Advent Sandals

“Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” (Joshua 5:15)

My friend Tal has a long-standing tradition of refusing to listen to the song “Christmas Shoes”. He measures the greatness of the Christmas season by whether he has had to endure listening to the song. It is quite humorous seeing Tal take precautions and setting up his guard against hearing it. (I have heeded my brother’s warning about this song and I myself have avoided it.)

The scene in Joshua 5 when Joshua stands before the Commander of the LORD’s Army is a familiar scene. Joshua is told to remove his sandals because he is on holy ground. In Exodus 3:5, the same words are uttered by God in the burning bush to Moses as Moses is being commissioned to go announce freedom to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. One other mention of sandals in the Bible is intriguing. In Mark 1:7, John the Baptist announces that he is preparing the way for one “mightier than he, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie”. When we see sandals mentioned in the Bible, it appears, at least in these three accounts, that God calls people to humbly and reverently be about His mission on earth.

Moses, Joshua, and John. Men called by God to declare His mission on earth. What strikes me about the encounter with the Commander of the LORD’s Army in Joshua 5 is that Joshua is preparing to lead God’s people, the Hebrews, into the promised land. One would think God was mightily on their side, right? But when Joshua asks this Commander whose side he’s on, either Joshua’s side or the side of their opponents, this Commander responds with a resounding, “NO!” This Commander was not on either side of the conflict between men. The Commander’s loyalty was to God. Joshua’s response, along with Moses’s response and John’s response to this truth was a response of faithful worship. They realized very quickly that they should never ask if God is on their side, but instead, “Am I on the side of God?”

Advent is a season where the people of God should reflect upon that question. We just endured a contentious special election in Alabama and I believe that many people wanted their vote to reflect God’s will. The conversations I heard among faithful Christians seemed to echo concern about choosing the correct candidate because we did not want to vote for the candidate that God had not chosen. Advent is when we take time to reset and remember—Christ is King. Our loyalty as Christians is first and foremost to him. We should be a reflective people who take time to discern whose side we are on. Ephesians tells us that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

In other words, we cannot just assume that because we as Christian individuals assume the right course of action is the actual right course of action. Humility, sobriety, and discernment are essential to obedience. The true question for us as believers isn’t, “God, are you on our side?”. Rather, it isn’t a question at all. It is a plea–“Have mercy on me, O God, for I am a sinner. Create in me a clean heart and renew the right spirit within me!”

All of this is to remind us about who we are as Christians. As Tal avoids at all costs the “threat” of listening to the song “Christmas Shoes”, we should avoid at all costs false understandings of who Christ is. Christ is God for us. He has made it possible for us to be at peace with God. So, as we are on mission for God, I pray that we remember the message of the Advent Sandals. Humility, reverence, and service for the glory of God is our task. May we prepare the way for the return of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Commander of the LORD’s Army. “Take off your sandals, you are on holy ground.” Amen.

Repenting in . . . Joy?

It’s easy for hard-corps Christians to get a little sanctimonious around the holidays. But for all of our preaching to “keep Christ in Christmas” (whatever that means) or all of our railings against the “commercialization” of the season, there is one biblical theme that a lot of the secular movies seem to “get” this time of year that Christians miss:

Joy follows repentance.

In our churches, we often confuse repentance with saying, “I’m sorry,” for long enough. The harder someone beats his brow, the longer someone wails against her sin, the more a teenager says things like, “I’m so broken!” – the more penitent and closer to God we think they are. But true repentance is deeper than the caricatures we make it. As Jesus warns in Matthew 6, it is not in looking gloomy or in disfiguring one’s face like a hypocrite that repentance is shown. Repentance is a turning – a turning away from self (even self-centered pity parties) and toward God.

And where there is God, there is joy.

Ebenezer Scrooge, after being haunted all night by ghosts, doesn’t emerge from his bedchamber on Christmas morning wailing about his sinfulness. He goes out, “light as a feather” and “merry as a school boy.” The Grinch doesn’t sulk on the side of Mt. Crumpit going on about how he deserves his frostbitten feet “ice-cold in the snow.” When his heart grows three sizes (an image of repentance not far off from Ezekiel 36:26!), the Grinch turns his sled around, blows his trumpet – and joins the feast. George Bailey, moments after realizing that is he is worth more alive than dead, doesn’t trudge back to his home in solemn regret. He runs and shouts, waking the sleepy town of Bedford Falls with cheer.

Notice that these examples do not subvert the seriousness of repentance. Ebenezer bears fruit in keeping with repentance by freely giving away his former idol – money. The Grinch returns every item he stole. George heads home to face stern consequences, including the possibilities of bankruptcy and prison. Like the Ninevites in the book of Jonah, there are times in the life of repentance when ashes are appropriate. What’s never appropriate is Jonah’s sulking anger as he watches God’s forgiveness in action.

Too often, we judge the repentance of others (and even ourselves) like the older brother of the prodigal son in Luke 15. We want other people – and even ourselves – to feel an “appropriate” level of guilt before they – before we – receive forgiveness. But this misses the fundamental teaching of Jesus to the Pharisees in the three parables of Luke 15: repentance is the joyful celebration of finding what was lost. Or as Ken Bailey puts it: “Repentance is the acceptance of being found.”

