Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
I recently came across this statement, “If you get to December 25th and you are sick of Christmas, then you didn’t do Advent correctly.” Has this happened to you? Have you been exhausted by Christmas? Have you wished these festive days away? Have you found yourself stuck in yuletide survival mode?
We’ve all been there. So, what does it mean to do Advent correctly? Advent starts this Sunday. It is a season of preparation and waiting. It is a season in the church year designed to fix our eyes on the coming of the Lord, the return of our Savior Jesus. It is a countercultural season calling us to slow down as the world moves around us in a fa-la-la-la-la frenzy. Advent reminds us that the Savior who came before in a Bethlehem stable, whose Spirit lives with us still now, will come again. Jesus is coming back. So, during the Advent season we “stay awake and keep alert” (cf. Mark 13:35-37) as we anticipate His return.
Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to find any semblance of Advent in our world today. Stores quickly shifted their shelving displays from Halloween to Christmas—with perhaps a small hiatus for Thanksgiving in between. In fact, many stores have already sold out of certain Christmas items and décor. Earlier this week, the only gingerbread houses I found were ones that crumbled during the earthquakes of their shipping and shelving. Even before the last bites of Thanksgiving turkey have been gobbled up and devoured, the Christmas specials have commenced on TV and the non-stop, holly-jolly tunes saturate the airwaves. Even at my home and here at church, there are no lack of Christmas decorations present. They are out and on full display. Even the most faithful Christians can skip through these four weeks to get to the glow of a glitzy, tinsel-filled holiday. As such, before it “begins to look a lot like Christmas,” we need to hit the holiday brakes and make a stop at Advent’s rest area. We need the season of Advent to prep for Christmas—and not in the more time to shop or more cookies to bake sort of prep. But in the “waiting for the revelation of Jesus Christ who will sustain you to the end” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:7) sort of preparation.
A celebration of Christmas will only be upgraded and enriched if we take time to do Advent correctly. Before we get to Christmas it is good to go back to the age-old stories and prophecies. It’s natural to want to “skip to the good parts,” but when we look back, we see that God’s people have often anxiously longed for God to show up and do away with the bad. Over years, decades, and centuries, God repeatedly reminded His people of His promise to deliver them. So, we also, during the four weeks of Advent, cherish and anticipate the hope of God’s people. The more we remember that the people of God have always been “waiting” people, the more we have hope that God is still at work and still with us. During Advent in our church, we will prepare for Christmas by revisiting the prophets, singing the carols, rereading the gospels, and lighting the candles that re-energize our hope, peace, joy, and love. Then we will be better equipped to come alongside Mary and Joseph to celebrate the birth of the world’s most pivotal newborn.
Most Christians are pretty good at celebrating Christmas. It’s kind of our thing. We thrive on it. It’s what we do. But let’s not get there too fast! Slow down and celebrate the simplicity of this waiting season. Join us in worship—before December 24th—and do Advent the right way!
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes – and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside – is not a bad picture of Advent.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
“Advent: the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” (Bill McKibben)
A little boy of six was invited to his neighbor’s home for a meal. As soon as all were seated at the table the food was served. The little boy was puzzled, and with a child’s frankness asked, “Don’t you say a prayer before you eat?” The host was uncomfortable and mumbled, “No, we don’t take time for that.” The boy thought silently for a while, and said, “Oh, you’re just like my dog. You just dive right in.”
Do you ever dive into something without the Lord? I think we can all agree that life is not always what we expected. We all have our stories. For all the peaks, we also must go through our fair share of valleys. Whatever your journey has been, it does not change the goodness of God. You don’t give thanks if you don’t believe someone deserves the thanks. Thanksgiving for Christians is awareness of who God is and what He has done. It does not mean we don’t recognize that there are difficulties, it simply—yet profoundly—means we stand upon a greater reality. God is on the throne and deserves praise!
We have much to be thankful for each Thanksgiving and each day. Our highest thanksgiving comes from the gift of Jesus our Savior. God has given us everything in Christ; therefore, we thank and praise Him, serve and obey Him. “Thank the Lord and sing his praise; tell everyone what he has done” (offertory, LSB). Each day will not go as we would like it to go. This is undeniable truth. There will be disasters, storms, and diagnoses. It recalls another cute story of a little boy who was asked to pray for dinner. Before he bowed his head to pray, he looked at the dish. Then, closing his eyes he prayed, “Lord, I don’t like the looks of it, but I’ll thank you and eat it anyway.” Such is life in a broken world; sometimes we won’t like the looks of things. Yet we remember to stay faithful and stand resilient. Whatever dish life puts before us, we eat it knowing that our God is right beside us. We dare not let our circumstances squash our faith. Through the many challenges we encounter, the devil would have us doubt and question God. At those moments let us go the Psalms and other passages in God’s Holy Word for comfort and assurance. One that I recall is from Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
Keep rejoicing my friends. Give thanks and have a blessed Thanksgiving!
