Advent III: The Substance of God’s Salvation Hope

angel3Coming. That is what Advent means. More specifically it means Someone is coming. And He’s bringing Something with Him. The angel Gabriel has already conveyed rumors concerning the nature of this coming when telling Zacharias his son will be “a forerunner” to the Messiah. It is now time to confirm the rumors of hope with reports of good news. To an ordinary girl in an ordinary town, Gabriel now proclaims something extraordinary.

In the town of Nazareth, as a young Mary enters a room, Gabriel appears and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Perplexed, Mary can only ponder what will come next. Then Gabriel announces good news of salvation: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Thus far in these reflections upon the season of Advent and its story of hope, we’ve examined the settings into which God’s salvation will be placed, but now we turn our attention to the substance of God’s salvation and it is defined here both in the sense of Someone who is coming, and Something that is coming with Him. The substance of God’s salvation is a King and His Kingdom.

After God delivered Israel from Egypt, He revealed who and what they were to be: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

By giving Israel laws for righteous living, God’s desire for every Israelite was to cultivate a righteous character so as to create a culture of holiness, a people whose entire lives bear witness to a historical and communal reality being born in the delightful submission to sovereign LORD. This is the holy, royal reality God has always pursued for His people. But generations later, this is not what they resembled. Determined to be “like all the other nations”, Israel ambitiously asked for a king. God gave them one, a tragic trial run. Then David came to the throne. Though quite imperfect, David was a man after God’s heart. Ultimately God made David a promise that “someone will always sit on David’s throne”. Sadly none of the subsequent kings came close to pursuing God’s heart as David had. Israel gradually and fractionally faded into shadows.

But Gabriel’s words to Mary reveal God is still authoring His salvation story. The reality of God’s redemptive reign was still coming and its initial advent would be witnessed in the birth of its king. The good news of God’s kingdom is so much more than just a solution to sin or an eternal destination; it’s a redemptive reality encompassing the whole of humanity, redefining history, people, purposes, values, culture, and mission in the holistic submissiveness to its King. When this frames our understanding of God’s salvation, we begin to see we are not just saved from something, but we are also saved for something. This is the substance of our salvation hope.

But knowing the natural order of things, Mary asks how this can be, considering she’s a virgin; Gabriel replies “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

Come upon. Overshadow. In order for Advent to reveal God’s salvation story to the people and places of Earth, the salvation hope being brought must come from beyond. That is the whole supernatural nature of this Coming, that Earth is encountering Someone it has never seen before in a way it does not understand and cannot control. God lets us manage many things, but He will not permit it with salvation. God alone works salvation so God alone is on display and worshipped. We stand powerless before this salvation work in history as the mysterious supernatural God infuses the natural with all of His glory, majesty, and wonder, conceiving and cloaking Himself with a human form that is nevertheless divine. He would appear to all as just another son of man, yet be indeed the Son of God. God implants Himself into the natural order here so we can understand salvation rightly—the infinite incarnate.

To reassure Mary, Gabriel adds that Elizabeth, her elderly and barren relative, is sixth months pregnant with a son, to which he concludes “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Her humble response is exemplary: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”

This supernatural salvation puts us in our place; we add nothing to it and can take nothing from it. As Mary, we can only receive it and respond as willing participants in it as God powerfully performs it. In this Advent season, prayerfully ponder the coming of your King; may the hope it sets in your heart shape an awareness of how the redemptive reality of His Kingdom is good news for all the world. Peace of Christ to you.

Salt and Light as Means of God’s Goodness | Matthew 5:13-16

As Jesus continues teaching his disciples what it means to follow him, he uses two essential earthy pictures to illustrate their witness of kingdom reality—salt and light.  In both pictures, Jesus uses the word good to convey the essence his disciples must both protect and project in being salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”

Salt is used for both preserving food and flavoring it.  But salt used in this region, often taken from the Dead Sea, risked containing different impurities that could render the salt tasteless and useless for anything but gravel to trample on.  Jesus’ statement intimates part of their role is to preserve what is good in the world and to draw out its good flavors while not being diluted by its impurities.

There is much good in this world and it is worth respecting, holding onto, and cherishing.  I believe one significant way Christians can do this is to actively connect with their local communities and individuals, get to know their towns and cities and neighborhoods.  Visit your neighbors, farmers markets, attend local activities, take an interest in local businesses, meet the owners and employees simply because you can.  I can understand when some activities are avoided for moral reasons, but avoiding the community is much like a farmer avoiding his field because there are weeds.  You don’t have to become impure, but participate and celebrate what is good.  I believe being a disciple in the context of Jesus’ comment here means purposing to have a positive impact on your local culture.  Look for the good; flavor that good with celebration.  Preserve that good with contribution.  You don’t have to be of the impurities, but you do have to be in your community.

Jesus then amplifies the disciples’ kingdom witness with his usage of light.

“You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Oil lamps were lit to give light, not just for the occupants of a house or individuals on the street, but also so travelers on a distant dark road could see the city they were approaching.  The very nature of light is to illumine.  As disciples, we are to live lives that illuminate.  Jesus’ statement clarifies, however, that the goodness which emanates from our lives must radiate the Father’s worth and result in the Father’s adoration.  Just as these lamps were sustained by the oil, the good works we do must be based in the goodness of God.  Who gets the glory often depends on how the works are done.  Since the purpose of our work is to display God’s kingdom reality, it is the infinite goodness and holy worth of God that must emanate from the work we do and how we do it.

