The Fourth Watch

By Pastor Dwight K. Nelson

Mar
29
March 29, 2017

Thanks to a faculty member of an engineering school in Italy (who with his wife has been watching our worship service), I read a fascinating piece this week by Tom Harford, “The Problem with Facts.” Couple it with this week’s TIME magazine cover story, “Is Truth Dead?”—and it is clear growing suspicions are becoming public conversation. Are we witnesses (even participants) to a dramatic shift in public ethos regarding truth telling and fact checking? 

Harford opens with the 1953 narrative of how Big Tobacco pulled off their stunning public relations coup by dissuading the public from believing the mounting evidence smoking causes cancer. In 1995 a Stanford University historian detailed the tobacco case closely. “This is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced. . . . The facts about smoking—indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources—did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, as it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument” (http://timharford.com/2017/03/the-problem-with-facts/).

In the on-going tug of war between the news media and the President, the question of truth and truth-telling, of facts and “alternative facts,” of news and “fake news,” has hit an unprecedented fever pitch. As a consequence the miasma of “he said-she said” has effectively obscured not only the public’s knowledge of “truth” but also its trust in the heretofore generally regarded reputable truth-tellers of the news media and the White House. That there are those who argue it’s always been this way—and after all, the Brexit proponents across the pond resorted to the same distortion of facts and truth to achieve their victory—hardly mitigates the obvious paradigm shift we now witness regarding public integrity, ethics and truth-telling. “In the radical democracy of social media, even the retweets of outraged truth squadders [those defending truth] has the effect of rebroadcasting false messages” (TIME 4-3-17 p 37). And so it goes. And it only gets worse.

But why be concerned with this food fight between our media and our politicians? Because truth really does matter. Pilate’s “What is truth?” dismissal, when the One who was and still is “the way, the truth and the life” stood before him, is a reminder of the high stakes fall-out when leaders waive truth aside in favor of expediency (see John 18:37-38; 14:6; 19:16). And if the crucifixion of Jesus portends the end result of when church and state collaborate to rid themselves of uncomfortable truth and uncompromising truth-tellers, then we do have reason to not only care about truth-telling today, but to also be concerned, deeply concerned.

Concerned that a public so easily persuaded by Big Tobacco marketers to reject what was “obvious” scientific evidence could just as easily become a public dissuaded by other “marketers” from believing compelling biblical evidence championed by a band of truth-tellers one day yet to come. The truth is—truth matters.

So how should you and I be living in these days of prevarication? (1) We must always tell the truth—“You shall not give false testimony. . . . Do not spread false reports. . . . Do not lie to each other” (Exodus 20:16; 23:1; Colossians 3:9). And (2) we must always live the truth—“Let your good works [words]  shine before others that they may glorify your Father in heaven” (see Matthew 5:16). Notice how high God raises the bar: “A glance, a word, even an intonation of the voice , may be vital with falsehood. Even facts may be so stated as to convey a false impression. . . . Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight” (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing 68 emphasis supplied).

Why? Because  truth matters. So in a world running out of it, I say let’s stand up and let it shine!

Mar
8
March 8, 2017

When I was a boy in Sabbath School, I remember the leaders teaching all of us little tykes a ditty that has hung around in the back room of my mind ever since—did you learn it, too?

I have two dollies and I am glad;
you have no dolly and that’s too bad.
I’ll share my dolly, for I love you;
And now you have a nice dolly, too.

Ostensibly this little chorus was to impress upon our young minds the credo that sharing is the right way, the happy way, the Jesus’ way. (I don’t recall a verse for us boys about sharing—perhaps at that age we all played with dolls!)

But now that we’ve all grown up, of course, there are no more ditties to sing and dollies to share. And as the chorus bemoans, “and that’s too bad.” Because life really is about sharing, isn’t it?

After all, John the Baptist thundered to the crowds in the wilderness: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11). “I have two dollies.”

Why even Jesus in His epic Sermon on the Mount declared: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well—give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:40-41). “I have two dollies, and you have none.” 

Paul joins the chorus: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. . . . For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” (Romans 12:13; 15:27).

“And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:16). “I’ll share my dolly, for I love you; and now you have a nice dolly, too.”

