Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Advent Command: Prepare the way!

4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" (Lk. 3:4-6 ESV)

John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and forgiveness that was bound up in the call to be baptized.  Those who heard John's preaching were to respond with repentance and faith. This baptism that they would undergo fundamentally re-oriented their lives in the direction of preparing for the Lord's coming. 

As Christians who bear the marks of baptism, we too identify with the call of repentance and forgiveness. Our lives are to be shaped by the gospel that calls us to turn from our sin and to receive the grace of God offered to us in Christ. Advent reminds us that our life as Christ's disciples continues along the same path of preparing the way of the Lord. Christ will one day return and in the mean time, disciples are to be about the business of preparing the way for his return.

So what does "preparing the way" look like for Christians. Luke teaches us that righteousness is a key theme in John’s call to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. But "righteousness" here, doesn't primarily mean "righteousness" the way Paul speaks about it in his letters. This is more about the setting right of all things. This is an expansive view of righteousness. It defines an important part of the church's ministry.

So, what we see in this story of John the Baptist, is a call the be rooted first and foremost in the grace and mercy of God’s forgiveness and out of this position of forgiveness to live in a way that conforms to God’s expectations of righteousness; of justice and of making things right.

In the words of Isaiah, we see crooked paths that need to be straightened. We see low places that need to be made high. We see high places that need to be brought down low and rough places made smooth. Why? So that all may see the salvation of the Lord. I read verse 6 as indicating the consequence of these actions. Now what does Isaiah and Luke mean by these references. It’s obvious that the valleys, paths, and mountains are to be taken in a woodenly literal way. So, what do they refer to? Well, likely, the prophet and gospel writer are referring to things that today are often called systemic forms of injustice. These are general patterns of injustice that occur in institutions and in cultures. This is what we mean by a biblical social justice and it is something to which we must be committed.

So, for example, we can speak of the problem of racism within our society and culture. It’s not only incumbent upon us to seek to eliminate racial prejudice from our own hearts, but we must also seek to play a positive role in shaping our culture and challenging institutions where such injustice is present. When Christians marched in the 1960’s to protest segregation, they were participating in a larger vision of shaping the world toward what is right and what is straight. There are many issues of justice that call for our attention. Along with racism, there are many other injustices that confront us. We live in a culture that cares little for the life of the unborn. We live in a culture where the poor and homeless are marginalized or forgotten. We live in a culture more willing to see the sojourner as a threat to our own comfort than as a reminder that we too were aliens and strangers until the Lord came near to us. We could go on and on. But the point isn’t to become so overwhelmed that we do nothing. The Lord call us with a single command, “Prepare the way!” We must be doing the work of preparing the way.

The goal of pursuing this kind of justice is that “all flesh may see the salvation of God.” Whenever, we turn our backs to injustice we sabotage our witness. Preparing for the Lord’s arrival is also driven by the goal of getting ourselves out of the way, so that others may more clearly see Jesus.

Note also that Isaiah isn’t calling for someone else to do these things. They all flow from the general imperative “prepare.” It is a call to all who might hear the prophet's voice. John’s call for righteousness flows from his baptism of repentance and forgiveness and not a prerequisite for it. But once the disciple has received God’s grace, they have marching orders: "Prepare the way!"

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

What time is it? Advent.

Advent is a time to stop and reflect upon the question: What time is it? The word “Advent” means “a coming” or “an arrival” or “appearing.” Advent is here to remind us that we exist in a certain time of God’s great plan of redemption. We exist between the time of Christ’s first coming and the time of his second coming at the end of history. But standing in between these two great epochs of time, Advent doesn’t emphasize the absence of the Lord. If fact quite the opposite. Advent also emphasized the many ways and times that the Lord comes to us through the means of grace and in our lives together as believers.

The colors of Advent are purple and sometimes blue. They are royal colors, for they serve to remind us that Advent is about the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He has come, he continues to come, and he will come some day as our sovereign Lord.

