Saturday, December 25, 2010

Advent Fulfillment

Santa Claus was always a big part of our Christmas celebrations. My faith in him was secured the year he came to my Grandma and Grandpa Russell's house on Christmas Eve to give each of us granddaughters an early gift. My three older cousins suspected that this man in the red suit was a friend of theirs from Penn Avenue Baptist, but at five, I was enamored. The best part was when Santa leaned in close to whisper in my ear. When he told me that Jesus was the reason for celebrating Christmas, I was ecstatic. Santa Claus is a Christian! That sealed the deal. I was hooked.

I have always felt that my encounter with the "real" Santa Claus that day was significant spiritually. I hear a lot of talk in Christian circles about how harmful it is to "lie" to children about Santa...or how including him in our Christmas celebrations is pagan and detracts from the true meaning of the holiday. But somehow, I never felt lied to. And when I finally put aside my affections for the man in the red suit, an even stronger faith in Jesus remained.

My mom and I were talking about this on Christmas Eve--in the kitchen, where we have so many of our heart-to-hearts--and she said that she had been thinking recently about how much the anticipation of Santa Claus parallels our waiting for Jesus. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that was just really beautiful.

And it's true--those nights when I would make myself sick thinking about Christmas morning, those Christmas Eves crammed in a double bed with my three cousins when none of us could sleep for the excitement, they really were just a foretaste of what's to come.

It's been a long time since I slept cross-ways in a bed with my cousins on Christmas Eve, but Taylor and I have carried on the tradition. Every year, she camps out in my bedroom and we read Jolly Old Santa Claus, just like our mom and her sister did when they were little girls, and just like my cousins and I used to. It's a fanciful tour of Santa's workshop that makes you feel just a little homesick for days when Santa was real and you could count on his coming. The illustrations are stunning. This year, Taylor has been going through the Advent readings, too--so we read them together after the Santa book. The parallels were incredible:

For tonight is the long last it is is the night before Christmas! You must be very quite now and hop into bed quickly, for Santa Claus is ready to leave. The stars are twinkling in the blue sky above...and all the world is hushed and still, waiting for this magical night. For tonight...yes, tonight is the night he comes! And such excitement there will be when he comes!Jolly Old Santa Claus, by Maryjane H. Tonn

Say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come...He will come to save you."
Isaiah 35:4
"Shout and be glad, Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you," declares the LORD.
Zechariah 2:10

The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!"
He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Revelation 22:17, 20

Maybe it sounds sacrilegious to write about Jesus and Santa in the same post. But I really believe that Santa was a vessel God used to teach me about expectant waiting. He pointed me to the God who has come and who will come again for us. May we always cultivate longing for Him.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent Communion

Tonight is a little sad because it is my last night in my apartment before I head to Illinois for Christmas. I know, I seems odd to bemoan going home to my parents' house for a week. And actually, I'm really excited about the time in Bloomington. It's just that I love Advent here on Greenwood Avenue so much! And once I head home, it'll be over for another year.

I've been thinking about Advent and how we cannot divorce it from Easter, mostly because we had been preparing for a Communion service for the last Sunday of Advent. As usual, Lauren Winner's words (from Girl Meets God) are gold:

“The waiting is meant to be a little anxious. I picture Jane Austen heroines. They are never quite sure if their intended will come. We Christians can be sure; we can rest easy in the promises of Scripture. But we are meant to feel a touch of that anxious, handkerchief-waving expectation all the same.

“The calendar tells us that all this culminates on December 25, but really the whole season slouches toward Easter…Even His birthplace takes us to the Last Supper: Jesus, the Bread of Life, is born in Bethlehem, bet lechem, “house of bread,” and at the Last Supper, He will break bread for us, and then on the Cross He will break His body. Nothing in Scripture, even the names of birthplace towns, is coincidence.”

Oh gosh, I just love that so much! Bethlehem, "house of bread." Rabbinical reading like that reminds us that God is the inventor of narrative and literary style.

Even His birthplace takes us to the Last Supper. And so it seems fitting that we would take Communion at Christmastime, which is what we did at the 6:30 service this past Sunday. At the Lord's Table, we remember that Jesus was flesh and blood for us and that He shall come again. We remember that we are family, united by that blood, which pulsed through His tiny body in the manger and poured out of Him on the Cross. We remember that Christmas is not about presents and feasting and jollity, but about a King who came to die in order that His Kingdom might be ushered in.

As I've thought on these things, the Christmas hymns that mention the Cross have become so precious to me. Not many of them do, when you really stop to listen. But I've been loving "What Child is This" the past couple of days (particularly Sarah Story's rendition--you can get it for free from, as well as one that's new to me from Red Mountain Church--it's called "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent." It's particularly poignant in thinking about the Lord's Supper.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

This Christmas, may you rejoice in the One who came and died a real, fleshly death for you.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent Love

It's the third Sunday of Advent, and so tonight at Walnut Hill's 6:30 service, we lit the third Advent candle. I am slightly confused, as I thought that the third Sunday was supposed to be about joy--but no matter. Tonight we lit the candle representing love, and Clay preached on "Loving Fully."

The Advent candle for love reminds us that God's love isn't stingy--it holds nothing back. So, too, should our love overflow in generosity.

I was particularly challenged by Clay's exposition of Philippians 2:3-8. He asked us to think about what each of us tries to grasp. I know for me, those things at which I grasp become such idols in my life, competing with my love for Christ and others. Grasping keeps me from loving fully.

