What Mr. Tumnus Can Teach Us About Advent

After stumbling into the snowy wood of Narnia through the doors of a magical wardrobe, the first person Lucy met in that mysterious new country was a faun named Mr. Tumnus. Her presence startled him as much as his did her, so much so that he dropped the brown-paper parcels he was carrying. Knowing nothing of this strange new land, Lucy observed that, “What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping.” Lucy would soon learn, however, what all who love the story already know, that Narnia is under the spell of a cruel witch, who makes it always winter and never Christmas. These parcels, therefore, could not have been Christmas gifts as Lucy had assumed. She was mistaken. Or was she? Could it be that her assumption, no less than her very presence in Narnia, foreshadows the coming reality, a reality for which all Narnia waited with eager longing? Perhaps her presence and her perception of the faun’s parcels are designed to reveal that winter would soon end and Christmas soon come.

That Tumnus is the one carrying these would-be Christmas presents is no small detail. For he carries in his arms that which portends the liberation of Narnia, yet he himself is in the employ of the one who keeps Narnia in bondage to decay. He intends to hand the innocent Lucy over to the one who would destroy her, the false queen who will stop at nothing to keep her power and exploit the land and its people. As the story begins Tumnus is a coward and treacherous. And he knows it. And so the fact that this two-faced faun is carrying in his arms the packages which not only introduce the tension that carries the story but also the potential for its resolution is even more pronounced. He carries with him the sign of hope and freedom, even though he is himself part of the problem. 
He is part of the problem because he has not yet learned to wait. To be sure, he dreams of the day when the snow will melt and spring arrive, but in the meantime he has hedged his bets as he colludes with the Witch to save his hide. Like her, he has chosen to do what is necessary to preserve himself without regard to who might be hurt along the way. He is not waiting. He has capitulated.  
What then can Mr. Tumnus teach us of Advent? He teaches us first that waiting for the King born on Christmas morn is no passive thing. To the contrary, the waiting we do in the season of Advent is active resistance to the powers that rage against the Christ child, as we proclaim the gospel truth that there is another king, namely Jesus. For Tumnus, waiting for Aslan in holiness would have meant suffering, which is precisely what he feared. You only have to read his account to Lucy of what will happen if he releases her. His horns cut off; his beard plucked out; he will be turned to stone. You see, Mr. Tumnus understands that sometimes waiting means dying. 
Second, Tumnus reveals that no one is ever without hope, if, of course, they are willing to repent. In the end the faun chooses to release Lucy, to turn from evil in service to the Witch and face the grim reality that he will suffer for doing right. In this way Tumnus is being conformed to the image of the one who will soon suffer on the cold hard slab of a stone table. And because Tumnus is repentant, the Lion who overcomes even death, will soon breath on him and give him back the life that he gave up for Lucy’s sake. He has learned the meaning of Advent. He has learned to wait. 

Christmas and Communion (or Incarnation and Eucharist)

Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)
My Advent series of sermons this year focuses on the significance of the Eucharist. In preparing for this series, I’ve spent some time looking at the Eucharistic writings of the Church Fathers. One theme that emerges with regularity is the connection between the Incarnation and the Sacrament. I included this illustrative quote from Justin Martyr in yesterday’s sermon: 

We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).

While Justin doesn’t go into detail about the nature of the sacramental transformation, he does draw an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Both are mysterious because both somehow convey the presence of God through physical means. The Incarnation is the basis for the meal. It is because Christ is a flesh and blood savior that he can offer his flesh and blood to us in the Eucharist. And because he continues presently embodied in heaven, he is able to continuously offer his body and blood to us at the Table. By offering his body and blood to us in the Communion meal, he surprisingly yet beautifully cultivates our communion with himself and our Father through the Spirit. So, without Christmas there is no Communion, neither with Christ nor the Father, and without Communion, we easily lose sight of the bodily nature of Christ’s ministry to us and for us, which we desperately need since we ourselves are embodied creatures.

