As I sat down to write this month’s seasonal musing, I was going to focus on the Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas greeting debate. I had this clever take on the whole not saying Merry Christmas thing. I was going to write about leaving Mary out of Merry Christmas. I was rather pleased with this twist. However, as I sat down to write, I was unable to get a particularly arresting portion of scripture I had recently read out of my head.
As I read through a section of Psalm 106, the following statements gripped me:
God saved them (me)…God redeemed them (me)…Then they (I) believed God’s word and sang to God songs of praise. v.10-12
As I read these words the week of Thanksgiving, I could feel gratitude for what God has done for me, is doing, and will do for me in and through Christ Jesus. I was thankful that God chose me, took me as God’s very own, walks with me, and made God’s home within me. I also realized that there aren't adequate words to communicate my gratefulness to God for all that continues to flow to me through the wounds of Jesus and the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and I became even more thankful knowing that the Holy Spirit was taking my faltering words and conveying them to the very heart of God. It was a wonderful experience to take a few moments to ponder God’s grace, love, and mercy and how I have experienced them and continue to experience them in my own life.
What about you? Why don’t you take some time to ponder your own salvation and its ongoing results in your life. Reflect back on God saving you, redeeming you in and through Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior. Let this move you to songs of praise or silent reflection, letting the Spirit communicate to God what you do not have words for.
After that, I continued on in the passage and came to the word ‘but.’ There are some beautiful ‘buts’ in the Bible, but this ‘but’ is not one of them. One of the most beautiful ‘buts’ in the Bible is found in Ephesians 2:4. The beautiful ‘but’ of 2:4 follows three verses containing descriptions of the sordid and hopeless reality of our life prior to God acting on our behalf. Then, in verse 4 Paul writes:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
This is indeed a beautiful ‘but!’ However, in our passage, we have the reverse situation. The Psalmist begins with stating what God has done for us, saving, redeeming and how we have responded with belief and praise, and then comes the ‘but’ – this ‘but’ is anything but beautiful. It serves as an ugly reminder of my own struggles, my own inability to live the life I have been saved and redeemed into, the way my desires tend to lead me away from God and not toward God. The Psalmist writes:
BUT they soon forgot God’s deeds and did not wait for his counsel…they craved intensively and put God to the test.
As I reflected on those words, it occurred to me that the issue was one of focus. In the first section the focus was on God and what God had done in the next section it indicates a change of focus away from God. A heart that was once focused on God's goodness now given over to cravings blinded one to the reality of God. This has lead me to a time of pondering: What am I focusing on in my life? Is my focus on the person of God and who I am as one saved and redeemed by God, or is my focus on something else, something that eclipses God from my heart and mind?
As a result of the words of Psalms combined with my own questions, I could feel truth piercing my spirit. I experienced this truth, not as condemnation, but as an invitation to rejoin the dance of faith, renewed my passion and focus and to add my own ‘but’ to the story – “but Larry recalled to mind the gracious salvation God had provided and pondered God’s choice to lovingly redeem him, and his faith was rekindled, and a new song flowed from deep within his heart – a song of thanksgiving and praise to God.”
What about you? Which ‘but’ is yours? Where is your focus? Are you in a time of gratitude – focusing on what God has done, is doing, and will do for you, God’s chosen and precious one? Or are you in a season of forgetfulness – forgetting what God has done, craving things that lead you from God and not toward God, putting God to the test?
The Advent season, which we have just begun, can be a good time to refocus your heart, a time to remember the coming of Christ into the world and an opportunity to reflect on who Jesus really is. To help you refocus and to enter into the Advent season, I have a series of Advent reflections you can work your way through. You can find them by clicking on the ‘Food for Thought’ tab along the left side of the home page and look in the section of writings called manna. The Advent reflections are broken into 4 parts (weeks) leading up to Christmas. I encourage you to take a look at them and see if you sense God inviting you to spend some time reflecting and refocusing on the person of Jesus as you move ever closer to the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ on December 25.
Below is the first Advent offering.
The focus of this Manna offering will be Advent. It will last four weeks and involve a different meditative focus for each week.
Each week will be comprised of four meditative opportunities that flow out of the emphasis for that week. There will also be a suggested prayer of examen for each of the weeks.
This offering is designed with the hope that the material will help you enter into and journey through the Christmas season with a God/Jesus focus that will bring a sense of joy and thanksgiving rather than feelings of being overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of this time of the year.
However, before getting started, I'll give you a brief overview of the tradition of celebrating Advent. For me, not having grown up in church and never being involved in a liturgical church, it is all quite interesting. But please feel free to jump down to the meditations if you prefer to do so.
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day and ends on Christmas Eve. Advent is the time the church focuses on the coming of God in the person of Jesus. It is a prelude, a preparatory time for celebrating Christmas. It is a time of anticipation and hope, for Jesus comes to free us from the bondage of sin and the oppression of evil. The first Sunday of Advent also marks the beginning of the church year in liturgical churches in the west.
