Advent Series

Hope is a good thing

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy writes a letter to Red and includes the following remark, “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”If I could respond to Andy, I would simply say, “Amen.” The reason, of course, is that hope truly is a good thing. Despite difficulties, hope is one of things that people everywhere hold onto, even if momentarily. Hoping admits frailty and attempts to look beyond the status quo, eagerly desiring and longing for something more. It’s good, yet it can be dangerous.

Grasping For Hope

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13:12

For several hundreds years, Israel did not hear a word from the LORD. The same mouth that spoke all things into existence at creation, chose not to speak for a time. This time in redemptive history was cold, dark, and grimmer than the ominous silence before an impending tsunami. Israel had been exiled and only a few returned home. Things were not the same. Would God keep his covenant? Would God deliver them from Greek rule? Roman rule? Questions abound.... It’s within this context the Christmas story arrives.

Luke writes, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Lk. 2:25, emphasis mine). Simeon kept the covenant by faith, hence Luke’s description in Luke 2:25. Here was a man who was waiting—expecting, hoping, and looking forward to Israel receiving comfort. Why was Israel in need of comfort? Grief. Pain. Frustration. Uncertainty. They lacked hope. That was status quo in Israel when the Christ was born.

Charles Wesley wrote of this in 1744 with the hymn, Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus:

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born Thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a King, Born to reign in us forever, now Thy gracious kingdom bring. By Thine of eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine own sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Longing, expectation, and hope of the kingdom—but where and when would it come? Anointed by the Holy Spirit, Simeon was granted divine revelation: “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Lk. 2:26). Simeon was promised that he would in fact see the messiah. Finally! Hope had dawned and, though the sunshine seemed dim, the brightness would come in the promised messiah.

Simeon followed the revelation and the leading of the Spirit and went to the temple where he met Joseph and Mary by divine appointment. Simeon holds the child then blesses God. In a fit of divine elation, Simeon thanks God for the fruition of the promise: He has seen God’s salvation. And that salvation will be a light to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Simeon grasped for hope and, in God’s wise counsel, this hope was held in his very own hands. The messiah would bring light, truth, salvation, and hope to all nations (Is. 42:6; 49:6; 60:1-3).

The Story Progresses

Fast forward to the end of Luke’s Gospel account. Jesus was betrayed, murdered, buried, and raised. Talk about a journey of hope! This promised messiah stared death in the face, brutally falling under the sword of divine wrath. I suspect if Simeon were present at the execution of Jesus, he might have asked the following questions: “Was this the same man I held in my arms? The one the Spirit promised would be messiah? Now that he is dead, how could he possible be the consolation of Israel?”

Those who watched Jesus being crucified could have benefited from this Psalm, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation” (Ps. 42:5).

Yet Christ was raised! Death couldn’t keep him for long; no, Jesus walked out of the tomb leaving death in the grave. “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 146:5). Jesus was blessed! God was his hope. Jesus saw his vindication on the other side of the cross.

Jesus then appears to a couple of his disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24). These disciples were walking along discussing among themselves the apparent failure of Jesus to bring the promised consolation to Israel. They say as much, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk. 24:21). Did you catch that? We had hoped.

Tension. Simeon was told that Jesus was the hope that was coming to the world to bring redemption. Yet it seemed as if Jesus failed. He died! Messiah’s don’t just die! Hope was already waning when Jesus was arrested and now it has all but dwindled.

Little do the disciples know that Jesus rose from the dead, so he explained that the entire Bible is about him (Lk. 24:27). After that, they share a meal, their eyes are opened, and they know it’s him. He immediately disappears from their presence. After admitting an odd case of divine heart-burn (Lk. 24:32), they spread the news: “Hope is here! Hope has come! Our consolation is truly here!” The gospel announcement marches forward.

Living In-Between

The consolation that Simeon and the disciples were desperate for is still the same consolation we long for. The kingdom of God was launched in the person and work of Christ. This kingdom is not yet here in its fullest expression. Christ has been enthroned and his crown rights should be acknowledged by all nations, but not all nations have been discipled. The hope that surrounds Jesus’ first coming propels the church’s mission forward, knowing that the future hope we have is guaranteed by the resurrection of Christ.

We can learn much from the first advent as we peer into the future, longing for the second. Jeremiah Burroughs comments, “Faith and hope purge and work a suitableness in the soul to the things believed and hoped for.”

The act of faith (trusting without seeing) coupled with hope (longing and expectation) shape and mold the soul in such a way as to align one’s heart with what is envisioned. In other words, whatever our hope is our lives are to be lived in such a way as to strive for it. The soul is built to desire—to desire is to hope and to hope is to desire. So what does Christian hope look like?