New Podcast: His Presence, Our Salvation #Advent #UMC @StMarkMobile


Advent is about Christ’s coming. And his coming is about the promise of his presence with us. But Christ is not present with us in exactly the same way as he was to his first followers. None of us have ever had an experience like that of the disciples, who were granted to look upon and touch the risen Christ. This raises the question: How is Christ present with his Church now? How is he with us in between his first and second comings? The Church’s answer has long been quite simple, even if it remains deeply mysterious. He is present in the bread and the wine.

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3 Reasons for Reading Backwards with Richard Hays (@Baylor_Press)

After attending part of the review panel for Richard Hays’ new short book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor, 2014), I knew I had to get a copy and read it. So I did, and took the long plane ride from California as an opportunity to dig in to this treasure trove of accessible and robust biblical scholarship on the Gospels. Hays is currently the Dean of Duke Divinity School and is well known for his work on the interplay between Old and New Testaments. This book is the published version of Hays’ Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, and it takes up that interplay as it relates to the canonical Gospels.
The central thesis of the book is that the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament, and the Old Testament teaches us to read the Gospels. In particular, the Gospels are to be read figurally, that is with a view to the many ways Old Testament texts may signify or pre-figure the Gospel narratives about Jesus. Hays puts it this way: “we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and – at the same time – we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT” (4, italics original). This is not simply to say we note the citation when a Gospel passage quotes or evokes an Old Testament passage. It means that the Gospel writers intend their readers to soak into the original context of Old Testament passage and to interpret what they say about Jesus in light of that context. So, when Jesus says things like, “I am with you,” or, “My words will not pass away,” he should be read with a view to the rich texture that those words have in the OT when they are predicated of God. Or when Jesus walks on water, it’s not just a neat miracle to illustrate his power over nature. It should be read with the understanding that in the Old Testament only the God of Israel “treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). And the narrative implication is that Jesus embodies the presence of that very God. These examples don’t begin to capture the many and varied ways the Gospel writers see the Old Testament pre-figuring Jesus. You’ll have to read the book. In the mean time, here are three reasons to do just that. 
1. Refreshingly Orthodox
A significant number of New Testament scholars insist that stories about Jesus’ divinity were invented by the later Church and read back onto the life of Jesus. Hays cites one of the more popularly known proponents of that view, Bart Ehrman, who says, “The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our gospels, only in John” (Jesus Interrupted, 249). In contrast, Hays shows that each of the Gospels were written to narrate how Jesus of Nazareth embodies the God of Israel. To be sure, the different gospels tell the story to emphasize different aspects of what that embodiment looks like, and the diversity of their portrayals should not be minimized. Nevertheless, when the Gospels are read figurally in light of the Old Testament, they unanimously insist that Jesus bears in his body the unique presence of the creator God. Hays makes his case with elegance and beauty, which is the main reason it is so robust and persuasive. When you come to the creeds after you read this book, their words will carry far richer meaning than you ever might have imagined.
2. Great resource for preaching
This reason for reading is directed more toward the preachers out there. Use this book as a resource for preaching the Gospels. If you are working with a passage in the Gospels, look it up in the index to see what Hays says about it. It will add a multiple layers of depth to your comprehension and preaching of the text. It will point you to features of the text that you had not previously observed. And it will equip you to lead your congregation into a deeper understanding of the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospels. It will make you a better preacher. 
3. Perfect for Advent
I’ll finish by saying that this book is an excellent read for the season of Advent, which has just begun. As we draw near to Christmas and our celebration of the Incarnation of God in Christ, what better book to read than one focused on deep clarity with regard to the way the Gospel writers portray the Incarnation? I was very glad to read this book when I did since I was reflecting on scripture and sermons for the season. It has impacted my experience of Advent both in terms of formation and as a resource for preaching. For this I am grateful.
Seldom do I say that I cannot recommend a book highly enough, but that is exactly what I will say about Reading Backwards. 

The Promise of Peace: Christmas in the Wake of Tragedy

When I began preparing my sermon for last Sunday on the topic of Christmas and the promise of peace, I didn’t know I would deliver it only days after what was undoubtedly one of the most wicked and satanic acts of evil to occur in my lifetime. Like many pastors, I felt the weighty responsibility to step into the pulpit and lead the people of God in reflecting biblically on the tragedy that took place on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. Little sense can be made of such events that bring us face to face with the gross reality and horror of such grievous sin. But the scriptures do speak to these heartbreaking circumstances, and they speak of sympathy, faith, and hope. They speak of a day when the promise of peace will be fully realized. 