When we relegate repentance only to seasons like Lent (or only after the discovery of some grievous sin) we tend to forget the joy of repentance because we tend to make repentance about ourselves. And when we rush past Advent, we forget that our true joy at Christmas comes from a restored relationship with the Source of all joy. Yes, Advent is a season of repentance because it is our reminder that we turn toward God only because God has first turned toward us. Indeed, while we are still a long way off, he brings us in to a feast.

Our Advent-ing God

Rev. Adam S. Borneman is a dear friend to Homewood CPC and currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife Jessica and daughters Maggie and Hanna. He will be contributing to the HCPC blog regularly beginning with this post.

 

If there’s one time of year that reminds us that God is the primary agent, subject, actor, or any other term that highlights God’s initiative over ours, its Advent. We didn’t “figure out” God from our lived experience. Our lived experiences only reveal to us our limited capacity for knowing God and the necessity for God to move toward us if we are to know him at all. “Ex nobis, pro nobis, in Christo,” (Outside of us, for us, in Christ) Martin Luther once put it.

And so, the eternal triune God, who is above, beyond, and outside of us, graciously creates us and perennially moves toward us in love. With this in mind, we begin to see more clearly that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t the only “advent.” It is a – or perhaps the – climactic moment in the life of Triune God who is always advent-ing toward each of us and toward the whole world in ways that are mysterious, beautiful, and often difficult to grasp. The season of Advent is simply an opportunity for us to focus on how God reveals to us that he is, in a sense, always coming to us.

God has always been showing up on his own initiative in “fleshy” ways: at creation taming the waters, walking in the garden of Eden, as three men at Abraham’s door, as Jacob’s wrestling partner, an angel on several occasions, and as a “Word” that “comes” to various patriarchs, kings, and prophets. And may we not overlook Israel’s designation as “the Son of God,” called to embody and give witness to God’s grace, justice, and steadfast love before the nations. These are all very “fleshy” movements of God toward the world in love. Whether these instances mark appearances of the second person of the Trinity in some form is a conversation for another day, but we would do well to keep them in mind was we reflect on God coming to us.

It’s easy during Advent for us to slide into the temptation of thinking “I need to get closer to God this Advent.” My advice would be to stop trying so hard. Sure, pick up that advent devotional, light a wreath, sing hymns. Yes and Amen. I’m doing the same. But these are only ways of acknowledging that God has always been moving toward us and that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God has come become supremely, shockingly, and intimately close. Mary initially thought it impossible, and I think we still do. God’s movements toward us often happen in ways we don’t anticipate or expect, but always in ways that are ultimately for our good and the good of the whole world. What’s more it’s all God’s initiative, not ours. And that will always be the case. So take a deep breath, know that the Son of God is drawing close, and rest in the grace of God’s advent.

A Year of Worship: Advent

While the world is already busy celebrating “Christmas,” the Church waits for Christ’s advent.

My sister could never wait for Christmas. She was the baby, so she always got her way – despite my disapproval as the elder brother and self-appointed guardian of “family tradition.” Opening presents on Christmas Eve after the evening service evolved into opening them before . . . and then to before lunch. One year, I think we opened some on December 23rd. Some years later, my own hypocrisy and impatience were exposed when a certain ring burned a hole in my pocket, and I caved, and I gave my then-girlfriend-now-wife her present three days before Christmas.

No one likes to wait. Waiting is surrender to someone else’s timeline.

We structure our time by our whims. Certainly, there are demands made of us and our time that we must honor. Certainly, there are circumstances that limit the control we have over our own time. Yet even the busiest among us – even those of us who are chained to schedules and alarms and calendars – reserve our right to make final decisions about how we structure our time. The world around us can offer its input, we can look to the norms of others, but ultimately, we turn up the Christmas music in October if we feel like it! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

God’s time is not our time. It is not our time in the same way that God’s ways are not our ways nor his thoughts our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) The emphasis in Scripture is not so much that God is timeless – that God stands impervious and indifferent to time. God reigns over time.

For us who serve Jesus as Lord, we acknowledge his complete Lordship over “our” time. Jesus is not simply one more demand placed on our schedules; it’s even wrong to say he’s the most important demand on our schedule. God has bought all of our time for a price, the price of his beloved Son, just as God has bought our very souls. (1 Corinthians 6:20)

The Church Year is our reminder that God is sovereign over time, that we should make “the best use” of our time (Ephesians 5:16) in a walk of holiness, and, ultimately, that God has redeemed our time through Jesus Christ. This is why the Church Year is shaped by the life of Christ himself. From birth to burial to resurrection to reign, every day of the Church Calendar is meant to fix our present eyes on the historic works of Christ so that we see him shining in eternal glory. Following the Church Year means repentance and surrender.

Advent (“coming”) is the Church’s time of penitential, hopeful waiting for God to fulfill God’s promises in Jesus Christ at the right time, his time. (Romans 5:6) It starts the Church Year as a reminder of how the faithful of Israel surrendered to God while waiting in hope for the Messiah. It is a reminder that, even today, we are eagerly waiting for Christ’s return. “Surely, he is coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)