Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Christmas 'Advent'ure

As a kid I grew up with an Advent calendar. There are several varieties, but most have a door or flap that is opened or removed as you count down the days to Christmas. I can remember the excitement building each day as me or my sister got to open the next door that revealed part of the nativity scene. The anticipation grew and grew until that Christmas morning when the final door was opened to reveal a baby laid in a manger.

Growing up in a non-denominational brotherhood of churches, my knowledge of Advent never spread beyond that calendar. I had friends at school that talked about Advent, but I chalked it up to some mysterious practice that many followed but few understood, and would proudly think to myself, 'I am glad that my church is above these silly traditions.'

Now I serve at a church that has a history that precedes the Restoration Movement by nearly 100 years, and one of their traditions is lighting a candle on an Advent wreath every Sunday leading up to Christmas. Immediately upon hearing this tradition my 'churchianity' detector kicked into overdrive as I sought out how to best handle this 'denominational' tradition. (Even I amaze myself at my overly pious pride), but as I researched this tradition I found some surprisingly Biblical insights.

The roots of this tradition are found in the meaning of the word 'advent'. It is based on the Latin for 'coming'. The leaders of the 5th-6th century church wanted to tie together the parallels between the Old Testament Jews waiting for the coming of the Messiah and the modern Church waiting for His second-coming. The time of year where we celebrate His first 'advent' seemed an appropriate time for this teaching. Over the centuries many more traditions became attached, some good, some not so good, but I think it is good to think about four 'advents' as we approach Christmas.

1. The First Advent of Jesus- His birth in a manger to a virgin mother is a miraculous fulfillment of prophecy (Is. 7:14). But that birth would mean nothing apart from His death, burial and resurrection. This is a great time of year to remember, and be thankful for the greatest gift ever given to us: Grace. And let us remember that grace is free, but not cheap. It required the life of Jesus and demands the life of His followers.

2. The Advent of the Holy Spirit- One of the great promises Jesus gave His followers is that He would not leave them alone, but that He would leave them a helper, companion and counselor: the Holy Spirit (for more read John 14 and John 16). The prophets spoke of a day when God would place His Spirit inside men (see Ezekiel 36:25-27 and Joel 2:28-32) and the coming, or advent, of that is found in Acts 2 when Peter and the rest of the apostles experience God's Holy Spirit and preach the first gospel sermon. It is in this sermon that we are told how we can enjoy the benefits of this 'advent', "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (emphasis mine). The days the prophets long for are here and now. We enjoy the fulfillment of promises that were eagerly waited upon for centuries!

3. The Advent of the Church- Not only did God provide His Spirit to comfort and guide, but He established a Divine Institution to encourage and disciple us to maturity. This institution is the Church. The Church, after Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is perhaps God's greatest gift to man. In her we find community, fellowship, love and opportunities to make a difference. Within the Church we are instructed with the Word of God so that we may carry out the Will of God. I am not saying that every congregation is perfect, but I have had the privilege of serving and seeing congregations that truly seek out God's plan and purpose for them. Yes, we could sit around and swap horror stories of congregation that have abused God's grace, but I prefer to focus on the positive and strive to lift up the bride of Christ as a vehicle through which the Gospel is presented. If you aren't a member of a local congregation, than you are missing out on some great opportunities to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ!

4. The Second Advent of Jesus- Just as the Messiah was promised to come to the Jews, He has promised to return for His Bride, the Church. We can count on this second coming because God has established a track record of keeping His promises. The imminent nature of this second Advent should spur us on to evangelism. As the old hymn says, "There are souls to rescue, there are souls to save. Send the Light! Send the Light!" The Church was not established to give us Spiritual food so we can be fat and happy and content. We are to feed, and then give that food to others! God has sent us as servants so that His table might be full (see Luke 14:15-24). As laborers, we look forward to the rest this coming will bring, but as faithful stewards of the Gospel, we work to make sure that every person has an opportunity to accept the invitation of God!

