Words to Ponder is a weekly post intended to offer you a few...well...words to ponder as you go about your week.
Second Week of Advent
December 8, 2019 - The Very Rev. Mark A. Engel - Gateway Church
A Childlike Advent
Growing up in a small, Ohio village with a rich, German heritage, the advent wreath was always a part of our seasonal celebrations, both in church and in our family home. Terri and I continued that traditional, family practice in our home with our children as they grew.
I must admit, that as I reflect upon my own experience of this practice as a child, my mindset was, perhaps understandably, childish. While we read the appropriate Scriptures and prayed the appropriate prayers, the lighting of the candles was, in my view, a countdown to Christmas that focused on the soon to appear presents under the tree and the delicious, big family meal (both of which I still enjoy each year!). My focus was more on the fun aspects of celebrating the Christmas holiday (including the story of that first Christmas) than on a heightened expectancy at the hope and joy of Christ’s future appearing.
Now, like Paul, I am endeavoring to “…put away childish things.”(1 Corinthians 13:11 – NKJV) Rather, I am aspiring to a more childlike advent season. Allow me to explain.
As a child, we lived on the north edge of town on the state route that bisected our village. My father, along with several of our neighbors, carpooled daily to work at the railroad terminal in the small town 4 miles north. Many late afternoons after school, I would wait in our front yard, watching for the carpoolers to appear and my father’s return home hoping for a quick game of “catch” in the front yard before supper. I waited and watched, hoped for and anticipated my father’s return. That is the heart attitude and focus of thought that I desire for this year’s season of advent. I want to a believer in Christ who waits and watches with hope-filled anticipation of our Savior’s return! Lord, let me be numbered among the saints “…who have loved his [Jesus] appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8 – ESV) Will you join me in a prayerful longing that our hearts and minds will be rightly focused this advent season. Let us have hearts and minds that joyfully celebrate the reality of His first-appearing in the flesh and that expectantly look for His second-appearing in glory…“Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus!”
First Week of Advent
December 1, 2019 - Rev. Heather Ghormley - Tree of Life Anglican Church
In November of 2013 a massive Typhoon hit the island nation of the Philippines. Roofs came off, buildings filled with water and then were swept away and many people ended up hanging on to debris as they floated through the flood. It was a good day to be an able-bodied young man…but of course not everyone in the typhoon had that luxury.
In the chaos of the storm, most people ended up fighting for their own lives, but not Dolores Baculanta and Oscar Macaray. These two workers at a government-run orphanage for about 100 orphans in Palos, one of the hardest hit cities, chose to rescue others. Dolores says she was getting ready to bathe all the preschool-aged children when all of the sudden she heard screams coming from the toddler room of the orphanage. Like most buildings in Palo, the roof was starting to fly off the building and the children were being swept up in an inflow of water. It would have made sense for Dolores and Oscar the security guard to simply grab what children they could see and run for the safest part of the building, but they didn’t. They risked their own lives, forcing their way into the toddler room, scooped up every screaming child and put them into two cribs, which as the waters rose became makeshift rafts. They managed to wheel the cribs out of that room just as the walls caved in and the swell rose. As the water seeped into the hallway they pushed the toddlers from room to room and helped other children crawl on top of tables and any other structure they could find until the waters subsided. Everyone prayed. The cement wall of the orphanage held. And when the waters subsided, not a single child had drowned.
It would have been easy, and even understandable for these orphanage workers to simply seek their own refuge in the face of that horrible storm. Who would miss a few dozen orphans in the midst of what seemed like the end of the world? These orphans have no mother or fathers to mourn them, no one threatening to sue the orphanage if they get hurt. What could a couple of aging day-care workers do against the power of a wind that could lift the roof right off a building? But in the moment, of crisis, Dolores and Oscar didn’t think like that; they had only one thought: save every child we can or die trying. They were heroes.
Of course Typhoon Haiyan isn’t the first time a giant surge of water has given people the chance to be heroes, and won’t be the last. In the Gospel reading for the first week of Advent, Jesus reminds his listeners of the terrible story of Noah’s flood.
