fbpx
Waiting Well When It’s Hard to See

Waiting Well When It’s Hard to See

Learning to wait well is one of life’s greatest challenges.

The author of the book of Lamentations knew this to be true when he referred to waiting as a “yoke”—a difficult burden—that people should learn to bear in their youth (Lamentations 3:27). In other words, we never “graduate” from waiting, which means that the sooner we learn to do it well, the better.

This verse sent me on a mission to try to help my kids learn to wait well. So far, so difficult!

Some time ago we had friends coming to visit from out of town. As I withstood a barrage of “Are they here yet?” type questions from my kids, I realized that I could leverage the intuitive connection within each of us between waiting and looking.
“Why don’t you go out on the front porch and keep an eye out for them?” I suggested. I don’t think I had even finished my sentence before they were gone.

 

Waiting and Seeing

When we’re waiting, we’re also typically on the lookout. This was certainly true for Simeon, whose story comes to us in the book of Luke.

There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, waiting for Israel’s consolation, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, he entered the temple. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him up in his arms, praised God, and said,

Now, Master,
you can dismiss your servant in peace,
as you promised.
For my eyes have seen your salvation.
You have prepared it
in the presence of all peoples—
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel. Luke 2:25–32 (ESV)

Do you see it? The connection between waiting and seeing. God had promised Simeon that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. And then, Simeon’s masterful declaration, with the baby Jesus in his arms, that my eyes have seen God’s salvation. Amen and amen.

The Advent season is upon us again. Advent literally means “coming,” and this season is a time we seek to grow in our ability to wait well for Jesus’ second advent/coming by reflecting back upon his first advent/coming. In other words, we ought to “be out on the front porch, keeping an eye out” for Jesus.

But what do we do when it’s hard to see what God is up to? How do we respond when it feels like God has forgotten about us and all we can see is darkness? How do we wait well when we’ve already been waiting for so long?

 

Waiting and Christmas

I imagine that Simeon sometimes wrestled with questions like that. Anna too (Luke 2:36-38). Maybe Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and perhaps even the angel Gabriel also struggled waiting and wondering. You can almost picture him, right? “God, what ARE you up to with this strange plan?”

This Advent season let’s connect anew with the sometimes strange Christmas story, and what some people saw that first Christmas, waiting and watching for God to show up and fulfill his promises.

“Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

“Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

According to the original Brandes family (my family of origin: my dad David, mom Janice, and sister Annie), The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is, hands down, the best Christmas story ever.

A short novella written by Barbara Robinson in 1971, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever casts the six Herdman siblings as the extremely unlikely heroes of their local church’s annual Christmas pageant. Rough and tumble with a difficult home life, the Herdman children only darken the door of the church because they hear false rumors of an exorbitant snack situation in Sunday School. 

The snacks don’t materialize, but the Herdman siblings fill every material part in the pageant. From there chaos and hilarity ensue. But as the Herdman children come to understand the fresh wonder of Christmas for the first time, humility and joy also ensue. Deep, abundant joy. 

One of the climatic moments in the book comes in the midst of the actual performance of the Christmas pageant. Designed to be an opportunity for the church to quietly contemplate the wonder of Christmas, the only character with a speaking part is the Angel of the Lord, who announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Gladys Herdman, the youngest and most unruly sibling steps to the front of the stage to fulfill that role. And, at the top of her lungs, shouts at the audience:


“Hey! Unto YOU a child is born!”

Departing after the pageant, one previously cantankerous church member comments to another, “It was so nice to actually be able to hear the Angel of the Lord this year!”

To which I say, amen! The message of the Angel of the Lord from Luke 2 should be SHOUTED from the rooftops:

[The shepherds] were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Two hundred years before Barbara Robinson drew upon this passage for The Best Christmas Pageant ever, Charles Wesley, the prolific hymn writer, brother of John Wesley, and one of the co-founders of Methodism, also found inspiration in the same passage for what he originally called “Hymn for Christmas Day.” 

A couple decades later in 1758, Wesley’s original was given an update by another founder of Methodism, George Whitfield, eventually resulting in the version we know and sing today, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The first verse displays clear allusions to Luke 2:9-14 (and to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever):


Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled”

Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”

“Hark” is an old English word that means listen. It is an entreaty and invitation to stop all other affairs and pay attention to what comes next. Or, in Gladys Herdman’s shorter, gruffer version, “Hey!”

And what comes next IS a big deal. What comes next WILL bring “good news of great joy.” The long-awaited Savior Messiah has been born! The final verse of “Hark! The Herald Angels SIng” teases out the enormous implications of this good news proclamation, revealing why it is that the Herdmans experienced so much joy upon learning the truth of Christmas for the first time:


Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

This Christmas season, it is my hope and prayer that you experienced the same joy and wonder that the Herdman siblings did. Because “Hey! Unto YOU a child is born!” 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

It is difficult to comprehend the long anticipation for the coming of the Messiah experienced by the people of Israel. In our twenty-first century instant gratification world, we really have no imaginable category to equate the centuries of frustration and longing endured by generations of God’s people. And although we commemorate the season of Advent in the Christian calendar each year, even the congregations most committed to adhering to this season of waiting only experience it in a performative manner. We can’t fully immerse ourselves in such a posture because in the back of our minds we know that Christ has come. As much as some of our greatest Christian calendar enthusiasts try to commemorate it and we try to convince ourselves, we can never emulate that same kind of longing. 

