[RadCast] Advent #8 (Mark 1:1-11

God’s Word always comes to pass, repentance is a key step in preparing for Christmas, and locusts/wild honey might be the yogurt topping you crave.

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[RadCast] Advent #8 (Isaiah 40)

God speaks hope to the wilderness. So… who’s in the wilderness to hear the message?

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Why Advent? Because it teaches us to wait…

Happy New Year!  Sunday, December 3, 2017 began Advent, which is the first season of the Church Year. Time flies, as we have all heard and perhaps experienced.  We use seasons to mark time: Fall, Summer, Winter, Spring.  We talk about semesters at school and quarters at work.  We build our breaks and vacations around big national holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Super Bowl, Easter.  We say things like “remember last summer, when we swam in Lake Michigan?” or “remember that one winter when it snowed three feet in two weeks?”  We talk about specific dates, like December 3, 2017, but we also talk about seasons, like Late Autumn or Christmastime.  

The church has marked time using seasons.  These seasons aren’t built around climate or national holiday or school breaks.  They’re built around the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Here’s what the Church year looks like:

Advent (4 weeks leading up to Christmas)

Christmas (12 days)

Epiphany (January 6)

Lent (Ash Wednesday)

Holy Week (week before Easter)

Great Triduum (three great days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday)

Resurrection Sunday (Easter)

Easter (7 weeks)

Pentecost Sunday

Trinity Sunday (Ordinary Time through Christ the King Sunday)

Advent (it cycles again…)

 

Each Sunday has a preplanned bible reading schedule that includes 4 readings from the same categories: one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament Epistle, and a Gospel reading.  Often these four readings will harmonize and make a sense as a whole.  Other times, quite frankly, they are disparate and feel very out of sync with each other.  The point is to walk us through the big themes of salvation and to cover the big stories of the Christian Faith.  The church year is built on a three year cycle, plainly called year A, B, and C.  Each year has the same themes but different readings around the same themes. After three consecutive years, we’ve been shaped by the essentials of God’s story of salvation.  

This past Sunday, for example, was the first Sunday in Advent, Year B.  The 4 readings included:

Isaiah 64:1-9 (Old Testament reading)

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (Psalm reading)

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (Epistle reading)

Mark 13:24-37 (Gospel reading)

Next Sunday is the second Sunday in Advent, Year B, and will have 4 different readings from the same category: portions of Isaiah 40, Psalm 85, 2 Peter, the Gospel of Mark.  Churches of many different affiliations and flavors follow the lectionary.   Some are unswerving, others do a mix of sometimes but not all year ‘round.  The church I lead has no rule that says “you must follow these or else,” nor do we stick to them so closely that we can’t change as the moment arises or the Spirit leads.  

So, again: Happy New Year.  Get it?  By the way, I’ll say the same thing as we mark the other new year on Jaunary 1, 2018.  Ah, if only the first Sunday of Advent had some kind of Times Square countdown, ball drop, maybe Ryan Seacrest, a Mariah Carey lip sync, confetti.  

You know what?  Nah.  

Why the Church Year?  Why the lectionary reading schedule?  Perhaps it seems rigid and inorganic.  I’ve personally observed it for over 10 years and have used it off and on in ministry and can say from experience: dead it’s not!  In fact, it brings life, freshness, and helps us take a well-rounded approach to all the subplots of salvation found in scripture.  Here are three reasons (I’m a pastor, so there are always three reasons) that we take guidance from the Church Year:    

First, it helps us intentionally think about the life of Jesus.  If we’re mindful of His journey, it becomes (a little) easier to identify with him and think about how to live like Jesus today.

Second, it unifies the church.  It’s neat to see on twitter or in another church that other people are talking about the same scripture references week to week.  When a congregation hangs out in the same scripture verses, it’s unifying.  When the whole church, at least some swaths, are together, it’s very unifying.  

