“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)
The two themes of Advent
Advent marks the beginning of the church year for Western churches that follow the liturgical calendar. In our day, Advent has become almost exclusively focused upon preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas. But this has not always been the case.
As the tradition developed, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas had a dual focus on both the first and second comings of Christ. Indeed, the eschatological was the primary theme, as is reflected in Thomas Cranmer’s collect for the first Sunday of Advent in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, (in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;) that in the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the holy ghost now and forever. Amen.[i]
While Cranmer alludes to Christ’s nativity (His “visit … in great humility”), he emphasizes Christ’s future return as Judge. These two themes have been preserved in the texts chosen for lectionary readings during Advent – texts that include prophecies of both comings of Christ.
A bigger picture
A cause for celebration
If it seems paradoxical to begin the church year by looking at the end of history, reflection on that sense of paradox can help us understand the purpose of Christ’s birth.
Jesus came in the midst of history to undo the curse that fell upon the world at the start of human history. He was born as a human baby in order to redeem for Himself a people from the fallen human race. Since this required His sacrificial death upon the cross, we can say that Jesus was born to die.
But this is not the whole picture.
Jesus was not just redeeming a people; he was redeeming the cosmos. It was God’s love for the cosmos that led him to send His son (John 3:16), and the redemption of His people will be the prelude to cosmic renewal (Romans 8:19-21). The same Jesus who was born as a baby in Bethlehem will return as Judge finally to deliver the cosmos from sin’s corruption and to usher in the age of the new heavens and the new earth.
Christmas culminates in cosmic renewal at the end of history.
This is cause for celebration! While the world tries to reduce Christmas to a generic retail holiday, let us remember the signficance of Christmas in God’s great plan. Jesus was born so that sin and Satan would be defeated and all creation would be redeemed. By faith in Him, we can look forward to eternal life in this new world to come. We can view Christmas glitter as an adumbration and foreshadowing of coming glory. Our celebration of Christ’s first coming can be enriched when it includes anticipation of His second coming.
Advent reminds us of this cosmic context of Christmas. Perhaps we should supplement our holiday greetings: “Merry Christmas! Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!”
[i] C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F.M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 2.
Talk with some Christian friends about this topic. Christmas signals the inbreaking of the end of history into its very middle. How should this affect the way we celebration the coming of Jesus in Bethlehem?
For more insight to this topic, order the series, He Has Come: The Worldview of Advent, by John Stonestreet and T. M. Moore, from our online store.
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. Psalm 9:1-2
Dashed hopes and despair
Like many Romantic poets of his day, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was initially an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. He hoped that the winds of change sweeping through France would blow across the English Channel and bring political, social, and economic reform to his homeland as well. At least, Wordsworth wished this until the bloody and brutal events of the French Revolution shocked some sense into him, leaving him depressed and despairing – a common reaction when our deepest hopes and dreams lie in tatters.
After one visit to France (where his former mistress and daughter lived), Wordsworth returned home and penned a short poem with an opening line (and title) many of us have heard before: “the world is too much with us.” In the poem, he bewails his inability to feel joy or find rest for his disillusioned soul, even when he immersed himself in his favorite panacea, Nature. In the end, Wordsworth’s despair led to a nervous breakdown, as he recounts in his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude.
According to the latest polls, it seems that many Americans – so elated by the promise of “hope and change” in the 2008 and 2012 elections – may be on the verge of their own nervous breakdowns. As the current administration in Washington churns out scandal after scandal, their utopian dreams, like Wordsworth’s, have turned into an unending nightmare.
They can’t find decent jobs, can’t afford the “affordable” health care, can’t stop wondering whether the government is monitoring their emails or whether they are being targeted by the IRS, can’t stop worrying about the potentially deadly effects of a bumbling foreign policy, can’t stop fretting about the massive national debt we are leaving to our children and grandchildren, and can’t stop feeling helpless against the juggernaut undermining freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution. Every day, we hear more bad news – more lies, more cover-ups, and more self-serving shenanigans by public officials who are supposed to have the best interests of their constituents and the nation at heart, but who obviously don’t.
And every day, it becomes easier to join in with Wordsworth and cry, “the world is too much with us.”
Count our blessings
And yet … as Christians who have been granted by God the ability to be “overcomers” (1 John 5:4), we have far better options for handling a world grown wearisome and fearsome, as these words from a familiar hymn remind us:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Chorus: Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.
