When God Lingers

Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. [Habakkuk 2:2-3]

Habakkuk, a prophet in Judah, begins his book by complaining to God about the violence and injustice that was rampant among his fellow-Israelites. God replies that he will raise up the nation of Babylon to punish Judah’s unfaithfulness. This is not quite the response that Habakkuk was looking for; it seems far too harsh, one form of injustice in place of another: “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? “(2:13)

I think we can relate to Habakkuk’s complaint. We too grieve over the violence and injustice around us. With him we can say that in our nation “there is strife, and conflict abounds.” (1:3) But we can also relate to his reaction to God’s plan: Wait, you’re going to use Babylon? That’s not what I had in mind! If I’d had known that was going to be your plan, I’d have never brought this up in the first place!

Like Habakkuk, we want God to act. We need him to intervene in our troubled lives. But we also presume to know how God should act. Our ideas for how God should rescue us usually involve a miraculous intervention from heaven, a divine mediation where the break with violence and injustice is absolute. We want the before and after shot, the dramatically told testimony of the ugly we were trapped in before and the beauty of our lives now.

But then God speaks up: “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.  I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” (1:5-6) We’re looking for legions of heavenly angels to rescue us and God counters with… Babylon.

Habakkuk will eventually come to embrace God’s unexpected plan: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” (3:2) The prophet comes to see that God’s merciful rescue will advance even through Babylonian captivity. And so despite the knowledge that conquest and occupation are around the corner, Habakkuk chooses to welcome God’s sovereign response to injustice and violence.  The reason his response to God’s Babylon-plan changes is what I want us to see on this third Sunday in Advent. What changed between Habakkuk’s first and second response to God’s Babylon-plan?

God says to his prophet: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” The revelation God speaks of is this: Though Babylon will conquer God’s wayward and sinful people; the Babylonians too sit under God’s judgment. Habakkuk learns that the foreign nation’s victory over Israel will be temporary, as violent victories always are. Though God will use Babylon’s power to chasten his people, his judgment will extend to them as well. Their destruction of both human and animal life as well as their desecration of the land will all come back to haunt them.

And through it all, God assures Habakkuk, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (2:14) The revelation that changes Habakkuk’s perspective is that there is no sin, injustice, or violence that is so great as to obscure the glory of the Lord. Whatever Babylon-shadow seems to be creeping over Judah, God’s glory – the brilliance of his perfect character – will not be overcome. And so, by implication, Judah’s future does not lay in Babylon’s hands, but the Lord’s. And despite what they see around them, there is a good future for God’s faithful people, a future that gives them meaning and purpose as they await their liberation. So rather than resisting God’s response to his people’s sins, Habakkuk can sing: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” (3:19)

Even now, surrounded by Judah’s wickedness and with Babylon’s violence knocking on the door, Habakkuk can sing of God’s strength and faithfulness. His hope has been reestablished; he is rooted in the unchanging God whose glory is beyond the reach of any conquering empire. He will wait on the Lord.

Generations later, a young woman would find herself at the fulfillment of Habakkuk’s faithful waiting. After Mary learns that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High, she responded in a joyful song about the God who keeps his promises.

The Mighty One has done great things for me—  holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:49-55)

God had kept his promises to Mary’s ancestors, ancestors like Habakkuk. The revelation that the prophet could only hint at was now fully expressed in Jesus. The glory of the Lord that Habakkuk so longed for would be born in a Bethlehem barn.  God’s answer to the treachery, conflict, injustice, and violence of our hearts and our world would be found in Judah’s unlikely descendent. And one day Habakkuk’s hope and Mary’s son would stand before his countrymen and in the words of Isaiah, another prophet of exile, would proclaim:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19] 

Peter wrote to the early church about the return of Mary’s son in a way that reminds us of God’s words to Habakkuk. These Christians found themselves, like Habakkuk, wondering about their future. Wondering when God would act with finality at the ultimate revelation, the return of their King Jesus.

 With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:8-10) 

“Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” While we await the final revelation – the day of the Lord that will hearken the renewal of all things – while we wait we remember that though he may linger, God never delays. We remember that though God is patient, he is not slow.