Think of how blessed this world would be if this notion of sharing were the operative way of living. Rich nations sharing with poor nations. Regions with surplus sharing with communities in need. People with extra sharing with people without. “I have two dollies, and you have none.”

And how about congregations? And churches? Does this obviously strong biblical credo apply to them? To us?

Here on the campus of Andrews University the Pioneer Memorial Church has been blessed with an abundance of space for children in Sabbath School, youth in study, for people—for many, many people and families—in worship. “I have two dollies, and I am glad.” And we should be—God long before any of us came on the scene made certain our forefathers and foremothers wisely built a very big “House of Prayer for All People” (as the chiseled words above our front doors declare).

But what space shall we share?

In multiple circles over the past few days people have been contemplating that question. Is there space in the Pioneer Memorial Church that could be shared with others who need such space? Space for what? Space for worship. The conversations continue. Because the chorus is still true—“I have two dollies, and I am glad; you have no dolly and that’s too bad—I’ll share my dolly, for I love you; and now you have a nice dolly, too.” Sharing dollies, sharing space—it can’t be that much different, can it?

Especially since God invites us, “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).

Feb
22
February 22, 2017

How can you heal someone’s pain, when you can’t feel someone’s pain? There is pain deep within our faith community and our university campus. And the truth is most of us can’t feel it. How could we possibly feel it? We’re white.

Years ago a friend gave me a book that I never got around to reading. Until a few days ago. It’s Paul Kivel’s exploration, Upending Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. One glance at the title and I knew that this wouldn’t be for me—since I’m not a racist, since I see little if any racism around me, so why should I worry? That was over twenty year ago. Now the book speaks volumes:

It is not necessarily a privilege to be white, but it certainly has its benefits. . . . Privileges are economic “extras” that those of us who are middle class and wealthy gain at the expense of poor and working class people of all races. Benefits, on the other hand, are the advantages that all white people gain at the expense of people of color regardless of economic position. . . . [J]ust because we don’t have the economic privileges of those with more money doesn’t mean we haven’t enjoyed some of the benefits of being white. (28)

Kivel runs through a checklist of such privileges: we’re able to count on police protection rather than harassment; we’re able to choose where we want to live with safe neighborhoods and decent schools; we’re “given more attention, respect and status in conversations than people of color”; in news, music, history books and the media “we see people who look like us” in a positive light; we have more access, credibility and recourse with lawyers and courts; “nothing that we do is qualified, limited, discredited or acclaimed simply because of our racial background,” et al (28-29).

And white privilege begins in childhood: people around us will have higher expectations for us as children; more money will be spent on our schools; we’ll get called on more times in class; we will see people who look like us in our textbooks; “and if we get into trouble adults will expect us to be able to change and improve, and therefore will discipline or penalize us less or differently than children of color” (29).

Kivel concludes: “All else being equal, it pays to be white. We will be accepted, acknowledged and given the benefit of the doubt. Since all else is not equal we each receive different benefits or different levels of the same benefits from being white” (29).

How can you possibly heal someone’s pain, when you can’t feel someone’s pain? 

Ask the Good Samaritan. The crime victim was a Jew, and Jews hated Samaritans—so why should the Samaritan bother at all? He couldn’t feel the victim’s pain. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed about Jesus’ parable: Whereas the priest and the Levite fretted, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”, the Samaritan asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” (Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. 140).

What will happen to her, what will happen to him if I don’t stop and pour myself in their pain? It’s the Golden Rule hammered out in the crucible of another person’s pain. The Samaritan knelt beside the victim and administered (ministered) to him the emotional and physical intervention the brutalized man desperately needed. And in his self-sacrificial love for his “neighbor,” we see not only the truth about Christ who knelt beside us, but the truth Christ calls His radical followers to embrace: As you would have others treat you, you treat them.

There is a pain deep within our faith community and our university campus. It may not be your pain—but until it becomes your business, the pain—plain and simple—cannot and will not be healed. In the school. In the church. In our own hearts.

Update: Since this blog was posted, the University has released the following videos as part of the ongoing dialogue on this campus - Official University Response | President's Remarks During Thursday Chapel

Feb
8
February 8, 2017

In the latest issue of TIME magazine, the leader of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, writes an op-ed piece that begins: “The world today is overwhelmed with problems. Policy makers seem to be confused and at a loss. . . . It all looks as if the world is preparing for war” (TIME February 13, 2017, p 22).