The second stanza reminds us to count our blessings when the burdens of this world lead us to doubt God’s care; the third stanza reminds us that our true wealth lies in the promises Christ has made to us and in the coin of heaven, not earth. Then, the fourth stanza concludes with these encouraging words:
So, amid the conflict whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.
The truth of the matter is that, since the Fall of mankind in the Garden, the world has always been “too much with us.” Just ask Noah, Job, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Ruth, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, John, Peter, Paul and, of course, Jesus. In every generation, those who love the Lord have lamented the evil they see all around, have cried out to God to deliver them and their nation from the curse of wicked leaders, and have prayed for God’s mercy.
More importantly, in every generation, believers have been given a mandate to see the world through God’s eyes, and to find rest and comfort in the midst of the turmoil though His great and precious promises (2 Peter 1:4).
Count on God
Consequently, we not only need to count our blessings, we need to count on the One who is the source of every blessing (James 1:17).
We count on the One who is greater than the spirit of antichrist which taints this world (1 John 4:3-4).
We count on the One who commands us to give our burdens to Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
We count on the One whose steadfast love and faithfulness can never be in doubt (Romans 8:38-39).
We count on the One who has promised never to leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
We count on the One who has promised to meet all our needs (Philippians 4:19).
We count on the One who has promised His rest to those who believe His promises (Hebrews 4:1-2).
We count on the One who is working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).
So the next time you feel that the world is “too much with us,” keep calm and count: count your blessings and count on God.
Memorize Psalm 9:1-2 (above), then put it into practice by counting your blessings today. The result should be a heart filled with gratitude and a greater confidence in God’s steadfast love and care. Share your insights with a friend or loved one today to encourage them.
There is power in giving thanks. Download the free ViewPoint series, “The Thanksgiving Solution,” and study it with your family during this holiday season. Order a copy of Eric Metaxas’ book, Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving, and read it with your family during this holiday season.
Talking our way to maturity
When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
We can only imagine the conversation that boiled around Peter’s report of having visited a Gentile in his home, where he led him to the Lord. This was unprecedented. Why, the Gospel had not even made its way into all the people of Israel, and now were we supposed to believe that God was even reaching out to save Gentiles?
The Word Made Flesh:
Why Our Words Matter to God (11)
Engaging the gift of words
As we come to the end of this series, it strikes me that if this is simply an exercise in better thinking, we could find ourselves guilty of violating the Scriptures.
James reminds us that we dare not rest content simply hearing what God says; we must also be careful to live lives characterized by obedience to what He says. If you’ve been following this series, it may be that you’ve been challenged about your stewardship of words. Perhaps this week is a week to make some decisions about how you’ll better steward this glorious gift of language that God has given us. If words really matter to God, is there some way you can make more space for them in your life?
The Word Made Flesh:
Why Our Words Matter to God (10)
An avalanche of words
We live in a time when we face an avalanche of words on a daily basis.
If you’re not talking to someone on your cell phone, likely the person next to you is. Tweets, texts, and email seem relentless as they invade our space. The blogosphere is filled with comment, comment on the comment, as well as comment on the comment on the comment (not to mention the denunciations of the comment along with defense of the comments along with denunciation of the denunciation). Talk radio blares out of whatever device we’re using to while TV talk shows multiply, seemingly without end. Sites on the internet offer almost endless programming to stream or download for our listening pleasure. Books seem to be getting longer these days as are missionary prayer letters (which are also more frequent since they’re sent for free via cyberspace). Periodicals pile up on the kitchen counter. Audio books wait for us in the car.
Why Our Words Matter to God (9)
A bit flat
I admit it. My personality has a flat side. I’m not very imaginative. Is this the result of nature or nurture? Some of both? We can figure that out some other time but, for now, that reality highlights my dependence on the imaginative power of words to soften that flat side and round me out a bit.
We are beings who think and love and will.[i] That’s how God made us; sin has twisted all of it; and redemption makes it all new.[ii] I like numbers one and three – thinking and willing. Faced with a challenge, I’ll tend to get fifteen books on the subject, read widely, and then decide what I want to do. Again, a bit flat with regard to loving and desiring.
Now, I’m exaggerating a bit for the sake of the argument. But still, for me the affective side of things requires mending and tending and I’m including imagination in that important dimension of human existence.