What I have discovered is that this Christmas season, known as Advent by our denominational friends, should serve as a reminder that God has called us to a great adventure of serving, evangelizing and building for His Kingdom. There are preparations to be made and souls to be saved. But, there is also joyful anticipation as we wait for God to open that final door as He calls His children home to be with Him for eternity. Please keep this in mind as you enjoy this holiday season.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Driving with Frank Abagnale Jr.

In 2002 the Stephen Spielberg movie "Catch Me If You Can" hit box offices. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks it told the story of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. and his exploits as a con-artist and check forger extraordinaire. The movie was loosely based on Abagnale's biography that goes by the same title. I have watched the movie several times and at the end of the movie, Abagnale joins forces with the FBI to help catch other con-artists.

When I was driving around yesterday, scanning the radio stations for something to listen to, I came across a broadcast on Bloomberg Radio that had Abagnale as a sit-in guest. The host was Pimm Fox and the topic was protection against identity theft. As a fan of the movie, I decided to listen to a show I would otherwise skim over, and I nearly did as the advice was mostly common-sense type advice, but then the conversation turned to ethics and character development. As a preacher, this interested me. I am always interested in what the 'world' thinks. This is what I discovered.

1. The Secular World Recognizes that there is an Ethical Vacuum

Pimm Fox asked Abagnale something along the lines of 'What is the difference in philosophy between those who scam people today, and yours when you were scamming people?' Abagnale's response was simple: unadulterated greed. He even mused why, if a CEO cheated people out of 50 million dollars, why would they risk getting caught for a few thousand more? The only answer was greed. Abagnale then used this as a springboard for jumping to the topic of the lack of ethics being taught today. He spoke of how all of his children completed graduate degrees, and only the lawyer was required to take just one ethic course. The result? A generation of children have grown into adults with no character. From Wall Street to politicians (as I write this, the top story on Fox News is long-time Congressman Charlie Rangel from NY was found to be in violation of 11 ethics charges) the world we live in sees evidence of a moral vacuum.

2. The Secular World Doesn't have a Clue as to how to Reverse this Trend

What was Abagnale's solution? He suggested starting as early as middle school, teaching character courses and ethics in public schools. But he punctuated his advice with a curious phrase, "now I am not talking religion here." That short little phrase revealed a lot about what many people falsely think will cure society's issues.

First, to think that public education is solution is to fall into the same trap that sex education advocates have fallen. All sex education has done is increase teen sexuality, not curb it. Character development cannot begin in the classroom, it must begin in the home, with parents who are committed to raising morally upright children. If it doesn't, the problem will only get bigger because what you are in all actuality doing is raising a generation who will believe they can out-think the system.

Second, to think you can have morality without God is like thinking you can have law without a constitution. To take God out of the equation is to remove the foundation for morality. If we teach our children that we evolve from animals, it is only a matter of time before they begin to act like animals. If we teach them they are their own authority, soon you will see the results of anarchy. What power has government if you take away the God who ordained it in the first place? We Americans cherish the idea that a government cannot rule without the consent of the governed. But what happens when the governed decides they no longer wished to be ruled by any authority? Only a God-fearing people can thrive in a democratic society, because if we cease to fear God, chaos will erupt and the only human tool that can rule a chaotic society is military might. A quick perusal of history will show you that is how Greece, Rome, France, Germany, Russia, China and a litany of others went from either monarchies or democracies to dictatorships. The names of Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and others leave a sour taste in our mouth, but when a society rejects belief in a higher power, then only the philosophy of 'might makes right' remains.

