Hope Humbly

Recommended readings: Psalms 122; 145, Amos 2:6-16, 2 Peter 1:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11

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What does it mean to wait for Christ? In one sense it means preparing our hearts and spirits for the promise of Christmas. Whether we all agree about the historical details of the nativity, we share a fairly common understanding about its message. In another sense, it means preparing ourselves for the return of Christ at some future time — and we have a lot less agreement about what that means. Some of us think of it as a literal embodiment of Revelation. Others are less certain of the details but envision a physical return. Still others think of it in metaphorical terms and don’t much separate the future Kingdom of Heaven from the present. Almost certainly none of us knows exactly, and Christ will continue to thwart expectations. It’s kind of his thing.

In Matthew 21, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey. This gesture symbolized his defiance of both Roman authority and the expectations of the Jewish people. The Jews were expecting a warrior messiah, a political figure who would throw off the chains of Roman tyranny in bloodshed and battle. Instead, they got a man who refused earthly titles and allowed his persecutors to execute him. A donkey where they expected a stallion.

Jesus will throw over our expectations as well (if he hasn’t already). So how should we prepare? Maybe the best thing to do is carry on as if we don’t really know what to expect. Because we don’t.

The second letter of Peter advises us to cultivate the qualities describing a life in Christ, each quality laying a foundation for the next: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Without them  he says our vision of Christ is nearsighted and blind (2 Peter 1:5-9). Before we make the same mistake as Christ’s contemporaries and insist our understanding of the messiah must be the right one — or insist someone else’s must be the wrong one —let’s concentrate on working up the rungs of Peter’s ladder of virtues from goodness to love. Those rungs are held together between rails of humility and faith. As we hope for Christ’s return, let’s hold tightly to both.

Comfort: We can always grow while we wait to encounter Christ more fully.

Challenge: At the end of each day this week, reflect on where you might have better exercised humility.

Hope Cautiously

Today’s suggested readings: Psalms 24, 150; Amos 1:1-5, 1:13-2:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Luke 21:5-19

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Advent is the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and his eventual return. As we celebrate it every year, it is a cycle within a cycle.

The history of injustice similarly repeats itself. Ethnic tensions, disregard and abuse of the poor, corrupted court systems, war crimes, and other ills have existed throughout all of human history. Whether or not we like to admit it, no nation or people is immune. When the formerly oppressed gain power they may take their turn to become the oppressor, and be blind to it because they still think themselves righteous.

Such was the case with Israel when farmer-turned-prophet Amos spoke to them. Israel had struggled long and hard to become a prosperous nation, but Amos told them they were no better than the wicked nations surrounding them. Amos accused the Israelites of “selling the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals […] trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way” (vv 2:6-7). The leadership of Israel declared itself righteous because it followed the rules of sacrifice and ritual, but they were indifferent to God’s greater demands of love and justice.

The theme for this first week of Advent is Hope. The flip side of hope is recognition that the world can be bleak, for why would we hope if we didn’t long for things to be better? Amos reminds us part of that recognition needs to be an examination of our own hearts, actions, and inactions. It’s human nature to believe our actions are justified … and to provide justification when we aren’t sure. We don’t always want to face ourselves when we’ve been part of an injustice or we’ve been willfully ignorant about our own contribution to societal problems. If in reading that last sentence you assumed it was accusing you of something specific … it wasn’t; that’s your own conscience, so start there.

The good news of Advent is that we don’t end “there.” In the weeks ahead, we will live into the promise of Hope.

Comfort: Hope is promised to everyone.

Challenge: This Advent season, begin an examination of your conscience and begin owning up to the things that get in the way of hope.

 

The war on… Advent?

WarOnAdventWhen do you think the “Christmas Season” starts? Is it the (ever earlier) day when stores begin displaying Christmas merchandise? When the radio starts playing carols? Right after Thanksgiving? When the television starts showing Christmas movies? Are we heading into a state of perpetual holiday preparation, or is there an official beginning to the Christmas season?

According to the church calendar, there certainly is: December 25.

Christmas begins on Christmas day and lasts until Epiphany, or January 6 (by which time traditionalists are pawning those five gold rings to board drummers, pipers, partridges, and the rest). Our culture tells us the four Sundays preceding Christmas are for kicking our holiday preparation into high gear, but they mark the beginning of the church year and the season of Advent.

Anyone wishing you “Merry Christmas” before that date is part of the media’s War On Advent.

Haven’t heard of that particular war? It’s the one that tells us to begin our materialistic holiday sprint in October and not stop until we collapse from exhaustion on January 2nd. Who has time to think about the first Sunday of Advent when we’re focused on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday? Or about the next three Sundays while we’re wrapping, baking, decorating, shopping, mailing, and partying?

Ironically, Advent is a season of reflection – a time intended for us to slow down to consider what it meant that Christ came into the world and why we long for his return. The season focuses on hope, love, joy, and peace. These themes are certainly cause for celebration, but they also remind us the world is desperately in need of each. Can we possibly reconcile Advent with the frenzy of “the holidays?” Some hard-core Advent fans will tell you a tree decorated before Christmas Eve is almost a sacrilege.

But maybe we can. Trees, presents, decorations – these are all secular aspects layered onto the traditions of our faith. Each of us can be intentionally reflective during this season, no matter what we are doing. Stringing up lights in the cold is a fine metaphor and opportunity for contemplating the coming of Christ into the world. Bargain hunting with the throngs at your local big box store is a challenge to honor the dignity of others under less than dignified circumstances. While we prepare holiday dinners, we can think of ways to reach those who lack food and loved ones. The important things we are meant to contemplate during Advent don’t stop being important after Christmas, New Year’s Day, or Epiphany. Our challenge is not simply to be solemn during Advent: it is to allow ourselves to be transformed by the presence of God in our meditations and celebrations, and in such transformation to find newer and better ways of living into the love of Christ through serving our neighbors. Be merry, but also be Mary.

Advent is coming…

comfortchallengeWelcome to Comfort & Challenge. This blog’s official “grand opening” is Sunday, November 29, 2015 – the first day of Advent. I hope you will join me this Advent season and beyond for an exploration of scripture, culture, and faith through a progressive Christian lens. While the intent of this blog is mainly devotional, its shape and growth are yet to be determined. That direction will undoubtedly be influenced by your feedback about which posts you find inspiring, interesting, or otherwise valuable. I look forward to sharing a spiritual path with you on our initial journey to Bethlehem … and wherever else the road may lead us. Peace and grace!