In one week we will celebrate the fulfillment of God’s revelation to Habakkuk, Mary’s son born into circumstances that the prophet would have recognized from his own time: oppressive rulers, dominating empires, wickedness disguised as piety. This Advent, as we have fasted and prayed, we have remembered that we are a waiting people. We have experienced, I hope, the joy of knowing that our Lord’s glory cannot be overwhelmed by abusive men, deceptive presidents, or racist politicians. Neither can the glory of the Lord be obscured by our own wandering hearts; our sins, rebellions, and addictions pale when confronted with God’s all-encompassing glory, as waters cover the sea.

Even in seasons of wilderness we will find, like so many who’ve gone before us, that the Sovereign Lord is our strength; he makes our feet like the feet of a deer, he enables us to tread on the heights. The end of our waiting is our Lord’s return, so we wait with joy. And we are sustained in our waiting by the glory of the Lord, so we wait with joy.

So often it feels to me that God is delayed, that something has slowed him down. Sickness steals those we love. Inertia exerts its pull on our visions and dreams. Relationships spin wildly out of control.  We need to hear again and again what Habakkuk first heard so long ago: Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.

Babylon will lose. Sickness will die. Sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions, old men will dream dreams. And the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

So wait on the Lord. Wait in the depression. Wait in the sickness. Wait in the unemployment. Though God may linger, he will not delay! Wait through the political turmoil. Wait through the racial inequity. Wait through the crass consumption that defines our days. Though God may linger, he will not delay!

Wait on the Lord. But let our waiting be courageous. The Psalmist exhorts us to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” [Psalm 27:14] As God lingers, as he is patient with his rebellious people, we wait with courage.

Our waiting is not passive and it is not weak. Waiting for the on-time God looks like resistance to Babylon’s violence and lies. Waiting for the on-time God looks like solidarity with those who’ve been exploited by Babylon’s arrogance and greed. Waiting for the lingering-but-not-delayed-God looks like spending our lives on behalf of abused land and divested communities.

Wait for the Lord, but do not be passive. Wait for the Lord, but do not retreat. Wait for the Lord, but do not despair. Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. Though God lingers in patience he will never delay.

Photo credit: Eden Brackstone.

The Way Out of Trouble

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. [Matthew 1:18-25]

Much of our lives involves finding a way out of trouble. Some of our troubles are self-inflicted, resulting from selfish decisions, besetting sin, or addictions revisited. Other trouble afflicts us simply because our circumstances, by our place within a world wracked by evil and injustice. This is the sort of trouble Joseph finds himself in when Mary, his fiancé, is found to be pregnant.

Joseph is caught between two competing instincts. Matthew tells us that he was faithful to the law, and so he would have been required to divorce Mary. But we also learn that he is a good man with sincere feelings of compassion and love for Mary: “He didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.” Like us, Joseph needed a way out of trouble. And he finds a good enough way in his decision to divorce her quietly. In a small ceremony, with two or three witnesses, Joseph could fulfill the requirements of the law while still looking out for Mary’s wellbeing. It remained a heartbreaking situation, but the way out of trouble that Joseph settled on was good enough.

But then God intervened and suddenly Joseph’s good enough way out was no longer good enough. Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him that the Holy Spirit is behind Mary’s pregnancy and immediately his view of the situation and its associated trouble changes. Previously, he had two inputs into his impossible situation: following the law and caring for Mary. But now the angel opens up his vision and he sees beyond his immediate circumstances. He learns that the child Mary carries is a miracle of God and that he has been called by God to care for this child and his fiancé.

Everything changes. What had seemed like a good way out of his trouble now pales in comparison to the options that open up before him. Of course he won’t divorce Mary quietly. Of course he will take Mary as his wife and this child as his son. Why? Because when God opens our troubled eyes to his presence we see options where there had only been dead ends; we see open doors where there had only been brick walls; we see ways out of trouble that are genuinely good rather than just the best bad choice.