In very similar language this observation was made over a century ago: “The present is a time of overwhelming interest to all living. Rulers and statesmen, men who occupy positions of trust and authority, thinking men and women of all classes, have their attention fixed upon the events taking place about us. . . . [T]he world is on the verge of a stupendous crisis.” (Education 179-180).

Could Ellen White and Mikhail Gorbachev both be right?

I’ve been reading Jacques Doukhan’s new commentary on Genesis this new year and am now immersed in the story of Noah. Commenting on Genesis 6:11—“The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (NKJV)—Doukhan writes: “The word shakhat ‘corrupt’ refers to destruction and annihilation (Dan 9:26). This verb often occurs in the context of war (2 Sam 11:1; 1 Chron 20:1) and killing (Judg 20:21, 25, 35, 42; 1 Sam 26:9). . . . What makes the earth corrupt is the violence that predominates there. . . . . suggest[ing] not only the intensity of corruption, but also its totality; all aspects of corruption are implied” (Genesis 141).

Didn’t Jesus Himself predict, “As the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:37)?

Is the world “preparing for war?” Are we on “the verge of a stupendous crisis?” Are we facing unprecedented corruption and violence globally? Is Jesus soon to return to this earth?

What if the answer were Yes? Would it make a difference in the way we live today? Racially? Last June the Pew Research Center surveyed the nation and opened its report with these words:

Almost eight years after Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president—an event that engendered a sense of optimism among many Americans about the future of race relations—a series of flashpoints around the U.S. has exposed deep racial divides and reignited a national conversation about race. A new Pew Research Center survey finds profound differences between black and white adults in their views on racial discrimination, barriers to black progress and the prospects for change. Blacks, far more than whites, say black people are treated unfairly across different realms of life, from dealing with the police to applying for a loan or mortgage. And, for many blacks, racial equality remains an elusive goal. (www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2016/06/ST_2016.06.27_Race-Inequality-Final.pdf)

And how is it in the church, the church of the Jesus who prayed: “. . . that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21)?

“STORM: Finding Jesus in the Gathering Dark”—Pioneer’s new pulpit series segues with Black History Sabbath today, because the mounting evidence is inescapable. If we are saved by “the faith of Jesus,” then we will live by “the love of Jesus.” Why? Because in the end it will be the only way a secular, godless culture will recognize the divine—in a faith community where Blacks and Whites and Yellows and Browns are bound together by the radical, bold, self-sacrificing “love of Jesus” for one another. For as C. S. Lewis once observed about this faith community—“What you say about the VII Day Adventists interests me extremely. If they have so much charity there must be something very right about them” (Letters to an American Lady 109).

Really?

Feb
1
February 1, 2017

A friend of mine put me onto the Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith (Calvin College) and his book, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith’s book, as it turns out, is “an idiot’s guide” (my words) to the massive tome (900 pages) of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Secular Age—a work recognized as a definitive analysis of our secular age. Smith describes Taylor’s work as “a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst” (ix) and sets out to make Taylor’s provocative conclusions accessible to the rest of us mortals.

Both Taylor and Smith turn to the memoir of the English writer Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a book Smith describes as “an existential map of our secular age” (4). In it Julian Barnes admits, “‘I was never baptized, never sent to Sunday School. I have never been to a normal church service in my life’” (5). I.e., his is the life most of us would consider secular.

And yet consider the poignant depth of the confession Barnes makes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” (5).

How many people today would identify with his confession: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him”?

The striking point James Smith’s book drives home is that the world the church occupies today is a very changed world. The answers we’ve prepared in order to witness to our faith are questions seculars aren’t even asking. For many of them nothing is “missing” from their lives—“so you can’t just come proclaiming the good news of a Jesus who fills their ‘God-shaped hole.’ They don’t have any sense that the ‘secular’ lives they’ve constructed are missing a second floor” (vii). I.e., this isn’t Paul’s Mars Hill (Acts 17) world where even the intellectuals are surrounded by their gods. “No, it seems that many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine” (ibid).

