SERMON Mortality And The Fragility Of Life – An Ash Wednesday Sermon On Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

A couple of months ago I stopped at McDonald’s early one morning to get a cup of coffee. And the young woman who waited on me, who looked all of about fifteen, smiled and said, “Sir, after your senior citizen discount it will be $1.56.” I had not asked for a discount. I did not know my mortality was showing.

I now regularly get letters from AARP, each one reminding me of my age. I am pretty sure that I do not yet qualify for the senior citizen discount or need AARP. And yet I’m also sure that life is fragile and mortality is real. I’ve experienced that in so many ways and I’ll bet you have too.

Ash Wednesday, Morality, Death, Resurrection, Sermon, Florida Shooting, Matthew 6:1-6 16-21
Parents wait for news after reports of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach © 2018 The Associated Press)

That was once again brought home this afternoon but it wasn’t as funny as those other reminders. It was heartbreaking. It was another mass shooting, this time at a school in Florida. The first picture I saw from that scene was a woman with her arms around another women, two moms crying and waiting for news about their children. We’ve seen those kind of pictures before, too many times. This one, however, was different. The thing that caught my attention was the cross. One of the women had ashes on her forehead in the shape of a cross.

She had been marked with a sign of mortality and the fragility of life, the same sign with which you and I will be marked in a few moments, and she now stood among the ashes of uncertainty, fear, death, sorrow, and loss. My guess is that when those ashes were being put on her forehead earlier in the day she never thought she would be standing where she was. Probably none of us would have either. We don’t want to consider that possibility let alone face that reality. And yet, that’s the truth Ash Wednesday holds before us. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

We live in a tension between the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. And we work pretty hard at denying, ignoring, forgetting, outrunning, and overcoming those twin realities. But they are always there. They are always present to us in the same way the ashes with which we will be marked were already a part of and present in the palms we carried last year on Palm Sunday.

What’s that like for you? In what ways have those two realities, the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death, made themselves known in your life? Maybe that’s what you are facing today.

The reminders of mortality and the fragility of life all are around us. They come every time a friend or loved one dies. And it’s even more stark when she or he is our age or younger. The reminder comes with an aging body, a body that no longer does what it used to do or no longer looks like it used to look. It’s a bit slower, achier, flabbier, less agile. Illnesses and accidents hold before us how easily and quickly life can change. Mass shootings and terrorist bombings leave us wondering where, when, and who will be next. The hurricanes and wildfires of last year were more reminders of the uncertainty of life. Cemeteries stand as monuments to mortality. And if you’ve ever sifted the ashes of your life you’ve surely wondered where it had gone and where it was going.

So what do we do with that? How do we live with the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death?

As much as we might want to escape those two realities we cannot. Nothing we can do will change or prevent them. What if naming and facing those realities is the first step in taking back our lives? That’s what this day, Ash Wednesday, is about. We mark ourselves with the ashes of mortality and fragility. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And that’s a challenge. It’s not as easy as it sounds. We can go home and wash off the ashes but the truth remains. Life is fragile and we are mortal.

And it would be easy at this point to toss up our hands, surrender to the uncertainty of life, lay down before the certainty of death, and declare that nothing matters. It’s all in vain. We could become cynical and hopeless. Surely, that’s not what this day is about. Surely, there’s more to our life than that.

What if we are marked with the ashes for the exact opposite reason? The ashes of this day do not mark us as a declaration that it’s all vanity and nothing matters. Instead, the ashes proclaim that everything matters. There is nothing inconsequential. Everything matters. Every word we speak, every action we take, every choice we make matters, makes a difference, and carries consequences. Every person in our life, every relationship, every moment matters. There is nothing that does not matter.

What if Lent is a time of recognizing that everything matters. What if it’s about remembering and reclaiming our treasures? What if it’s about re-treasuring the things and people we’ve forgotten, taken for granted, ignored, devalued, set to the side?

I know that’s not how we usually think of Lent or hear today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21). More often than not we focus on what’s wrong and how we’ve taken hold of the wrong treasures and our heart is in the wrong place.

I want us to come at Lent in a different way this year. I want us to look for and reclaim what’s right. I want us to re-treasure the things of our life that are of ultimate importance, the people and things that are of infinite value, worth more than money, prestige, position, power, or stuff. Maybe failing to treasure is what lies behind the pain, brokenness, dysfunction, and violence that too often fill our lives and world. Maybe failing to treasure is the sin from which we need to turn away.

