Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Essence of Advent

The Latin word, adventus, means "coming." The advent season is about preparing our hearts, minds, and spirits for the coming of the King. But what does this really mean?

Is it about celebrating Jesus' birthday? Is it about keeping Christ in Christmas by displaying nativity scenes and retelling the story of Jesus' birth? Is it about singing carols, giving to the needy, wishing others a Merry Christmas! and enjoying the festivities of the season? Yes, yes, and yes! It includes all of these things.

But the advent season is about more than these things alone. The Bible clearly teaches that believers are called to wait expectantly for our King's second coming, for all Scripture points to Christ's triumphal return on the clouds. Isn't this what we ultimately look forward to? Isn't this the culmination of it all? Indeed, the concluding words of Scripture, the last verses in the book of Revelation, contain a powerful pronouncement:
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Rev 22:20)
The advent season, as we count down to Christmas, not only looks back to that lowly stable in Bethlehem, but also forward to what is yet to come. For as we celebrate Jesus' humble birth, we also anticipate His glorious return.

The early believers, in the face of severe persecution, took great comfort in this promise, encouraging one another by saying in Aramaic, “Maranatha!” which means “the Lord is coming,” in place of the customary Jewish greeting, “shalom.” Still today, maranatha reminds us that our hope is not in this temporal world, but in the eternal Kingdom that is to come (Luke 21:28; Rev 22:12).

So, what does Scripture say about waiting for Jesus? Obviously, biblical waiting isn't to camp out in the desert and stockpile weapons in preparation for Armageddon! But it isn't like sitting idly at the bus stop either. Scripture illuminates several ways in which believers are to wait for Jesus.

1. Watchfully...

While we wait for the King, we are to be watchful. When Jesus said, "And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch." (Mark 13:37), He revealed something profoundly important about the Christian faith. The Greek word in this verse is grēgoreō, which means to watch and to be on the alert. We are to live in expectation of, and be ready for, Jesus' return.

Jesus taught several parables on the theme of watching for Himthe significance of which is unmistakably expressed in the tenor of His teaching. For example, in the parable of the ten virgins, the ones who were not ready and waiting when the bridegroom returned found themselves shut out of the banquet hall. Jesus concluded the parable with this warning: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." (Matt 25:1-13). And in another parable about watchfulness, Jesus said, "It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes." (Luke 12:35-40). As believers, then, we are called to live with the knowledge that He could come at any time. Every day we should expect Him to come, and every day we should long for Him to come. As the psalmist put it, "O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress." (Psa 59:9). 

Jesus said, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (Matt 26:14a). How we live while we wait is of utmost importance; we are instructed to "watch our lives and our doctrine closely in order to save both ourselves and our hearers." (1 Tim 4:16).  Believers are called to live courageous (1 Cor 16:13) and righteous lives, "making every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him" on His return (2 Peter 3:14).

And we are repeatedly warned to watch out that we are not deceived (Matt 24:4). Jesus cautioned us to exercise vigilance when it comes to heresy and unbiblical teaching, as did the Apostles after Him, saying, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." (Matt 7:15). We are to examine every teaching, holding it up against God's Word, like the "noble" Berean Jews were commended for doing in the Book of Acts. For we've been forewarned that "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Tim 4:3-4). It is crucial, then, that we cling diligently to absolute truth in a relativistic world of deceit in which Satan masquerades as an angle of light (2 Cor 11:13-15).

In sum, we need to keep our eyes wide open and fixed on Jesus with the same mindset as Old Testament prophet when he wrote, "But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me." (Micah 7:7)

2. Wakefully...

While we wait for the King, we are to remain spiritually awake—for in order to keep watch, we must be awake! Jesus warned us to "stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:36). And Paul exhorted us, "with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming." (1 Peter 1:13).

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter, James, and John to "watch and pray." Then He went a few feet away and began to pray. When He came back, they were all sleeping. And Jesus was disappointed in them, asking Peter, "Couldn't you men keep watch with me for one hour?" (Matt 26:40). 

As believers, we are all prone to slumber spiritually aren't we? But Scripture consistently admonishes us to stay spiritually awake and be mentally alert.

