Happy?

Doug asks me if I am happy. That’s not an easy question to answer; a simple “yes” or “no” does not suffice. For one thing, I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Other those conditions are under control, relatively speaking, they have not gone away or disappeared. I even wrote a book about being Christian and facing those symptoms. Add to that the fact that I am a Chicago sports fan, suffering through unsatisfactory seasons from the Cubs and Bears and Bulls, and “happy” is not likely to be the first word that comes to mind.

Part of my temperament is existential angst. I am an imperfect person living in an imperfect world. Put into theological terms, I am a sinner living in a sin-polluted world. I know by faith that Christ has defeated all evil and death, that he shares his victory with those who trust in him, and that I have been claimed for his kingdom. From those assurances, I receive inner joy and inner peace. Those qualities do not erase symptoms of anxiety and depression; they do not bring about happiness on the surface. The existential perspective suggests that anyone who can be happy all the time in this mixed-up world must be delusional, or at the very least unaware of the things that are happening around us. We all have passing pleasures and delights. Converting them into lasting happiness requires a shallow personality which I do not possess.

Since ancient times, philosophers have said that happiness is the goal of human existence. Socrates and Confucius both offered philosophical approaches to achieving a happy life. Some schools of philosophy, such as the Greek and Roman Stoics and the Buddhists, have said that happiness comes from nonattachment to the world, not basing happiness on anything outside of ourselves, but being apathetic toward the surrounding world. Others recommend maximizing the enjoyment of what is good and minimizing the agony of what is bad—maintaining a positive mental attitude, looking for the bright side of life, seeking the silver lining of every cloud, and viewing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. While these approaches are effective for some people, they leave others exhausting, struggling to achieve happiness, portraying themselves as cheerful rather than being honest about their feelings, and denying their friends and family the opportunity to support them in their times of need.

Respect for our neighbors (and for our own well-being) suggests that we be honest with others about our feelings. At the same time, we do not want to be a burden to others. We do not want our gloom to darken their days. We do not want to rain on their parade. We do not want, whenever we enter a room, to have people looking around and asking each other, “Who just left?”

Am I happy? Sorry, Doug, but there’s no hands clapping in my corner. Yet I would not say that I am unhappy. Like everyone else, I’m taking the bad with the good, the raisins with the chocolate chips, the rainy days with the sunny days. And a few more rainy days this summer might be needed for the long-term health of the lawn, the garden, and the nearby farms. J.

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Fruit of the Spirit: a sermon (used by permission)

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no Law.” (Galatians 5:16-23)

              When I was a young adult, the Christian Church in the United States seemed to have a fascination with the topic of spiritual gifts. Maybe this was a fad that has run its course; maybe I was more aware of the discussion at the time because of my youth. But it seemed that Christians everywhere, from groups on campus to Lutheran congregations, were asked and invited to fill out inventories in which they assessed their spiritual gifts. Often they would be invited to join certain boards and committees or to engage in certain tasks based on their self-assessments of their spiritual gifts. This process was a handy way of recruiting Sunday School teachers and choir members, but it also had a higher significance. It required Christians and Christian groups to define spiritual gifts and to explain how they are different from other talents and abilities.

              To some people there was no difference. Anything a person could do well was considered a spiritual gift. To other people, the difference was important. God the Father, who created us and gave us our bodies, our minds, and all our abilities, had made each of us unique and special. But the Holy Spirit, who entered our lives, gave us faith in Jesus, and taught us to imitate Jesus, also bestowed us with abilities that went beyond what we received in creation. We were given spiritual ways to serve the Church, to be of use to our fellow Christians, and to honor God with our lives. Knowing our spiritual gifts mattered precisely because those gifts were intended to serve the people of God and were not to be wasted on the world, on those outside the Church.

              The second group of Christians was wrong. Dividing the creating work of God the Father and the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit implies a false distinction within the Holy Trinity. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God. They worked together in creation, and they work together in sanctification. Likewise, God does not distinguish between our service to neighbors in the world and our service to neighbors in the Church. We all have vocations, callings, opportunities to love our neighbors and help them. These callings are exercised in the home with our families. They are exercised in the community with our neighbors. They are exercised in our careers. They are exercised in volunteer opportunities. They also are exercised in the congregation. Sometimes we do things for one another in church that we do not get to do anywhere else. More often, we do things for one another in the church that we also do for our families and for other gatherings. Doing them at church does not make them more spiritual; doing them other places does not make them less spiritual. We are Christians every hour of the day, not just when we are at church. We love God and love our neighbors every hour of the day, not just when we are at church.

