Advent – December 21st, 2018

The stone the builders rejected
Has become the capstone
The Lord has done this
And it is marvelous in our eyes

Worst childhood memory? For me, one of them has to be gym class. I wasn’t athletic or coordinated, so it was miserable. That misery peaked into a nightmare when the class would start with this announcement from the teacher – “Ok kids, I’m going to pick team captains for kickball, and they’ll choose their teams.” I knew what this meant. I’d quickly scan the class for someone weaker and with less hand to eye coordination. Then, as the brutal selection began, I’d sit there and hope that at least I might get picked before one of the girls. You can imagine how that went.

Rejected stones are just that, broken leftovers on the job site, construction refuse that is worthless to the builders. You can usually tell a piece of junk when you see it – something probably oddly shaped or cracked, sitting thrown away on the dump truck pile. It’s a practical decision. One we’ve all made many times while cleaning out the garage. Is it useful? No. Valuable? No. Does it mean something special to you? No. Then off to the trash it goes.

Rejection is awful.  We all know a story or two where someone was rejected, perhaps in the football draft or in the applying to a particular school or job, and it was the wrong decision. After the initial rejection, that person goes on to break all the records and be someone truly amazing. For some reason we love these stories, perhaps because of the way they give us so much hope. Rejection is an Advent story.  Eternal creator comes to save His creation, he was treated as a discarded loser, and then that same loser turns around to save those who rejected Him – the sweet joy of heaven! That’s an eternal and unbeatable love right there, and it gets even better. It’s a story He loves to tell over and over in our lives. He is God, and He makes the choices. This is meant to show us what kinds of choices He makes, and He’s radically different than Junior High School kickball captains. As God, He had better reasons not to, and He had better folks to choose from, but in the end, I’m surprised by my joy – He picked me!

Advent – December 20th, 2018

What does this mean, to prepare His ways? John the Baptist is the prep for Jesus, we get that, but what does it mean to prepare folks? I’ve put aside some emergency stuff for an earthquake. They call it a “go bag” with all the survival basics you might need in an emergency. I don’t have a lot of confidence that I’m all that prepared, but it’s something. Many years ago a friend of mine gave me a map to his house out in the woods, where he had buckets of submerged rice in liquid nitrogen and stores upon stores of dried foods – so we could eat for years when society finally collapses. He was seriously worried, and his fear had driven him into a survival mania. There’s a lot of that going around.

But that’s not in Zechariah, not here, not in this Holy Spirit filled prayer for his son John. No, this is a preparation for something grand, victorious, and beautiful. It’s an expectation for God to act, to work a miracle of salvation for us. This isn’t passive! This is an active engagement with God’s promises and preparing our lives for those promises to come true. We must live like this, for when we are hovering over our future with expectant joy, this prepares us and everyone around us for His coming. We all participate in John the Baptist’s ministry this way, and through us, the gospel is “adventing” into San Francisco and into everyone we know and love. There’s a glow and energy that expectation creates – something you see in a child’s eyes on Christmas Eve. Their excitement is electric with imagination. The presents under the tree won’t even match the delicious expectation that’s been building, and it infects everyone.

Our hopes are greater, and our gifts are more magical and wonderful than any present ever wrapped. If we live in this sort of joyous anticipation, it will affect everyone around us. It changes how you make decisions and what you think is valuable. It orients you toward all of the blessings of God. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Zechariah hopes for a lot for his little boy. He doesn’t know the suffering and death that his son will face. But this is where the promises really cash in. They aren’t defeated by death or persecution or danger or hate. Jesus has come to bring His peace, forgiveness, and victory. These promises aren’t defeated by death or crazy politicians or human destruction…but they also don’t even run from them! This is how the gospel “preps” us! We live in new joy by the Spirit, just like Zechariah does. Lord prepare us, and send us to prepare a way for You and Your blessing into the lives of everyone we know and love.

Advent – December 19th, 2018

My wife posed a question to me one day. What’s worse, physical or emotional pain? I never really thought to compare them, but I think she’s dead on – emotional pain is worse. So I did some reading on it and discovered something fascinating. We only have one nerve network, our physical one. So when we’re experiencing personal emotional distress, the only way the body can experience it is through our physical nerves. So although the source of the pain may be different – instead of a stubbed toe it might be a critical word from someone – the net result is the same in our bodies. That makes a lot of sense. But emotional pain can’t be pinpointed as a toothache can, so it’s so much harder to understand or heal.