Christian hope is quiet and waits patiently. It cries out with the Psalmist, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry” (Ps. 40:1). Christian hope is also confident expectation. Sure, we wait patiently and quietly, but we also look forward confident in God to be faithful to his promises. To have confident expectation is to yearn for something. We “put out our necks” to see when God will come.

We live in-between.

To live in between the advents of messiah is to look back on what God has done with excitement and look forward to what God will do with eagerness. We hope in what is to come because we see what God has already done. Living in between the advent pushes future hope deep into the soul because God has already proven himself faithful. Hope is only as good as the presupposed promise and that promise comes from the God of all true and better promises.

Real, Robust Resurrection Hope

We can hope with full confidence because Jesus is alive. The down payment of the firstfruits of the resurrection in Christ is a done deal. Christ has died. Christ is risen. The objective reality of the empty tomb is the fuel that drives the engine of hope. Sure, we don’t see the entire picture: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). But we don’t have to. The future belongs to God and those to whom he chooses to give it. But that doesn’t undermine our hope. It drives it.

What Christians hold on to during Advent is not fuzzy feelings of the past. We don’t celebrate Advent because God did something real nice once before. We take time to celebrate Christ’s coming because of a real, robust resurrection hope. The tomb is empty. The gospel announcement has been shouted. Christ has come, yet he will come again. Hope is definitely a good thing. Yes, it is dangerous because we can hope in things that will disappoint. That’s reality when living in the in-between. But resurrection power has come and will come again. Is there a surer or greater hope?

Rev. Jason M. Garwood (M.Div., Th.D.) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI and author of Be Holy and The Fight for Joy. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at www.jasongarwood.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @jasongarwood.

Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

A Banquet Among Enemies

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. – Psalm 23:5

Hope, joy, peace, and love are probably not the first words that come to your mind when you think of refugees. You've likely seen the images of men, women, and children crammed into little rubber boats attempting to flee the blood thirst of ISIS. Many of them, to their horror, land on foreign soil only to be turned away. They are not welcome.

Joseph and the nine-months pregnant Mary were similarly turned away when they asked for refuge at an inn in Bethlehem. So the child-king and Savior of the world was born, not in a palace, not even in a Motel 6, but an animal stable and placed in a feeding trough as a makeshift crib.

God is so often nearest to those who are most desperate.He was there in the stable with the postpartum Mary, although just a babe. Those in extreme situations recognize more quickly their need for divine assistance while affluence and material comfort blind many of us. But make no mistake; we are all in need of God's rescue. An unknown author captured this in the opening lines of a seventh-century Advent hymn:

Creator of the stars of night, Thy people's everlasting light, Jesus, Redeemer, save us all, And hear Thy servants when they call. – Creator of the Stars of Night, trans. John M. Neale

His prayer was not for Jesus to save only the poor, or only the rich, but to save us all. We all suffer under the weight of the Fall and sin's deadly consequences. You may have seen the images of children beheaded at the hands of ISIS and felt the twist in your gut at the severe injustice. If you experienced feelings of hatred and rage, you were not alone.

Many are migrating away from their homeland to escape the wrath of ISIS so their children will not end up in a photograph passed around social media to stoke the sympathy of the West. God is not unfamiliar with the threat. Jesus was not yet two years old when his mother and adoptive father had to flee Bethlehem to escape a similar fate. Herod, the dictator-king of Judea, took the life of every small boy in the area (Matt. 2:13-18). He takes this rough measure to secure his self-worship and prevent a child-savior from threatening his rule. The hymn continues:

Thou, grieving that the ancient curse Should doom to death a universe, Hast found the medicine, full of grace, To save and heal a ruined race.

Could you imagine being one of the families who lost their son at the hands of Herod? Some in Iraq and Syria don't have to imagine; it’s their reality. The curse is real, and the death it brings permeates our entire universe. If you've wondered where God is in the midst of the chaos, you are not alone.

The child who escaped the sword of Herod was later crucified and disfigured at the hands of sinful men. A gruesome act of man that doubled as God's most glorious act of rescue, for Jesus laid his life down of his own accord (Jn. 10:18). He will soon return for his bride. His grace will save and heal our ruined human race.

The arrival of the child, in the unassuming stable, brought hope, joy, peace, and love.

Thou cam'st, the Bridegroom of the bride, As drew the world to evening-tide; Proceeding from a virgin shrine, The spotless Victim all divine.

Our consciences, at their best moments, are outraged at the heinous acts of ISIS. At their worst, they excuse us for our own heinous thoughts and deeds. While it feels difficult to identify with ISIS, we have more in common with them than we do with Jesus. We have the blood of Jesus, the only perfect one, on our hands. It was our sin that sent him to the cross. He would undergo the worst injustice humanity has ever seen. That child virgin-born would never experience guilt from his own thoughts or actions, for they were perfect always. But he became one of us and experienced a separation from the Father, all to rescue those who forsook him.