              We serve one another at church. Because I am called to be pastor, I preach the sermon and lead the service. In a large congregation, we might have a preacher, a liturgist, a lector to read the lessons from the Bible, and an acolyte to light the candles and put them out. Other members of the congregation lead the music, ring the bell, keep the building clean, and prepare snacks for us to enjoy after the service. We all put money in the offering plate. We all pray for the congregation and for one another during the week. We support one another, and together we do the work of the Church. We use our God-given abilities, our resources, and our opportunities, to enrich the lives of one another. But all of us also do things for our families, our communities, our country, and the world in general—even if those things are nothing more than to pray. That work also is loving service to our neighbors for the glory of God. That loving service also involves spiritual gifts.

              In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit. He contrasts the fruit of the Spirit to the works of the flesh. It might seem unfair that the works of the flesh add up to fifteen activities while Paul lists only nine fruits of the Spirit. No wonder the devil tempts us to think that sinners have more fun than saints. But both lists are open-ended. Both are summaries of works and fruits, summaries of lists that could be much longer. Both lists describe ways of life, one which fits into the sinful world and one that belongs to the eternal kingdom of God. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit comes out nicely in our English translation. We have three fruits of one syllable, three fruits of two syllables, and three fruits of three syllables. The verse is easy to remember, easy even to set to music. And this list of nine fruits of the Spirit might seem like a convenient sermon outline, a way for preachers to describe Christian living with a paragraph on love, a paragraph on joy, a paragraph on peace, and on through the entire list.

              But that outline would also be a mistake. Talking about love and joy and peace and the rest in that fashion would sound too much like Law, telling us how Christians should live, how we should be different from the sinful world. If a preacher took this verse and said, “Thou shalt love; thou shalt rejoice; thou shalt have peace,” that preacher would be missing the point. Paul did not intend to describe how Christians must live. He was telling us the consequences of being a Christian, the results of being forgiven by God and claimed for his kingdom. Paul was not writing about commandments; he was describing fruit, the natural result of being alive in the kingdom of God.

              The fifteen works of the flesh listed by Paul are all against God’s Law. They describe how a sinner lives, a person who has chosen to rebel against God’s Law. We compare that list to our lives, and we might be tempted to focus on the things we have never done, or perhaps the things we used to do when we were younger but have stopped doing. We like the Law when it tells us we are right. But Paul’s list also identifies weak points for each of us. If we are able to avoid sorcery and orgies, that does not mean that we are also free from jealousy, envy, rivalry, and divisions. All these works of the flesh are wrong. They all reflect a life that is self-centered, a life that is lacking love for God and love for our neighbors. They all show us why we need a Savior, why are lives are not good enough for God without the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

              Christ has set us free. He set us free from our sins. He set us free from sins committed against us. He set us free from the burden of the Law. He set us free to be children of God, to live the lives God had in mind when he created us and the world around us. Jesus lived a pure, sinless, God-pleasing life in this sinful world. He showed us how perfect love looks in this world. Jesus also took our sins and our guilt and paid for them on the cross. He ransomed us, paying to reclaim us for the kingdom of God and to reconcile us to his Father. Jesus defeated all our enemies, rising to life to prove his victory and to promise each of us a share in his victory.

              We are free because of what Jesus did for us. We are not free to return to our sins, to the works of the flesh. We are free to be children of God. We are free to do those things that God had in mind when he created us. We are free to live with love, with joy, with peace, and with all the fruits of the Spirit. These qualities have nothing to do with God’s Law. They are not against the Law, but they also are not governed and regulated by the Law. They belong to us as free children of God, not as rewards for obeying the Law. They do not describe what we must do because of God’s Law; they describe what we have because of God’s Gospel, because of the work Jesus has done to rescue us from sin and to reconcile us to his Father.