This may be a contributing factor to the lack of Christian hymns and carols that meaningfully capture the Advent season. Therefore it is important to consider those Advent hymns that have endured. One of the most familiar is “O Come Emmanuel,” with text originating over 1,200 years ago and a chant-like melody that shifts from a minor key in the verses to a major lift in the refrain “Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” 

Aside from these aesthetics, the most compelling reason for its longevity may be the deep sense of longing for the Messiah’s deliverance beautifully woven with rich biblical allusions to Jesus Christ and the expectant hope of his coming. Each verse of the song begins with an invitation that highlights a particular biblical attribute of Christ, then describes a new reality once the Messiah comes. 

Considering the lyrics verse by verse provides a better understanding of their meaning and strong Christological foundations. 

__________

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel;
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

 

The first verse begins with an invitation from a waiting, exiled people looking forward to the coming Messiah’s rescue. It also alludes to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that “…the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”


O come, Thou
Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.


The invitation in the second verse references Isaiah 11:1 regarding the lineage of Jesus: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” 


Both of these stanzas focus on the Messiah’s expected liberation of God’s people. In the first, the deliverance is from Israel’s physical reality. When the Messiah comes, the text infers, he will bring deliverance from earthly suffering and oppression. The second verse calls for spiritual and emotional deliverance from the schemes of Satan, the grips of hell, and the sting of death as described in 1 Corinthians 15:56-57. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 


Come, the first two verses say, and set us free!


O come, Thou
Day-Spring, come and cheer,
Our Spirits by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.


Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1 finishes with these words “…the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” This phrase, “sunrise from on high,” is translated as “Dayspring” in the King James Version and refers to the Messiah as one who brings a new dawn (The Christian Standard Bible translates the sunrise as the “dawn from on high”). As the sun ushers in a new day, so the Messiah will bring new life to our spirits, will cover the darkness with light, and push the darkness of death away. 


Come, verse three shouts, and bring new life and light!


O come, Thou
Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.


In Isaiah 22:22 the prophecy refers to the Messiah as the “Key of David”: 
“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” We see this phrase again in Revelation 3:7, when Jesus is referred to as “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Jesus, our Messiah, is the one who opens the gates of heaven to those who believe and, in doing so, closes the path that leads to death, providing the way to eternity with him. 


Come, we sing in verse four, and lead us to our eternal home with you!


O come, Thou
Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.


When the fifth verse refers to Christ as “Wisdom from on high,” it not only draws language from Jeremiah 51:15 but also from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he refers to Christ as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). The last two lines of the verse are almost directly lifted from Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” 


Come, verse five calls, and teach us to walk in your ways!


O come,
Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.


The final verse of “O Come Emmanuel” refers to a phrase used in the prophecy found in Haggai 2:7 (KJV) “And I will shake all nations, and
the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” Christ, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, “himself is our peace.” He knocks down the dividing walls between us and reconciles us to God in one body through the cross.


As we sing the last verse we invite the Messiah to come and bring peace to the world. 


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.


Each verse ends with this refrain. Rejoice. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)  Rejoice because the Deliverer
has come and is coming again to make all things as they ought to be!

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Why I Can’t Stand Christmas Music but Love This Carol

Confession time…I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music. Maybe that’s because I get tired of hearing the same tunes every year. Maybe it’s just because “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “dreaming of a white Christmas” don’t evoke the same nostalgia for me as they do for others. These songs don’t resonate with my experience growing up in Africa. Or maybe it’s because the quaint sentimentality of many Christmas songs feel out of touch with my life and the concerns of a broken world. Call me a ‘Scrooge’ but I don’t plan on voluntarily listening to much Christmas music this year.

That being said, when I get past my personal music tastes and really pay attention to the lyrics of many traditional Christmas carols, I find them to have a deeply rich theology. One such song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This carol was written by Edmund Sears in 1849 during the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and popularized during the Civil War. The lyrics draw out the disconnect between the announcement of peace from heaven at Christ’s birth and continuing war and suffering on earth.

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.

This opening stanza references the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). The carol doesn’t treat this pronouncement as something only given one time in the distant past, but envisions how this message is continually proclaimed. This happens despite the discord and division among humans, referenced by an allusion to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). 

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The next stanza is often omitted in contemporary hymnals, but it is my favorite. Unlike many sentimental Christmas songs, this carol is not unaware of the suffering and brokenness still experienced in this world. Even two thousand years after Christ’s coming, sin and death still reign in our world. Even still, the lyrics call us to hush the messages that lead us to strife and focus on the message of the Promised King.

 But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

The beauty of Christmas is not found in sanitized and picturesque images of an ideal nativity scene, but rather in God’s entrance into the broken messiness of human life as a real baby to save us. He is the one “who redeems your life from the pit” (Psalm 103:4). This song names those messy experiences of pain and suffering we have, and it invites us to look to Christ in the midst of it.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing; –
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!

This carol captures the profound tension of the Advent season. We are caught in the already-not-yet, looking back to Jesus’ first coming with joy, and also looking forward in faith to his second coming, when he will make all things right. Unlike out of touch Christmas tunes, this carol connects with that enduring and timeless struggle.

For lo! the days are hastening on
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Listen to the recording of this beautiful carol performed by our campus worship pastors. As the music washes over you, may you experience God in the midst of pain, disappointment, and brokenness. He doesn’t ignore the pain you are in, but instead sees you there and enters into the mess to redeem it. 

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!