The team at Seedbed.com was kind enough to publish the sermon in its entirety, which can be found at this link. Perhaps this sermon will be a comfort to some of you.

Advent and the Reality of the Kingdom

I’m preaching a series of four sermons on Luke 1-2 this Advent that focus on four promises that are kept in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. This past Sunday’s sermon was on “The Promise of a King”. 

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:31-33).

The Old Testament is full of promises that God would one day send a special king. From the blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 that, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,” (10) to the word of the Lord to David in 2 Samuel 7, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (12-13). Also well-known is Isaiah 9:7, “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” 
When we come to Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, we tend to focus on the nature of Jesus’ virginal conception. That is certainly there, and there are several good reasons that we should take it be historically accurate. But in the text itself, the nature of Jesus’ conception functions secondarily in relation to the angel’s message that Mary’s baby will reign over the house of Jacob and sit on David’s throne. That is, when we ask the question: what is the major thing Luke wants us to hear in the angel’s message to Mary? The answer is that all the promises of God to raise up a king to rule in wisdom and righteousness over Israel and the nations are kept and answered with a resounding “Yes!” in birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
We commonly refer to Jesus as “Lord” and “King”, and we often speak in terms of his kingdom. However, I wonder how much we spiritualize the reign of Christ in such a way that we make it out to be rather less real, less relevant to the real issues in life. I fear that far too often we look to the governing authorities, the kings of this world, to deal with the real, external, and visible problems (like poverty and the economy) and turn to Jesus for sentimental comfort with internal and invisible matters. We want King Jesus to be lord of our lives, but we don’t expect him to say much (or anything) about how the powers actually run the world.
But when I read Luke I am struck by the reality of the kingdom. After Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth, she celebrates that God has kept his promise by overturning the power structures of the world: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). This theme continues into Acts (Luke’s second volume) where we read of Jesus’ ascent to the throne of heaven, an image of his kingly authority if ever there was one. The opponents of the first Christians certainly perceived that early Christian proclamation posed a threat to the power of the Roman Empire. In Acts 17:7, the believers in Thessalonica are accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” And at the end of Acts Paul is in Rome, the capital city, waiting to declare the gospel of King Jesus to Caesar himself. If there is anything Luke wants us to understand, it is that the kingdom of God in the reign of Jesus Christ is as real, indeed more real, than any governing authority in the present age.
One thing that makes it difficult for us to remember the reality of Jesus’ reign is that it is not marked by the typical things we associate with rule and authority. The kingdom of Jesus is not characterized by any palace nor capitol building. The advance of this kingdom is not made visible by missiles and tanks. Nor is it marked by national boundary. Instead, it is marked by the increasing obedience of the people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. And it is all the more real for it. 
Advent calls upon us to catch a fresh vision of the reign of Christ over all the nations. Christ is not merely responsible for reigning over “spiritual” matters while the governing authorities handle the real business of running the world. He claims lordship over every affair, and every authority is responsible to reign and govern  as stewards of the world that Christ claims his own. The responsibility of the people of God is to be constantly, if not frustratingly, reminding the world that the resurrected Jesus is King of the world. The task is not easy. It will be rejected as exclusivistic and derided as impractical. But it is our task, nevertheless, to disciple the nations by teaching them to obey King Jesus. Advent insists that nothing less will do. 

