Expectant for Advent

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What stirs up emotional longing within you? You could be an expectant parent awaiting the arrival of your firstborn. Maybe you are daydreaming about or patiently awaiting a new relationship or job. Perhaps you have not taken time for yourself in an awfully long time, and you are planning some time away. Whatever that longing is, stop right now and eagerly consider what sensations are pouring through your body when that longing is fulfilled.

Are you relaxed? Is your heart racing? Are you filled with purpose?  Do you feel a fire burning on the inside? I know you have had this feeling before, and I know that you have probably spent a great deal of time and mental energy in your life seeking after those feelings.

So many of the fantastic things in life are mundane. The objects of our greatest longing are often common, but our experience with them is new and so makes them feel unusual for a time. I suspect that a great deal of our unhappiness occurs because we take so many things for granted. And so we set our sights constantly on things that are new or different from our norm. It is as if our heart stops due to boredom, and we must be electrocuted every now and again.

Because fantastic things become mundane, we require frequent reminders. Have you ever considered why you celebrate a birthday? The only thing more common than birth is death. Why must we celebrate one’s birth every year? Does it seem odd when you see so many loved ones gathered around an infant simply because it has survived its first twelve months on earth? Many people refuse to celebrate birthdays as they get older, because the celebration has come to mean something different. It becomes a reminder that they are closer to death and thus further from birth. Except for centenarians. I imagine they celebrate every birthday, as it would become a novelty to continue chalking up the years.

The truth is, every year of life ought to be celebrated. Life is the most incredible of all miracles. The newness of an infant’s life reminds us of that. That is why we admire so much those who remain in their old age dignified, but young at heart. That is to say, they have kept the good parts of their youth and parted with the negative. Furthermore, we admire this because we are so accustomed to the inverse. Some of the most insufferable children I have ever known have been adults.

The Christmas season is one which produces in many a deep sense of longing. I suspect that most of this is nostalgia. In a time where tradition is so often subverted, Christmas remains (for now) an almost unanimous vestige of folk tradition. This nostalgia is not always associated with warmth. One may even feel nostalgic for the stressful elements of the season. For many, that is the mark of time with their families.

Although Christmas is a decidedly Christian holy day, it is interesting to consider not only its secular ritualistic roots, but also its secular practice. Like several Christian holy days, Christmas borrows heavily from folk traditions of old. This provides a carry-over into the secular members of modern-day Western society. It provides context for common ground in a sacred context. Because of this, many disagree as to what “Christmas is all about.”

As a sacred tradition, Christmas is a day of remembrance for the incarnation of the Son of God. It is a birthday celebration but an inherently unique one. The Child born that night in Bethlehem would go on to become the very first human in history to conquer death and live forever. Yet we do not celebrate His birth each year out of novelty to tally up the years. There is a sense in which a birthday celebration reminds us of how spectacular is our very existence. Christmas is a birthday celebration that reminds us of something much deeper.

In accordance with Biblical prophecy, the grown-up Jesus would not begin His earthly ministry until a prophet would come to prepare the way for Him. That prophet was His cousin, namely, John the Baptist. We are told that when Mary was expecting Jesus she visited for several months with her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting her son John:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

Luke 1:41-45 NASB

Before he was even born, John the Baptist longed expectantly for the coming of Christ. As both men grew up, John would go on to begin a ministry of baptism, wherein He foretold of the coming of the promised Messiah. In his first recorded [post-natal] encounter with Jesus he shouts:

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 NASB

Even this notion of being excited about a Savior, despite the unparalleled magnificence of salvation, has become mundane to us in the present day. But in John the Baptist’s day, it was felt as something exponentially more profound. For centuries God had spoken to His people through His law and His prophets. Both foreshadowed the coming of a Messiah who would fulfill them both and save mankind from their sins. Then there was silence for some four hundred years. The people of God were desperate for a voice of prophecy to arrive.

John the Baptist enters as the first voice of prophecy in four centuries. He knew of his role as Christ’s forerunner ostensibly before his own birth. I imagine him being nearly overwhelmed with excitement upon seeing Jesus. While his fulness of Spirit and unique role in history may have amplified his excitement, every sinner can look to Christ with the same expectation.

This is the significance of Christmas. God made man. Man became estranged from God through our nature made corrupt by wrong-doing. God prepared a means by which man could know fellowship with God. The birth of Christ is the fulfillment of promise. No matter how typical or insignificant it might feel to us, no matter how much we might take it for granted, we celebrate Christmas to remind us of the kindness and mercy of God toward us.

