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Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Tomorrow marks the first Sunday of Advent, the season in which we anticipate the coming of Jesus, our promised king. In Luke 1:32-33, the angelic messenger tells Mary that the son she will bear “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

The Promised King

The hope for the coming of this promised king goes back to the Old Testament, where it is foretold, among other places, in the Psalms. We’re calling our Advent sermon series The Promised King, and we’ll explore how the Psalms point to King Jesus. 

Additionally, we’ve designed theFormed.life to function as an Advent devotional, in which you will meditate on a particular psalm during the week before the sermon on Sunday morning. As part of this Advent devotional, we’re also encouraging you to meditate on the lyrics of a Christmas hymn each Saturday. 

 

Joy to the World

Today’s Christmas hymn is Joy to the World written in 1719 by the prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts. Some have said that Joy to the World isn’t actually a Christmas hymn because Watts wrote it with Christ’s second coming in mind, not his first. The lyrics Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her king refers to Jesus’ return when he ultimately and finally ushers in his coming kingdom.

When Jesus returns, the curse of Genesis 3 will be no more, which is acknowledged in the third stanza of Joy to the World

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found. 

While the curse in Genesis 3 brought “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18), Watts points out that Jesus’ coming has an altogether different effect on creation: 

And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing
Fields and floods
Rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy

 

Creation Sings!

The idea of creation crying out to God in praise is deeply biblical. It comes from places like Isaiah 55:12  the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands; Luke 19:40. I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out; and Psalm 148, which is an entire song dedicated to the idea of creation voicing praise to its creator. No longer held back by the curse of Genesis 3, all creation bursts into glorious praise. 

But if Joy to the World is about Christ’s second coming, why sing it at Christmas? We sing it because Christmas is as much about Christ’s second coming as it is about his first coming. During the Christmas season, we look back at what God has done through Christ’s first coming, and at the same time look forward in anticipation to his second coming. We remember that what he accomplished at his first coming serves as a guarantee of what is yet to come when he returns.

 

Advent is about Anticipation

The anticipation of Advent isn’t about Christmas parties, delicious Christmas dinners, and piles of Christmas presents. It is the anticipation of the second arrival of our Promised King who, when he comes again, will complete the work that he started two millennia ago as a baby in the little town of Bethlehem. In the meantime, we proclaim now a song that all of creation will sing then:

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders of His love.

Word Made Flesh

Word Made Flesh

Christmas is over. The season of joy, celebration, and anticipation has been replaced by bills, dirty dishes, and gloomy weather. It’s time to throw the tree to the curb, return the weird gifts you have no use for, and count down the days until the kids go back to school. Christmas music is finally done playing! And now the over/under date has been set for when you’ll break your New Year’s resolution (January 17 for me this year).

It’s the same thing every year – our eyes grow big with childish delight as we drive through the Christmas village. Our hearts flutter with excitement over the perfect gift we’ve found for a loved one. The Christmas season is full of anticipation, and then suddenly it’s over. Time to move on, because a new year is starting with new goals, new work projects, new classes, and on and on.

The Advent season is the time when we celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” But the Good News of “God with us” does not end with His birth story. We need to keep reading. “Emmanuel” is not about Christmas, it’s about an entire life. And now, as we enter what experts call “the most depressing time of year”, we need to remember that Jesus’ story is not over. 

The Gospel of John doesn’t have a story of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he summarizes in one phrase: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). Jesus, God’s Word, who was also God himself (John 1:1) became human and dwelled among us. There were more than three decades between the first Christmas and the first Easter – that was a long time for Jesus to dwell among His people.

In the new year, our sermon series will transition from Jesus’ coming to His dwelling. We’re calling the series Word Made Flesh, which comes from John 1:14. We’ll be digging into the Gospel of John, to meet the God who became human. Who turned water into wine and drove out the money-changers in the temple. Who confronted “good” religious people like Nicodemus and immoral outsiders like the Samaritan woman at the well, telling them both that He alone is the source of eternal life.

