Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Advent (Page 2 of 7)

God with us

(Note: this is a slightly edited version of a post first published in December 2013.)

DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a child, long before I came to faith, I used to imagine God in one of two ways. Sometimes, I would think of Him as a disembodied, all-pervading force that was mainly benevolent, always mysterious and sometimes capricious. Other times, I saw Him as an old man up there in heaven, kindly enough if you caught Him in the right mood, but equally prone to crankiness if you didn’t.

You may have noticed that these two childish but still very prevalent views of God share a common thread: in both of them, God is distant and remote. We are down here and He is up there, and that’s just the way it is.

Now, if you’re a long-time believer, you might well scoff at these uninformed, immature pictures of God. But the truth is that images formed in childhood have tremendous power, and often continue to influence how we relate to God and each other throughout our lives.

Seeing God in these kinds of ways – detached and aloof – tends to force us into a certain posture towards Him. Prayer becomes either an attempt to shout loud enough to catch His ear or an effort to strike the right tone and say the right things to impress Him into giving us what we want. Salvation becomes a momentary event in which He reaches down and slides us across from the “lost” camp into the “saved” camp before returning to whatever He was occupied with before. And the Christian life becomes an ongoing process of trying to second-guess His moods, decipher His will and stay on His good side.

This may sound like a caricature, but I would submit that it is, in fact, a reasonably accurate portrait of how many of us go about our Christian lives much of the time.

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What kind of God?

NativityFrom the barbaric, sacrificial gods of the earliest civilisations through to the pantheon of Greek and Roman deities, the question has long hung over humanity: what is God like?

Most of us modern, western Christians believe we know what God is like. Ask us to describe him and we will usually come up with an assortment of adjectives such as omnipotent, majestic, sovereign and just. We might, of course, also throw into the mix a few softer descriptors like loving, merciful and compassionate.

Our image of God, I would contend, is typically dominated by strength, power and might, with love, mercy and compassion very much subordinate in the list of God’s attributes. (We could have a separate discussion about why that is; in my view, it’s because we humans tend to hanker after and idealise strength, power and might, so we project those idealised qualities onto God as his primary attributes.)

Now, suppose God were to one day tire of seeing humans guessing at what he was like; suppose he were to decide to settle the matter once and for all by turning up on earth in the flesh. In what manner would this all-powerful, awe-inspiring God come to earth in order to convince humanity of his dominant attributes of strength, power and might?

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Who are you waiting for?

King candleIt seems that the Christmas season begins earlier and earlier. Seasonal goods appear on the supermarket shelves in September, cities switch on their Christmas lights in mid-November, and carols begin to play on the radio before December has arrived… Welcome to Advent, twenty-first century style.

Note: we consumerists don’t like to have to wait for anything. Even if we can’t have the gifts and the baby Jesus today, we’re going to act like we can, waiting be damned.

My church background is Pentecostal, and we Pentecostals are not known for waiting patiently in the in-between times. We tend to hit the highs and ignore pretty much everything else. For example, we ignore Lent, that time of self-deprivation in anticipation of the self-giving of Jesus, and then we more or less skip right over good Friday and rush triumphalistically to Easter Sunday. Similarly, we ignore Advent – the term would not even be recognised by most Pentecostals, except in reference to a calendar with chocolates in it – and jump straight into Christmas on 25 December, when the Saviour’s birth is announced with great pomp, choirs of angels assisting. There is no time for prior reflection on the mystery of Advent, which is about those who dwelled in darkness and did not know the great light was coming (see Isaiah 9:2).

They waited, and they hoped, but they did not know.

Those dark days and years that preceded the coming of Jesus are known to us as the intertestamental period – the period between the Old and New Testaments.

Why were they dark?

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A post-Christmas meditation

Tradition has it that Christmas decorations should be taken down by no later than Twelfth Night, which by my calculation is tomorrow, 5th January. They came down in our house a few days ago. To mark the occasion, here’s a short meditation I wrote a couple of years ago:

The lights are gone from the Christmas tree
Sparkling tinsel no longer adorns the walls
The dark window is no longer brightened by festive colour
God’s light still shines

Christmas games are over for another year
All that remains of the long-awaited feast is photos and memories
Cherished family has returned to far-flung homes
God’s love still encircles

No more carols, cribs or gift-bearing magi
Shepherds in the fields must abide until next Advent
The holy infant in a manger, meek and mild, is stored away
God’s truth still rings out

Christ, may the reality of your coming be present with us day by day
Lord, may your unquenchable light long burn bright in our hearts
Saviour, may your hope sustain us through the weeks and months ahead
And may we live now and forever in this mystery: Immanuel, God with us

He came to all of us

[…] the incarnation is the complete refutation of every human system and institution that claims to control, possess, and distribute God. Whatever any church or religious leader may claim in regard to their particular access to God or control over your experience of God, the incarnation is the last word: God loves the world. God came into the world in the form of the people he created, the human race (including you and me), who bear his image. God’s creation of humanity in his image gives hints of who he is, since we all are marked by his fingerprints.

But as flawed humans, we give only a vague hint of God. Our broken reflection of God’s image is easily drowned out by our broken humanity. Then, two thousand years ago, God came in his fullness. He came to all of us in Jesus. The incarnation is not owned, trademarked, or controlled by any church. It belongs to every human being. The incarnation is not something that requires a distributor or middleman. It is a gracious gift to every person everywhere, religious or not. God gave himself to us in Jesus.

― Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality

This is Christmas

This is Christmas: not the tinsel, not the giving and receiving, not even the carols, but the humble heart that receives anew the wondrous gift, the Christ.

Frank McKibben

Word made flesh

“The Word was made flesh” so that the wisdom of God could come within the reach of human beings. For this Word – the expression of the whole truth about God – is far beyond our comprehension. No creature can ever fully understand his creator. But the Word, the Son of God, put on a humble, human form, so that infinite truth could be seen in finite terms.

He humbled himself, coming down to the lowest human level. Those who will join him there – denying themselves, taking the low place – will be raised up with him to the heights of heaven.

It is not easy for man to stoop so low, or to abandon his self-confidence. But when he sees the divine Son lying, as it were, at his feet, wrapped in the clothes of human poverty, then his heart may be moved and his pride cured. And when we grow weary of trying to prove ourselves, we may be ready to cast ourselves upon him.

When we do, he who came down to where we are raises us to where he is.

— St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), paraphrased by David Winter (1929—)

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