November 25, 2015

These Dangerous Christmas Days

Most of us by now are hurrying and worrying about Christmas.  Angels and Santas are everywhere, and the constant refrain of "Silver Bells" is filling the airwaves of the shopping malls and stores.  Yes, the great American Christmas holiday season has begun in full.

Yet, beneath the holiday cheer is a gnawing anxiety, a strange spiritual hunger that the season always uncovers, which is why the alternative world of the church during Advent is so odd and comforting.  With somber hymns and apocalyptic Scriptures, the church in late November is strangely out of sync with the rest of the world.  And us who are part of that church, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are reminded that we're not to be conformed to this world, but transformed by our faith in the good news of God's love for us and the world.

But before the good news comes the bad news.  During these Christmas days, there's much happening that is not God's will for us. The sooner we admit this, the sooner we can move into the fullness of God's promise for us.  Jesus predicts destruction, war, political catastrophe, suffering, natural disaster and persecution.  People are living with that kind of darkness and danger and despair everyday.  The fact is: bad things happen!  In an unfinished world, a world of sin, selfish living and power politics, bad things happen.  Earthquakes happen, terrorism happens, wars and famine happen, mass shootings happen, babies are aborted and cancer still kills.  But bad things are never the final word.

Christians certainly do not escape the tribulations and traumas of this world.  We experience them like everybody else.  The difference is that Christians stand up.  We raise our heads and hearts, and keep moving forward. Through all the bad things that happen, we trust that God is still in charge.  God is marching in front of history, and He uses the darkness to kindle the light.  God transforms death into new life.  And even when bad things happen, Christians live with the hope and conviction that God is in charge.

So, we turn to Jesus to learn how to live in these dangerous days - how to stay alert, how to live moral, disciplined lives in preparation for the moment when all creation is brought to completion.  For better or worse, Christians are the ones who bear Christ's hope for the world.  Hope cannot be bought and wrapped and put under the Christmas tree.  Hope cannot be stashed away for safekeeping. Hope cannot be won with bombs or bullets.  No, the hope we carry as God's people in the world is God's promise of His coming again and again and again.  This hope is the birthright of God's whole, weary, wonderful world.

As we enter the Christian season Advent, the call of God's Word is to live beyond the chaos of the world instead of hiding in the secular sentimentality of Christmas. We are called to recognize both the beauty and the terror of this world, then with hearts of faith in Jesus to wait for God's promise to be fulfilled in us and in our world.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, let's rejoice in the small, simple graces of these dangerous Christmas days.

November 21, 2015

The Way Christians Get Ready for Christmas

I'm always excited about the start of a new lectionary cycle of Bible readings.  It's the beginning of new readings for Advent, the start of the Christian year.  Some find it strange that the emphasis of the Advent Scripture readings is on the end times.  The ancient tradition of reading Bible stories about the end of the world, though, has largely fallen by the wayside.  Instead, lots of worship teams plan worship by developing a series around a theme that doesn't point to the eschatological dimensions of Christmas.  They're interested in reading about the joy of the coming birth of baby Jesus. But the readings about the end times always appear at the start of Advent, because we're preparing the way not only for Jesus' birth, but for the second coming of Christ in all His glory.

I like the counter-cultural message the church offers as a way of preparing for Christmas. Instead of preparing for the celebration of Christ's birth by decorating, having parties and spending large sums of money on Christmas presents, the tradition of the church leads us into a period of self-examination and penance. It's the opposite of what the world tells us to do.  Bible prophecies about the end times prepare us for the birth of Jesus into the world and His second coming again to live as God's people who are prepared to die. It's not a very Christmas-like sentiment, but it is vital to choose an alternative to what the world offers in preparation for Christmas. 

It's never popular to talk about death, especially at this time of year.  None of us wants to die. But there is nothing we can do about it. I'm going to die, you're going to die, and so is every other human being who is alive today. Human life is fragile and brief in the grand scheme of things.

The Advent readings point to a day when the world and all life upon it will draw to an end. Many look for signs of that time and try to prepare for it with prayer and preaching about the saving power of Jesus. When the end comes, all people will be brought before the Lord to be judged. Those who confess Jesus Christ as their Savior will be saved for eternal life, those who don't will be lost in eternal death.

Many ways to look at this truth, but what's important is that everyone of us will find our-self standing before the Lord Jesus someday. It might be today, next week, or years from now. We have no way of knowing when He's coming. But we can prepare ourselves for that day by examining our lives, repenting and turning away from the things in our lives that are not life-giving. We can choose to live the days we have left on this earth in way that will bring glory to God through faith in Jesus Christ.  That's way Christians get ready for Christmas.