              When God created us, he wanted us to bear that fruit. He wants the same for all people. Jesus wanted even Judas Iscariot and the high priest Caiaphas and the governor Pontius Pilate to have lives filled with love and joy and peace. If they rejected those lives and those blessings, that was not Christ’s fault. He paid on the cross to redeem them. He prayed that their sins would be forgiven. He wished to welcome them into Paradise as surely as he wished to welcome the repentant thief, the apostles Peter and John, the women from Galilee, and all people into his Father’s kingdom.

              We were created for lives marked with love, joy, peace, and all the rest of the fruits of the Spirit. We lost those fruits because of sin. We turned away from God, doing things our way instead of his way. We fell short of the glory of God, and we were no longer capable of bearing those fruits. In God’s orchard, we were empty trees, taking up space without bearing fruit. We were destined to become nothing more than firewood.

              But the work of Jesus changed us. He went to the dead wood of the cross to make us living trees in God’s orchard. He suffered and died for us so we can live forever. He poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church so we can believe his promises and be saved by his work. He set us free so we can bear fruit for God, so we can enjoy love and joy and peace and all of God’s blessings in our lives today and in our eternal lives in the kingdom of God.

              The Holy Spirit continues to work in our lives, keeping us alive so we can bear fruit. He gives us faith in Jesus, and he sustains that faith in our hearts. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to bring us faith in Jesus. He uses the Law of God to diagnose our need for a Savior, but in the Gospel promises he tells us about our Savior, Jesus Christ. He gathers us around those Gospel promises in the Church. When we confess our sins, he assures us that we are forgiven through Jesus. The Holy Spirit washes us clean in the water of Holy Baptism. He brings us to the Table of the Lord, where we receive the body and blood of our Savior, making us confident of forgiveness, of eternal life in God’s kingdom, and of our share in Christ’s victory over all our enemies.

              While we live in this sinful world, we remain sinners who need a Savior. At the very same time, we are also saints who know our Savior. We are confident of his victory and of his blessings for our lives. We live, not under the burden of the Law, but under the freedom of the Gospel. Knowing we are forgiven, we are able to forgive those who sin against us. Knowing that we will live forever in God’s kingdom, we are able to live today as citizens of that eternal kingdom.

              Today we practice for heaven. We live with love, with joy, and with peace. We built our qualities of patience and kindness and goodness. We exercise faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We do these things, not to earn a place in heaven, but because we know that we have a place in heaven. Being citizens of heaven, we bring a taste of heaven into the lives we live today. To God the Father, who created us to have these blessings; to Jesus Christ, who gave himself to give us these blessings; to the Holy Spirit, who pours these blessings into our lives every day, be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                         Amen.

The clam in the middle of the storm

I have been absent from WordPress for several days, not because of a deliberate social media fast (a practice which meets with my approval), but simply because of the business of the season. In addition to the usual Advent and Christmas activities, some extra events have also been occupying my time. For one thing, I will be speaking this week at the funeral of a long-time church member; she asked me some months ago to speak at her funeral, and I promised to do so, neither of us knowing at the time that this would happen during the latter part of the Advent season. When her son called to let me know she had died and to repeat the request on behalf of the family, his words were tangled (as happens to most of us at stressful times). He wanted to say that the family would be honored to have me speak, but he kept saying instead that it would be an honor for me to speak at his mother’s funeral. Which it is, in fact, but I know what he was trying to say.

Last February, in the midst of a record-breaking spell of winter weather, two of my daughters moved into a new apartment. Most things have gone well for them in their new place, but this month they began finding that water was leaking into their apartment, soaking the carpeting and pooling on the harder floors. The apartment management sent repair specialists to find and fix the leak, but in a larger building with several units that task is harder than it is in a single-family house. As a result, we have been housing refugees this month—three cats and a dog, although the dog was only here part of the time. The dog managed to complicate matters, though, by breaking through a window because a neighbor of my daughters was walking his dog; this meant that my daughter’s dog needed time at a veterinary clinic, resulting in family being out on the road in the midst of several, tornado-bearing thunderstorms Friday night. All went well for my family, though, and we pray for those who suffered greater losses in those terrible storms.

