This year I've had numerous conversations about the Gospel. As a graduate student, a campus minister, a pastor, a friend, a family member, even a random guy on the street, I've heard people, myself included, talk about the importance of the Gospel.
What rarely happens, however, is a vital clarification, namely what we mean by the word Gospel. It seems that, whenever we speak that word, we assume that everyone knows what the word signifies. More to the point, that translates to us assuming everyone agrees with our interpretation of the word. I'm guilty as much as the next person of this.
Something to consider at the end of this year and the launch into the new one is the dynamic reality of the Gospel. Whatever our conceptions of the Gospel, that good news likely expands well beyond our expectations and even hopes.
The Gospel is an historical event, namely the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The Gospel is that person, Jesus of Nazareth.
The Gospel is the story of Jesus' selflessness that transforms creation.
The Gospel is a promise, not only of forgiveness of sin, and even more than acceptance by God, but of the redemption of all creation.
The Gospel is performative, a word that does what it says. Much like saying, "I forgive you," the Gospel carries action within the speech.
The Gospel is justification, God's return of humanity back into right relationship with God.
The Gospel is reconciliation between creations of the Creator.
Each of these manifestations of the Gospel is intrinsically related to the other. We may understand one more, or experience one profoundly, but the fullness of the Gospel requires each of these, and a myriad more beyond my own memory recall. Jesus, the Word of God who is the Gospel promise, can't be pigeon-holed by our preferences or controlled by our preconceptions. The Gospel is more powerful, more active, and more meaningful than we can comprehend.
In the year past and the year forward, look for the work of the Gospel, especially in places you don't expect to see it. There we may all find God at work, in the person of Jesus, working to redeem the world in ways we never imagined possible.
At the church where I serve, we've recently moved our weekly lectionary study to Tuesday nights. We used to study the week's scriptures just before service started. Each week, one of the people around the table would say something profound that could have, that should have, shaped our worship differently. A different hymn I hadn't thought of, a new perspective for the prayers, an enlightening thought to change the sermon, and each week, they were left out because our conversation happened too late.
Since we've moved to Tuesday, however, we've come together to discuss the scriptures as they relate to the service and how this liturgy becomes the work of the people every Sunday morning.
This week was no different. We read Luke 1:26-38, often referred to as the Annunciation. Two different people mentioned how struck they were that Mary's surprise came not at the angel who stood in her midst, but at the words. You see, this young girl's shock comes after the angel Gabriel comes to her and declares, "Greetings, highly favored one! The Lord is with you." Not at the heavenly creature in front of her. Not after Gabriel announces God's intention to bring the Messiah to bear through her, a virgin. Mary's shock comes at the greeting and affirmation of God's presence.
Without the input of others around the table, I would have missed this entirely. The conversation from the community around me helped to shape not only the Sunday service, and not only the sermon, but my own theological formation. Thank God for this gift.
Just as Mary needed Gabriel to remind her of her value in God's eyes and her proximity to God, so too we need one another in conversation and in community. We need the kind of relationships that strikingly remind us that God is with us, that God chose to become one of us, and that this declares an incredible amount of love for us. Not all of us will have the same kind of surprising news that Mary received - in fact, she's pretty unique in history as the Mother of God - but we each need the kind of intervention that reminds us who God is and who we are in the midst of God's creation.
This Sunday is Love Sunday, the last Sunday in Advent. Between now and Christmas, intervene for someone. Remind them they are loved, that there is a story of cosmic proportions that means they are valuable in the eyes of God, that they will not be left behind, but instead are children of the Living God and citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom.
"Be joyful always." 1 Thessalonians 5:16.
Try telling someone who struggles with depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder, or general anxiety disorder to rejoice at all times and the most polite answer you will get is a terse refusal. This passage from Thessalonians is one with which I struggle often. I know how hard it is to find joy in the midst of despair personally, so as a pastor, I can't muster the gumption to expect that of others either.
The reality in which we live is not always a joyful one. Just yesterday, the U.S. released a study about the use of torture by government agencies. Whether you support or abhor these actions, one thing was clear: no one was rejoicing over the content of the report. The continued racial tension in our country, and especially the deaths of unarmed young black men, does little to inspire joy.
Yet, we approach the Third Sunday of Advent, typically known as Joy Sunday. What are we supposed to do with this when we can't muster up a single shout of thanksgiving, much less a Christmas cheer?
