Sunday, November 27, 2011

What is an Advent Sunday?

Today is the first Advent Sunday! There are four Advent Sundays leading up to Christmas Day. Today is also the first day of the church year. Interestingly, though, today is not the first day of the Christmas Season. Christmas begins on... Christmas Day - and lasts 12 days. It ends on Christmastide, January 5th.

The word "advent" means "coming," connected to the idea of arrival, appearance, emergence, occurrence, birth, rise, development, approach. The church has for well over a thousand years celebrated the advent or birth or arrival of Christ by marking out the four Sundays before it as a season of preparation.

The church re-enters into the Nativity Story, imagining in a way that we are participants with Mary and Elizabeth, Simon and Joseph and others who sensed that God was about to appear in a new and radical way.

As you consider your life, don't you think you would benefit from some time of reflection on what the significance of God's advent as an infant? Do we assume we have a rich and robust grasp on the Incarnation? How could we spend four Sundays preparing for the celebration on Christmas Day of God becoming one of us?

When we consider the Advent of Christ, it carries two meanings. We remember the birth of Jesus, born into poverty, under the tyranny of a vicious king. We also remember the promise of Jesus that he would return, that he will come again, that there will be another, final, advent. The church starts the new year with four Sundays to consider the promises - then and now - of what the coming King Jesus will do when he arrives.

It's likely that the bewilderment and controversy that surrounded Jesus the first time he came will follow him the second time around. Maybe we need the four Sundays to remind us of how much we don't understand. Of our need for help when it comes to believing. 

We think we understand the First and Second Advent of Christ. We need our Sundays to point us to Jesus - to help us understand what he actually said and did. The life of Jesus shapes our understanding of the Advent that was, and the Advent to come.

Advent Sundays are not a substitute for celebrating Christmas. The church celebrates Christmas for twelve days. Advent Sundays point to Christmas, they challenge our understanding of Christmas, but they are not part of the Christmas season. 

Some of us are sick of Christmas by the time we get to December 25th. We've spent so much time shopping and partying and stressing and getting wrapped up in the drama of family dysfunction around the holidays that Jesus gets the shaft.

Really, how much of your Christmas energies go into worship of Jesus? Attending a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service is the classic way of worshiping the newborn King. But that is supposed to be the beginning of twelve days of worship, not the exhausted end.

There is plenty of material out there on how to prepare yourself during these four weeks of Advent. To the degree that you are interested in keeping Christ in Christmas, don't let your busyness cause you to push the baby Jesus off to the side. Keep it simple. Keep it intentional. Keep it focused on Jesus.

Some suggestions:
* Read each Gospel - one a week, leading up to Christmas Day. (There are about 20ish chapters in each Gospel, read up to three chapters a day)

* List out all your questions about Jesus and his teachings on a piece of paper, and put it in your Bible. As you read through each Gospel, add to your list. Trust me, most of what you will read about Jesus will cause more questions. It should.

* Do some research into the history behind the Christmas hymns that we sing each year. Or the traditions that we observe each year. Or the origins of the Santa Claus myth.

* Spend time reflecting on your unconfessed sins each Sunday morning or evening The greatest gift you can give God and others and yourself is truth about the sins you hang on to, the sins you won't forgive - in yourself, and others. To forgive and let yourself be forgiven is the true fulfillment of Christmas.

* Look for a way to give away something good everyday. A good word, a good attitude, a good ear, a good hand, a good prayer - as prompted by the Spirit of Christ.

* Find a way to integrate Jesus into everything you do during what you consider the Christmas Season.

* Don't go in debt to buy presents for people as a celebration of Jesus' birth.

* Pray the Lord's Prayer everyday - and reflect on how God's Kingdom has come through the First Advent, and will come in full with the Second Advent.

* Eagerly desire to let poverty into your life. Either take a vow of poverty, or give away your possessions such that you only have the bare necessities, or become friends with those who are poor. Jesus was born into poverty, lived in poverty, ministered amongst the poor, taught the poor, loved the poor.