Christmas decorations are going up in and around the house, although we seem to have more electrical problems than usual this year. The blue lights we string across the front of the house had segments that would not light. I suspect that many households that use this kind of decoration buy new strings of bulbs every year and do not try to store them and reuse them as we do. Then we had similar problems with the lights for the Christmas tree indoors. I was able to get one of three dysfunctional strings working. Another has a segment that will not light but is bundled together and hidden on the back side of the tree. The third one that refuses to work is being kept as a source for replacement bulbs, as a fair number of bulbs are burnt out. I assure them that I can relate. I shopped online for replacement bulbs, but they are hard to find; the only ones available include the bulb but no socket, meaning that replacement involves threading the tiny wires of the new bulb through the old socket. Cannibalizing the extra string clearly is the better choice.

And I have messages to prepare for other audiences, which is why WordPress sinks lower on my list of priorities. I was reading one message this weekend before sharing it and discovered a typo that Word’s spellcheck failed to notice. Speaking about the Biblical encouragement to rejoice (and I say it again: Rejoice!—Philippians 4:4), I described how that word seems sometimes like a commandment, like the commandment not to be anxious. Both these messages, I said, are promises and not commandments. We should not put extra pressure on ourselves, trying to rejoice, trying not to worry. Instead, we understand that Jesus has already fixed our problems. For that reason, we rejoice and do not worry. Speaking of the “peace at the center” that comes from having Christ at the center (of our lives and of our holiday observances), I wrote about the clam in the middle of the storm. There is potential for a great message based around that picture, but I haven’t had time to write that message; I simply changed the word “clam” back to “calm.”

As time permits, I hope to finish my series of world history posts, wrapping up the Victorian Age and carrying through the twentieth century—World Wars, the Great Depression, post-modernism, and globalization. But I have already created an outline for yet another book, one which will focus on philosophy, especially questions about truth and how we know what is true. Among other things, this book will acknowledge the possibility (popularized in the Matrix movies) that we are living in a simulated world and not in reality. Given current scientific understandings of general relativity, subatomic physics, quantum mechanics, and the nature of time, the simulation theory is not far-fetched; moreover, it may mesh nicely with a creationist, young-earth perspective. But that writing will not appear until next month.

Blessings to each of you in your Advent observances. J.

John Lennon (1940-1980)

John Lennon was born eighty years ago today—October 9, 1940.

Without John Lennon, there would have been no Beatles. Surely some other group or individual would have filled the gap that the Beatles occupied, but their artistry and creativity would have been different. As a result, the 1960s and history since that time would also have been different.

When Paul McCartney met John Lennon in 1956, John was leading a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. (Skiffle is a British folk music, not unlike some of the Appalachian and Ozark folk music still performed today in the United States.) Paul and John established a musical partnership, that was soon joined by George Harrison. Other members came and went, and various names were used by the group. The Beatles did not approach the peak of success, though, until Ringo Starr became the regular drummer of the group in 1962.

In their early years, the Beatles performed many rock-and-roll hits from the United States, from black performers as well as white performers. They paid as much attention to B-side songs as to the promoted hits. They also wrote their own songs and performed them. An early Beatles hit, “Please Please me,” reveals both the word-play for which John became famous and the innovate harmonies that helped the Beatles to stand out from the crowd of early Sixties musicians. While Paul is sometimes considered the more musical of the pair, comparing Paul’s “And I Love Her” to John’s “If I Fell” (both from the album and movie Hard Day’s Night) reveals that they had equal and complementary talents. When the Beatles stopped touring and became a studio band, John was able to direct his word-play into more complex songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and, “I Am the Walrus.” But his musical abilities were also evident in songs such as “All You Need is Love,” which sounds like a simple rock anthem but has a complicated rhythmic structure which, every so often, drops half a beat.

John had a troubled childhood. Both his parents were absent, and John was raised by an aunt; his mother, Julia, died while John was still a child. (Oddly, Paul’s mother Mary also died while Paul was young.) John was perpetually contemptuous of authority and found it hard to maintain stable relationships. He was the first of the Beatles to marry; also the first to divorce and remarry. He was as absent from his sons’ lives as his father had been absent from his. John admitted that his promotion of love and peace for the world did not match the life he was living. John also experimented with a number of mind-altering substances, drawing his fellow Beatles and many other people into the drug culture of the later Sixties. He was briefly interested in Transcendental Meditation, a version of the Hindu religion promoted by a yogi who became very famous and wealthy as a result of his teaching. As the members of the Beatles sought meaning for their lives in various forms and aspects, the group fractured. John’s solo career was noted especially for the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” and the ballad “Imagine,” both of which are frequently quoted in contemporary conversations about life, politics, religion, and idealism.