Good News for All People

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 28, 2011.
Our Christmas celebrations have come to an end once again. Nevertheless, the many truths of Christmas endure all year long. One of those truths is always stunning to me. In fact, it may be nothing short of miraculous. What is this enduring truth? It is simply this: the good news of Christmas is good news for all people. No matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done. The good news of the Savior’s birth is for you.
Consider the story of the shepherds in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. Luke tells us that angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. In those days, shepherds were considered second class citizens. They lived on the margins of society. They often lived and slept outdoors, because they couldn’t leave their sheep unattended. Shepherds in the ancient world weren’t even allowed to testify in court, because they were prejudicially considered untrustworthy.
When God decided to announce the birth of his son, he didn’t send his messengers to the capital city or the governor’s house or the king’s palace. Instead, he chose to announce the good news of the birth of Jesus to the people everyone else considered to be less than human and unimportant. Why does Luke include this detail? It’s because he wants us to know that the good news of Jesus’ birth is for everyone, even poor, outcast shepherds.
Consider also the story of the magi in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. The magi were foreigners from the east who came to honor Jesus. In today’s world, we would probably call them immigrants. They traveled from a far off place to give gifts to Jesus. Why does Matthew include this story about foreigners coming to worship the little Jewish king? He wants every reader to understand that this king has come for everyone. No single race or nationality has a monopoly on Jesus. He comes for everyone, no one is excluded based on where they are from.
It’s also worth observing that the magi appear to have been wealthy, since they gave gold to Jesus as a gift. This is quite a contrast to the poor shepherds in Luke’s gospel who had only their adoration to offer. This is a helpful reminder that Jesus welcomes all people to himself. Whether rich or poor, immigrant or local, the good news of Christmas is for everyone.
Perhaps there has been a time in your life when you were made to feel marginalized or second class. Perhaps you’ve been concerned that you have nothing of value to offer to Christ. You need to know that the ground is level around the Bethlehem manger. All who come to Christ in faith are welcomed by him. Will you come?

The Advent of Love

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 21, 2011.

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn easily to love. We think of those we love as we prepare for family gatherings and purchase gifts. Christmas is also a time when we think a little more carefully about God’s love for us demonstrated in the sending of Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem. The truth of God’s love revealed through Jesus has been on my mind as I’ve read several times through the stories of his birth in the gospels this Advent season. As I read these stories once again, though, I was struck that the word “love” doesn’t appear in them. In recounting the stories of Jesus’ birth, the gospel writers never describe that event in terms of God’s love. So, that got me to thinking: Where do you turn in the Bible when you need help thinking about the revelation of God’s love in the advent of Christ?
It wasn’t long before I remembered 1 John 4:9, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” On the surface, this verse may not look like a Christmas verse. Remember, though, that Christmas is about the coming of Christ, and this is a verse about the coming of Christ. In fact, any verse that talks about God’s purposes in sending Jesus to be with us and offer himself for us is a Christmas text, because those verses are about the coming of Christ.
So what does 1 John 4:9 tell us? It tells us simply and beautifully that God sent Jesus, his only Son, as an expression of his love. God sent Jesus so that we could experience his love in a way that no one had ever experienced it before. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was not like any other baby. He was the unique expression of the Father’s love for us. Jesus came to fill the world with the love of God, and after the birth of Christ, love could never again be reduced to an abstract concept. With the birth of Mary’s baby, love had come, and love had a human face.
But that’s not all. This verse not only explains that the coming of Jesus is the revelation of God’s love, it also tells us about God’s purpose in that expression of love. And that purpose is to give life. Christ came so that we might have life through him. You don’t have to look far to see that the world is lost in a sea of darkness and death. Just watch the evening news. Jesus came to infuse this tired world with the life of God. He came to take what was broken and restore it. He came to take what was dead and dying and give it life. And that’s good news. That’s the good news of Christmas.
As Christmas morning arrives, my hope and prayer for you is that you experience God’s love and life in a way that you never have before. May the Christ, who is the perfect expression of the Father’s love, make his presence known to you and fill you with his life this Advent season.