At Whose dread Name, majestic now, All knees must bend, all hearts must bow; And things celestial Thee shall own, And things terrestrial, Lord alone.

That baby in a stable was peaceful and adorable. But when he returns a second time the ledger will be made right. Yes, those who punish his children will someday recognize his terrible majesty and might. No one will stand on that day—all will bow, things in heaven and on earth.

We like this—God returning to execute justice—so long as we are not on the receiving end. If you've experienced God's grace and mercy in the person of Christ, the debt you owe—the cosmic consequence of your sin—has been paid. But do you long for those exacting vengeance in the name of Allah to experience the same grace?

Someday, they will rightly see the divine power and glory of Christ. In obedience to Christ, we should be praying that day occurs before judgment, the terrible day when:

O Thou Whose coming is with dread To judge and doom the quick and dead, Preserve us, while we dwell below, From every insult of the foe.

Those deplorable actions of Herod and ISIS, they are but the last death throes of the one who came to kill and destroy (Jn. 10:10). That babe in the manger has crushed his head, and while his heart still beats, he is as good as dead.

Jesus has not yet returned to balance the scales of justice, so hope is alive for those within the ranks of ISIS (and it wouldn’t be the first time he’s converted a terrorist for his glory Acts 8).

While we dwell below we may not be protected from all the Enemy's blows, but we do rest firmly in the hand of the Savior and King. Our hope is in the one to which we sing:

To God the Father, God the Son, And God the Spirit, Three in One, Laud, honor, might, and glory be From age to age eternally.

In him, we find our hope, despite the injustice in this world. In him, we find our joy, despite the violence that tries to rob us. In him, we find peace, despite those that insist on war. And in him, we know love. That’s why we can love our enemies because Jesus died for us when we were his enemies, and he now sends his Spirit to dwell within us.

As we reflect on his first advent, we see the creator of the world erupting into human history, taking on flesh, and dying for us as a substitute. His first advent has shown us that nothing is impossible with God. We wait, patiently, but expectantly for his second advent. We say with the Apostle Paul:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:31-39

Paul contrasts the love of God in Christ against the backdrop of almost every possible human suffering we could face. The words are timeless as we head into Advent. If our heart is never heavy due to the pain of the world, we are not paying attention. But if our heart is faint because of these woes, we have not reflected enough on the gospel’s victory. Paul, commenting on his own trials, referred to himself as "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" (2 Cor. 6:10). This same attitude should mark us as we prepare our hearts for Advent.

Some head into this season with very little. They long for something simple and material: a hot meal, a warm bed. Thoughts of hope, joy, peace, and love are far from them. But God has given up his son for us all; will he not then give us these intangible desires? Some have lost their children; God knows what it’s like to watch a child die. Multitudes of people are afraid of God's condemnation due to their sin; he justifies. Not because of what we've done, but because of what Christ did. The hearts of many are so busy they do not know how to approach God and feel ill prepared for this season; Jesus is interceding for them. In some places radical Islamists may separate people's heads from their bodies; they cannot separate a Christian from the love of God. God is for us. God is with us. This is the meaning of Jesus' name, Immanuel. Through him, we are more than conquerors.

It’s possible for an army to win a war but suffer tremendous loss of lives. Conquering comes, usually, at a great cost. Not so with those who trust Christ. While everything in this world may be taken from us, our lives rest solely with Christ who will raise them up again. He's already demonstrated that by raising up his own.

Jesus Christ is our hope (1 Tim. 1:1) and he has overcome the world that stands against us (Jn. 16:33). He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3), so that we could have joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). He will soon return with a sword coming out of his mouth to silence his enemies (Rev. 19:5), but for those who trust in him he is our peace (Eph. 2:14). The people of God have a multitude of enemies standing against them, but the hope of spiritual Israel is in the God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8).

Hope, joy, peace, and love. The themes may seem foggy. The words intangible. But when we cast our gaze upon Jesus these words take on flesh as he did (Jn. 1:14).

Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at Terra Nova Church in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is about to be a father for the second time. He occasionally blogs at Hardcore Grace.

Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

Advent Restores a Song for the Suffering

Can you count how many times you have sung the popular Christmas hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"? I can’t, but what is sad is that I often sing the words without meditating on them. It wasn’t until this year that the correlation of Christ’s name and singing these words weighed on my heart. My favorite is the last stanza, which says,

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Oh, bid our sad divisions cease, And be yourself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!

Emmanuel means God with us, so the words we sing don’t just offer a Christmas warmth and ring, but a true declaration that Christ’s coming will fulfill the redemption of the world. Yes, Jesus came to the earth and was born as a baby. That’s what our Christian culture often celebrates during Christmas, but I want to sing something more this year. Something that speaks to the mission we have because of his presence.

Emmanuel.

God with us.

