Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part four

Hebrews 11 is often called the Honor Roll of Faith. Great believers of the Old Testament are mentioned along with the obstacles they faced and overcame through their faith in the coming Savior. Verses 35 to 38 particularly focus on believers who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because of their faith. All these faithful believers are summarized in Hebrews 12:1 as a great cloud of witnesses watching us run the face, and the culmination of this list is Jesus himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The transition to God’s discipline follows from this mention of Jesus and the cross: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). Notice the progression: the saints of the Old Testament suffered, sometimes violently, from the attacks of enemies to their faith. Jesus suffered and died at the hand of such enemies also. We can expect opposition of the same kind, even if it has not yet become as violent as that which Jesus and other servants of God faced.

From this perspective it appears that the discipline of God comes through the enemies of God, which are also our enemies—namely, the devil, the sinful world, and the sin still within each of us. Job was tested by Satan, even though he did not deserve to suffer. God permitted the testing but also limited it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to harass me” (II Corinthians 12:7). Jesus once said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Every setback and disappointment that a Christian faces is not discipline from the hand of God. Some burdens we bear in common with all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Colds, allergies, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression: these are not crosses we bear for Christ, nor are they discipline from God. They are part of the result of living in a sin-polluted world. When the car stalls in traffic, when rain falls on our picnic, when an unexpected bill comes in the mail, God is not calling us to examine our lives and determine which sin he wants us to quit. God does not want us to sin at all, but our sins are forgiven. Christ was beaten as he did not deserve to rescue us from discipline we deserve.

On the other hand, we are being trained to live as God’s people. When our faith and obedience annoys God’s enemies, we must be doing something right. God allows us to experience their resistance to strengthen our faith. Whatever difficulties we face are good for us, as they direct our attention to the price Christ paid to redeem us. The devil wants us to struggle so he can convince us that God does not love us or is not taking care of us. When our struggles remind us of the cross of Christ, of all that he paid to make us his people, then the devil loses in his opposition and we share once again in the victory Christ has won.

Guilt is good when it brings us to the cross. Guilt is bad when it drives us to examine our sins and try to fix our own lives to please God. The devil uses our sense of guilt as a weapon against us. When trouble strikes and the question arises: “What did I do to deserve this?” we usually can think of answers to that question. But no discipline from God is a response to our sins. God has blotted out all our sins with the blood of his Son. He sees each of us now through his Son’s righteousness. God does not want us to sin, but he also does not want us to focus all our attention on our sins. He wants us to set our eyes on Jesus and to find strength and comfort and hope in him.

To be continued…. J.

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Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part three

How do Christians apply Hebrews 12:5-11 to our lives? “Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed good to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

If God sees no sin in us, how can he discipline us for our sins? If he sees our sins and responds to them, how can we be sure that we are forgiven? To answer these questions, it is necessary to do three things. First, we must look at the word translated “discipline” and be sure we understand what it means generally and especially in these verses. Second, we must see this passage in its context within the letter to the Hebrews. Third, we must view this verse in context of the entire Bible and its message to God’s people.

Both the NIV and the ESV translate the Greek word used in Hebrews 12 as “discipline.” Working only from the English, it is tempting to make a connection here to discipleship, but the actual Greek word does not suit that connection. In fact, the Greek work is derived from the noun for a young child and refers to teaching or training that child. Depending upon its context, it sometimes describes violent training, such as a spanking. We might compare the word to an English sentence—“I’m going to teach you a lesson”—which could mean anything from an offer to tutor someone to a threat to beat someone.

Other books in the New Testament use this word with the full range of possible meanings. On the one hand, when Pontius Pilate wanted to have Christ beaten and then released, he chose that word to describe the beating (Luke 23:16). On the other hand, when Stephen described Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, he used the same word to describe Moses’ lessons (Acts 7:22). Paul used the same word to describe his lessons as he studied under the Pharisees (Acts 22:3). Other instances of the word fall between these two extremes of tutoring and beating. In I Corinthians 11:32, Paul speaks of God’s discipline upon Christians who receive the Lord’s Supper without discerning the body of the Lord, “which is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” In II Corinthians 6:9 Paul declares that the apostles are “punished, and yet not killed.” In I Timothy 1:20, Paul mentions two Christians who are handed over to Satan to train them not to blaspheme. But in II Timothy 2:25, Paul counsels Timothy to train his opponents with gentleness, leading to repentance and a knowledge of the truth. In Titus 2:11-12, Paul speaks of the grace of God and his salvation “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Finally, in Revelation 3:19 Jesus echoes the thought of Hebrews 12 as he says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.” In each of these verses, the same word is used.