To know Christ is to remember His work in the past, to seek His work in the present, and to look ahead to His work in the future when He returns. On Christmas we celebrate the fact that He came at all. As we consider Advent, let us ask God to fill us with the expectation of John the Baptist, to be overwhelmed with that sense of longing and excitement. Let us take this season of remembrance as a time to remind us afresh of the magnitude of our gracious God’s profound love for us, His people. He gave His Son to bring hope unto the world!

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God’s Politics

 

I am going to tell you who Jesus would vote for.

Previously we discussed how framing every episode of our lives in terms of “What Would Jesus Do” is potentially banal because our roles on earth are very different from that of the incarnate God-Messiah. Christ’s mission was to come to earth and die for sinners. While in the throes of this mission, He provided us ample teachings and set an example by which we ought to live. His Gospel is inherently designed to penetrate individual hearts within their unique circumstances.

Because Jesus is chiefly concerned with the individual and their relationship to God and His Kingdom, He made particularly clear that he was not necessarily concerned with taking a sides in earthly matters. While it might be argued that Christ would not have paid much mind to politics, it is grossly incorrect to say that He is not political. Jesus is a King, and we cannot ask ourselves what Jesus would do without regarding His concern for His Kingdom.

Mankind is morally corrupted and spiritually alienated from God. While this corruption has estranged us from God and His Heavenly Kingdom, it has yoked us to another, more sinister, kingdom. Christ expressed that all of humanity lives their life in service to someone. By default, we are slaves to our corrupted nature and the kingdom of Satan, the adversary of God. Through various dispensations that met their crescendo in the Gospel of Christ, God provided a means by which people could become reunited with Him- to leave the kingdom of darkness and to be rejoined to the kingdom of light.

Prior to His death and resurrection, Christ foretold that He would soon leave earth, and that He would “come again” (John 14). He promised to send His Spirit to comfort His people and guide them into “all truth.” These people, who would be called “Christians,” would become known as His church. They were to be the body of Christ, empowered by His Spirit, going about His work until He returns. After His resurrection, as He ascended into Heaven He implored His followers to go unto all the ends of the earth and to make “disciples of all men.”

The formative years of the church and the last two thousand years of church history have seen Christians responding to that call. Christ, through His people, perpetuates the magnitude and scope of His Kingdom. He will return one day and reap a harvest of believers who will become completely united with Him, free from the predicaments of our corruption in which we live. Christ works in the individual and uses that individual to act on His behalf to strengthen and to draw more into His Kingdom.

“In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will….”

Ephesians 1:11 NASB (emphasis mine)

Scripture speaks a lot of about election, but it is a very different sort than which we refer to today. To elect essentially means “to choose.” God has foreordained those whom He has elected for His Kingdom. The common means by which He draws the elect into His Kingdom is through Christians obediently fulfilling their call to evangelize. Many find this to be a hard saying. Why is it that God chooses some but does not choose others? As hard as a saying as it may be, we can take heart that God has chosen any of us. We are all deserving of our estrangement, and it is by the mercy of God that any ever find restoration.

The implication of God’s election is that all who are not elect will remain in their sins and be thus condemned. Many who understandably struggle with this notion will speak of people all the world over who have, seemingly unfairly, never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. They will then regard the dumb luck of those in the West who are overwhelmed with Christianity.

The first thing to consider here is that Scripture makes very clear that God has made Himself known in nature itself, and “none are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). In other words, whether or not someone hears the Gospel, they are fully responsible for their spiritual estate. The second thing to consider is a reframing of sorts. It is no “dumb luck” that Western societies have become such incubators for a flourishing Church and for religious freedom in general. It was God’s providence that provided society to progress unto this point.

Now, there is no doubt that the Church has flourished (sometimes more genuinely) in the presence of oppressive influences and regimes. All the world over, the Church has always been wrought with severe persecution. It persists full-throttle into the present day. The excess we have found in the West has led, in myriad ways, to a complacent and obstinate church. But if we look to the Scriptures we see that even the suffering early church was met with these same components of human influence.

Regardless of the various contexts in which Christianity can thrive, it is critical to observe the ways in which Christianity has the ability to transform society from the inside out. These benefits are advantageous, but they are not the end in itself. The goal of believers ought to be the proliferation, the health, and the growth of the kingdom of God. Every decision that we make should be made in light of the notion that Jesus is the actual King of all of the earth and that He calls us to the service of His actual kingdom.

