The Joy of Advent

Was there a moment, known only to God when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance f0r a fraction of a second, and the Bright evening starWord, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancientharmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy? 

Bright Evening Star, Madeleine L’Engle

I have been observing Advent for more years than I can count. Having an Advent wreath, using Advent readings in my personal devotional life and in our family devotional time, leading worship in churches I served with Advent sermons and so many other aspects related to the Advent season. But it seems like this year I am observing it in a completely new way, a way that for some reasons seem deeper and more true to me.

I have been avoiding the local radio stations that play 24 7 Christmas music but today, while in the car, I turned to one of the stations and was greeted by a Christmas song I

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

have never heard. The only line I caught was “celebrating the holiday without the ones we love…” and I had to turn it off. I knew with moments I would be in tears and I was on my way to the dentist and would not like to do any explaining. One of the reasons that Advent is different this year is that it is the first without my parents, LeRoy and Audrey Ferguson who passed away this past July. It is also our third Christmas without Debbie’s mom, Laura. It is hard understanding how this season will ever be the same without these people we love but it has been the experience of all people of faith as life moves forward in all the sadness of living in a fallen world.

It is the third Advent season  that I have not been pastoring a church. Many will not be able to understand the struggle of this because some will consider it to be just like changing jobs but it is not. One of the things that I have come to realize over the past two years (thanks in part to reading The Pastor by Eugene Peterson and more recently Dangerous Calling, by Paul David Tripp) that though becoming a pastor was something I chose to do, it eventually became something that I was. I can only liken this inability to be what I have become to a musician losing the ability through an accident to play his instrument or a singer losing her voice or a surgeon losing control of his hands. Because of this I have become someone in the pew looking at the Incarnation, perhaps, in a fresh way.

This year the company I was working for decided to fold its tent and I find myself in a job that helps to pay the monthly bill but little beyond that. I am not complaining. Our lifestyle has only changed in small ways (we seldom go to movies, hardly ever buy CDs or DVDs and only occasionally eat out) but as my friend Matt B. Redmond (please buy and read his book The God of the Mundane:reflections on ordinary life for ordinary people) wrote recently in his blog about adjustments in his lifestyle after leaving the ministry “we have not even gone without Wifi”. In many ways this job has given me insight into what Matt calls the “mundane”. I work with young men and women, middled aged men and women and some men and women my own age (no adjective on this one) and most of them are excited about this job because “it is good money”. One man close to my own age recently told me that he had quit his second job because he makes more money in one week at this job than he did working two weeks at his other job. I reflect on this as I realize that at this job I am making (with overtime pay) only about two times as much as I did with the first engineering job I had out of college 37 years ago. This has allowed me to enter into the lives of folks that many (most?) Presbyterian pastor have little contact with: folks who work hard every day, at jobs they do not love just to put food on the table. They are hard woking folks of all backgrounds, some recently moved to this country who can barely converse in English. It gets me out of my comfort zone and allows me to hear problems, struggles, fears, joys, hopes of people I likely would never have met otherwise. Though many of them do know know it and few (in my conversations seem to believe it) they too are in need of the Incarnation.

For these, and other reasons, I find myself embracing Advent this year more tightly than ever before I think. I find myself lingering longer over my Advent readings, bringing to mind the accounts in Matthew and Luke (that are pretty much set to memory without even trying) and experiencing new wonder and awe at the truth of the incarnation.

As I have contemplated the incarnation this year I have come to see in a fuller way what Paul means when he talks about the foolishness of the cross and the gospel in I Corinthians chapter one. It is not only the cross that is foolishness to the wisdom of men but everything connected to the truth of the gospel, including the Incarnation. For the past three and a half centuries, Christianity has been trying to redefine itself into something that would appeal to “rational people”. Part of this has been in redefining Jesus and the incarnation. Wanting to call it a myth or a metaphor because it is just so hard to believe. Much that is called the church today tries to get by without an incarnation, turning Jesus into a great moral teacher, a great example of uncompromising love. I can fully understand this. How can the incarnation be possible. It assumes a doctrine (the Trinity) that is as difficult to understand and explain as the Incarnation itself. How can the Word that God used to bring all things into being (“All things were made through him and without him was not any thing made that was made”, John 1:4) become a growing fetus in the womb of a woman who live “in space time history” (to borrow one of Francis Schaeffer’s favorite phrases).

In seminary, I studied the Incarnation, learned about hypostatic union, learned from Chalcedon that the two natures are “unmixed, unchanged, unseparated, undivided” but you will notice that tells us what the Incarnation was not it does not tell us what it is and the reason, I believe, is that it is impossible. Thirty-one years after seminary I find myself agreeing with Madeleine L’Engle (who knew the importance of doctrines and creeds) “Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest galaxy. It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus, the Christ, fully human and fully divine“. (Bright Evening Star).

So this year I celebrate Advent because I marvel at the truth of the Incarnation and I more fully understand our world’s need and my need of a dying Savior who is God and man. As Sufjan Stevens recently sings in Christmas Unicorn “Oh, I’m a Christian holiday, a symbol of original sin”. There is no need for the Incarnation if we are not sinners. There is no need of the Incarnation if I am not a sinner. This Advent season, however, has served as a reminder no only of the miracle of the Incarnation but also the our fallen world’s need of the Incarnation and my own need of the Incarnation. New opportunities to see the sinfulness of my sin. New opportunities for repentance. New opportunities to rejoice it the pure, pure joy of the complete forgiveness. New opportunities to rejoice it the pure, pure joy of the Gospel. New opportunity to rejoice in the only truth that will do me or anyone else any eternal good that because of the Incarnation “God … justifies the wicked” (Romans 4:5). With out the cross the Incarnation is simply an astonishing miracle. Without the Incarnation the cross is simply a man suffering and unjust execution. But because of the Incarnation and the glorious story of the Gospel, this is indeed a time for awe and wonder

Dylan at the foot of the cross