Gospel | 12.20.15

This is the last week of celebrating Advent, the ‘arrival’ of God. Although not the only key event in God’s story, the coming of Jesus as a baby in the manger is definitely a big deal, a turning point in where the story goes next. It’s kind of unfortunate that our culture has tended to sentimentalize this event. I have to admit I get to feeling a bit jaded by it all, oversaturated by all the sweet images of a baby and Precious Moments figurines! We may miss just how powerful this event is for understanding the good news of God with us.

So what is the good news, or gospel? Christians believe that as God, baby Jesus grew up to live a perfect human life and sacrifice his life on the cross to pay the price for our sin and reconcile us with God. As wonderful and true as this is, I’ve begun to believe there’s so much more that he was up to. What if what Jesus did on the cross later in the story was not simply to forgive us and give us eternal life when we die?

Here’s my quick, simple version of a Christmas Gospel: God (Father, Son and Spirit) loved the world so much that the Father sent the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us home into the life of God.

Guest Blog | Dawn Neldon

(Excerpt from message December 20, 2015, RBCPC ~ Love, the Turning Point

While his birth at Christmas was the first glimpse of the promise of God’s love, Jesus, through his life embodied and lived out the reality of the extent of God’s love for us. I mean, he didn’t just come and stand at a distance. And when you think about it he could have come and died without truly giving himself to others and the result would have been the same. Justice would have been satisfied.

But he dove in. He spent time with people. Messy people. He invested in real, meaningful relationships. He served others and expressed the heart of God’s love for us all the way to the cross. See, just as our voices take the ideas in our head and make them a reality by speaking them out loud, the life of Jesus speaks the reality of God’s love to all creation.

God so loved the world that he would stop at NOTHING to find a way to have a relationship with us…to offer us true, full life. This is the Gospel. Not that Jesus came and died so that we would be forgiven (that’s part of the story). But the real true good news of the manger and the cross is that they both happened so that we could experience true relationship with Jesus and by so doing experience life to the full in him.

Now this is all good, important theology but honestly, so what? Theology means nothing if it doesn’t impact us if it doesn’t compel us to be different as a result. So how does the reality of the manger compel us to live differently?

Let’s take a look at John 13:34-35

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Yikes. Love each other as he loved us? That doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation. That sounds hard. Too bad he didn’t just say sit in the same room with each other. Tolerate one another as I have tolerated you. No, he had to throw down the gauntlet. Love one another as I loved you and it’s by this kind of love that the world will know you are my disciples. Oh wait, you mean it’s not by the political groups I associate with? The world doesn’t know that we are your disciples by the articles for or against a variety of things on Facebook? shoot.

The result of the Jesus speaking the love of God into our lives is that we are then compelled to love one another. Loving one another as Jesus loves means that we must draw near. We can’t stand at a distance or keep people at arms length. We must live out the reality of what He evidenced for us…that love requires community. Think about it…love can not be fully expressed unless you share it with others. I believe that community not only allows us to love but it teaches us how to love fully.

I mentioned earlier that Drew and I lived in Mexico for a time. It was while we were there that I came to this realization about how God designed us. That God designed us for community and it’s only in community that we learn how to fully love one another. There we  lived with 100 children and 30 plus staff and there were ALWAYS people around. I mean ALWAYS. When there’s always people around, you get to see the best and the worst of each other. There’s no way to hide your ugly when you’re truly in community. Sure, you can keep up appearances for awhile but it’s only a matter of time before the you you try to hide come out.

Sharing life in community with other means that people get to know and love the real you with all you goodness and imperfections and in turn you love them for all of theirs.

Awesome Future | 12.13.15

Followers of Jesus believe that he is coming back again to reign in person as lord over his restored creation, and that everything will be made right and whole again. There is an interesting Greek word used in the New Testament to talk about this hope of Jesus coming back: parousia. In the culture of that day, this word had two meanings: one was used to refer to the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing. People would suddenly be aware of a supernatural and powerful presence.

Think about this for a minute; I wonder if this is kind of like that overwhelming feeling of awe at the birth of your child, the lump that comes unexpectedly into your throat at a poignant moment in a movie, or hearing a piece of music that taps into something deep within you. A warm sense of “rightness” when you give of yourself to serve another. That fleeting sense of mystery and beauty in a quiet moment in the middle of all the holiday craziness, something bigger than your understanding, an echo of something that you know to be real but can’t quite see?

Could it be that we experience the powerful presence of Jesus in moments like these, when we catch a sudden glimpse?