John retired from the musical scene for several years, then began a comeback with new music in 1980. In December of that year, he was shot and killed by a deranged fan. As the Beatle martyr, John’s image and reputation became even more strongly associated with the values of peace and love. The Beatles remain cultural icons today, not only as representatives of the Sixties but as creators of music that continues to entertain, having passed the test of time. In the decades since the Beatles, many performers have enjoyed successful careers, but no one has shaped and defined music and culture as much as the Beatles did in their time. J.

Merry Christmas

For the next few days, I will be living “off the grid” so that I can focus this Christmas season on Christ, on Church, and on family. I will return next week to continue my series on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and to write of other things.

Let me take this opportunity to wish each of you a merry and blessed Christmas. May God richly bless you and those you love during this holy season and in the coming new year. And (as I said yesterday to two coworkers who are retiring), may you have as much fun and excitement as you want and as much peace and calm as you want. J.

Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When the Great War ended in 1918, people hoped and longed for peace. The horrors of that war seemed to make future war unthinkable, which is why the Great War was described in the United States as “the war to end all wars.” A League of Nations was created, but the League could not prevent a second World War. The Cold War came quickly on the heels of that war. Even when the Cold War ended at the end of the twentieth century, peace was not established on earth. Hatred and warfare and violence continue to be the pattern humanity follows in the twenty-first century.

Peace is not as interesting as war. If a fight breaks out, people want to know who won. They do not ask whether anyone tried to keep the peace and prevent the fight.

For all the world’s rhetoric about peace, the peacemaker receives very little respect. Even though the Nobel Prize Committee awards a Peace Prize every year, few people acknowledge the individuals who live from day to day trying their best to stay out of fights, striving to get along with other people. Like the person who is meek, the peacemaker is either mocked or ignored in the world. The fighter who wins gains respect and admiration; the peacemaker who avoids a fight is forgotten.

Jesus Christ calls us to live lives of peace. He wants us to be peacemakers. Jesus wants us to imitate him. He entered the world on account of the war between good and evil, and he won the decisive battle for the side that is good. Even so, Jesus did not come to destroy all that is evil. He came to rescue evildoers like us and to claim us for the side that is good. We were enemies of God, but Jesus came to make us God’s friends—and more than friends: Jesus came to make us sons of God.

God has only one Son. Jesus is God’s only-begotten Son, begotten by the Father outside of time and existing with the Father for all eternity. Although the fact that God created us might make us his children, our sins against God have broken the family relationship. We have run away from home; we are no longer worthy to be called God’s children.

Still, God calls us his sons. Because his only-begotten Son gave himself as a sacrifice to pay for our sins, we are reconciled to God. We are now right with him. The death of Jesus pays the cost of our adoption into God’s family. Because the payment was a Son, we are now sons—able to inherit all that Jesus left to us in his death?

What did Jesus leave us? Not money or property in a worldly sense: the only property Jesus owned was the clothing he was wearing, and the soldiers claimed that clothing. What did Jesus leave us? He left us the rewards of a perfect and sinless life: the blessings of God, the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect world, and all the help we need for our lives in this world. Because Jesus died for us, we will inherit the earth. We do not deserve this inheritance. We have not earned it by being meek, or even by being peacemakers. Our inheritance is a blessing: it is God’s gift to us.

We are changed by this gift. God’s blessings shape our lives. Because God calls us his sons, we have peace with God, peace with each other, and peace with the good world God made. Living in the confidence of this promised peace, we also bring that peace to others. We become peacemakers when we refuse to fight over the petty problems of the world. We become peacemakers when we seek peace with others rather than victory over others. We become peacemakers when we share the good news of what Jesus has done, the good news that brings peace. Because God calls us his sons, and because God’s only-begotten Son is the Prince of Peace, we now are peacemakers. J.

Advent thoughts: December 22

“The latter glory of this house [the Temple] shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9—read Haggai 2:1-9).