So tell me this. Who or what are the treasures that hold your heart? What are the values, hopes, and dreams to which you give your heart? What is of ultimate importance in your life?

Maybe it’s the practices that have taken you deeper into the life of Christ. Maybe it’s the values you hold for yourself, the values by which you recognize yourself and when you live those values you know you are living from your truest and best self. Maybe it’s the qualities that brought wholeness and integrity to your life. Maybe it’s the things that keep you showing up day after day. Maybe it’s what nourishes your life and strengthens your relationships. Maybe it’s your marriage, your children, your friendships.

So what if we took this Lenten season as a time of re-treasuring? To re-treasure people and relationships, to re-treasure justice and compassion, to re-treasure love, forgiveness, hope, beauty. What if we were to reclaim those and a thousand other things like them as the treasures of our life?

I know how easy it is to forget those treasures, to lose them, take them for granted, or just set them aside. The busyness of life, the distractions, our sorrows and losses, our pains and wounds, and our fears can make us forgetful of what really matters or cause us to put our treasures aside. And sometimes we’re just plain old tired, worn out by the changes and chances of life.

What if our Lenten practice this year was to reclaim and re-treasure that which is of ultimate importance and infinite value? What would it be like to reclaim those treasures in your life? What would it take for you to reclaim your treasures? How might that change your life and relationships?

As we reclaim and re-treasure we somehow get ourselves back. We’re more whole, more complete. We reclaim and re-treasure not just for ourselves but so we can offer our treasures back to God and the people of our life.

I don’t know what your treasures are but I know you have them. And I also know this. Our treasures do not exist apart from but in the midst of the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. Even as life is changing and passing the heart-treasures of our life never go away. They are the treasures of heaven here on earth. They are the treasures that “neither moth nor rust consumes” and “thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. As you are marked with the ashes of mortality and the fragility of life reclaim your treasures, reclaim your heart, reclaim your life. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:21)

From the website of  Michael K. Marsh, a priest of the Episcopal Church.

How Ash Wednesday Enriches Our Lives and Our Relationship with God

The denial of death . . . it’s all around us. When people die, they are often alone, sequestered in hospitals far away from the sad eyes of friends and family. If someone happens to die at home, the corpse is quickly sent away from the grieving relatives. In polite society, one doesn’t talk much about death. And when it’s necessary to say something that has to do with dying, nifty euphemisms keep us from confronting the brute facts. When I lived in California, people would say, “Uncle Fred passed away.” In Texas, for some reason, people are more succinct, saying, “Uncle Fred passed.”

Of course, our own fears concerning our own demise match our cultural squeamishness about death. We don’t want to think about our own mortality, and we do many things to pretend that its not approaching. We dye our graying hair. We cover our age spots with make up. We get cosmetic surgery to preserve the image of youth. Rarely do we seriously think about our own death. As a pastor, I’m amazed at how unusual it is for someone to make plans for his or her own memorial service, or even to leave notes for the family. These are things we’d rather not have to bother with.

I’m reminded of a story told by my friend Tim, who was a restaurant manager. Part of his job was to explain the company’s benefit package to his new employees. One time, Tim hired a young man who didn’t speak English very well because he had recently immigrated to the United States. Tim explained the vacation policy, sick leave, and health insurance, all without incident. Then he came to the life insurance. He said that if the employee died, his family would get $25,000.

At this point, the employee had a shocked look on his face, and said, “No, no, Tim!”

Tim wasn’t sure he had been clear, so he explained, once again, “Look, if you die, your family will get $25,000.”

Again, the employee was unhappy. “No, I don’t want it,” he said urgently.

“Why not?” Tim asked. “If you die, this will be good for your family.”

“But Tim,” the employee cried, “I don’t want to die!

Ash Wednesday is a day to stare death in the face, to acknowledge our mortality. All of us will die. Christians who observe this holiday get ashes “imposed” on their foreheads, while a minister or lay church worker says, “You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.” In other words, “You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.”

For sixteen years of Ash Wednesday services at Irvine Presyyterian Church, I put ashes on the heads of older adults, some of whom had serious cancer and didn’t live much longer. I also put tiny black crosses made of ash on the foreheads of babies far too young to realize what was happening to them. I imposed ashes on teenagers and senior citizens, on men and women, on boys and girls. All of these I reminded of their mortality, and they freely received the reminder. “You are dust,” I said, implying, “You are going to die.”