As we wrap up this Christmas season and move into a new year, we hope that you will join us as we continue to read the story of the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh, the God who dwells with His people.

Ways to Avoid Becoming Terrible at Christmas

Ways to Avoid Becoming Terrible at Christmas

I love Christmas. But I hate how easily Christmas can deform us. What do I mean? 

I really love Christmas. I sing Christmas songs in July. Our family seems to have a thousand traditions jammed into December. We are one of those families who wear matching pajamas on Christmas Eve. I don’t think I’ve ever had the thought, “Well, that was too many Christmas carols in worship.” I love the smells, the bells, the sweaters, the peppermint everything…I could go on. 

But I find myself often disturbed by who we — Christians — become around this time of year. Children throwing tantrums because they didn’t get the toy they wanted. Adults throwing tantrums because they didn’t get…the toy they wanted. Debt skyrocketing. Patience running thin. Depression rates increase. Family fights are the norm. It’s the hap-happiest season of all…!

Why? Partly because we’ve replaced the shared longing for Christ in Advent with the materialistic lusts of Christmas. More than that, our rhythms and idols are heightened during holy days (aka holidays). In a culture with extravagant wealth when compared historically and globally, we tend to leverage that wealth toward meeting our deepest needs of security, safety, meaning, and belonging rather than looking to Christ. This time of year can easily become the heightened worship of materialism, and so it should be no surprise that at this time of year we get more of materialism’s fruits: hurry, selfishness, isolation, and loneliness. 

Now to the key question: how do we fight this? How do we recenter our longing for Christ and His desires in a way that brings change in us for the better this Advent? The answer lies not just in a surrender of the heart but also in a change of practice. The apostle Paul reminds us that grace propels us to walk into good works (Ephesians 2:10). So what do we do?

Here are three practices that the Holy Spirit can use to help reorient the Christmas holy day into being a day that makes us more whole. 

#1 Read the Christmas Story from the Bible and Talk about It. 

When Christmas morning rolls around, we can tell ourselves that we’ve outsourced the telling of the Christmas story to a movie or a previous sermon at some point in December so that we feel like we’ve checked that box. 

What’s Christmas morning about? Is it the shredding away of the wrapping paper to find our dreams met in the items around us? Or is it centering on the Christ child once again? 

What if we put away the phones, the apps, the slideshows, and just get out the good ol’ Bible. Grab coffee and open the book. Gather around it with others or alone and read of God come to us. 

Don’t rush it. Sit in it. Ask questions of this critical moment in history. Ask God to give you a deeper appreciation or a more rich understanding.

Remind yourself that God is the greatest gift given to humankind, and allow Him to relativize how much the gifts under the tree are to satisfy our deepest desires. 

Now, I hear the pushback. Gabe, that may be fine if you’re single or married without kids. But you don’t know my kids. You’re right. I’ve got three kids under the age of 8 as I write this. I know the questions that go through our minds as parents: What if they start to have a distaste for the Bible because I require them to sit through a reading and engage? What if it ruins the day? What if I lose my temper? Can’t we just relax on this day? Geez?! 

Materialism wants us to focus on instant gratification and avoid discipline. The gospel calls us to gracious parenting with our eyes set on who the children are becoming. I want us to call our children to know the Scriptures and know the Jesus who is at the center of all this. And just because they don’t look as engaged at first when reading the Christmas story as they do when they open presents, that doesn’t mean they won’t be more grateful for those times 10 years from now. 

Think about what you want your kids to say to their kids? What you want your spouse to say about you at your funeral? What if they said, “They always brought us back to God’s word. They didn’t want me to miss the greatest gift of all. I wasn’t always grateful for it, but they wouldn’t let me give my heart to stuff that wouldn’t fill my heart.” Can you imagine? 