Here Now | 12.6.15

We understand that Christmas is about celebrating the coming of God to us in Jesus; remember that Advent means “arrival.” But less known is that centuries ago for early Christians, Advent also was about thanking God for his ongoing presence among us today through the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

In my particular religious upbringing, we didn’t hear much about the Holy Spirit at Christmas. He was pretty much downplayed, maybe barely mentioned. But I think one of the coolest things about God’s plan of rescuing us is the way that the Father, Son, and Spirit all colluded in what they were up to. Everything they did was done together, a shared relationship in which there was, and is, mutual giving and receiving.

The early church fathers used a word to describe this – perichoresis, the dance of love. This concept comes from a distinctive dance that is done at Greek weddings. There are not two dancers, but at least three. They start to go in circles, weaving in and out in this very beautiful pattern. They go faster and faster and faster, all the while staying in perfect rhythm and in sync with each other. Eventually, they are dancing so quickly that as you look at them, it all becomes a blur. Their individual identities are part of a larger dance. I just love this visual picture of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, coming up with their plan together.

Guest Blog | Sandy Russell

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HOPE

By Sandy Russell, December 2015

Sunday, December 1st 2013 found me sitting in church in tears with a deep understanding that I was about to enter a new chapter of life. On December 2nd I would receive the dreaded diagnosis – cancer. I had gone through mammograms, ultrasounds, and biopsies prior to that date and I already knew the words that would hit me on Monday. Sitting in that pew on the 1st Sunday of Advent, the day the candle of Hope is lit, I broke down. I felt the need to define hope, a word linked to cancer awareness, a word used quickly in our everyday speech. I believed that defining and understanding hope from God’s perspective would carry me through this uncertain time.

A dictionary defines hope as a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. Synonyms include aspiration, desire, wish, aim, goal, plan… Sure, I hoped that the Doctors would be able to treat my cancer, I hoped I would survive chemotherapy, I hoped I would live to see grandchildren. But that hope seemed very fragile and always relying on humans. There was something unsettling about this definition. So I read further and found another definition. Hope is a feeling of trust. Synonyms include faith, belief, conviction, assurance, and promise. So, now I was closer to understanding. But I still felt like I was on the outside looking in. I did not have the rest and peace that I wanted from this misunderstood word.

What do I believe? What is the promise? Should I ask God to miraculously take this cancer away? Wouldn’t that be a test of my faith?  I never did that, and not because my faith was small, but because it grew and it became clear that this cancer would give me a chance to experience the true meaning of hope and it would be an opportunity for my faith to deepen. God promised to be with me throughout the entire ordeal and he promised that I would thrive, not just survive. And that assurance came as I sat in prayer, weeping, full of fear and completely humbled to Him. In an instant, I was transformed from helpless human victim to worthy child of God. And in an instant we were walking together through the hardest thing I have ever faced, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

It is two years later and I understand the word Hope much better. I am cancer free and recovering from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I am grateful. But the truth is, my hope went far beyond this cancer survival. My hope is not just to survive this mortal body. My hope is not a wish. My hope is a confidence that I am not alone, in life and in death, and my hope is a faith that I am worthy and loved for eternity. Hope is not a focus on what will happen, but what already has. Jesus was born to die and become our hope.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal comfort and a wonderful hope, comfort you and strengthen you in every good thing you do and say.

2 Thessalonians 2:16–17

Preparing | 11.29.15

Through the centuries, many Christians have called this season Advent – which means ‘arrival.’ The four weeks leading up to Christmas have become a period of spiritual preparation to prepare for the celebration of the arrival of Jesus. I didn’t grow up with this religious tradition, but as I have researched the history of Advent, I learned that traditionally the celebration of Advent typically began with a period of prayer and repentance. I’d never heard of this. Doesn’t sound very celebratory to me. But what I found very interesting is that that this preparation of prayer and repentance was then followed by anticipation, hope and joy.

What if this year, instead of expecting the whole month of December to be nothing but happy, happy, we were to create spiritual space for reflection? Jesus brings us reconciliation and renewal, peace and joy. What if we were to prepare for this very good news by recognizing our own brokenness and the ways we have hurt others around us?

Guest Blog | Bruce Humphrey

ADVENT?

By Dr. Bruce Humphrey, November 2015

An entertaining definition of “optimist” is the husband who asks his wife on the Friday after Thanksgiving, “What’s for lunch?”

The turkey leftovers are still cooling in the fridge when we jump into the anticipation and preparations for Christmas. Who will travel to join us this year? We have gifts to be bought, wrapped, and mailed to loved ones far away.  Vacation schedules are planned and days off calculated. Not to speak of rearranging the furniture to set up the tree, putting up decorations, hanging ornaments, trimming the tree, and transforming the house for the next month. Christmas is more than merely one day, it is a wonderful, festive season of excitement.