David is struggling with three areas of suffering. He’s broke, he’s been sinful, and he’s been betrayed. It’s a nasty trifecta of pain. Being poor is hard on the soul. It creates anxiety and a sense of helplessness that’s paralyzing. That’s why he begins his poem by blessing those who help the poor! His sin has also so damaged him. He needs healing and forgiveness in it. His brokenness itself is creating pain in his soul. And finally, he’s been hurt by a friend. That last one is very hard. We have all felt the ugly grief of betrayal.

I think this is why the apostles grabbed this poem as being about Jesus. Their advent comfort is here because Jesus felt all the pain of this world. Jesus was born poor. No amount of varnish can make an animal feed bin pretty. It’s awful. It’s a choice of the poorest of the poor, i.e., no choice at all. Did Jesus know the damage of sin? Yes, Jesus actually was sinless and “became sin” as Paul says in his letters. The damage of our souls was taken into His soul. Jesus was betrayed, betrayed by the person he “ate bread with” as it says in the poem. That eerie detail reminds you of that awkward moment at the Last Supper, when Judas dips his bread in the dish with Jesus. It must have gripped the apostles’ imagination to see this poem predict something that specific. More than that, it also gave them their deepest comfort in two ways. First, Jesus knows our pain and what it feels like. Put it this way: there’s a lot of “I know what you’re feeling” vibes coming from the throne of grace. But there’s a second part we don’t see, that the prophecy makes certain. If it was predicted, then God has planned it. As wild and out of control as life can feel, He does not let go. Advent means God works His love and grace and power in our greatest moments of pain and fear. Advent then offers us that hope and love in Jesus.

Praise Him!

Advent – December 18th, 2018

Mary’s praise is a wonder.
It’s something that shows a depth of thought and reflection, an understanding you wouldn’t expect from a teen. It’s possible she fully composed it later – the story doesn’t say she made it up spontaneously.

What I love is how she takes her own blessing and her own situation and realizes it’s just a part of God’s larger work. He’s feeding the hungry, working mighty justice for the weak, and defeating the powerful. Heady stuff for a young mom. You can’t imagine she was very proud or happy about the reality that her son had to sleep in a barnyard feed bin. What mom would be? Somehow she sees past all that.

She sees with Holy Spirit eyes. That same Spirit had hovered over her in tenderness already, and he’s moving her deeply into knowing God’s works and wonders. God has looked on her with love, chosen her for the birth of His Son, and made her life the theater and stage where He will reveal Himself. She’s a part of the great and grand story of the redemption of all things in heaven and earth, of God’s sovereign plan. God’s choices are not to exalt the powerful or honor the successful – no. If you listen carefully to her song, you can hear how stunned she is by it all. Remember, the greatest figure of her whole culture is Abraham. Abraham, the father of the Jews, the one who talked to God like a friend, the father of promise. And now God is talking to her and working in her just the same as him. She is floored. How can her problems and her life matter to an Almighty God? How can she be a part of this incredible work? For Mary, Advent is the arrival of the power and plans of God into her daily nap schedules and needs for baby blankets. He has no favorites. He loves us with all that He is, with all His eternal majesty and glory, regardless of our class or station in life. Moms, kings, and teens all matter to Him equally. She leads us to Him and invites us into her worship, hope, and joy! Praise Him!

Advent – December 17th, 2018

…in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

I was doing a spin class lately, and the instructor was a great cheerleader. It was just a canned video to motivate me, but it worked. One of the funny turns of phrase she kept saying, as my legs were cramping and my lungs were wheezing, was “you’re a boss, you’ve got this.” Funny how words work, even when it’s just a video script for an exercise class. It did the job. I don’t even know who the woman is who’s leading the spin class, but I was encouraged and driven to get up that next hill. Time will tell if this will keep motivating me to get the body my wife wishes I had.

No words work like the words “in the scroll of the book” of scripture – which is what David is talking about. His Bible would have basically been the first six books in the Old Testament, Genesis through Joshua, maybe Judges. Maybe Job too, because of how old it is. Where in that truncated Bible did it ever talk about David? Somehow he owns it. He sees words about himself! How does he see it? There’s a trust here, a simple reliance and dependence which is beautiful. He’s owning every promise of God’s word as personal, as specifically for him. And it isn’t narcissism, because it isn’t really about David. It’s about God’s glory andwork in David, and that’s how David claims it. A few lines before he says to God, “You gave me an open ear.”

