Peace is coming, indeed

Peace Is Coming (McNoughton)

This painting is called “Peace Is Coming” and you can read more about it here and here. The artist was inspired by Isaiah 2:4,

And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

McNaughton has some strong opinions which he expresses through his art. I don’t agree with everything he opines, but this picture gives me a lot to think about.

Libya. Egypt. Iran. Iraq. Afghanistan. Tunisia. And all of these places have seen violence and war just recently. Only going back the last 30 years adds Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, and many more.

I guess my thought is that everyone experiences war. People fight over what they believe, whether those beliefs are religious or political or societal. People fight because they think they’re serving something. And while some people hold firmly to the idea that violence is never the answer, there is always a dissenting opinion.

I don’t know how to decide which wars to get involved in, or which atrocities to try and stop. But this picture, regardless of motive or inaccuracy, reminds me that there is something so wonderful to hope for. It reminds me that more and more, Jesus is the only answer for this world, for my community, for my family, for me.

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Advent Season, Part III: Hoping for…

Know Hope

I’m not sure where this picture came from (I think it’s connected to the “Know Hope” vandal in Tel Aviv), but I love it. It’s a beautiful image.

This past week of the Advent Season, I’ve given hope a lot of thought. Hope permeates the Bible, and is included in Paul’s big three. He mentions hope often, as a matter of fact. Yet, my hope has been lacking of late.

Reading the Psalmists, the Prophets, and even portions of Paul seem to turn hope into something other-worldly, unattainable till Jesus’ returns. Or it brings it down to a level I thought petty (particularly the Psalms).

I’ve written previously about the future of Christ’s return, and how it is indeed something to look forward to. But I, personally, have never had much to do with this second kind of hope. I encountered it throughout my readings, and though my initial understanding saw it as something selfish, the Holy Spirit has been revealing this other hope as something else entirely.

When Job, or David wrote about being persecuted, and wanting the Lord to even the score, were they being selfish? Was it just a petty grudge? Paul quotes them, as a means of reassuring the Roman Church, and he doesn’t seem to think it’s all that petty. When I think of justice, I think on a social scale, but I’m coming to see that such a view is an extreme.

The more I read the Bible, the more I become convinced that God cares very much about individual justice.

But not just some kind of future “set everything to rights” justice. The Bible indicates that God cares about justice today. Here. For me.

Let’s think of it in a term other than justice: rest. Justice, after all, will bring rest, and rest will bring restoration. Genuine restoration. Being less tired. Being less cranky. Being less… not like Christ. It seems so silly, so simple. But as Christmas comes closer, it’s important to remember what it is we’re looking forward to.

The family who doesn’t know if they’ll get to spend Christmas in their house because they can’t pay their mortgage? God cares for them (even if the fault is their own). The family who worries that they won’t be able to put Christmas dinner on the table? God cares for them (regardless of their social standing). When we take this idea and lump it in with social justice, we do a disservice to God and His Children. We make the individual less than God intends. But read Psalm 71 or 85. God cares very much for the individual, and all that seems wrong in their life.

This is a personal thing, as unemployment has drained my wife & I’s savings account, and we are closely approaching not knowing how we will live day to day. Despite what mistakes we have made, God cares about our situation. And asks nothing less from us than faith and hope that He will provide.

Rather than getting into “well you should do this” or “you should have done that” this Christmas, let’s try something else. Let’s simply say, “we hope.” After all, hope is a gift, and it will outlast everything else.

Father, as Christmas comes, and we turn to worship You, give me the hope that does not disappoint. Remind me that Your promises are not only of eternal importance, but matter to each of us in the here and now. I have come to a place of doubt, because things have not worked out as I had planned. But Your ways are above mine, and Your purposes far more holy than my own. Bring me into Your will, and grow in me a hope that touches everyone around me. I thank you so much for Your blessings in my life. Never let me forget what You have done. And keep me ever mindful. In Your Son’s precious name. Amen.

Advent Season, Part II: Longing for…

This time of year sees Americans rushing out to stores to purchase gifts for those they love. Even if the intended recipient knows what gift they are getting, family and friends insist that they wait until Christmas to get their gift. Some families have traditions that allow for a single gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, in order to enhance the already mounting anticipation.

Longing is a part of Advent. Many long simply to open their gifts. But that is not where the Christian tradition of anticipation began. After all, Jesus did not come to grant us all a Nintendo 3DS. So what does the Christian long for? What exactly does it mean to long?

For starters, listen to the Christmas song “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” If you don’t have it, you can download a beautiful rendition here. Often when we listen to Christmas music, we want something poppy or upbeat. That is all good and well, but we miss something when we leave out the songs built upon agony and yearning. Are you listening to the song yet? Pay close attention to the first stanza:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

El Greco (Greece/1541-1614)When Luke writes of the shepherds going to see the newborn Messiah, they weren’t just going to see a baby who would one day be a great man; they were witnessing the beginning stages of humanity’s redemption. Luke’s previous chapter is scattered with references to Isaiah, and I doubt it’s coincidental. The angels who tell Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds about Jesus are not just proclaiming the birth of a man. They were proclaiming the Kingdom of God! This was the beginning! This was what Israel had been waiting for! Isaiah 2: 1-5 and 11:1-16 give us a picture of what this would have meant to those who first greeted Jesus.

To summarize: all of the longing for God’s justice, for His mercy, for His redeeming love, for His Presence had finally arrived! This was truly a moment to rejoice.

But what now? The early Christians did not look back at Christmas and long for Jesus’ birth, did they? No, rather they looked forward to His return. The joy of Christmas, which is intricately bound up in the agony of longing, is founded on the idea that while God’s Kingdom is being inaugurated here and now, it will not be complete until Jesus returns. As Christians, we don’t celebrate Christmas because we like “baby Jesus” the best. We rejoice during Advent Season because Jesus came once, gave redemption to His people through His life, death, and resurrection, and He will return again to finally set everything to rights. We can be part of His glorious work now, but we still groan for justice and the redemption of all creation.

As the first week of Advent comes to a close, we open our hearts to the agony of a painfully incomplete world, and begin to move into the hope of Jesus’ second coming. Christmas is a time of looking forward to the promises of God, and worshipping Him in return.

The best way to prepare our hearts for this is prayer. I’ll end here with word from  John Chrysostom, who says it much better than I could:

Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God, and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love, and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it.

Prayer is the light of the spirit, true knowledge of God, mediating between God and man. The spirit, raised up to heaven by prayer, clings to God with the utmost tenderness; like a child crying tearfully for its mother, it craves the milk that God provides. It seeks the satisfaction of its own desires, and receives gifts outweighing the whole world of nature. (excerpt from “The Prayer of Longing”)

May we learn to pray in this way, and thus long for our God with all of our heart, mind, body, and soul.