He is with us already, he is with us still, and he is with us forever. I want to focus on the word “us,” which refers to the collective body of believers who rejoice together in this forever presence. In my favorite compilation of letters from Bonhoeffer, he explains this concept beautifully, “With God there is joy, and from him it comes down and seizes spirit, soul, and body. And where this joy has seized a person, it reaches out around itself, it pulls others along, it bursts through closed doors.”[1]

There is much to be celebrated during Christmas, but there is also something that we seem to miss. We do well to celebrate Christ in the manger—a humble servant coming to earth to bring light and joy. This Christmas cheer is the classic rejoicing during this time of year. We sing Christmas music, we share laughter with family, and we even shout out that “Jesus is the reason for the season!” However, a deep pain and suffering falls silent to the masses during the holidays. We take in so much that the silence of the world falls away. I only hear the ringing bell from the Salvation Army on my brief walk into the mall and even that delivers a pleasant sound to my ears. The suffering, lonely, and lost hear a different kind of ringing that’s typically not hope, rejoicing, or a bell. It’s an enclosing silence.

The silence isn’t filled by watching a crowded world celebrate a commercialized holiday. The celebration of hope and joy don’t make sense to those without, it only reminds them of their lacking.We need help remembering beyond this, that Christ came to restore a song to the suffering and silent. He came to embody the promise of an eternal and everlasting hope to mankind as a whole.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!

See, we often don’t celebrate the greatest gift we have in his presence. The gift of harmony.

Emmanuel is more than a Christmas carol. It’s a song that sings of a name that has the power to gather the nations. And a name that declares the presence of God and the true need for Christ. As individual chords, we don’t produce the most pleasant sound. That’s because we represent only a single chord progression, but harmony is the sound of peace and unity. We can’t produce this without each other.

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Oh, bid our sad divisions cease, And be yourself our King of Peace.

This message is not new to your ears. I’m sure you will hear it many times. Our mission more than just feeling convicted and volunteering somewhere once. Instead, ask yourself: How does God with me transform my everyday life and those around me?

Read Luke 1. This story counsels us in three ways. First, the angel Gabriel appeared to Elizabeth before Mary, the mother of Jesus. Second, Mary was afraid, but she listened to the angel’s words from God and accepted them at face value. Third, Mary sung a song of praise. Again, what does this story look like translated into your life?

1. Who is your person of peace?

This person would be much like Elizabeth was for Mary, they can exhort and counsel you with their faith. Seek out a person who is in a different denomination or from a different ethnic culture but that lives in peace and models community well.

2. Define what you fear about facing your mission.

When you are well acquainted with your barriers, share them with God and ask for guidance. Remember his name, Emmanuel—he is with you as you go (Matt. 28:18-20).

3. How can you share your story of Emmanuel as God with us in your community?

Read Mary’s song again and study the story that is told. She shares of the counsel, guidance, and faithfulness of God. She said yes to God, and because of this obedience, we have Emmanuel. Use this as encouragement to share your own story with people who have not yet experienced the peace and presence of God. Doing so will cultivate and make great the name of Emmanuel in your community.

“Because of the tender mercy of our God,     whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,     to guide our feet into the way of peace.” - Luke 1:78-79

May we be a Church that does more than sing Christmas carols on Sunday. May we be a Church that invites and disciples others to sing of the same Savior. Different chords, but one song, a song that only sounds pleasing when sung together. This song declares our collective need for a Savior. It has the power to bid our sad divisions cease. Together, his church sings and begs for his return. We beckon him King of Peace!

1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Jana Riess. God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2010. Print.

Chelsea Vaughn (@chelsea725has served a ministry she helped start in the DFW Metroplex since she graduated from college. She received her undergraduate degree at Dallas Baptist University in Communication Theory. She does freelance writing, editing, and speaking for various organizations and non-profits. She hopes to spend her life using her gift for communication to reach culture and communities with the love of Jesus.

Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

And He Called His Name Jesus

Jesus was born during the late Second Temple Period, a period charged with messianic expectation. For hundreds of years Second Temple Jews suffered beneath the foreign rule of one pagan empire after another. This instability energized the hopes of God’s people for deliverance and vindication. “Where is Messiah?” was the cry of every good Jew. They longed for Yahweh to deliver them from Roman rule by the hand of his Messiah just as he delivered Israel from Egyptian oppression in the days long ago. They were a people marked by the expectation that their God, the one true God, would intervene into human history, defeat their enemies, and reestablish David’s throne. Messianic expectation was expressed in the naming of baby boys with one of the more common Jewish names of the first century—Jesus. It’s the Greek form of the Old Testament name Joshua, meaning “Yahweh is salvation” (also “Savior” or “God saves”). It was a constant reminder that God would one day send a Savior to set his people free.

