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Night Divine

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

winternightbw

During Advent we remember that the darkness of winter’s arrival is pierced with the Light of Life. Advent holds together ending and beginning, death and life, dark and light. Yet, this is not a balance of opposites. It is a living hope in the midst of a dying world.

In winter, the world comes undone. Spring’s blossoms have long died away. Icy dark nights overtake autumn’s afternoon. Snow covers the land and trees. This winter wonderland is beautiful…and deadly. Most of us live insulated from this threatening freeze, but the dark, cold night looms near us all.

I know the fear of waking in the death of night. Darkness presses heavy upon my chest. Sickening dread grips my throat and tightens my stomach. The specters of hopelessness haunt me. This present darkness sometimes escapes the witching hours, creeping into day. I wake to a world cringing in yet another nightmare.

Darkness, darkness, thick darkness covers the face of the earth. Whether it is the rage of war, the horror of violent crime, the suffocating poison of unspeakable speech, or the smothering night that grips the soul, darkness can seem more real than light.

Evil, evil, thick evil catches us unaware. Once I casually reached for a music magazine, flipping through the pages in search of the latest album reviews. A story of torture and violence interrupted the search. My pulse quickened. My body tensed. Night’s dread drowned the music.

Why? Why are humans so evil?

That question is dangerous. The prophet says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”[1] Even as we question and wrestle with the horror of evil in our world, we also walk in darkness. The Apostle John says, “The people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. .”[2]

Those who have choked on darkness know a raging darkness within that terrifies more than the darkness without.

This is the great unspeakable truth that Advent exposes. The darkness within. We run from the light. We hide in the dark. Then we look at the evil in the world and question, “Why?”

The line of evil runs directly through the human heart.

Into this darkness, Light shines. Advent celebrates the night-shattering news that God is with us. Christ has come near. We sing of the blessed birth of the Lord in the Holy Night and Night Divine. He penetrates the dark night of human evil. Even the night is not night to Him. The Psalmist sings,

11 “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.[3]

Jesus the Light of the World entered into the dark night of humanity. He exposed evil in us and around us. In His life, death and resurrection, He also overcame it. We wait for the full unveiling of His Light when death will die and the full Light of day will permanently overtake the night of evil.

Emmanuel, God with us, calls us to reveal the Light of His love in the midst of this dark age. Like Peter on the water, we may grow fearful and sink in dark waters. He is Present and we are safe.

Those dark waters make me think of swimming in the ocean with my dad one summer. On our last day of summer vacation, we went down to the ocean for one last swim. The storm clouds threatened on the horizon. My dad was not afraid. We road the humongous waves together. We played in the dark waters. I was not afraid because my dad was with me.

My mom frantically waved for us to come back to shore. As we headed toward shore, the undertow pulled us back. We struggled against the flow. For a moment, the waves threatened and overwhelmed me. I was not afraid because my dad was with me.

The darkness of our world threatens. Evil rages. We want to rage back. Our own echoing rage cannot stop the dark. Only the Light of His Love can overcome the dark. He is Present in the dark. Even as we wait and watch, He is here. Emmanuel. O Holy Night. O Night Divine.

Though the storms of evil rage, He is Present. We can love and even laugh, knowing that the undertow of evil will not overcome the Light of His Presence.

During these final moments of Advent waiting, during these dark hours of winter’s undoing, let us remember that His Light. He overcomes the evil within and the evil without. We follow Him into the dark waters of our world, into the pain, into the hurt, and into the fear, trusting in His Light of Love, Peace and Life Unconquerable.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Is 9:2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[2] ibid. (Jn 3:19).
[3] ibid. (Ps 139:11–12).

Note: Image by Sigurd R (used by Creative Commons permission).

Categories: Advent

Advent Light

December 13, 2012 2 comments

light

Keeping Advent time seems rather odd in the middle of blinking lights, dancing Santas, and Christmas parades. The time of Advent is supposed to be a time of watching and waiting, a time to listen and contemplate the coming of the Lord.

It’s a bit tricky to juggle watching and waiting while running to work parties, family gatherings and church events. The season of dark yearning seems overcome by twinkling red and green lights.

