Advent: “Christ comes into our worst world” bringing hope in the deepest darkness

December 1, 2014

In the space of 24 hours, I’ve come across three excellent Advent devotional entries that all focus on the desperate reality of our broken world and the darkness of evil.  (More on those in just a minute…)

Perhaps I was particularly attuned to this theme as I spent several hours yesterday reading the first half of Isaiah, immersed in the terrible pronouncements of judgment and coming exile.  In doing so I noted how the prophecies of Christ shone brilliantly like precious jewels or laser beams in the context of such darkness.  The horrors of sin and evil make the promise of redemption and a savior so much more precious and wonderful!

For instance, just look at a few verses from Isaiah 1 (from yesterday and today’s daily lectionary readings):

Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. (Isaiah 1:4-7 ESV)

They had “forsaken the Lord, despised the Holy One…,” and are described as utterly estranged, having no health or soundness, desolate, devoured…  How can there be any hope for them?

And yet just a few verses later, the wonderful promise of cleansing from sin!

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18 ESV)

What an illustration of the unfathomable depths of God’s grace and mercy!  So, I was reminded not to shrink back from the “hard” Advent readings that reveal the desperate darkness of the world and the human heart…

Pondering these things, I then began browsing various blogs and Twitter to finalize our list of recommended Advent devotional sites and resources… and in doing so I’ve come across the following three devotionals- each very different from the other –  that do a brilliant job of confronting the reality of evil and pointing to how our honesty about the blackness and desperation of sin and suffering heightens our ability to treasure Christ and the HOPE in Him that is a focus of Advent.

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First:  a powerful and poignant blog entry by Sarah Bessey, a woman who has known the grief of losing 4 children –  Advent: for the ones who know longing.    Here are two excerpts:

Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away. I think of the waiting for the Christ child, yes, and I think of the still-waiting for all things to be made right, for our longing for Shalom.

Would we be so filled with joy at his arrival if we weren’t so filled with longing already?

If Christmas is for the joy, then Advent is for the longing.

As I learned in particular through our lost babies, one after another after another, the joy born out of suffering and longing is more beautiful for its very complexity. I am learning it again in these days in particular when so many are grieving and angry, sad and wounded from the pain of living in this world as it stands right now. The joy doesn’t erase the longing and the sadness that came before but it does redeem it, it may even stain backwards changing how we look at those days or years. But the joy is made more real, richer and deeper perhaps, because we longed for it with all our hearts for so many days.  […]

I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

Advent has become more important to me as I’ve gotten older.

When I was young, I couldn’t understand this emphasis on waiting – let’s get to the Christmas joy!

Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent.

Now that I have fallen in step with the man from Nazareth, I want to walk where he walked into the brokenness of this life, and see the Kingdom of God at hand. Now that I have learned how much I need him, I have learned to watch for him.

Advent is for the ones who know longing.

Here’s the full entry.  Consider sharing with someone who is grieving this Advent to remind them that God enters into our brokenness and pain.  We don’t need to hide it.

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Secondly, today’s entry (Dec 1) at the Biola Advent Project site.  There is a fantastic exposition of several passages from Lamentations:

Lamentations is a first-person account by the prophet Jeremiah, written as a poem. This book of the Old Testament chronicles the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. at the hands of the Babylonians, a fall which occurred because the people had hardened their hearts and refused to keep the covenant made between them and God.

The people had prostituted themselves to other gods by sacrificing to them in the high places. They had adopted the incomprehensible practice of sacrificing their children to the god Molech by burning them to death in a ceremonial fire. When you hear of these sorts of transgressions it is not difficult to support God’s destruction of Judah.

For eighteen months the people of Jerusalem endured the unrelenting siege of their city. … As the siege drags on and food begins to run out, Jeremiah describes how the people in their desperation begin to turn to cannibalism to survive (Lam 2:20, 4:10).

How in the world can anyone find hope in the middle of this storm of justifiable holy wrath? Jeremiah writes:

my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say,

“My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord.”

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
    the wormwood and the gall!

 My soul continually remembers it
    and is bowed down within me. (Lamentations 3:17-20)

Yet, in the midst of this righteous punishment of a deeply sinful people (a punishment that seemingly should wring out any glimmer of hope,) Jeremiah reminds the reader that God is present even in the depths of despair.

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3: 21-23)

Simply put, God is not done yet. The book on the nation of Israel is not closed. The redemption of humanity from our fallen state is not just wishful thinking, but a covenantal promise from a God who keeps His word. Regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, of our own making or not—God is faithful.

We look out at the dark ominous clouds on the horizon of our own existence with foreboding. We wonder how we can be forgiven of sins when our hearts are so desperately wicked, how we can survive this loss of a loved one, this catastrophic and debilitating disease, or a betrayal by someone we loved and trusted. The reality is we can’t . . . not by ourselves.