Often in movie versions of the flood story, we see Noah and his family trying to save others. We see them begging other people to get in the ark with them…but actually, the Bible doesn’t say anything about that- Noah only saved the people and creatures God told him to save. When you actually read what the text says, you get the sense that the flood was more like how Jesus described it; no one else even saw it coming: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until flood came and swept them all away.”
No heroes putting toddlers in cribs here. The only people who saw this thing coming were working for PETA; everyone else drowns. This may be the most troubling story in whole of Scripture. It’s not like other troubling stories that tell of horrendous acts done by humans. In this story God destroys the earth. God kills unsuspecting men, women and children not to mention puppies and baby elephants. But according to Scripture, this isn’t just a simple act of violence. It’s an act of judgment, and it’s an act of mercy. The earth had gotten too evil. God couldn’t let it go on like that. Just as in the original sin of Adam and Eve, God instituted human death as both a judgment and a mercy, so now God intervenes in a sick, demonized society, to put an end to the cycles of human torture-it can’t go on forever. It’s got end. So God leaves no mourners, save eight brave survivors on an exotic floating zoo.
But after many days the waters receded and God told Noah and his family it was safe to leave the ark. Then God made a covenant with Noah, “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God puts a rainbow in the sky as a symbol of hanging up his bow and arrow. God won’t be at war with humans anymore.
The rest of the biblical story from Genesis 9 on is about God living out that promise. God did not stop being a God of both judgment and mercy- God is good, which means God can’t just turn a blind eye to evil and injustice. Nevertheless, although every human heart has a taste for sin, God promises that never again will God destroy the whole earth, with only an ark full of righteous survivors to keep things going. Instead, God takes another approach, a costly approach, an approach that requires not just people who can escape judgment but who will be heroes in the midst of an evil age. God selects a people and tasks them not just with staying alive, but with becoming a blessing to every nation on the earth. Instead of an ark, God builds a church- a church not separated out of the wayward world, but engaged in it, inviting all people to be saved. And yet, God won’t let the age of human evil and sorrow continue forever. Another day of judgment will come.
Jesus says that as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be the coming of the Son of Man, by which he means, so will be the day that he, Jesus, returns again to judge the human race. Like we talked about a couple weeks ago, no one will be able to predict exactly when this day will come. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt 24:36) And yet, just like Noah sitting in the ark waiting for the flood, we know that day will come…only unlike Noah we won’t be in the ark. Jesus says, “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left” (40-41). Those of us who trust in Jesus are not going to be on a ready-made zoo on the Day of the Lord. According to Jesus, we’re going to be out with our friends, alongside our co-workers or at home with our family members. And there in the midst of our ordinary, everyday lives, when we least expect it the day of reckoning will come…
In the season of Advent, Christians observe Advent by preparing themselves to greet Jesus. Some people choose to make more space for Jesus by fasting from things like streaming Netflix or Christmas sweets and remembering their need for a savior. Some pick up extra practices of prayer or good works. Thought these practices we try to prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of our savior.
But preparing for the coming of Jesus isn’t just about getting ourselves ready. It’s about calling the whole world to get ready also! Advent isn’t just a reminder that we personally must be ready to face the Day of the Lord. It’s a reminder that we are called to be heroes clothed in armor of light in the midst of a dark world. We are called to be the ark so that on the Day of the Lord, so that more of the people around us might be saved! That’s why we’re here. Advent reminds us that once we’ve found Jesus our time on this earth has essentially two main tasks. The first is to prepare our own souls for the day we will meet Jesus face-to-face. We do this by rooting out all the seeds of darkness within us and submitting ourselves again and again to the Lordship of Christ. And the second, task is to be heroes- people who help the rest of the world meet Jesus now, so they will be ready on the Day of the Lord.
All I Want for Advent
November 25, 2019 - Fr. William Eavenson - The Mission Cincinnati
It’s happening again. Commercials about new cars topped with giant red bows are filling up the ad breaks in my Hulu shows, rumors of Black Friday specials are creeping into my newsfeed, and for some reason I can’t get that stupid song “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” out of my head.