Once we learn the rhythms of Advent, this frenzy may frustrate. We may long for a simpler time, a quieter place, a season undefiled by secular intrusions. I’m not sure that time or place ever existed. Every age has its distraction. Every heart has its noise.

The desert fathers entered the wilderness only to encounter the deafening roar of their inner chaos. It seems their own noise followed them into the quiet. During the Middle Ages, many villagers spent the month of December drinking and feasting themselves into a frenzy. The wheels of industry whirred throughout eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, virtually ignoring the entire holiday.

The quiet promise of earlier, simpler days is elusive at best.

The heart is restless, and the world wrestles around it. Our desert, our quiet, our place of calm may be in the middle of an ocean of noises. From crying babies to marching wooden soldiers, we may need ears that hear in the messiness of living.

During this call of Advent don’t worry about the noises, the distractions, and the people who celebrate Christmas in Advent or the people who celebrate Stuff instead of Christ. Don’t fret over trying to have an idealized spiritual encounter

Simply ask Him to open your eyes and ears to His coming. He speaks the Word of Life into the midst of a world of death. In the wasteland of our souls, He comes. He builds a highway of holiness. He creates ears that hear, eyes that see, legs that leap, hands that clap, and tongues that sing. He proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. He declares liberty to our captive hearts. He comes with an avenging sword. He comforts those who mourn. He builds up the ancient ruins. He reveals His glory.

In the messiness and earthiness of our lives, He comes. In our feeble attempts to worship, He comes. In the midst of a distracted and distracting world, He comes. And in His light we see light.

Rise up now and behold. Quickly. For the King is coming and His glory is overshadowing us even now.

* – Image posted by Creative Commons permission from James Jordan (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesjordan/3131235412/)

Categories: Advent

Advent Calendar

December 3, 2012 1 comment

photo

I found an Advent calendar last Saturday. For a brief moment, I breathed the crisp air of a New Jersey morning from my youth. Snowdrifts lined our street. Footprints pounded snow into an icy maze along the sidewalks. Fall vanished beneath the wintry world, and a hidden magic unveiled before my eyes.

The Advent Calendar of my childhood counted down the days to Santa’s appearing. Each window revealed some small token, some promise that Santa would soon be here. Each day, I caught just a glimpse, a flash, a promise that he was coming. And coming soon.

While this may sound strange, I think the Advent calendar functioned in an apocalyptic role. The little windows opened into a promised world, another realm. They revealed something deeper, more wondrous than I could grasp with my eyes or ears.

Apocalypse unveils. Exposes. Reveals. Some times this is good and some times it is bad. Isaiah reveals that Israel is not clothed fine linen but unspeakably dirty rags. Think of Scrooge. The ghosts of Christmas play an apocalyptic role in his life. They open his eye to a world that he has failed to see. They unveil the joys, the suffering, the love, and even the death.

For once, Scrooge sees himself as he truly is: a dead man. The terror drives him to repent.

Advent is a time of apocalypse. As the dark days of December give way to winter’s night, we focus on the light of the coming Son. We are watching and waiting. Like the little windows on an Advent calendar, we are unfolding new surprises of God’s coming each day.

We pray for eyes to see and ears to hear. Like the child searching for magic beneath every Advent window, we are looking for glimpses of glory. Just as Solomon exhorts us to search for wisdom as silver and as hidden treasure, we search for the Son. We look for His unveiling.

The unveiling may be gentle. We might behold our neighbors through the light of His glorious love and realize just a glimpse of the wonder they truly are. We might pause over the simple act of sipping tea and offer thanks for the gracious gifts of our good Lord. We might realize His glorious touch in the people and places all around us. Our hearts might be like a little child as we sense the glory of the Lord drawing near.

But a word of caution: Advent can also be dangerous.

Gentle Jesus also comes with sword. The Prince of Peace may appear in terrifying splendor and a fury of unspeakable glory. When John beholds the wonder, he falls down as though dead.

4 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; 15 His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; 16 He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.[1]

In the middle of the day, in the middle of the hour, in the middle of the moment, the Son appears. When He comes, the sword of His word penetrates our blind eyes and dead ears with the roar of glory.

Opening our blind eyes can be a bit of a jolt. Annie Dillard writes, “If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.”[2] So be warned.

