It’s unfortunate that far too many churches these days have jettisoned the traditional observance of Advent. I’d say they’re missing out on a lot. Historically, the Church revisits her course at this moment, making sure her heading is sound and her crew is ready.
For all of the cultural twinklings surrounding it, Advent is a darker season dealing in two contrasting images.
The first is the darkness of penitential concern. It’s a time for recalling the very real predicament facing the world because of Sin’s infection.
With this in mind, Advent takes aim at Mankind’s impotence in relation to Sin’s chief product, which is Death. It also anticipates the final day when the Lord returns to judge both the living and the dead. Together in these, all time and opportunities will have ended. A last breath will have happened, or the Last Day will have arrived, and you will go. The time for even the most foolish negotiating will have passed. There will be no discussing or bending the standards. There will be no convincing God to your side with explanations that you did your best to keep the Law (the Ten Commandments). You won’t find room between the two of you for slight disagreement on what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Advent strips away all hope for leniency by works of the Law. It helps to remind us that “in Adam, all men die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). It puts before us the divine cue that the Law silences everyone, holding all humans accountable to God’s perfect standards (Romans 3:19). And lest we forget, Advent reminds us of the inescapable predicament of the Sin-nature in all of us. Standing beside the Law’s requirements, we’ll discover the impossibility of ever being counted righteous by our deeds (v. 20).
Advent teaches the hopelessness of human effort against all that plagues us when moving from this sphere to the next.
Advent also teaches that this dark night of helplessness isn’t permanent. Not only will it come to its completion at the Last Day, but Advent carries us back to the day the solution to the Sin problem was given—when Death was put on notice, and all of the long-foretold promises of God were completed in the God-man born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Advent looks to Christmas. It brings us back to the same sense of anticipation that’s ours as we await our last breath or we await the Last Day, except by faith, this time it’s fearless. It reminds us that the midnight concern of our lostness more than faded away in the sunrise of the Savior’s birth.
This is hope. Advent preaches this. It keeps before us the effervescent fact that God’s love moved Him to send His Son, Jesus, to save us, and faith’s grip on the merits of Jesus will, without question, see the believer through to eternal life. For believers, even though we die, yet shall we live (John 11:25). The One born on Christmas morn said this. In the same way, for believers, the Last Day will be like the celebration of Christmas. It won’t be a moment of terror, but rather a moment of bright-eyed joy. In fact, it will be a moment of familiarity, one that recalls the angels’ words to the shepherds about peace being accomplished between God and Man through the oncoming work of the newborn Christ. In that final moment before the returning Christ, such peace will be experienced as never before, and it will wash over us as we hear the voice of the One who once laid in a manger say, “Come and receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
I don’t like the term “luck.” I don’t mind someone saying to me, “Good luck.” Although, anyone who knows me will admit I’m the kind of guy who, if someone calls me lucky, will reply with, “There’s no such thing as luck.” I don’t say it just because I’m a Christian and I know better, but also because I know myself to be someone who’s always ready to grab opportunity by the throat and throttle it until it produces what I’m after. In other words, I’m a determined person. Perhaps that’s why Han Solo was always a favorite Star Wars character. If you were ever to attempt to discourage me with the mathematical impossibility of navigating an asteroid field (which according to C3PO is 3,720 to 1), like Han, I’d likely turn to say resolutely, “Never tell me the odds!” as I proceed to steer into it, anyway.
Don’t call me lucky, and don’t tell me how something can’t be done. There’s no such thing as luck, and with that, let’s talk about how it can be done.
This past Monday I took my Jeep to a repair shop in Milford where I happened upon someone I used to be friends with on Twitter (that is, until I deleted my Twitter account). Interestingly, we’d never actually met in person, and yet he knew an awful lot about me, my family, and my church. At one point during the conversation, he referenced our Covid-19 practices here at Our Savior. He knew what they were because I’d been very open about them throughout the past year. He said we were lucky we didn’t experience an outbreak. In reply, I suggested that perhaps it wasn’t luck, but rather it was the Lord’s hand of blessing for holding to His mandates for worship and fellowship, no matter how the world around us was tempted to weaponize the phrase “love thy neighbor.”