Followers of Jesus bring some spiritual aspects to this anticipatory season. The four weeks leading up to Christmas in the Christian calendar are called “Advent.” What is Advent? Advent is defined in the dictionary as “arrival.”

Think with me about arrivals. Any arrival involves the opening of the home for the guest, providing hospitality, welcoming the visitor. We prepare for the arrival of family and friends by doing a more thorough cleaning of the house. We change the sheets and prepare a guest room. Perhaps we set aside some special time to do touristy activities with our guests.  As the day approaches we anticipate the arrival. Then comes the joyful announcement, “Grandma’s at the front door!”

These days, we hardly ever hear a family use the term “advent” in these settings. No child asks her parents, “When is grandma’s advent?” The word has become almost exclusively a Church word referring to the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world. Today we commonly refer to “Advent wreaths,” “Advent calendars,” and “Advent candles” tied into Christmas preparations.

It is easy for us to hang the wreath and put up a calendar to count the days of December, without grasping the spiritual opportunities to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christ. Let’s explore how we can return to an older understanding of Advent in order to grow our souls.

The wise leaders of the ancient church realized that God created humans to experience life in rhythms and seasons. Rather than life being day after day of sameness, God intended us to enjoy highs and lows, night and day, winter and summer. Changes bring fresh insight about life. The highs feel higher when they follow a low. The sun is appreciated more after the storm clouds. Long winter nights heighten the coziness of candlelight as well as flames in the fireplace.

Appreciating the value of living our lives in the midst of changing seasons, the early church came up with a way to heighten the Christmas celebration. What if we intentionally took time leading up to the feast of Christmas by fasting and taking time for silence, prayer, and repentance? Instead of expecting the whole month of December to be nothing but happy, happy, let’s create spiritual space for reflection. Thus the season of Advent was developed intentionally as four weeks of humility in the midst of the preparations. The actions of anticipation were seasoned with quiet moments of confession and prayer. The count down to Christmas included acts of service for others along with the excitement of our own blessed holiday.

Advent became a spiritual assessment season leading up to the huge celebration of Christmas. Christmas celebrates Jesus, the Son of God, arriving on planet earth to love and forgive us. Advent reminds us to pause in order to appreciate why we need God’s love and forgiveness. Christmas announces Jesus is the light of the world. Let’s pause first to realize how dark our world is without him. Jesus brings us reconciliation and renewal. Let’s prepare for this good news by repenting of our brokenness and the ways we have wounded others around us.

So where did the Church get this idea of taking four weeks of repentance in preparation for Christmas? We see this idea clearly in the life of John the Baptist from the gospels. His preaching, “prepare the way of the Lord,” fulfills the ancient prophecy of Isaiah.  Hear afresh Isaiah’s prophecy:

A voice cries; “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord: Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40: 3-5)

Isaiah describes how the people prepared for the arrival of royalty. When they heard a king was coming to visit, the people built and maintained a royal road into their city. The road was made as smooth and flat as possible. Hills were razed and valleys elevated to demonstrate their love for their king.

Matthew uses this Isaiah prophecy to bring his Christmas story to its climax. Matthew’s favorite refrain is “and so was fulfilled what the LORD had spoken by the prophet.” His Christmas story is about ancient prophecies by Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah fulfilled in the arrival of baby Jesus. He completes his Christmas story with the preaching of John the Baptist, sent to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy about preparing the way for the LORD.

Just as God choreographed hundreds of years of Hebrew history and prophecies to prepare for Christ’s arrival, so we are invited to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ arrival during the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Just as prophets called the people to repent and turn their hearts to God, so we use this Advent season for the same purpose.

Let me share a personal example. Years ago our home became a three-generation house. Our daughter’s family lived with us for five years while her husband completed his education.

It was fun to decorate the house with our pre-school grandchildren. There were ornaments hung over the fireplace. The Advent daily calendar was opened each day with zeal as we counted down the days to Christmas. The presents under the tree were touched and moved and handled frequently. Our church’s pre-school taught the grandchildren a Christmas song about Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus in the manger.

To be honest, we were unsure how much of the Christmas story our three-year-old granddaughter understood. That year, on the week before Christmas, we took a Sunday evening drive though some neighborhoods decked out with extra Christmas lights. Our grandchildren in the back seat oohed and aahed as we drove slowly past various lighted reindeer and Santa sleighs, angels and shepherds, snowmen and lighted icicles.  Then suddenly our granddaughter bubbled over with excitement as she exclaimed, “Look they have Baby God in the manger!”

Will we use this Advent season to make room for “Baby God” in our hearts?