Now, we might think that the way out that God provides will be the easiest, the most painless option. But look at what happens to Joseph. After the vision, he takes Mary home to be his wife. So, in the eyes of his small community, Joseph is either a law-breaker because he didn’t divorce his adulterous fiancé, or Joseph himself is the father of Mary’s out-of-wedlock child. Either way, Joseph’s reputation is shot. He has brought shame onto himself and his family. This is now how he will now be defined in the eyes of his family and neighbors.

And then, one chapter later, after Jesus is born, Joseph is forced to lead his young, vulnerable family as refugees into Egypt. King Herod has heard about the baby king born in Bethlehem and he orders him killed. Joseph goes from being a laborer in a small, quiet town – minding his own business and trying to live a life pleasing to God – to a man on the run, pursued by the most powerful, violent tyrant in the region, living as a refugee in another country.

It’s true that God will always provide a way out of our trouble. And his way out will always be better than ours, will always open our eyes to miraculous possibilities beyond our imaginations. But we must not confuse God’s way out for the easy way out, the painless way out, the cheap way out. In a world that shames young, single mothers, God’s way out will at times seem shameful. In a world that fosters violence and upheaval in one nation and then slams shuts the doors to refugees in other nations, God’s way out will at times seem impossible.

What is it that keeps Joseph and Mary faithful to God’s way out of their trouble? Why, given the shame and violence that has come their way, do they not settle for their own good enough way out?

When the angel came to Joseph, he told him that the unborn child would be named Jesus, a very common Jewish name with an uncommon meaning: God saves. He will save his people from their sins. And then Matthew adds an editorial detail: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us”).”

God saves. God with us.

Mary and Joseph are the first to experience the shock of God’s rescue. Through the birth of their son they discovered that God’s plan – a plan the prophets had been pointing to for centuries, a plan so unexpected that no one was looking for it – they discovered that God’s plan was for God to save his people through coming to be with his people.

God saves. God with us. Jesus.

It’s when we believe that God has come to be with us, to live with us, to suffer with us, to die for us – it’s then that see that God’s way out, despite the cost, is the way of salvation. Jesus’ story did not end with the shame of Bethlehem. His story did not end with the terror of Egypt. His story did not even end with the suffering and abandoned death on a Roman cross. Through all of this, God’s way out was being accomplished. His way out of sin; his way out of rebellion; his way out of injustice; his way out of evil and death. God’s way out was accomplished through Jesus, and Joseph had just enough faith to see it on that night in Bethlehem. Just enough faith to set aside his good-enough way out of trouble and choose God’s way out.

May we do the same. We’ve schemed and planned and strategized our way out of trouble- out of sin, out of pain, out of debt, out of relational dysfunction. We’ve settled for the good-enough way out of trouble. It’s time to follow Joseph’s example. Set down your good-enough plans for a way out of your troubles. Ask the God who saves, the God who is with you, to open your eyes to his way out. It will not be the easiest way. It will not be a painless way. But along this way you will be joined by Immanuel – God with you – who will lead you his salvation.

Daylight in Darkness

11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. [Romans 13:11-14]


Our Advent readings remind us that for ancient Israel, God was the world’s judge:

“He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. [Isaiah 2:3-4]

There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David. [Psalm 122:5]

When they sinned against God, they knew God was their judge. And when they were sinned against, they knew God was their judge. For the Israelites, God was the one who righteously judged their sins of idolatry and injustice, and he was also the one to whom they appealed for judgment against their enemies.

Of course, thinking of God as a judge is not limited to the Israelites. To claim that there is a creator god is to acknowledge that there is a cosmic judge. All that has been created by the creator derives its function and purpose from that creator. The creation looks to the creator for the way of life that leads to flourishing, but we humans consistently look away from the creator and to ourselves. We develop our own ways of living, patterns that ignore our creator, exploit the creation, and take advantage of our neighbors. Sin has corrupted our hearts, turned us away from God and twisted us into ourselves.  We image-bearers of God deserve his correction, instruction, and, ultimately, his judgment.