I’m grateful for you all!
“A bad moment for an atheist is when he feels grateful and has no one to thank.” (G.K. Chesterton)
“What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” (unknown)
“Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to gather together and express gratitude for all that we have been given, the freedoms we enjoy, and the loved ones who enrich our lives. We recognize that all of these blessings, and life itself, come not from the hand of man but from Almighty God.” (George W. Bush)
I’m a hero.
That’s right. You read that correctly.
No doubt, many of you probably hold me in this high regard already; but allow me to explain.
This past Monday night I took Collin to a private coaching session for baseball. After a brief introduction and some basic mechanics from the coach, we stepped outside into the chilly fall air. This coach has a fully-enclosed batting cage in his backyard, complete with plenty of lights and pitching machine. Collin and I were both a tad bit jealous and dreamed of having one in our own backyard. Nevertheless, just as Collin was about to start taking live swings, we noticed a little rabbit caught in the netting way back in the corner of the cage. One line drive to the far-left corner of the cage would have sent that bunny into baseball oblivion, much like this poor bird. Talk about having a bad hare day! Fortunately, we saw the bunny caught before any pitches were thrown. So, the final 30 minutes of our lesson was spent trying to set him free. Easier said than done. Of course, the more this young bunny realized that he was trapped in the netting, the more he panicked. He flipped around with such reckless abandon that what was once, one foot caught had now become 3 legs caught and netting wrapped around his neck. Long story short, we were able to finally cut the rabbit free. After all the netting that entrapped him was cut loose, the bunny laid on the ground, still a bit shell-shocked, before finally scampering back to his home under the nearby shed. Hopefully to live hoppily ever after.
On our way home, this Bible verses came to mind: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrew 12:1) The image of that poor rabbit violently bouncing around, trying desperately to get himself free, loudly preaches to the reality of sin. The more the bunny panicked and the more he attempted, the more stuck he became. You could see the struggle and fear in his big black eyes. What was once just a single leg had gotten far worse; and the gravest part was that the net was now wrapped around his neck multiple times. There was no way, that poor rabbit, would have broken free. If he had survived the onslaught of baseballs, he would eventually have died from the cold, starvation, or a passing-by predator. The writer of Hebrews reminds us to cast off and throw away anything that seeks to entangle us. Any sin. Any false priority. Any misplaced adoration. Any potential pitfall. If it seeks to remove our gaze from the Creator, it will eventually trap us in a no-win situation. Of course, sin is not something we can cut ourselves loose from. There is no amount of twisting or maneuvering that can shake us free. There exists no spiritual scissors strong enough to cut through the nets of sin we often find ourselves underneath. To put it bluntly, we cannot be the hero of our own story. The more we try to master the Devil who seeks to devour us, the more entangled and helpless we become. If we try to fight on our own, we will end up exhausted, defeated and without hope. As our opening liturgy reminds us of each week in worship, “We cannot free ourselves from our own sinful condition.”
But the good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to free ourselves. Allow me to bring back to mind this uplifting verse of the Reformation hymn we sang a couple of weeks ago. Verse 2 of A Mighty Fortress says: “No strength of ours can match his [the devil’s] might. We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, Whom God Himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is He, Christ Jesus Mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious.”
Jesus Christ comes to battle and sets us free from all that entangle us. By His merciful acts, we are cut loose from the stranglehold of sin, death, and the devil. Our struggles cease and instead we can rejoice in what God does for us. Having no power to set ourselves free by own might or right, God breaks into his world to do the dirty work on our behalf. Suffering. Desertion. Crucifixion. Death. This was the excruciating price Jesus paid, so that we can know what it means to be restored and released from bondage. This is how we are held victorious. Now, as His redeemed and restored children, we can excitedly scamper back to the eternal homes that await us. We give thanks and we worship Jesus. The Hebrews writer continues on, “…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Heb. 12:2-3) The English word ‘consider’ leaves so much to be desired. We do more than consider him, we reflect on all that He endured on our behalf, and we worship Him. We thank Him for the love, life, and forgiveness that He brings. We think deeply and intentionally how His act of salvation changes everything for our lives. We rejoice over the fact that we need not be weary or lose heart because He still promises, even today, that He is always with us. Whenever something entangles us, we throw it off—by the power of and in the name of Jesus.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus is our hero.