How we do this is often circumstantial, but what shapes those circumstances is the content of our character and how that character propels our commitment to good works within the community.  The content of our character must first be grounded in the illuminating character of Jesus.  It must be maintained with integrity, carried with care, guarded with firmness, conveyed with gentleness.  Our commitment to the community must consequently be sincere, genuinely loving, permeated with patience, willing to step into the chaos to bring calm, to make visible the hope that illuminates the shadows.

The question we now need to ask ourselves is not what do people see when they look at our lives, but are our lives giving people a reason to adore God and rejoice in his goodness?  Please think and pray on that very carefully.

Salt and light are helpful pictures in clarifying our role as disciple.  We are to preserve and flavor our culture, celebrating and contributing to what is good.  We are also to actively work and give witness to the redemptive goodness which reflects our Father’s holy infinite worth.  By embracing these roles we emanate a reality that allows the world around us to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”

A Local Expression on the National Day of Prayer

Every year on National Day of Prayer, I want to write something, but I never know what.  The day always feels a bit abstract.  Considering Scripture instructs us to “pray continually”, a specific prayer day seems superfluous and a “national” day to pray seems patronizing.  But I recognize special days are set aside for special things.

One event that helps me contextualize National Day of Prayer every year is the annual Mayoral Prayer Breakfast in good ‘ole La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Every year, local pastors and ministers organize this morning event for the local Christian community to attend, along with the city mayor and representatives of the local police and fire department, in order to show our gratitude for the services they provide for the local community and pray for their protection and wisdom.  The tagline on this year’s poster reads “A Local Expression of the National Day of Prayer”.

Our lives are not lived nationally, but locally.  They’re lived next door to someone, along familiar streets, nearby schools, government buildings, businesses, medical clinics.  Though we all know this, it’s easy to lose sight of it in our wide-angle, big picture perceptions of “national”, so if I may, I would like to fill these abstractions with local details.  These local services come alive and make much more sense within the framework of story.

I’m writing this while sitting in the library, a place for which I am so grateful.  From where I’m seated I can see homemade quilts hanging from the ceiling and second floor guardrails, pamphlets and programs for local educational activities, addiction agencies, local community volunteer opportunities, computer classes for the elderly.  Amongst student research projects on display in the lobby, the two I see are “Henry Ford: Mass Producing Cars & Mobilizing America” and “Woody Guthrie: Voice of the People”.  To the side is a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln along with paintings and prints of the bluffs of our Coulee Region, the festive Oktoberfest grounds, steamboats at sunset on our mighty Mississipp’, Native Americans in tribal dress, stone cathedrals emerging from the morning mist.  And of course, countless books all around, opening our minds up to a world of information and imagination.

I’ve seen everyone from the community enter and exit here: elderly couples gathering novels for their evenings, families with little kids picking up Dr. Seuss to nurture their young minds.  I met the city mayor here when he was still a candidate.  The homeless come in, looking for a place to go; job hunters come in to search the want ads and work on resumes.  A guy with an ankle bracelet just passed my table.  People with special needs and disabilities come in to read, research, play games, do activities, keep themselves busy.  Our public library is also occasionally a site for an assortment of seminars, various clubs, and Hunger Task Force.  And through it all are the librarians who are the gatekeepers of this world of information and imagination.

I’m thankful for the area police departments.  This morning I heard a “jumper” was talked down off the Cass Street Bridge by local police officers.  Last week they carefully investigated the tragic death of a young lady who accidently died under the influence.  Last night a local man was arrested with child pornography.  I know a number of these officers are involved with local church congregations and I pray God give them safety and wisdom as they serve the community.

I am so thankful for the Fire Department and the emergency services they provide.  I never see the emergency, but when I’m driving down Losey and Green Bay and the flashing lights, blaring horns, and screaming sirens clear the way for the Fire and Rescue trucks, I know time is standing terrifying still for someone out there and that help is on the way.  A year ago a neighbor of ours fell asleep and never woke up; I remember stepping away from the door so these emergency workers could step into the chaos and try to bring order or sense of clarity and continuity.  My Pastor-Dad did her funeral.

Many prayers were offered at the breakfast this morning.  One was delivered by a woman of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse asking God to give strength and wisdom to the local educators who so enthusiastically spend their lives trying to shape our youth in ways that are not always clearly understood, but whose influence will be revealed in moments when those youth make the choices that will shape their and their community’s futures.  Another prayer was offered by a local priest who prayed that God’s love, wisdom, and image may be displayed in the creativity and productivity of local entrepreneurs, artists, and business leaders.

We live locally; when we pray, we pray locally.  The culture of God’s kingdom we try to cultivate in our daily witness only takes root in the local, where the people are; not in the national where idealizations abound.  The local is where God’s redemptive work plays out every day through the believers who prayerfully and gracefully give witness to it.  On this National Day of Prayer, I pray that you, dear believer, become a local expression of God at work in your neighborhood.  May his kingdom come, and his will be done in your local community as it is in heaven.