At the end of this week we will begin celebrating the season of Advent. For folks interested in taking part in a daily reading or following an Advent calendar, it starts on Friday, December 1, 2017. The following information on Advent is taken from an article titled, “What is Advent?” by Justin Holcomb, an Episcopal priest serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida, and he teaches theology and apologetics at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He holds two masters degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Emory University (source here):
The season of Advent lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas. At that time, the new Christian year begins with the twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, which lasts from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on January 6. (Advent begins on the Sunday that falls between November 27th and December 3rd each year.)
Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days” (Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2), as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom. The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming [at his birth] in celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people. In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future….
While Advent is certainly a time of celebration and anticipation of Christ’s birth, it is more than that. It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated; and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense. It is between the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming that Karl Barth penned these words: “Unfulfilled and fulfilled promise are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promise and in fact the same promise. If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise.” The promise for Israel and the promise for the church is Jesus Christ; he has come, and he will come again. This is the essence of Advent. (Quote source and the entire article with follow-up resources for Advent are available at this link.)
This year I purchased a small book of Advent readings titled, “The Dawning of Indestructible Joy,” (2014) by John Piper, an American Calvinist Baptist pastor and author who is the founder and leader of desiringGod.org. He is also the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the conclusion to this book, he writes about the “Three Relationships of Peace” (pp. 88-92):
My great desire for you this Christmas is that you enjoy this peace [peace with God, peace with ourselves, and peace with others]. We know that there are global aspects to this peace that lie in the future when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). When, as Isaiah says, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).
But Jesus has come to inaugurate that peace among God’s people. And there are three relationships in which he wants you to pursue this peace and enjoy this peace. Peace with God. Peace with your own soul. And peace with other people, as much as it lies with you.
And by peace, I mean not only the absence of conflict and animosity but also the presence of joyful tranquility, and as much richness of interpersonal communication as you are capable of.
So let’s look at each of these three peaceful relationships briefly and make sure you are enjoying as much as you can. The key to each of them is not to separate what the angels kept together: the glory of God and the peace you long for. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.”
Peace with God
The most basic need we have is peace with God. This is foundational to all our pursuits of peace. If we don’t go here first, all other experiences of peace will be superficial and temporary.
The key passage here is Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith [there’s the pivotal act of believing], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Justified” means that God declares you to be just in his sight by imputing to you the righteousness of Jesus.
And he does that by faith alone: “Since we have been justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1). Not by works. Not by tradition. Not by baptism. Not by church membership. Not by piety. Not by parentage. But by faith alone. When we believe in Jesus as the Savior and the Lord and the supreme treasure of our lives, we are united to him and his righteousness is counted by God as ours. We are justified by faith.
And the result is peace with God. God’s anger at us because of our sin is put away. Our rebellion against him is overcome. God adopts us into his family. And from now on all his dealings with us are for our good. He will never be against us. He is our Father and our friend. We have peace. We don’t need to be afraid anymore. This is foundational to all other peace.
Peace with Ourselves
And because we have peace with God because of being justified by faith, we can begin to grow in the enjoyment of peace with ourselves–and here I include any sense of guilt or anxiety that tends to paralyze us or make us hopeless. Here again, believing the promises of God with a view to glorifying God in our lives is key.
Philippians 4:6-7 is one of the most precious passages in this regard: “Do not be anxious about anything [the opposite of anxiety is peace], but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God [in other words, roll your anxieties onto God]. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The picture here is that our hearts and our minds are under assault. Guilt, worries, threats, confusions, uncertainties–they all threaten our peace. And Paul says the God wants to “guard” our hearts and minds. He guards them with his peace. He guards them in a way that goes beyond what human understanding can fathom–“which surpasses all understanding.”
Don’t limit the peace of God by what your understanding can see. He gives us inexplicable peace, supra-rational peace. And he does it when we take our anxieties to him in prayer and trust him that he will carry them for us (1 Peter 5:7) and protect us.
When we do this, when we come to him–and remember we already have peace with him!–and trust him as our loving and almighty heavenly Father to help us, his peace comes to us and steadies us and protects us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety and guilt. And then we are able to carry on, and our God gets the glory for what we do because we trusted him.
Do that this Christmas. Take your anxieties to God. Tell him about them. Ask him to help you. To protect you. To restore your peace. And then to use you to make peace.
Peace with Others
The third relationship in which God wants us to enjoy his peace is in our relationships with other people. This is the one we have least control over. So we need to say it carefully the way Paul does in Romans 12:18. He says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
For many of you, when you get together with family for Christmas, there will be some awkward and painful relationships. Some of the pain is very old. And some of it is new. In some relationships you know what you have to do, no matter how hard it is. And in come of them you are baffled and don’t know what the path of peace calls for.
In both cases the key is trusting the promises of God with heartfelt awareness of how he forgave you through Christ. I think the text that puts this together most powerfully for me again and again is Ephesians 4:31-32: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Continually cultivate a sense of amazement that in spite of all your sins, God has forgiven you through Christ. Be amazed that you have peace with God. It’s this sense of amazement–that I, a sinner, have peace with God–that makes the heart tender, kind, and forgiving. Extend this to others seventy times seven.
It may be thrown back in your face. It certainly was thrown back in Jesus’ face on the cross. That hurts, and it can make you bitter if you are not careful. Don’t let it. Keep being more amazed that your wrongs are forgiven than that you are wronged. Be amazed that you have peace with God. You have peace with your soul. Your guilt is taken away.