He is our champion.
Thanks be to God!
“The Gospel is the only story where the hero dies for the villain.” (unknown)
“One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.” (Gordon D. Fee)
“The kids look at me, 'Ah, you're my hero.' I want to teach those kids. 'Hey listen, God is my hero. He died on the cross for my sins, and He's the one. That's how I wanna live, like Him, and I want you guys to do the same thing.” (MLB player, Albert Pujols)
Goodbye ghosts, goblins, and skeletons.
Farewell insanely expensive big bags of candy.
Don't move too quickly to Thanksgiving.
Today is worthy of celebration too! Did you know?
Today is not just a Halloween hangover day. True, our bellies may ache over one-too-many Snickers bars. Our children are probably droopy-eyed and still recovering from crashlanding off of night-long sugar highs. Nevertheless, this day is an oft-forgotten celebration—overshadowed by last Sunday’s red-clad celebration of Reformation or the candy-driven desires of the day before it. November 1st is a very significant festival (or holiday) on the church calendar. Today is All Saints’ Day, also sometimes referred to as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. This day has been celebrated, in some capacity, by the universal church going all the way back to the early eighth century. The festival originally, in the Roman Church, honored those who were considered especially holy—heroic figures from the Scriptures and martyrs who had given their lives nonviolently in witness to the faith. However, it is an especially Lutheran accent for the feast to honor not only those who lived exemplary lives, but all who have been baptized into Christ’s death. For Lutherans, All Saints’ Day resonates with the conviction that in Christ every saint is a sinner and every sinner a saint. In other words, saints are ALL true believers on earth and in heaven, both living and dead.
In our Lutheran Confessions and tradition, the departed ones do not hold a higher “position” in the Church. We do not pray to the departed Saints. We do not seek their approval or blessing. We do not request their counsel or ask for them to intercede to the Father on our behalf. Only Christ stands between us and the Heavenly Father as our one and only mediator (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5). Some saints are indeed revered for the role they served in Christ’s Church throughout history. But just like you and me, ordinary and faithful pew-sitters, they are each just another sinner washed in the blood of Christ. To be sure, we give thanks to God for their faithfulness and example, the impact they made for the Kingdom. But each is just another flawed and fallen individual who have been clothed by the white robes of Christ’s righteousness. For all of time, a person is given the title of “Saint” in a completely passive way. Not by their credentials. Not by merit. Not by work or accomplishment. The title of “Saint” is bestowed upon them, and us, by grace alone. Through faith given by the Holy Spirit, they believe Christ is their Lord and Savior. Flowing nicely from our timeless Reformation theme, we know that all people are saved solely by His complete atonement for their sins.
In our commemoration of All Saints today (and in worship this coming Sunday), we remember those who have died in Christ with the sure and certain hope of salvation and redemption by His grace. We are thankful for the blessings the departed saints we knew brought to our lives. Our grandparents. Our parents. Former pastors and Sunday schools. Men and women who have modeled the faith and poured into our own spiritual upbringing. We also remember the Christian faithful from all generations, not limited by time, denomination or earthly accolades. Today, between bites of leftover Halloween candy, is a day to reflect and give thanks for those saints in your cloud of witnesses. These are the faithful people whom God worked through to instill the faith you and I have in Jesus today.
So, celebrate today as a saint. For that is what you are. A beloved and sainted child of God; a justified and forgiven son and daughter of the King! Give thanks for all the sinners declared saints before you. Rejoice that this same performative Word that bespoke them saints is still speaking, still sanctifying sinners in Christ who rose for our justification and whose righteousness is our robe, the source of our sainthood. No, this title, dear friends and saints, is not earned or deserved. It is a gift. A gift given and freely available to all. And because this saintly title isn’t from you, it is as sure and certain as its Giver—the One to whom all the saints of every age point and in whom they live and move and have their being. Take off the Halloween regalia; adorn your saintly attire. Cover yourself with that white robe and garnish your head with that beautiful crown. Be not ashamed. Walk around as boldly and proudly as those cute-costumed kids that rang your doorbell last night. This “saintly” attire is no mere costume. It is the real deal. Try it on for size and wear it well, for it won’t ever wear out. It’s as eternal as the One who gave it to you. And instead of ‘trick-or-treat’ our tongue heeds the direction of the psalmist: “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” (Psalm 30:4)
“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” (Revelation 14:12)
Pastor Steve Vera