How then can we know whether the letter to the Hebrews speaks of training/discipline in the sense of gentle teaching or in the sense of violent treatment? Verse 11 describes the experience as painful rather than pleasant. But to fully understand the repeated use of this word in Hebrews 12:5-11, we need to study the entire flow of Hebrews 11 and 12.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part two

From Job’s sufferings to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the Bible pictures godly people suffering, not as punishment for their sins or a consequence of their sins, but simply because we live in a world polluted by sin. Jesus spoke a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. He said that those who died in catastrophic events were not worse than other sinners, but that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Indeed, Paul viewed suffering in this world as a positive thing: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4) and “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), among others.

What of the covenant that promises blessings for those who obey God’s commands and threatens curses on those who break his commands? Deuteronomy 28 is one of many passages that describe this covenant. First, though, this is God’s covenant with a chosen people, not with individuals. It was fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Judges through Esther, as both good and bad people prospered in Israel when the nation was largely faithful to God, and both good and bad people suffered in Israel when the nation was largely unfaithful. Second, this passage describes the Old Covenant, the Law of God, from which Christ has set us free. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the New Covenant Christians are completely and unconditionally forgiven. God sees no sin or fault in any Christian. Daily we confess our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, seeking his forgiveness. Daily he sees us through the righteousness of Christ and treats us as Christ deserves. Our sins were killed on the cross with Christ and buried with Christ. He rose, but our sins remained dead and buried. God sees no sin in us, which is why he has no condemnation for us.

To be continued…. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part one

Some years ago, I attended a conference for church workers with the theme of “Holy Health and Wholeness,” or something along those lines. The featured speaker was a pastor/theologian who was considered an expert on the topic of health and how to be healthy according to spiritual principles. Much of his message centered around maintaining a positive attitude, dealing with stress instead of succumbing to stress, and being good stewards of our physical health.

On the one hand, I agree that each Christian is responsible for being a good steward of his or her body. We all should make good decisions about nutrition, sleep, exercise, and hygiene. We should avoid harmful substances and bad habits. Negative thoughts and poor stress management can lead to physical symptoms. On the other hand, I am skeptical regarding claims that we can be in charge of our own health, that we can be healthy and happy simply by replacing bad choices with good choices. Whether those claims are made by a Christian, a New Age practitioner, or a secular source, I believe that things are more complicated than those speakers picture them. The Bible says more about life than how to be healthy, wealthy, and comfortable in this world. In fact, the Bible more often deals with the problem that, in this sin-polluted world, often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

To provide full disclosure: the week of that conference I was suffering from an ear infection. Symptoms included pain, lightheadedness, and distortion of sounds. In that condition, I was hostile toward any suggestion that I was responsible for my discomfort—that if I made better choices, I would not have been battling an infection and needing to take painkillers and antibiotics to make the problem go away. In fact, I was seriously considering questioning the speaker about blaming the victim and making things worse instead of better.

Instead, I began searching the Bible to see if I could find verses that would support the speaker’s point of view. Here are some of the verses I found: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same…. For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause…. Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty…. If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation…. If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning…. Agree with God and be at peace; thereby gold will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty you will be built up; if you remove injustice far from your tents, if you lay gold in the dust and gold of Ophir among the stones of the torrent bed, then the Almighty will be your gold and our precious silver. For then you will delight yourself in the Almighty and lift up your face to God. You will make your prayer to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows.”

Before anyone rushes for a concordance to find these verses, I will reveal where I discovered them. They are written in the book of Job—namely 4:7-8; 5:6-8; 5:17; 8:5-6; 11:13-17; 22:21-27. These are the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, friends of Job who came to comfort him in his suffering but ended up accusing him. Confident that God makes no mistakes, these three friends told Job that he needed to return to God; if he was being chastened by the Almighty, then surely the purpose was to wake Job from his spiritual slumber and restore him to a right relationship with God. The Lord responded to Eliphaz saying, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” God called for a sacrifice to atone for their sin and promised to hear Job when he prayed for their forgiveness (Job 42:7-9).

