Archives: Advent

The One Who Calls You Is Faithful

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

That’s 1 Thessalonians 5:24, and it is now officially one of my favorite verses in scripture.

This entire 1 Thessalonians passage is beautiful, every phrase packed full of practical encouragement in the life of faith that somehow manages to rise above plain advice and reach a lyrical joy.

These are words you can write on your heart, words you can carry around with you through the day, words you can call up when your soul is hungry for light.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says. “Do not quench the spirit…hold fast to what is good.”

Those are lofty goals.

I wish to heck I did rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, but I can guarantee you I don’t.

There are days it’s more like “complain always, feel sorry for myself without ceasing, and make my own life more difficult in all circumstances.”

How do we live lives drenched with rejoicing, governed by prayer, and radiating gratitude?

Both the how and the why of it are all contained in that concluding phrase: “The one who calls you is faithful.”

This phrase has more than one meaning, and we can see it through all of our scriptures appointed for today.

“The one,” of course, in “the one who calls you is faithful,” is God.

But there is more than one way to look at God’s call. Continue reading

Who Wants to Talk About Virtue?

Our Isaiah passage and our psalm today are among my most beloved scriptures in the Bible.

How many of us can ever read Isaiah 40 without hearing Handel’s setting of it for Messiah?

And Psalm 85:10, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” I count as one of the most vivid and beautiful descriptions of the Dream of God in all of scripture.

I notice a shared image between Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85.

Isaiah is commanded to proclaim: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.”

Psalm 85 says, “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven…and our land will yield its increase.”

These are images of plants growing up from the ground, but we notice that the result is very different in each case.

We humans are like blooming plants, but we do not last. We fade and wither, and quickly return to the Earth, our source.

What plants grow up strong and stand fast forever? The virtues or values of truth and righteousness, and the Word of God.

What do we make of this? What does it have to say to us in our walk of faith?

Advent is a good time to reflect on our mortality.

It is technically a penitential season, which means it is our opportunity to reflect on sin and death.

As grim as that seems, we don’t reflect on sin and death to be morbid or self-abasing. We do it because it helps us gain needed perspective, to see ourselves as those flowers that fade and the grass that is cut down.

And what’s the purpose of that?

To teach us to cherish every moment we have in this mortal life, and also to remember that no matter how big the mistakes and regrets we have, they too are as fleeting and mortal as the grass in the sweep of the long story of our loving and forgiving God.

So we learn from our texts that virtue lasts: truth, righteousness, mercy, and peace.

What does that actually mean? Continue reading

Good News: The End Is Nigh

You have no idea how tempted I was to get in the pulpit today wearing a big sandwich board sign that said, “The end is nigh!”

It’s Advent, and the texts chosen for us to study and reflect on in the Advent season are often chaotic and dramatic, foreshadowing the end of the world.

There are themes of apocalypse woven throughout, whether it is John the Baptist or Mary the Mother of Jesus talking about social apocalypse or Jesus talking about cosmic apocalypse.

We hear in our scripture readings on Sunday mornings about valleys being made low and hills lifted up, about the mighty being cast down from their thrones, about the axe being at the root of the tree and the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire.

As I’ve preached before, despite what the onslaught of saccharine Christmas commercialization would have us believe, Advent is not really a tender and gentle time. It is about dramatic and earth-shattering upheaval.

And our texts for this Sunday are no exception. Jesus tells us that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

That’s pretty intimidating.

And Isaiah seems positively eager for everything to go to hell in a handbasket.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”

He can’t wait!

Here is another opportunity to remind ourselves how different our outlook is from the people who originally heard these words proclaimed.

What kind of people are eager to see society torn limb from limb and for God to erupt into history with righteous vengeance? Continue reading

An End to Performance Anxiety

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the performance principle, and about how it honestly has dominated my entire life.

The influence of my upbringing and my society has encouraged me to base most of my self-worth on what I do, how I perform, what I achieve.

I know I’m not alone in that!

I sense that God is changing that in me in a “three steps forward, two steps back” sort of way, and I have to tell you, slow as it is, that change is actually incredibly liberating and peace-giving.

I told one of my spiritual direction partners that I’m realizing over and over how much of what I do and what’s going on around me doesn’t matter in any final sense, and far from being nihilistic, that’s a joyful realization.

In conjunction with that strand of spiritual call, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about something that may sound a bit odd.

I’m starting to wonder if part of discipleship is just learning how to put up with the fact that we’re kind of jerks sometimes, and there’s probably a piece of that that we can’t ever grow out of or get rid of.

Does that make sense?

The honest spiritual desire to grow in faith, to practice spiritual discipline and see it effect real change in us, can lead us right back to the worthiness and holiness trap.

It’s the performance principle that used to be focused on the outer world—job, salary, possessions, looks, Facebook likes—translated into spiritual athleticism.

Suddenly we have a false and hollow goal that one day—one magical day!—we’ll have Arrived. We will have “achieved” Being a Good Christian.

Well, what if we never will? Continue reading

Thrown Into the Air

There’s a lot going on in our gospel text today.

We have Jesus talking about vipers, trees and axes, wheat and chaff, water and fire.

What’s he trying to communicate to us?

Jesus sounds angry in this lesson, especially with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and maybe he is angry.

But I think it’s an anger that comes from passion and urgency.

It’s like when you scold your three-year-old after she almost runs out in the street—it’s an anger born of fear and love.

You so want this person to be safe, there is no other way to communicate the intensity of your desire but through seemingly harsh words.

That’s how Jesus feels about us.

Jesus does not want us stuck in the same old patterns that keep us small and selfish and fearful.

