Anticipating Advent

I’ll admit it.  In the past I have been somewhat of a scrooge when it comes to Christmas.  My scroogeness was born out of all the trendy things to dislike Christmas for: over-commerclization, consumerism, Christmas cards, untangling lights to put on a tree, and mall parking lots.  I was a part of the crowd shouting to focus on ourselves on the meaning of Christmas.  Not the FoxNews crowd, but the cool – but not hipster cool – Christians who wanted nothing but Jesus and the incarnation at Christmas.

And then I had a child.

It is hard to be a scrooge when your two and a half year old is enamored by the entire season.  Luke, in a way that is capturing my imagination, is eagerly anticipating Christmas morning.  But not for the reasons most would expect.  At the beginning of Advent we gave Luke a nativity scene he could play with.  And play he has!  It is almost a daily activity to have conversations with the different figures.  I am usually the angel and he is Mary and I have to tell her she will have a child.

After explaining all the different figures, we took the baby and wrapped him in a present and placed him under the tree.  If you ask Luke if he excited for Christmas he will tell you he is.  And the reason?

“We get to unwrap baby Jesus!”

I dare you to be a scrooge in the face of that.

But it has me wondering, “Do we all anticipate Christmas morning with that level of expectation?”  The mystery of the incarnation of the Word should stir our hearts and minds.  The Christ child changes everything.  In putting on flesh and dwelling among us, God affirms his declaration that the creation is “very good.”  If the creation is very good, then that means eating is good, drinking is good, hugging is good, laughter is good, singing songs is good, giving gifts out of love is good…Christmas is very good.

But I wonder, have we been caught focusing on the past?  Has our celebration of the incarnation taken away from our anticipation for the future?

Reading the Old Testament prophets reveals an expectation that the Messiah would usher in the Kingdom of God.  They used pictures like beating swords into plowshares and everyone resting in the shade of their own fig tree (Isaiah 2 and Micah 4).  Redemption and restoration were common themes in their hope for the future.  Paul picked up on this in Philippians 3 when he anticipates the day in which are lowly bodies are transformed into a body like the glorious resurrected body of Jesus.  John shared the hope of the Old Testament prophets and Paul in his Revelation when he envisions the new heaven and new earth, where “there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”  This is the anticipated coming Kingdom of God.

In Acts 1 the disciples were wondering if Jesus would finally restore the kingdom to Israel.  Jesus proceeded to tell them that the kingdom of coming, but it wouldn’t come like the thought or when they thought, but it was coming.  After he ascended, the angels told the disciples that Jesus would one day return and at that time the kingdom would be established.  Many debate when that will be and what it will look like, but that is a secondary point.  The main point is simple: Jesus is coming back!

There was a first advent, Christmas.  As good as that advent was, there is better, fuller, richer advent, Jesus coming back.

So this Christmas, embrace everything.  Eat good food.  Have deep conversations.  Drink deeply of moments with friends and family.  Give good gifts.  Decorate the house.  Laugh together.  Take pictures.  Celebrate well.  Anticipate goodness.

Because Christ came.

And he is coming.

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Hide and Seek me and you will find me

The other day I was playing with my almost two-year old son Luke when he informed me we would be engaging in an rousing game of hide and seek.  Now, in our house, under Luke’s rule (and yes I meant “rule” not “rules”), playing hide and seek means he tells us where to hide.  He will then go wait for us to hide, and then we yell for him to come and find us.  It’s a rather short game.

This time Luke told me to hide in a little nook created by the wall, chair, and couch in our living room.  I hid, he found me.  He then told me to hide there I again.  I hid, he found me.  Again he told me to hide there.  I hid, he found me.  Once more he told me to hide there.  But this time I wasn’t going to play along.  My competitiveness (yes with my 2 year-old.  Don’t judge me) and my desire to teach him the world doesn’t work that way (yes with my 2 year-old.  Don’t judge me) kicked in and I hid behind the couch.  I didn’t move far, just far enough that he wouldn’t be able to see when he looked to where he thought I was going to be.

I called for him to come find daddy.  He looked.  I wasn’t there.

“Where’s daddy?”

“Daddy?”

Luke began to wander around the living room asking where I was.  He wasn’t anxious or worried, just confused.  And he really wasn’t looking hard.  He just sort of stood in the middle of room where he could see where I should have been.  Even though he knew I wasn’t in the previous spot he continued to stand and look at that one spot saying, “Where’s daddy?”

As I hid and listened to him these verses popped in my head.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” -Jeremiah 29:13

 

“Seek and you will find.” -Matthew 7:7

How often do we really seek God out?  With all our heart?

Or do we tell God where he should go hide so we can find him?  And then when he isn’t where he supposed to be we begin to wander aimlessly, casually calling to see if he will answer, but we don’t really look.

Not really.

We just continue to do what we have always have done hoping that God will show up where he has in the past.