To be continued…. J.

Holy Communion (part one)

The Bible says: “The Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also He took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the New Testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (I Corinthians 11:23-25; see also Matthew 26: 26-28, Mark 14: 22-24, and Luke 22: 19-20).

Luther explains: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”

The question of Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) divides Lutherans from other Protestants, even as it divided Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli during the course of the Reformation, keeping them from cooperating in their resistance to Rome. When Zwingli said that the bread represents the body of Christ and the wine represents his blood, Luther pointed to the words of the Bible and insisted, “’Is’ means ‘is’!”

Lutherans do not believe that the bread changes into Christ’s body or that the wine changes into Christ’s blood. They believe that Christ’s body is present with the bread and that his blood is present with the wine. The Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament can be compared to the mystery of Christ’s two natures. As Jesus is completely God and completely human at the same time, so the bread in the Sacrament is completely bread and still completely Christ’s body; the wine is completely wine and still completely Christ’s blood.

Jesus instituted this Sacrament during a Passover dinner. In the Passover dinner, God’s people remembered the lamb that was killed in Egypt, its blood painted on their houses, so they would be spared death and rescued from slavery. John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Part of the Passover meal was bread made without yeast, a picture of a life without sin. Jesus took that bread and said, “This is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving (the third of four cups served during the Passover meal, the one after supper) and said, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood.” Holy Communion replaces the Passover meal from which it was taken. The Sacrament is celebrated, not once a year like the Passover meal, but often when God’s people gather in the name of Jesus.

Because Jesus is human, he can give us his true body and his true blood. Because Jesus is God, he can keep on giving and never run out. When he appears in glory, he will be missing none of his body and none of his blood, even after feeding his body and blood to his people over many centuries. Yet the body and blood from his crucifixion are truly present whenever his Sacrament is observed. Even unbelievers who mistakenly eat and drink the Sacrament receive his body and his blood, but because they do not believe, they encounter a Judge rather than a Savior.

Human flesh is not kosher; it is not among the meats permitted in the Law of Moses for God’s people to eat. Even animal blood is forbidden; meat is not kosher until all the blood has been removed. Why, then, does Jesus give Christians his body to eat and his blood to drink? He does so because of the New Testament, which unites Christians with Christ in a special way. The metaphor of eating and drinking appears in many parts of the Bible to describe a believer’s relationship with God. In Holy Communion, the metaphor becomes reality, for as Luther said, “’Is means ‘is’!”

Holy Baptism (part three)

The Bible says, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying” (Titus 3:5-8).

Luther explains, “How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

Salvageable adds: Anyone who treats baptism as a good deed done for God must be concerned about using the right amount of water, saying the right words, and being baptized at the right age. Anyone who sees baptism as a gift from God understands that the amount of water is not the point. The words that are said (other than the name of God) are not the point. The age of the person being baptized is not the point. In baptism God makes a promise. Because of the sacrifice made by his Son, God keeps that promise. All the work is done by God; none of the work is done by the believer.

Faith is usually expressed in words, but words are not necessary for faith to be present. We do not lose our faith while we sleep. A person who suffers dementia due to illness or injury does not stop being a Christian. Likewise, no minimum age exists for faith to begin. John the Baptist leapt for joy when he heard the voice of his Savior’s mother, and he had not even been born yet!

The water of Holy Baptism is not magic. Water does not cause faith; the Word of God causes faith. But God combines his Word with water to emphasize what happens to the person who has faith. As water washes away dirt, so baptism washes away sins. As water is needed for health, so baptism produces a healthy faith. Therefore, Paul described baptism as “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” So also Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Anyone who has been baptized has been regenerated; he or she truly has been born again.

For the Christian, though, the best statement is not “I was baptized” or “I have been baptized.” The best statement is “I am baptized.” The gift of baptism is given only once, but the benefits of baptism last a lifetime and longer; they last into eternal life. Every day of our lives, each Christian can face the enemies of the devil and the world and the flesh with confidence, knowing that we have been rescued from their power. Baptism guarantees each of us a share in the victory Jesus won for us on the cross. J.

