free grace and Advent (as well as Christmas)

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:12-14

Advent is the promise of God’s grace to humankind. It’s a gift received. It is for all humankind. How that plays out, I don’t know. Faith is required, in other words people must receive the light, and in more specific terms the light of the gospel.

Advent is anticipation of something beyond us but to come, present, for and with us. The Christian faith includes imitation of Christ. But we can’t do that on our own. It is a gift given to humankind, one really does have to say, offered, because it ought to go without saying that not all receive the light. Yes, we often live in the shadows, and don’t walk as in the fullness of day. But we are told to cast off the works of darkness, and put on the light.

Advent is the promise of grace for joy to the world. For life, for all we need even in this dreary world. Not only to get us through, yes that, but also to help us do so as those of the light. In the love and grace of God for all. In and through Jesus.

light exposes darkness

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness; rather, expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly, but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.

Ephesians 5:11-14a

One of the things I like best about scripture, and particularly the Prophets is how the light of the vision they cast within “the prophetic imagination” exposes the moral and spiritual darkness around them. There is no letup in what they did, Jeremiah being one good example. And we have more than echoes of that when we look at Jesus and his ministry. Jesus in fact brings this art to perfection.

But what happens when darkness is emboldened to come out without apology into the full light of day? And what happens when it is not only not exposed for what it is, but celebrated? I am thinking particularly of the prophetic strain of care for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed, refugees and immigrants. What happens when their cause is not only belittled, but even panned and worse, called evil? We have what is happening today with so-called people of God being quiet, or explaining it away, even defending it. Part of the mess we are in today.

torn from limb to limb (living in the real world)

“Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a laborer?

“All the days of my service I would wait
until my release should come.”

Job 7:1; 14:14b; NRSVue

Job had not only lost his children to disaster along with being devastated from head to toe, but he had no real human support. His wife had told him to curse God and die, and his friends’ promise in being with him seven days without a word turned into a correction which was nothing more to him than hollow, empty platitudes.

When one is beat up physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, you name it, we can easily add to that spiritually, because it’s easy to become despondent and potentially prey for more. Thankfully though that’s not the end of the story in Job, nor of our own story, or the world’s story.

But we have to be ready for such an experience, although really you can never be quite ready, if so at all. But at least when it comes it doesn’t have to take us completely by surprise.

God will help us in answer to prayer. Like in the case of Job, we might have to argue with God with a faith that doesn’t let go, but insists on God’s answer, God’s help.

Faith in such darkness and difficulty doesn’t put on a happy face and pretend all is good. Yet such faith also always looks insistently to the One who can and ultimately will intervene and is present before that day comes to help us all the way through. In and through Jesus.

act beforehand (as well as necessarily react)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm. Stand, therefore, and belt your waist with truth and put on the breastplate of righteousness and lace up your sandals in preparation for the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Ephesians 6:10-20; NRSVue

It is important to react in an appropriate way when need be, but just as important and in some ways more so, we also need to act ahead of time in a way which might lessen the need to react later and will at least get us in the proper frame of mind and heart so that any necessary reaction later will be better. I am thinking here about the spiritual warfare we’re told about in this passage, written as it were from Paul or from someone else as if Paul had written it, which doesn’t matter for our purposes since either way it’s holy scripture.

It’s important for us to do all we can on the sunny days in preparation for when the cloudy, overcast, stormy days hit us. It’s easy to do otherwise, to just rest, relax and enjoy when all seems good and at peace. But this passage explicitly tells us to do otherwise. Even when it seems unnecessary, we’re to do this, so that when the inevitable comes, we’ll be ready for it.

I think some interpreters see the evil day as ever present, so that it’s just something we have to do all the time since we’re ever engaged in this spiritual battle. And that could be. It does seem like in experience that there are especially some difficult days, and for some of us if we have to do certain things, like maybe teach or give a message or lead a discussion from scripture, we can almost mark it down that we’ll be in a tussle before that time to trip us up and make us ineffective in what we have to do. That has happened over and over again for me, right up to the present day. “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” If we know that ahead of time, then we can prepare ahead of time, and indeed we are clearly told to do just that in this passage for the spiritual warfare which is part of our existence now. Let me add to that that the difficulty and darkness can hit us at the most unexpected times as well, any time really.

