incarnation

The Presence of Advent

The Greatest Fear


What is the single greatest fear that most people have about the Advent season, especially Christmas Day? I doubt it has to do with finding the perfect gift. Nor does it seem like the inevitable holiday weight-gain would rank as the greatest fear. Debates over religion and politics at the dinner table might earn a higher rank but even those fights are nothing compared to a deeper fear of the soul.

I believe it to be the lack of presence. Not a lack of presents (or gifts) but a lack of presence. No one wants to be alone during this season. We sing songs about being home for Christmas. Many Christmas films riff on the theme of being separated from family and loved ones at Christmas. We cower at the thought of waking up to ourselves with no lit tree, no joyful laughter, and with nobody to share the day. Consider the very ghosts that haunted Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, they haunted him with lonely Christmases.  Studies indicate that depression hits widows and widowers deepest at the holidays. I can almost guess that a full 98% of people reading this article would prefer to have someone, even if they didn’t really like them, to be with on Christmas over spending it with no one at all.

What is it about Advent that reveals this fear in almost all of us? If we look at the very nature of what it means we will find the very reason being physically alone during this season troubles so many. At its core it is more than just remembering the coming of God into our existence, Advent is about the actual presence of God in our existence. It’s the one season that reminds us that God is with us. So, when we consider a season that tells us God is with us and yet functionally experience it in loneliness a massive discord hits. The discord, for most, isn’t with God. It’s within ourselves. We should be experiencing presence. We should be with others and God should be with us.

Presence on the Way

Four hundred years is a long time to wait. The United States of America has barely existed for half of that time. It would be nearly impossible to understand then the absence and silence from God for that amount of time. However, that is exactly where the people of Israel were. National culture and identity would go through an immense rewriting if it had been four hundred years since you had a prophetic word from the national center of worship activity. Certainly brief and dim glimpses of recovery and hope came and recharged everyone’s expectations but they were just that, brief and dim. Sure, they had the prophetic words of old to lean on. Isaiah did promise Emmanuel, even if that was seven hundred years ago.

Then, rumors started cropping up. Angelic visitations occurred. Barren old women conceived. Kings from the East traveled West. A nation immigrated within itself because of a census. A virgin was with child. Then, the rumors died down. Things went back to normal for another thirty years until a shabbily dressed man like Elijah began to speak for God in the wilderness. He was no respecter of persons and called kings, priests, and publicans to repent. A nation finally received a prophetic word: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is present. God is with us. Emmanuel has come.”

Yes, Emmanuel, God with us. He was attested to be God by his words and works by doing things only God could do. God with us possessing authority to drive out sin, devils, and death. God with us doing justice, loving the outcast and the stranger. God with us dinning with the drunkards, the harlots, and the sinners. God with us clothed in the material flesh of our bodies. Emmanuel experienced the physical limitations, pains, and agonies of our condition. God with us bearing the wrath of God in our place for our offenses against God and taking our very own death-blow. God with us being laid in a tomb dead for three days, he, God with us, was miraculously raised to glorious new life again by the power of God–securing resurrection life for all who trust in him. God with us sent his eternal presence to indwell and empower us for lives of glory and mission. He hasn’t left us, in fact, God with us has come, became flesh, and lived in our very domain and gifted us his eternal presence so we would always be with him.

Advent as a Missional Teacher

This is what Advent points us towards. A seasonal reminder of presence. An annual celebration of God’s personal intervention and presence with us. Advent teaches us that God is with us and that God is for us. Advent shows us God-in-action working for his glory and for our good.  Our reflection of this reality can not leave us to merely feel good about God with us, it must propel us forward to display the God whose image we bear.

Advent becomes a missional teacher to us as we consider that God shares life with broken, messed up, needy, people of disrepute. As we increasingly consider God with us, we must ask ourselves are we displaying this reality to the world? Are we showing lonely people God with us by our presence with them? Are we enacting this good news for the same broken, messed up, needy, people of disrepute that God with us hung out with?

As much as Advent is a season for gathering with family and friends, for the church it is a missional launching point for us to inhabit and take the gospel to the world. The world sits and waits year after year for a savior. They make functional saviors of sex, power, possessions, comfort, and a billion other idols they can find. Yet, all the while being let down year after year by their little, failing, and distant gods. The world is waiting, the Savior has come, the church must be present!