So very practically, here are some of the traditional texts to engage with on Christmas:

  • Matthew 1:18-25. This is the passage of how the angel came to Joseph to tell him to stay with Mary even though she was pregnant with a child that wasn’t his. 
  • Luke 1:26-38. This is the passage where the angel comes to Mary and tells her she is to have a child. 
  • Luke 2:1-21. This is the classic passage of how Jesus was born and the shepherds came around the manger. 
  • Matthew 2. This is also a powerful passage of the foreigners (the Magi) who came to find Jesus, and how Jesus quickly became a refugee. A powerful reminder just how similar those early situations are to today.
  • Revelation 22:1-8. This is not as traditional in present day Christmas celebrations, but this text captures our advental longing for Christ’s second coming and the beauty of His coming presence. 

#2 Invite Others into Your Christmas Holy Day.

We can idolize the nuclear family in  western. In other cultures, extended family and even neighbors were included in holy day celebrations. Idols always destroy the vulnerable. Always. And some of the vulnerable in our culture are those who are single, whether young or older, and away from family. 

It’s fascinating that at the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph weren’t alone with Jesus. The shepherds joined them because God invited them (Luke 2:16). And throughout the gospel narrative we see again and again that Jesus himself defines the most important place of belonging not as the nuclear family but those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 12:50). Now this is in no way an excuse to exclude or avoid those who are related to us in a natural way (1 Timothy 5:8), but it is to expand our boundaries of belonging and inclusion. 

So on this Christmas, yes, call your grandma, but what about calling your Christian sister too? I’m not about making your Christmas day hectic, but maybe there’s one person you can reach out to who is in your life because you share Christ? Maybe they chose singleness like the apostle Paul encourages us to (1 Corinthians 7:7), or maybe singleness and isolation was a result of painful exclusion (James 1:27, 1 Corinthians 7:15). Regardless, we are made for community, and the church is to be the family of God in a very real sense. Who can you reach out to include this Christmas? 

Each Christmas there is someone Allie and I invite into our home that we hear is without a community on Christmas, and it is always better because of it. We don’t make any real adjustments. We just invite them into our lives to do Christmas with us, and it makes our Christmas day more beautiful. Try it out.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t add the importance of gathering with the church community around Christmas. It’s always fascinating to me that during a holiday centered on the beauty of Christ and His body, the Sunday after Christmas is one of the least attended Sundays in the year. I get there are reasons like travel and so on, but one important step in caring for the vulnerable around the holidays is to show up at church. We need each other, and if we don’t show up there – at our worship gatherings – we leave so many feeling even more alone when we need each other the most. 

#3 Be Radically Generous with Your Words. 

I don’t know how many times I have read the card on their presents for my kids, but they can’t even focus because their sights are set on the toy that is yet to be revealed under the wrapping paper. With such an emphasis on stuff during Christmas, we forget that some of the most powerful forms of generosity have to do with our words toward and for one another.

I recognize you need to figure out your rhythm with your family, but what if there was a part of Christmas day – maybe it’s even after the giving and receiving of the physical gifts – where each person shares something they are grateful for about the person sitting next to them? If you are a married couple, maybe you intentionally set time aside to speak your delight over one another?

I know, I know. Some folks are giving me the “you’re crazy” look right now. That just sounds hoaky, right? But why? We need to hear this from each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We need to hear from those closest to us that they are grateful for us. That’s even more important than whatever thing is under the tree. What if this year you did that for each person with you on Christmas morning? What if this year you just modeled the way? 

Let’s Become Better Together

Those are 3 practices that if we leaned into them during and around Christmas, the Holy Spirit would actually strengthen our bonds, encourage our faith, and train our mouths to anticipate Christ’s second coming. 

My hope is not that everyone does these exact three things. My hope is that this has given you a more biblical imagination for what God can do in and through you this holy day. It doesn’t have to be chaotic. It doesn’t have to be deforming. Christmas can be a time to give life, to form life, and to invite more into a shared life with Christ, if we are willing to allow our practices to communicate Christ at the center of Christmas once again. 

From all of us at Christ Community, Merry Christmas! 

