Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from all of us at 1Foundation! Today, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who we confess to be our Messiah, Savior, Redeemer, and King. On this day we want to share with you a few Bible passages as we meditate on the meaning of the Incarnation. We will unpack this over the course of the next 12 days with a series of posts on Christmas. For now, read and be glad!

Luke 2:1-7

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Philippians 2:6-11

though he was in the form of God,

he did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

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What is Advent? Part 4

What is Advent? Part 4

“We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

In our past posts in this series, we examined Jewish expectations around the coming Messiah in order to better understand Advent. We also included an Advent poem by Rowan Williams, and a meditation on the meaning of Advent by our friend Brice Johnson.

Today, we will end our Advent series by seeing how God’s entrance into Creation as Jesus Christ fulfilled not only the messianic expectations of Israel, but also the deepest longings and needs of every human heart. In this way, we will understand how Advent allows us to use Israel’s Story to better understand Our Story.

Human beings confront a loneliness so strong that it is best described as alienation. We all experience a melancholic, sometimes searing estrangement from our work, our families, our social circles, and even ourselves. Often, this sense of alienation is the ground note that hums beneath the rest of our lives. We drown out that note by surrounding ourselves with the din of daily activities, noisy career achievements and personal triumphs, or the background chatter of the Internet and television. But when we allow for a moment of quiet, we hear the ground note’s continued hum. Its presence disturbs our rest and alerts us to deep spiritual longing within us.

The Germans have a word for this feeling of bound-up alienation and longing that cannot be summed up easily in English—Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is a word that describes something deeper than nostalgia. Nostalgia describes your sentimental attachment to the house you grew up in as a child. But Sehnsucht is the longing that recognizes that even if you reacquired the house you grew up in, you would still be unsatisfied, for what you long for is not actually the house, but your idealized memory of a home, a memory more perfect than the actual home you possessed.  Your longing is for something you never really had.

It is Sehnsucht that explains our persistent alienation. We long for something that we can barely express, and which we can never satisfy.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed that all our alienations—all manifestations of Sehnsuchtderive from the fundamental alienation of the individual from Absolute Being, or God. God is not simply the Supreme Being in the Universe. Rather, God is Absolute, the ground of being, Being Itself, upon whom the Universe and the possibility of existence rests. To be alienated from the Creator God who revealed Himself to Israel as Yahweh (“I AM THAT I AM”) is not just to be “breaking God’s Law,” but to be fundamentally out of step with the nature of ultimate Reality. It is our alienation from God that is responsible for our Sehnsucht.

Accordingly, Kierkegaard held that it is only contact with the Divine that will truly satisfy our existential longing. The longing for something we never had points to our longing for God.

We attempt to quiet this longing with our marriages, our children, our careers, or our wealth. But the whole point of Sehnsucht is that the fulfillment of these lesser longings will inevitably disappoint us. The marriage may be good, the children may be well-behaved, the career may prove worthwhile, and we may be prosperous in retirement, but it, IT, the rich meat and marrow of life, the center of love, the brightness of light, the thing we were really after all along, somehow continues to escape us.

And that frustrates us. We are even more frustrated because we cannot even articulate the reason for our frustration. We reach up grasping wildly for whatever we can take from the world, but the indescribable thing itself we were really reaching for slips through our fingers.

Christianity tells us that our longing for God can never actually be consummated, at least not on our own terms. No amount of philosophic contemplation, spiritual mantras, or ascetic purification can elevate us to contact the Divine by our own merits. No, in order to actually touch the Divine and satisfy our deepest longing, the Divine would have to somehow reach down and touch us. Bizarrely—perhaps even stupidly, to outside observers—we Christians believe that this is exactly what happened. God so loved the world that Heaven came down to Earth, and the infinite united to the finite when Jesus Christ was born, so that through Jesus’ life and work God could finally touch humankind.

It is God’s action, not our own, that brings final satisfaction. In Christ, the thing itself we were longing for but could never grasp took on flesh as an offering for humankind.

Advent is a time when Christians put a name to our Sehnsucht. The ground note humming disconcertingly reveals our need for God. In His providential ordering of history, God entered Creation as a first-century Jew, so that we may use the language of Israel’s exile to help us understand our feeling of alienation from God’s presence, and to help us understand the meaning of Christ’s Coming. It is because of our alienation from God that we remain alienated to one another, and cannot treat one another justly, and forever pollute God’s holy purposes with our own petty, selfish ambitions. It is because of our alienation from God that every good and desirable fruit turns to ashes in our mouths.

