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What does the ‘Advent’ of Christmas mean?

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…  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. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

This is the reading for the first Sunday of Advent, which fell (this year) on 29 November. I was asked to share a message on the meaning of Advent with Following Jesus, the church I previously pastored (see the video presentation). First an explanation and background, then brief reflections on what Advent means for us, focusing on the four names in Isaiah’s text.

The English word advent comes from Latin adventus, meaning arrival or coming. Essentially, the expectation and arrival of an important person or event. Advent is associated with Christmas: the celebration (‘mass’) of the birth of Christ (‘Messiah’). Whether Jesus was actually born on 25 December is not the point. The point is that a day of great joy was chosen to celebrate the coming of God’s King into our world.

Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek parousia (coming, appearance) in the New Testament, used primarily for King Jesus’ return or Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:15). When Caesar or an important dignitary in the Roman world came to a village, town, or city, they would prepare and watch and wait in great expectation. As the watchmen saw signs of ‘The Parousia’, they would loudly announce it. Then the rulers and elders would go out to meet the person(s) on the road and welcome them, and escort them back into the village, town, or city. A celebratory party would follow. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ Parousia.

Therefore, advent meant, for the early centuries of Church history, the expectation of the Second Coming of Christ to judge the world. Only from the 6th century did it shift to Jesus’ first coming, his birth and then baptism (his ‘Epiphany’ or appearance to start his ministry). As that tradition developed, four ‘Advent Sundays’ were set to prepare for Christ’s birth on the date of 25 December. Four candles were used to represent four aspects of our waiting expectation of Christ’s mass – that Christ be born anew in our lives and our world.

In short, Advent is a tradition of the Church that developed with varying interpretations and practices, marking the beginning of the annual Christian liturgical calendar.

The lighting of each candle over the four Sundays and the themes they represent point to both the Second Coming and the first coming of Jesus:

Hope – the promise of God’s coming
Waiting – the (prophetic) preparation for God’s coming
Joy – the peace of God
Love – the adoration of God

The four candles and their enlightening themes relate to the four names given to “the child born to us”, the babe of Bethlehem. It’s remarkable how clearly Isaiah saw and spoke, by the Holy Spirit, of the coming Messiah 700 years before Jesus’ birth. “The great light… dawned for all living in deep darkness”, giving certain hope based on promise, activating preparation and joy in anticipation of the coming of God’s Prince of Peace (Shalom).

Though a weak and vulnerable baby, The Great Light shone bright. And continues to shine ever brighter to the ends of the earth. The end is loving adoration of God’s humble King, just as the kings of the east bowed down after their long and arduous journey following the Star of Bethlehem. This torrid year of corona trauma, with its extraordinary challenges, has been a rough road for all of us. So… stop… to reflect on and receive anew the true nature of Christmas, of Christ’s coming into our lives, into our world lost in deep darkness.

What this means is represented in the four names Isaiah gives to the “son given to us”. Names in Semitic usage describe the person’s character and purpose. Earlier Isaiah said that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). God does not abandon us. God becomes one of us. God in human skin. Takes on our weakness. Feels our feelings. Undergoes our temptations. Bears our pain and brokenness. Suffers our sin and death in redemptive love. God with us means…

Wonderful Counsellor:
Jesus, Wisdom of God. God comes as one of us in “the son that is given”, guiding us in how to live life as God purposed. “A little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). God is – especially in these trying times – “wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom” (Isaiah 28:29). Receive Jesus in this way. Ask him for the wisdom you need to respond correctly to what you’re going through, to the trials you face (James 1:2-5). We all need this kind of spiritual direction at this time. And for the year ahead.

Mighty God:
Jesus, Power of God. Jesus came/appeared to Israel in God’s power doing miracles of deliverance and healing. The paradox of the powerless baby who is the Mighty God, the Warrior King defeating evil in all its oppressive forms. Receive Jesus as your Mighty God. Ask him for the miracle you need right now. Furthermore, Mary symbolizes Jesus coming to life in us by God’s power. We take the shape of his life growing in us, which expresses itself through us in signs and wonders to the world around us. How can you express the Mighty God in this way to those in need – giving real Christmas gifts?