Like the Israelites, the early church understood that God’s judgment was real. They also believed that it had been expressed perfectly on the cross. It was there that God himself stood in for the judgment our sins deserved while allowing the injustice of this world to come crashing down onto his own body.

There can be a perception among some Christians that the God we see in the Old Testament is the God of judgment while the God revealed by Jesus in the New Testament is the God of grace and mercy. But this is to miss the severity of the cross. Here we see the extent to which God is a judge- that personal sin and societal oppression must be dealt with justly, even if it costs God’s own life.

This advent seasons reminds us that we await the world’s righteous judge. But what about now, while we wait? Those early Roman Christians who looked to the cross for the summation of God’s judgment might have wondered how were they to live in a world that thought the cross was foolish at best, offensive at worst. What did it mean that their neighbors looked at the cross of Jesus and saw one criminal among three receiving his deserved judgment while the church looked at the same cross and saw God’s justice accomplished? What did it mean that God’s justice had been accomplished on the cross – that justification was available to all through Christ’s atoning death – but that evil and sin still exerted their destructive influence?

What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross?

These were their questions and, if we’re awake, they’re similar to ours.  What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross?  How are we to live on this side of God’s cruciform judgment when there remains so much evil – out there, and in here – that demands God’s justice?

These are questions asked by in-between people, by people who live after the justification of Christ’s cross but before the final judgment of Christ’s return, by people who live between the angels announcing the empty grave and the creation announcing its creator’s return, by people who live in darkness by the promise of daylight. And it’s to these kinds of in-between people who Paul instructs in these verses in Romans 13. There are three things for us in-between, waiting for the righteous judge, kind of people to notice.

Understand the present time

This seems obvious- of course we understand the present time. But, as Paul points out, we’re prone to slumber. So what might it mean to understand the present time? On one level it simply means that we are aware and awake to our circumstances. We push against the societal default of “this is just how things are.”

And Paul has another level of understanding the present moment in mind. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. [13:12] He uses the metaphor of night throughout these verses- that the time before Christ’s return is like the last hours of the night before day breaks. It’s dark and seems as though the darkness will last indefinitely.

Understanding the present time requires faith that the night will end, that the impenetrable shadows will fade, and that the daylight will come. This means that we look at our present circumstances through eyes of faith, through eyes that understand that the darkness – in light of God’s eternity – is fleeting and mortal. It’s as though Paul is saying that in the midst of the deepest night, Christians have been given night-vision. It’s our super-power.

Does this mean we’re immune to suffering and tragedies? Does this mean that we answer every grief and lament with a spiritual cliché? No! Remember, understanding our present time includes being unflinchingly awake to the harsh realities of our circumstances and the pain of this world. But along with this, Christians also see the daylight infiltrating the darkness. How? We view each of our moments and this word’s events through the cross – through the moment of greatest despair and suffering, the moment of greatest injustice and inhumanity, the moment of greatest doubt and cynicisms – and we see through this crucifixion moment to the crucified Savior ruling in glory from heaven, we see through this moment to our salvation and reconciliation, we see through this moment to “a living hope… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” [1 Peter 1:3-4]

But Paul doesn’t stop with understanding, his focus moves to action. Living before our just God in the midst of unjust times requires more than our understanding- we’re expected to live differently.

Put aside deeds of darkness

There is a way of living that makes sense in the darkness. Verse 13 fills this in: carousing, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and debauchery. Paul isn’t providing an extensive list; it’s an imaginative scene of those who use the cover of night to indulge their self-centered desires. We don’t need to linger on each of these deeds of darkness, but it’s worth asking how we succumb to these or similar sinful acts. The self-centered nature of our self-gratifying sins can be justified if night is all there is, all there will ever be. But those of us who look for daylight will understand that our lives point to a God whose generosity is the opposite of these deeds of darkness. He is sacrificial, gracious, merciful, and just and our lives – even in the darkest night – are meant to illuminate his extravagant generosity.

We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.

