Speaking God’s Language: An Advent Reflection

b_tdfgfugwa-murray-campbellBy Joe LaGuardia

One of my childhood dreams was to speak a different language and adventure across Europe like one of those old spy or action heroes I watched on television.  My favorite was Indiana Jones, who spoke many languages and read hieroglyphics, many found in his father’s journal, enabling him to foresee traps and dangers along the way.

Others I know have had similar dreams.  Some imagined that they were heroes from one of those old Zane Grey novels, able to speak the native tongue of Cherokees across the west in order to defeat maniacal villains bent on greed and blood lust.

I am personally fond of the late Atlanta writer, Lewis Grizzard, who said that sometimes our actions speak louder than words.  He recalls a time when he was delayed in an airplane on the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport tarmac.  When he looked out of his little port window, he saw a Delta mechanic starring quizzically at his plane, scratching his head with a wrench.

In high school, my childhood dreams quickly faded as I realized I didn’t have a knack for languages.  I almost failed Italian.  Twice.  And I am full-blooded Italian.

Some people are good at learning new languages, some are not.  What I do know is that Advent is the season when we come together as a church and learn an entirely different language altogether: God’s language, the language of time.

The New Testament uses two Greek words for “time”.  One is chronos, where we get the word chronometer, which points to human, linear time — the passing of hours and days, minutes and seconds.

The second word is Kairos, which points to time that transcends the linear passing of hours.  It is the time of divinity, so to speak, where Trinity and spirit exist apart from what we know of as human beings.

It is larger than any calendar, it is cosmic and entails the entire fabric of creation, the heavens and the earth, and who we are as God’s people.

In Romans 13, Paul stated that we believers know what time—what Kairos—it is because we speak God’s language of time: one laden with hope and joy, anticipation rather than anxiety, one in which we know that our life is not our own.

It is kairos caught up in the larger drama of God’s redemption found in scriptures of old, and finding its fullest reach in the person of Jesus Christ, who submitted himself to our chronos, our span of life, in order to die and rise again, to bend time towards justice by giving us all the gift of overcoming time too, to taste none other than eternal life.

Do we speak that kind of language?  Do we know what time it is?

The world seems so anxious about time.   Some want more of it; others have too much of it.  We are anxious about those things that create a sense of urgency in our life.  Other times, we foretell the “end of the world,”perhaps with the election of a new president or the advent of a new millennium.

People who face their fragility and the extent of their time on earth plunge into despair, the acute recognition that death is around the corner.  That is the type of language the world speaks; it falls short on hope and the promise of eternal communion in the presence of God.

When Paul tells us that we know what time it is, that we are to live as people not anxious about time, we are awakened to our liberty in Christ, to have an understanding that transcends 24 hours and 7 days a week.

‘Tis the season to move beyond the seasons.

God’s language also celebrates at least three “times” in our life:

  • The time to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, born to a virgin long ago in a far off place of Galilee which up to that point only provided the world with peasants rather than a prince of peace, King of kings.
  • A time to celebrate God’s in-breaking in our life today as we witness Christ born anew in our hearts, and also allowing us to be born unto God. To be able to birth the hope and love of Christ in world that only knows the pain of birth pangs.
  • A time to anticipate the return of Jesus Christ to the earth, His Second Coming when he will judge the living and the dead, unfurl the great scroll of the book of life, and then grant us new, imperishable bodies in which we live in God’s new heaven and new earth, where tempest waters are as still as glass, where lion and lamb slumber together, and where children play with the likes of asps and vipers.

It is in Advent when we experience Jesus as our hero, one who teaches us a new language and speaks God’s kairos, a hero that puts to rest the anxiety we all feel when worrying about what tomorrow might bring.

It is about what is “now”, and salvation in Christ’s ultimate judgement and redemption that is the “not-yet”.

And in that tension of “now-and-not-yet,” we find hope to love deeply, worship richly, and live our life by walking to the beat and time signature of a different drum.

For many, time represents what one poet calls the “long unrest.”  But for us who live into Advent and celebrate Christ’s birth and life, we allow that long unrest to turn into wakeful celebration.  We may not know French or Russian, but we know what time it is!

In Him the long unrest is soothed and stilled; in Him our hearts are filled.”

Amen.

 

The day after Easter: Fear and Joy

jm_200_NT2.pd-P21.tiffAccording to Matthew’s gospel, on the morning that Jesus rose from the dead, several women were commissioned to tell the disciples all that had taken place.

It says that they left the tomb “with fear and great joy” (28:8).

Fear and joy is not a likely pair.  Usually, we experience one or the other.  We fear of those things we do not understand or are uncertain about; and joy over the things in which we are confident and hopeful.

The women were fearful and filled with joy, however, because that’s what happened when they confronted the greatest truth known to humanity: that in raising Jesus from the dead, God began a new work in which the kingdom of heaven broke into our earthly realm in a mighty and transformative way.

Ever since they joined Jesus, the disciples knew that there was something about this fellow from Galilee.  He healed the sick, partnered with outcasts, spoke with authority that stumped the religious officials, and performed miracles.