What gives us such freedom to think about death? Are we Christians morose? Do we have some peculiar fascination with dying? I don’t think so. Rather, what allows us to stare death in the face is the assurance of life, real life, eternal life. When we know our lives are safe in the hands of God, and that this physical life is just the beginning of eternity, then we’re free to be honest about what lies ahead for us. We can face death without fear or pretending because we know the One who defeated death.

I’ll never forget my last visit with a dear member of my congregation named Helen. She was a tiny woman when healthy, but old age and disease had ravaged her body. I wouldn’t be surprised if she weighed 75 pounds on the day of my last visit.

There was no question that Helen was soon to die. And there was no point for me to pretend as if that weren’t true. So I asked her straightaway: “Helen, it’s obvious that you don’t have too much time left in this body. How are you feeling about dying?”

“Mark,” she said with a weak but confident voice, “I’ve lived a good, long life. I’ve been blessed far beyond what I could have hoped. You’re right, my body is giving out. I don’t have much longer to live. But I want you to know that I am ready. I’m not afraid. I’m eager to see my Lord. I hope I get to soon.”

Talk about staring death in the face! What gave Helen such unusual bluntness and boldness when it came to her own imminent death? Her faith in God. Her confidence that her life was really just beginning. Her assurance that her soul was safe in the hands of a gracious, loving God.

And so it is for Christians on Ash Wednesday. We can face death. We can admit our own mortality. We can talk openly about the limits of this life. Why? Because we know that through Christ we have entered into life eternal, the fullness of life that will not end when our bodies give out.

The emotional result of Ash Wednesday observance isn’t depression or gloom, but gratitude and new energy for living. When we realize how desperately we need God, and how God is faithful far beyond our desperation, we can’t help but offer our lives to him in fresh gratitude. And when we recognize that life doesn’t go on forever, then we find a new passion to delight in the gifts of each and every day, and to take none of them for granted.

One year, as I returned to my seat after imposing ashes upon dozens of worshipers, I sat next to my 12-year-old son. I couldn’t help but notice the prominent black cross on his forehead, placed there by another leader. All of a sudden it hit me that my dear boy will die someday. Though I knew this in principle, I had never really thought about it before. My boy won’t live forever. His life, like mine and that of every other human being, will come to an end. At that moment I prayed that God would give Nathan a long and blessed life. And then I hugged him for a good minute, treasuring the life we share together.

How grateful I am for the grace of God that allows us to stare death in the face so we can live with greater passion and delight! And how thankful I am for a day that allows me to think about death so I can cherish life even more!

Written by Mark D. Roberts

 

Slow Me Down, Lord

“Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he [Jesus] said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. Mark 6:31.

Or as someone else has said, “Come apart and rest a while before you come apart!”

Someone had a card on their desk that read, “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life!”

Today’s suggested prayer is in the words of Orin L. Crain:

Slow me down, Lord.
Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.
Steady my hurried pace.
Give me, amidst the day’s confusion
the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tension of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of singing streams
that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking minute vacations….
slowing down to look at a flower,
to chat with a friend,
to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me
of the fable of the hare and the tortoise;
that the race is not always to the swift;
that there is more to life than measuring its speed.
Let me look up at the branches of the towering oak
and know that … it grew slowly … and well.

Inspire me
to send my own roots down deep…
into the soil of life’s endearing values…

That I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.

Slow me down, Lord.

Thank you for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully, in Jesus’ name, amen.”

Joy to the World!!!

As one of the most joyous of all Christmas hymns, this carol omits references to shepherds, angelic choruses, and wise men. It emphasizes instead the reverent but ecstatic joy that Christ’s birth brought to humanity. For centuries hearts had yearned for God to reveal Himself personally. At last it happened as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The entire Advent season should be filled with solemn rejoicing as we contemplate anew God’s great gift, providing the means whereby sinful people might live eternally.

“Joy to the World” is a paraphrase of the last part of Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. . . . Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity (vv. 4-9).