How many times have we experienced God in a moment of worship, or on a mission trip, or reading a book, or by some routine only to find those things are later ineffective?  So we experienced God during a time of worship with a particular song, and now that song becomes the go-to song to find God, but after a while its ability to bring a transcendent experience dries up.  But yet we continue to go back to it.  In our minds, this is how you experience God.  Or it’s this book,  this preacher,  this type of mission work, this routine or whatever.  And what used to work, no longer does.  But we don’t try something new.  We don’t look harder, we begin to blame the thing.  The book isn’t deep enough.  The song is too poppy (which is probably true).  This preacher isn’t as good as that preacher.  Now the thing that was the vehicle ushering us to the presence of God becomes the thing we go to in order to experience God rather than going to God to experience God.

God isn’t in the book or the song or the sermon, he is in you.  And that isn’t some New Age bull, that’s the Bible.  Paul said, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”  In Colossians Paul says the mystery of the faith is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

The questions is, if that is true, what does it mean to seek God with all your heart?

I don’t think it means finding your true self.  That’s hogwash.  Your true self is found when you find Christ.  Your true self isn’t rooted in you, but it is rooted in your heavenly Father who calls you son or daughter.

We find more of God in our lives when we begin to live more of God’s life in our life.  The reality is most of us know everything we need to know about being disciples of Jesus.  We know.  We don’t do.  Therein lies the secret.  If you want to experience more of God, if you want to seek him with all your heart, if you want to find him, then do what he says.

Jesus says, “If you hold to my teachings (read, if you obey my teachings) then you will really be my disciples, and you will know the truth; and the truth will set you free.”  Experiencing more of God does not come through more songs, more worship services attended, more sermons listened to, or more books read.  Experiencing God comes from living more of God’s life.

And the only way you will do that is if you, truly with all your heart, want to find Him.

 

The Identity Hoax

I remember Preacher Tom clearly.  During my time at college, he would come to campus wearing a blood red baseball hat with capitalized, bold letters stating, “Don’t Sin”.  He held a large sign that would be a good four feet above his head threatening people to “Repent!” Below the call to repent was listed every sin, in its most explicit form (i.e. fornication, masturbation, etc.), that one must repent of.

Often he would stand just outside of the food court hoping to get as much of an audience as possible.  I remember sitting outside watching him interact with students who passed by and feeling anger and, if I’m honest, an almost unhealthy rage begin to to turn within me.  He would shout out “Whore!” or “Slut!” to women whose dress he didn’t approve of as they passed by.  Men would be labeled as “masturbaters” and “drunks” as they unwittingly walked by.  As you can imagine, this went over well and led to many respectful interchanges with students willing to hear Preacher Tom out (where is my raised eyebrow emoticon?)…

What enraged me about this, and I don’t think I could labeled the emotion then but I can now, is that those labels are not the identity of those who walked by.  Sure, some of them may have done some of those things, but that doesn’t determine their identity.  The sum of what we have or have not done is not who we are.  Rather, who we are is determined by the one who created us.  And the one who created us, created us  by his divine choice to be image bearers of the all holy infinite God.  This is the identity of all people: image bearers.  And to identify anyone as something less, is to deny the imago dei imprinted on their life.

While this is true, the world around us works to identify us as something other than imago dei.  Our culture would have us believe our main identity is to be a consumer (there are more malls than high schools!), or an upstanding citizen, or a fill-in-your-political-party-of-choice-here.  We stand in awe of those people who can be identified as their “own person” as the exemplify the rugged individualism we Americans love.  Identity is based around wealth, position, influence, education, neighborhood, or even our kids successes on the athletic field.  Internally, people battle against the negative identities of being a failure, a hindrance, inept, or a fraud.  There is no shortage of identities shouting loudly to be the one defining us instead of the imago dei.

Granted, the imago dei every person bears has been blurred by the sin nature we each possess.  But that is why Christ came!  He came that the sin nature that identifies us as sinners in rebellion to God might be replaced by a restored imago dei offered to us when we are united to Christ.

Just look at Jesus and how often he did this.  In John 8 the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asks what punishment she should receive.  Her identity in the eyes of the Pharisees was an adulterer.  A whore.  And according to the Mosaic Law, her punishment should be death.  But Jesus sees not a whore, but a image bearer of the Creator who needs to be restored. I think we often fail at moving people towards embracing their identity as image bearers.  In this story, many act as though we must validate her current identity to give the woman worth.  We may not do this explicitly, but it happens, almost unconsciously.  We stress her being a victim of being used by the ruling authority for their own purposes.  We point out that the man is missing from the equation and how unfair the culture was towards this poor woman.  Or maybe, more honorably, we see her as having the image of God imprinted on her soul and deserving of respect, but we don’t call her to leave behind a life that is blurring the imago dei she bears.  These are simply different identities less empowering than the her true identity, the latter being an incomplete or fractured version of the true identity.  Jesus removes the identity given to her by her accusers and calls her to live into her identity as a daughter of God by telling her to “Go and sin no more.”  The pursuit of individual holiness as image bearers of an holy God is a concept that seems to have been pushed to the fringes of Christianity in our pursuit to be relevant, accepting, and loving.