Christians have made the mistake of making Advent all about Christmas. We can easily treat it as simply a run-up to Christmas. Our culture has even pushed it beyond this as we now begin to see Christmas lights and Christmas music as soon as Halloween is over. There is no room for Advent. It is evidence of a further secularization of our culture that has forgotten the received habits of marking time according to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Our calendars have become secular and this secularism is even encroaching on our religious practices and habits. Celebrating Advent is a form of witness-bearing to the Lordship of Christ. It’s a way of living out a conviction that the world we inhabit and serve exists under the Lordship of Christ.

But Advent is also about waiting. This is why it’s often seen as a prelude to Christmas. We wait. When I was young, I remember having family devotions around our kitchen table. During Advent, we had the advent wreath with a candle for each week. I so wanted to light all the candles at once, but I had to wait until Christmas Eve. It taught us that Advent was about waiting. We wait. The timing of Advent coincides with the darkening of the day and growing cold of approaching winter. We wait in the dark and we wait in the cold; anticipating the light of Christ to appear and to warm our hearts.

When we gather these thoughts together, we see that Advent is a rathe solemn and reflective period. It ironically forms a sharp contrast to the material consumerism with its Christmas lists and frenetic last-minute shopping. Advent has no “black Friday” or “online specials.” It calls us to reflect on the fact that we have a great need for a savior and that we continue to wait each day for the final redemption of all things. Advent celebrates incompleteness. Advent longs for consummation.

Advent sets in relief the two great advents of our Lord. One that has come and one that we await. The habit of waiting at advent reminds us that we have nothing within ourselves to deliver us from our predicament. Further it waits in faith upon God’s timing and not ours. Advent is an exercise of living faith.

More than anything, Advent calls us to repent. The emphasis on Christ’s Lordship not only exults Christ, but it points to the fact that all too often, we try to assume the mantle of Lordship over our own lives that live in a way that appears to challenge the fundamental premise of our status as servants of the Lord our God.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Logical Milk?!?

In 1 Peter 2:1, Peter tells his readers to put away all these things that undermine brotherly love toward one another -- things like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. But putting things like this away is easier said than done. How does one put away envy? To answer this question, Peter continues with an image to show us what putting these things away looks like. In verse 2 he writes:

1 Peter 2:2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation-- 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Peter uses the image of a newborn infant who longs for her mother’s milk. Newborn babies can’t have solid food yet. Their diet comes only from the milk provided by their mother. But not only is milk what a baby wants, it’s what a baby needs and nothing else can replace it (obviously this was long before anyone thought of baby formula).  Also, when babies are hungry, they will let you know it! This is the “longing” that Peter is describing here.

Further, the milk is described as pure. The word is the opposite of “deceit” used in verse 1. Deceit is saying that something is true or wholly true when it isn’t. Pure milk is genuine milk and 100% milk.

But just what is this milk that Peter is telling us to long for? Our translation says, “spiritual milk,” but that can be confusing. The word in the original isn’t related to the word “spirit.” Other translations have rendered it the “milk of the Word” but that’s grammatically impossible and not a good translation. Literally, the phrase means something like “logical milk” or “rational milk.” Now, that just sounds weird. What in the world is “logical milk?”

When we hear the word “logical” we think right away of cool calculations of deduction. But behind Peter’s use of “logical” is an appeal to an aesthetic. Mathematicians will sometimes speak of a formula as “elegant.” When they do this, they usually refer to a formula’s clarity and simplicity. Everything is in its right place. This aesthetic sense of “logic” is what Peter is getting at. “Logical milk” is milk that is reasonable and fitting for the person longing for it.

The idea here is that as Christians, we have been born again and for that reason we need to put off all that pertains to the old world and to our old lives (cf. 1 Peter 1:14). Begin born again means that we are like babes who need what is truly nourishing for us. This is what leads to growth and maturity.

For Peter, this pure milk is Christ himself. Notice what he says in verse 3: …if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Peter ties together the metaphor of an infant longing for milk with an allusion to David’s words from Psalm 34:8 to taste that the Lord is good. This allusion ties the “pure logical milk” and the Lord together.  In other words, our longing for this milk is satisfied by feasting on the Lord.