In terms of our earthly political role, the Christian who lives in a society in which they are allowed to vote ought to consider how their vote would impact the flourishing of the Church. In terms of American politics, which candidate has a tactical advantage at winning an election and is more than likely going to be the candidate who advocates for religious freedoms of Christians? This pertains to what they advocate as policy and, in terms of the presidency, who they are likely to nominate to the Supreme Court. It is in the presence of this freedom that we support the suffering of believers all the world over. If we are not to protect that now, there will come a day when America will suffer the same persecutions of believers throughout the world.

Who would Jesus vote for, if He voted? I truly think it is a silly question. But if I had to answer it, I would say that Jesus would vote for those who would less likely politically hinder the religious liberties of His Church. Of course, God can grow His Kingdom in any way that He sees fit. But if we are to be preoccupied with growing His Kingdom, we ought to be tactfully considering what might help to further that mission.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

Proverbs 29:18 KJV

Who Would Jesus Vote For, and What Would He Name His Yacht?

“It Looks Just As Stupid When You Do It.” That was the caption on an anti-tobacco refrigerator magnet I was given in junior high.

Whoever wrote the ad was either untrained in persuasion or was trying to subliminally create a positive association with cigarette smoking. One’s first thought at this ad is that, despite how silly the creatures look, they do at least look pretty cool. If nothing else, it created an indelible mental association between cute and innocent animals and cigarettes.

More importantly, people (especially young ones) do not care about whether or not they look stupid unless looking stupid makes them uncool. Studies prove that the addition of a cigarette in one’s hand often does make them appear cooler to the bystander. Albeit, it seems that there is a coolness threshold, wherein a nicotine-slave fiendishly sucking down a chain of cigarettes crosses the parabola into unsavory (uncool) territory. I’m not even going to address the blatant uncoolness of electronic cigarettes.

The point is, nobody cares about appearing stupid unless appearing stupid is a barrier to their social acceptance. If one is preoccupied with impressing others and must do so via means of stupidity, then they will not think twice. “Not thinking twice” is actually a pretty good definition of stupidity.

The other inherent silliness of the ad is that it presupposes a similarity of social roles between humans and non-humans. And this is my main point.

The animals don’t look silly because they somehow know better than to smoke cigarettes. They look silly, because their civilizations have not advanced to the level of establishing complex structures, such as a tobacco industry that generates three quarters of a trillion dollars annually, for instance. Animals, it turns out, enjoy cigarettes too. They just were never clever enough to invent them and skilled enough to make them, but that’s not to say they were never unwise enough to habitually smoke them.

Another slogan that was popular in my youth was “What Would Jesus Do?” People would wear bracelets with the slogan. It became a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon.

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And apparently Kanye West still sports one?

The original intent of the bracelets (other than financial profit) seemed innocent enough. They could be used as a reminder to “do the right thing” throughout the day. While it is asinine for someone to need a bracelet to remind them about what they should be meditating on already, sometimes infants need their milk. The bracelets became no more than a fad and an unoffensive context for a Christian subcultural foray into the mainstream.

“Would Would Jesus Do?” as a fad was pretty harmless, but as a theological principle it is incredibly unhelpful if taken to its logical conclusions. You see, the fad did not end with bracelets. After George W. Bush began sending troops into Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 I started seeing bumper stickers on people’s cars that read “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” Then in subsequent elections “Who Would Jesus Vote For?” started appearing. The trend continues.

I should make a bumper sticker that says “What Would Jesus Name His Yacht?” or “What Would Jesus Name His Firstborn Daughter?” Imagine contexts in which Jesus might be purchasing a yacht or being married and having children. It’s a funny thought, isn’t it? Is it a sin to own a yacht? Some people probably think so, but no, not if you have the means. Is it a sin to bear offspring? On the contrary, the Scriptures tell us to “be fruitful and multiply.” So why is it a funny thought? Because Jesus had a different social role and function than other people do.

The anti-tobacco ad is silly because it unfairly associates human civilization and capacity with animal civilization and capacity. Jesus is fully man and fully God. As peers in Christ’s human nature, we are able to laterally relate our experience with His. Herein, Jesus refers to us as His “friends” (John 15). But as subjects unto His divine nature, our relation to Him is quite different.