The Advent of Joy

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 14, 2011.
Have you ever been to that place? You know the one, the place where you are willing to do what you know you have to do but you are not excited about it. You know the task at hand, but you are not eager to face the challenges. So, you approach it with hesitation, timidity, and perhaps a little fear. You want to be joyful, because you know it’s the right thing to do, but all too often, the right thing is the hard thing. I bet you’ve been there before.
Mary of Nazareth certainly had. After being visited by a messenger from God who told her that she would miraculously conceive a child who would be God’s Messiah and the world’s true king, Mary was committed to the plan. Remember her words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary may have dreamed of being the mother of the Messiah, but she never dreamed it would be like this. She may have hoped that one of her sons would be the Christ, but she didn’t expect it to endanger her life or cause her the shame of the whispers and sideways glances, having become pregnant before she was married. Mary was certainly committed, but the Christmas narratives give us no initial indication that she was joyful about it. At least, not yet.
Instead of celebrating, Mary ran away. She went to the home of her relative Elizabeth, where Mary would spend the first three months of her pregnancy. The journey to Elizabeth’s home would have likely taken about nine days on foot, a journey she probably made with a caravan. You can imagine the thoughts that swirled through her mind during those nine days. What will I do? What will I tell my parents? What will I tell Joseph? Who will believe me? Why is God putting me through this? Mary must have thought Elizabeth would understand. She must have thought there was no one else to whom she could turn.
When Mary entered Elizabeth’s home, and before Mary could even tell Elizabeth about her unusual circumstances, Elizabeth knew and greeted Mary with excitement and reminded her that God keeps his word and that he can be trusted. Only after this do we read that Mary rejoiced. Only then did joy come to her heart.
I think there’s a lesson to be learned there. When focused on her challenging and adverse circumstances, there is no indication that Mary was experiencing God’s joy. In fact, the text suggests that she fled looking for a safe haven. It was only when Mary’s attention was drawn to the consistency of God’s character that joy returned. We need to learn what Mary had to learn: the source of our joy is never in our circumstances; it’s always in God’s character. Circumstances change; God remains the same. Life happens; God is consistent. Challenges and adversity will come; God is faithful and true. Joy comes in knowing the character of God, not in trying to navigate life on our own.
Perhaps you are in one of those places this Christmas season. Perhaps you are feeling the tension between what must be done and the challenge of doing it. My prayer for you is that your attention will be drawn to God’s character and that you will be reminded that he is trustworthy. Perhaps this knowledge will be for you the advent of joy.

Are you ready?

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 7, 2011.
Advent is a season of preparation. As we celebrate the coming of Christ as the child of Mary, we also prepare ourselves for the day when he will come again. So, the Advent season is not merely about waiting passively for something to happen to us; it is an active preparation for the coming of God in Christ. This invites the question: what are we doing to prepare ourselves to receive the Christ?
We can find some help with this question in the familiar story of Mary. You remember the story; don’t you? Mary was a young girl, engaged to a young man named Joseph. She was from a small and unimportant town called Nazareth. One day she was visited by a heavenly messenger named Gabriel, and his message was exceptional, strange, and even somewhat scary. The messenger told Mary that she would be the mother of a very unique child. Indeed, his conception and birth would be nothing short of miraculous. And God would make him a great king, and he will be called the Son of the Most High.
With all the joy and celebration that surrounds the Christmas story, it is easy to forget what a shocking and scary message this would have been for Mary.  We seldom realize that she was probably only 13 or 14 years old, the typical age for a Jewish girl to be married. And we often forget that, in first century Jewish world, becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a crime punishable by death. Even if her life was spared, she would live with the shameful looks and hurtful jokes of those who lived in Nazareth. Here she was, barely an adolescent, and this messenger from God brought news that could endanger her life and result in public shame.
In light of these things, Mary’s response to Gabriel is nothing short of stunning. What did she say? Only this, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Even though it would be costly for her, Mary was already actively preparing for the coming of Christ. And she made preparation by offering herself completely and totally to God for his plan and his purposes.
With that in mind, we are left with the question of whether we are making ready to receive Christ. What are we doing to prepare for his coming? We would be wise to follow Mary’s example and give ourselves fully to God and to his purposes. Allow me to invite you to do just that and to use Mary’s prayer as a tool. Every day between now and Christmas, will you pray Mary’s prayer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” When you rise in the morning and before you go to bed at night, pray these words to God. Perhaps, if we do this, we will be increasingly ready to see God at work in a variety of ways, and perhaps we will be more ready to be involved in that work. Imagine what it might be like if our whole community prayed this prayer together throughout the month of December. Imagine what God might do through us and in this place. Just imagine. Are you ready?