And yet in Julian Barnes’s confession we hear the faint longing of the secular heart. “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” It’s what Taylor and Smith describe as the “haunting” of the secular mind, a longing for the transcendent (God) while embracing only the immanent (this world of here and now). Most of us, Smith observes, live in the in-between of these two worlds, “where both our agnosticism and our devotion are mutually haunted and haunting”(4).

So shall we abandon any effort to connect with this secular age for Christ? Not at all. First, I think of John Stott’s counsel to Christians who want to witness to their faith, “Remember—the other man’s conscience is always on your side.” I.e., the Spirit of God impresses divine truth via the conscience. Thus the “haunting” that Julian Barnes’s confession intimates reflects the light planted deep within the heart, “the true light, which enlightens everyone . . .” John 1:9 NRSV emphasis supplied). Or as Paul put it: “God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). Good news—no one you meet is beyond the reach of God.

Second, the power of love may be the most persuasive argument God can make—through you. A 900-page tome would be enough to scare anyone away from plunging into our secular world for Christ. But intellectual prowess is hardly ever overcome by a matching wit. The power of change is embedded in selfless love. “The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (Ministry of Healing 470).

Two reasons why you are just what God needs to love the Julian Barnes’s of this world back to Him. They don’t believe in Him, but they miss Him—you know Him, and you love them—talking about a match made in heaven—let’s go!

Jan
25
January 25, 2017

I listened to a fascinating report by Charles Osgood on his “The Osgood File” this week. Researchers at Lund University (Sweden) have been studying the flight patterns of the common swift, that black ubiquitous bird (about the size of a barn swallow) found across Europe and the United Kingdom. Scientists have long expected that swifts spent much time in flight, but not this much!

Mounting tiny electronic sensors on 19 swifts, biologists began tracking their flight time. And when the numbers were compiled over a period of two years, they discovered that the common swift can spend up to ten months in the air. Without stopping! Fly an airline from Chicago to Sydney, and you’re looking at over 17 hours in the air (without stopping). But these small creatures are now tracked spending two months shy of a year in constant flight. (Researchers did note a possible half a percent of those ten months on the ground in the event of storms, et al.)

Ten months of non-stop flying? When in the world (or above the world) do they sleep? The embedded sensors on the swifts indicate that at both dusk and dawn these small birds ascend to 10,000 feet and stop their wing flapping, as they begin a long slow glide earthward. Those two glides (an hour in length each) apparently are the “power naps” that provide the swifts with enough rest each day to keep flying. For ten months.

“Lead researcher Anders Hendenstrom, professor of biology at Lund University, said: ‘It’s mind-boggling that they can stay airborne for 10 months without needing to come down. Most of the time there is a trade-off between energy use and life: live hard and die young. But these birds live quite long, up to 20 years, so somehow they have beaten this rule’” (www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/10/27/common-swift-sets-new-record-by-staying-airborne-for-10-months-a/).

The lesson for us? If you’re not sleeping through these first days of the New Year, then you well know that our world (this civilization) is navigating some of the most turbulent times in memory. The mini-storms across the planet are fast merging into a global storm of eventually epic proportions. “We are on the verge of a stupendous crisis” (Education 179). No wonder Jesus with prescient foresight warned those living near the end:

“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

Again and again He admonishes His followers to “watch and pray”—and in this case “be always on the watch, and pray.” Is the Master suggesting that like the common swift we “fly” without sleep? Hardly. But He is clear enough that living in a predicted time of epic storms will necessitate a commitment to extended praying. Living in this nation and world, we have long passed the “business as usual” demarcation. Welcome to the “watch and pray” storm zone.

If you would like to join with others in collectively watching and praying, Pioneer now offers two “watch and pray” zones each week: Wednesdays at 7:00 AM (Youth Chapel) and 7:00 PM (Sanctuary). Pastors will be on hand to guide and join this “watch and pray” experience. I hope you will either begin or end your Wednesdays praying with us. But not just on Wednesdays, rather like the swift let’s keep our hearts ascending to our God and Savior all week long, interceding for those we love, for those we know—for this storm-bound church and world.

Let us swiftly “watch and pray.”