Everlasting Father:
Jesus, Love of God. Jesus was the advent (coming/appearing) of the embodied love of God. Jews knew Yahweh as their loving Father who tenderly nurtured them like a mother nurses her baby (Isaiah 49:14-15). Jesus was the human expression of this divine reality. “Everlasting Father” describes divinity – a remarkable name for the baby nursing at Mary’s breast. Everlasting means without beginning or end. God… as Father (and Mother). Eternal Love made flesh. As the child Jesus grew in consciousness, he experienced God as profoundly personal and intimate love in each moment of every day. He called God Abba, Daddy. Because Jesus was perfectly loved, he loved perfectly. He laid down his life in love of us. Close your eyes, open your hands and receive Jesus as the Everlasting Father, Perfect Love. And be an expression and embodiment of that love to others in need.   

Prince of Peace:
Jesus, Ruling Shalom of God. God, in Christ, came as one of us to put the world right, to save humanity and planet earth. To make peace through his government of justice and righteousness, grace and truth – in contrast to and in judgement of all other governments. Shalom is peace, God’s wholistic wellbeing, order, harmony and abundance, which is God’s design for all creation. It is, however, based on right relationship with God, self, each other, and creation. “Justice and righteousness” mean ‘right-way-of-relating’ – as God relates. Wrong relationship with God, self, others, and/or creation, is sin and death. It shatters Shalom. Plunges the world into the darkness of death and chaos, disease and disintegration. Ultimately hell on earth! BUT, Jesus came to bring heaven on earth, to restore the rule and reign of Shalom, to make all things new. Receive Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Receive rest. Let him calm your mind, emotions, body. Let him order your heart and relationship rightly. And yes, be an instrument of his peace to those around you.      

All of this is Christmas, Christ’s mass. The celebration of Christ, The Great Light, who comes into our world that walks in deep darkness. Therefore, Happy Christmas!

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The Crown: Visible Leadership & Invisible Government

Meditation on 1 Samuel 8 and 9.

A major turning point in Israel’s history was when they asked for a visible king like all the other nations: “Give us a king to lead us”. God took it personally. It was, in effect, a rejection of God’s invisible kingship over them (1 Samuel 8). Painful. Especially after God, as Israel’s Warrior-King, saved her out of 400 years of slavery by supernaturally defeating the gods of Egypt. After God continued to manifest his invisible kingship in many powerful visible ways.

This is fallen human nature. We want the crown. We want the gift we see more than the Giver we do not see. The security of materiality, the physical form of leadership more than God’s spiritual Ruling Reality – to which all earthly forms point. It’s easier to live by sight than by faith. Easier to have visible leaders like other nations than to live by trusting God and his Kingship over us. The former tends to idolatry of humanity, the latter is true worship of the true God. Idolatry costs us dearly.

Though rejected, God obliged Israel, warning her of the consequences of physical kingship – see the list in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. In short, kings want to be served (using people and resources), not to serve. Be careful of what you ask. God may give it to you!

So, Saul, the first king, is introduced as an “impressive young man without equal, a head taller than any others” (the ideal champion people wanted) and a wandering donkey wrangler searching for stray donkeys (1 Samuel 9). That symbolised Saul’s stubborn and disparate kingship over the rebellious people who asked for a king. Their lust for a king was such that “all the desire of Israel turned” to Saul (9:20). Whereas all their desire ought to be turned to God (Psalm 73:25).

In contrast, the second king, David, is introduced as “a man after God’s own heart” (desired God above all else) and a shepherd caring for his father’s flock (1 Samuel 16). David knew Yahweh as his shepherd who met his every need (Psalm 23:1f). That symbolised God’s shepherding of God’s own flock via human agency, pointing to God’s ideal, the future son of David, Son of God. David’s own kingship, however, fell far short of the reality it represented. And likewise, all the kings that followed. Until Messiah Jesus, the promised son of David, who was/is God’s ultimate answer to, “Give us a (physical) king like the other the nations.”

