God is at work in human history even if his ways are confusing—this is one lesson of Advent.
The prophet Isaiah said that God, who had made a covenant with Israel, was at work even though the nation had sinned and would enter exile. He who had created the heavens and earth, and gave breath to people, would bring forth his Servant: “My servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1-5). Continue reading Advent: A Promise of Light and Freedom →
Back in the early 1990s, when I began serving as a youth and young adult minister, a young woman from the congregation told me that she was dreading the approaching Christmas season. All the glitter, all the songs of joy and peace, all the smiling faces—she just couldn’t get into it. “I hate Christmas,” she said. Continue reading When Christmas Feels Like a Barren Desert→
How shall we think of war as we pray for peace this Advent season? However we do, let’s be careful not to glorify war.
Peace negotiators strive in Yemen, parts of Syria are reduced to rubble, and South Sudan suffers a civil war. Meanwhile, Canadians recently recalled the First World War, a conflict of a century ago with lingering effects. In many parts of Europe, Asia, North America, and elsewhere, the legacy of World War Two remains just below the surface. The effects of the Korean War continue.
Canadian veterans of peacekeeping missions and the war in Afghanistan suffer and show it in various ways. For some it means PTSD, broken families, addiction, homelessness, or suicide. “War is hell,” said William T. Sherman, a general in the Union army during the American Civil War. Hell isn’t what we want to see on the earth (Matt. 6:10).
War takes a horrible physical, mental, and spiritual toll on soldiers and civilians; we know this. And yet it can still be more than we realize. William P. Mahedy, a Roman Catholic chaplain who served in Vietnam and then became an Episcopal priest, said, “A great many Vietnam veterans have become religious agnostics or are now hostile to religion because they took seriously what they learned in Bible classes or in the parochial schools about killing.”
Combat shattered their worldview, he said. “For great numbers of veterans, duty in Vietnam was a journey into spiritual darkness—the very darkest night of the soul.” The average age of Vietnam veterans was just over 19, Mahedy says.
Christ came into the world to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:16-17). He came to restore humanity, reconcile us to himself and each other through the Cross (Eph. 2:11-22), and heal the planet (Rom. 8:18-22).
Because of Christ let’s be careful how we think about war. While our views might vary, let’s not glorify war. People need to hear about and follow Jesus, and for that they need to be alive.
During this Advent season filled with wars, famines, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other unnatural and natural disasters, we can be grateful for the presence and efforts of the worldwide Christian Church in word and deed—the light of Christ (Matt. 5:12-17).
We can give thanks for Presbyterians in Syria, Copts in Egypt, Lutherans in Finland, Methodists in England, Anglicans in South Africa, Roman Catholics in the U.S., Eastern Orthodox in Russia, Baptists in the Czech Republic, Anabaptists in the Netherlands, Pentecostals in Canada—and the list goes on. The Christian Church ultimately forms a single presence in many countries of the world. We can thank the Lord that his ministries are multiplied.
Yes, each part of the Church is more conscious of what it is doing and less aware of the work done by other parts of the Church. However, the Church worldwide has evangelism, relief, development, and justice activities in needy places by word and deed. For the wider Church and its work, we can give thanks.
Consider, for instance, Pastor Ibrahim Nseir and the Presbyterian congregation he serves in war-torn Aleppo, Syria; they provide hope amid the rubble, as Emily Loewen of MCC at times reminds us.
The light of Christ shines in many places and the darkness will not overcome it (Matt. 5:14-16; John 1:5; 1 John 1:8).
The original coming of Christ made angels, shepherds, and Magi rejoice. It also made people weep as baby boys were slaughtered in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-18). Advent, then and now, can be a time of confusion and grief.
“To some people, the approaching Christmas season spells loneliness, darkness, even pain,” Pastor Irma Janzen wrote 15 years ago. “They don’t look forward to it. It can be the most difficult season of the year” (What if Christmas isn’t Merry? Dec. 4, 2002, The Messenger).
“Some people in our congregations get overtired because they are too busy. Others overspend and feel guilty,” Irma said. She wrote that “commercialism and media make much out of Christmas,” while Christmas reminds some people how relationships have broken down. These are words to hear.
Family gatherings at Christmas reveal tensions, weaknesses as well as strengths, in how members relate to each other. Such gatherings amid strained relationships are mixed times of joy, stress, and grief. In the midst of this, Christ’s grace and the Church are much needed.
How do the actions of the Church and the sermons you hear at Christmas speak to your grief and strained relationships? How do they miss them?
O Lord, Christmas creates tension for us. We are sometimes hurt and confused. Help us to find your grace. Help us to feel and know that we are not alone. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
How adventurous will our churches be this Advent season? It might surprise you! Look around.