The word Advent means "coming" or "arrival". The focus of Advent is the birth of Jesus the Christ and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent. In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation as they affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power.
Advent is a celebration of God’s ‘coming into’ our world in a tangible, flesh and blood way. The creator God came and, in the person of Jesus, is making his home among us. WOW!
Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, the tyranny of injustice and the curse of sin.
Concerning the origins of the Advent celebration, there is no clear indication of when it actually began or who started it. But shortly after the idea of celebrating Christmas was conceived, the idea of a preparatory period leading up to this holy day was deemed necessary and Advent was developed. There are indications that it began around the fourth century.
The Color of Advent
In the church years there are colors associated with each season. These colors are symbolic reminders of aspects of that particular season. Traditionally, the primary color of Advent is purple. This color is the color of royalty (Advent: the coming of the king). Strangely enough, purple is also the color of penitence and fasting and is used again in the church year during the Lenten season, a season of preparation for Holy Week (the week before Easter). Thus, the use of purple in both of these seasons points to the inescapable connection between Jesus’ birth and death. In a very real sense, the moment Jesus is gently laid in the manger Jesus is also being nailed to a cross. The incarnation, the nativity and the crucifixion are one event.
However, now days many Protestant churches use blue to distinguish the season of Advent from Lent. Royal Blue is sometimes used as a symbol of royalty while others choose bright blue to symbolize the night sky. Some churches, including some Catholic churches, use blue violet to preserve the traditional use of purple while providing a visual distinction between the purple or red violet of Lent. It seems we want to put some separation between the birth and death of Jesus and escape the tension of these twin realities rather than learn to live in, through, and out of this tension.
The Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath is a circular evergreen wreath with five candles, four around the wreath and one in the center. The candle in the center is white and referred to as the Christ candle. It is lit on Christmas Eve. Of the four remaining candles, three are purple and one is pink. The pink candle is lighted on the third week of Advent and speaks of rejoicing/joy because it is now over half way to the coming of the baby Jesus. Each week a candle is lighted and often a short mediation or focus is given. With each successive week the candle from the previous weeks and the new candle are lit, so that on Christmas Eve all four candles are lit as well as the white Christ candle in the center of the Advent wreath. On Christmas Day, the old greens are replaced with new ones and the four outside candles are replaced with 4 new white candles. Then all five candles are lit, symbolizing the presence of Immanuel, God is with us.
There is much symbolism in the wreath, the use of evergreens (renewal, eternal life), the use of the wreath (a circle speaking of the eternality of God, without beginning or end), the use of candles (Jesus is the light of the world), and the white Christ candle (the sinless perfection of Jesus) and so on.
The Four Weeks of Advent
The focus for our Advent meditations come from four titles listed in a Biblical passage to which the Christmas season is traditionally tied. The passage is Isaiah 9:6, which reads; For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Our focus for these four weeks will be as follows:
Week One: Wonderful Counselor
Week Two: Mighty God
Week Three: Eternal Father
Week Four: Prince of Peace
1. Begin by reading through the focuses stated above for each week, asking yourself: which one am I most drawn to and why? Which one am I most resistant to or least comfortable with and why? Journal about this.
· Have a journal, Bible, pens, and color markers ready to go
· Have a place chosen that is somewhat private and distraction free
· Choose a length of time to spend on this (I would suggest 20 – 30 minutes)
· Choose a time of day when you will seek to set aside time for your meditation.
The more you have thought this through and prepared ahead of time, the more likely it is that this will actually happen and the better able you will be to be fully present to God and the passage.
Christmas story passages: Matthew 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-2:22. You might want to read through these each week of the Advent season.
Week One: Wonderful Counselor
Each day this week, endeavor to carry around within you an awareness that God is YOUR Wonderful Counselor. Ask God for wisdom and guidance throughout your day and recall to your mind from time to time that God is with you and is YOUR Wonderful Counselor.
Day One: Today we will spend time sitting with one of the words contained in the title Wonderful Counselor: Wonderful.
The word wonderful means extraordinarily good or great, that which causes wonder; marvelous; amazing, incredible.
This word wonderful reminds me of the feeling I would have as a child on Christmas morning when I would enter the room that contained the Christmas tree. The room would be dark except for the lights of the tree. As I entered the room and saw the colors of the lights dancing on the ceiling, the shiny tinsel glistening like silver and the tree floating upon a sea of brightly wrapped presents, I would stand speechless, overwhelmed by what I was seeing and experiencing. Even words like amazing and incredible seem inadequate to express what I felt and experienced in those moments.
Think of a time in your life when you experienced something you would define as wonderful. What were the feelings inside you, the thoughts, the words that took shape around this wonder filled time? How did it make you feel? Why? What does it stir within you today as you reflect on it? Why?