When they sacked Jerusalem, the Babylonian soldiers destroyed the glorious Temple that Solomon had built for the Lord. Seventy years later, the Persians sacked Babylon; the Persian emperor allowed the Jews to return and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Some of the elderly Jews could remember Solomon’s Temple, and they wept, seeing the far more plain Temple that was being erected on the same spot.

God sent his prophet Haggai to comfort those who mourned over the simpler second Temple. Speaking for the Lord, Haggai promised that the glory of the second Temple would exceed the glory of Solomon’s Temple. God promised that he would be present in this new Temple. He said that he would bring the wealth of nations into the new Temple. He said that in that place, the new Temple, the Lord would give peace.

All these promises were fulfilled when Jesus came into the Temple. His first arrival was as a baby, forty days old, when Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to fulfill the ceremonies required by the old covenant for the birth of a first-born son. Simeon and Anna both recognized their Savior in that infant, and they spoke to others about the promises of God that were being fulfilled in their time.

When he was twelve, Jesus spent three days in the Temple, discussing Torah with the Bible experts and amazing them by his wisdom and understanding. During those three days Jesus was missing, lost to his family as far as they knew. This loss was a picture of the Passover when Jesus would be arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. Once again he was lost to his family and friends for three days, but on the third day he rose from the dead, and they found him alive, just as he had promised.

As an adult, Jesus taught in the Temple and debated his enemies. Once again, by his presence Jesus made the Temple holy. Its glory was greater than the glory of Solomon’s Temple, not because of silver and gold, but because the true Temple was making his presence known in this new Temple in Jerusalem.

Both Solomon’s Temple and the second Temple were pictures of Jesus. A god dwells in a temple and is accessible to his people in that temple. In the Person of Jesus God dwelt among his people, and Jesus still makes his Father accessible to those who come to the Father through Jesus. The Church is the body of Jesus and is therefore also his Temple. In the Church the nations have entered the Temple, bringing their silver and their gold, making a far more glorious Temple than Solomon’s one building in Jerusalem.

The nations of the world still suffer strife and violence and war. The nations gathered in the Temple—the Church, the body of Christ—have received peace. The Prince of Peace bestows his blessings to all who come to him in faith. Peace on earth is promised by angels. Through Christ we receive the peace that surpasses all human understanding. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 14

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1—read Isaiah 11:1-10).

Jesse was the father of David, who became king of Israel. David was promised that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. But Isaiah foresaw a time that Jerusalem would be conquered and the king, the descendant of David would be made a captive in Babylon. Seventy years later the king’s grandson Zerubbabel would return to Jerusalem, not a king but a subject of the Persian Empire. For centuries the Promised Land would belong to other governments. The royal family would be a stump, the remnant of a tree that had been chopped down and removed.

Sometimes a new shoot comes from the living roots of a stump. Left to grow, that shoot can become another tree. Isaiah promised this for David’s family: when the time was right, a branch would grow from David’s family, and that branch would be the fulfillment of the promise God made to David, the promise that his descendant would rule an eternal kingdom.

Jesus is that branch. He was born in Bethlehem so he could inherit the kingdom of David. He grew up in Nazareth and was called a Nazarene—a name that sounds like the Hebrew word for “branch.” The Holy Spirit led Jesus—the sevenfold Spirit described by Isaiah. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. All these qualities Jesus possesses, and he is the King who judges with righteousness as Isaiah also described.

Isaiah proceeds to picture the Kingdom of peace ruled by Jesus. Once predator and prey, now animals become friends and dwell together. Nothing in all creation is harmful; everything is at peace with everything else. This perfect peace, this Shalom, is the gift of Jesus. The new creation that begins on the Day of the Lord will be marked by that Shalom. From that time on, there will be no danger. Nothing will be poisonous; we will have no allergies. Fleas and ticks and mosquitoes will not annoy us, and we will finally learn God’s intention in creating these creatures in the first place. The balance of bacteria in us and on us and around us will be perfect; no germs or viruses will sicken us, but even the tiniest living creatures will act for our benefit.

This new creation will have no sin and no death. All people will live together in harmony with God and with one another. Many of our current occupations will not be needed. We will not need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or therapists. We will not need police officers, lawyers, judges, or prison guards. We will not need pastors, because everyone will have direct and continuous access to the Lord.