This personal holiness is serious business for Paul. In 13:14 he writes, “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” Darkness tempts us to believe that private actions are without consequences. But again, for those shaped by God’s judgment on the cross at Calvary, there can be no equivocation about this. The cross is God’s forever evidence that our humanity matters – that all of who we are, what we think, what we love, what we do – that all of this matters enough for God to offer himself in our place of judgment. This is how highly our Creator esteems us- that a judgment that should have overcome us was instead taken onto himself.  We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.

And then the nighttime metaphor sputters out and Paul includes two additional deeds of darkness: dissension and jealousy. While the others have more to do with self-centered actions, here Paul reminds the community that our life together is evidence of the coming daylight. We cannot accept the petty divisions that are normal elsewhere. In place of dissension, we are to pursue reconciliation that honors our distinctions. In place of jealously we exhibit kindness and sympathy- we think the best of one another. We mourn with one another when things are bad and we rejoice together when things are good.

We understand the present moment through eyes of faith. We set aside the old sinful logic of the night. And finally…

Put on armor of light

In a nighttime world that groans under the weight of evil and injustice, within bodies that still desire sin and minds that bend toward idolatry…we need armor as we wait for our righteous Savior’s return. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that we need this spiritual armor to defend ourselves from the devil’s schemes and from the spiritual forces of evil. We need armor that protects against despair; against hatred; against envy. We need an armor strong enough to defend us from attacks against our humanity, our race, our accent, our gender, our names. We need an armor that insulates us from these times of sarcasm, cynicisms, and deception. We need an armor that is spacious enough for our hope, for our courage, for our divinely-inspired dreams and vision. We need an armor that is not overcome by the darkness, that stands firm in the darkness, that moves forward with each of our halting steps of faith through the darkness. We need, as Paul puts it, an armor made of light.

What does this look like? Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. [13:14] This is our armor of light! It is Christ Jesus himself. We clothe ourselves, we cover ourselves, we armor ourselves with the one of whom John wrote, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5]. The one whom the psalmist describes as wrapping “himself in light as like a garment” is our armor. [Psalm 104:2] You see, it’s not simply that we see through the present darkness through night vision goggles of faith… it’s that we are covered with light itself, a light that could not be overcome even by the darkness of the grave!

And this Light, is also this world’s judge, our judge.

On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, and death will stand condemned.

The one who accomplished God’s perfect judgment on the cross for our salvation, will one day return in glory to judge the world for its liberation. On that day, all that has been hidden in darkness will be revealed; each instance of injustice and idolatry that was rationalized in the night, will be exposed in the unrelenting brightness of day; each sin – the private ones we held close and the structural ones we barely notice anymore – will be leached of the power we granted them. On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, death will stand condemned, and our ancient enemy will be cast down to hell. Our Lord’s righteous judgment will be proclaimed and accomplished.

This judge is also the light who covers us now, between the times, through the night. So we look forward to the return of our righteous Lord who is also our judge because even now his judgment has been applied to our sin for our salvation; even now he fights for us, prays for us, and prepares the future for us. Even now, his Holy Spirit advocates for us.

Daylight in darkness.

This life can seem like a perpetual night. The darkness seems to cover everything. But our hope is with the one who has overcome the night and who will bring about a new, righteous day when all is made new.

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. [Isaiah 2:4]

But the promise is greater than this. Our well-placed hope is not just for one day, when our judge returns.

Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. [Isaiah 2:5]

What darkness are you facing? What sin seems too great? What injustice too overwhelming? Your righteous judge will come. And until he does, until the world is set free from the endless night, you have been armored in the light that has overcome the darkness. So step bravely into the darkness. Sing into the darkness. Dance into the darkness. The daylight follows you into the darkness.

Advent: Hope

Advent has become one of the most important seasons of the year for me. My recognition of this ancient Christian season – beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas – was born out of my frustration with the hyper-consumerism associated with the holidays. The discovery, as one who’d not grown up with an awareness of the church calendar, was a means to reclaim the weeks leading up to Christmas as a time for reflection and practices that prepared me to celebrates Christ’s birth.