Keep trusting God. He knows what he is doing. Keep his glory–not your success or your effectiveness in peacemaking or your relationships–supreme in the treasure chest of your heart.
And then you will be like the angels: Glory to God in the highest is the first thing. Peace among his people is the second thing.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This is why he came–on a day, to a city, as a Savior, Messiah, and Sovereign. That God would get glory and that you would know peace. May the God of peace give you peace and get his glory. (Quote course: “The Dawning of Indestructible Joy,” pp. 88-92.)
Philippians 4:6-7 (mentioned above) is the key passage used in Max Lucado‘s book, “Anxious for Nothing” (2017). Max Lucado is a best-selling Christian author and writer and pastor at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. On the subject of anxiety that we all know so well in our own lives, he states the following on the inside front cover of his book:
It’s a low-grade fear. An edginess, a dread. It’s a wind that won’t stop howling. It’s not so much a storm as it is the certainty that one is coming. Always . . . coming.
So, you don’t sleep well.
You don’t laugh often.
You don’t enjoy the sun.
You don’t whistle as you walk.
The anxiety has its reasons. Airplanes fall out of the sky. Bull markets go bear. Terrorists terrorize. Good people turn bad. The other shoe will fall. Fine print is going to be found. There is misfortune to be had out there. It’s just a matter of time.
And what about the tsunami of personal challenges? You, or someone you know, is facing a job loss, fighting cancer, dealing with divorce, battling addiction, or facing financial hardship.
We worry. We even feel anxious about feeling anxious.
Take heart, my friend. We all encounter anxiety, but we don’t have to give in to it. There is a path out of valley of fret, and the road map is found in the verses of Philippians 4:4-8. There are some key mile markers along the road to peace and calm.
Celebrate God’s goodness.
Ask God for help.
Leave your concerns with him.
Meditate on good things.
Is God sovereign over your circumstances?
Is he mightier than your problem?
Does he have answer to your questions?
According to Scripture, the answer is yes, yes, and yes! Trust him and you can be “anxious for nothing.” (Quote source: “Anxious for Nothing,” inside front cover, hardcover copy.)
In a chapter titled, “Think About What You Think About,” Max Lucado opens with a story of a very sick young girl named Rebecca and her mother, Christyn:
In her short thirteen years Rebecca Taylor has endured more than fifty-five surgeries and medical procedures and approximately one thousand days in the hospital.
Christyn, Rebecca’s mom, talks about her daughter’s health complications with the ease of a surgeon. The vocabulary of most moms includes phrases such as “cafeteria food,” “slumber party,” and “too much time on the phone.” Christyn knows this language, but she’s equally fluent in the vernacular of blood cells, stents, and most recently, a hemorrhagic stroke.
In her blog she wrote:
This past week’s new land mine was the phrase “possible hemorrhagic stroke,” a phrase I heard dozens of time used by numerous physicians. Over and over and over that phrase filled my mind and consumed my thoughts. It was emotionally crippling.
This past Sunday our preacher, Max Lucado, started a very fitting series on anxiety. We reviewed the familiar Philippians 4:6 verse: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
I presented my requests to the Lord as I had so many times before, but this time, THIS time, I needed more. And so, using Philippians 4:8-9 as a guide, I found my answer:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true . . .” What was true in my life at this particular moment? The blessing of all family members eating dinner together.
“Whatever is noble.” The blessing of enjoying each other’s presence outside of a hospital room.
“Whatever is right.” The blessing of experiencing my two sons’ daily lives.
“Whatever is pure.” The blessing of all three children laughing and playing with each other.
“Whatever is lovely.” The blessing of watching Rebecca sleep peacefully in her bed at night.
“Whatever is admirable.” The blessing of an honorable team working tirelessly on Rebecca’s care.
“If anything is excellent.” The blessing of watching a miracle unfold.
“Think about such things.”
I did. As I meditated on these things, I stopped the dreaded phrase “hemorrhagic stroke” from sucking any joy out of my life. Its power to produce anxiety was now rendered impotent. And when I dwelt on the bountiful blessings in my life happening AT THAT VERY MOMENT, “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,” DID guard my heart and my mind in Christ Jesus. A true, unexpected miracle. Thank you, Lord.
Did you note what Christyn did? The words “hemorrhagic stroke” hovered over her life like a thundercloud. Yet she stopped the dreaded phrase from sucking joy out of her life.
She did so by practicing thought management. You probably know this, but in case you don’t, I am so thrilled to give you the good news: you can pick what you ponder.
You didn’t select your birthplace or birth date. You didn’t choose your parents or siblings. You don’t determine the weather or the amount of salt in the ocean. There are many things in life over which you have no choice. But the greatest activity of life is well within your dominion. You can choose what you think about. (Quote source: “Anxious for Nothing,” pp. 119-121.)
During this Advent season, why not make a list of our own “Whatever is . . .” and then “Think about such things.” It will reduce much of the anxiety we feel during the Christmas season and through the New Year, too. And it will give us that “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, [that] will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” I’ll end this post with the words that Paul started out with in Philippians 4:4-8 . . . .
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice . . .
Let your gentleness be known to all men . . .
The Lord is at hand . . . (Phil. 4:4-5)
YouTube Video: “O come, O come Emmanuel” by The Piano Guys: