Anticipating Advent: God Exceeds Our Expectations

So much of the advent season is built upon anticipation…

In a very practical way, we look forward to annual traditions. I always anticipate the breakfast casserole that my mom makes. I anticipate the lights, the smells, the sounds, and the family. Many of us are full of expectations (or others of us full of dread) about the songs, the presents, and the decorations. Often times these expectations are not all met in any given year… but we are full of them.

From the perspective of the church calendar, advent is a season of Anticipation for celebrating Christ’s incarnation and second coming. Throughout advent, there is a constant looking both backward and forward toward the coming of Christ. The Scripture readings from week to week build in a crescendo toward the moment of declaration: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.” We wait for this moment… at Wiser Lake Chapel, we frequently do this through the holy chaos that is the Hallelujah Chorus. After our season of patient anticipation we join with the angels, singing with all our earthly gusto “…and He shall reign forever and ever.”

But, the message throughout Scripture is not just of a God who meets our expectations… the message of Scripture is of a God who exceeds expectations. Even in our best Christmas seasons, the perfect twinkling of a light, the most anticipated of presents, the most fulfilling of family times are only small tastes of the plans that God has for us. The fact is that God is not simply in the business of meeting our expectations… through a baby birthed among farm animals, God disrupts and exceeds our expectations. The invitation of the Advent season is not only an invitation to anticipate, it is an invitation to have our expectations upended for the rest of the year… for the rest of our lives. The baby becomes a man who teaches and heals… and the man who teaches and heals, dies… and the man who dies has risen again. In Advent, we anticipate, but we also bring ourselves back to a place where we can be shocked and amazed…reminded that our expectations are too small for a God who is too good. Our earthbound, yet heavenward, hallelujahs are not geared simply toward a God who meets expectations, but to the glory of a God who exceeds them.
~Ben Gibson

 

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Anticipating Advent: The Stark Contrast

It is the starkness of the contrast that carves deep into my very center.

All year long my early morning ritual includes checking the news, so all year long the suffering of others starts my day. Some of those days begin with tears as stories stream into my quiet home from Aleppo; Sudan; the mean streets of places and broken lives of people more familiar to me.

But at Christmas I am also steeped in the trappings of joy. Glitter and brightness and familiar songs and tantalizing smells preceding decadent treats. Red ribbon and picture perfect white snow.

And then the relentless hues of the news obscure my vision.

A shroud of red blood and grey devastation.

It is good and appropriate to fully delight in this special season; we should be thankful rather than guilty for all that we have. But an attitude of gratitude rings hollow without the accompaniment of a heart for restoration. Our lives of plenty and safety should make us more concerned for those without, not less. The frustrations of often not knowing how to respond should not keep us from attempting to.

Advent is a season of looking forward to the celebration of the birth of our King, and it is also a time to yearn and prepare for His return.

Lord, our hearts are weary.

Lord, come quickly.
~Brian Vander Haak

Anticipating Advent: He Lives Among Us

He came to live among us.
John 1:14

As Christians, we encourage each other to put the brakes on the runaway train of stress, rushing, and commercialism that threaten to consume Christmas. We long to step out of the hustle and bustle of activity, to slow down and savor the season of advent. To focus on Jesus.

And yes. Yes. That is right and that is good.

I imagine what that might look like… a family with clean and tidy children doing whimsical and artistic things. Having a gentle and holy Christmas. Sitting quietly in candlelight, probably with the children in matching pajamas, watching snow falling gently outside the windows, singing Christmas carols. Sharing their homemade gifts with each other. And eating… I don’t know… organic fruit.

While at my house – especially when the boys were younger – anticipation and adrenaline were high, voices were loud and excited, gifts came from the store in boxes that said “Lego” or “Nerf”, Christmas photos sometimes require “persuasion”, and hands, faces and floors were usually… sticky.

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Not exactly the tender and hallowed image I’d conjured up.

And you know what? The first Christmas wasn’t exactly a pinterest-worthy photo-shoot either. Mary was hugely pregnant. They had the worst vacation EVER (probably 90 miles on a donkey, and no reservation at the Holiday Inn waiting at the other end). She delivered her baby in a dark, cold, smelly barn. And then, in all the mess, unexpected guests!

And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

God became man. Jesus – the perfect blend of the spiritual and the physical – came to us. Jesus, in very nature God, made Himself nothing… He became one of us.  He came to live among us. The Message puts it this way, “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality.”

Can you feel the relief? He understands. He’s one of us.

So at Christmas we celebrate the spiritual AND the material. At our house, we sing O Come All Ye Faithful and we giggle at Alvin and the Chipmunks’ rendition of Christmas Don’t Be Late. We make a nativity scene out of Legos, with Mary and Joseph and the angel guarding them played by Star Wars characters. Bob the Builder and his heavy equipment come to visit the stable. We decorate our tree. And our house. And the porch. And the yard. And we make ridiculous amounts of cookies and candy. We blend the spiritual and the physical.

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And we wish you all a joyful, loud, worshipful, merry, sticky-hands-on Christmas.
~Julie Garrett

 

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Anticipating Advent: At the Feed Trough

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2: 6-7

If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. We have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and finally, it is about to arrive, after considerable fanfare and fol-der-ol. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beat to a “best ever holiday” pulp.

All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying small and helpless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: a treasure to be shared plain and simple, nurture without end for all.

Who needs Christmas cookies, pumpkin pies and the candy canes to fill the empty spot deep inside?

Just kneel at the manger.
~Emily Gibson

Anticipating Advent: The New Reality

Psalm 34:17-18

“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them;
    he delivers them from all their troubles.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
    and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

The blow landed on the side of her face, startling her out of a daydream of the home she once had. “Stupid, lazy, good for nothing girl! We’re out of water again! You aren’t worth the few shekels I paid for you!”

A large earthenware pot was shoved into her arms and she hefted it to her head, her small back bent under the weight of it, empty though it was. “Bring it back full!”

The setting sun cast long shadows down the narrow street as she stumbled along; tears coursing down her cheeks. Fear of returning empty-handed moved her forward; yet fear of who might be lurking around each dark corner gripped her as she continued down the road. She turned into a shadowed alleyway and heard the soft plodding of hooves and hushed voices headed toward her. She stood still and watched the two who traveled past, greeting her kindly, but also intent on getting to their destination. For some unknown reason, she followed them, staying back so as not to be noticed; she had never seen them before, but something in their manner seemed familiar and she was reminded of her parents. They stopped before a crude stable on the edge of town, heads together they whispered as if unsure. Finally, a lantern was lit and they entered.

Curious, the young girl was drawn forward; carefully setting down the vessel, she crouched below a crack in the boards along the side of the shelter. She could hear muffled voices from inside and then there was silence. The sun had gone down and she knew she should return, but for some reason she could not leave this place of peace. Resting her head against the rough wood, she closed her eyes; and she waited, pulling her garment around her arms against the cool night air. Her earlier fear subsided to be replaced by thoughts of those who had once loved her but who were now gone. Would she ever know that love again? Could anyone fill the empty hollows of her heart?

Then she slept.

As the stars appeared one by one in the black sky above, the two inside stirred; and the light from one star outshone the others and came to rest on that humble place.

Then, in the still silence of early morning, an infant cry awakened the girl; her long watch was over.
~by Leslie Drury, Nov. 30, 2016

Quote from “The Lutheran”, November 13, 1991
“I encourage you this morning to live in that new reality.
Live in the hope and assurance of Jesus’ return.
Live in the joy of preparing for the Christ, born in Bethlehem,
the Christ who already knows you, who loves you,
and who gave his life for you. Amen.”

Anticipating Advent — The Gift I Needed

The world wanted something very different than what we were given on that first Christmas day. We can no longer imagine life without that Gift, and it is only through receiving It we understand anything about the world around us.