Let me be clear, I think too often in Christianity we aren’t accepting enough.  Far too many Christians focus on an identity other than image bearer for those who are outside the church.  We focus on an identity determined by the current actions and behaviors of a person rather than the identity they could and should be living into.  Accepting people may mean we allow them to continue being identified as something other than a restored imago dei.  Loving people means we won’t allow that.  The pattern of Jesus, which we should be seeking to imitate, is to dine with the misfits society has identified as unworthy, and identify them as worthy and love them by calling them to a greater identity than the one they currently bear.  He calls the thief to be a contributor.  The tax collector a giver.  The prostitute a worshiper.  The proud humble.  The weak strong.  The poor rich.

Let us also acknowledge that for some us, the identity we currently bear isn’t socially tabooed, but rather, is socially acceptable.  Being successful, intelligent, wealthy, moral, or an upright person are all socially acceptable identities.  And while they are good and right, they are not our identity. We see this in Jesus telling Nicodemus he must be reborn.  That his current identity must die in order for him to live into a new identity.  Again we see this when Jesus calls the rich young ruler to a life beyond his wealth.  While Jesus is calling him to give up so much in terms of material comforts, he is also calling him to leave behind an identity that, in all likelihood, served him well in the world.

Holding on to an identity, regardless if that identity is seen as positive or negative, other than the imago dei sells us short of the life we are to lead.  You are an image bearer.  You are an adopted son, an adopted daughter of the most high God.  You are an heir, sharing in the inheritance given to Jesus by the Father.  That’s your identity.  Go and live in that.  Let that define you.

The call to “repent” is not, then, a threat as it feels like when it comes from Preacher Tom.  It is an invitation to relationship and new identity if one would leave their old identity behind.

Shallow

Not long ago Christian Smith in his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to describe the functional faith and beliefs of American adolescents.  Smith and his team of researches outlined the basic doctrinal beliefs in the following way:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While this is a simplified, and perhaps overly reduced, outline of the functional beliefs of American youth, it is very telling.  The central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.  In this belief system God is a being that helps us achieve this goal.  God does not require sacrifice, there is no talk of repentance, and the idea of conforming our lives to God’s intent is foreign.  God is, to be frank, or a sort of cosmic waiter who wants to make sure we have the best experience while on earth.

The role of parents must be noted.  Smith and his colleagues found that “For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents – often more than their peers…This influence often also includes parental influence in adolescents’ religious and spiritual lives.”  If this is true, then it would be logical to assume that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not just the faith of teens, but is the faith of adults as well.  Experience tells me this is accurate.  I can remember having a conversation with a parent who wanted their teen to come to youth group because it would help them make better decisions when it came to friends and moral issues.  While that comment seems inherently innocent, the underlying belief is that the goal of church and Christianity is to make people more moral.  Morality is not the goal of Christianity.  If morality is the goal, then why did Jesus ever need to go to the cross?  The cross becomes irrelevant because we can, through our best white-knuckled disciplined, clean up our act enough to be deemed good by God.  Isaiah 64:6 says that even our most righteous acts are considered like filthy rags before the all holy God of the universe.  That is to say, we can’t be good enough to be accepted by God outside of the cross of Christ.

Nor is the goal of Christianity about us feeling better about ourselves.  While it is true that understanding the unconditional love God has for us can make us feel better, it isn’t the goal.  Christ didn’t come so that we may have greater self-esteem going into a job interview, or a board meeting, or in our relationships.  Even the doctrine of adoption of us by God as outlined in Ephesians 1, which simply states that before the creation of the universe God chose us to be sons and daughters, is not given so we feel good about ourselves.

So what then is the goal of Christianity?  To what end are we following Jesus and seeking to be obedient to him?  Moralistic deism would have us believe the goal of following Jesus is being a good person, but isn’t there something more.  Or maybe the better question is, “Do we really need Jesus for that?”  Think for a moment of the crucifixion of Christ.  Imagine the pain, physical and emotional, he went through.  The betrayal of a close friend leading up to his arrest.  The anxiety in the garden as he pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him.  The loneliness of being abandoned by all of his friends in his greatest hour of need.  The brutal agony of having the flesh torn off his back as he is scourged.  The excruciating pain of having nails driven through his wrist.  The heartbreak of looking down and seeing his mother weeping over the torturous death of her son.  The isolation as he is separated from the Father.  The desperation as he strains to breath under the suffocating weight of his own body.  Imagine Jesus going through all this, and for what?  So you and I can be good people?  So we can feel better about ourselves?  The major beliefs of Moralistic Deism as laid out by Smith do not measure up to the price Jesus had to pay.  There has to more to it than that.

The disheartening reality is that, for many people who call themselves Christians, being a good person is the point of Christianity.  While a life of adventure and purpose is waiting for them in Christ, they reduce Christianity to playing by the rules.  You don’t need to follow Jesus to play by the rules.  You don’t have to follow Jesus to be nice.  Join the rotary club if that’s what you want.  The life that awaits us in Christ is one we could not imagine.  The life Jesus offers us is one in which we do “even greater things” by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But to share in this life, to taste it, to live it one must die to themselves.  One must be willing to sacrifice everything.  One must be willing to go where they don’t want to go, or where they don’t they can go.  One must be willing to deny themselves for the sake of another.

Which doesn’t sound much like simply being happy and being a good person.