If Paul asked for prayer to help him in what he had to do, proclaiming the message of the gospel, we might say all the more so for us, but really, we’re all in the same boat together on that one. A difference with Paul was that he was probably fully exercised this way all the time, whereas we are not. But we’re all in the same need, and we all have the same resources. This is something we’re to realize and grow more and more into in our application and practice of this. Something we’re to take seriously in this life, because there’s no escape. And yet we have all we need in Christ and through the gospel, spelled out to us in detail here so that we won’t miss anything within that, all of it needed for life here and now. So that individually and together we might live in the light and be a light in and through Jesus.

at all times, bless God

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

Psalm 34:1

It is like a revelation to us, really for our own good, but out of the blue, really into the darkness of our too often down in the mouth existence, a light coming to tell us to bless God no matter what, specifically “at all times.” There is nothing more uplifting, though at the same time it can also seem to be nothing more mysterious than this. And we need to read the entire psalm to appreciate the context, God’s goodness and grace to us (click above link).

But this is a needed breath of fresh air to us, something in which we’re to regularly be engaged, yes “at all times.” The praise of God always being in our mouth. Through hymns sung, in prayer, and all of this spurring us on in love in how we live.

In and through Jesus.

the necessary calm in the face of the storm

If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.

Psalm 73:15-17

This psalm is not only one of the most interesting, but also if you can say this, one of the most beautiful (click above to see the psalm in its entirety). The psalmist is struck and grieved over what they see which seems to fly in the face of what is supposed to be. And down in the mouth as a result.

But the psalmist gets a necessary grip on themselves in noting that honesty to their children, to their progeny about this would be not only be bad for them, but unfaithful to God. Interestingly we have all of this set in front of us for all to see within the psalm itself. The exact struggle the psalmist is going through, not uncommon by the way, in Scripture. And the breakthrough into an answer that is otherworldly and requires faith. Helpfully, all of that is set before us.

But how does this translate into our lives? We are completely honest to God, pouring out our entire heart such as it is to God, seeking to cast our burden entirely on God. But before others, especially those who would not be ready for what we would share, as well as the realization that so sharing to others may not be timely and could even be unhelpful, we hold our peace.

Notice that the psalmist doesn’t say anything to anyone about this entire episode until after they enter into the sanctuary of God. I take that to refer probably to the temple, certainly the idea of entering God’s Presence. Then they speak/write the whole, but not until then.

So when we face the latest cloud within our experience, we do well to pray, and keep it to ourselves. Maybe sharing it only with a mentor, close significant other, or friend. But maybe keeping it just between ourselves and God might be a good practice. Seeking to draw near to God to get the needed vision and help. Then what we’ve experienced might be a help to others. In and through Jesus.

the shepherd’s leading/guiding

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23:1-3

What makes all the difference for the sheep? What is the difference between life and death for them? The shepherd. And specifically the care the shepherd takes of the sheep. And one important aspect of that: leading and guiding.

In our new hymnal, Voices Together, the Benediction for Morning Prayer reads:

God will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places, and we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Amen.

Voices Together, 985

Notice that the shepherd leads, the shepherd does not drive the sheep or coerce them. They simple follow the shepherd’s lead. The shepherd goes before them. Jesus leads the way for us. Yes, by his example in trusting in his Father and following even to the point of the death of the cross. But clearing the way for us so that we can live in the same blessing in which he lives.

It’s vitally important for us, as Christ’s sheep to follow the lead of our Shepherd. The Spirit enables us to do that, along with Scripture. We need to be intent in simply following. Not going off and doing our own thing, which we’re ever so prone to be doing. As if we either have to figure it out, or have it figured out. That comes to a dead end, darkness, and finally, death. No, we move only with the Lord’s leading.