It’s fitting that Advent be a season of adventure. Advent recalls a time when the Greatest Adventurer came among us to share our human life; the Son of God became also a human being. Advent also looks ahead to His return.
Christ’s first coming was a wondrous event that involved risk and daring. The effects of Christ’s coming carry on, touching the lives of billions of people. And, true to the cliché, the best is yet to come.
Christians can take comfort in the great truths of which we are reminded. This is God’s world. The Son of God has come as our Saviour. Jesus lived, died, and rose for our reconciliation. He calls us together to follow Him. He is the Hope of the world and its history. By grace our lives have meaning, forgiveness, and an eternal future.
So how are our congregations responding? In Canada, from B.C. to southern Ontario, they are reaching out in creative ways. New congregations are being formed, younger churches are being strengthened, and established churches are changing.
Want more proof of adventure? Look at a world map and consider that the EMC supports nearly 100 cross-cultural workers working in many ministries in roughly 24 countries in about 60 different language groups.
Together we proclaim the One greater than our frailties and failures: Christ the Lord. Why do we do this? Because we rejoice in Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). Come, join our celebration! Join the adventure.
Most people either flat out avoid reading the genealogy of Matthew at the beginning of his gospel, or they approach it like they would cod liver oil—nose held and eyes half closed. Besides the many names that are difficult for most of us to pronounce, the long list of names seems boring and unrelated to the birth of Christ. “I’ll do anything, Lord, but please don’t make me read the genealogies!” most of us would say.
Yet as regularly as Christmas rolls around, I believe we should hear the voice of the Lord say to us, “If you want to follow me, you must read the genealogies.”
A genealogy tells us who we are. It tells us what kind of family we are considering getting ourselves involved with. A genealogy gives us our bearings.
In this season of Advent and Christmas, Matthew 1 challenges us: if you enter this Advent family, here is who you are, who you will be, and what you can expect. Christ’s genealogy can remind us of four truths that, if we take the time to discover them, can enrich our lives this season.
We need to remember that we are part of the Advent family line because of someone else. This family line goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, who courageously broke away from one family line (the Chaldean line of Ur) to start another line. Isaac then had the opportunity to enter because of Abraham and Sarah. Rebekah had the opportunity through Jacob, and Jacob and Rachel had it through them in turn.
I’m a part of this Advent line because a former house burglar named Greg shared the marvelous story of his new Advent family with me. Now a whole new branch of the Tices has become part of the Matthean genealogy, as my children have responded to Christ through my witness.
We need to remember that our lives will be full of the challenge to walk by faith into the unknown. Many of the members of this Advent family are like Abraham, the first name in the genealogy. Abraham was called out of Ur—our of his comfort zone, out of his family’s surroundings and culture. What was Abraham called to? “To a place I will show you,” says Gen. 12:1. In other words, not only were Abraham and Sarah called away from the familiar, but were given no highly detailed road map describing every twist and turn to their new destination.
Faith is the absolutely non-negotiable human action necessary for the divine action of God to be regularly at work within us and through us. Being in this Advent line means we will allow God to direct us, often through the unknown.
We need to remember to expect the unexpected. Four women are mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy. Listing women in a Jewish genealogy is not the usual practice. What women they are! They are not the great matriarchs of Israel’s history—like Sarah, or Rebekah, or Esther. Rather, they’re women like Rahab, who had been a prostitute of evil Jericho.
Out of the shame of Rahab’s past, God saw a woman who, unlike the others of Jericho, finally recognized the true God. Rahab was the only one who said, “For the Lord your God is he who is God in heaven above as on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). The red cord—a sign of her own sin and defilement (and, of course, of the seedy men who used to climb up it)—now became a sign of her salvation.
In addition, every one of the four women listed here in a Jewish line were Gentiles: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabite, and Bathsheba a Hittite. This family line overcomes some of the great prejudices of Far Eastern history!
Joining this Advent family means expecting the unexpected and having the unexpected asked of you.
We need to remember that our lives are kept by a promise-keeping God. This family line—just from Abraham to Jesus alone—is some 2,000 years old.
Through tens of thousands of challenges, God fights to keep this family together and intact. By Matthew 1:12—just before Jeconiah, at the time of the Babylonian exile—there was just one surviving possibility to keep the Davidic line alive. The only possibility rested with Zedekiah (2 Kings 24) and he was in exile with his eyes put out. Yet God worked things out.
The genealogy that we often avoid reading can remind us of the family line God is creating. It can remind us of our place within it and our commitment to invite others to join the family.