He may come as a gentle breeze awakening us from a soft sleep. But he may come as a trumpet blast awakening us from a death like oblivion. The Son may pierce with His Word and wound with His love. In beholding Him, we also behold our own broken hearts, our own dirty rags. The light of the Son can burn and heal at the same time.

The days of unveiling have come. Let us pause. Look around. Watch. Wait.

[1] The New King James Version. 1982 (Re 1:14–16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[2] Dillard, Annie (2009-10-13). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Kindle Locations 341-342). Harper Perennial Modern Classics. Kindle Edition.

Categories: Advent

Wake Up Call

December 7, 2011 2 comments

At some point between the moment I lifted the cup of coffee and the moment it reached my lips, I started to doze. My grip loosened, the cup slipped, and…somehow the cup landed back on the table with a small splash. I jolted wide awake.

How can you fall asleep while drinking a hot cup of coffee? Apparently, I can fall asleep almost anywhere at anytime.

When my sister studied at the University of Tennessee, she was walking across campus one day when she saw a body in the middle of the field. At first she was concerned that someone had passed out or had a heart attack. When she walked up to the body, she realized it was me sleeping. While walking to class, I felt dozy and sat down minute. Then I stretched out and went straight to sleep.

It seems early morning prayer in a coffee shop is particularly conducive to sleeping.

Sometimes the short doze is exactly what I need. I awake with a renewed clarity. Other times, I’m sleeping in my wakefulness.

I was wide awake on a recent morning, when I felt the Lord convict me of sleep, but I was not asleep. I was convicted of a sleep that might understood as distraction, as numbness. This kind of sleep is what some of the Church Fathers might call “sloth.”

Sloth may be indicative of our era. We all are bombarded with so much information that it causes a certain deadness, a certain of loss of focus, a certain emptying of presence. Like falling under an evil spell, we fall into a waking slumber. This slumber is full of motion, activity, busy-ness. This sloth may even be full of prayer, meditation, and study.

Constant motion hides our numbness to existence, our absence of attention or awareness. We exist, but we don’t really see, we don’t really hear, we don’t really live. The world around us and the life within us is dulled and darkened. Our vision grows dim. We lose heart. We become dis-couraged.

In the middle of prayer, the Spirit convicted me of coldness, of self-sufficiency. Beneath this self-sufficiency hides the dehumanizing power of idolatry. This conviction brought to mind something Ole Hallesby says in his classic book called, Prayer. He writes, “Only those who are helpless can truly pray.” As I heard these words echo in my memory, I knew that sloth had sapped me of helplessness.

Hallesby continues, “Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless. We are moved to pray every time the Spirit of God, which is the spirit of prayer, emphasizes anew to us our helplessness, and we realize how impotent we are by nature to believe, to love, to hope, to serve, to sacrifice, to suffer, to read the Bible, to pray and to struggle against our sinful desires.”

He recognizes that our realization of helplessness is a gift of the Spirit. When the Spirit penetrated my heart, I felt like I had been jolted awake by almost dropping the cup of coffee. Right in the middle of prayer, my soul was sleeping, drifting, dozing. Suddenly I was awake. “Oh God, I don’t want to be cold. To be absent. To be numb.”

Listening to Rickie Lee Jones respond in song to the Gospel on her album, “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” deepened this sense of call from the Lord. She asks, “How do you pray in a world like this?” Then later she cries out like the Publican, “I’m down here too, I’m down here too, I’m down here too.” In her cry, I hear the posture of helplessness.

How do we maintain this posture in the midst of the land of plenty? Or how do we maintain a sense of hunger and desperation for God while seeking to live with daily intention? Even the pattern of daily devotion can become the place where our sinfulness hides. We cannot find the answer within ourselves, within our methods of prayer, within our theologies. The answer is beyond us, above us.

During Advent we are looking up. We are looking for the Coming One. Only our Lord can save us from our idolatries. The Spirit compels us to look for the Coming One, the Savior who convicts and redeems. Even in His prodding, His convicting, His exposing, He is healing us of the deadening numbness of a world immersed in self-sufficiency.

