Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter solstice

[By] the tender mercy of our God
. . . the sunrise shall dawn upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79, ESV margin; cf. RSV)

Today is December 21, the winter solstice. Tonight will mark the longest night of the entire calendar year here in the northern hemisphere--just over fifteen hours here in Michigan, to be exact. Although it was temporarily denounced by the Church as syncretic, I think it's beautifully fitting that the celebration of the Messiah's historical birth has been joined with this solar phenomenon. (The solstice, though actually occurring any time between December 20-23, was marked by December 25 on the old Julian calendar.) Though this is the longest night, from tomorrow onward the daylight hours will know only increase.

Christ comes to us in like fashion. From his coming onward, the night of sin, death, and the world's evils has no choice but to flee before his dawn of his coming. "The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (1 John 2:8). Hence he is worshiped as the Dayspring. Jesus is born quietly into the darkness of night and the tyranny of oppression--Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because they lived in forced submission to the authority of Rome--but with him comes the light of forgiveness, freedom, peace, victory, and the knowledge of God. We know not all of it yet; but we have seen the rays of light peeking over the horizon, and we live in hope that the full light of day is merely a matter of patient waiting. "He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Worshiping God in chaos

A few weeks ago at Franklin Street, pastor Joe Brown from WEPC took his turn in the preaching rotation. (Being a newly-planted church of some forty-odd people, we don’t yet have a full-time pastor, but we’re on the search.) The two texts he chose were Revelation 21:1-5 and Psalm 24.

Apparently in the Hebrew frame of mind, there were two enemies to true life: emptiness and chaos. Yet from the beginning of the Scriptures, we see a Jehovah who is actively filling a void and subduing its disorder. “In the beginning . . . the earth was without form [chaotic, disordered, uncontrolled] and void [empty], and darkness was over the face of the deep. [But!] the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-3). The universe was an uncontrolled sea, stormy and black, lacking blessing and unfit for man to dwell in. Indeed, the seas have always been the enemy of mankind, a representation of all that we cannot subdue or control, all that threatens to drown us choke the life out of us.*

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof . . . for he has founded it upon the sea and established it upon the rivers.”

This phrase “the earth’s fullness” refers to more than just all that’s in the earth; it means that the earth is itself supposed to be “full”—full of God’s goodness, his life, his riches, his abundance. The psalter employs language of fullness, overflow, and abundance to show forth life (e.g., Psalm 65:9-12). Yet our lives often feel empty, lacking in meaning, in hope, in vigor. We run from one pleasure and pursuit to another, yet we feel . . . empty. Where is this plenitude of life?

At the same time, despite our best efforts, our lives are also out of control. We have chaos and disorder. The baby is crying; the casserole burns; your check bounces; you fall (read: step) into the same sins yet again; a loved one dies. When it rains, it pours. “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me” (Psalm 42:7). Who will come to still our seas and calm their waves?

“Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?”

The creation account of Genesis 1 may begin with chaos and void. But the story that follows—the story that introduces Yahweh and sets the tone for the rest of history—is, if nothing else, a hopeful story: for three “days” God gives shape and order to the universe, and for three days he works to fill the universe with bodies to give us time, light, and energy, plants for food, animals to help us, and—best of all—woman. (I’m sure some of you might instead be cursing God for that right now!)

The miracle of Christianity is not only that God has made the world, giving it order and fullness, but that he has personally entered it to save it from the death-curse brought on by the devil and by Adam’s sin, in which all humans share. God has come on the scene as the man Jesus of Nazareth, calming raging waters (Mark 4:35-41) and filling up our emptiness with “life to the full” (John 10:10 NIV).

Who is this King of glory? This King of glory is Jesus Christ: God incarnate and saving, “the LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8). This Rescuer has come to give us “life to the full,” a life lived in fellowship with our Maker and in his blessing as adopted and beloved children. He has broken the neck of the terrors of the deep and all that threatens our well-being, all that we cannot control and strips us of our life and hope, all that “comes only to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10). He speaks peace into our chaotic lives, a peace he has sealed to us by his sacrificial death. He comes as the One “who fills all in all” and who himself fills us with God’s life and presence (Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 2:9-10). And though only those who have clean hands and a pure heart may ascend to the hill of Zion, enter her gates, and approach God in worship, Christ gives us his very own purity and righteousness to wear as festal garments—“blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of [our] salvation” (Psalm 24:5; cf. Isaiah 61:10)—and gives us his Spirit’s power to overcome the sins that we can’t subdue on our own. So we can confidently storm the gates of Zion and stride into the temple, seeking God’s face and fellowship. “They beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11).


* What stands in the way of the fleeing Israelites at their exodus from Egypt? The Red Sea, or whatever the Yam Suph really was. What threatens David and Jonah? Seas (see Psalm 69 and Jonah 2). From where does the evil beast come in Revelation 13? The sea. What does God finally eradicate in the new earth? The sea (Revelation 21:1). The salvation story is not only of making rivers to flow in a death-barren and –dry land; it is the story of wiping out the disorder, evil, and chaos that stand in the way of a life of peace and wholeness.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bonhoeffer on waiting

Happy New Year!—the church liturgical year, that is. Every year it begins with the season of Advent. It is not yet Christmas (which is celebrated over the twelve days from December 25 until Epiphany on January 6), for advent means “coming.” The Christkindl (Christ child) isn’t here so soon; peace and goodwill haven’t yet been made incarnate. Like those faithful who had to wait for thousands of years for the Messiah to come his first time, Advent is a season to wait upon the promises of God that light our ways in darkness, flickering candles that point the way to the inbreaking of a greater dawn (Luke 1:78-79).

Like last year, I’m reading through a series of Advent and Christmas sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose writings I’ve found to be extremely formative in some aspects of my life. Here is what he has to say about waiting in a sermon from December 2, 1928. The sermon is based upon Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

Celebrating Advent means learning to wait. Waiting is an art which our impatient age has forgotten. We want to pluck the fruit before it has had time to ripen. Greedy eyes are soon disappointed when what they saw as luscious fruit is sour to the taste. In disappointment and disgust they throw it away. The fruit, full of promise, rots on the ground. It is rejected without thanks by disappointed hands.

The blessedness of waiting is lost on those who cannot wait, and the fulfillment of promise is never theirs. They want quick answers to the deepest questions of life and miss the value of those times of anxious waiting, seeking with patient uncertainties until the answers come. They lose the moment when they answers are revealed in dazzling clarity.

Who has not felt the anxieties of waiting for the declaration of friendship or love? The greatest, the deepest, the most tender experiences in all the world demand patient waiting. This waiting is not in emotional turmoil, but gently growing, like the emergence of spring, like God’s laws, like the germinating of a seed.

Not all can wait—certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possibly only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who can look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Edwin Robertson, ed., tr., (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 20.