Although it was originally a song of rejoicing for Jehovah’s protection of His chosen people and the anticipation of the time when He would be the God of the whole earth, this psalm was intended by Watts to be a New Testament expression of praise. It exalts the salvation that began when God became incarnate as the Babe of Bethlehem who was destined to remove the curse of Adam’s fall. The text was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” when it first appeared in a hymnal of 1719 by Isaac Watts. The music for this popular carol is thought to have been adapted by Lowell Mason, an American church musician, from some of the phrases used in parts of George Frederick Handel’s beloved oratorio, The Messiah, first performed in 1742. Through the combined talents of an English literary genius of the eighteenth century, a German-born musical giant from the same period, and a nineteenth century American choir director and educator, another great hymn was born.

Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room, and heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love.

Written by Kenneth W. Osbeck

If Jesus Had Not Come

What would be our lot if Jesus had not come? What realities and beauties and graces we live in would become untrue? What would we not know if he had not come?

On the one hand, it’s an impossible question. The whole universe is in him, through him, and for him (Colossians 1:16). Without him, everything comes apart. But on the other hand, it can help us appreciate his coming to consider some of the numerous individual blessings owing directly to it. Which are some of the most important truths in all the world and throughout all time.

  1. If Jesus had not come, we would not know God’s complete faithfulness. We would not know the fulfillment of every last promise, including the very first one he made: that an offspring of Eve would crush the head of our great adversary, Satan (Genesis 3:15).
  2. If Jesus had not come, we would not know the fullness of God’s love. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
  3. If Jesus did not come, we would not know the depths of God’s humility and compassion toward us. According to Hebrews 2:17, Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Jesus was made like us in every respect — he took on all of our weaknesses and temptations and sufferings. And he did it that he might be a more merciful advocate for us.
  4. Finally, if Jesus did not come, we would not know his atoning death and life-giving resurrection, and thus we would not know our own salvation. There would be no salvation for sinners. “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).

Seeing and enjoying Jesus as the incomparable Son of God, and the embodiment of his greatest blessings, is the only true way to have him.

This is the most urgent item on the agenda today and every day. May God give you fresh eyes to see and enjoy the Son, and the grace to keep seeing and enjoying him with ever-increasing clarity, joy, and awe.

Excerpt from an article by Tyler Kenney

Don’t Settle for a “Merry Little Christmas”

“Look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth, and no one will even think about the old ones anymore. Be glad; rejoice forever in my creation! And look! I will create Jerusalem as a place of happiness. Her people will be a source of joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and delight in my people. And the sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more. Isa. 65:17–19 (ESV)

Heavenly Father, I love meditating through the Book of Isaiah during Advent. It reminds us that the birth of Jesus wasn’t a “merry little” event. Christmas represents the fulfillment of incredible promises, filled with immeasurable hope and irrepressible delight. Every Christmas is majestic and huge, for several reasons.

With the first coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God came near—the rule of God on earth. As Isaiah proclaims with great joy, you aren’t going to destroy your creation; you’re going to resurrect and restore it through the work of Jesus. This world matters—every place we live, work, and play. The knowledge of your glory will FILL this earth some Day—every square inch of it. Jesus has come to make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found.” Hallelujah!

And, you’ve promised to redeem an enormous family from every race, tribe, tongue, and people group to populate the coming new heaven and new earth. Missions is the heartbeat of your story and the meaning of history. The gospel really is this big and this good. You used stars, sand, and dust to describe to Abraham the mathematics of your mercy and size of your eternal family (Genesis 12-17). Hallelujah! Things are not as they appear in our world.

And on a personal heart-liberating level, because of Jesus’ finished work, we live with the gigantic joy of knowing we’re forgiven all our sins, righteous in Christ, have you as our Father, the Spirit as our guide, citizenship in heaven, and vocation on earth.

The heck with a “merry little Christmas”! Until the Day you send Jesus back to finish making all things new, free us to live and love to your glory, with sacrifice and increasing joy. So very Amen we pray, with peace and hope, in Jesus’ name.

Immanuel

This took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel’” (vv. 22–23).

– Matthew 1:22–25

Liberals have long scrutinized Matthew 1:22–23 and the passage it quotes, Isaiah 7:14, leading them to deny the virgin birth. They say that since Isaiah uses almah, a Hebrew term literally translated as “maiden,” he is not affirming the virgin birth. This argument has no merit, for almah almost always refers to a young woman who is also a virgin. Also, the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, understands that Isaiah is talking about a virgin as it renders almah with parthenos, the normal Greek word for “virgin.”