He is calling us beyond ourselves. Hallesby writes,
“Jesus comes to sinners, awakens them from their sleep in sin, converts them, forgives their sins and makes them His children. Then He takes the weak hand of the sinner and places it in His own strong, nail-pierced hand and says: “Come now, I am going with you all the way and will bring you safe home to heaven. If you ever get into trouble or difficulty, just tell me about it. I will give you, without reproach, everything you need, and more besides, day by day, as long as you live.”

In His gentle and fiery provocations, our Lord turns us much the like he turns the planets. He orients us around His life, His strength, His love. In Him, we are turning into humans, into lovers. By His Spirit we become lamps lit, burning out in the darkness with the oil of lovingkindness.

I am grateful for His wake up call. Repentance comes as the gift of resurrection for we are turning from death to life. During this Advent season of waiting and watching, I pray that we may hear His call to turn away from our numbness, our coldness, our blindness, our hopelessness. By His Spirit, may we turn toward His redeeming power, His transforming love, His sudden appearing.

Categories: Advent

Advent – Living Faithful in the Dark

November 30, 2011 1 comment

Photo by Eyeline-Imagery. Used by Creative Commons Permission.

An apostate king sits on the throne of an apostate people. Under threat from Jezebel, Elijah runs away and cries out to the Lord.

I’m the only one left!

But he is not alone. In the midst of his groaning, the Lord reveals that there are 7,000 who have not bowed down before Baal. Think about that for a moment.

Israel has been judged and found wanting. The land and the people suffer the wrath of God. In the middle of this dark place and dark age, 7,000 people remain faithful.

As we follow the journey of God’s people across time, we discover hidden, faithful pilgrims struggling to walking in the midst of dark places and dark times. Daniel suffers the judgment on Judah and is thrust into the lair of Babylon. Renamed Belteshazzar, he bears the title of a Babylonian deity.

How does he live faithful to the Lord in an alien land and under the name of an alien god? In this new land, Daniel faces the threat of seduction. Power and privilege are his. How can he remember Jerusalem from the palaces of Babylon?

Like Daniel, the hidden faithful are often called to live in alien places among alien gods. How do we wait? How do we watch? How do we long for the coming kingdom while living in luxuries of alien kingdoms?

The prophets calls us to our true hope, and call us away from false hopes that ultimately enslave. The watching and waiting of Advent are about tuning that hope toward our only hope, the Coming Lord.

As I think of watching and waiting in the land of plenty, I am reminded of a game I learned many years ago from my professor Darlene Graves. She divided us into pairs. One person wore a blindfold and the other person guided the blindfolded person across the room and to the door.

Then we repeated the exercise only this time the guide merely spoke and never touched the blindfolded person. Then we repeated the game again. But this time, Dr. Graves covered the floor with obstacles that could easily trip up the blind folded person. Other voices called out to the blind folded person, trying to distract and confuse. The guide could only whisper. The blindfolded person walked slower and listened carefully, attuning her ears to the whisper.

We listen for the whisper in aliens lands among alien gods. The way may seem clouded and confused. The promised land so far away. Does it still even hold promise for us? The temptation of discouragement may encircles. We may hear the sirens of discontent and fear and anguish. We may hear the call to trust in lesser gods. We may grow weary and lose heart.

When all hope seems lost, our hope rests in His faithfulness, not ours. He alone is faithful. Our Savior also heard the voices of distraction and seduction in the wilderness, in the streets of Jerusalem and even in the Temple. He walked attuned to the voice of His Father.

Even now, He tunes our hearts to His voice, to the gentle rhythm of His grace. Let us look up from these alien places and alien gods. Let us watch and wait for His coming. And let us listen for His call, inviting us to sings songs of love and deliverance over the people and places where we walk.

Categories: Advent

The World Keeps Turning

November 28, 2011 1 comment

Photo by Picture this Patty. Used by Creative Commons Permission.

“The year has known conversion.” – Bobi Jones

The world keeps turning.

Nations, cultures, communities and families are changing. In the past 12 months, several dictatorships have fallen. Economies totter on the verge of collapse. The political world swirls in confusion, disagreement and uncertainty.

The world keeps turning.