Jesus came to earth with a very specific purpose and role. The example He has set before us and the lessons He has taught us provide us with the instruction for leading lives of holiness, but they do not define the nuances of our daily experience. Because of Christ’s Messianic role He lived in such a way that promoted His mission.  Although our Christian mission is to proliferate His, our earthly role is not materially the same. It is of the same Spirit, but of different functions. The body performs a different set of tasks from the Head (1 Corinthians 12).

With these things in mind, it is not helpful to constantly pose the question of what Jesus would or would not have done. It may be relevant to basic questions of morality, but it is useless in light of complex social scenarios. These questions are not helpful because they miss the point of the Gospel entirely. Christ’s Gospel is good news for condemned sinners. It’s chief aim is to save and internally transform a person (gradually) into the person God designed them to be.

To this end, we are given the instructions for daily living. In addition to being preoccupied with one’s conversion and spiritual growth, Christ’s instruction is also focused on the growth of His Kingdom as promoted through evangelism and discipleship. For that reason, the complex social structures in which we try to retrofit Jesus Christ do not boast the precedence that His Kingdom holds.

That is not to say that Christians are not tasked with engaging with the complex systems of our surrounding societies. At times, many of you have probably felt immense internal conflict regarding that engagement. I will address that at a future date. In the mean time I’m pretty sure I know who Jesus would be vote for, but I’ll address that in my next post.

 

Evangelism is Not an Elective

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“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you….”

Matthew 28:19-20a NASB

As He ascended into Heaven, Christ parted with words that would set the tone for the entire future of Christendom. His disciples would go on to obey this edict and take the Gospel to the the whole of the known world. The Church of Jesus Christ continues to pursue this mission to this day. Some of them do, anyway.

In my last post I recalled a recent experience in which I totally disregarded an opportunity to evangelize a stranger. This experience was disappointing for me, despite the fact that I’ve not recently had a tendency to evangelize, probably due to distraction and self-centeredness.

In the preceding weeks, God had begun to stir up a passion in my heart toward these matters. This is always the origin of Christian evangelism. As the late Keith Green said, “You put this love in my heart.” Evangelism arrises from an overflow of love and gratitude for our Savior. It is mercifully driven by His work in us.

“…[The religious authorities] commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:18b-20 NASB

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When confronted by opposing religious authorities, Peter and John expressed an INABILITY to stop preaching the Gospel. They were so wrapped up in their love for and thankfulness toward Christ that they couldn’t help but tell all about it to others. Their love for and fellowship with Christ led to a compassion for others, to see them become believers of His Gospel.

The day after my aforementioned experience, I had an experience of another sort. I work at a homeless shelter and have recently gotten to know a man who is staying there. Before I left for the day I struck up a conversation with him. He told me that he was moving out soon. As I was about to leave, I felt a compulsion to share Christ with Him. I almost ignored it entirely, but I was constrained by the Holy Spirit.

I began conversing with him, prayerfully seeking an opportunity to mention Christ. Finally he made mention of a local Christian ministry at which he had attended some services and performed some court-ordered community service hours. I abruptly asked him, “Are you a Christian?”

He pinched his fingers together as he informed me that he believed in the power of prayer and that he felt like he was “almost there”- almost ready to commit himself to God. I sat down and talked with him for a while, and he began to tell me his life story. He kept stopping and saying, “I’ve never told anyone this stuff before. I don’t know why I’m telling you.” I answered some questions he had and persistently shared the Gospel.

As we wrapped up, I asked if I could pray for him. He eagerly gave me his hands, and we prayed. As I left he kept remarking on how amazing it was that this conversation had occurred, as he has been on the fence with these matters. I gave him my number and went on my way, assuring him that I only spoke with him because I felt God leading me to do so.

Although circumstances like this have been normative in my life in times past, this entire episode was a unique experience for my life in recent years. My hope is that, through God’s help and courage, I begin to seek out evangelistic opportunities elsewhere. It has been natural for me and so many Christians to disregard this critical piece of Christian living.

We are not only called to lead righteous and holy lives, but to love God and to love one another. Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that if we “love Him, [we] will keep His commandments.” Therefore, if we love Him, we will obey the call to share the Gospel persistently with others.

Might I challenge you, as I am being challenged, to pursue a pure fellowship with Christ through the Spirit of God? Will you make specific requests of Him that He will surround you with His Spirit and keep you in His steps? That He will give you a love and a passion for Him that overflows into a deep love for others? That you will be granted wisdom, opportunity, and courage to share His Gospel to those you meet? He commands it! Evangelism is not an elective for the child of Jesus Christ!