Yet there still will be occupations and callings. Some will tend the plants and others the animals; others will work in art or in technology of various kinds. People will prepare food for others to eat. People will honor God and serve each other in a variety of ways. Probably the things you most enjoy doing now, those things that absorb your attention so much that you lose track of the time, these are the things you will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

All this is guaranteed to us by the root and branch of Jesse, by Jesus the King who rules eternally. He was once mocked as King of the Jews, given a crown twisted out of thorns, a reed for his scepter, and a purple robe that was just a scrap of spare fabric. But this mocked and abused King is the Prince of Peace, the one who brings his people into a new creation to live with him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

PS: When I got home, I found that a circuit breaker had tripped, interrupting power to the modem, computer, and a few other outlets. I turned it back on, but it tripped again, with a popping noise in the dining room. It appears that rain water has gotten into the wall of the house and is interfering with the electricity. We are leaving that circuit off for the time being and will have it examined next week. Meanwhile, I have an extension cord crossing the room to bring power to the computer and modem.

Advent thoughts: December 13

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….” (Isaiah 9:2, 6—read Isaiah 9:1-7).

We all began in darkness. We all started as enemies of God, blind to his truth, unable to comprehend the things God was saying to us. Our nature was to be selfish, to demand what we wanted when we wanted it, to be unconcerned about the inconvenience we caused anyone else. We were at the center of the world. We were our own gods, and we demanded that everyone worship us and serve us.

It is one thing to teach people to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you,” to have good manners both in public and at home. But good manners do not dispel the darkness. They may hide our selfishness from others, but they do not cause our selfishness to disappear. Only the light can dispel the darkness. Only the light can clear away sin and cause people to be truly loving, true servants to God and to their neighbors.

That light has come. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome the light. Whenever light and darkness battle, light wins. It is the nature of light to shine and to remove darkness. It is the nature of darkness to be beaten whenever it confronts the light.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. He is not born only to Mary and Joseph; he is not given only to the two of them. He is born to all of us. The angel told the shepherds, “A Savior has been born to you.” As Mary represents all the believers of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church in declaring herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord, so she is in the place of all believers when she gives birth to her first-born Son. For the timeless Son of God was born once in time to redeem people from every time, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to the last child conceived before Christ appears in glory to make everything new.

When Handel wrote music for these words of Isaiah, he put a musical pause between Wonderful and Counselor. They belong together as one name: Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor who tells us the truth we need to know because he is the Truth. He deserves our wonder, our awe, our amazement at who he is and at what he has done for us. Because he has redeemed us, we now receive his counsel to guide our lives and to grant us eternal life.

He is also the Mighty God. The child lying in the manger is running the universe at the very same time. All things are possible for him, but he only does the things that are right, that match his Law, that benefit the people around him. When Jesus began to work miracles, he only worked them for other people in need. He fed thousands in the wilderness; but when he was hungry, he did not feed himself. He healed others, but he allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. He stopped storms, but he did not stop the crowd from arresting him or the Roman solders from mocking him.

He is the Everlasting Father. In the timelessness of God, relations are changeable, so the Bride of Christ can also give birth to him. We are all children of God through the work of Jesus, making Christ our Father as well as our Brother. Because he is the Son of God, God calls us sons—we are adopted into his family through Christ’s work. Because we are children of the Church, Christ’s Bride, Jesus is our Father just as his Father has become our Father.

He is the Prince of Peace. His entry into this world meant war with the devil and with the sinful world and with sin in general, but Jesus won that war. We started out in darkness as enemies of God, but through redemption God has made peace with us. That peace is Shalom—not merely an absence of conflict, but the presence of goodness: a place for everything and everything in its place. Peace is not boring: it is harmony like a symphony orchestra; it is a blend of colors like a painting or like a flower garden.

All this Jesus has done for us. He is all these things to us. Because of what he has done, Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom, and we belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Contentment

Several times this month I have tried to write about contentment, but I was never satisfied with what I wrote. This might be an example of irony. It might be evidence that I do not heed my own advice. It might affirm the proverb that says, “Those who cannot do, teach.”

The Bible describes contentment. “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Proverbs 19:23). Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:6-8). “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).

