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.