Imagine you’re a weary Jew in the first century. You’ve lived under the thumb of pagan rule your entire life. Your days are overshadowed by Roman oppression. You’re impoverished because of injustice. You walk through the streets of Jerusalem with the nagging sense that God has forgotten his people… he’s forgotten you. You’re losing hope with each breath. Suddenly you hear the faint call of a mother beckoning her son Jesus in for dinner. You pause, remembering afresh “Yahweh is salvation.” You close your eyes and breathe in a deep sigh of relief. One day Yahweh would indeed send his Messiah to save his people—of that you are sure.

Into this cultural context Matthew writes,

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All 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” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

A Special Boy With A Special Mission

Jesus’ name may have been common but there was nothing common about Jesus of Nazareth. From his miraculous conception to his messianic mission, this little boy was altogether different. He was conceived from the Spirit (1:18, 20); he was born to save God’s people from their sins (1:21); he was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (1:22-23); and he was Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23). He wasn’t just another Jewish boy symbolically named for God’s salvation; he was God’s salvation. This could only mean one thing—the advent of Israel’s long-awaited deliverer was upon them!

Unfortunately, the deliverance Jesus brought wasn’t the deliverance expected. He didn’t come to overthrow the Roman Empire thereby rescuing Israel from external tyranny and setting them free (in the expected sense). He did come to save, but the ironical twist was that he came to save them from themselves! He came to set humanity free from the internal slavery of sin and brokenness. His messianic mission was to defeat Satan, sin, and death through his own death on the cross so that all who trust in him might be set free from sin. R.T. France further clarifies Jesus’ mission:

“His ministry will begin in the context of a call to repentance from sin (3:2, 6; 4:17)…he will also assert his ‘authority on earth to forgive sins’ (9:6). His mission will culminate in his death ‘as a ransom for many’ (20:28), ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (26:28). [The point is… t]his son of David will not conform to the priorities of popular messianic expectation.”[1]

Many rejected Jesus (and continue to reject him today) because they failed to grasp that their deepest problem was the human heart. But the human heart has always been the problem. Israel, of all people, should have known this! They were the prototype of darkened hearts leading to personal enslavement. After being set free from slavery in Egypt, they enslaved themselves spiritually in their idolatry and worldly passions.

Biblical history testifies again and again to the fact that they didn’t need a national liberator; they needed a heart liberator. Isn’t this the need of all humanity? We need our hearts set free from sin so that we might run in the path of God’s commands (Ps. 119:32). And the only final cure for the human heart is bound up in the person and work of Christ—a special boy with a special mission.

Your Life Hinges On This Boy’s Name & Identity

Matthew writes his birth narrative in such a way as to invite thoughtful reflection on who this liberator is and what he came to do. The name Jesus reveals what he does—saves people from sin. While the title Immanuel reveals who he is—God with us. Your entire life hinges upon the implications of Jesus’ name and identity.

1. Through Jesus you experience God’s salvation

Christmas typically conjures up ideas of magical holiday moments and feel-good Hallmark movies. The season dances around the idea of salvation—someone saves Christmas, someone saves old Scrooge, someone saves the Grinch—but all too often the true salvation story is missed. The most “magical” news of all is that in Christ God has saved us from sin and death!

The gospel tells us that we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-2) and children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). We didn’t do or say bad things occasionally; we were enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), alienated and hostile in mind (Col. 1:21). Every single one of us stood condemned under God’s righteous judgments and there was nothing we could do to work our way out of this death sentence (Rom. 3:10-20).

However, this is good news of great joy because God intervened into human history in the form of a little baby boy named Jesus and promised to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He did what you and I were impotent to do—he made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5). He put forth the perfect spotless Lamb, Jesus Christ, as the propitiation for our sin so that we could be justified by faith in him (Rom. 5:1). We have complete forgiveness and cleansing of sin by the blood of Jesus!

I’ve been a believer for thirteen years now and every Advent season I’m reminded afresh that “God saves” and he has done so through the coming of his Son Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to condemn “dirty sinners”; he came to bring life to the dead, healing to the broken, and hope to the downtrodden. He came to save messed up people like you and me. If you repent of sin and place your trust in Jesus, he delights to take away your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. After all, Jesus was literally born to save people from their sins. It’s what he does!

2. Through Immanuel you experience God’s presence

The title “Immanuel” refers to Jesus’ deity (he is God) while simultaneously conveying his nearness to mankind (he is with us). The eternal Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). In Christ, God condescended to man; he came to us as one of us so that we might know him and be known by him.

The fact that Jesus is Immanuel comforts during the holidays. Since God has come to you, you know you can come to him. You can come to him in your loneliness and fear and brokenness. December can be a bitter month for many as they find themselves alone or abandoned. I’ll never forget the first Christmas after my parents split. Long December by the Counting Crows was inescapably popular and Illinois seemed particularly gray (as if it wasn’t already gray enough!). Over the holidays we were “shipped” back and forth between houses as Adam Duritz slowly cooed me into depression. Almost twenty years later I still remember the profound loneliness I felt that Christmas. I was certain I would never feel comfort or peace again.