If we take this Thessalonians passage seriously, the author isn't ultimately telling us to feel a certain way. We aren't supposed to manufacture joy in a joyless time. We aren't supposed to feel something alien to ourselves.
Rather, the first 4 1/2 chapters of 1 Thessalonians is a rehearsal of Paul's good relationship with the Thessalonians, one based in the Gospel, and the good news about Jesus' promise to return, to renew all of creation, and restore us to fullness of relationship with God. This is a young church that is in need of a foundational identity as they continue to grow in God.
So, when Paul tells them to rejoice always, his concern isn't with a fleeting feeling of joy; rather, it is about an intentional decision to practice joy in the midst of a transitory world. In Christ, we literally have an eternity of things for which to be thankful, for which we rejoice. To rejoice always is about acknowledging the goodness we have in God, even in the midst of our present struggles.
Christmas is pretty difficult for me. Each of my maternal grandparents died the week before Christmas, my grandmother first and my grandfather a few years after. By the time we get to the Third Sunday of Advent, my family is staring the anniversary of their deaths in the face. Feeling joy in this season is a difficult thing to conjure.
But practicing joy, now that is something I've been taught to do. Soon after my grandparents death, we began spending Christmas day with the Brown and Wayt families. I grew up with Karen (Brown) Wayt, and have become fast friends with her husband Matt. Their three sons are my godsons, and some of the best reasons I have to rejoice. So on Christmas day, though I struggle with the absence of my grandparents, the ones who taught me why Christmas was a joyful time, I get to practice joyfulness by passing on that good news to Kaleb, Kellen, and Karter. I get to practice joy by falling in love all over again with a new family tradition even as we mourn the loss of the old. I don't always feel joyful, but with them, I always find reason to rejoice.
To be joyful always is ultimately about committing to this kind of rehearsal of thankfulness. Each Christmas gets a bit easier because we have found a way to rejoice even in the midst of our sorrow. With that practicing of joyfulness, feelings of joy begin to replace the laments. Joy not only for the present, but a rejoicing of the good memories of the past as well.
That would have been impossible without the intervention of Karen and Matt and their entire family. Sometimes we need people to rejoice for us, to show us how to find joy again. That's the beauty of friends and confidants, of counselors and psychiatrists, and hopefully, of pastors. Each, in different ways, helps us to see the world in a way that we couldn't without them. Each offers us not only new perspectives, but the opportunity at new habits.
With an intervention, we can find joy again. It will not be the same joy, but it can be just as good, and absolutely a reason to rejoice. Always.
As an avid sports fan, every so often I'll hear of an outstanding athletic recruit attending a year of preparatory (prep) school or junior college (JUCO), in large part due to academic eligibility or preparedness issues. These schools help to prepare enrollees for the increased demands of a collegiate education.
Advent is a season marked by four distinct postures. The first week focuses on the prophecy of God about the coming messiah and the coming kingdom. Since I was on vacation, we missed that installment in the blogosphere, though I'm sure it will reappear here before too long.
The second posture of Advent is preparation. In the readings we hear Isaiah calling to the exiles and John the Baptist calling to Israelites, "prepare the way of the Lord! Make the paths straight!"
Sometimes, I think the church needs a some time in prep school, a bit of JUCO, and Advent is the annual reminder of that reality. Because, you see, preparation is an activity, not just a state of mind. To prepare, you must do something. Like the doomsday preppers (or survivalists) who find new ways to live in a dystopian future, the church must actively learn ways to live in the coming Kingdom of God.
This requires a change not only in outlook, but in practice. To prepare the way of the Lord is to, in part, engage in the spiritual discipline of habit formation. Committing not only to daily prayer or Scripture reading, but to daily acts of service and daily works of friendship. To prepare the way of the Lord is to live like the Lord is already here! For John, that is repentance. For Isaiah, that is comfort for the outcast and proclamation of God's good news of redemption.
The world is the church's prep school because we are constantly called to prepare the way of the Lord. This is our JUCO. But here's the thing: we don't graduate from here. Rather, God is working to transform this place into the Kingdom of God. Rather than leaving for another program, we are participating in God's reconciliation of all things, the redemption of all creation. We aren't learning to leave this place. We are preparing for an eternity spent in God's restored kingdom, not only in heaven, but here on earth.
In Advent, we ultimately prepare for heaven and earth to crash together in the Bethlehem manger. We're preparing for this new reality, where eternity takes on time in the person of Jesus. Rather than prepare to leave, now we prepare to truly live life abundant here, now, with Christ.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.