We keep moving from birth to death. During this last year, we’ve welcomed new people, new friends, new places and new opportunities in our lives. We’ve also said goodbye to family members, old friends, old places, and old jobs.

The world keeps turning.

We feel the strain of uncertainty displacing us, forcing us to adjust, pressing us into anxious places and clouded paths. The way forward seems unclear, unsure and even unsafe.

The world keeps turning.

We stand on a planet that never ceases to circle. Even when standing still, we cannot stop the turning.

In the tumult of the turning, we find orientation in the One whose Appearing orders all things and all persons. As Augustine once wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

During Advent, the people of God across the ages have looked for the appearing of our rest, our anchor, our peace, our Lord.

In the end, all time turns in to Christ.

Let us turn. Let us join the ages of saints before us who watch and wait for His Appearing. Let us tune into His Word in the heart our turning world.

Categories: Advent

Groaning Under the Glory (Epiphany)

January 6, 2011 2 comments

The Miraculous Draught of Fish - James Tissot

The first glimmer of dawn ripples across the sea. Night is fading. The rising sun exposes an empty boat full of weary fishermen. The people working in darkness have seen a great light. And it only reminds them of failure.

We know their story all too well. A long night’s struggle gives way to the light of our own weaknesses. Heaven breaks in all around us, we behold the darkness in our own hearts. We don’t measure up. We fall short. We glare dimly in the light of glory.

The light shines out in the darkness, and it appears that the darkness is moments away from putting it out.

On this Epiphany, we celebrate the wise men bowing before the baby Jesus. This infant king was supposed to usher in the Kingdom of justice, peace, righteousness and truth. But the story is far stranger than we expect. This Nativity story immediately cuts to Herod’s slaughtering sword killing the innocent babes in Bethlehem while the baby Jesus is whisked to the safety of Egypt. In the moment when God breaks into our world, he is revealed amidst struggle and strife and more suffering.

Today, the celebration of Epiphany breaks into our cold hearted world, but everyone has already forgotten the miraculous birth. Back at work. Immersed in projects and meetings and deadlines, we have no time to linger over the troublesome story of God’s unveiling in the midst of a world that reels in anguish.

And yet, this is Gospel.

Jesus is raised as a carpenter. He’ll have to get his hands dirty. When God comes to dwell among His people, he enters into the grime and messiness of life on earth. He enters into the darkness and at times, it appears the darkness will swallow him alive.

In fact, it does swallow him alive.

I’m not so comfortable with the messiness of this spirituality revealed in the Gospels. I want to live on the Mount of Transfiguration, far from the smells and sounds and struggles of our broken world. I want my faith and spiritual life to grow and flourish in a place free from conflict. Like a child hiding from shouts of an angry parent, I want to hide from the problems of life. I seek a sanitized spirituality. Not the messy wonder of Jesus stepping onto the boat of a few weary fisherman.

They needed him during their night of futile fishing. They needed him in their hour of darkness. But he didn’t come. Then they gave up. They started cleaning their nets and docking their boats, then he suddenly stepped into their story.

We sometimes think God has to appear like a Geni from a bottle when we face conflict, indecision, life challenges. He doesn’t have to appear. In fact, he didn’t even have to do anything. He didn’t have to create us. He didn’t have to create our world. He doesn’t have to create or sustain anything. Rather, He is free to create. He is free to sustain. He is free from our closed world of cause and effect. He is free to enter our stories as he chooses.

Jesus freely steps onto a boat of weary fisherman. After teaching the crowds of people, he turns to Peter and issues a command, “Drop your nets in the deep.”

While the command appears nonsensical in the full light of day, a puzzled Peter obeys. A moment later the boat almost sinks under the weight of the all the squirming, smelly fish. Peter falls to his knees and cries out to Jesus, “Depart from me a sinner.”

When the glory of the Lord appears, we fall down like Peter groaning under its weight. Oddly enough, it doesn’t make us feel more spiritual, but less so. The failures of our words and actions shine ever so clearly in the light of Jesus unveiling. When Augustine beholds the Glory of the Lord, he realizes the terrible darkness of his own unrighteousness.