Practically this boils down to one thing—be with people. In the same way God became present in the world, he sends us to go and be with the world. Be at the parties, the Christmas programs, the neighborhood celebrations, the family dinners, and the company gift-exchange. As you are with people, love them. Be the presence that the lonely, lost, waiting world is so eager to receive. Show them their Savior through your love, by the way you honor them, give them dignity, listen to their stories, and hear their hurts.

A rocket-science degree isn’t mandatory, just ask the Holy Spirit to show you someone that he can display his presence to through your presence with them, and then follow his lead. Go be present with the world because God is present with you. The world waits for God with us and we are blessed to display that God is with us!

Jeremy Writebol(@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over thirteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He lives and works in Plymouth, MI as the Campus Pastor of Woodside Bible Church.

Comforting the Hurting

The Incarnation for a Hurting World

When a family-member, friend, or co-worker is suffering, we’re quick to jump to worldly comfort or perhaps the sovereignty of God. It is wise to remind those to whom we minister that no person or situation is outside of God’s grasp or concern, and perhaps a solid pat on the back is helpful every so often. However, we will find ourselves malnourished if we don’t also consider Christ’s humanity as extremely relevant to a world of hurt. For many of us it is a daily struggle to believe that the God of the universe truly cares about our lives, much less the detail of our personal hurts. Only in Christ do we find a God so concerned with the messiness of our lives that he entered into it. This article will take a short but thoughtful look at Hebrews 2:14-3:6 in order to develop an understanding of Christ’s incarnation and its application for a hurting world.

Though the author of our passage is not identified, the references to Old Testament texts and concepts throughout provide evidence that the original readers were quite familiar with the Jewish-Christian worldview. Given the counsel we see provided throughout the book, the recipients were very likely suffering through some persecution and perhaps in danger of turning away from the true gospel, making it relevant to our topic of study.

In considering the immediate context of this passage, the author begins in chapter two by discussing the danger of ignoring truth, reminding readers of the “just punishment” that may follow from disregarding one’s salvation. It then moves into the humiliation and glory of God’s Son, who had to identify himself with mortal human beings in order to “taste death for everyone.” There is a clear outline of the Son’s perfection through suffering (v. 10) and his solidarity with humanity (v. 11). The text then presents Psalm 22:22 and Isaiah 8:17 as support for this truth. From there, in vv. 14-18, the author moves to develops the implications of Christ’s solidarity in order to address the necessity of the Incarnation. Jesus partook of humanity in full in order to break the power of the devil and free those who were held in slavery (all of Abraham’s descendants). The logical connective “so that” in 2:14 expresses purpose, indicating that the purpose of the Incarnation was to “render powerless him who had the power of death” and “free those…subject to slavery.” The Son had to become human in order to become the high priest, and he had to become a high priest “in order to offer the ultimate sacrifice for sins” (vv.17-18).

A new unit of thought develops in 3:1-6 as the author acknowledges Jesus as the apostle and high priest and moves on to contrast Jesus and Moses. The author pulls again from the Septuagint, this time from Numbers 12:7, when Moses’ faithfulness to the “house” refers to his ministry to and responsibility of a “defined group of people in special relationship to God.” In short, the author’s intention is clear: to urge readers to stand firm in their faith. The author encourages this by pointing to Jesus, his superiority, and the importance of his readers’ proper response and commitment to him by shifting focus from a worldly to eternal perspective.

How Do We Counsel the Hurting?

When providing counsel to those we love (or even ourselves) in times of hurt, is this where we begin? Do we start by reminding and being reminded of the truth that God himself has come to earth? Do we marvel that he’s done so as our high priest, identifying in every way with the human struggle of pain, loneliness, grief, sickness, and death? His pain-filled and suffering pursuit of us through the Incarnation ought to act as a well of hope from which we draw in difficult times. In our counsel, we always need to echo the form of Incarnation by starting with God and working down to earth, shifting the perspective from worldly to external.

Hebrews 2:14-18 explains the necessity and value of the Incarnation and Jesus’ appointment as high priest while stressing that human beings have a responsibility to respond to him in a particular way. Chapter 3:1-6 discusses the role of Jesus as the Son over God’s house and his superior role and responsibilities to Moses. Theologically, the entire passage speaks to Jesus’ unity with humanity, the purpose of the Incarnation and the superiority of the New Covenant found in Jesus Christ’s high priesthood. It explains why that Incarnation was necessary—Christ had to “share in flesh and blood” in order to experience death (v. 14) and also render it ineffective in keeping humanity separated from God. Because Christ is now death’s master, we are no longer enslaved by it.