We wholeheartedly affirm the virgin birth of Jesus based on today’s passage and Luke 1:26–38. But let us note that Matthew may not be reading Isaiah as has been often supposed. When we look at the word “fulfill” in Matthew 1:22–23, we tend to think Isaiah saw into the future and made a prediction that could only come true for Mary. However, Isaiah 7:14 would then have no meaning to its original readers, Israelites living centuries before Jesus.

The context of Isaiah 7:14 explains why Matthew cites this verse. When Ahaz reigned in Judah, Syria and Israel threatened to invade Judah if he would not join them against the Assyrian empire (v. 1). Yet this threat actually tempted Ahaz to seek aid from Assyria against these foes. God promised him protection if he did not join with Assyria, telling the king to ask for a sign to confirm His pledge (vv. 2–11). But Ahaz did not trust the Lord and would not ask for a sign. God gave Ahaz a sign anyway — a sign of cursing, not blessing! A child’s birth would signify that God would use Assyria to judge faithless Judah (vv. 12–25).

By natural means, Isaiah and his wife — formerly the virgin maiden — would produce Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1–4), a sign of God’s curse on those who trusted in an alliance with Assyria. (vv. 5–22). And as the prophet warned, Ahaz would be humiliated in his deal with the Assyrian Empire (2 Chron. 28).

If this curse foretold by Isaiah came to pass, how can we escape the curse if we do not trust God when the sign is the very Son of God, born of a virgin? Just as Isaiah’s son signified a curse on Judah’s unbelief, so too does Jesus’ miraculous birth signify disaster for those who do not submit to God’s royal Son.

Coram Deo

The fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus can only be understood if we first understand the meaning and application of the prophetic word for its original audience. In this case, Jesus fulfills or “fills up” the word of Isaiah because He, as a Son brought forth by extraordinary means, is the sign of a greater curse or blessing depending on how we respond to the Gospel. Let us follow Him alone as Savior and Lord so that we may receive the greater blessing.

Ligonier Ministries.

Cooper Update – November 2017

Hi,

As I’m sitting in Dobbies (a garden center…the English LOVE them) with some of our students from the School of Biblical Studies enjoying some coffee, I’m suddenly struck by the fact that each of us is from a different country: USA, Norway, Brazil, Philippines, Denmark, and Switzerland. A sense of satisfaction fills my heart as I see the potential of these people bringing God’s Word to their nations.

Bible poverty—not possessing a Bible in your own language and/or not having any Bible teaching. The enormous task of ending Bible poverty has become one of YWAM’s primary objectives, which brings me great joy since my missionary work in England is directly helping in the effort. My colleagues and I have the privilege of taking 16 students through all 66 books of the Bible in 9-months. Our awesome students are from 11 different nations and 5 continents and have already finished half of the New Testament. The goal for each student is to equip them to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2Tim2:15) and to share their Bible learning throughout the world. In my recent teaching of Galatians, I emphasized the Apostle Paul’s heart to protect the truth of the Gospel that sets people free. In the photo below, we have chains on our wrists that we tore off while shouting “FREEDOM!” It was a fun lecture!


One of the realities of being missionaries with YWAM is that we have to raise our own financial support. As you know, life never remains the same, and now we find ourselves in need of more monthly support. This is mainly due to a few supporters who are no longer able to give. Not only is our current income now insufficient to meet our normal monthly expenses, we also have large expenses we are unable to save for (i.e: travel and visa fees, car maintenance and replacement, retirement, Emily’s education etc). We have experienced the goodness and faithfulness of God through the many years we have served with YWAM and know that He will provide what we need.

Will you please consider partnering with us by supporting us monthly? Our need is at least £500/$675 a month. And please join with us in prayer. Thank you!



What has Taryn been up to?

  I am excited for more ministry and more involvement with The King’s Lodge, since Emily is now in pre-school three morning per week. I have started a small group/Bible study for women at the King’s Lodge and for friends from the community. We meet once a week utilizing a fantastic series of studies designed specifically for women called IF:EQUIP. I am thoroughly enjoying the time spent with these ladies and am really growing in my relationship with Jesus.

In addition, I am connecting with more moms in the area, chatting with them at Emily’s school and at Sunshine Corner (the toddler group we run through The King’s Lodge and a local church). This has been my desire for a long time – to form deep, real friendships, especially with non-Christians. It is a slow process at times, so even small conversations and connections with people are a step in the right direction! I also have three or four new ministry opportunities that are not completely confirmed yet, but hopefully in our next newsletter I will be able to share them with you. It is very exciting to be able to step into more responsibility again as Emily grows up.