Bob Tice, DMin, is pastor of RiverRock Church in “core-city” Buffalo, New York.He is also an adjunct professor with Northeastern Seminary (Rochester) teaching the course Theology of the City. This article, reprinted with permission, was first published in the Gospel Herald (Dec. 23, 1997) when he was Mennonite Board of Missions urban ministry director, pastor of Westward Church of the Living Word (Buffalo), and adjunct professor in Houghton College’s pastoral and church ministries program.
One of the challenges I face around this time of year is figuring out what sort of gifts I want for Christmas. My wife, my mom, and my sister like buying gifts for people. They also like being organized and making lists, so some time between Canada Day and Thanksgiving Day they tell me to write down what I want for Christmas. This is a problem because last Christmas I didn’t know what I wanted and this year I have more stuff than I did last year.
In Luke 2:22-32 we meet an old character named Simeon. If there had been Christmas and Christmas gifts in his time I wonder if he would have been a hard person for which to buy. Though he had less than us, I wonder if the list with his name on it would have been empty or at least mostly empty.
It seems that there was only one thing Simeon wanted. If there had been Christmas and Christmas gifts and if he had had a sister who prodded him a bit and said, “Come on Simeon, there must be something you want.” what would he have done? Maybe, with a bit of smirk on his face, he would have finally written, “I’d like to see the Messiah.” Seeing the Messiah seemed to be the only thing that mattered to Simeon.
A Wish Come True
Simeon was probably an old man by the time Jesus was born. Luke tells us that he was devout and righteous and that the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had told Simeon he would not die before he had seen the Messiah.
One day, when Jesus was about 40 days old, Joseph and Mary went to the temple to dedicate their firstborn son. This was the ordinary thing for an obedient Jewish family to do (Lev.12). It was on this day that Simeon was “moved by the Spirit” and went to the temple courts (2:27). It was on that day that Simeon’s Christmas wish came true.
Simeon’s ‘Bucket List’
When Simeon saw the baby Messiah he held him and praised God. However, his first words of praise might sound weird to us. He said, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace” (2:29).In other words, “Lord, you have kept your promise. I’ve seen your Messiah and I’m ready to die now.”
Remember that imaginary Christmas list of Simeon’s with only one item? His “bucket list” also only had one item. Some of us have vacations we want to take, sights we want to see, and accomplishments we want to achieve before we “kick the bucket.” Not so with Simeon. He had wanted to see the Messiah. Now he had done so. Therefore, he was ready to die.
Who This Messiah Would Be
Simeon’s words of praise were also prophetic words about who the Messiah would be. In verse 30 Simeon said, “For my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon looked at Baby Jesus and simply said, “God, I have seen your salvation.” Notice Simeon did not announce, “God, I have seen part of your salvation plan,” or “God, I have seen the one who will show us salvation.” He simply said, “God, I have seen your salvation.” Period.
Simeon announced, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations” (2:30-31). God sent Jesus to earth because He wants all people to be saved regardless of their ethnicity, religious history or worldview.
No Favourite Culture
Unlike many people, God does not have a favourite culture, ethnicity or country. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that there is at least a hint of racism or ethnocentrism in our hearts. Ethnocentrism is when someone views the world with the belief that their culture is superior to others.
Consequently, racism and ethnocentrism are almost everywhere in this world. But they do not exist in heaven. Therefore, God sent Jesus to earth because he wants all people to be saved. As Simeon put it, “God prepared this in the sight of all nations.”
Simeon also declared that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (2:32). Jesus would reveal truth to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He would give them understanding about God’s character and how he acts in the lives of people.
Unlike the Gentiles, the people of Israel had Moses and the prophets, so they had a clearer understanding o f God and needed revelation less than the Gentiles did. Simeon announced that Jesus would be revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.
Fixed on the Messiah
Jesus was the one that made Israel most praiseworthy. The Israelites were proud of their kings and their great prophets, but if they really understood who Jesus was they would be proud of him the most. They would say, “Moses was great, King David was great, but Jesus is the greatest of them all. Jesus is the one who makes Israel great.”
During this season may this passage help us see two important aspects of the Christian life. First, may it help us to see how our eyes should be fixed on the Messiah. Simeon’s deepest longing, maybe his only longing, was to see the Messiah. Everything else was second place in comparison to this.
May we be able to repeat what the Apostle Paul said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). May we see that living the Christian life means “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2).
Second, may we also see that the Jesus, on whom we are fixing our eyes, came for all peoples.
May our whole lives agree with the Apostle Peter when he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). May we see that living the Christian life means accepting and loving all people, no matter how different they are from us.
Eric Isaac loves his wife Jennifer and their three children (James, Clara, and Emily). He graduated from Steinbach Bible College (BA, Pastoral Ministries) and is pastoring the Morweena EMC in Manitoba’s Interlake region.
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