When I met Jesus, I happened upon a most beautiful truth—through my union with him God was with me. The Spirit of Christ took up residence in my heart and sealed me with his presence; thus I was never truly alone. God was with me during seasons of isolation and loneliness; he was with me in great disappointment; he was even with me during lonely Christmases.

Take comfort in the fact that Jesus is Immanuel; he is God with you.He is with you to comfort you but also to send you out to comfort others. Notice that Matthew bookends his Gospel with the promise of God’s presence. When Jesus came to earth he came as Immanuel, the manifestation of God’s presence with the power to save. When Jesus left the earth he promised this same enduring presence to all future disciples as he gave them the Great Commission. Immanuel promises to be with his disciples in every age to encourage, equip, and empower them to make disciples of all nations.

In this way Advent is missional. It reminds us that God sought us out and came to us in the incarnation. He brought us eternal comfort in the person and work of Christ. We’ve been promised that he is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). Through his indwelling Spirit we are to seek out the lost and take that same message of God’s reconciling presence through Christ to the nations.

Who has God laid on your heart this season? Who needs to be comforted with the very comfort you’ve received in Christ? Christmas provides ample opportunities for sharing the gospel with others. Be bold in your witness knowing that God’s presence will empower you as you speak life, peace, and joy to those around you.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

This Advent season create moments to stand in awe of Jesus, the one born to set God’s people free. Rejoice in him, the one who delivered you from the suffocating grip of sin and death. Take heart, your sins have been forgiven! Could there be a greater gift?

And, in the midst of all the Christmas chaos, find rest in Immanuel. God is with you—with you to comfort you in loneliness and with you to encourage you on mission. Worship him for his first advent and look forward in anticipation to his second coming. May you see past the consumerist frenzy long enough to cry out “Come, Thou long expected Jesus!”

Come, Thou long expected Jesus Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.

Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King, Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.

By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine all sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

[1] France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007. Print.

Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over six years. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and just finished her Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She is passionate about equipping disciples to read and study God’s Word well resulting in maturing affections for Jesus and his gospel message. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they love serving the local church. Follow her on Twitter @whitneywoollard.

Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

Advent Calls Us to Stay Awake

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The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Psalm 23

From the opening pages of the scriptures, from the creation narrative, God the Creator has been revealing who He is. It’s mind-blowing to think that we can actually know God, yet it’s fascinating to ponder that we can never exhaust the bottomless ocean of His character and nature. In every nook and cranny of this world, God is exposing who He is and telling His story. From the unknown depths of the oceans to the peak of Everest, from the sheer magnitude of the universe beyond us to the complexity of the universe within us, from the miracle of birth to the burden of death, amongst fauna and flora, He is telling His story. His fingerprints are everywhere. God’s name echoes off the walls of creation and His story reverberates in the corridors of humanity’s hearts. Like a master artist who signs his name on his work, His creation is saturated with His signature. From the joys of watercolor sunsets to the darkest sorrows; from yesterday’s regrets to every tomorrow, He greets us and signs: I love you.

Why would God go to such extreme lengths to reveal the depths of who He is?

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

Jeremiah 29v13

These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Colossians 2v17

It seems God has always desired to be known by His creation, revealing Himself in the most unlikely and unforeseen ways to His people. Through slavery, exile, and defeat; through freedom, return, and victory; through His anointed prophets, angelic messengers, and the generations of silence, God has been preparing to reveal Himself in the most provocative of ways.

Not long after Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the temple, the scriptures say, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth” (Luke 1v26). Two thousand years ago, Nazareth was a town sinking into obscurity and so corrupted by godlessness that Nathaniel remarked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1v46).

Why Nazareth?

Why not Rome? It was the most powerful and influential city center and capital city of the superpower in the world at the time, the Roman Empire. Maybe Greece? It was the cultural epicenter of the world. Even Ephesus was an integral and influential port city. But Nazareth? Really? That’s like saying, why not New York City, LA, or Seattle? But Toad Suck Arkansas? Really? Yes, really. Nazareth was the backdrop for the next events that unfurled.

If the conception of God’s plan wasn’t already obscure enough, Gabriel was specifically sent to speak with a young virgin girl named Mary who was betrothed to an honorable man named Joseph. Mary was most likely around the age of fourteen. So rewind the narrative a bit. Four hundred years of silence was finally broken, when an angelic messenger of the Lord visits an old, ordinary, and obscure priest whose wife was barren and childless; he then approaches the tiny town of Nazareth to hang out with a nearly preteen virgin girl named Mary. What an unlikely and obscure way to restore hope amongst God’s people and establish His kingdom.