Partner—GCD—450x300It is worth noting that the pain and hurt caused by our own sin can no longer force us into a downward spiral of shame or repeated poor choices. It is no longer our sin that defines us. It is no longer sin that enslaves humanity. In fact, given Christ’s work as the high priest, we ought to now consider the act of committing sin as less-than-human. In other words, Christ isn’t less-than-human because he didn’t sin, he is truly human because he didn’t sin! Though we still suffer with indwelling sin in the already-not-yet, it does not define our status any longer. To lust, to get angry, to be addicted – all of it is us acting out of a false self. Part of our counsel to those hurting from sinful choices ought to remind them that sin no longer defines them and that their true self is one redeemed and beloved by God himself.

So why the incarnation? The author provides several reasons starting in verse 17.

First,Christ’s humanity was necessary in order for him to become a “merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17). Only because Christ was fully human could he stand in as the high priest for humanity. The function of the “chief priest” or “high priest” was to act as a representative of the people, making access to God possible through the sacrificial system. The author sees Jesus as the “one, true, faithful high priest,” which highlights his unity with humankind and his leadership of God’s people into God’s presence. As the high priest, Jesus was uniquely qualified to make atonement for the sins of the people. Christ’s work of reconciliation, where he turns aside God’s wrath by taking away the sins of the people, made the OT ritual of atonement obsolete and brought about the New Covenant community.

Second, Christ reconciles humanity to God, accomplished through his sacrificial death, which was necessary to make atonement for the sins of the people (v. 18). The author then assures his readers that Christ is able to help them in their temptation because he himself suffered when he was tempted. The tense of the verb “suffered” is significant here. The perfect tense is used and emphasizes that even though the temptation of Christ is a past event the effect continues to be felt in the present. To clarify, even though Christ suffered temptation in the past, we are continually being helped by him in our present time and can experience his help as an ongoing reality in the future. The author finishes by explaining that the readers’ perseverance in faith will act as the ultimate sign of their commitment to Christ.

The Purpose of the Incarnation

This passage addresses the reason and purpose for the Incarnation and the superiority of Jesus’ faithfulness as the Son. The author’s explanation of the Incarnation provides readers with a wonderful summary of the logic behind Christ’s humanity and his suffering. It was because Christ became human and lived a sinless life that he could stand in our place in order to make propitiation for our sins. His role as Apostle and High Priest was only made possible in the Incarnation and Christ’s opportunity to remain faithful to God. Jesus’ faithfulness to his role as Son over all God’s house establishes the superiority of the New Covenant and now provides humanity with total access to God.

This passage speaks volumes to a hurting world. Our natural response to a hurting person is often lacking, leaning mostly on worldly counsel to “cheer up” or perhaps we’ll dress it up with “God’s in control!” Maybe, when needing to counsel our family or close friends, we simply take them out to a movie in order to get their mind off things. As trite as it sounds in writing, this is the extent to much of our counsel, and though there are some good aspects in these methods, those who need true Christ-like counsel will be left wanting.

Hurting people—whether they are feeling lonely, depressed, angry, or suffering through intense pain—need to continually be assured of God’s tremendous concern for every aspect of their being. Pointing to the humanity of Christ allows us to call out two major, comforting truths: 1) Empathy; and, 2) initiative.

To start, we can find empathy in Jesus because he was “made like us in every respect.” Christ is human, which means he stared sin and shame and darkness in the face. He knows loneliness. He knows fully well the temptation to retreat and turn from God, but he, uniquely, was able to stand in power against that temptation and honor the Father in victory. Only Christ can teach us what it is to be fully human. He alone can offer us a picture of true empathy and an empowering model for fighting through temptation all the way through victory through the power of God, which is now alive in us via the Spirit.

Also, we’re given the encouragement in the truth of initiative. This person, though they doubt that God might care for them, cannot stare at the Incarnation long without being wooed away from sorrow. The God of the universe, who is unique and utterly transcendent, came to us! As fallen, mortal human beings we cannot possible “get” to God. He must first come to us, and he proves his love and concern by descending his throne and being made like his brothers and dwelling with us. We cannot possible claim that God does not care. He has first pursued us in the person of Christ, taking immense measure to dwell among us just as the Spirit does today. What worship is brought about when one considers the extent that God went to reconcile himself to us!

