Getting Ready for Christmas

Following up on my earlier post about observing Advent, Malachi 4:6 calls those who would prepare for the coming of Christ to turn their hearts to their fathers, and for fathers to turn their hearts to their children. What this has to do with Christmas takes some unpacking, or unwrapping, so here goes.

The striking thing about this passage, so subtle at first that it is easily overlooked, is the bi-directional nature of the command. We’re familiar with “honor your parents” and “bring your children up in the nurture of the Lord”, and good at ignoring them in isolation. Children feel their parents have sinned horribly against them, and so God’s commands get modified (consciously or not) into “Honor your father and mother if they are honorable, when it suits you, and don’t feel bad about doing a lousy job since they’ve hardly done for you what God commanded.” For parents, the morph is similar. We respond to the command by saying, “I did my best. I put food on the table. They pushed me away. If they want to have a relationship with me, they’ll call.”

Malachi smacks us with reality. God doesn’t tell us to honor our parents if they’re honorable (or reasonable!), and he doesn’t tell parents to nurture their children when those children are willing to listen, young, cute or asleep. When John the Baptizer came preaching in the spirit of Elijah, he didn’t gathered around a congregation of kids, but made the way straight “that all might believe through him” (John 1:7). Jews, priests, Levites, all were called to repentance. His first line in Matthew’s Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). This is not a repentance depending on someone else’s. This is not turn your heart to your father when he owns something you’d like him to, or love your kid when they’re lovable. Malachi echoes the 5th commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12), but he applies it to the time when Jesus would come. He includes the hearts of fathers to children, and not just children to fathers. And he adds the consequences of refusing, “lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

What does a beefed up version of the 5th Commandment have to do with the coming of Christ? More than we might think. God prepares us for the coming of his Son by telling us to get right with our own children. He tells us to prepare our hearts to love the Father who gives life to the Son by turning our hearts to our fathers who gave us life. We fail to see these connections because we think it’s easy to run if you never walk, which is a lie: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). How much more is this true if anyone hates his father? Or if anyone anyone hates his son? He cannot love the Father or the Son. This is not said to throw your faith into a tailspin. In his juxtaposing brilliance, John tells us that one must drive the other out. If you love Father, love your father. If you love the Son, love your son. If you are a Christian who believes Jesus is God, this is where you are going anyway, so you might as well come along and have a merry Christmas. Continue reading

How to (mostly) handle your silly sins

Although I know this, I am of a different mind ten times in the course of a day. But I resist the devil, and often it is with fart I chase him away. When he tempts me with silly sins I say, ‘Devil, yesterday I broke wind too. Have you written it down on your list? When I say to him, ‘You have been put to shame,’ he believes it, for he does not want to be despised. Afterward, if I engage him in further conversation, I upbraid him with the pope and say, ‘If you do the same as he does, who is your pope that I should celebrate him? Look at what an abomination he has prepared, and it continues to this day!’ Thus I remind myself of the forgiveness of sin and of Christ and I remind Satan of the abomination of the pope. This abomination is so great that I am of good cheer and rejoice, and I confess that the abomination of the papacy after the time of Christ is a great consolation to me. Consequently those who  say that one should not rebuke the pope are dreadful scolds. Go right ahead and inveigh against the pope, especially if the devil disturbs you about justification. He often troubles me with trivialities. I don’t notice this when I’m depressed, but when I feel better I recognize it easily.  

–Martin Luther, Table Talk

Bright Advent

We are almost a week into Advent, and I hope your house is as merry as mine is. The massive confiner is up and lit, and liquified chocolate is on tap. The Christian Church cannot require anyone to keep days, seasons or festivals (Col. 3:16), but as the body of Christ has come into its maturity, we can voluntarily do all kinds of festive things. The coming of the Lord is a big deal, and preparing in a big way as we commemorate it and anticipate his coming again is fully appropriate. How could we not?

In old covenant the one prescribed fast day was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement when the Jews were to afflict their souls. One day. Now that we live in the kingdom (come and coming), is it appropriate to methodically fast at length? I would argue it doesn’t make sense to do this. Fasting occurs throughout the Bible when people are looking for answers to prayer or having a specific occasion for repentance. If you need to clean the house, do it. But don’t think you’re serving the house when you clean it for no other reason than you think the exercise itself makes you holy. That is false if not evil, especially if done to be seen by others (Matt. 6:16).

Many people find an annual spiritual “spring cleaning” of sorts to be helpful. God gives us daily, weekly and yearly calendars in part so we can track, evaluate and enjoy time, work an rest like he does on the Sabbath of the creation week (Gen. 1:31-2:3). If someone wants a biblical devotion linked to Advent, then perhaps the best course is to focus on the way God prepared his people for the coming of Jesus:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5-6).

John the Baptizer came in the Spirit of Elijah, and part of job in preparing the way of Jesus was turn fathers to children and children to fathers. How many people are fasting for Advent and yet haven’t turned to their children and parents in love, respect, forgiveness, hope, and gratitude? How much father hunger burns holes in our souls this season? This is the fast that God requires, and one that makes the season bright.