It is when we wait upon the Lord with hope—that is, with the expectation that eventually all things will be made new in Him—it is because of this hope we are able to have a perspective that transcends this mortal plane. Our hope is found in the coming of Christ in the flesh, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” and in His life, death and resurrection.  (emphasis added)

The full entry is here.

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Finally, via Twitter, I discovered a post called Advent/Darkness by Christena Cleveland.  It is one of the most powerful Advent reflections I’ve ever read…, and somehow it seems especially needed this year in the face of Ebola, ISIS, terrorist beheadings… etc., etc.  There is a prose reflection at the beginning, followed by a poem, or word picture of sorts.

Here, first, is an excerpt of the introductory reflection:

We’ve been tricked by chocolate-filled Advent calendars and blissful Christmas pageants that gloss over the very real evil that makes the Messiah’s coming so very necessary, so very loving, and so very heroic.

Advent isn’t a holiday party. It doesn’t pressure us to conjure up a hopeful face, ring bells, and dismiss the foulest realities we face. Advent isn’t about our best world, it’s about our worst world. I think we eat the chocolate and put on the pageants because we don’t want to face the worst.

But we do the Light a disservice when we underestimate the darkness. Jesus entered a world plagued not only by the darkness of individual pain and sin, but also by the darkness of systemic oppression. Jesus’ people, the Hebrews, were a subjugated people living as exiles in their own land; among other things, they were silenced, targets of police brutality, and exploitatively taxed. They were a people so beaten down by society that only a remnant – most notably Anna and Simeon  – continued to believe that the Messianic prophecies would one day come to pass. For many, the darkness of long-standing oppression had extinguished any hope for liberation.

It was into this “worst world” that the Light-in-which-We-See-Light was born, liberating the people from the terror of darkness. So it is in the midst of our worst world that we, too, can most clearly see the Light, for light shines more brightly against a backdrop of true darkness.

Advent is an invitation to plunge into the deep, dark waters of our worst world, knowing that when we re-surface for air we will encounter the hopeful, hovering Spirit of God. For when we dive into the depths of our worst world, we reach a critical point at which our chocolate and pageants no longer satiate our longing for hope – and we are liberated by this realization. Indeed, the light of true hope is found in the midst of darkness.

 And here is the poem.  Read it slowly, and let it become a prayer, that Christ’s light and truth and salvation would break into and be revealed to those facing the deepest terror and suffering:

Advent/Darkness

Advent/Ferguson

Advent/Hunger

Advent/Apathy

Advent/Fatherlessness

Advent/Oppression of Indigenous Peoples

Advent/ISIS

Advent/Political polarization

Advent/Human trafficking

Advent/Mental illness stigma

Advent/Ebola treatment inequality

Advent/Immigration injustice

Advent/Rioting

Advent/Privilege

Advent/School-to-Prison Pipeline

Advent/West Bank

Advent/Spiritual Abuse

Advent/Economic inequality

Advent/Myanmar

Advent/Segregated churches

Advent/Poverty

Advent/Police brutality

Advent/Global oppression of women and girls

Advent/Marginalization

Advent/Darkness

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:3

The full entry by Christena Cleveland is here.


Advent: Expectation rather than Penitence

December 1, 2014

The Rev. Patrick Comerford has a good overview of Advent at his blog today.  I found this section helpful:

This season is a reminder of the original waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But more especially it is a reminder of our waiting for Christ at his the Second Coming. This season, which began yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent [30 November 2014], is the season when the Church marks a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just as a cuddly child in Christmas crib, but his coming in glory and as king.

Throughout the next four weeks, our readings, collects, post-communion prayers and the other seasonal provisions in our liturgies try to focus us – yes on Christ’s incarnation, but more particularly (if less successfully) to focus us – on Christ’s coming judgment and reign.

Because of that, the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell – have been traditional themes for Advent meditation. The characteristic emphasis in Advent, therefore, is expectation, rather than penitence.

Purple is not a penitential colour … it is a rich, royal imperial colour, originally derived from a very rare source.  […]  So, we change our liturgical colour in Advent to purple to signify we are preparing for the coming of Christ as the King of Kings, the ruler of all, in all his royal, imperial, majesty, splendour and glory.

The whole entry is here.  There is a WEALTH of information on the history and symbolism of Advent Calendars, Advent wreaths, Jesse Trees, etc.


Advent Poems: The Advent Moon Shines Cold and Clear – Christina Rossetti

December 1, 2014

I’m hoping to post one or two Advent poems each week. 

