Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Eve Service

Here is the Christmas Eve service in which I took part at the Baptist Church on December 24, 2014.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent: Joy Amidst Lament

imageAdvent 2014 – Week 3 – Joy

Zephaniah claims to have been written during the time of Judah’s King Josiah (1:1), nearing the end of Judah’s sovereignty before exile into Babylon. This short (three chapters), prophetic book contains oracles of doom against basically the entire known world, culminating with prophecies of destruction against Judah/Jerusalem. But at the very end of the oracles, a message of restoration is given (3:9-20). This is our Advent reading for this third week.

9 Then I will change the speech of the peoples into pure speech,
that all of them will call on the name of the Lord
and will serve him as one.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush,
my daughter, my dispersed ones, will bring me offerings.
11 On that day, you won’t be ashamed of all your deeds
with which you sinned against me;
then I will remove from your midst those boasting with pride.
No longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain,
12 but I will cause a humble and powerless people to remain in your midst;
they will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.
13 The few remaining from Israel won’t commit injustice;
they won’t tell lies;
a deceitful tongue won’t be found on their lips.
They will graze and lie down;
no one will make them afraid.
14 Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.
15 The Lord has removed your judgment;
he has turned away your enemy.
The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
you will no longer fear evil.
16 On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
Don’t fear, Zion.
Don’t let your hands fall.
17 The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love;
he will rejoice over you with singing.

18 I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts.
They have been a burden for her, a reproach.
19 Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time.
I will deliver the lame;
I will gather the outcast.
I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth.
20 At that time, I will bring all of you back,
at the time when I gather you.
I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples
when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the Lord. (CEB)

In present day America, the Christmas season seems to begin earlier and earlier. Holiday decorations go up in retailers almost as soon as the Back-to-School sales end. Halloween and Christmas compete for attention. Thanksgiving is nearly forgotten. Part of this undoubtedly has to do with profit-motive – both Halloween and Christmas are great money-makers with Christmas being the greater of the two. But is there something underneath all that? Perhaps I’m reading more into it than there actually is, but is there perhaps a underlying, subconscious desire to extend for as long as possible the hope and joy that Christmas promises?

We listen to Christmas and winter jingles over the speakers. We take in the bright lights and the shiny tinsels and ornaments. We try to feel joy. We pretend to feel joy. Because in common vernacular, joy has come to mean cheerfulness and happiness. We are supposed to be happy, cheerful, and optimistic. To be otherwise is… unChristmas.

I am obviously generalizing, but I think we’ve all see this. America is supposed to be land of opportunity. American and her residents are supposed to be happy and optimistic. America knows her place in the world. America does not like questions; she is the answer. Americans do not like to dwell on the darker side of things. Americans do not like lament.

In my observations, American Christians are no different. In the more popular and mainstream churches, Christmas is celebrated all December. It is a time of putting on cheeriness and happiness. Even in those places where Advent is observed, it is quite often an way to merely lead into the joy of Christmas. There is very little time, if at all, dwelling on the darker side of Advent.

Advent and Christmas is not a happy, cheery, joyful time for all people. Some have lost loved ones recently or are watching loves ones on the inevitable road to death, others are experiencing life difficulties, others are going through terminal diseases. In the rest of the world people daily fear for and some lose their lives. We do these and everyone else a disservice when we skip the lament of Advent.

The Old Testament oracles revealed to their audiences that things were going to get a lot worse. According to the prophets much of what was to happen was due to the consequences of the nation’s own actions. Both the guilty and innocent were going to be caught up in the foretold judgment. Whether an individual was personally culpable or not, it was a time to lament for the nation.

But as our text reveals, all is not lost. In the midst of judgment and lament there is hope. God himself promises a restoration and a rebuilding. However hopeless present circumstances may be, however hopeless the future may appear, God says that there is an alternative future that is not dependent on human actions, but will come about because God will intervene.

It is because of God’s promises of intervention that throughout history, his people have been able to find joy and rejoice that an alternative future will come.

Advent is not Christmas. Advent is that period in the darkness where we don’t yet see the light. We don’t see the light, but we know that it will come. We long for it to come. That is Advent. It is a time in which we find joy amidst lament.

Advent is a time in which it would be well for us to join our global brothers and sisters, believers and unbelievers, in lamenting the evils and injustice of this world. We ought to spend some time in the darkness of economic, racial, and gender inequalities; the darkness of war and violence; the darkness that justifies mistreatment (aka, torture) of other human beings in the cause of expediency and security; the darkness of human trafficking…

imageWhile human happiness is dependent on present circumstances, Christian joy looks ahead to a promise of a future in which all oppression and injustice is wiped away. In the present time, as Christians participate in activities that work toward the elimination of oppression and injustices, we become the agents of joy in the world.

We lament presently. We hold on to the promise of future joy. We rejoice presently. We are bringers of joy into the world.

Let’s not skip too quickly ahead of Advent. Let’s spend some time in lament. When we learn to find joy amidst lament, our witness can become that much greater in this world.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advent: Longing for True Justice

Advent 2014 – Week 2 – Justice

imageIt doesn’t take much effort to realize that the world isn’t just. There are inequities and oppression everywhere, from war-torn nations to the (supposedly) most civilized.

There are two definitions for justice. The first perhaps is the most commonly recognized: it is the fair application of laws to all. But instinctively most of us recognize that laws themselves can be unjust. Thus today’s passage, especially 3:5 defines what God sees as true justice.

I will draw near to you for judgment.
I will be quick to testify against the sorcerers,
the adulterers, those swearing falsely,
against those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages
as well as oppress the widow and the orphan,
and against those who brush aside the foreigner and do not revere me,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.

At the risk of being anachronistic, here are ways in which I reinterpret some of the above injustices:

  • Sorcerers – those who manipulate people and things for their own benefit
  • Adulterers – anyone who takes advantage of another
  • Swearing falsely – anyone failing to keep their word to another
  • Those who cheat the day laborers – anyone who fails to pay a living wage, or indirectly by failure to support policies that will provide one
  • Oppress the widow and the orphan – anyone who fails to assist families in need, stigmatizes them, abuses women and children, fails to support policies that will provide for the needs of families who are unable to adequately provide for themselves, or fail to support policies that protect women and children
  • Against those who brush aside the foreigner – anyone who fails to assist and protect immigrants, legal or not; anyone who sees only the letter of the law and who fail to see the injustices that have caused someone to leave their native homes

In regards to the final point, I think it is vital to note that God identifies himself with the foreigner/immigrant (“and do not revere me”). Anyone who calls themselves a Christian must identify first with the oppressed and the marginalized. To do any less is equivalent to blaspheming God.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Advent: Hope for Israel in Jeremiah 33


Advent 2014 – Week 1 – Hope

The Christian year begins, not with a popular holiday such as Christmas or Easter, but with Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Advent is a bit like Lent. Just as Lent is a period for reflection and introspection to prepare for Easter, Advent is a time to reflect in preparation for Christmas.

On this first week of Advent, we look at a passage in Jeremiah. We reflect upon the struggles, the trials, and sufferings of the world around us. We do our best to place ourselves amidst the hopelessness that is the experience of so many in the world. We do this because the Christian hope that doesn’t relate to the actual experiences of despair, is not really much of a hope.

The hope is God’s chesed – his steadfast love, his grace. While we seem to be helpless when it comes to breaking our covenant with God, he remains faithful. Our hope is in God’s faithfulness. When he promises that he will restore all things in justice and righteousness, we know that it will come to pass.