For you who are highly favoured

Each Advent I marvel all over again at these words:

“Greetings, you who are highly favored; the Lord is with you.”

The words aren’t just for Mary. That same Greek verb which means “to highly favor” is used just one other place in the New Testament, this time of us: “. . . his glorious grace, with which he has highly favored us . . .” (Eph 1:6)

Mary is as surprised to be greeted in this way as we are. “You who are highly favored”. What does it mean? The angel clarifies with a phrase common in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The Lord is with you.” Each time this promise is given, the recipient is being entrusted with a particular task (Gen. 26:24; 28:15; Exod. 3:12; Judg. 6:12; Jer. 1:8; Acts 18:9–10). For Noah and Abraham and Moses, Gideon and Jeremiah and Paul, finding favor with God equates to being accompanied and equipped by God for a particular part in His great story. So for Mary. And so for us. . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.”

Mary still has questions. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. . .” (Luke 1: 35) These words aren’t just for Mary either. Luke, writing his story in two grand acts, echoes this phrase from the start of Act 1, in which Jesus is born of Mary and lives as a man in our world, at the start of Act 2, in which Jesus is borne in us into the world. Jesus speaks to his followers as the angel spoke to Mary, “when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8), you will receive power to make the impossible possible, and the miracle of God living in a human body will happen all over again.

We each have our questions. How can this be? How can we bear the Son of God into the world?

Mary was young, Elisabeth was “well along in years.” (Luke 1:18) Mary lacked the needed situation (marriage); Elisabeth had been desperately trying within the perfect situation for years and kept coming up empty. With these two examples, the angel brackets and encompasses all of our impossible situations, and answers them all with a few simple words: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

The question for us is as mysteriously simple as the angel’s reassurance. Will we cling tightly to our questions, or will we open our questioning hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ? “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

“. . . the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you. . . ” (Col 1:27)

An edited repost from the archives.

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What does it mean to you today that you are highly favoured, accompanied and equipped by the God of the universe for a particular part in His story?

When Advent doesn’t look the way you hope

Photo by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash

Advent, for me, seldom looks the way I think it should. And, as I wrote two weeks ago, though I often find it uncomfortable, that uncomfortable place is usually precisely where the grace is.

This year is no different. 

I began Advent with anticipation, and with a plan to read through Malcolm Guite’s Advent devotional, Waiting on the Word. I didn’t expect the restlessness that would arise, the recurrent moments when, even though I’d chosen that plan and wanted to mark Advent, some other part of me would resist lingering with the reading, reaching for a detective story instead. 

How is it that, even in this month of preparation for one of the holiest events of the church year, I find myself once again saying with Paul, “I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge” (Rom 7:22-23, The Message)?

And yet, right here, once again, is grace, because instead of keeping the Advent story’s good news at a comfortable distance, reading the words and singing the songs, I find myself clinging to it for dear life. 

Right here in the awareness of my own need and my inability to fix myself is the starting place for the real living of Advent, the awe and the gratitude and the kneeling at the manger because God knows me and still He comes. Long before he entered the world as a baby, he knew my beauties and my failures and that I couldn’t fix myself, and instead of condemning or rejecting me, he came to be with me and to do in me what I can’t do in myself.

And, more than this, He comes not only for me, He also comes through me, choosing to live His life in me for the blessing of the world.

It’s been like this since the beginning, when He came through people who were as messed up as any of us. He isn’t ashamed to be known as the Son of David—a man after God’s own heart, to be sure, but also one who in the heat of passion not only committed adultery but murdered the husband of the woman he had stolen. He came through the line of Jacob the deceiver and Rahab the prostitute and Abraham, who, in fear, said that his wife was his sister, causing her to be taken into another man’s harem. He comes, now, into the world through you and me.

It’s right in this place where I feel most strongly my need for God that I’m most truly able to live Advent, to give myself over to God, just as I am, for him to come and live in me and through me and with me, doing in me what I can’t do.

I recognize the grace of answered prayer here too: I’d wanted not only to mark Advent, but to live it deeply. I’d prayed for God to make Himself a little more at home in me, to set me a little freer to be His alone, living in Him and with Him and for Him. Seems like that’s precisely what He’s doing in letting me see all over again both my desperate need for Him and His gracious love that brings Him right into the middle of my need and my longing. 

One of Advent’s surprise gifts (You won’t want to miss this one!)

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

We began, eight days ago, to live this in-between month when the secular calendar is winding down toward the end of the year while the church calendar has already begun its new year with the first Sunday of Advent. Are we at the end of the story or at the beginning in this season in which we remember the coming of Jesus as a baby, welcome his coming into our lives now, and ponder and prepare for his future coming in glory?

It seems fitting that the end and beginning be intertwined as we prepare to welcome the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One in whom past is gathered up and healed and future embraced and secured and both are brought together in the always present love of the One who holds us together.

There is, of course, a very important middle to this story, and we’ll relive that middle in a few months. But in this Advent season we’re invited to see the full scope: to step back and re-live the beginning and begin again to celebrate the approaching ending.