“And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Interestingly, the honorable man Joseph, who was engaged to be married to Mary, comes from the bloodline of the most beloved, revered, and respected king of the Jewish people, King David. He, by the way, was the least likely candidate to be the next king. Plucked out of obscurity, David was a scrawny, young, courageous shepherd boy, who faithfully tended his father’s flock (1 Samuel 16). The psalmist writes, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance” (Psalm 78v70-71). God has a pretty good track record of inviting everyday, ordinary people to join Him in His work.

For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

1 Samuel 16v7

Gabriel went to Mary and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” How do you think Mary responded? You guessed it. Just like every other human being has ever responded in the presence of an angel: with complete and total fear. The scriptures say she was greatly troubled and didn’t know how to discern the gravity of the moment. Gabriel responded to the virgin, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1v30-32).

These few verses in the biblical narrative fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies with which the people of God would have not only been familiar, but for which they would have eagerly waited and fervently anticipated. In Genesis 49, Jacob is blessing his twelve sons and simultaneously his blessing served as a prophecy. His descendants would be rulers and one of them would be an ultimate ruler. Jesus was born two thousand years later and Jesus’ ancestry traces back to Jacob’s son. Six hundred years before Gabriel visits Mary, the prophet Jeremiah writes that the messiah will be a descendant of King David (Jeremiah 23v5). A hundred years before Jeremiah, the prophet Isaiah writes that there will be a sign: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7v14). Immanuel means “God with us.” These are words of promise. God has not forgotten us. God’s people longed to be with God. Ever since the days of Eden, we’ve all longed to be with God. The garden longing lingers heavy upon humanity.

The seemingly insignificant young Virgin Mary, living in obscurity, faithfully living a godly life amongst a godless people, is given one of the most significant roles in the most provocative story ever told. A nobody, living in a town full of nothing, in the middle of nowhere, had found favor with God. Just like the shepherd boy David and the old priest Zechariah before her, Mary was found faithful and God blessed her.

Mary genuinely asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1v34). She knows the words of the prophets from the past; she knows the messiah will be born of a virgin, she just asks how? Her questioning is different from that of Zechariah’s. The priest doubts; Mary ponders. In her inquiry, she contemplates the miracle. The angel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1v35). Every formation of life in the womb is a miracle. It’s a mystery that God has set and “put eternity in man’s hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3v11). Solomon says, “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything” (Ecclesiastes 11v5). The virgin birth was the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit of God was present and presided over the void before creation was conceived, the Spirit of God presides over the void in the womb of Mary as new life is conceived.

Concerned that Mary would be isolated and rejected by her community and family, Gabriel informs Mary that her old and barren cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant. “Wait, what? How can Elizabeth be pregnant? She’s well beyond child-bearing age and she’s been barren her entire life!” Gabriel shares this news with Mary to encourage her and increase her faith. She knows that Elizabeth isn’t the first woman in the scriptures to conceive a child out of barrenness. She knows it must be the work of God. Many scholars believe that barren women who eventually conceived, which is against nature, would be used throughout Israel’s history to prepare Mary (and the world) for this moment. The intricacies of God’s story are stunningly beautiful. “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1v37). Gabriel assures Mary that God does not fail. And now, she will not have to navigate this pilgrimage alone.

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1v38).

Facing the certain reality of the how this will change her standing with her soon-to-be husband, with certain rejection of her community and with her reputation on the line, Mary faithfully and humbly says yes.

My son Moses loves adventure stories. About a year ago, we began a nighttime story routine. The stories were always the same. An unlikely hero overcomes some crazy predicament that seems impossible to escape. My son loved it, mainly because he was always the unlikely hero. Deep down, my son has a desire to participate in the impossible. The beauty of Advent is that it gives us the opportunity to show our children how we have been invited into the impossible to participate in the miraculous work of God to redeem and save His people. In this story, Jesus is the unlikely hero, but we in Him get to participate in the impossible.

May our children hear the voice of God inviting them to humbly participate in the impossible.

In 2012, Freddy planted ekklesia, in the suburbs of St. Louis, with the desire to understand the everyday rhythms of the church. This exploration led to conversations on understanding family more deeply. As a former student pastor, family pastor, and now church planter, Freddy has a desire to rekindle an old conversation in new generations - to tell an old story. This is the story of Jesus, the story that shapes all stories. May this story be told in our homes for generations to come. Freddy, his wife Michele, and two sons Ryder and Scout live in St. Charles, Missouri.

David planted Mid-Cities Church in St. Louis, MO in 2014. He is passionate about seeing God's message of reconciliation bring about tangible transformation in both the hearts of people and the life of his city. As our hearts are connected with the Father's heart the message of the gospel becomes clear and the work of Jesus becomes a reality. David is passionate about connecting those dots for others. David, his wife Tara, his daughter Julia and son Moses live in Maplewood, Missouri.

