The Three Advents of Jesus Christ

This is the season of the Church year when we remember and celebrate the incarnation and the “advent” of Jesus Christ. There are many dimensions of this Advent. It certainly refers to the coming of the Second Person of the Trinity as the Son of God into the lowly stable of Bethlehem as the exalted Son of Man prepared to “raise the sons of earth” to their right status before God. It also refers to the Second Advent when Jesus Christ as the “Son of God and Son of Man” returns to receive those whom He has called, to judge the world, setting all things right, and to usher in the consummation of the New Creation. However, as we all know, there is a big gap in time and space between the first and second Advents of Jesus Christ. God, in His mercy, has given to us a large ‘redemptive space’ into which the church is to live out the future realities of the in-breaking Kingdom into the present age. We are to be outposts of the New Creation in Adam’s world. This happens in ten thousand small ways in tiny corners of the world as God – through His Church – bears witness to His righteous rule and reign.

It is into such a world that we all are called to live as children of the light, bearing witness to that True Light which has come- and is coming – into the world. Tomorrow my wife, Julie, our son, Jonathan and myself will all board a plane and travel to Tanzania to be with our daughter who is an AIM missionary to the Alagwa people in northern Tanzania. The Alagwa people live in a remote corner of the world, not unlike what Bethlehem must have been like in the first century. They live in a world without running water, electricity, streets, internet and other marks of modern societies. Their language is only oral and they have not had the opportunity to read or to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Our daughter, Bethany, along with nine others on her team, have been living with the Alagwa since 2010. They want them to know that Jesus Christ gave himself for them just as much as any people group on the earth. They are, in a small way, re-enacting the advent of Jesus Christ in seed form to the Alagwa people. This is, of course, the third way the Advent of Jesus Christ happens in our world. The Advent of Jesus is not isolated to two points in history – the first Christmas and the Second Coming – but is an unfolding reality whenever the kingdom of Jesus Christ breaks in afresh to a new people.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate Christmas is not merely to look back on the first Christmas, or look forward to the second coming, but look out into the world and discover new ways in which Jesus Christ can be presented, or in some cases, be re-presented, to the world. The witness of every church should be a little re-enactment of the incarnation in seed form. These re-enactments are only possible since God in Jesus Christ has set the stage and He remains the central player in this divine drama. Our job is not simply to wait for the Second Coming, but to live out his first coming in the present age in countless ways until Jesus returns. If we knew that Jesus was coming back tomorrow we should still get up and go to our places of work and study, because we want to make sure that whenever He does return he finds us not idle, but “in the saddle” doing the works of Jesus each and every day. I am confident that Bethany will inspire me to return to my place of work and witness and seek, in small ways, to be faithful to his coming into the world God has placed me.

Disruptive Evil vs. Disruptive Grace in Newtown, Connecticut

This past week we all learned of the horrible acts of evil committed by a 20 year old young man armed with an assault weapon in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In the end, 27 people were dead – 20 children (all 6 or 7 years old), 6 adults (including the mother of the killer) and the killer himself. This is a bold example of “disruptive evil.” It is the kind of evil which shocked and disrupted us at the deepest level. When the news came across the internet and television you could almost feel the shock and the depth of evil. Many of us were overcome with emotion and sadness. The normal course of our day and our lives was disrupted as the story of this horror entered our lives, and how much more so the lives of the parents and families of the victims. Jesus said that the devil comes to “kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). This week we saw the devil’s work: children were killed, lives were stolen and families were destroyed. Apparently, it all happened in about two minutes.

Do Christians have anything to say in the face of such evil? Well, I think our first response is not to say anything, but to “weep with those who weep.” Our first response, like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, is to share in the grief of those who are acutely sensing the depth of loss. We should first pray for those families. As a father of two children, I can only imagine the agony that news of such great loss brings. However, we must also remember that evil is not some strange outlier which occasionally raises up its ugly head in a kindergarten class or a movie theater. Rather, we live in a world which is headed towards death and destruction. The Psalmist declared, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any…who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none righteous, not even one” (Psalm 14:2,3). The evil which lost its cover and came so abruptly out in the open this week, is the same evil which is at work in the whole human race all the time in smaller ways.

In contrast, the gospel is about God’s intervention with “disruptive grace” which is even greater than the “disruptive evil” of this world. We are all headed towards death and destruction except through the merciful intervention of God. God has granted men and women free wills (or, more precisely, freed wills). This means that men and women are free to make real choices for evil or for good. Only free will truly makes love possible. God could have created a world of robots who obey his every will. But, obedience to God’s will is not the highest good. Rather, obedience which grows out of a love for God is. God wants our hearts, not just our obedience.

Love involves, by necessity, real choices, including the possibility of rejection. You can make someone obey you, but you cannot make someone love you. Therefore, the same free will which makes love possible also opens the door to the possibility of the utter rejection of God. Real choices which lead to evil, death and destruction are possible in this world, as we have seen this week. Both Mother Theresa and Adam Lanza made real choices in their lives. One chose to move to India and bring God’s love to the dying in Calcutta, the other chose to drive their car to the Sandy Hook elementary school and unleash evil.