It’s not only time that’s gathered up into an eternal present in Advent. We ourselves are gathered up, held up, offered—the beginning and the culmination of the gift of ourselves from the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father and of us to ourselves as Christ enters our flesh.

Advent, in other words, shows us both who we’ve been and who we will be, and invites us to live a little further along the journey between the two. 

On the one hand, I read the news headlines—and my own journal—alongside the story of the first Advent and I feel so deeply our world’s need—my need—for a Saviour. I’m aware of my inadequacy and sin and smallness. How is it that the holy God who made us, whose heart broke as we turned away, would want to be close enough to us to enter our flesh?

Then I turn the page and in the second Advent I see you and me reflected in a completely different way. This time we are in possession of the kingdom (Dan 7:18, 22, 27). We are princes. we are the Bride, the King’s queen, co-ruling alongside the One who has made us his own. In another image, we replace the temple’s most holy place becoming the most holy place ourselves, our flesh made holy by the presence of the holy God who comes to make his home not just among us but within us. 

Advent season, then, not only reminds us how far we’ve fallen but how far we’ve been raised. We are paupers, and royalty. Sinners, and God’s holy bride. Desperately in need of a Saviour, and grateful recipients of all the life and joy and wholeness that the Saviour came to bring. Grateful recipients of the Saviour himself, the One who comes to us in our low condition, in our sin and need and cowering, not to condemn and shame but to love and save and elevate (John 3:17). The One who will come again, revealing himself as King and us as his bride, his queen. 

Could it be that all the ways God comes to us in the present, in this stretch in between his first coming in a manger and his second coming in the clouds, are to help us trust his goodness and love, moving us gradually from thinking and acting like the paupers we’ve been to thinking and acting like the royalty we’re becoming?

The central gift of Advent is, of course, God. Light curling small in the dark, placing himself not in a box under the tree but breaking open our boxes and placing himself in a womb and then a manger in preparation to hang on the tree, lighting the whole world. Without this central gift, there are no other gifts. But with it come dozens of other gifts.

Perhaps the most precious of those other gifts of Advent is ourselves.

This week, these lines from Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Advent Sunday,” and Malcolm Guite’s reflection on her poem in Waiting on the Word have wakened me again to one way in which Christ, in his first and final advents and all the ways he comes to us in between, offers us this gift of ourselves. At Christ’s return his kingship will be reflected in us:

“. . . For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:

His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.

Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,

Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.

Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,

She triumphs in the Presence of her King.

His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;

He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.

He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,

And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out

With lamps ablaze and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.”

As Guite says about the image of Esther triumphing in the presence of her king, 

“Here Rossetti seems to be suggesting that acknowledging the kingship of Christ, far from being a demeaning, belittling or infantilizing act on behalf of the submissive Church, is in fact a radiant affirmation of her own royalty.”

(Waiting on the Word, p.3, bold mine)

In Advent, we remember both. Our need and the gift. Our sin and Christ’s righteousness which now clothes us. Ourselves as beggars and ourselves as Christ’s bride, serving alongside the God who first came to serve us.

May we kneel—at the manger, the cross and the throne—and give thanks.

The surprises of Advent: Invitation to a treasure hunt

Advent. The word means “coming.” For me, the word also holds all the anticipation and longing and preparation for the One who is coming. And the surprises of the way He comes.

I always look forward to Advent—the melodies of Handel’s Messiah, the mirrored surface of the red and gold baubles turning hundreds of little white lights into thousands. The hope that swells as I remember all over again the mystery of a love deep enough to come down and step into my flesh. The candy cane chocolate fudge crackle ice cream which has nothing to do with Jesus’ coming in a manger but somehow still seems a fitting celebration for the arrival of a King.

I always look forward to Advent. And mid-way through, I often find myself wondering why. It seems, for me, that there’s often discomfort in this month. One year, darkness and fear accompanied the unexpected need to look for a new home and the prolonged search for anything suitable. More often it’s the grief of feeling like the noise and bustle of the season is swallowing up the closeness that I want. It starts early. With Black Friday emails pressing for attention, reminding us of everything we need to satisfy our longings, we forget that the only true saving happened on another Friday when for three hours the world went black.

Sometimes even the selection of Advent devotionals sitting on my shelf and pouring into my inbox feels like pressure. I simply want to be still, to come closer, to walk the road with Mary, to kneel at the manger with the shepherds. I want to hear myself, too, called “highly favored,” to feel Jesus’ life moving in me. Sometimes the longing is so deep I think I’d settle for being a fly on the wall, or the donkey who carried Mary who carried Jesus. I just want to be there, somehow, with Him.

One year not too long ago this tension that I often feel in Advent began to make sense. I’d gone to talk with the friend who helps me listen feeling like I was missing Advent. I wasn’t feeling the joy or the hope that I wanted and expected, only painful longing. But as we talked, she helped me see: I wasn’t missing Advent at all! God’s coming just looked different than I’d been expecting. The longing was a healthy, holy discontent, a sign of God at work in me, stretching out space in me for the One whose life grows in each of us who are His.

Turns out God has come differently in each of the Advent seasons I remember.

In the winter of house hunting, God gave himself in a friend who went with me to look at apartments and another who packed when I couldn’t, and in a song I heard my brother sing to his children at bedtime. 

