The First Sunday of Advent - Hope
I love the advent season. My love is most rooted in this first Sunday. The Sunday of that first candle. The candle of hope.
I learned a lot about hope years ago working with at-risk kids. I decided what made most of them “at-risk” was the reality they were growing up in situations short on hope. Those kids helped me come to define hope as the answer to the question we all ask every day:
How does this story end?
Many of those kids were growing up in traumatic situations filled with abuse, addiction, abandonment, poverty and more. Day after day they had to ask themselves, “how does this story end?” I don’t blame them for the less than happy ending outcomes they projected for their lives.
Here’s the thing – once you begin projecting a negative conclusion for your life – when you’ve lost hope – the chances drastically increase that you’ll start making personal decisions that fall in line with that conclusion. I saw first hand what happens when a group of people without hope gather together. They can convince themselves some destructive ideas aren’t bad ideas at all.
And I completely understood that.
That’s because even though my situation in life has been less traumatic than many of those young kids, I still ask on a daily basis “how does this story end?” There was a period in my life when I was very non-committal about my answer to that question. My hope was rooted in making it through the day happy and not on how I saw my life concluding. As a result – some pretty bad ideas didn’t sound so bad in my life.
But that was before I decided ALL my hope is found in the Christmas story. The story of a savior coming to earth to bring hope to every story. For every single person asking how does this story end, Christ came to say, “with me.” More importantly, he came to offer a hope that is more than a thought or an idea we can cling to as an answer in desperate times, he offers a hope we can invite into our lives to reshape the questions we ask every day.
These days I find myself asking how can I best live my life in preparation for the day I meet that baby in a manger face to face. Whether it’s a good day or a bad one, whether my circumstances are ideal or less than that, I try to ask myself less frequently “how does this story end” and more “how in this moment can I best prepare for the day that baby in a manger comes again?”
The beauty of my newfound hope is Christ always answers that question for me. He guides me and fills me with the strength to move in the direction of a conclusion with him. Oh, I screw it up. Daily. But that no longer changes the ending to the story. It doesn't mean there's a new script. With Christ as my hope the ending stays the same.
There’s great hope in knowing how the story ends. There’s great joy in filling your heart with that hope. There’s no better time of the year to share it with others.
Happy first Sunday of Advent.
The Second Sunday of Advent - Preparation
Last week I wrote about the advent week one theme of hope. I said hope was tied to answering the question: "how does this story end?" My hope is tied to the Christmas story, and the promise my earthly story ends with an eternal home with Christ.
The week two theme is preparation. I believe preparation has a direction connection to hope.
We live each day one of three ways; we're either running from something, preparing for something, or simply trying to make the best out of the day at hand and get to the next one.
As I've grown older, and my hope has grown stronger in the reality my story ends with the Christ in Christmas, I've also come to realize I have work to do preparing for that ending. The absolute best days of my life have come when I've abandoned running from my past, decided living day to day wasn't enough, and got truly focused on preparing for how my story ends.
When your story ends with the promise of Christmas, how do you live your days preparing for that ending? Christ answered that question clearly in Matthew 22:37-38 when he said "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself."
That is how God has commanded us to live each and every day. It's not a commandment that helps us get through the day or to heal from our past, it's a commandment that prepares us for an eternity with him.
Last week I said ask the question "how do I think my story ends?" I said that will tell you where your hope lies. This week I'll ask you to ask yourself "what am I preparing for?" I think that will tell you just how strong your hope really is.
This week I'm challenged with those words: heart and soul and mind. If my hope truly rests in the Christmas story, then my days should be filled with preparation for it. Not just for December 25th, but for the eternal Christmas. My days should be filled with a heart that pours out with love for God and the people around me, they should be filled with my mind absorbing God's word and reshaping it away from the distractions of this world and toward the ending of my story with him, and my soul should be handed over to God's direction and not my daily whims.
So today, what are your preparing for? It's a powerful question, especially in this season of advent.
Have a great week.
The Third Sunday of Advent - Love
Last week I said the second advent candle represented preparation – our personal preparation for the arrival of the baby in a manger. I suggested that our preparation is done through loving God and loving one another. And so it probably comes as no surprise that this week’s advent candle represents love.
Do you know God often compares his relationship with us to marriage? Given that, I wonder what God thinks about the fact that roughly 50% of all of our marriages don’t work out. My guess is he’d tell us they don’t work out because we don’t have a great grasp on love.