This is part of a long narrative. Remember, on that very first Christmas when God the Father made the choice to send His son into the world, King Herod was soon found slaughtering infants in Bethlehem. The overlay of “disruptive grace” which ultimately trumps “disruptive evil” is a long road of redemption which winds though the ragged edges of evil and the crags of despair. Martin Luther King, Jr. summed it up well as he surveyed his own grim landscape of evil when he said “the arc of the universe is long, but it’s bent towards justice.”

If there is any comfort in this tragedy, it must be found in the knowledge that Jesus has borne all the evils and sins of this world on the cross, including the pain in Newtown, Connecticut. God alone knows the depth of this world’s evil. He alone has responded with the cross. The incarnation and cross of Christ is the ultimate act of “disruptive grace” which alone was sufficient to finally overturn the “disruptive evil” of this world. We do not yet see all things under his feet. However, in the end, God will judge the world and will set all things right. There are twenty children right now in the presence of Jesus who are counting on it.

Charge to December 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

From the iconic Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz we learn afresh of the importance of courage.  Who can forget those memorable words, “what makes the muskrat guard his musk?  What makes the Hottentot so hot, or put the “ape” in apricot? Courage.

Like the Lion, we may feel we’re not very courageous, but with God’s help we can be women and men of great courage and boldness tempered with honest, “truth-telling” humility.

There are few traits more needed by pastors and full time Christian workers today than that of courage.  As the church in the West moves from the warm “high noon” light of Christian cultural consensus, to the long “sunset” shadows of post-Christendom, it is easy to lose one’s courage – the moral nerve to stand with Christ and the gospel.  We would much rather occupy the cultural center than the prophetic margins.  It takes courage to announce the gospel even as it is being decried as outrageous and offensive.  We live in a society enmeshed in deep spiritual and moral chaos.  It takes enormous patience and courage to lead someone from the gutter of despair to the high road of holiness, through the power of the gospel.  It takes courage to confess Christ when even big swaths of the church have lost the patience to listen to him.  It takes courage to preach the whole gospel, not just the warm, fuzzy bits.  It takes courage to preach Christ, and not ourselves.  It takes courage to stand firm on the Word of God, when the prevailing winds of culture are blowing hard in your face.

The redemption of the world is hard, toilsome work and God has decided to not redeem the world without us.  So, December 2012 graduates:  go forth as men and women of courage!   Preach the Word with courage!  Pray with Courage.  Love with Courage.  Serve with courage.  Be courageous in your life of holiness.

There is a day in Wesley’s journal where he gets up in the morning and he preaches to a group while loud mocking noises and jeers are going on around him.  He travels on to the next stop, but before he finishes preaching he is pelted with stones and run out of town.  On his third stop he preaches, but some opponents let their animals loose which dispersed the crowd and caused a great commotion.  His final stop that day was an evening service where several thousand people gathered and the Spirit’s presence was sweet and powerful as God did his work, hundreds responding to the gospel.  It took a lot of courage for Wesley to get through that day.  You are going to have days like that.

It was the great 16th century Reformer Martin Luther who once said, “If I confess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all other battlefields besides is mere flight and disgrace if you flinch at that point.”

Courage.  Go forth with courage, class of 2012, and don’t give the Devil a chink of light.

Reflections On How The “Love of God” Changes Us

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the weakened message of the church in his day as follows:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1]  Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique could easily be said today of evangelical Christianity.  Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance than today’s populistic, evangelical churches?  Have you noticed how the prayers of repentance and confession have dropped out of the order of services in many churches?  Have you noticed the quiet re-writing of some of the older hymns to drop out references to wrath, repentance and judgment?  Thankfully, there is a growing realization that, in our attempt to stay at the cultural center of consensus (rather than the prophetic margins) we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the gospel.

No where is this problem more evident than how the phrase, “the love of God” is used today.   So much of the biblical meaning has been squeezed out to comply with modern sensibilities.  The word “love” is used in our society for everything from “I love chocolate cake” to “I love that movie” to “for God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.”  The ancient Greeks,  as you know, had four words for love:  eros (erotic love), philia (devoted friendship), storge (parental affection towards children), and agápe (God’s love/ 1 Cor. 13 type love).  Each of these words have nuances of meaning and are used in a variety of ways in the New Testament.   But, it remains instructive.   When we say we ‘love our children’ most understand that this involves a wide range of responses and responsibilities which cannot be understood in merely emotive ways (though it would not exclude this).  When we love our children it involves, among others, acts of compassion towards them, learning to listen, honest truth telling, wise instruction, empathy when they are hurting, forbearing patience, loving discipline, the setting of boundaries, and so forth.  To neglect any of these would not be expressive of the full range of what it means to love.  This is, likewise, true in our relationship with God.  It is misguided, for example, to insist that God’s love towards us does not, at times, involve his disciplining us for our own good.  God has given us moral boundaries, not because He is a tyrannical kill-joy, but because he longs for us to know the deepest joy of His design.  In fact, God is so committed in his covenant-love toward us that He sometimes opposes us in our own inclinations, and deeds, and ideas as to what we think is right because His love is a holy love.

In today’s morally vacuous climate, we can easily become influenced by sentimental concepts of love which precludes his righteous judgment, or his loving discipline.   However, one of the surest signs of God’s love for us is that, like a good parent, He disciplines us, sets moral boundaries, makes judgments according to his revealed will, and so forth.  Sometimes His “discipline” and “truth telling” can really hurt and make us want to flee in the opposite direction.  However, we know from Scripture that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  Paul says that “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).

[1] Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.