Now turn your focus to God. When have you experienced God as wonderful? What were the feelings inside you, the thoughts, the words that took shape around this wonder filled time? What does it stir within you today as you reflect on it? Why?
Spend some time thanking God for this time in your life and ask God to give you a sense of wonder as you enter into the Advent season this year. Ask God for eyes to see God and the Christmas story as something marvelous, amazing, incredible.
Finally, spend some time with the story of Christ’s birth. Think through Joseph and Mary’s experiences, the shepherds, the gift of Jesus, God wrapped in human flesh. Where do you experience wonder in this wonder filled story? Why?
Endeavor today to be open to wonder, the wonder of God, and the wonder of the attributes of God as you go through your day – see if you catch a glimpse of the wonderfulness of God that fills our broken world.
At the end of the day ask yourself; did I experience or catch a glimpse of the wonderfulness of God today? If yes, when? How did it make me feel? How did it make me feel toward God, toward life?
If no, then ask yourself; what was it about me, my day, my life that might have hindered my ability to see and experience the wonder of God? Bring this before God and just be still and rest in the wonder of God’s unconditional love and grace.
Day Two: Today we will spend our time sitting with the one of the words contained in the title Wonderful Counselor: Counselor.
The word counselor refers to a person who gives counsel, an adviser.
When you think of a good/wonderful counselor, what words come to your mind? What qualities does a good/wonderful counselor possess? How is this like or not like your experience of God and concept of God? Why?
Think of a time in your life when you have experienced God as a counselor. What were the feelings inside you, the thoughts, the words that took shape around you as you sensed the caring wisdom of God leading and guiding your time? What does it stir within you today as you reflect on it? Why?
Spend some time thanking God for God’s caring wisdom. Now ask God to give you a sense of God’s wisdom and care as you enter into this Advent season and to have eyes to see God and the Christmas story as declaration and demonstration of God’s caring wisdom
Finally, spend some time with the story of Christ’s birth. Think through Joseph and Mary’s experiences, the shepherds, the gift of Jesus, God wrapped in human flesh. Where do you see the caring wisdom of God?
Endeavor today to be open to the caring wisdom of God as you go through your day – see if you catch a glimpse of the caring wisdom of God that is manifested in our broken world.
“God cares for you, so turn all your worries over to him.” I Peter 5:7
At the end of the day ask yourself; did I experience the caring wisdom of God today? If yes, when? How did it make me feel? How did it make me feel toward God, toward life?
If no, then ask; what was it about me, my day, my life that might have hindered my ability to see and experience the caring wisdom of God? Bring this before God and, being still, silently linger in God’s unconditional love and grace.
Day Three: Today you are invited to take a walk. Using your body reminds you of the incarnation, that Jesus became a person and walked among us. As you walk, reflect on the truth that God’s care for you and God’s infinite wisdom lead to the advent of Jesus. Also pay attention to your body, remembering that the infinite God was clothed in this house of flesh, and pay attention to what your body tells you of the care and wisdom of your Wonderful Counselor, as well as the rest of creation.
Choose a place to walk that is relatively quiet and has the feel of being out in creation (park, lake, beach, church grounds, graveyard…) if possible.
As you walk, ask God to show you evidences of the wonderfulness of God as well as the knowing care and wisdom of God the counselor. Allow your observations to lead you to praise, thanksgiving, wonder and worship.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14
Day Four: What does this title, Wonderful Counselor, convey to you about: who God is? About God’s involvement/role in your life? How does this title make you feel toward God? What does this title express in terms of what you need from God? Have you ever experienced God in this way? If yes, when and how has that impacted you and the way you do life? If the answer is no, how does that make you feel toward God, toward yourself? Regardless of your answer (yes or no), write a letter to God expressing your feelings to God about your experience or lack of experience of God as Wonderful Counselor.
Spend the day focusing on God as Wonderful Counselor.
“For you do not have a high priest (Wonderful Counselor) who is unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as you are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15
At the end of the day ask yourself; did I experience God as Wonderful Counselor today? If yes, when? How did it make me feel? How did it make me feel toward God, toward life?
If no, then ask; what was it about me, my day, my life that might have hindered my ability to see and experience the wonder of God? Bring this before God and just be still and rest in the wonder of God’s unconditional love and grace.
Day Five: Review. Look back over the past three days. What stands out to you, what were you drawn to in the meditations, what was difficult for you to embrace? Why? What feelings were stirred within you the last few days regarding God being your Wonderful Counselor? What is contained in this title that might be God’s invitation and/or challenge for you?
Where do you see the characteristics of God as Wonderful Counselor in the Christmas story? How does this realization change or deepen your appreciation of the Christmas story? Why?
At the end of the day ask yourself; how did I experience God as my Wonderful Counselor today? How did it make me feel? How did it make me feel toward God, toward life as I embraced the truth that God is my Wonderful Counselor?
Bring all this before God and, being still, silently linger in God’s unconditional love and grace.
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