This is where the Church comes into play. Am I advocating Church involvement in politics? No. What I am advocating is if God's people would do what they are called by God to do, namely to seek, save and disciple the lost, we can become a God-fearing people again. By changing people, one life at a time; by trusting in God's power to transform hearts and minds; by taking Christ at His word and lifting Him up so that He can draw all men to Himself; we can restore morality to America. It won't happen in the classroom. It will happen if God's people, the Church, move in a purposeful and motivated manner towards the goal God has placed before us in Matthew 28:19-20.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Broken but Blooming

The poor thing didn't have a chance. Not with wind gusts of up to 60mph whipping around it. It was bound to fall over and sure enough it did. Potted plants just aren't made for that kind of weather and neither was my wife's Hibiscus. I went out the front door last week to find it lying on it's side in the middle of the yard, it's forlorn, windswept blooms staring up at me as if to say, "What are you doing leaving me out here?!?" I picked it up and placed it just inside the front door and looked it over to see if there was any severe damage. There was only one break. A small branch with a bud on the end had broken. But the break was not clean through. It kind of dangled there, sad and pathetic. I thought to myself, "That bud will never blossom." I went to get scissors to snip it off completely, and as often happens in a house full of children, I forgot about it completely.

Have you ever felt like that poor plant? You are sitting where God has placed you, and then out of the blue a storm comes and blows you off balance. And as you roll and tumble, you feel the pressure and then the snap! of something breaking. I have, and unless you are very young or very out of touch, chances are you have felt that disoriented and painful sensation of breakage.

We are reminded of brokenness everywhere we look. This month, my wife's cell phone decided that it would no longer charge. Snap! This past week as my car sat parked along a busy street, someone drove by and clipped my side-view mirror with theirs. Snap! Just this morning, I went to turn on the television to watch the news and heard a 'pop-fizzle' sound, and now instead of a TV I have a 27-inch paperweight. Snap! We are surrounded by brokenness.

Even our bodies remind us we live in a broken world. A father is diagnosed with cancer. Snap! A couple tries unsuccessfully for years to conceive a child. Snap! A family slowly loses their grandmother to the fog of Alzheimer's. Snap! Yes, our bodies act as barometers of the storms that bring pain and brokenness.

If only that brokenness were confined to things or our physical bodies, but we see broken people around us as well. A marriage suddenly ends when one partner decides that someone else's grass is greener. Snap! Children raised in good Christian homes grow up and reject the faith of their parents and live lifestyles that are self-destructive. Snap! A man tries to bear the weight of the world on his own shoulders, but succumbs to trying to drown out the world with alcohol. Snap! A woman is stuck in an abusive relationship because she doesn't know if there is any way out, and for some reason she truly does love the person who harms her. Snap! Broken people make up a large portion of our population, and chances are, there is part of you that is broken as well.

You lost your temper with the kids. Snap!
You got laid off at work and actually doubted God's ability to sustain you. Snap!
You failed to love your spouse like Jesus loves His Church. Snap!

You might even be wondering how God can use you if you are so broken.

Funny thing about that Hibiscus plant (you thought I had forgotten about it didn't you?) I came back the next day to place it outside and noticed something odd. The bud that was at the end of the broken stem had bloomed! Apparently it had enough of a connection with the main part of the plant that it was able to blossom, in spite of it's broken condition. This reminded me of a conversation that Jesus had with His disciples in John 14-16. Jesus is with His disciples on the last night of His earthly life and He instructs them that hard times are going to come. In other words, storms are coming to blow them off course. But then, in John 15, Jesus gives them the secret to surviving life's storms, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing." (verses 4-5) I love how The Message paraphrases parts of this, "Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you... I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant..." What Jesus is saying here is that the key to survival is to keep the relationship with Him close and intimate.

You might be questioning right now, "But I am broken. How can God use me if I have snapped off the vine?" Just because you are broken doesn't mean you have been snapped completely off. Just as the flower blossomed, you too can bear fruit. Paul hinted at this in 2 Corinthians when he spoke of a thorn in the flesh, a physical brokenness that he felt inhibited him from bearing fruit. I love God's reply to Paul's request for the thorn, the broken thing, to be removed: "My grace is sufficient for you; My power is perfected in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9) Stay connected. Pray for the Vine-dresser to come and repair you. Realize that even though you are broken, through the all-sufficient grace of God, you can bloom and bear fruit. And in this brokenness, God's power just may be perfected within you!