* Put a Nativity scene in your front yard.

* Make your own list of how you will live this December in light of the Advent of Jesus?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Teaching Me To Love

In 1847 a Danish Christian wrote at length on how we can love in light of what God had revealed to us through Jesus. Soren Kierkegaard, a brilliant philosopher, turned his searching mind and heart towards the truth of love and how it works in our world. Long story short, I found his book, Works of Love in 2004 having spent a few years praying to God that he would teach me how to love.

Today, six and a half years later, I finished Works of Love. A lot of life has happened since then. It would seem that God has been helping me answer my own prayer, thanks to my wife and kids and family and friends and church. And Kierkegaard. I also realize how much more I have to learn about love. Or, what I learned was only the beginning of how to love.

The advantage of reading really old reflections on the works of love is rooted in its disconnection from our post-modern ways of thinking about God and relationships and self. But, 1847 was also among those nascent years of the Enlightenment, our Modern period of thinking. It's odd to read Kierkegaard's critiques on his culture and church - they sound so similar to ours today. What he has to say is relevant to our situations now.

I grew up in a loving home. I have loving parents and brothers and extended family. I have a loving wife and four loving children. I am part of a loving church. I am loved by many friends. There is much love in my life. What does that tell me? That I am an expert in loving? That I have much to teach about love? Or, that God has been helping answer my prayer. And that every opportunity I have to give love is also a revelation of how much more I have to learn.

If love is truly the greatest thing in all the world, then I'd be crazy to settle for a mediocre love. There is much left to understand in this world of how God gives love, of how God gives himself, of how Jesus is our supreme image of love at work in the world. There is so much confusion. So much hurt and rage. There is much discontent about the kind of love that is being offered up these days. How to enter into the most excellent way of love - and let that overflow onto all those connected to my life?

So in the final pages of Kierkegaard's thoughtful Works of Love, here are some disturbing and striving discourses on love:

Christianity's view is: forgiveness is forgiveness; your forgiveness is your forgiveness; your forgiveness of another is your own forgiveness; the forgiveness which you give, you receive, not contrariwise, that you give the forgiveness for which you receive.

It is as if Christianity would say: pray to God humbly and believing in your forgiveness for he really is compassionate in such a way as no human being is; but if you will test how it is with respect to the forgiveness, then observe yourself. If honestly before God you wholeheartedly forgive your enemy (but remember that if you do, God sees it), then you dare hope also for your forgiveness, for it is one and the same.

God forgives you neither more nor less nor otherwise than as you forgive your trespasses. It is only an illusion to imagine that one himself has forgiveness, although one is slack in forgiving others.

It is also conceit to believe in one's own forgiveness when one will not forgive, for how in truth should one believe in forgiveness if his own life is a refutation of the existence of forgiveness!

For, Christianly understood, to love human beings is to love God and to love God is to love human beings; what you do unto men you do unto God, and therefore what you do unto men God does unto you.

If you are embittered towards men who do you wrong, you are really embittered towards God, for ultimately it is still God who permits wrong to be done to you. If, however, you gratefully take the wrongs from God's hand "as a good and perfect gift," you do not become embittered towards men either.

If you will not forgive, you essentially want something else, you want to make God hard-hearted, that he should not forgive, either: how, then should this hard-hearted God forgive you? If you cannot beat the offences of men against you, how should God be able to bear your sins against him?

If you have never been solitary, you have also never discovered that God exists. But if you have been truly solitary, then you also learned that everything you say to and do to other human beings God simply repeats; he repeats it with the intensification of infinity. The word of blessing or judgment which you express concerning someone else, God repeats; he says the same word about you, and this same word is blessing or judgment over you.

Such a person will certainly avoid speaking to God about the wrongs of others towards him, about the speck in his brother's eye, for such a person will rather speak to God only about grace, lest this fateful word of justice lose everything for him through what he himself has called forth, the rigorous like-for-like.

Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, p348-353