This opens it all up to us. Think about it. David can see and hear the words are about him because God let him hear it. It is God’s work! This is the Spirit’s power. Advent becomes real to us personally, in our hearts and lives and experience, as God opens us to His own power. It always comes back to this – our rescue is all Christ. We come again and again and ask Him to be the Sovereign God – the King – and to make us His choice. And we’re asking His choice to be this: that our ears hear Him, our eyes see Him, and our feet follow Him. Then the Bible opens to us. We see ourselves in the stories and promises of our Father. We begin to claim ancient promises with fresh joy, and the thrill of His life becomes vivid personal words of love. Then we will startle people by saying odd things too, things like “I was reading in Numbers the other day, and I found one of God’s little love notes to me!” Spirit, open our ears! Amen.

Advent – December 14th, 2018

For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol or let Your holy one see corruption.
How does David know this?As I read this poem, and as you look at its structure, you can see how it builds. It’s a very simple beginning, but as the poem progresses it gets fuller and fuller. In the second half of the psalm, he first uses poetic parallelism across pairs of lines and then enlarges the pattern at the end with sets of 3 lines on each idea. The whole poem develops the imperative in the first line. Preserve me! That’s something we can all relate to. We want to last and keep going, not fade away or burn out.But David’s hope! How does he get there? He believes in some kind of eternal life, and he believes it so intensely that he uses hyperbole – worms will never eat my body. But David’s body is in the ground and some 3 thousand years decayed. The corruption of his bones and body are pretty much complete. Was this a naive hope or a spiritual dream? Neither. David does something amazing here, but he does it because the Spirit shows him. There’s really no other way to explain it. David is predicting, in his hopes for his body, the resurrection of the dead. That is incredible. He must’ve somehow grasped, again by the Spirit alone, that God’s intentions are eternal life for those He loves. Not knowing how it might happen, or who it might happen through, David still sees the Advent hope. The apostles loved this poem just for that reason. They saw that an ancient poet-king yearned for and described what Jesus came and accomplished.We need an advent now of the Holy Spirit. Not in a search for some new experience or some new knowledge. That’s not what the Holy Spirit is about. It’s an old experience of old knowledge made new in your heart. It’s when you jump up in joy as the reality and power of the resurrection becomes clear to you. It’s when, with the ancient poet-king, you say to God, “I have nothing but You and Your goodness” as you see the wickedness of the world around you. It’s you claiming the absurd promise that worms and decay are not the last word about you – not at all! It’s this wonderful ending to the poem – in our path through life we can hold His hands with wonder and look at His face with pleasure. And by the Spirit, we can know this. Even better than David did.

Advent – December 13th, 2018

The birth stories of Jesus can come off a bit dry. There’s a plainness to the story, a narrative simplicity that can be quite charming…or quite boring. They are not flowery stories. The virgin birth is announced matter-of-factly. No one locally significant makes a big deal about it, it’s just business as usual for everyone. There’s not much fanfare – unless you count stars exploding to announce their king! However, that’s creation – its got its head on straight. We don’t.

The simplicity of the stories makes it easy to ignore all the conflict Jesus creates as a baby. It’s been “Hallmark” carded out of the nativity. But there is this conflict: light has come into the darkness, and the darkness has not “overcome” it. The way John literally says it is like this: the darkness has not ambushed, grasped, seized, or comprehended the light. It’s a word of forceful action when used about your mind or your hands. The picture conjured up here is of a living darkness – imagine a dark shadow hand – trying to pick up or grab a bright light bulb. It doesn’t work, does it? Every time it comes close, the shadow hand simply disappears. It’s a vivid image of powerlessness, even as it describes conflict because there’s no question as to who wins. It’s a conflict, but there’s no contest.

Advent tells us we’re going to have a bit of trouble in this life if we know Jesus. The darkness didn’t like Him, and it doesn’t care much for us either. We are reborn in His light, and the darkness wants to destroy that. I am so often confused and discouraged by life, and then surprised by the difficulty.  But it makes sense!  Advent focuses us again on the panoramic battle that’s raging across all of history. Some forces don’t want this Jesus, this advent, or any of this brightness in the world. Those same forces are at work today, in your life. This is the perspective that protects us and prepares us for what life throws at us.