Advent Devotionals and Books

Advent Devotionals and Books

by Rachel Gorman

If I’m honest, I want to make this Christmas season all about me. To enjoy losing myself in the endless distractions. 

December naturally lends itself to easy numbing, doesn’t it? A beautiful season—crisp cold weather, family traditions, the buying, the travel, the delight of holiday food & drink, the cozy nights in front of the fire…so much to enjoy and so much to help us forget. 

Frequently all the “good” morphs into something insatiable and results in unhealth. A morning after feeling of “Why did I eat that?” “Buy that?” I can also get so harried I begin to feel numb to some things. But to paraphrase one of my favorite thinkers—if we numb one thing, we become numb to everything. It’s impossible to pick and choose what we numb. And honestly, I don’t want to miss Christmas because I was comatose. 

I’ve found that when I choose to slow down and spend time reflecting—when all the good things are given their proper place of importance in my life—the joy in them is actually magnified, and even better than I imagined. 

My efforts to gorge on all the decadent happiness then transitions into a slow discipline of gratitude, joy, peace, and ultimately adoration of the beauty of the Maker of all the lovely things. 

These wonderful books for the Advent season have helped me reclaim my focus. I hope they will do the same for you:

  • The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp – a yearly read for me.  Food for the heart and mind.  Audience: predominantly women, but I recommend it for men, too.
  • Honest Advent by Scott Erickson – for those looking for a fresh perspective. I’m reading this for the first time this year, hoping it lives up to expectations. Endorsed by a couple of my favorites, John Mark Comer and Sarah Groves. Audience: men and women.
  • Shadow and Light by Tsh Oxenreideranother new one for me, but one I’m really excited to do with our family this year. Short readings, accompanied by Scripture, a daily Advent playlist, and instructions for lighting the Advent candles. Seems thoughtful but also approachable enough for the whole family. Audience: everyone.
  • Unwrapping the Names of Jesus by Asheritah Ciuciu- lovely daily perspective on Jesus’ names as they relate to Advent. Audience: women
  • Hidden Christmas by Tim Keller – I haven’t read this one yet but with Tim Keller as the author, it’s a guaranteed win. Audience: men and women
  • Come Let us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp- I’ve enjoyed this daily devotional for several years. I appreciate how accessible it is, while still getting straight to the heart of the matter. Audience: men and women
‘He Shall Be Called…’: Introducing the Names of God

‘He Shall Be Called…’: Introducing the Names of God

What’s in a name? You can learn a great deal about someone based on their name. This is nowhere more true than when it comes to the names of God.

The Importance of Names

In western culture, names are a way to conveniently refer to a specific person. This does not mean that names are always arbitrary — often great thought goes into choosing a name that feels right. But in most of our day to day experiences, names are simply a way to refer to someone lest we become stuck in endless conversations trying to identify “Who’s on first?” How difficult and confusing the world would be without names!

However, in the biblical world, names go deeper than simply what something is called, but also communicate something of the nature of the thing or person. In the Bible, names are a window into the essence of who someone is.

This is tremendously important as we consider the names of God. When it comes to God, we don’t want just to know what to call this divine being we worship; we want to know who He is, what He is like, and why He is worthy of worship. The names of God reveal God to us.

Unless God reveals Himself to us, how will we properly identify who “God” is? Left to ourselves, “God” is merely whoever we conceive Him to be. But as Christians, we believe in so much more. In the book 3 2 1: The Story of God, author Glen Scrivener puts it this way: 

“Confessing ‘belief in some kind of god’ is about as appealing as marrying ‘some kind of carbon-based life form’. Who cares about ‘spouses in general’; it’s my Emma who has won my heart. In the same way, who cares about ‘God’? ‘Which god?’ is always the question.”

We don’t just want to believe in some idea of God. We want to believe in the true, personal God, and we want to know that person’s name.