By breaking into history in flesh and blood, God offers us a way out of this alienation, and into reconciliation. Reconciliation is not cheap or easy—it costs God, as we find at the Cross, and it costs us, as we find ourselves invited by the Spirit to share in the wounded life of Christ. But in this reconciliation, we find the fulfillment of every embarrassing, fantastical human longing: to escape time and death, to know love without parting, to communicate with non-human beings, and to see evil defeated forever.

Perhaps, some may say, these longings reveal the fundamental childishness and immaturity of Christianity. It is nothing more than a fairy-tale, a balm for suffering, a beautiful Story that is too good to be true. I have to admit that in darker moods, I entertain that possibility. But in Advent, we Christians face up to the hold these foolish longings have on our hearts, and declare triumphantly—maybe even defiantly—that they will be and have been met in Jesus Christ.

And so, we involve ourselves for a season deeply in the Story of Jesus’ First Coming to understand our complete reliance on the action of God to make us whole and to heal our spiritual aches. By doing so, like little children, we learn to eagerly await and anticipate His Coming Again, when He will consummate the deepest longing of our hearts.

Come, thou long expected Jesus

Born to set they people free;

From our fears and sins release us,

Let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation,

Hope of all the earth thou art;

Dear desire of every nation,

Joy of every longing heart.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, words by Charles Wesley

Adventus

Adventus

Advent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the good news of great joy we celebrate on Christmas.

Adventus (from which we get Advent) means “coming.” It’s the eager anticipation for the arrival of something – or Someone. We often read the Christmas story as Jesus showing up after the Old Testament to kick off the New Testament. But the Christmas story doesn’t begin in the New Testament with the Gospels, or even with the prophets who spoke of a coming Savior.

The Christmas story begins in Genesis.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebelled and sinned against God because of the serpent’s deception. They didn’t trust the goodness of God and disobeyed Him, creating a breach between mankind and the Lord. Instead of striking them dead on the spot, God curses the serpent and makes this promise to the enemy:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and…

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What is Advent? Part 3

What is Advent? Part 3

Last time, we talked about Advent in the context of first-century Jews awaiting a national Deliverer. This time, we will talk about Advent from the perspective of the priestly class, who were waiting for God to return to His Holy Temple.

To set the stage, consider Ezekiel 10-11. God has declared His judgment over Judah—because Judah has failed to keep God’s commands, like her rebellious sister Israel, she too will be conquered and sent into captivity. Then God’s glory, in vivid imagery, vertically takes-off from the Temple, and departs from Jerusalem. But God leaves the prophet with a promise. In Ezekiel 43, God promises that there will come a day when His people will repent of their idolatry, and He will return to His Temple, and dwell with His people forever.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah report the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem. But importantly, even after the Temple is rebuilt, there remains a dark, gloomy sense that God’s glory has still not returned to His Temple. For one thing, if God’s glory had returned, His people should no longer be under foreign occupation. For another, the prophets repeatedly speak of God’s promise to return, clearly implying that He has not returned yet. See Malachi 3:1.

In response, the Pharisees embarked on a program of social reform and fastidious ritual observance, hoping that devoted acts of self-purification would prompt God’s return. The Pharisees saw any collaboration with the Greeks or Romans as treasonous, an act of disloyalty and idolatry that would delay the return of God. The priests, Pharisees, and scribes longed for the return of God, because they believed that this would re-launch God’s project of ruling the world through Israel as a kingdom of priests.

With the arrival of Jesus, God truly did return to His people, and through the gift of the Spirit, He now dwells forever within the hearts of His people. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John, His body is the new Temple, and all those who participate in His life are joined to His body. We who believe are grafted into Israel, and truly become God’s kingdom of priests. But God’s return in Christ toppled the Jewish priestly class from their positions of self-righteous authority, and subverted their expectation of an Israelite empire that would rule the world.

There is a warning for us here. We may be as religiously intense as the Pharisees—following all the rules, condemning all the “right” people, and truly longing for the Second Coming of Our Savior. But unless we pay careful attention to Jesus, unless we submit every ounce of ourselves to His Lordship, we are at risk of distorting the One whose Coming we so eagerly await. It will not do to make the King of the Universe the personal assistant to our own smaller, petty ambitions and worldly desires. Jesus is not the magic name we invoke to receive a million-dollar house, or a jump up the career ladder, or the affections of an attractive woman. Jesus is not an Angry Zeus, who comes to smite our enemies with thunderbolts, and vindicate us as the only right, “good” people.