Ultimately, it’s worth quickly noting that neither our sin nor all the hurt in the world can or does detach us from God. Sin no longer necessarily separates. Christ bridged the gap as the true man and high priest. We can freely counsel others to turn away from sin patterns and darkness and to their loving Father who is absolutely concerned with their life.

Evan Perkins served as a teaching pastor at Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, CO for three years before transitioning to a professional sales role in Austin, TX. He holds an MDiv from Denver Seminary and currently serves as a lay-leader and elder candidate at City Life Church. He is the husband of Lauren and the father of their son, Eli.

Resisting Social Darwinism

There are few things that make me more proud to be the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville than CPC’s special emphasis on children with special needs. Once a year, our children’s staff has an amazing “vacation Bible school” for kids with special needs and their siblings. There is also a monthly expression of this called “Special Saturdays” which does several things. First, it pulls a community together to participate in something that Jesus is pleased with. After all, Jesus, always gave special attention to the weak and disadvantaged. Second, it affirms that every person has dignity or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘there are no gradations in the image of God.’ Third, it reminds us that, sometimes to our surprise, people with special needs have more to teach us about the kingdom of God than we have to teach them. King David understood this. After his best friend Jonathan died in battle, his first order to his staff was to tell him if there was anyone to whom he could show favor for Jonathan’s sake.

Enters Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s orphaned son who is crippled in both feet.

Rather than saying, “On second thought . . .” or assuming a retail approach to relationships (a retail approach runs from sacrifice and prioritizes being relationship with people who are more useful than they are costly), David assures Mephibosheth that his future will be bright. David promises to restore the entire fortune of his predecessor King Saul, also Mephibosheth’s grandfather, to the young man. Second, David adopts him as his own son, assuring him that he will always have a seat at the king’s table. You can read the full story in 2 Samuel 9.

Partner—GCD—450x300In this instance, David demonstrates what a heart that’s been transformed by the gospel is capable of—an extreme other-orientation. His first order to his staff as king sends a message. “My kingliness will not be marked by domineering. It will be marked by love and sacrifice.” David starts his reign by actively looking for an opportunity to lay down his life for someone who needs him to do this. He is actively looking, in other words, to limit his own options, to shut his own freedoms down, in order to strengthen an orphan who is weak.

Eugene Peterson says that hesed love—the word used to describe the love that David has for Jonathan and Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan—sees behind or beneath whatever society designates a person to be (disabled, option limiting, costly, etc.) and instead acts to affirm a God-created identity in the person. In other words, Peterson is saying that to be human is to carry intrinsic value and dignity.

My friend Gabe Lyons wrote a beautiful essay about his son Cade, who has Down Syndrome. In the essay Gabe points out that over 92% of children in utero with Down Syndrome are aborted. Gabe offers a refreshing, counter-culture perspective from the parents of the other 8%. His essay is a celebration of Cade’s dignity, as well as the remarkable contribution Cade makes in the lives of people around him. He demonstrates an uncanny ability to live in the moment, a remarkable empathy for others, a refreshing boldness, and a commitment to complete honesty.

Gabe, along with the many parents who grace our church with the presence of their children who have special needs, are simply practicing good theology. Because the neighbor love part of the Kingdom of God is, at its core, a resistance movement against social Darwinism. Social Darwinism—‘survival of the fittest’ in the human community—tells us that it is those who are powerful, privileged, handsome, rich and wise who command our special attention, while those who are weak, physically or mentally challenged, and poor are ignorable at best, and disposable at worst.

But nobody is ignorable. And nobody is disposable. Every person, whether an expert or a child with special needs, is a carrier of an everlasting soul.

There are no gradations in the image of God.

In terms of gifting, resources, and opportunity, everyone is different. In terms of dignity and value, everyone is the same. As Francis Schaeffer once said, ‘There are no little people.”

How do we know this? Because of how Jesus chose to take on his humanity. He, the Creator of everything that is, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Alpha and the Omega, the Seed who crushed the serpent’s head, the Beginning and the End, became weak, disabled, and disposed of.

There was nothing about him that caused us to desire him . . . he was despised and rejected by men. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him.

He chose that.

Jesus became poor so we could become rich in God. He was orphaned so we could become daughters and sons of God. He was brutally executed so we could live abundantly in his Kingdom. He was made invisible so we could be seen. He became weak so we could become strong. He became crippled in both feet…and in both hands also…so we could walk and not grow weary, so we could run and not grow faint.

If this isn’t enough to convince you that every person matters . . .

. . . what will?

Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls.

Originally posted at www.scottsauls.com. Used with permission.