If you think about it, a lot of people go into marriages believing the happily ever after fairy tale painted about marriage in books and movies. The problem is, many folks believe it’s the act of marriage itself that delivers the happiness and it doesn’t require much of the married. When they ultimately realize happily ever requires a lot more than saying I do, it’s often too late.
I think we often overlook this reality about love: Love is not a beautiful emotion, it’s a beautiful act.
Think about God’s love for us – a love that is triggered by the baby in the manger.
Let’s start with that manger. If you know the Christmas story you’re aware of all the incredible details God had to orchestrate to pull it off. And if so, you know, then, Christ being born in a manger was a very scripted detail of the story. I think God had his son born in a manger, a manger the cattle had just finished eating from, to tell us love is humble. A marriage doesn’t work out if one partner puts themselves above the other – if they think they are above some of the struggles and low places a marriage often takes us. A marriage works best when both partners are servant minded and not “being served” minded.
The other piece of Christ’s story is the cross. Christ came in that manger to ultimately die on a cross at Easter. And again – of all the ways God could have scripted his son’s death – a tortuous death on a cross? But that was God’s best way of telling us love is sacrificial. How many marriages fail because one partner is unwilling to sacrifice? Think about it. How meaningful would God’s love for us be if he’d said, I’ve been in this marriage with you all and everything, but it’s starting to look like I might have to sacrifice a bit, so I think I’m going to have to call it quits.
But that’s not what God said at all. In fact, he took sacrifice to the most sacrificial level possible to give us the ultimate example of love.
So, the question on this 3rd Sunday of advent is - what does your love look like? Does you love serve others or does it prefer to be served. And - does your love rise to the call of sacrifice or run from it?
Next week, when we read the story of the baby in the manger, maybe give just a little extra attention to the manger, as beautiful as that baby is. And be reminded, that baby will rise from the manger and climb onto a cross. All to say this is how you truly love one another.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent - Joy
The fourth Advent candle reflects joy. It might seem like joy is just another candle in this 4-part Advent series, but, everything has been building up to joy.
HOPE for joy.
PREPARE for joy.
LOVE one another with joy.
Luke 2:8-14 says:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Have you ever thought deeply about that piece of the Christmas story? I have this year.
Why does THE Christmas story make this pit stop in a field of sheep to put on what is possibly the first Christmas pageant ever – real-life heavenly angels and all – for a bunch of shepherds?
I’ve focused on two parts of that pit stop for the answer: shepherds and joy.
There was a day – many of them really - when I was the shepherd. I spent a lot of time alone wondering if this is as good as life gets. Am I going to spend my whole life dirty and poor and hanging out with a bunch of sheep? Unsatisfied with the answers, I chased joy in a lot of different places. Many of them were unhealthy places. And even when I chased joy in relatively healthier places, I’d get there only to find a sign pointing to another more satisfying level of joy: one promotion pointed me to the next promotion, one relationship pointed me to another that looked better, the rented house pointed me to the one I could own.
Through it all, through all the chasing, I never found a joy that stuck. Joy was always a moving and slippery target. I’d get my hands on it for a moment then it would slip away. The chase would be on again.
Then one day I discovered something. While I was chasing joy, God was chasing me. No matter where I went he remained in relentless pursuit. One day I stopped chasing joy long enough to turn around, to face Him, to listen to what he had to say. And he said:
Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Do you know that is what Christmas is all about? It is about stopping us in our tracks, turning us around long enough to discover God is pursuing us. As far as we’re willing to go to chase a false sense of joy God’s willing to chase us to deliver good news of a GREAT joy.
He stopped the shepherds in their tracks to say, even you guys, regarded as one of the lowest forms of life, I’m chasing you fellas. You have a lifetime role in the original Christmas story. He stopped the shepherds to let US know, no matter how low a life form we get to feeling we are, He’s chasing us down with that Christmas story.
So maybe this Christmas season, ask yourself – where am I chasing joy? Maybe consider stopping right where you are and letting God catch you.
The greatest joy of my life came the day I stopped and turned around and saw a persistent God still standing there, after all I’d done, hardly out of breath from His pursuit, looking at me with love and not judgment, busting at the seems to tell me, I bring you good news of great joy.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. I hope you experience this great joy. I hope you believe it’s not a joy we chase, but a joy we get chased with. Let it catch you this Christmas.