It was frightening to be in Jesus’ presence: Each disciple recognized that their lives were at stake, and each disciple had to choose every day whether they would follow Jesus.

At the end of Holy Week, however, that fear came to a crescendo as their Lord was executed in the worst way possible.  The disciples ran for the hills; it wasn’t Jesus they feared, it was Rome and the Jewish authorities who put to death the only hope they had.

Why did the women fear, then, if they knew that Jesus rose from the dead?  Wouldn’t they have remembered all that Jesus told them about having to die for the sins of the world and overcome death itself so that those who believed would receive eternal life?

They were fearful because the resurrection event confounded their very beliefs in what was possible.  No one before that time had ever been resurrected from the dead in the way that Jesus was.  He was now at the right hand of God, and all authority had been granted unto him.

That was an awesome premise, and it made the women shake in their boots.

The women were also filled with great joy.  God certainly did something in and through Jesus Christ that caused them to be scared, but there was an unyielding notion that Jesus’ resurrection insured all of their resurrections when that great Day of the Lord finally arrived.

Jesus’ life and presence guaranteed that their lives would also inevitably be different.  They would have access to God under the umbrella of grace, mercy, and reconciliation.  Who wouldn’t feel profound joy in that truth?

Even today, nearly two thousand years later, we experience faith with a profound sense of fear on the one hand and inexplicable joy in the other hand.

In the death and resurrection of Christ, we catch glimpses of our present (death) and our future (resurrection).  Fear and joy, indeed.

But we also fear the Risen Christ to the point that we avoid him sometimes.  We don’t invite him fully into our lives.  We hide things from him.  We cower in the shadows when his light pierces our darkness.

Although this particular word, “fear”, in the Bible may also be translated as awe, I like to think that fear is accurate in this context because we are afraid of God no matter how much we know God’s grace covers us for all eternity.

Joy is also present in our lives because when Christ died, our old life died with him.  Jesus’ life represents the freedom that comes with God’s total forgiveness.

Rudolph Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, noted that people experience God as one who is “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”  He is mysterious and tremendous, and because of that, God’s presence is intimidating.

But God is fascinating: We know that God’s agenda for our life and for all creation is something that fills us with unspeakable peace that surpasses all understanding.

As we come to God, we may have confusing, conflicting feelings of both fear and joy.  In the end, however, we worship a living Savior who accepts us just as we are.

 

“Rejoice always, again I say, rejoice!”

matchlightHave you ever confronted a scripture verse that makes you wonder how to live up to God’s Word?  Take this one for example penned by Paul in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”

Rejoice always?  I barely have enough energy to pay attention to my children whenever they are around much less try to “rejoice always” while going about my day.  And what about those difficult times in our life when bad things happen?  What about when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed?  Does God still expect us to rejoice?

I’m not 100% positive of what Paul means by asking Christians to rejoice always, but I’m fairly certain he does not expect us be happy all of the time.  The translation of this verse in the recently published Common English Bible, “Be glad always” is misleading.

To rejoice always is not the same as being “glad” or happy always.  Paul knew that the Christian life is not an easy one and that happiness comes and goes.  After all, he was in prison when he wrote his letter to the Philippians, and he understood that thorns in the side existed and made things difficult a time or two (2 Corinthians 12:5).

Besides, have you ever met someone who is happy all the time?  That constant energy can get really annoying, and eventually the facade of sustained enthusiasm crumbles under the weight of life’s hardships.  If God expected us to always be happy or always be glad or always have a smile on our face, then we all might as well skip church and stay home on Sunday mornings.  It would be an impossible expectation to fulfill.

I think that when Paul told the Philippians to rejoice always, he meant that we Christians should exhibit exuberant confidence in the midst of the roller coaster of life.  We are to trust in the purpose, plans, and mission that God has for us.  We may waver in our faith, but our diligence in seeking God and making God a priority in our life–to make Him the object of our rejoicing–should be sustainable and constant.

Paul was in prison at the time he wrote his letter to the Philippians–not a lovely place to be during the first century–but he still knew that God had a purpose for his life.  He was confident in a God whom Paul insisted makes “all things work together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

Rejoicing is what happens when we rely on the joy that God puts in our hearts when we believe in him.  Difficulty and hardship may come, but joy is like a flickering flame that persists even in the face of overwhelming darkness.  It is not something that is easily extinguished, and it is something that lingers even if only a spark.

I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to meet people in hospital, rehab, or hospice situations who continue to rejoice in God even when the odds are stacked against them.  When I visit, I find that these folks hold such a confidence in the Lord that they end up ministering to me.

I don’t expect people to put on a show, and it is tiring for some to smile and make visitors feel welcome.  I don’t expect them to show enthusiasm for the Lord; in fact, many a people who suffer get angry or resentful at times.  That’s natural.

Yet, even in the harshest of situations, believers in God have a joy that not even cancer can kill.  There is a resilience that is inexplicable and transcendent, a resilience that attests, “Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

That kind of joy produces rejoicing that sings hymns when hardship comes, proclaims Gospel news in a bad-news world, and prays for the Spirit’s guidance when the voices are too overwhelming.