Some people, like myself, scramble to retreats, to prayer summits, to quiet places, hoping for that transcendent encounter. I am drawn to a spiritual life where I rise like the morning mist floating up toward the sun. Instead, I’m flung back to the earth to behold a life less spiritual than I imagined. Spirituality is neither the heavenly bliss of ecstatic joy nor the endless groveling of self-excoriation. Rather, it is the freedom of Christ to enter into the boat, to enter the story.

He enters Peter’s story in the freedom of his own time and place. Moments later, Peter is overwhelmed by the Light of Glory. In Peter’s exposure and confession of sinfulness, Jesus doesn’t leave. Rather, he says, “Don’t be afraid.”

Encountering the Glory of His Light often means encountering the terror of our weaknesses. Jesus looks at us and says, “Do not fear.” He is present. He calls us to follow.

He calls Peter into a life of fishing for living people. Peter, James and John leave everything behind and follow Him.

This is the life of faith. Leaving everything behind and following Jesus. And later, leaving everything behind and following Jesus. And still later, leaving everything behind and following Jesus. Like Paul on the Damascus road, He steps into our success. Like Nicodemus in the dark of night, He steps into our ideologies. Like the woman at the well, He steps into our shame. Like Peter on the boat, He steps into our exhaustion, our weariness, our failure. He steps in the utter messiness of our world and says, “Leave everything behind and follow me.”

On this wondrous day of Epiphany, open your eyes. For Jesus is coming, Jesus is calling. Whether you’re basking in the light of your own glory or drowning in the darkness of despair, leave everything behind and follow Jesus. He will take you where you don’t want to go. But don’t fear. He loves you. And He will love you into glory, into glory and into ever-increasing glory.

Categories: Advent

The Strange Delight of the Christmas Story

December 24, 2010 4 comments


Year after year, I continue standing in astonishment before the strange delight of the Christmas story. The days grow shorter. The nights grow longer. The bleak midwinter chills the heart. The world slumps back into darkness. When darkness should be the strongest and dreariest, the Light of Life breaks into our world.

GK Chesterton once said, “Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate” (The New Jerusalem, chap 5). He acknowledged the symbolic power of celebrating the birth of Jesus during the coldest, darkest season.

The cold days and long nights only serve to magnify the clash of impossibilities bursting out from this ancient tale. Shepherds hear angels sing. Wise men follow a star. A virgin gives birth. Light overcomes darkness. Good conquers evil.

The broken fragments of a world gone wrong are bound in the babe in the manger. Jesus, God with us, arrives under the song, “Peace on earth. Goodwill to man.”

As we hear the story, sing the songs and give the gifts, we may wonder if this story is simply too good to be true. Did God really bring peace and goodwill? If we’re really honest, we begin by questioning our own life in our own little world. Darkness and defeat often seem to thrive.

Hatred flourishes. People ache. Children suffer. We struggle to understand why. Dostevsky speaks to the heart of our questions in Ivan Karamazov’s response to his brother Alyosha as he considers faith in God in light of children suffering.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Some of us may also have been tempted to “return the ticket” in the face of our own suffering or the suffering all around us. Evil invades everything, corrupting the world and blocking the light of God’s love.

Searching the dense fog of darkness enveloping our news, our culture and often our lives, we seek answers to the problem of evil. TF Torrance once suggested that our search for answers even in Scripture may find limited results. The evil of evil is so pervasive that it infects everything–even our thoughts.

Scripture never offers a comprehensive theory of evil or an exhaustive defense of God in the face of evil. Rather, it acknowledges the presence of evil. In the paradise of Eden, evil appears. It even shows up at the Nativity.

Right after the miraculous birth of Jesus, we encounter the troubling story of Herod’s slaughter of innocent babes. Evil appears at the very beginning of Jesus’ life. We could almost tell the whole story of Incarnation through the lens of evil. From his birth to his death, Jesus is attacked, threatened, sought and eventually killed by evil humans.

Now pause and think about that for one moment. Throughout the whole story of Emmanuel, God with us, evil is present. God comes to us in the person of Jesus. He suffers from evil attacks and eventually is killed by evil.

While the Bible doesn’t completely explain the presence of evil, it does reveal a God who enters into the struggle against evil in this world. He never, never, never abandons us in evil. From the suffering children to the despairing saints, He is present.