The imaginative tool of story…
The Bible, however, is actually concerned with such matters. Think of David and Nathan.[iii] David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged the murder of Uriah. In response to his cluelessness about what he’s done, God sends the prophet Nathan to give David a good Divine come-uppance. So Nathan tells a story about a man and his lamb. The point of the story is to bring David to tears of repentance. However, the king just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t have enough moral imagination to see his own crimes through the lens of the story. “The man who stole this lamb must die,” David thunders. But he doesn’t grasp that he’s the man and so Nathan, shaking his head in disbelief, cries out, “If you were any dumber, I’d have to water you twice a day. It’s YOU!”
But for our purposes, notice that God uses the imaginative tool of story to reach David at the core of his being. David desperately needs to see in new ways.
Or think of Jesus in the gospels when confronted with a rule-oriented lawyer who wants a legal reason for excluding most of the people he knows as neighbor.[iv] What does Jesus do? He tells him a story – the story of the Good Samaritan – to stir his imagination to see beyond the boundaries of a fairly narrow love. Jesus creates an imaginary world so the lawyer could see his own world in new ways.
And isn’t that part of what God is doing, for example, in the Psalms? Think about it for just a minute. Talk to a group of people, ask them about poetry, and likely most will either roll their eyes, as in “Who could like that?” Or, they’ll look a bit sheepish, quickly classing themselves among the culturally deprived recognizing that their lack of exposure is willfully self-inflicted.
Yet the biggest book of the Bible is poetry! Unless we have a very odd view of the inspiration of Scripture, God deemed poetry a necessary means by which we get our bread from heaven. The poetry of the Psalms helps us imagine our world in ways that can only be seen through the imaginative, poetic eyes of the writer. In the Psalter, fields are jubilant, forests sing, rivers clap their hands, and mountains leap like lambs.[v] Sound like any place you’ve visited recently? Actually, it’s everyplace you’ve been lately if you have learned to see in new ways. It’s a world alive with the grandeur of God’s glory, preserved by his providential care. In the world of the Psalmists, I can be a fruitful tree planted by streams of water (by the way, my leaves will never wither), you can be the apple of God’s eye, we can all hide under the shadow of God’s wings.[vi] As for God, mountains seem to melt like wax when he’s around, his voice thunders over the mighty waters, while lightning, hail, and clouds attend his presence even as he is a gentle shepherd who leads us to quiet waters.[vii] We could go on for pages, exploring the way the writers of these poetic paeans of praise create a new, an imaginative way of seeing God, the world and everything in it.
A power so great
What might that mean for you? Well, I’ll tell you what it means for me and see if it fits you. It means resisting my tendency to gravitate towards books like Romans and disciplining myself to also read the Psalms. It means learning to love parables, proverbs, and the dizzying images of Revelation. It means resisting my tendency to read theology, philosophy, history and other sorts of non-fiction almost exclusively. It means reading stories – whether the short stories of Flannery O’Connor or the novel s of Jane Austen, to cite two examples. It means sticking with poetry and discovering the wonder that the poet finds in the forms and sounds and rhythm and meaning of words. It means loving an artfully crafted verbal image that gives me new insight into the nature of a thing as much as the tightly reasoned argument of a philosophy text.
How great is the imaginative power of words? Consider this: depending on who you invite to the party, you can get a whole room full of people to debate whether Colin Firth is the best Mr. Darcy. What’s intriguing about that is there is no real Mr. Darcy, unless, of course, you’ve entered the imaginative world of Jane Austen. In that world – quite real to generations of readers – there is a Mr. Darcy. And by that world they see their own world – full of both pride and prejudice – in new ways.
C.S. Lewis once said, “The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”[viii] And as I look through other eyes, imaginative eyes that express that imagination in stories, poetry, and drama, I transcend myself in order to become more fully myself. I need imaginative words, not only to round out my reading but to round out my soul.
[i] If you prefer, we are cognitive, affective, and volitional beings.
[ii] For a much fuller discussion of this rooted in reflection on the humanity of Jesus, see Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Are Christians Fully Human? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988).
[iii] 2 Sam. 12:1-14
[iv] Luke 10:25-37
[v] Ps. 96, 98, 114
[vi] Ps. 1, 17
[vii] Ps. 97, 29, 18, 23
[viii] An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), p. 140.
How about you? Has a story, poem, or play moved you to some change in outlook or life? Talk about this question with some Christian friends. See if you can get them to join you in reading a novel, book of poems or stories, or a play together. Talk about how the imaginative power of words can shape our souls.
For more insight to this subject, order the book, Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture, by Tim Muehlhoff and Todd V. Lewis from our online store. You might also download the ViewPoint series, “Seasoned with Grace: The Art of Godly Conversation,” by T. M. Moore.