The Names of God and Human Experience

The names of God revealed to us in Scripture — or more precisely, the characteristics of God that the names reveal to us — have enormous implications for our everyday experience. Though it is now largely a relic of the past, many family names demonstrate something of who our ancestors were — Go to Mr. Potter for a new set of dishes, see Mr. Carpenter about a new coffee table, and pick up some flour from Mrs. Miller—and so on.

In a similar way, if we know who God is, we know what we can depend on Him for. We know how to relate to Him. We know how He is able to meet our needs. When we are anxious, we need God to comfort us, and when we are afraid, we need to know that God will protect us. The good news is that God has revealed Himself in ways that speak to the unique needs of our experience, and He has done this so that we may know what sort of relationship we can have and what we can expect from Him. What a comfort and joy it is to know to Whom we belong, why He is worthy of our worship, and what we can expect from Him!

Advent is a fitting season to remember and reflect upon these truths. As the image of God, Jesus is the perfect embodiment of every one of God’s names. More than anywhere else, when we look to Jesus, we see and understand exactly who this God is and what He is like. Just as importantly, as we look to Jesus, we see better than ever how God meets us in our time of need, what sort of relationship we can have with Him, and why Jesus is worthy of our worship. In Jesus, God became man, and the divine nature meets human experience.

As we look back to how God has revealed himself in Jesus, we remember who God is and who He is for us. We are reminded that Jesus is exactly who we need in our experience and why He is worthy of our worship. As we learn together about the names of God, may we grow together in our understanding of who our God is, and see and worship Him foremost as He is revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus.

“I don’t want to go to heaven!”

“I don’t want to go to heaven!”

How could anyone not want to go to heaven? That was the question blaring in my mind as I sat across from a five year old girl that morning in Sunday school. When I was in middle school, I volunteered in the five year old Sunday school classroom. I don’t remember much about that class, but I do remember that day when the pastor’s daughter declared loudly and emphatically that she did not want to go to heaven. 

When I asked her why, she said something about being bored and not liking having to go to church all the time. I tried talking her into the idea of liking heaven. But I found myself at a little bit of a loss to say anything more substantive than heaven was better than the alternative and surely it would be better than she thought. I don’t think I convinced her.

I continued to think about that conversation for a long time. Of course wanting to go to heaven was “the right answer,” but if I was honest with myself I had the same thought as that five year old: What if heaven was boring? There is so much I want to do here and now. For many of us I suspect this Far Side cartoon captures our expectations about heaven pretty well:

But maybe we haven’t been willing to admit to ourselves that we just aren’t that excited about heaven. I guess kids—and Gary Larson—are just most honest about that sort of stuff than a lot of adults. 

It wasn’t until over a decade later that my imagination for “heaven” was rescued from the eneminc “…Wish I’d brought a magazine” caricature to the full-blood biblical vision of the New Heavens and New Earth. Two things happened. First, I was utterly captivated by N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. Wright helped me at last see what was in the Bible rather than just importing vague ideas I picked up from pop culture, classic art, and homespun theology. Second, I took a class on C.S. Lewis from professor Christopher Mitchell. I’d never met someone who had thought with such detail and clarity about the reality of the New Heavens and New Earth—or who lived with such contagious anticipation of them.

This Advent season,  we are going to take an imagination-baptising look at what the Bible promises about heaven. We’ll address questions like…

  • What will heaven be like?
  • Will I have a body? What will it be like?
  • Will I know people in heaven?
  • Where is heaven?
  • Why believe in heaven?
  • Is believing in heaven escapist? Does it distract us from the work of here and now?

…and many more. 

From the earliest days of the Christian church, Advent has been a season of waiting and preparation. It was a time to prepare for the celebration of Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ first coming. Now kids make paper chains counting down the days until they can open the presents under the tree, and we mark the time with Advent calendars. 

It is also a time to remember and look forward to Jesus’ promise that He would come again and make all things new, to unite heaven and earth. But what is heaven? And when we wait for heaven, just what exactly are we waiting for? 

This Advent season let’s look together  at what the Bible says about heaven, about what we are waiting for.

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