Jesus said: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matt 22:37). In this, the first and greatest of God's commandments, we learn that loving God involves not only the heart, but also a mental grasp of who He is, what He has done, and what He commands. It is this cognitive understanding of His truth, coupled with our Spirit-led heart response to the transformative power of the gospel, that equip us with a faith that endures.

When the Old Testament prophet, Daniel, was visited by an angel, for example, he was told, "Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them." (Daniel 10:12). According to God's angelic messenger, then, it was Daniel's humble heart, along with his eagerness to comprehend God's truth, that caused his prayers to be answered.

But the problem is, the importance of obeying Jesus' command to love God with our minds, is increasingly overlooked in a progressively dumbed-down Christian culture that depends too readily on gushy sentimentality and sound-bite theology. The rise of Touchy-Feely Faith that Neglects the Mind in contemporary Christian culture, does not encourage believers to remain mentally alert, but rather to embrace a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, almost to the exclusion of a comprehensive understanding of His Word. In this context, Bible verses are often cherry-picked to support emotional needs and desires. And experiencing the feelings associated with God's presence becomes the end-goaland often more of a mystical practice than an authentic grasp of His true nature. For without a Biblical understanding of who Jesus is, we are in serious danger of creating our own fictitious version of Him to suit ourselves. In other words, we are in danger of worshiping a counterfeit Christ—an insidious figment of our own imagination.

In addition, there is currently a growing acceptance of Eastern-based philosophy in our societal context that encourages the detachment of oneself from one's thoughts. Christians need to wake up and take heed. For example, the trendy practice of mindfulness has been gaining widespread popularity in American public schools, in the workplace, and even in the armed services as a stress-relieving therapy. As the University of Nevada's counseling office words it, through mindfulness "we can come to realize our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not the ultimate truth or reality. Once we understand that, we are free to let our thoughts drift away."

But practicing thought-detachment such as that taught in mindfulness programs, can have serious spiritual consequences; Scripture teaches us that using our minds—our conscious thoughts and our God-given ability to exercise reason, discernment, and sound judgment—is a crucial part of our faith (Matt 22:37; Luke 10:27; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 10:3-6; Phil 2:5). Biblical truth is worshipfully mind-stretching—not mind-emptying or -detaching. Rather than separating ourselves from our thoughts, then, Christians are called to love and honor God by taking captive every thought in obedience to Christ and by being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Cor 10:3-6; Rom 12:2).

As believers, we must wake up and take heed. We must flee from the ungodly ideas and values that our culture embraces. We must flee from the constant temptation to live in the flesh. Letting ourselves become worldly and live in the flesh will only cause us to become spiritually drowsy. Coziness in the world can lull us sleepily into a false sense of security. The world will tell us to "live in the moment," but the beguiling pleasures it has to offer can entrap us into losing sight of the everlasting riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). The world tells us to focus on the here-and-now, and to indulge the desires of the flesh, but Scripture tells us to live our lives counter-culturally in anticipation of the coming Kingdom.

We should also fight the urge to become spiritually lazy, ambivalent, or complacent. Spiritual disciplines such as reading the Word daily, praying without ceasing,* fasting, investing in Kingdom relationships, serving the sick and needy, and remembering the persecuted among us, are key to keeping us active and awake in our faith. The most important of all spiritual disciplines is, perhaps, to humble oneself daily and let go of our pride. This allows us to seek God's glory above all else, and live a truly gospel-centered life. Jesus said to His disciples, "If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. (Matt 16:14). Dying to self is crucial in preventing spiritual slumps. For to live is Christ and to die is gain! (Phil 1:21).

As Paul explains, "[we] must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." (Eph 4:17-18). And as he cautioned the Thessalonian believers, "So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober." (1 Thess 5:6). Rather than slumbering lazily in a selfish world, then, we are to remain spiritually active and alert until we are called home.

3. Wisely...

While we wait for the King, we are to be wise. The Bible talks about two kinds of wisdom; the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. But the wisdom of the world is mere foolishness in God's sight. (1 Cor 3:19). True wisdom comes from Him alone. And it is He who imparts wisdom to us, for from His mouth comes knowledge and understanding (Prov 2:6).