I can’t even remember most of my Christmas gifts as a child, but I distinctly remember the year I didn’t get what I wanted. A remote controlled car. And I wanted it badly. There was never much extra money growing up in the house of a Christian school teacher so there was no reason to think that it would happen, but somehow I was convinced it was going to anyway. And when the presents made their way to the tree, there was the package. The exact size, shape, and heft of the longed for car. There was no name on the box but, of course, this was for me. I visited that box often in those days before Christmas eve.

And then it was finally time. I can’t remember if the box was handed to someone else, or if it was just an empty decoy, but I do remember feeling overwhelming betrayal. A larger box emerged from the bedroom for me. It was too big, too heavy, too everything to be that car, but I’d seen enough cleverly disguised gifts to give up hope. I instantly allowed myself to soar again to the heights of anticipation. But what emerged was an aquarium.

Years of conditioning had instilled in me a sincere desire to be thankful for whatever I got. To be that kind of kid. Years of knowing that others consistently got bigger, better, more valuable presents should have allowed me to put on a better act. This was not only the biggest gift I had ever been given, but more expensive than the car I had coveted. Yet the disappointment was so overwhelming, the anticipation had gone on so long, that I mumbled thank you, then went to my room to process a grief that should have been reserved for the loss of something more. My mom came to tell me how disappointed my father was, and I reached deep into my sixth grade self and rejoined the family. I set up the aquarium in the study and afterwards lied that I truly was delighted.

Over time I would come to love the wonder and discovery of that aquatic world as I spent countless hours developing relationships with the inhabitants. While my brother was in Vietnam we kept a map in that same study, and I would wander between the mysterious contours of an unknown place and the familiar tank. That was the year we found out my father had cancer and for the next three years until it finally claimed his life, the tank was a diversion. I fixated on every nuance of lives in the tank I was responsible for while my own life often seemed untended and unnoticed. That gift was exactly what I needed.
~Brian Vander Haak, Taipai, Taiwan

Christmas 2015: Jesus as Zeal

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness, from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this”
Isaiah 9: 6-7, NASB

Zeal, a noun, is defined as intense, high-wrought emotion that compels to action.

What is your first thought when you hear the word zeal? Is it these verses written by Isaiah, God-breathed by the Holy Spirit? Or, perhaps, it is the fact that our Lord is a zealous God, as well as a jealous God. (Exodus 20: 1 – 6)? Or do you think, “My zeal for my Lord is exactly what I want it to be?”

Although “Zeal,” is not a name, per se, that is ascribed to Jesus, it is an inherent characteristic, that is vigorously expressed on certain occasions. A similar reference is found in Isaiah 37: 32, concerning God’s destruction of 185,000 Assyrians, in protecting Jerusalem, as he had spoken to Isaiah: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall perform this.”

God spoke through Ezekiel, explaining His planned judgment against Jerusalem, “Thus My anger will be spent, and I will satisfy My wrath on them, and I shall be appeased. Then they will know that I, the Lord, have spoken in My zeal, when I have spent My wrath on them” (Ezekiel 5: 13, NASB).

Certainly Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, was a demonstration of zeal (Luke 19: 45 – 46).

But His greatest zeal was demonstrated in obedience to His Father on Calvary’s cross, where He paid with His life the cost of atonement for our sins (Philippians 2: 5 – 8).

The Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9: 6 – 7, is yet future. In His first Advent, Jesus came as the “Suffering Servant” described in Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12. When He said, from the cross, “It is finished,” He had completed His Father’s will for the redemption of sinful mankind. Then He stepped from the tomb, having conquered death. Returning to the Father, Jesus established the way into the eternal presence of God.

Jesus’ promised return (Acts 1: 9 – 11) still holds mystery, but will take place as explained in Matthew 24: 1 – 51; Revelation 19 – 22, and other passages. I believe the Isaiah 9: 6 – 7 prophecy pertains to the kingdom which Christ shall finally establish, and over which He will reign for all eternity as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace –
Jesus, on David’s throne, there’ll be no end to His government’s increase.
He will establish and uphold it, with justice and righteousness forever assured.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this, as promised by God’s word.

– Pastor Neil G. Thompson