with God for all of mankind.

This is what Advent is about. It is like a door of entry into the larger scope of the life of Jesus.  To leave Him in a manger is to view Him helpless and needy of care.  But, to look through the season of Advent and Christmas toward the victory of Easter is to understand the true meaning of this season.

In fact, the warp and woof of the whole Christian year points in the same direction.  As Sister Joan Chittister notes, in her wonderful overview of the Christian year titled, “The Liturgical Year,”

“To live the liturgical year is to keep our lives riveted on one beam of light called the death and resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for us here and now.  One.  Just one.”2

To raise Advent and Christmas to a point beyond this clear focus is to miss the point completely, and in so doing we fail to comprehend the vital distinction of Christian truth over all other religions.  Jesus came.  Jesus died.  Jesus rose from the grave.  And He will return to judge once again.  It was this very message that led those hearing the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill to sneer and dismiss him for another day (Acts 17:22-34).

Chittister gives a brief synopsis of the purpose of Advent, which is from the Latin meaning “coming.”  There are three distinct comings that are to come to our mind as we consider Christ in this season.3 The first, as mentioned above, is remembering the coming of Jesus in the flesh.  The historical narratives of the miraculous birth of Jesus are a vital part of the Christian message, and the clarity of the incarnation shines brightly in those stories.  This is His coming in the past.

Second, we also turn to notice His coming to us today.  He comes in salvation.  He comes in our celebrations week by week.  He comes through the community of saints in our service to one another.  That the Spirit of Christ indwells His people gives an incarnational reality to us as the Body of Christ on earth today.  We are, in real ways, His hands and His face and His feet to those we touch, and in this world His redemptive power flows into every aspect of life through the Church.

Finally, the future holds the promise of His coming to redeem His people and all of creation.  This is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).  As we persevere in our lives each day, we look forward to that time when, face to face, we will see Christ and be present with Him.  Sorrows, fears and pain will have finally washed away as He fulfills the redemption that the Holy Spirit guarantees in us through His internal presence.

And so, as we experience this season, let us enjoy the Babe in the manger while we remember the full sweep of His life – and death – and life again!  It is in the fullness of that understanding that we will rejoice this holiday season.

1 Quotes from Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 64
2 Chittister, p. 24.
3 Summarized from Chittister, pp. 64-66.

 

(Original Post on Dec. 9, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.breakpoint.org/worshiparts/articles/20890-advent-a-highlight-not-the-apex-of-the-christian-year)

Worship and Patriotism (Part 2 of 2)

Here in the United States we are reminded of our freedom on the 4th of July each year.  This freedom has been bought with the blood of men and women sworn to protect us.  And, for this freedom we should truly be thankful.

We are also reminded of the freedom we find in Christ.  True freedom is found in a relationship with Him.  And, for this freedom we should truly be thankful.

Below are the lyrics of the hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The fact that this is referred to as the Navy Hymn is also a reminder that the freedom we enjoy in this country is intertwined with the love of God and His care for humanity. Regardless of the detractors in society today, our country has threads of faith winding through its very core.  We should not be ashamed of this foundation of faith, and our yearly celebrations provide another opportunity to be reminded of this truth.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep,
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy Word,
Who walked on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our family shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoever we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

 

 

(Original Post on July 3, 2012 at the Worldview Church: http://www.breakpoint.org/worshiparts/articles/18079-worship-and-patriotism-part-2-of-2)

Worship and Patriotism (Part 1 of 2)

Thoughts published previously, but worthwhile in troubled times…

The question will inevitably arise as to how appropriate it is to sing patriotic songs during our worship services. These types of questions arise each year in proximity to the July 4th holiday, as well as other national celebrations in which we remember America’s heritage.

Most of the arguments against such a focus on patriotic themes are that our public worship is about God and worshiping Him. To focus on our country, our troops, and our feelings about them would be close to “idol” worship, and therefore be inappropriate.  At least that’s how the logic goes.  This seems to me to be a limited understanding of the communal aspects of public worship, and fails to recognize the importance of the interpersonal relationships among those worshiping together (see Colossians 3).

I fall clearly into the other camp that would say that it is both important and appropriate to draw a celebration of our country into our corporate worship experience. I would point out that Paul, in Romans 13, establishes the precedent of acknowledging the ruling authorities as operating under the authority of God. With this in mind, our worship (especially here in the USA) recognizes God’s grace and mercy in giving us the freedom through our governing authorities to worship Him and proclaim Christian truth.

This is not about any particular political agenda, or at least it shouldn’t be.  Our celebration of freedom and liberty during these times recognizes the great sacrifice that men and women have made in order to secure that freedom.  In some ways, they are a reflection of the sacrifice Christ made on the cross to secure our spiritual freedom.  These are the kinds of connections we can make when we view our culture through the lens of a Christian Worldview.

Truly, we are not worshiping our country, but we worship our God Who has given us the privilege of living and worshiping here. As we do so, may we also remember those who have protected that freedom throughout this nation’s history. Let us honor them, and pray for them and their families, in the midst of celebrating within our communities.

 

(Original Post on June 26, 2012 at the Worldview Church: http://www.breakpoint.org/worshiparts/articles/18040-worship-and-patriotism-part-1-of-2)

Do We Mean what We Sing in Worship?

I continue to wonder how closely those who plan and lead worship really read the lyrics of songs used in corporate worship.  In addition to many obvious theological and biblical errors found in modern songs, there seem to be many songs cropping up lately that assume all those who participate in worship should feel, respond, or believe in a particular way.  At times, I find myself distracted by the lyrics and begin to reflect on whether I should really be singing those words, making those commitments, or assuming those convictions.

In the effort to sing the latest and greatest songs churned out by the industry, and played excessively on Christian radio, worshipers have been exposed to sentiments that may neither be biblical nor spiritually healthy.  The responsibility for filtering the lyrical content for corporate worship falls squarely on the shoulders of pastors and worship planners, but few seem to really be paying much attention.  It seems that sentimentality and feelings rule the day, rather than clear theology (which is one of the purposes for corporate worship, as I’ve written previously).

Although it does not take long to find examples in a quick review of the most popular worship songs, to quote specific songs in evidence would be counterproductive.  In conversations about such matters, I find that people get defensive rather than thoughtful.  They assume these observations regarding the content of worship are somehow reflecting their personal spirituality, and certainly to attack a favorite song decreases the likelihood of careful consideration and response.

In light of this, let me describe in general terms what I have noticed, and allow you to consider the songs you are asked to sing during worship in coming weeks.  Ask yourself if you can make the commitments that are assumed in the lyrics.  Do you really believe what you are singing?  Are you willing to do whatever the lyrics are committing you to do?   Listen carefully, review the lyrics, and sing as both your head and heart are able.

Example 1:  Songs that say, “I will bow, lift up my hands, dance…”

Admittedly, some churches are less physically engaged in worship than others.  In fact, some people in churches would be shocked at someone who might actually do one or all of these things.  Yet, these kinds of sentiments are in the worship music even in churches that discourage such demonstrations.

Example 2:  Songs that say, “I will give up everything, leave it all behind, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for Jesus…”

It seems to me that this kind of sentiment must be stated in a figurative way, rather than a literal way, since we seldom see this kind of sacrifice in the Protestant tradition.  (However, the Catholic tradition does demonstrate this in some of its religious orders.)

Example 3:  Songs that say, “My experience of God makes Him real, and this song is about that experience which you can have, too…”

In spite of our desire to experience God, our experience is the result of Him being real and engaging those He loves.  God remains real and faithful in spite of our experience, and to pin our faith on our experience places it on shifting sand.

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