Sunday, November 29, 2020

An Advent Meditation

 Today marks the first Sunday of Advent.  Many Christians all over the globe mark Advent as an important season to prepare for our celebration of the birth of Christ: Christmas.  Preparing our hearts and minds to celebrate the first coming of Christ and to welcome His second coming is of primary importance.  John the Baptist declared the arrival of kingdom come, and Jesus exhorted His disciples to remain alert and prepared for His return.  


Even the most spiritual of believers can become distracted by the peripheral preparations for Christmas: gift lists and purchasing, party planning, baking and meal preparation.  And in this COVID-saturated holiday season, we face stress and anxiety, frustration and fatigue, grief and loss.  It seems to me, though, that we can take comfort and encouragement from Matthew’s account of Joseph as the time Jesus was born:


Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.  Matthew 1:18-25.


Joseph is a humble carpenter, looking forward to marriage and a predictable life in his Jewish community.  And then he finds his world turned upside down!  Joseph’s wife-to-be is expecting a child despite the fact that they are not yet married and have not been intimate.  Matthew’s account is sparse, but it is easy to imagine the shock, grief, anger, and confusion filling Joseph’s heart and mind.  But even as he decides to separate from Mary in the most gracious way possible, an angel interrupts his grief and upends this plan.  Not only does a heavenly messenger appear to Joseph, but the angel addresses him as “Son of David,” reminding Joseph that he is descended from Israel’s greatest king.  The very real struggles of Joseph’s personal life are suddenly eclipsed by the angel’s revelation of God’s greater purposes.  Again, Matthew gives us few details.  We are left to ponder Joseph’s departure from his “micro” personal life and his entry into a life that is intertwined with the fulfillment of God’s eternal purposes and promises.  Matthew tells us that Joseph is a just man, a good Jew.  Without doubt, he knows God’s Word and is waiting with all faithful Jews for the Messiah.  As the angel reminds Joseph that he is a descendant of David, the Law and the Prophets converge, centuries of Jewish history come into sharp focus, and Joseph is confronted with the enormous reality that the LORD is using him to fulfill the LORD’s glorious and eternal purposes.


And so here we are.  In some ways, at least, we are not unlike Joseph.  We do our best to live by faith in our day-to-day lives.  We are beset by the trials and troubles of life as fallen people in a fallen world.  And we are sometimes blind-sided by unexpected interruptions in our plans if not by outright tragedy.  Without minimizing in the least the significance of our trials, we can take Joseph’s story as an encouraging reminder that we are, in fact, part of the Lord’s larger, glorious, eternal plan.  Even as we find ourselves reeling from life on this side of the kingdom, even as we continue to adjust to life in a pandemic, we can be comforted that the Messiah has come, and we can be confident that He is returning—to redeem us for all eternity.  The season of Advent is an invitation to remember not only that Jesus came because He cares about our trials and troubles but also to remember that those trials and troubles are only a part of our story.  Advent is our opportunity to prepare for redemption and to proclaim it.  The kingdom of God is at hand!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Doing and Being of Thanksgiving

 ‘Tis the season…to give thanks.  Thanksgiving is the time when we are reminded to give thanks, though giving thanks is best practiced as a daily exercise in our lives year round.


Why do we give thanks?  In The Book of Common Prayer, used by the Episcopal Church, congregants are exhorted to give thanks unto the Lord because it is meet and right so to do.  King David exhorts his readers throughout his writings to acknowledge the greatness and goodness of the Lord and offer Him praise and thanks.  The Apostle Paul instructs his Thessalonian readers to rejoice always and in everything give thanks.


So is giving thanks a duty that we do as a perfunctory matter of obedience?  Certainly, there are challenges to gratitude in our world and lives today; we may not feel grateful, may not feel like giving thanks.  We are living in a pandemic, with its associated anxiety, grief, and relational and economic pressures.  But just as certainly, there were challenges to gratitude last year, before COVID-19 was a thing.  King David faced his share of challenges to gratitude as he places complaints and cries of distress right alongside his offerings of praise and thanksgiving.  And the Apostle Paul reminds his Corinthian readers that he had been beaten with rods, stoned, and shipwrecked three times.  Neither man of God minimizes or denies his hardship and pain.  And yet, there is not the slightest hint of obligation in the expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving offered by David and Paul.  It very much seems that thanksgiving need not be particularly dependent on or reflective of our circumstances.


James encourages his readers to Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  James reminds his readers—and us—that even trials can be cause for thanksgiving when we remember that our faithful and redemptive Lord will use all things for our great good.


And yet, it seems to me that giving thanks must also reach beyond our circumstances.  When we cultivate a grateful heart and persistently exercise our thanksgiving muscles, we are changed, transformed.  We become grateful people who reflect the goodness of the living God abiding in us in the presence of the Holy Spirit.


In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observes that “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”  As we consider this season of Thanksgiving and holiday celebrations in the midst of pandemic struggles, we may begin to give thanks out of a desire to obey or a sense of duty.  But let us not stop there!  May we follow the model set by King David and the Apostle Paul and become genuinely and deeply grateful people before the Lord.