Monday, December 27, 2010

The Challenge of Jesus - More Advent Upheaval

Advent, for me this year, was meaningful.  It was the first time in my life that I was really able to begin to grasp the tensions and promise of this traditional Church season.  I’ve blogged about it before. 

Certainly, planning our church community’s worship around the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love was helpful to me.  My senior pastor grasped the themes as well as he presented his sermon series, “Advent Upheaval.”  Putting off Christmas carols, for the most part, until December 19th enhanced the meaning of the songs when we finally did sing them. (The power of delayed gratification.)  But perhaps the most profound impact on me was reading NT Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus.

Wright is not a casual read.  Some of his books are a bit easier, such as Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope (I highly recommend both).  But The Challenge took a bit of thinking to process.  I don’t think I read a whole chapter in one sitting.  There was so much to take in.  Many of the themes I’ve read in Wright’s books before.  But there was a good deal that was new to me.

Wright’s approach to Jesus – his self-awareness, vocation, and mission – is historical rather than through biblical exegesis.  That approach is a gift to Evangelicals.  He remains faithful to evangelical values and doctrine while shedding a bright light on the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth.  The light he shines is primarily energized by Wright’s consideration of Second Temple Judaism – the culture milieu in which Jesus lived. 

As I read the first half of the book, I wasn’t sure if I even liked this man, Jesus of Nazareth.  Who did he think he was!  Such arrogance.  Such chutzpah!  To the Jews of his day, the Temple and the Torah was everything.  Clearly, Jesus saw himself as usurping the place of both.  Talk about “advent upheaval!”  I was uncomfortable as I found myself identifying, almost more often than not, with the Pharisees who hated Jesus.  That’s a scary thought.   

Wright also takes on the questions of Jesus’ divinity and the resurrection; again, all from a historical perspective and arrives at an orthodox understanding.  Wonderful stuff. 

I finally began to underline in the final two chapters.  I wish I had done that in the first two-thirds of the book.  But the final two chapters are where the author takes the implications of his work and applies them to Christian life in our contemporary setting.  He is both comforting and challenging.  One of the things that I love about Wright is that he takes postmodernism seriously.  He sees challenges and opportunities for the Faith. Using Luke’s narrative of the risen Messiah’s encounter with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, Wright gives the story a compelling and contemporary twist:

“Was it not necessary that modernist versions of Christianity should die in order that truth might be freshly glimpsed, not as a set of doctrines or theories but as a person, and as persons indwelt by that person?”  (130)

Wright is a thoughtful and helpful critic of modernist views of Christianity, both liberal and evangelical. I find his voice refreshing and challenging.  The author was especially helpful to me in sharing his own struggles to live in the seemingly incompatible worlds of Evangelicalism and serious history.  He has born harsh criticism from both sides.  I’m no NT Wright.  (Lloyd Bentsen’s put-down of Dan Quayle comes to mind here.)  But I live in the seemingly incompatible worlds of traditional and contemporary worship.  Part of my vocation is to suffer in the middle, bearing the heartbreak and burden for entrenched preferences and divided congregations.  The angst is real.  Sometimes I feel like the prophet Jeremiah, wondering why God has laid this on me.  But like the prophet, “his Word is in my heart like a fire.” (Jer. 20:9)

Wright encouraged me with this:

“You are called, prayerfully, to discern where in your discipline the human project is showing signs of exile, and humbly and boldly to act symbolically in ways which declare that the powers have been defeated, that the Kingdom has come in Jesus the Jewish Messiah, that the new way of being human has been unveiled; and to be prepared the tell the story which explains what these symbols are all about.” (144)

If you call Jesus, “Lord,” that is your calling as well.

May the understanding and practice of our Kingdom vocation in this confused world be clearly manifested in the challenging new year we are facing. Let’s walk in the Light that we celebrate during Advent.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent Tensions - Magnified Meaning

Advent this year has been an enlightening journey for me. At FirstB we have tried to engage the season with real intention. Our sermon series is called Advent Upheaval – the theme about which I posted a few weeks ago. For the most part, we’ve avoided traditional Christmas carols. And yes, I’ve caught a little heat for it. We’ll evaluate our approach after the turn of the year.

But I had an epiphany (small “e” – I know the big day is supposed to be January 6) last Sunday as we sang Isaac Watts’ classic Advent hymn, “Joy to the World.” I think I’ve sung that carol for fifty years and associated it directly with angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph with the Holy Child in a manger stall in Bethlehem. Sure, there is some correlation. The Christ Event and all its implications is, after all, one big story. But Watts doesn’t mention any of those things in his text. I’ve just associated the carol with Christmas – well – because I always have, just like the rest of our Western culture. Even though I try to be an intentional worship leader and church musician, I’m pretty sure most of the value that I was gaining from singing the carol was strictly sentimental. It’s a good bet that sentimentality has been wrapped up in my other caroling activities. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

But when I sang Watts’ words last week the meaning of the words exploded with fresh meaning in my mind and spirit. This is a song of great joy because Christ is the sovereign Lord! It’s more a song about the Kingdom of God than it is specifically about the Baby in the Manger. This song could be sung any day – perhaps even more meaningfully on Palm Sunday or Easter. Now wouldn’t that be provocative! I could see the raised eyebrows. (For FBC readers, don’t worry, I’m not going there.)

Here’s my point: when it comes to this time of the year, we need to be intentional about meaning and spiritual formation without succumbing to the pressures of sentimentality. Sentimentality has a place. It brings emotional comfort. It is a return to a safe and nurturing place. Certainly, ministry does deal in sentimentality. We do have a role in bringing comfort. But sentimentality doesn’t go much beyond cultivating positive feelings. Sentimentality makes us feel good, but it doesn’t change us. Sometimes, it is the absence of positive feeling that becomes an impetus for growth. Tension can be good.

The church’s mandate is to be and make disciples of Christ. Spiritual formation must be our first priority. What we do sing does matter. (Colossians 3:16 – I’ll preach on that December 26.) Putting off the singing of carols has created some tension. I’ve heard and felt some of the push-back. There is only one way to reconcile the tensions of Advent. Don’t observe it. On the other hand, if we learn to live with the tensions of Advent, the discomfort caused by waiting, introspection, and searching for meaning will bear fruit when we do finally unwrap those delightful carols that announce Christ’s wonder-full birth!

Anyway, here are those timeless words from Isaac Watts whose fresh meaning was unveiled to me last Sunday:

Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,

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

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

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