He is present in our brokeness. He is present in our suffering. He is present in our dying. He is present in our death.

In the wondrous Nativity story, we behold the baby Jesus. We behold the Lord who has entered into the evil and pain and struggle of a world bent back upon itself. Even in the joy and promise of peace, we see the threat of a darkness coming to destroy Him.

And yet, the light shines out brightly. The angels rejoice. The shepherds kneel. The wise worship. We behold the glory of light overcoming darkness. From birth through life to death, every moment of Jesus’ life is act of redemption. He is redeeming all human existence. He is redeeming all creation.

He enters into our fragmentation and takes that division into His love, redeeming and reconciling the world to the Father. He dies under the power of evil and rises again defeat the power of evil, defeating death and taking our humanity into the glory of the Godhead.

So even as he enters our struggles and suffering and evil, by His grace we enter His righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. In Him and through Him we incarnate the light of glory in all this world.

It has not fully been revealed what we will be or what this earth will be, but we know death and evil and all darkness will be completely eliminated and love and hope and faith will prevail.

So we rejoice in this wondrous birth that reconciles the opposites and reveals the Father. We rest in His faithfulness in the midst of our messy world, our messy lives. We bring our opposites to the stable, to the cross, to the throne.

There we discover a Savior who is at the right hand of the Father praying for us! In Him and by His Spirit, we can rejoice even in the midst of suffering, we can know love even in the midst of struggle, we shine out as lights in the midst of dark universe.

So let us rejoice in the birth of the baby while we worship the Lord who will bring all things into submission–even death.

Categories: Advent

The Surprise We Cannot Grasp

December 20, 2010 2 comments

This image by an unknown Fleming artist (circa 1515) captures the common medieval theme of Jesus born in the ruins of Solomon's palace, the fallen House of David.

The lover surprises his beloved with a ring and question. The friends shout, “Happy Birthday” to their unsuspecting companion. The parent transforms their home into a Christmas wonderland for the waking child.

Surprise breaks into our world and opens us to something deeper, something richer, some wonder that is just beyond our grasp. In this moment of surprise, of love expressed, of celebration, we are raptured into a brief moment of sheer joy. The glory, the beauty, the delight of this passing moment wounds us with longing to experience yet again.

Recreating a moment of surprise is almost impossible.

Chesterton once suggested that at Christmas we seek to recreate that first Christmas experience when the wonder of the day captured the heart of the child. But that wonder so often eludes us. How do you create a wonder-filled surprise?

As we approach Christmas morning, as we step toward the birth of the baby Jesus, as we anticipate relaxing and rejoicing with family, we long for this surprise, and yet we are already preparing for disappointment. The hopes of Christmas so often disappoint and even repel.

Thus for many, Christmas is just another day, or worse, it’s a time a depression and loneliness, when our own lack is magnified. If the Christ child really did come, if peace on earth really is true, why do we still live in the dark?
As that question resounds within me, I think of the prayers of the church from yesterday and today. Last night the church sang out the “O Antiphons” chant,

O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming.

And tonight the church cries out,

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

Both prayers focus on different aspects of the House of David. The kingdom of David came as a promised hope to the people of Israel. This small Palestinian nation looked to King David and his descendants as the promise of God in their midst to protect them and extend their rule and fulfill the hope of Abraham to become a blessing for all nations.

Israel’s prophets saw kings of the earth flocking to Mount Zion for wisdom. David’s house would grow up as tree or vine of Jesse that would extend to all nations, bringing the rule of the Lord, the order of the Lord, the fulness of the Lord to a world in desperate need.

But the tree fell, the vine was burned. When Babylon burned Jerusalem to the ground, the fall of the House of David was not simply the crumbling of a great dynasty, it was death of hope for Israel and ultimately for the world. It was the disappointment with no respite.

Imagine the agony of Isaiah, Jeremy or Ezekiel when they behold the plans of the Lord. Is God abandoning His people? Is God abandoning this earth? By allowing the fall of the House of David, He has forsaken His plan of redemption for all creation. The darkness that resides where the Temple once glowed will eventually quench all light.

Darkness, darkness and more darkness.