This poem by Christina Rossetti is probably my favorite Advent poem.  I love its focus on holding tight to the promise that the bridegroom will come even though there are no evident signs of His appearing.  May the Lord strengthen our hope in His promises, our longing for His return, and grant us a persevering and trusting faith, even in the darkest nights of our souls.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. (Psalm 130:5-7 ESV)

 

The Advent moon shines bright and clear; my soul waits
These Advent nights are very long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.

‘Watchman, what of the night?’ we cry,
Heartsick with hope deferred:
‘No speaking signs are in the sky’,
Is still the watchman’s word.

One to another hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise:
Surely He is not far to seek,
All night we watch and rise.

The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim,
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.

Weeping we hold him fast tonight,
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:

Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say ‘Arise, my love,
My fair one, come away!’

The Advent moon shines cold and clear.
We watch and wait.

Found here

Artwork Credit:  A Servant of the Lord blog

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UPDATE:  There is a wonderful choral rendition of this poem at YouTube.


Times of Refreshing from the Lord – a good Advent reflection from Bishop Steve Breedlove

December 1, 2014

PEARUSA Bishop Steve Breedlove has a good reflection for Advent entitled Times of Refreshing.

It’s focused on the verse from Peter’s post-Pentecost sermon in Acts 3:  “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out and that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”

Bishop Breedlove admits that’s not a passage we usually associate with Advent, but makes a strong case for how it can be helpful in shaping our Advent devotion.  Here’s an excerpt:

In Acts 3, the Apostles Peter and John had healed a beggar lame from birth. He was a familiar figure to the Jews going in and out of the Temple precincts, and when they saw him “walking and leaping and praising God,” a large crowd had gathered. Peter took the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel, pointing to Jesus and reminding these Jews (without mincing words!) of their rejection of the man in whose Name this miracle had occurred. After nailing them with the truth, Peter opened the door of mercy, “You, and your rulers, acted out of ignorance.” And then an invitation to enter, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out and that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” This beautiful, evocative phrase comes in the context of a Gospel call to repentance and faith in Jesus. Not particularly applicable to Advent . . .?  Maybe we should rethink that.

The core of the Gospel is the Gift of Jesus, the Christ, wrapped wondrously in layers upon layers of grace. This is whom we look to, whom we long for, on whom we wait in Advent. The complex, multifaceted Christology woven into Peter’s sermon expands our understanding. Consider his Names, “his (God’s) servant,” “the Holy and Righteous One,” The Author of life,” “the Christ,” and “the Prophet.” Wrestle through the references to his suffering, his resurrection, his glory, his power, and his blessing of God’s people, so that they might bring blessing to the world in his Name (the very Name which Peter has declared). Reflect on all that Peter declares about the Christ, and about his character and ministry, and about the grace which attends this Gift. This (and none other) is the One we long for.

Read the whole entry here.

 


Mantled with the Holy Spirit in the Holy Land

December 1, 2014

Matthew 3:16-17 (ESV)
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Our Father in heaven,
We thank You for the mantling of Jesus as the Messiah and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in His life and ministry. We thank You that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We invite Jesus into the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza for a harvest of souls. Amen.


The Advent Project from Biola University – Fantastic Online Advent Calendar

December 1, 2014

We’ve included the link for Biola’s Online Advent Calendar in our list of recommended Advent devotional sites for 2014, but this Advent resouce is so special, it deserves a post of its own.

Here’s a description of the site:

Advent is as much about the solemn tension of “now and not yet” as it is about the joy and magnificence of our present gift: God in flesh, our hope divine.

This online Advent Project is designed to help us pause each day to reflect on the beauty and meaning of the season. It utilizes the arts (music, poetry, prose, film, painting, photography), representing a diverse spectrum of styles and time periods, to interact with Scripture over the course of six weeks.

The calendar starts on the first day of Advent, November 30, 2014, and continues through Epiphany, January 6, 2015. Each day features a biblical passage, a devotional written by a member of the Biola community, a work of visual art and a piece of music.

Week one explores the theme of “Longing and Waiting” (Nov. 30 – Dec. 6), week two focuses on “The Coming of Christ” (Dec. 7-13), week three reflects on “Signs, Dreams and Angelic Visitations” (Dec. 14-20), week four ponders the reality that “Joy is Come Into the World” (Dec. 21-27), week five explores different facets of what “Christmas Is” (Dec. 28 – Jan. 3) and week six concludes with a liturgical celebration of “The Christ of Christmas” (Jan. 4-6).

You can read more here.  (At that same link, there is also a fantastic 4 minute video explaining what Advent is all about, with a focus on the “two postures” of Advent – looking back and rejoicing that Christ has come, and yet longing for His coming again and an end to all the brokenness we see in the world.)

Here’s the link to the Advent calendar where you’ll find each day’s entries.


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