Jesus of Nazareth was not only the material model, but actual embodiment, of God’s invisible Person and Ruling Presence. Jesus inaugurated, taught and lived God’s Kingship on earth as it is in heaven, teaching his followers to be and do the same.

However, even Jesus had to wean his followers from dependence on his physical presence and leadership. Even that could become idolatrous! After Peter rightly identified Jesus as God’s King, he opposed Jesus’ talk of suffering and death. Messiah must live and conquer! Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan, your human ideas and interests oppose God’s ideas and interests” (Matthew 16:16-23).

Therefore, first Jesus’ followers had to go through the deep disillusionment of their leader suffering and dying in weakness, unable (apparently) to save anyone, let alone Israel. Would this traumatic test, this inversion of “leadership”, throw them back onto God’s kingship in purified faith? Or would they turn to another physical king to meet their expectations? A golden calf to save them, to take them back to “the good old days”?

Secondly, before Jesus suffered and died, he carefully taught and prepared them to live under God’s direct invisible government by his indwelling Holy Spirit (e.g. John 14 to 16). The Spirit will be “another Parakletos”, not physically with them as Jesus had been, but spiritually in them, just as the invisible Spirit of his Father had indwelt Jesus, governing and guiding his every thought, word and deed… even to death… and resurrection.

Thirdly, after his bodily resurrection, Jesus weaned his followers from dependence on his physical presence by repeatedly appearing and disappearing over a period of 40 days. Then he ascended “out of sight” to be coronated as The King over the heavens and the earth, and to pour his Holy Spirit into them. They had to live by faith and not by sight.

Christ’s followers throughout the ages are called to live in this way under God’s invisible leadership by the indwelling Holy Spirit. To live out his heavenly Kingship as a model and witness to all nations of what it will be like when Messiah returns to set up his visible Kingdom: a wholistic spiritual-socio-political-economic-ecological reality of God’s Shalom. An ‘in-Spirited’ tactile reality transformed into the fullness of God’s glory, of which every created material form has always and only been but a shadow representation.

Sadly, however, Christians (let alone people in general) continue to lust for physical kings and leaders to champion their cause. We do not really trust Jesus’ Kingship over us and over secular powers. The result – the price we pay – is that Christians and large parts of the Church continue to be captured by the idolatry of leaders, blinded by the ideological powers working through them. We knowingly or unknowingly live out their corrupt rule.

We are thus more a copy of contemporary society than a model of God’s coming Kingdom. We are unable to think biblically – with Jesus’ worldview, beliefs, mindset, values and ethos – about socio-political-economic-ecological issues and cultural challenges. The issues and challenges that come and go in each generation evangelise and divide Christians and Churches way more than we evangelise and reconcile them. We are as polarised along party lines and divided by ideological powers as society in general.

To conclude, the above is not to discount or reject physical leadership. No, it’s to strip our need and desire for, and our exercise of human government from all idolatrous elements, by recovering a biblical theology and praxis of leadership. It’s the call to see Jesus’ Kingship. To renew our thinking. To recommit to genuine faith in God’s invisible leadership, as we follow Jesus’ way (ethics) of the Kingdom, yielding to the government of the Spirit guiding our every thought, word and deed. In short, to form the moral character fit for such leadership.

To the extent human agency models and imparts THAT biblical quality of leadership and governance, whether political, civil or spiritual, we receive it. To the extent it does not, followers of Jesus prophetically speak truth to power. Why? Because “Jesus is Lord”, not Caesar! That common proclamation in the Early Church meant Jesus is King and Judge over all – by virtue of his suffering servant leadership, vindicated in resurrection power, given all authority over the heavens and earth. Jesus will hold every leader (emperor, king, president, government, priest and pastor) accountable for their leadership and treatment of people. Shakespeare was right, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”