Yes, I said it exactly as I wrote it above. Of course, I didn’t want to be too aggressive, but I also didn’t want any confusion with regard to my theological position on the matter.
He countered with the usual argument about caring for the “lesser brother” and about how easily the virus spreads. For reference, he shared how his brother’s church had experienced a serious outbreak among its members even though they were all pretty much required to be drenched in sanitizer, socially-distanced, and fully masked in order to attend worship. In his mind, any church that pressed forward without the same kinds of safety protocols in place was testing fate. I don’t think he realized that comparing Our Savior to his brother’s hermetically sealed church sort of, well, made my point for me. Again, I simply replied by suggesting that perhaps we weren’t lucky, but rather blessed. Thankfully, I was able to bring the conversation to an end by saying I needed to go out to the road and wait for my ride back to the office. (Thanks, Ed Dietrich!) However, outside at the curb, I struggled to put my friend’s terminology away completely.
Being lucky and being blessed are two very different things.
Luck is born from chance. Blessings are bestowed. In the Christian sense, I’d say blessings are emanations of God’s undeserved kindness in our lives. And no matter the form they take, God promises to bless His people for their faithfulness (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10). Indeed, God smiles upon those who, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, hold on when holding on is the hardest.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that the more you pray the more God will bless you with worldly health, wealth, and wisdom; or if you just believe enough, God will take away your mortal misfortunes. That’s the kind of bad theology sold by heretics like Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen. I’m talking about the backward perspective that can actually embrace struggle as a blessing. And how is this possible? Because faith understands that anything in place to loosen our grip on this world while tightening our grip on Christ is a blessing. Even a virus can serve as a determiner in this regard. As you face off with it, are you holding on too tightly to this world, or are you clinging to Christ? I’d add that in these same moments, God promises to be at work in His people by the power of His Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:10) instilling the faithfulness that produces discernment. He’ll be there giving us the eyes to see the individual details through the lens of His Word of truth. By this, He’ll reveal that He’s working for our good, namely, that He’s setting His divine sights on drawing us closer to Him, on keeping us as His own in the faith (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28). He doesn’t want to lose anyone to fear or unbelief, and so anything He does or allows for a Christian along life’s way—no matter if it’s labeled good or bad by the world around us—can be embraced as a blessing from the one true God who loves us.
As far as the successes of Our Savior, Matthew 5:11 and 1 Peter 4:14 come to mind as relative examples of blessings taking a more difficult form. Both describe being insulted for faithfulness to Christ as blessings. Wow, do we sure know this here at Our Savior. God has mandated in-person worship (Hebrews 10:24-25). That’s what we maintained. I can promise you we were insulted by believers and unbelievers alike for this. When we made clear that God does not leave room for His Church to mandate legalistic barriers that would sound anything like, “Unless you’re wearing a mask, you cannot be with your God in worship to receive His gifts,” more insults came. Still, we were unmoved, choosing instead to encourage Christian liberty even as many loaded up their pious rifles with texts from the likes of Mark 12:31 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, taking aim and then pulling the trigger.
“Bang! You’re not requiring masks and so you’re not showing love to the neighbor!” But each of these rounds misfired because they lacked the propellant necessary for actually loving one’s neighbor rightly.
It’s impossible to love your neighbor if you set aside God’s Word, even if only temporarily. You can’t love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.
Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel used to say, “A lot of love talk is a lot of Law talk.” Think about this in light of a text like 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. If Nagel was right, then this particular text is dealing in the Law. From this angle, we’re equipped to see Saint Paul’s attempt to not only show us what genuine love looks like, but to admit our complete inability in relation to it. The love he is describing is divine—the kind that only God can produce. It’s an “always” kind of thing, which is why Saint Paul uses the word so often in the text. Knowing we can’t live up to what he’s describing, the text becomes a reminder of our need for a Savior who can. With that, what we learned in previous chapters begins to resurface. For example, chapters 10 through 12 teach us about how and where to locate this Savior and the love He gives. Before chapter 13, Paul has already revealed who sits at the midpoint of real love. Together, these become strong influencers for knowing the significance of communion with Christ and for not letting anything get between you and His love located in the Means of Grace.
I’d add to all of this that the harmonizing center of the text from chapter 13 is verses 6 and 7:
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
This is not all that confusing when you realize Paul is talking about love in relation to God and not necessarily the neighbor. Paul personifies love here. Interestingly, Saint John said God is love (1 John 4:8). Here in verse 6, Paul says this love is offended by evil. He writes that this love is gladdened by truth. Jesus said in John 17:17 that God’s Word is truth. Together, these are all incredibly interpretive. If God’s truth mandates in-person worship, then by what we’ve learned here, He’s likely not in favor of completely shutting down churches or doing anything that might hinder a Christian’s in-person access to the verbal and visible Word He distributes there. Only a spirit of evil would translate love for the neighbor this way.
And then verse 7 lands right on us. Again, knowing that verse 6 was describing God, is verse 7 all of the sudden talking about human love aimed at others, as is typically interpreted? So then, love always protects… people? Tell that to an allied soldier in a fire fight with Nazis. Love always trusts… people? Tell that to a battered wife whose husband promises after each violent episode to never do it again; or the parent whose child has been molested by a pedophile. Love always hopes… in people? Joe Biden, as it is with any good Marxist, would appreciate this one, having you putting your faith in the government rather than Christ. Love always perseveres… for people? Let’s just be frank, Christian or not, human patience runs out.
Keeping verse 7 connected to verse 6, if it’s saying anything in relation to our love for others, I’d say it’s first describing a love instilled by God and aimed at God that will eventually result in love for neighbor. This makes more sense to me. It certainly jives with what I know of the Ten Commandments—which is that the 4th through 10th Commandments (loving the neighbor) mean nothing without first visiting with the 1st through 3rd (loving God). By this thinking, verse 7 is telling us love’s deepest commitment in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit always seeks first to protect what is God’s, always trusts in Him, always hopes in Him, always finds perseverance in Him. This kind of love will find itself unable to choose the world’s ways above God’s. This kind of love will always produce what’s best for the neighbor.
In other words, and again, you can’t even begin to love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.
Holding to this premise, things went very well for us here at Our Savior. By loving God and what He wanted more, we found ourselves retooled for avoiding the temptation of law-based and heavy-handed control, and were instead equipped with a clarity for resting in Christian liberty. Worshipping in person might have been considered unsafe to the world, but we did it anyway… because it’s what God’s truth instructs. That fostered a Gospel-driven freedom for knowing how to actually live in love for the neighbor while piloting an asteroid field of CDC protocols. In the end, this equated to countless Elder meetings spent observing data and doing what we could to balance the disquiets without imposing in ways that might separate people from God.
I think the Christians here at Our Savior navigated this mess marvelously, and God appears to have blessed this course with success. It was by no means luck.
I suppose I’ll close this lengthy meandering by sharing that I know there are some inside and outside of God’s Church who are frustrated by our success. For them, 2020 and much of 2021 disappeared without a trace, while for us here at Our Savior, we managed to go about our lives enjoying relative normalcy as a congregation, and we did it without incident. To anyone bothered by our success, just know your frustration speaks volumes. It’s eerily reminiscent of the saying that the only way to feel better about the success of an enemy is to simply believe he got lucky. I’m kind of wondering if such frustration might have something to do with a faith that believes in luck in comparison to a faith that understands God’s gracious care. I’m wondering if it might be revealing a trust that holds more firmly to this world than the next.
Well, whatever. There’s no such thing as luck, friends. I know this, and I hope you know it, too.