He does not want us to live lives dominated by suspicion and cynicism and a vague, aching sense deep inside of us that there must be more to life than what we’re experiencing.

Jesus wants us to undergo radical change, stomach-churning transformation, having the rug pulled out from under us in the most disorienting way, because that is what it takes to grow up into the full stature of Christ.

All of Jesus’ images in our gospel today are about profound disruption, and I’m not sure that’s a message we’re all too keen on hearing right now. Continue reading

A Magnificat Advent Calendar

The Advent calendar is a cherished winter tradition. We open a paper door on each day of the calendar from Advent until Christmas and read a saying or Bible verse to reflect upon spiritually. If the person who bought us the calendar really splashed out, we might get some chocolate out of each day’s slot as well! (I’ll give you three guesses as to which daily gift I gave more heed to when I was little, the Bible verse or the chocolate.)

I’d like to offer a different type of calendar as we enter the season. The Magnificat, or Song of Mary, is the cornerstone text of Advent. This is Mary’s response in Luke 1 after the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will bear a child and name him Jesus, and Mary goes to share the news with her cousin Elizabeth.

The Magnificat as it occurs in the Book of Common Prayer in the canticles for Morning and Evening Prayer contains twenty verses, including the Gloria Patri. If you were to pray about one of these verses every day except Sunday, they would cover from November 28 (the First Monday of Advent) through December 20, with December 21-24 open to reflect upon the entire text. I am curious as to what our Christmas worship would be like if we each committed to this simple spiritual discipline.

To help you out, I’ve created this “Magnificat Month” Advent calendar below. Continue reading

The Song of Soul Friends

What are you like when you’re in love?

Have you ever been in love? Especially that first flush of new love?

Everything is beautiful all around you.

You can’t stop thinking about that special someone.

Everything reminds you of him or her.

When you’re with that person, time seems to stop. You can’t imagine how you lived before you met him or her.

You know what else you do when you’re in love?

You sing.

You sing all the time.

You sing in the shower, you sing while you’re driving, you sing while you’re cooking.

You sing about your loved one, you sing to your loved one, every love song on the radio is about you and your relationship.

That’s usually how you learn someone is in love in a musical or an opera, too. They burst into radiant song and you know—they have fallen, and they have fallen hard.

But what happens when your love is not returned?

Have you ever experienced unrequited love?

Oh, it hurts.

Whenever you’re in a room with that person, no matter how crowded, you’re constantly aware of where he or she is.

You replay every conversation you’ve ever had, straining it for deeper meaning than is really there.

If you’re technologically minded, you might do a bit of light Facebook stalking, hoping that they’re happy and in love with someone, no matter how sad you are that you’re not that person. Continue reading

John the Baptist Commits a Major Party Foul

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday.

What does that mean?

Gaudete is the Latin word meaning “rejoice,” and the origin of this name for the third Sunday of Advent comes from the beginning of our reading from Philippians today: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

In the old Latin mass, the introit used this text, so the first words the priest said were, “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.”

Hence the name Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of rejoicing.

Advent is actually a penitential season like Lent, something many people don’t realize.

That’s why when I dismiss you at the end of the service, I don’t say “Alleluia, alleluia.” We just say, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” and you respond, “Thanks be to God,” just like in Lent, because it’s a penitential season.

Just like how in Lent we use the time to prepare for Easter and reflect on things like our mortality and sin, we do the same in Advent to prepare for Christmas.

Thinking about how much we need Jesus helps us get ready to welcome and greet him. Continue reading

Do You Need to Be Silenced?

We have been told so many times that Christmas is God’s gift to us that I think we sometimes relax into a problematic complacency.

Christmas and the coming of the Christ Child absolutely is a free and unmerited gift to us—God gives Godself to us in the Incarnation with no strings attached.

But what we forget is that if we choose to participate in this process, we will be changed.

Advent is actually all about change.

The valleys are being lifted up and the hills are being made low.

Our entire internal landscape is being rearranged—or it should be, if we have not gotten too deaf and numb to God’s presence in our lives.

This time of year it’s easy to bounce between frantic, consumer-driven gaiety and frightened depression at the state of the world and its violence.

But somewhere in the middle of the swirling commotion is a still point, where the chaos that comes from God and not from the world can reach our hearts and gently, lovingly, slowly turn us inside out. Continue reading

Ready or Not, Here He Comes

Well, folks, we’re out of time.

Christmas is a short three days away, and there is a rapidly closing window of time to accomplish whatever preparation you knew you had to take care of before December 24.

And I’m not just talking about the kind of preparation that immediately springs to mind.

I’m not just talking about the online last-minutes gift deals and the frantic rushing out for another roll of wrapping paper.

I’m not just talking about the dog eating the chocolate that was supposed to go in the stockings and the frantic rush to Kroger at 10 a.m. on December 24 to buy onion salt, cranberry sauce, a meat thermometer, and all the other once-a-year kitchen items you forgot to get to prepare food for your guests.

I’m letting you know that the window is also closing on the last opportunity for our spiritual preparation, which by the way is the original purpose of this entire holiday season.

We can be forgiven for perhaps forgetting from time to time—after all, the reminders to remember the “true spirit of Christmas” have become as trite as the twinkling lights and blaring songs about Rudolph and Frosty.

But today is our last Sabbath before Christmas. It’s time to pause, stop, and reflect on where we have been.

How did we arrive at the moment three days before our Savior’s birth?

What has been happening to you spiritually for the past four weeks?

What have you been doing to prepare a place to welcome the Christ Child within your life, your self, your mind, your heart?

How have you seen God at work in your life, leading you and guiding you toward the star in the East that grows stronger and brighter with each passing day? Continue reading