Peter’s point here isn’t to cast doubt into the minds of his readers such that they might begin questioning their salvation. It is a warning, but it serves to make the point that “tasting that the Lord is good” is the beginning of all this and not its conclusion. Tasting leads to eating and eating leads to feasting. The Lord is the fitting and reasonable source for the nourishment we need to grow up into full maturity (i.e. salvation).

Peter then keeps this idea of growing up and tweaks it a little by changing the metaphor to that of a building being built up. Here the image of the Temple is in view beginning in verse 4. We approach Christ as though he was the very cornerstone to a glorious temple. The picture here is one of Christ with his people becoming a single glorious temple. He is the head, we are the body. He is the Bridegroom, we are the Bride. Furthermore, we are called and chosen by God to serve in this glorious temple as a royal priesthood.

Peter is showing us the honor that we have in being a people for God’s own possession. This great privilege is ours and for that reason, we have no reason to return to the old patterns of malice, deceit, envy, and slander.

What Peter is saying here has a lot of similarities to what Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2. Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Like Peter, Paul uses worship imagery of presenting ourselves to God. He calls it our “spiritual worship.” However, this word “spiritual” is the same word that Peter used to describe milk that means “reasonable” or “fitting.”

Both Peter and Paul remind their readers of the great privilege they have in knowing Christ and how God’s mercies have been bestowed upon them.

So how does this all relate back to “putting away” all those habits and practices that undermine brotherly love? The point of both Peter and Paul seems to center on our mindfulness of God’s grace in Christ throughout our day. Are we feasting on Christ, the pure and fitting milk for our salvation throughout the day? Are we having our thoughts and attitudes shaped by his great love for us?

Both Peter and Paul also appear to place worship at the heart of this as well. Long for the pure and fitting milk, draw near to him, and present yourself to him not according to what is no longer true now that we have been ransomed by the precious blood of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 1:18-19).

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Lord Bestows...Honor

Psalm 84:11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.

God’s favor is something we are probably comfortable talking about. After all, that’s just another way of saying “grace.” But how comfortable are we talking about God bestowing honor?

Do you know that when you trust in the Lord, God gives you honor? That might seem strange, but it really isn’t. We know that some of our deepest longings are for God’s love and acceptance of us. But it is also true that one of the deepest human longing is to be honored. To feel respected and admired. Now that might seem strange until we think about what the opposite of honor is. The opposite of honor is shame.

Shame is the voice of self-condemnation that we all hear from time to time. It says, “You’re not good enough.” “You’re unlovable.” “You’ll always be a looser.” “You don’t matter to anyone.”

You see, honor isn’t about being puffed up or arrogant; it’s about the restoration of dignity lost in sin and corruption. Shame is pervasive. Shame is even behind people who come off as proud or arrogant. Most people who seem proud or arrogant are simply overcompensating for the shame that drives them. It’s like the swimmer treading water. His or her ability to keep their head above water looks pretty impressive…until you see how desperately they are kicking their feet below the surface.

God bestows grace and honor. He restores to us the dignity and value that comes with being a child of God. This grace and honor are a piece of a bigger whole that the Psalmist calls “good things”. He says, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”

By walking uprightly, his point isn’t those who work real hard at their religious observance, he means those who walk and live by faith. We see this as the very last sentence is a parallel expression of this last half of verse 11.

84:12 O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you! 

Throughout this Psalm, we are given something of an idealized picture of the heart of a faithful Israelite. In other words, the Psalm is saying, “those who are like this are blessed.” Blessed is the one who trusts in you.

The blessing noted here at the end of Psalm 84, points us beyond the typical Old Testament saint. Psalm 84 points us to someone who perfectly embodied this idealized picture.

For it is Jesus Christ who is truly the blessed one. It is Jesus Christ whose fullest joy was found in his fellowship with his Father. It is Jesus Christ who was the true and faithful pilgrim bringing the perfect sacrifice to the true temple, namely himself upon the cross. It is Jesus Christ who is the true anointed king who becomes a shield and source of strength for his people.