But what does it mean to imitate that selfless, un-grasping love modeled for us in Christ? In an essay in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, J.I. Packer indicts Christians (and I am so guilty of this!) who misunderstand the point that Love has come:

"We talk glibly of the 'Christmas spirit,' rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis...It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas."

He continues: "Nor is it the spirit of those Christians--alas, they are many--whose ambition in life seems limited to building a nice middle-class Christian home, and making nice middle-class Christian friends, and bringing up their children in nice middle-class Christian ways, and who leave the sub-middle-class sections of the community, Christian and non-Christian, to get on by themselves. The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob."

Am I the only one totally convicted by that? So much of the time I'm more concerned with decorating my house and buying presents for family and making sure I have the right holiday ensemble to wear to all of the Christmas parties than I am with giving generously to those in need. I am a Christian snob, for sure.

Thankfully, as tonight's Advent Scriptures remind us, we find in the Incarnation a remedy for our snobbery and our grasping. King David writes, "Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits--who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion" (Psalm 103:2-4).

Praying that the crown of love and compassion might come to be the mark my life!

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent Treasure

Isn't it amazing what riches are stored up for us in the character of God and in Scripture?

I'm marveling tonight, once again, at the miracle of the Incarnation and what it means for us.

Tonight it was Augustine who opened up the storehouse to me. In an adaptation for Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (do I quote this book enough?!), he wonders at the the "Word made flesh" (John 1:14), quoting 1 Peter 1:24-25: "all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever."

Interpreting that text, he writes, "What is 'the Word became flesh?' The gold became grass. It became grass for to be burned; the grass was burned, but the gold remained."

It's an incredible allegory, isn't it? And straight from Scripture, no less. I love the picture of our Jesus, who "was with God in the beginning" (John 1:1), who was and is God, humbling Himself to be flesh, making Himself grass for us. Or as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:7, he "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant." The Greek word is ekenosen, which means "he emptied himself" (or poured himself out). And yet we know, and Augustine reminds us, he could not cease being God. The grass was burned, but the gold remained.

May we never forget to marvel at this holy wonder, the gold made grass, the Word made flesh. Everything else hinges upon it, and every promise through it is fulfilled.

For no matter how many promises God has spoken, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through Him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.
2 Corinthians 1:20

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Advent Resource

I've talked to lots of families at Walnut Hill who are interested in doing something together that will restore some of the meaning to Christmas this year. Our prayer ministry has published an amazing resource for Advent called Nativity: Praying to be like the characters of Christmas. Since I helped one of my coworkers publish it to the WHCC website today via my Scribd account, I thought I'd share it here as well. It's really a beautiful set of prayer prompts with accompanying graphics. I hope you'll be blessed as you pray through it!

Nativity Prayer Directive

Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent Strength

I hung a little sign in my kitchen for the holidays that says "Comfort and Joy." I love that phrase because it's cute and it seems sort of kitchen-y (you know, like comfort food). But as I was washing dishes the other day, I realized that there's a lot more weight to those words than the cute, jolly meaning we attach to them when we slap them on a little wooden sign.

In Hebrew, the word for comfort, nacham, is translated "strength." Comfort is more than just some feel-good emotion, more substantial than a bowl of mac and cheese or twice-baked potatoes. Comfort is strength from the Lord.

Dr. Eakin was the first to define the word for me in these terms. He did so in our Hebrew Prophets class, when we talked about Isaiah 40: "'Comfort, comfort, my people,' says your God...He gives strength to the weary" (vv. 1, 29). That was years ago, my junior year at Richmond. But this Christmas, the idea of "comfort (strength) and joy" has special significance.

It's been a hard year for our family. With Grandma Russell's passing in October and Grandpa Russell's chaotic bout of kidney cancer and his passing in August, there have been so many tears and so much grief. When I was home for Thanksgiving, I was struck by how different things feel, and that's tough, especially around the holidays. My mom, in particular, is just now fully able to grieve. As I thought about all of that, I did a little word search (how I love thee,!) for "comfort and joy."

In Jeremiah 31:13, the Lord declares, "I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow." What a promise! I'm claiming it for my family this Christmas.

The beautiful thing about Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 31 is that both point undeniably to the coming of Jesus. He, God incarnate, is the ultimate source of strength. In Isaiah 40, the prophet declares the word of the Lord: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her...that her sin has been paid for" (v.2). Then he proclaims the words that John the Baptist will fulfill, "A voice of one calling: 'In the desert prepare the way for the LORD'" (v.3). And Jeremiah 31 is one of the most significant passages in Hebrew Scripture, in which God promises to make a new covenant, to write the Law on his people's hearts (vv. 31-33). Obviously, this is a promise that can only be fulfilled by Jesus, the Word (Heb. "Law"--See my October 2008 post on Simchat Torah for more on how modern Messianic Jews understand this connection.) In the Incarnation, we find a resource to help us face every hardship.

As we sat by my Christmas tree over wine and good conversation Thursday night, some friends encouraged me to let the tears come this Christmas, to sit in the grief for a while, to put aside any expectations of how Christmas is supposed to be--all happy and jolly and light. This verse lends the encouragement needed for that different kind of Christmas, a Christmas where I may cry and be sad. I don't have to manufacture joy or strength--God has promised them to me, in His timing. In Jesus, He will turn my mourning into gladness.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Card

Swirling Ornaments Christmas Card
Make a statement with Shutterfly Christmas photo cards.
View the entire collection of cards.

I couldn't resist sending Christmas cards to a few faraway friends who I don't often get to see! If I see you all the time, I'm still praying that "the God of hope will fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him" (Romans 15:13).

Joy and peace to you!