Then by sheer surprise, the Spirit of God prompts Isaiah to write the following song:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
(Isaiah 11:1 ESV)

In his song, he sees a stump. The tree has long since been chopped down. The stump is the very image of death. The House of David is dead. The stump of Jesse cannot grow, cannot shelter the earth, cannot provide. It is dead.
But suddenly a tiny green shoot springs forth from the dead stump. This tiny shoot changes everything. Life grows up in the place of death? How can this be? The Lord resurrects the House of David. Hope is not lost.

And by unspeakable wonder, He comes down; He enters history; He establishes a throne that cannot, will not be overturned. Not even death can stop His rule.

As we look toward the babe in the manger, we are beholding the shoot springing forth from the stump of Jesse. This tiny babe, this frail babe, this dependent babe who rests in the arms of Mary and Joseph, is “God with us.”

He will restore the throne in unexpected, surprising ways. He will rule in life and death. No foe is beyond his rule, not even death. In His rule, Jesus enters into the tombs, takes hold of dead humanity and raises us up into the life-giving presence of the Father.

This is the surprise that we still do not grasp. But every time we catch but a glimmer, we are overwhelmed. It is the surprise that cannot be contained in our Nativities, our Christmas songs, our Santa games. It is the surprise that keeps breaking out of all the ways we try to share it and contain it and grasp it.

It is the surprise we simply cannot grasp. Christ has come and in coming, he enters into our low estate and even into our death and has raised up to life and life and life.

So we return again and again and again to the wonder of this birth, this babe, this light that penetrates all darkness. If you know the darkness of depression, of disappointment, of death. If you know the darkness of this anguished earth, come with me to the Nativity.

Come rehearse, retell, remember the story that is not old but newer and more vital than we ourselves. Let us look, listen and wait for the Good News of God. In our darkness, we will be surprised again and again by a glory that is beyond all we can grasp. We will be overwhelmed by a wonder that cannot be exhausted because it flows out from the one who is Life Unconquerable.

Our Christmas celebrations, our gift giving, our songs and stories are but ways of remembering, rehearsing, revisiting the surprise of His life that sustains. Open your eyes and look out with hope, for He is coming and in Him, you will discover the longing of your weary soul.

Categories: Advent

We Long for Justice

December 18, 2010 1 comment

Tonight the church will chant:

O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

The Lord delivered His people from the false lord Pharaoh. Not a true father, this Egyptian lord used laws to oppress and control the people. Instead of fathering the people like a true leader, he enslaved them like most leaders.

The true Lord, the true Father, the truly Just One came. He set His people free. He revealed His law to them and called them to walk in His way. The people did not walk in His way, but turned again and again to other ways that enslaved. Even Moses, the great prophet that spoke the Laws of the Lord failed to keep the whole law and could not enter the Promised Land.

Like the ancient Hebrews, we too walk in ways that enslave. We may rightly cry out and even act for justice in this world, but true justice, true freedom, true Shalom flows from the Just One.

Today, we are watching and waiting for the coming of the One who Just and Righteous and True.

And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
(Isaiah 11:3-5 ESV)

As we watch and wait for the coming of the Just One, let us confess our frustrations, our own tendencies to question God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, God’s justice. Denise Levertov’s poem, Psalm Fragments, may help us give voice to our own anguished longing:

Psalm Fragment

This clinging to a God
for whom one does
nothing.
A loyalty
without deeds.

*

Tyrant God.
Cruel God.
Heartless God.

God who permits
the endless outrage we call
History.

Deaf God.
Blind God.
Idiot God.

(Scapegoat god. Finally
running out of accusations
we deny Your existence.)

*
I don’t forget
that downhill street
of spilled garbage and beat up cars,
the gray faces
looking up, all color
gone with the sun–

disconsolate. prosaic twilight
at midday. And the fear
of blindness.

It’s harder to recall
the relief when plain
daylight returned

subtly, softly,
without the fuss
of trumpets.
Yet
our faces had been upturned
like those of gazers
into a sky of angels
at Birth or Ascension.

*
Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic threat to thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.

*

I do nothing, I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me

minute by minute
from falling.

Lord You provide.

(From The Stream & the Sapphire, Denise Levertov, 21-23)

Categories: Advent
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