More recently I’ve come to rely on the themes of waiting that are a part of Advent. These weeks remind me of those like Mary, who anticipated the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. Each year I’m reminded that Christians are also a waiting people, longing for the day of our Savior’s return when all is made well and new, when justice and mercy are expressed with a perfection beyond our comprehension.

michael-washingtonI have found certain Advent devotionals to be helpful during the season, so I was thrilled when my very good friend Michael Washington decided to turn a series of beautiful Advent reflections into his first book. Hope: Meditations Before, During and After Advent is a gift for the church, especially in these days where hope can seem hard to grasp.

Michael’s book is unique among the devotionals focusing on Advent with which I’m acquainted. First, he chooses to focus solely on the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel. He moves slowly and meditatively through these verses, often lingering for a few entries on one verse. Second, he includes 90 reflections with the assumption that the reader may begin before Advent or end a few weeks after. I’ll make another suggestion: Given the shortness of these meditations, it would be easy to read one in the morning and another before bed. Or a third could be added at midday. Third, Michael chooses to be brief in each mediation. This economy doesn’t hinder the depth or insight of the mediations, but it does make the book exceedingly accessible, including for those who have no experience with Advent.

I’ll say a final thing to commend the book to you. Michael is a good writer and an even better observer of the human experience, particularly as it stumbles about the encounter with God. What he considers in these pages reveals this gift and  because of it we are better prepared for Advent and to the longed-for event to which the season points.

A Christmas Sermon: Humility or Humiliation

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. [Luke 1:46-56]

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Photo credit: CJ Matulewicz

There are things that happen every single year: birthdays, taxes, the collapse of the Chicago Bears. These are normal things that will happen every year whether or not we’re paying attention. Christmas is one of those things that happen each year and, like anything else that occurs regularly, it can become normal.

It’s so normal that we can forget that there were once people who were the first to respond to Jesus’ birth. Of course there were plenty who knew the infant Jesus as simply that, the infant with a rather common name, born to a seemingly normal couple. But there were some who had more information, who knew that this infant’s birth was different, that in the birth of this baby they were seeing God’s long-awaited salvation. For them, this particular birth was in no way normal.

Given how ordinary – almost mundane – Christmas is for us, it is helpful to notice how these women and men responded to Jesus’ birth. What can the different responses by those who had some idea of the significance of this baby show us about our own predictable, ordinary, and tame responses?

Matthew and Luke tell the longest, most detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth and so from them we can quickly survey some of the responses. Right away we notice that some receive Jesus with joy, while others respond with doubt and rejection. This is not a simplistic observation; there are a variety of dynamic experiences within these two kinds of responses. For example, the joy Mary expresses in her song can’t be confused with temporary, superficial happiness. Her experience with the announcement of Jesus’ birth contains mystery, fear, and the promise of suffering. Or, to take an example from the other kind of response, Mary’s relative Zechariah the priest, when told of the birth of his own son who would prepare the way for Jesus, responds initially with cynical doubt. But later, at the birth of his son, he bursts into joyful song: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [Luke 1:68]

So there are two primary responses to the birth of Jesus: joy & rejection. And the question for those of us who have become too accustomed to the Christmas story is this: What is the difference between those who receive Jesus with joy and those who reject him?

We hear the answer in Mary’s song. Here it is the humble whom God is gracious to: For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant; His mercy extends to those who fear him; He has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things. On the other hand, in Mary’s song God opposes the proud: He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; He has brought down rulers from their thrones; He has sent the rich away empty.

This is what matters. Those who are humble receive God’s salvation with joy. Those who are proud reject God’s plan of salvation, especially when it comes in the form of a helpless baby. The logic behind these responses isn’t complicated and both Mathew and Luke give us a few opportunities to see it play out.

While Zechariah is humbled and changes his response, another prideful rejecter goes to his grave. King Herod, whose massive building campaigns and paranoid murders take pride to another level, opposes the news of the infant king. His violent response forces Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt as refugees. Matthew records his eventual death in passing, evidence that God’s plan will move forward despite a megalomaniac like Herod. Luke, in the book of Acts, similarly records the death of Herod’s son as mere passing background to the Gospel’s spread throughout the world.