Third, it tells the whole story.  Since the readings are laid out and all encompassing, it makes sure we pastors don’t just hang out in our favorite verses.  This is especially helpful for pastors like me, who, left to their own devices, might pull to their favorite bible stories and avoid the tough ones.  As a striking example, I don’t think I would’ve chosen the Gospel reading for this past Sunday because it feels really out of place in our Christmas shopping extravaganza culture.  Frankly, all the readings are kind of a downer.  But that’s on purpose, which hopefully will become clearer each Sunday leading up to the Incarnation of Christ.  That kind of mystery doesn’t deserve a light touch.  It’s a big, gracious, holy, exciting, terrifying thing when God comes to earth, right?  Right!  

There was a time when Jesus was talking about coming back a second time.  It’s in Mark 13, and it’s the gospel reading for Advent I, Year B.

But in those days, following that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.  At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.  Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at your door.  Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.    

-Mark 13:24-37 (NIV2011)

 

Kinda odd, right?  Yes, it’s True and good and beautiful and majestic, but hardly fits on the inside of a Christmas Card with a pic of a cozy log cabin resting on a snowy mountain under moonlit sky.  The outside is all peaceful and serene, but instead of opening the card to a message like “may the peace of the holiday be yours…” it reads “THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED… AND HE WILL SEND HIS ANGELS… HEAVEN AND EARTH WILL PASS AWAY.”  Merry Christmas, the Davidsons. 

Listen: Jesus is pretty clear about how this whole thing will end. We call Him Alpha and Omega for a reason: Christ Himself spoke the world into existence, and Christ Himself will come to bring about the culmination of a new Heavens and Earth.  That’s how it ends.  But what about right now?  Well… right now we re-live the human experience of crying out for Messiah.  On Christmas, we will celebrate that God has come to be one of us.  Come Holy Week and Easter, we will remember His death and celebrate His resurrection.  At that time, our church will remember that we are waiting for His return to make all things new.  Until then, the Spirit of God is at work to slowly unfold the Kingdom among us through us.  There is renewal now.  There is hope now.  There is life and new life now.

But we have to wait, and waiting is really really hard.  Advent is an exercise in waiting.  As a spiritual discipline, as a liturgy, it teaches us about waiting for God.  I don’t know about you, but I’m waiting for God to do some things in my life, my family, and our community.  That’s the little waiting.  The big waiting we all share in, and that’s waiting for Jesus to come again.  Next time it won’t be as a little baby but rather as a conquering hero.  So, as Jesus Himself says in our gospel reading: watch!

I’ve experienced some human hurts in the past few months.  Some of it close, some of it nearby in church and friends.  God heals and brings about good in our suffering, but the waiting… the hoping in our pain, the trust in our ache, the hurt in our hope… that’s Advent.

Come, Lord Jesus.  We really need you.


Let’s share in this journey together.  What are you waiting for?  What divine intervention do you long for?  Where is hope easy or difficult in your journey?

 

 

 

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[RadCast] Advent #7 (Isaiah 40) Comfort… comfort…

Advent reminds us that God doesn’t leave us in our brokenness. God reaches out for us. He meets us in our intense spiritual discomfort and brings peace.

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[RadCast] (Advent #6) Every Prayer Answered (Psalm 85)

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[RadCast] Advent #5 (Mark 13:32-37)

When will Christ return?  We don’t know, nor is it ours to know.  Until then, we watch… and be joyful.

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Advent = Awkward

When we were young our Mom brought home a peculiar Advent Calendar that had a picture of a creepy lion and some dude with horse legs.  To add to the strangeness, Mom made us Turkish delight.  I can’t speak for my sister, but I’ll admit that the whole thing was odd.  Yes, Advent Calendars are a fun way to count down to Christmas, which is obviously the most important day in the life of a child.  The Turkish delight, with its slimy texture and raw flesh color, sure was… something.  I ate it, though I’m still not sure why.

 

My first introduction to the concept of Advent was pretty awkward.   I definitely didn’t get the whole connection to Narnia.  Now I get it, and I can say that Mom was brilliant.