Visit Story Catechism and check out their books. Use promo code gcdadvent for 15% off. Also, they were generous enough to share a free sample of two of their books with GCD’s readers (download sample: Story and Advent).

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The Arrival: Prince of Peace

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Editor: Today we start our Advent series. There’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.

For many the holidays are a time of joy and merry-making with family and friends. We all have our own traditions. My family enjoys driving through our local park decked out in Christmas lights, visiting a local holiday fair, and taking a carriage ride in an adjacent community. I shouldn’t forget the food. We love some seriously good eats. And would it be Christmas without watching the classics? Elf. Miracle on 34th Street. It’s a Wonderful Life. Home Alone.

However, not everyone’s holiday memories are joyful and merry. Wendell Berry gets it right, “It is hard to have hope.” No other season of the year amplifies this difficulty like the holiday season. All of our misplaced hopes rise to the surface of our hearts and cause discontent and hopelessness. In part this be may due to the holiday façade. Commercials with happy families and friends gathered around the table and the Christmas tree. TV shows where “Christmas magic” makes everything better. Or the picture perfect homes in magazines.

What a juxtaposition. Hopefulness, joy, and merry making and hopelessness, conflict, and loneliness. So what if Christmas isn’t very merry? What if Advent doesn’t feel hopeful?

A PRINCE OF PEACE ARRIVES

For those who are dreading the holidays because of fear, hopelessness, conflict, and loneliness, hear the word of the Lord in Isaiah 9:6-7,

6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

A child was born who brings peace. God offers terms of peace that he meets in the arrival of His Son. Isaiah, as we read, calls Jesus the “Prince of Peace” (9:6). Hear what the angels say when they announce the arrival of Jesus:

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

ON EARTH PEACE

I love how the KJV renders this announcement: “[O]n earth peace, good will toward men.” There’s an expectancy only fulfilled in the gospel. We know the peace is delivered through Jesus Christ, but how? This advent proclamation of peace is the foundation for Paul’s theology of justification. Without this proclamation there’s no justification! So let’s read what Paul writes about peace:

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph 2:13-16 see also 6:14-15 “the gospel of peace”)

19 For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:19-20)

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom. 5:1-2)

It’s in Paul’s magnum opus, the letter to the Romans, that he makes the connection undeniable between peace and justification.

So when someone asks Paul “How can a righteous God make peace with man through Jesus?” Paul would say, in shorthand, justification. Study the ministry of Jesus—it’s centered on bringing peace to those who are sinners, sick, scandalized, and the poor in spirit. Jesus embodies and acts out the divine peace through justification by faith in the Gospels, whereas Paul explores and mines these truths systematically in his letters. Latter in the prophecy of Isaiah, the prophet writes,

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Is. 53:5).

Jesus was crushed for our transgressions which brought us peace. Notice that stark juxtaposition—crushed and peace. Words that are not normal bedfellows.

PEACE FOR FAMILIES

Jesus’s arrival marks the proclamation of good tidings for everyone whom God is pleased with by offering peace with God by Jesus’ blood! And isn’t that good news for families who are hurting this holiday season? The beauty of God’s peace is that it’s not just an individual thing. This peace is covenantal and forms a community of people who have received peace and who can share that peace with others. For the family in conflict there can be peace. For the family ruptured by divorce there can be peace. For the family separated by death there can be peace. For those who feel the weight of loneliness there can be peace. For the husband and wife mourning childlessness there can be peace. Remember Isaiah 53:5? God crushed Jesus to bring us peace and healing. Paul echoes this same sentiment with a twist: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

Those same odd bedfellows (“peace” and “crush”). Satan who is the father of lies and conflict and the dark prince of this fallen world will be crushed under our feet. The authority that Jesus wielded is passed on to us. With his presence (Matt. 28:19-20) and Spirit (Acts 1-2), we are ambassadors of peace in this fallen world and Satan will be ultimately crushed by the authority of the God of peace and his Church.

Dispense peace this week. Plead and pray and trust that the peace of Jesus will be with you and that others might see and receive this blood-bought peace this Advent season. Come alongside those who are hurting. And if there’s conflict in your family, lead with peace and grace and mercy.

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace,

Hail, the Sun of Righteousness

Light and life to all He brings,

Risen with healing in His Wings.

Now He lays His Glory by,7

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth,

Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,

"Glory to the New-born king!"


Mathew B. Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at Exercise.com and has authored, edited, and contributed to several books including A Household GospelWe Believe: Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms for WorshipA Guide for AdventMake, Mature, Multiply, and A Guide for Holy Week. Mathew, LeAnn (his wife), and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele live in Taylors, SC at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with their Airdale Terrier. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA). Visit MathewBryanSims.com!

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