And if we are wise while we wait, we will not to be filled with worry or fear. With alert minds and open eyes, we will certainly discern the evil around us, and this can be unsettling. Even so, we are not to shield our eyes from the suffering of others, but to have empathy for them, praying for them and tending to their needs. We are not to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to the problems of the world, but to be in fervent prayer. It is our duty to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). We are called to remember those in prison for their faith, as if we ourselves our in prison (Heb 13:3) and to be upholders of justice (Isa 1:17). There are many tragic, frightening things happening in the world and we shouldn't pretend that these things aren't happening. If we are wise, however, we will trust in our sovereign God even though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

While should fear no evil, however, it wise is to fear God; for "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Prov 10:11) Fearing God is to submit to Him. For if we submit to Him and resist the devil, he will flee from us (Jas 4:7). A disobedient or unsubmissive believer, on the other hand, is unwise and will not see victory.

As believers, we are not immune to suffering or hardship. But if we are truly wise, we will trust and obey God, while we wait for Him. And we will not let our circumstances, however dire, cause us to take our eyes off Himeven if we wrestle with His will on occasion. This may sound easier said that done, but remember that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

3. While Witnessing...

While we wait for the King, we are each called to be His witnesses. Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He said to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20). And as recorded in the book of Acts, Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).

Our most important role as believers is to make His name known by spreading the gospel. This is the Great Commission to all believers. It is not an optional add-on to the Christian faith. Proclaiming the gospel is a natural outworking of our faith in Jesus. To be missional is a necessary characteristic of a life lived in Christ, not a special calling. If we are not working for God's glory as He commanded, we might want to ask ourselves, our we truly functioning as members of His body? For as James points out, "faith without works is dead." (Jas 2:20).

Disciple-making and witnessing are not only about front-line evangelism on the mission field. Those of us who are discipling our children and training them up in the faith are making disciples. Those who are mentoring others less mature in their faith are making disciples. Those who encourage other believers with Scripture or with their testimonies, are witnessing to others. Evangelism, teaching, encouraging, and admonishing each other with Scripture are all ways in which we can disciple, and witness to, others.

It is important to note that there is an important difference between humanitarianism and evangelistic outreach. It is admirable to serve the sick and give generously to the poor, but if the opportunity to point others to Christ is missed (or purposefully avoided so as not to offend anyone), only physical needs have been tended to, while spiritual needs are neglected to the potential detriment of the soul. Scripture says, "Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Col 3:16-17). Sadly, some major Christian charities** have anti-proselytization policies that prevent their workers from sharing the gospel with those whom they serve, hoping that God's love will shine through their actions alone. But this policy restricts their workers from sharing the gospel message in the power of the Holy Spirit as Jesus commanded.

The point is, waiting for Jesus' return is not a passive pastime. It involves participating in the work of the Kingdom, with the knowledge that there is no work of more eternal value than making disciples and making the name of Jesus Christ known in the world.

4. Worshipfully...

While we wait for the King, we worship Him! This advent season, we think of the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. What must it have been like to see the sky burst forth with Heavenly Host! After finding Jesus in a manger as promised by the angel Gabriel, the shepherds glorified and praised God! And we think of the magi who, after searching diligently for the King, finally found Jesus with His mother, and bowed down and worshiped Him.

As believers, we are called to spend time at Jesus feet in worship. And we worship Him not just for what He has done for us, but for who He is! For He is called:

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)

Advent reminds us to keep our eyes on the eternal things of the Spirit. To dwell on material things is to be in constant mental turmoil. Looking around us we see the chaos, the suffering, and the instability. But looking past all this, we see the hope in our coming King.

To those who are discouraged, maranatha! To those who are fearful, marantha! To those who are grieving, maranatha! Let us cling to the promise the Lord has made. He is coming soon...

* i.e. setting aside time for focused prayer, and throughout the day, letting our stream of consciousness reflect a constant dialogue with God.

** For example, World Vision does much good work, but has a policy against sharing the gospel as part of this work. "We do not proselytize, and we pledge never to exploit vulnerability to obtain a profession of faith. We do not feed the hungry as a means to an end." - See more at: . In Faith Actually's opinion, it is far better to support gospel-centered ministries that profess the name of Jesus freely with those they serve, and ultimately serve the spiritual needs of the needy, not their physical bodies alone.

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