In these verses contentment seems to rest in satisfaction with what possessions one has in this world—enough food, enough clothing, enough money, but none of these things in excess. Lotteries thrive on the lack of contentment in our society. Advertisements would not work if most people were content. Lack of contentment seems to be a driving force in many of the decisions people make every day, and in the large lifetime decisions people sometimes struggle to make.

The opposite of contentment is coveting. God has forbidden coveting in his Ten Commandments. Coveting is not merely wanting something; coveting is seeing what another person has and desiring it for one’s own. If you are happy to see your neighbor with a new car, you are not coveting—even if you admire the car and wish you could have one like it. When you see your neighbor’s new car and grumble, complaining how unfair life is, then you are coveting. When you are angry at people who have good things you do not have, then you are coveting. Coveting is a sin because you cannot love your neighbor while you covet what belongs to your neighbor. Moreover, you do not love and trust God when you are angry and unhappy because of the things you do not have.

God tells his people not to covet their neighbors’ house. This includes anything that can be bought with money—not only the building next door, but also the car, the clothing, the concert ticket or season ticket, or the winning lottery ticket. Whenever you ask, “Why him and not me?” you are in danger of coveting. God also tells his people not to covet their neighbor’s husband or wife, not to covet their neighbor’s workers, and not even to covet their neighbor’s work animals. This includes anything that is tied to a person by loyalty—pets and friends as well. In junior high school, people are sometimes very open about coveting each other’s friends, to the point of crying because “Susie likes Jane more that she likes me.” As adults we are more subtle about the way we covet, but sometimes we are still unhappy and even angry because of the friendships and relationships other people have that we do not have.

Contentment does not mean that we cannot plan for improvements, work to earn money to buy the things we want, or hope for a better life. We are content, not only with what we have today, but also with what is available to us in the future. Contentment does not mean being satisfied with mediocre work. A content person has done his or her best at a task, and when the task is finished, the content person is able to move on to something else. Contentment does not require us to tolerate evil. When we see wickedness and evil, these things should make us angry. Accepting evil and not resisting it is not being content—accepting evil and not resisting it is being calloused and cold.

Contentment is easier to define in negative ways than in positive ways. Yet contentment is not an absence of desire or of anger. Contentment is a positive state. Contentment is “peace at the center.” Contentment is confidence that God is working all things for good. Contentment is trusting God, while also working to serve God by loving him and by helping our neighbors. Like peace and joy, contentment is a deeper quality than happiness or pleasure. Contentment does not disappear even when things are going wrong. If a Christian is struggling with credit card debt, if a Christian is struggling to pass a difficult class, or if a Christian is lonely and looking for friends, that Christian can still be content. The forces of evil hate to see God’s people having peace and joy and contentment. They fight to strip these qualities away from the Christian. Yet peace and joy and contentment are rooted in God’s gift of faith, which is the very reason that our enemies cannot take away our peace and joy and contentment.

I have seen an inspirational poster that says, “Living in the future is anxiety. Living in the past is depression. Living in the present is contentment.” In part, I disagree. Happy memories and nostalgia also involve the past—not all thoughts of the past are depression. Hope and eager expectation also involve the future—not all thoughts of the future are anxiety. The only time in which a Christian can live, though, is today. God has guaranteed our future. He has already taken care of all our past problems. Now Jesus teaches his people to pray for daily bread, for daily forgiveness, for the ability to forgive others each day, for daily guidance, and for daily protection. Because of the work of Christ, we do not have to pray about the past. Because of the promises of God, we do not have to pray about the future. Jesus teaches us to live one day at a time, praying that day for that day’s needs.

This, I think, is the secret of being content. It starts with knowing God, trusting God, and loving God. It continues by living one day at a time, neither frightened of what is past or worried about what is to come. Living one day at a time, though, we can still thank God for the good things of the past, and we can hope for (and plan for) good things to come in the future. Before writing about his contentment, Paul first gave advice telling how to be content. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

I know one more secret about contentment. It cannot be pursued successfully. What a Buddhist says of enlightenment, I say of Christian contentment: the harder you seek it, the harder it is to find. You only receive it when you are not looking for it or trying to get it. When I was a boy I used to chase butterflies, but I never captured any. Now that I am a man, I sometimes sit in the garden, and butterflies land on my knee. May contentment come to you, not through your striving, but rather when you are least expecting it. J.