Mike-Taryn-5Prayer Requests
– Mike’s UK Visa is due for renewal in the New Year. We still need £200
– Our monthly financial support needs to grow by £500/$675
– For Mike’s mom and dad as they battle health issues and miss us during the Christmas season
– For Taryn for opportunites and conversations with local moms
– For Mike’s work on the SBS and upcoming teaching projects

 


We have a Facebook group called ‘Coopers on a Mission’ where we write small regular updates. Let us know if you’d like to be added to it!

  Taryn

  Mike

  Email Taryn

  The King’s Lodge


Seeing lives transformed by the love of Jesus through personal discipleship and Bible teaching.

Where Did the Season of Advent Come From?

“When I was a young person we never observed Advent,” said Marion, a member of the older adult class at Belmont United Methodist. “We sang Christmas carols for a few Sundays before Christmas, and the pastor preached about the birth of Jesus on the Sunday before Christmas; and that was it. Now it seems like the church is really into this Advent thing and we seem to reserve Christmas carols until just before Christmas.”

So where did the season of Advent come from? Here is an attempt at a partial response — going back to the sacred Scriptures and to the early centuries of the church.

First, recall that the building blocks of Advent — its images, stories, memories, promises, songs, and hopes — are already present in the Bible. The rich images of the prophets Isaiah and Amos are there. The stories of John, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, and John the Baptist are found in the Scriptures. There are Israel’s memories of exile and the hope for a day when God would restore hope, justice, and rulers in the line of David. There you find the songs: Mary‘s song, Zechariah’s song, and the psalms of lament, anguish, and hope. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is there. Jesus’ call to be alert because we don’t know the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come is there. Paul’s and Peter’s words to believers awaiting the return of the risen Lord (the second coming) are there. All of this was there by the end of the first century. It was only a matter of time until the churches in various places began to find ways to weave these elements into their worship and into the ways they kept time together.

How Did We Come to Advent as a Season?

We really don’t know when and where Advent began to be observed, but drawing upon Adam Adolf’s work in The Liturgical Year(Pueblo Books, 1978), we are able to sketch an outline of the origins of the Advent season.

  • The first faint traces of Advent emerge in popular piety and custom in various places by early fourth century. 
  • In Spain and Gaul (equivalent to the area we now call Western Europe), Christians observed a period of fasting and preparation for baptism. The region had close links with Eastern Christianity’s (Syria and other eastern Mediterranean areas) celebration of the feast of Christ’s birth on Epiphany (January 6) as a day for baptism. 
  • The oldest witness to Advent as a time of preparation comes from Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (490) who called for times of fasting from the feast of St. Martin on November 11 to Epiphany Day on January 6. There was already a custom of “St. Martin’s Lent” that lasted eight weeks. The use of “Lent” may reflect the desire to parallel the disciplines of Lent in the weeks prior to Epiphany and shows the importance of preparing people for baptism. 
  • The first evidence of emerging Advent worship practices comes from Ravenna, Italy, in the mid-fifth century. Again, the city was strongly influenced by Eastern Christianity. The expectation of the celebration of the birth of Christ was the central theme. By mid-sixthth century in Rome, the mass made use of Advent themes. Under Gregory the Great (590-615), there were four Sundays of Advent — although the focus was not so much on the second coming of Christ as on the incarnation of Christ and on preparation for the celebration. 
  • The focus on the eschatological dimension of Advent emerged under the influence of the Irish missionaries who put strong emphasis on the coming of the Lord for judgment. They preached for penitence, so Advent became a penitential season. The Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.” United Methodist Hymnal, 83) and the “alleluia” were suppressed in the Mass, and the “Te Deum” (United Methodist Hymnal, 80) in the daily office. Purple vestments were used. 
  • These Gallic penitential practices spread to Rome by the twelfth century. Rome adopted the practice of wearing purple vestments and of omitting the “Gloria” but retained the “alleluia.” The reason for omitting the “Gloria” was not because of heavy penitence, but to allow the “angel’s song” to ring out more clearly and in all its newness at Christmas. 
  • Rome fixed the length of the season at four Sundays, although it varied in different areas between four and six Sundays. Even today, Milan still observes six Sundays. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, Rome’s solution was generally accepted in Western Europe. 
  • Under our current ecumenical practice (the calendar and Revised Common Lectionary) the first Sunday of Advent can be as early as November 27 and as late as December 3. This makes for some interesting calendar situations. For example, every few years the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 24. On such days, the church gathers for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning; then it gathers again after sunset to celebrate Christmas Eve. 
  • In the last third of the twentieth century, the liturgical reform movement bore fruit. The ecumenical efforts of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others came together around a revised calendar of the year and the three-year lectionary system, including the Revised Common Lectionary (see http://www.commontexts.org/). These have been widely accepted, and the result has been broad adoption of Advent as a season leading to Christmas and not simply a “pre-Christmas Christmas.” 
  • In this revised liturgical approach, each Sunday of Advent has its distinctive theme: First Sunday — Christ’s coming in final victory; Second and Third Sundays — John the Baptist; Fourth Sunday — the events immediately preceding birth of Jesus Christ (See The United Methodist Book of Worship, 238)
  • Written by Daniel Benedict