In my little village in Afghanistan, a woman on a donkey became for me a vivid image that God was there, the holy family once again part of the pilgrim train walking to Bethlehem as Jesus waited, carried and curled in the darkness but present and coming nonetheless.

Why am I surprised that God comes to me differently each year? Of course the Creator who shapes each snowflake, each fingerprint, each personality with its own unique beauty won’t settle for less when it comes to His own ongoing drawing close to His beloved children. The creativity of his coming is part of the gift.

When we were children, Dad hid our main gift and wrote clues which we had to follow to find the gift. I’m sure the gifts themselves were lovely and I enjoyed them immensely at the time, but of the gifts waiting for me all those years, I only remember one: the playhouse Dad and Mom built for us under the stairs. What I do remember is the pondering and deciphering, the running from room to room testing out whether we’d rightly understood the clue, the sense of lovedness that someone had put that much effort not just into choosing or making a gift but into the creativity and fun of giving it and helping us find our way to it. The gift wasn’t just waiting at the end of the hunt; it was in the fun and suspense of searching for it together. Inherent in the search was the promise that the ones giving the gift loved us, that whatever was waiting for us at the end would be good, and that there would be fun and togetherness in enjoying the final gift just as there was fun and togetherness in searching for it.

How might this season be different if I approached Advent as a treasure hunt in which God is not only the infinite gift waiting for me at the end, but also the One writing the clues and following me from room to room, eyes sparkling with shared delight as He says, “Colder, colder . . . now you’re getting warmer. . . “? What if I entered this season remembering that Advent is not just about Jesus’ past coming or his future coming but his present coming, bringing the gift of Himself and His creativity and freedom and wholeness into each moment of each day? Can I be open to the surprise of Him coming in whatever way He wants to offer Himself to me this year, knowing that He is good and what He gives will, ultimately, be good?

Woven into Christ (and my new word for 2019)

We’re a week into 2019, a week into new hopes and dreams and intentions, new directions and new words for the year.  As I take my next steps into 2019, I’m so grateful for the church calendar that reminds me that the new year began back at the beginning of Advent, and that the foundation on which to build this next year of my life has already been firmly laid in the story we’ve just lived through with Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
On the first Sunday of Advent, baskets full of ribbons were passed along the rows of worshippers and we were each asked to select a piece of ribbon and personalize it, writing a line of a hymn, a prayer, our name—some little offering of ourselves and our lives. Then, week by week, we watched as those ribbons were woven into banners standing at the front of the sanctuary. The weavers began from the top and bottom of the banners, line upon line of golden shades, then rich reds, slowly working their way in toward the middle. Below the platform where the worship team leads us, where the preacher speaks the words of God, was this steady reminder that as we listen and sing and pray, our lives are being woven into a beautiful tapestry.
For the first three Sundays of Advent, all we could see was bands of gold and red slowly taking shape at the top and bottom of the fabric. Even in themselves, they held beauty, a little of God’s glory imaged in the multi-toned layers of our lives.
And yet, they were somehow empty too. Incomplete. Mysterious. What was taking shape? Were these bands of color—as beautiful as they were—all there was? I was faintly disappointed. But only because I hadn’t waited long enough.
We met two days before Christmas on the final Sunday of Advent, and there,  in the middle of each banner, in white ribbon, the needed centre was finally taking shape. Or, rather, the centre that had always been there but not yet visible began to appear among us in a form that we could recognize. A name on one banner. A title on the other. Jesus. Christ.  Disappointment made way for joy as the centre was filled, the lines of red and gold now shining with new beauty as they took their proper place not as the main focus of the image, but as pointers, our lives put in proper perspective by the One at the centre.
The banners have hung at the front of the sanctuary through Christmas and the turning of the year and on into the season of Epiphany which has now begun. Epiphany—the revealing of Jesus’s glory—isn’t this what we all need every day of this new year? Our small lives gathered up into his, woven into his story, with Jesus shining forth at the centre of our lives and our communities?
I often begin the new year pondering and praying about a word for the year. This year I’ve wondered about several. There are places I’ve become lazy, and I want to grow again in discipline. But what is discipline if my life isn’t marked by love? And the truth is that unless my discipline is rooted in love, unless I really want to do something, my desire fuelled by love, my will-power falls flat pretty quickly. Or gets sidelined by fear.
Love, then. I long for my life to be marked by love. For that to happen I need to keep making my home in Jesus’ love. But as I sit with the word, I find that when it comes right down to it, even love as a guiding word for the year feels empty. It is, of course, a crucial part of the weaving of a meaningful, beautiful life. But even love finds it proper place not as the centre but as a pointer, guiding me back to the only One who can fill that central place, the One in whom everything holds together and from whom love comes. All my hopes and goals for the year, no matter how significant, only have meaning when they take their proper place around Jesus. Without him at the centre, even the best dreams are meaningless, the best goals both irrelevant and impossible.
This, this, is the Word I want written on every piece of my heart, every moment of my days. This is the Word that holds me together, weaving all the bits of life into a whole that makes sense. JESUS.