Holy Baptism (part two)

Jesus says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Luther explains: “What benefits does baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

Salvageable adds: That triple blessing of forgiveness, rescue, and eternal life were won by Jesus on the cross. He shares those gifts with all who believe in him. Baptism is a means of grace because it conveys those gifts to each individual Christian. God’s promise is made personal through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Baptism is also an adoption ceremony. No one is a child of God through being created by God. All of us have strayed like wandering sheep, forsaking the God who made us. None of us deserve to call him Father. Jesus claims us for his Kingdom and makes God our Father by his sacrifice on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus pays the full price for our adoption. Holy Baptism is the ceremony that applies that payment personally to each Christian. Even Jesus was baptized. He did not need to be baptized. He is the true Son of God and does not require an adoption. He is sinless and needs no forgiveness. He overcame death and the devil and already possess eternal life. Yet Jesus was baptized to (in his words) “fulfill all righteousness.” His baptism grants power to our baptisms. Through the adoption conducted by Holy Baptism, the Father of Jesus Christ sees each of us as his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Mark 16:16 clearly says that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. It also clearly says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. Whoever has been baptized but does not believe remains condemned. Baptism did not fail that person, but that person failed to remain in the faith given by God.

The verse does not address the question about someone who believes but is not baptized. God does not want us to live in doubt. He prefers that whoever comes to faith should be baptized as soon as possible to remove any doubt about God’s promise. Likewise, Christian parents arrange for their children to be baptized at the first opportunity. Trusting the promise of God and the power of his Word, they seek his guarantee, just as Peter said on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). J.

Holy Baptism (part one)

Jesus says: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

Luther explains: “What is Baptism? Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.”

Salvageable adds: The Word of God that empowers Holy Baptism is God’s name—that name that describes him as three Persons yet one God (“in the name,” not, “in the names”). When that name is spoken while water is applied to a person, a baptism occurs. God does not say how much water to use. Clearly, if someone were to substitute some other name for God’s name—or some other substance for water—no baptism would occur. When a baptism has occurred, however, that person is baptized, and under no account should that person be baptized again.

Baptism does not depend upon the goodness of the person being baptized. The person being baptized is a sinner who needs a Savior. Baptism brings that person to Jesus, the only Savior. Baptism does not depend upon anything said by the person being baptized. Those who were not baptized as children are usually taught the beliefs of the Church before being baptized, but even little children receive the benefits of baptism. Jesus told his Church to baptize all nations, not all adults. He said that we must enter his kingdom in the manner of little children. The apostles, according to the book of Acts, baptized entire households, and households usually include children.

Baptism does not even depend upon the goodness of the person performing the ceremony. If a Christian was to learn that the person who performed his or her baptism was a hypocrite, a heretic, an imposter, or even an unbeliever, the baptism would still be valid. Baptism depends upon God’s promises, which is why baptism is not done a second time even if the person who once was baptized spends years as an unbeliever and an enemy of Christ and His Church. J.

The Means of Grace

Last fall, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, I wrote a series of posts sharing and commenting upon Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I covered Luther’s teachings on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Most of Luther’s approach to those key Christian teachings are probably familiar and comfortable to the majority of Christians, particularly Protestants in North America and Europe. The remaining sections may seem more controversial. In fact, many Lutherans say that they are not Protestants, because other Protestant groups lack the Sacramental teachings that are basic to Lutheranism. To provide some context to my forthcoming posts on Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys, and Holy Communion, I have written the following summary of Luther’s understanding of the means of grace.

Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something Christians do for God; faith is God’s gift to us. As Luther wrote, when explaining the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.” This calling, enlightening, sanctifying, and keeping us in the faith is done by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. We come to faith through the means of grace and we are kept in the true faith by the means of grace. The means of grace are those gifts Luther had in mind when he said that the Holy Spirit “enlightened me with His gifts.” These gifts are not the abilities listed in I Corinthians 12; nor are they the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. They are, instead, those things that we often describe as holy: the Holy Bible, the Holy Christian Church, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

All these holy gifts come from God. All of them have the power to convey the forgiveness of sins. All of them create and sustain faith. All of them guarantee the believer eternal life and victory over our enemies. All of them are empowered by the Word of God.

The Bible is the Word of God. Written by prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit, the books of the Bible are God’s Word even though they are also human words. The writers kept their own personalities and their ways of expressing themselves. Yet the Holy Spirit guided them in delivering God’s message, and he protected them from making any errors as they wrote. Luther did not write a section of the Small Catechism about the Bible because the entire Catechism is based upon the Bible. The other means of grace are described in the Catechism, using the Bible to show how they operate as God’s means of grace. Each of them is empowered by God’s Word. Christians are not meant to choose among the means of grace, trusting some and neglecting others. Christians are meant to find comfort and strength in all the means of grace.

Holy Baptism draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word it is only water; because of his Word, it accomplishes all that God promises. The Holy Christian Church draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Through the Office of the Keys, Jesus granted his Church the power to share his forgiveness with repentant sinners. Holy Communion draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word, it is only a tiny snack—a bite of bread and a sip of wine. Because of God’s Word, Holy Communion delivers the body and blood of Jesus to everyone who eats and drinks, conveying saving faith and forgiveness to all who believe that Word.

 

Advent

Last year Christmas was on a Sunday and the season of Advent was as long as it can be—twenty-eight days. This year Christmas is on a Monday and Advent is as short as it can be—twenty-two days.

In traditional congregations, Advent is a time of preparation, not merely for the celebration of Christmas, but for the presence of Christ himself. When Advent is treated as a countdown to Christmas, it provides little comfort or peace. Advent can instead be an oasis, a quiet place in the midst of the world’s mad rush toward its Yuletide observances that overlap the Christmas holiday. For many worldly Americans, the season of Christmas begins in mid-October (or, at the latest, on Thanksgiving) and lasts until the sun goes down on December 25 (or perhaps lingers a few days longer, maybe even to the end of the year). On the traditional Christian calendar, December 25 is the first day of Christmas and eleven more days follow that belong also to the Christmas season. Advent consists of the four Sundays before Christmas and all the other days that happen between the First Sunday of Advent and sunset on the night of December 24, Christmas Eve. (For that reason, traditional Christian churches this year will observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent on the morning of the 24th and Christmas Eve on the evening of the same day.)

The word advent means “coming.” Commonly, Christians speak of the season of Advent as threefold, involving a past Advent, a present Advent, and a future Advent. From a human point of view, the distinction is useful. The spirit of Advent Past recalls the Old Testament believers waiting for the promised Messiah, including John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord. This Advent Past comes to fulfillment when Christ is born in Bethlehem and proceeds on a rescue mission which takes him to a cross and a grave in Jerusalem. The spirit of Advent Present recalls the ways Jesus is present for his people today: in the power of his Word, the Bible; in the proclamation of forgiveness in his Church; and in the Sacraments of his Church—Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The spirit of Advent Future directs attention to the Day of the Lord, when Jesus will appear in glory with all the angels of heaven and all the saints. The dead will be raised, the Judgment of the Lord will be announced, and the new creation will begin—an eternal wedding feast of Christ and his Bride, the Church, and an unending celebration of the victory Christ won in his first advent and now shares with his people through his present advent.

Like all human beings, Christians move through time, from past to present and from present to future. Jesus is the Son of God. He created time; he exists outside of time, unchanging and eternal; he moves through time in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us. When Jesus ascended forty days after his resurrection, he “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Time is included among “all things,” so that the Son of Mary could eat with Abraham and wrestle with Jacob. The Son of Mary, hands scarred by the nails that held him to the cross, could shape the earth into the body of Adam and sculpt a woman, a teammate for Adam, from one of Adam’s ribs.

As I wrote here, the future advent of Jesus is not a return, because Jesus is always with us. His appearing to judge all people and to inaugurate the new creation is an important teaching of the Bible and the Church, but for Jesus it is a reality that has already occurred. As Christians wait for the fulness of the victory that was won in Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus says that we already have abundant and eternal life, we already belong to the kingdom of God, and we are already children of God (through the adoption purchased by Jesus on the cross). John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he {Jesus} appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). The puzzle of time as it relates to Jesus and to his people cannot fully be solved this side of the Day of the Lord, but the season of Advent allows us to rest in the assurance that all is solved and secure in the hands of the Lord. J.