My early days of ministry had very little Advent-y stuff.  Then I read a book by Robert Webber called Ancient-Future Time.  Since then, I’ve been slowly coming to a fuller understanding of what it means — spiritually — to enter into Advent Spirituality.  It’s more than counting the days until Christmas.  For our culture, Christmastime is busy with online shopping and human stampedes at the mall.  Our kids are eagerly expecting the Christmas Tree to suddenly show up in our living room, and they’ll make sure there’s plenty of under-tree space for what will surely be massive presents.  Even in church world, we’re thinking and planning for the next few Sundays AND the extra-vital Christmas Eve service(s).  “Don’t blow it… don’t catch your sleeve on fire… don’t accidentally say ‘He is Risen!'”  These are just some snippets of the internal dialogue of your Pastor on Christmas Eve.  Meanwhile the congregation beautifully sings another verse of Silent Night.  It really is majestic.

Christmas Eve/Day is a marvelous celebration of the birth of Christ!  How does one prepare for such a big day?  What are the spiritual implications in our own souls and in culture?  Left to our own devices, we anticipate and build up toward Christmas with great attention to all that Christmas-y stuff, which is okay unless it shadows the mystery of God coming to earth as one of us.

Mystery requires a different kind of attention.   Unless we’re careful, we’ll miss the chance to be shaped by a very important part of our salvation story.  After all, Jesus is God’s son born to die.  One can’t have a resurrection without a funeral.  Ya can’t have a funeral without a life, and you don’t have life without a birth.  Christmas is only half the story.   Really it’s Christmas + Easter + Christ’s Return that make up our central story. My little story fits into the big story of God’s salvation, a mysterious saga which makes its humble arrival at Christmas.

One doesn’t just slide into Christmas, especially with the annual holiday frenzy of our world.  What will rescue us from autopilot?  What reduces the risk of missing the spiritual mystery?  What might churn our soul and bring renewal — not burnout — at Christmas?

Behold: the season of Advent.  Advent gets our hearts and minds focused on what it means to hope for the Messiah, just as our Hebrew ancestors hoped.  At the same time, Advent marks what we are doing right now as we wait for Messiah’s return.  To put it differently: Advent shows us where we are on the timeline of unfolding the Kingdom of God.  These four weeks leading up to Christmas remind us of all the stuff Jesus said about coming back to earth after the crucifixion.  Christmas is the first Incarnation.  When He returns, it will be a different kind of incarnation.  The King of Kings will come, victorious, on the throne, reigning over a new everything.  Jesus continually refers to His second coming, saying “be ready” and “watch” and “pay attention!”

And that, dear friends, is what makes Advent so awkward.  Just like the strange calendar and the bizarrely scrumptious Turkish delight of my childhood, this Sunday will probably be shocking for some people.  Why?  Because it’s not technically Christmas yet.  I’m not going to go all scrooge and crush any Christmas joy.  I promise not to protest any Christmas songs, even though they are technically out of place.  The main song leading up to Christmas isn’t Joy to the World or Angels We Have Heard On High, excellent as those songs are.  The song of Advent is O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  If Christmas is in a happy/major key, Advent is in a somber/minor key.  We’re considering.  We’re repenting. We’re coming to grips with the stagnant water in our souls.

Advent isn’t as much about tinsel as it is about taking time to reflect.  The gifts we’re buying are no match for the gift of grace we have through Christ.  Listen, I love cookies and pie and Christmas dinner as much as anybody, but the meal we’re truly nourished by is Communion.  We are preparing a place for Jesus in our hearts… our homes… our communities… and our world.  That kind of arrival takes genuine intention and preparation.

And then — FINALLY — we will get to Christmas Day.  Until then, we prepare.  We think about our need for mercy and grace, consider the commands and directives of Messiah, and anticipate His return with great hope.  December 25th becomes an even greater celebration because we’ve waited on purpose and realized our need.  Finally… He’s here!  And how much greater it will be when we can say that again, in real time, when Jesus returns.

Advent feels awkward because it goes against the cultural grain of everything around us as we count down to the big day.  Feeling out of sync is part of what makes Advent an effective season.  Anticipation is a powerful discipline.  Join me in feeling the ache of darkness and sin, the hurt and brokenness.  Join me in praying for His Kingdom come and His will to be done.  Join me in hope.  Join me in seeing Christmas with new eyes.

Merry Christmas?  Not yet.  Happy Advent!

Posted in Church Year, spiritual formation, Worship Pastor Helpers, Year A, Year B