Thankfully there are many more examples of humble women and men who received Jesus with joy. There is Anna and Simeon, faithful warriors of prayer who knew their God’s salvation when they encountered the just-born Jesus in the temple. There are the shepherds – young, ostracized, and barely visible in their society – who were granted pride of place at the stable in Bethlehem. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. [Luke 2:15] And there are the Magi – possibly astronomers from Babylon – who, despite their wealth and status, traveled a vast distance to worship this new king. Their great humility overcame the temptations of their wealth and station; it overcame cultural and religious differences; their humility even overcame what must have been the great surprise that this new king was not at the palace in Jerusalem but in a small home in Galilee.

In these opposite responses we see why the humble receive the Lord: they know their great need. In their humility they know that it must be God who acts on their behalf. So Mary sings: For the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. And because they know their great and terrible need, these humble men and women receive their Savior with joy and so they are rescued by him. They are filled by him. They are lifted up by him.

But the proud oppose this infant king because his birth threatens to unseat their own authority and agendas. They see no need for a Savior. Not this kind at least. They would be ok with a bit of spirituality added to their lives, maybe some religious practices to legitimize their selfishness. But not a king whose birth is announced by angelic warriors, whose agenda is articulated as a cosmic reversal of the rich and the poor; whose mandate is the completion of Israel’s agenda to rescue the world. No, for the proud this is too much by far. This king will require too much and so must be ignored, discredited, and opposed.

How do you respond to birth of God’s son?

Here we have a helpless infant, born into poverty and imperial occupation. Despite the soft-focus filter we put onto the nativity, this child will grow into the one who calls our allegiance into sharp contrast: Follow me; Sell everything; Let the dead bury the dead; If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

Given the surprising and almost embarrassing way God enters our world, and given the completely alternative kingdom-of-heaven life that Jesus invites us into, it should be clear that only the humble could receive Jesus with joy. Only those who by experience or choice can see through this proud world’s lies can welcome the infant king. The proud will, of course, reject him. His arrival is undignified and his call is too costly. Mary’s song shows us who will welcome her son and why; who will reject her son and why. But her song also reveals what happens to the humble who accept their Savior with joy and the proud who reject him.

The humble find that their hope and faith have been well placed. They are lifted up. They are saved. Their lives are given meaning and dignity that cannot be coopted or stolen by this world. The proud, on the other hand, because they do not receive their Lord humbly will finally be humiliated by him. Zechariah is humiliated when is speech is taken from him; he’s left in silence to consider God’s surprising way of salvation. The Herods, despite all of their accomplishments, are remembered for their neurotic egos; they become the examples of all that is wrong in the world.

The humiliation experienced by those who reject Jesus is not the result of a petty, vindictive, and insecure God. It is, rather, the natural consequence experienced by those who oppose the very essence of God’s redemption in this world. Because, you see, it’s not that humility is some arbitrary perquisite for salvation. No, our humility places us within the very heart of God’s presence in this world. As Paul writes, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:8] Author Brennan Manning, in keeping with this season, puts it this way: On a wintry night, in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.

Our humility in response to the birth of Jesus is an imperfect but essential reflection of the humility of our God. The only one with the rationale for pride instead chose humility so that we could know and be known by God; that we could love and be loved by God. Do not let the birth of the world’s Savior be normal to you this year. Remember your great and desperate need for a Savior. Humble yourself with Mary, with the shepherds, and with the Magi. And if you find humiliating this old, strange, somewhat embarrassing story of God enfleshed as helpless, dependent infant… let even this turn you to the humble God, who for us and our salvation chose the humiliation of our humanity.

Daily Advent Reflections

We’re approaching the halfway point of Advent. This particular Advent season has been more hectic than typical for me, partly related to ministry and partly related to a home improvement project and a baby who is still learning to sleep. All that to say, I’ve been especially grateful to Michael for posting a daily Advent reflection on his blog. He’s taking Luke 1 as his starting point. If you’re not already doing so, subscribe to Michael’s blog and take a few minutes each morning to consider the questions and reflections he’s putting in front of us this Advent. You can jump right in, though you might appreciate going back and beginning with the first one.