That will give us the light we need in our own darkness, in the darkness of this world. In and through Jesus.

they will be what they are (except for God’s grace)

“Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

Revelation 22:11

Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

2 Corinthians 11:14b

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

John 10:10

I think it’s most helpful in differentiating between God and Satan along with the demonic, just to realize who we’re considering. God is God. And to begin to try to get a handle on that, we need to go to Scripture, though God makes God’s Self known in other ways as well. Scripture reveals that God dwells in darkness, that God’s light is too much for us humans to comprehend, even to contemplate. But God is revealed in Jesus, God’s Son. So that to understand what God is like, we have to look at God’s supreme revelation of God’s Self, who is himself all that God is, as well as being human: Jesus.

God is great, whose greatness has no bounds. God is good, whose goodness has no bounds. God is for us as shown in Jesus (Romans 8). God does not condemn us, but loves us, and wants to lift us up and help us. On the other hand, the spiritual enemy wants to make us think that it is right and that we can never measure up. That we ought to do this, that, something else, and always so much more. And that gives what the enemy sends us an appearance of goodness, even godliness. But that entire scenario is not God-like at all. In the end it only results in our condemnation, since we can never measure up. But after all, that’s what our spiritual enemy, the enemy of humankind does. And what God does is completely opposite. God loves, redeems, reconciles, befriends, etc.

The same is true of us humans. Why are we the way we are? Except for the grace of God, I would be just as lost as the next person. And actually, truthfully, I feel a sense of lostness right along. But that helps me to continue to look to God, be open to continual correction and direction along the way. This also helps us understand others, including our sisters and brothers in Christ who might be influenced in a bad way. So that we can find the good, but discern what is not. But first we need to look at ourselves. We have to be sure to take the log out of own eye before we can ever begin to really see the splinter in anyone else’s eye.

Just to know who we’re dealing with makes all the difference. Yes, I know I’m going to be harassed by Satan, rather his minion on a regular basis, because that’s what it does. But I’m going to be loved, understood in all my limitations, and helped by God. That God gives and sends all the help we need as we continue on, as wobbly as we might be, looking to God in faith.

In and through Jesus.

faith is not sight

For we live by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

These words from Paul are in the context about living, dying and pleasing the Lord. And a distinction is drawn between seeing and faith. Someday we will see what we can’t see now. That is faith. Faith involves going on when the promise is not yet realized (Hebrews 11:13-16).

This kind of attitude is valued by God. Jesus said that a wicked and adulterous generation seeks a miraculous sign, something they can see. But faith acknowledges that we really can’t see and understand on our own. That our dependence is solely on God, not on ourselves at all. For some reason God seems to want us to live in the dark so that by faith we can push toward the light, it breaking through at times, but the full light of day to come only when Christ returns.

So we press on. Tired. Not getting younger. With trials and questions. But finding even in those things an encouragement to genuine faith, different than seeing. In and through Jesus.

what John, “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 1:5-2:2

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[b] sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 1:5-2:2

This, in essence, is the message we heard from Christ and are passing on to you: God is light, pure light; there’s not a trace of darkness in him.

If we claim that we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth—we’re not living what we claim. But if we walk in the light, God himself being the light, we also experience a shared life with one another, as the sacrificed blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purges all our sin.

If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—simply come clean about them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.

I write this, dear children, to guide you out of sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a Priest-Friend in the presence of the Father: Jesus Christ, righteous Jesus. When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.

1 John 1:5-2:2; MSG

My guess is that if John were here today with us, he might say something along the lines of why it’s essential that we walk in God’s light in Christ and see all other light as darkness. Where do we get our life from? Do we get it solely from Christ, or do we see something else as a necessary part of that light, or included in it?

We need to see everything, try to look at anything in the light of God in Christ. Therefore we view with a critical, by which I mean discerning eye all that is happening, noting what on the surface is good and what is not.

The only criterion by which we live is God’s light in Christ. We think and act and are accountable from that basis, and none other. Any divergence from it is considered a sin that needs to be confessed. And we in Jesus are in this together.

Just touching on what John might say to us today from this passage. I don’t think he would simply teach it as it is, and let it go at that. A good pastor takes note of the times, and seeks to guide the flock accordingly. In and through Jesus.