God will provide, and God will judge, but we must be careful to avoid the mistake of the priestly class, who trusted in their own righteousness and lost sight of the sovereign mercy of the God who invites sinners to His Table. An encounter with the real Jesus will leave us gasping at the scope of the Mission of the Kingdom of God, and eager to forsake worldly pleasure in order to participate in God’s Renewal of Creation. An encounter with the real Jesus will leave our hearts broken for the world, and willing to enter into pain to help spread God’s saving love. An encounter with the real Jesus reveals the muck and dross that still spoils our hearts, and helps us recognize that only the fire of His love can heal us.

Christians confess that “Jesus is Lord,” and we believe that the Spirit is knitting the hearts of Christ’s Church into a Temple for the Living God. But it is hard to believe that when we continue to see the selfishness, corruption, and idolatry that still plague the people of God, let alone the rest of the world. Advent reminds us that we are dependent on God’s action, not our own, to change this state of affairs. We wait patiently, faithfully, expectantly—but still, we wait. Like the apostles of the early church, we pray, “Maranatha!” Yes, Lord Jesus, come!

 

Advent Calendar, by Rowan Williams

Advent Calendar, by Rowan Williams

 

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

© Rowan Williams

-All rights to this poem belong to Dr. Williams.

What is Advent? Part 2

What is Advent? Part 2

Last time, we talked about Advent in the context of the Church Calendar. This time, we will talk about Advent from the perspective of the first-century Jews, who were waiting for a Deliverer.

History is written by the victors. We learn of the Pilgrims founding settlements of liberty in the New World, of William the Conqueror establishing the English throne in 1066, and of Rome bringing order and civilization to the dark, barbarian world. Less prominently studied are the Pequot and Wampanoag tribes isolated and extinguished through American colonial expansion, or the various Saxon kingdoms plundered by William’s Norman armies, or the salted destruction of cities that dared resist Rome’s supremacy. Even less visible are accounts of the tribal wars before the colonists arrived, or the Saxon conquest of the Britons before William conquered, or the Etruscan desolation of Greek colonies in Italy before Rome rose. History is a never-ending cycle of violence, of dominance, subjugation, revenge, and death—but the victors are able to cast themselves as heroes. They create noble myths that elevate their nation and empire, while hiding the ugly violence that is the foundation of it all.

How interesting, then, that the Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a people who are perpetually victimized. Ancient Israel was a nation of nomads and slaves, a nation consistently conquered by her bigger, more powerful neighbors. Even when Israel was at the height of her glory, under Solomon, she was merely a pale shadow of Assyria, a poor man’s copy of Egypt. And Israel’s God not only seemed indifferent to Israel’s imperial ambitions—at times, He seemed actively opposed to them. He reluctantly assented to Israel’s desire for a king. He opposed a Census that would enable Israel’s rulers to count its fighting strength. He even ordered that Israel refrain from building chariots or stables, which prevented the creation of horse-mounted cavalry—the jets and tanks of the ancient world.

And then, a people who began their national life as slaves liberated from Egypt found themselves living their worst nightmare when they were conquered and brought into slavery again. First the northern nation of Israel was conquered by Assyria, and scattered across the world. Next the southern nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and the Jewish people were sent as captives to that city. Eventually, some Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, but they were a sad remnant of a remnant of a proud people who believed themselves chosen by God. Even after their return, they remained under foreign occupation and frequently suffered national humiliation. After the Babylonians came the Persians, and after the Persians the Greeks, and after the Greeks the Romans. The Jews longed for God to raise up a Deliverer who would reestablish the throne of David.

It is in this context that we must understand Mary’s “Revolutionary Carol.” Consider Mary’s triumphant song in Luke 1. Here is a poor Jewish maiden, whose people have labored under Roman occupation and foreign humiliation. She has been promised that her son is the long-expected Messianic king who will liberate her people. Finally, justice for the poor! Finally, redemption for Israel!

46             My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

-Luke 1:46-55

With the arrival of Jesus, God fulfilled His promise to lift up the lowly, and bring down the powerful from their thrones. Through the Cross, He forged a new foundation for human civilization, one not based on the violence of brother against brother, but based on the co-suffering love of Christ for a world that hated Him. Through the Resurrection, we are given a promise that the Love of Christ will triumph, and that even if our radical acts of service lead to our deaths by the powers of this world, on the Last Day we will be raised as more than conquerors. Through the Spirit, we are given the patience to endure trials and hardships until the end, when God will complete the project launched in Christ and Reconcile All Things to Himself.

But until then, we wait. We wait in a world where we declare Jesus’ reign defiantly, even as the dark powers of the world continue to wreak havoc on God’s good Creation, and even as death continues to claim the ones we love dearest. We wait, longing for the Return of the King who will put a final end to death, and disease, and war, and all the strifes of this present age. We wait, like Mary, trusting in God’s promise that He will help His servants in remembrance of His mercy, and that God’s mercy is from generation to generation.