Encountering God in Prayer

One of the themes Tim Keller presses us to see in his book on prayer (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God) is that prayer is a conversation with God on the basis of the Bible’s words. We listen to God through reading and pondering and meditating over Scripture and then we pray to God. But Keller’s title focuses on the experience of prayer and intimacy with God, so I have been waiting for these themes to appear more directly: they do, in chapter 11.

Tim Keller is not one bit shy of speaking about the experience of God in prayer. Here is a classic set of lines, shaped in a section about the Puritan John Owen, for you to read (p. 182):

If we are going to be imbalanced, better that we be doctrinally weak and have a vital prayer life and a real sense of God on the heart than that we get all our doctrine straight and be cold and spiritually hard.

His opening definition for the chapter says much: “Prayer is a conversation [with God] that leads to encounter with God” (165). He adds, “We must not settle for an informed mind without an engaged heart.” And this leads him to the question about experience that many have about prayer: “What kind of experience should be expected and how should it be sought?” (165).

[Source for image by Elizabeth Wang.]

His perception seems to be what can be called internalization or intensification:

At one level, Christians have these things [the blessings of grace and love in Christ from Ephesians 3:14, 16-19]. At another level, they haven’t experienced them. It is one thing to know of the love of Christ and to say, “I know he did all that.”  It is another thing to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. What Paul is talking about is the difference between having something be true of you in principle and fully appropriating it, using it, and living in it—in your “inner being” (Eph 3:16) or “in your heart” (v. 17) (166-167).

He mentions Pascal’s famous “FIRE” experience and Moody’s experience that was so intense he asked God to back off. “But don’t write them off,” Keller warns, “too quickly as exceptional” (168). As Keller describes such experiences of encountering God, “When your feelings and behaviors are affected, you have, to a degree, grasped a particular truth about God. The light comes in and makes permanent impressions” (170).

In Paul’s prayer this encounter is seen in the “inner being” and in “knowing the Father.” Genuine encounter with God is to know and commune with God as our Father. Keller’s words are worthy of much repetition (172):

When the Holy Spirit comes down on you in fullness, you can sense your Father’s arms beneath you. It is an assurance of who you are. The Spirit enables you to say to yourself: “If someone as all-powerful as that loves me like this, delights in me, has gone to infinite lengths to save me, says he will never let me go, and is going to glorify me and make me perfect and take everything bad out of my life—if all of that is true—why am I worried about anything?” At a minimum this means joy, and a lack of fear and self-consciousness.

This prayer of Paul’s in Ephesians 3 also speaks of “grasping the love” and Paul speaks of grasping “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” How wide? as wide our sins. How long? from now through all eternity. How deep? From equal with with God to death on the cross. How high? Glorious perfection and transformation.

And he sees all of this summed up in seeking and seeing the face of Christ, and one obvious source for this is 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6. The beatific vision. Keller (177, my emphasis):

To behold the glory of Jesus means that we begin to find Christ beautiful for who he is in himself. It means a kind of prayer in which we are not simply coming to him to get his forgiveness, his help for our needs, his favor and blessing. Rather, the consideration of his character, words, and work on our behalf becomes inherently satisfying, enjoyable, comforting, and strengthening.

Written by Scott McKnight.