You know what this means: “the holidays” have arrived. As a little kid, I loved this season. The annual ritual of driving from Atlanta (where I grew up) to Knoxville for Thanksgiving, and returning home in time to decorate the house for Christmas (ALWAYS on the weekend AFTER Thanksgiving!) is deeply etched into my emotional memory. I still have my childhood Advent calendar, and I still remember waiting with my sister outside my mom’s bedroom door on early December Saturdays for “mommy wrapping machine” to finish disguising yet another exciting present we would have to wait a few more days to open. I remember how Christmas Eve used to feel like magic as my mind was a-blur with the mingled stories of Santa and Jesus, lit candles and wrapped gifts. Perhaps what I loved most about those days each year, was how powerful the sense of expectation was.
We lose things as we grow up. Many of us lose our childhood sense of wonder as we learn more and more about how the world really works and that (**spoiler alert!) Santa isn’t real. There are no mysteries anymore for the initiated. Everything in our mechanical universe has an explanation. Some of us lose our joy over what we wanted to be when we grow up when we actually become that doctor (or astronaut), when we actually find that long-imagined lover and start a family and learn that communication is hard work and kids are messy and loud. Some of us lose spouses, friends, or loved ones to divorce, death, or the slow separation of time and distance. And when we stare into the face of our losses, Christmas and “the holidays,” feel less magical and more masochistic; a societal choreography forcing us to move through the motions of a feigned joy that does nothing more than remind us of the good things we used to have but don’t anymore.
I want things for Christmas this year…but not presents. I want my childhood wonder back. I want my friend’s divorce undone, his marriage repaired, and his heart healed. I want people around me who have died this year to come back to life. I want the power to fix other people’s pain, to be able to press a button and end their hurt. I want peace between nations and peace in my heart. I want to lock anxiety in a box and ship it to Mars or drop it in the deepest part of the ocean. I want to see our politics de-polarized, and for us to stop our ridiculous partisan bickering. I want my friends who have lost their faith to find it again. I want to be able to express my love to my family and friends in a way that is clear and not needy. I want people everywhere to have real hope.
I can’t manufacture those things and Santa can’t deliver them. But Jesus can. For the last few years, I have needed Advent even more than Christmas. Because I need intellectual honesty in my faith. I need room to reconcile the hard things I experience with the good things I believe. Advent makes space for this. In their wisdom, Christians in history designated time on the church calendar before Christmas, to live deeply into a season of anticipation and expectation for Christ to come into the world as an infant in the glory of the Incarnation, and to come back again at the end of time as benevolent King of a fully-realized, cosmic Kingdom. In Advent, we wait. We long. We GROAN. We sit with recently exiled Ancient Israel whose people haven’t heard God speak to them in 500 years. We clutch the letter of Revelation desperate for hope and assurance of God’s love for us, alongside 1st century Christians whose friends had been ripped from their homes, strung up on trees in Emperor Nero’s Garden, and lit on fire as mood lighting for parties. And we cry out “how long!?” with our brothers and sisters whose families are driven from their homes by violence in Africa, or whose lives are torn apart by drugs and gun violence on our own American streets. Advent affirms that waiting and longing have always been part of what it means to be a Christian. This season shows me that I can feel deep sadness AND hold on to real hope. I can acknowledge the truth of ALL the hard things in the world, feel ALL of the emotions, and still be a Christian. And Advent also reminds me, that the full range of human experience and emotion takes place between the starting point of our world’s creation at the hands of a God of inestimable love, and its conclusion when Jesus, the Son of that same God comes back to topple oppressors, end violence forever, raise dead people, and wipe every tear from every eye.
THAT LAST PART IS ALL I WANT FOR ADVENT. It’s what every Christian throughout history has wanted. And it’s not just an empty promise. It’s a true and certain hope that we can bank on.
The Apostle Paul says it this way in Romans 13:11-12: “the hour has come for you to awake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now that when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So the let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
You may not get back all the things you’ve lost in this life. I can’t promise you will feel the same wonder tomorrow you felt yesterday. But if you are in Christ, you WILL get Jesus: coming back to you at the end of time to set every wrong right, heal every wound, and make all things new. And as Advent reminds us, its okay to WANT THAT. To LONG for Christ’s return and the final repair He will bring, to cry out with every fiber of your being—in grief or in joy—for Him to come back and make our world new. Because practicing that longing is not an exercise in wishful thinking. It is a pressing of our souls into the deepest and most true reality of the universe that is meant to give us ultimate and durable joy and hope: Jesus is coming back to make everything new.