Jan
18
January 18, 2017

I want to be both politically neutral and correct in making an assertion. In my lifetime (my dear mother [whom we buried this week] named me after a general soon-to-become president named Eisenhower and a preacher named Moody) I do not recall a more contentious build-up to a new president and his administration than the one we are experiencing. In a few hours Donald John Trump will take the oath for the office of President of the United States, and a new chapter in this nation’s history will begin. And how shall we respond?

The Bible lists not a single caveat nor even one exception clause in its profound advocacy to pray for political leaders in power: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for  kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Be reminded that when the apostle Paul wrote this call to prayer, Nero was the reigning monarch in the Roman Empire.

And please note this is not simply a call to intercede for our new president. It is also an appeal to give “thanksgiving” for our leader(s). Clearly Paul commands no begrudging prayers, but rather fervent thanksgiving prayers. And given the political climate in the empire when Paul wrote this admonition, it is just as clear that he cannot be describing a “thank God my political views have won” sort of congratulatory prayer either.

Why would Paul issue such a clarion call to pray for our kings? He is quick to list the reasons: (1) that we may live peaceful lives; (2) that we may live quiet lives; (3) that we may live in godliness and holiness; (4) because such praying is good and pleases God; so that (5) all people might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Five compelling reasons why you and I should fervently pray for the new President.

Thus, it matters not how the political fortunes of this nation and the nations of the world may yet twist and turn. The imperative is unmistakably clear: Pray for your king. And so, in obedience to the Lord of Lords and King of kings (and if you prefer, the President of presidents), let this faith community lift up our collective and private voices in intercession to Him who “deposes kings and raises up others . . . [who] knows what lies in darkness” (Daniel 2:21-22). Let us pray for our kings, for the sake of our Lord’s saving mission, for the sake of yet reaching the people of this nation and world with the glad tidings: “The King is coming.”

Amen.

Jan
4
January 4, 2017

On Monday morning my beloved mother (Barbara Watts Nelson Rienderhoff) peacefully fell asleep in Jesus while resting at her home in Banning CA. The attending nurse remarked that it was as peaceful a way to die as you could wish. She was 88. I’m so grateful I got to spend three days with her on her birthday just before Thanksgiving. Her condition deteriorated rather rapidly in December. My sister Kari flew down from Sacramento twice the week before Christmas to be with her. And while we with our brother Greg and her husband Bert grieve Mother’s death, there is relief in knowing her suffering is over. For her it will be a split second between her last moment of cognition and gazing up into the spectacular panorama of Jesus in the sky, calling His friends to rise. Oh happy day of reunion!

You would’ve loved her, too, had you known her. What was she like, this woman who survived my childhood? Let me share seven of life’s great lessons I learned from my mother, and you’ll get the picture:

1. Remember three rules—read, read, read. Mom was a voracious reader, and she stimulated our appetite for good books from the beginning. In a land where children’s books in English were a rarity (she and Dad were missionaries in Japan where all three of us kids were born), she managed to find the childhood classics, and we read all the time. Junior Guides came by ship from America—we devoured and preserved every issue, eventually binding them into books for rereading. I learned to love reading because of my mother.

2. Learn to love music—it is a beautiful thing. (It’s the practicing that’ll kill you!) And oh boy, did Mom make us practice. Relentless, sometimes merciless—she was our first piano teacher, along with trombone (me), trumpet (Greg), and oboe (Kari). Born with a beautiful contralto voice, she sang at the end of Dad’s sermons all across Japan. She loved music, and music loved her.

3. Never forget God has a purpose for your life. By the age of ten I had nearly died twice (stories for another time). I can’t count how many times my mother drew me aside to remind me, “God has spared your life for a reason—He has something special for you to do.” I grew up with that compound sentence. And because of her conviction and her faith, I ended up one day actually believing her. If you’re a young mother, memorize that sentence and whisper it to your child—because it will be always be true—and one day your child may very well turn out to be true to it.

4. A domesticated mother is a wonderful gift. My mother was an award-winning cook, baker (Sabbath morning sticky cinnamon rolls [to die for]), nurse, seamstress, PE coach, handywoman, boss, and queen of the castle. In a day where perhaps such giftedness is becoming rarer, God bless the mothers who embrace the divine mission of providing for, protecting and preserving a brood of children for society and the Kingdom.

5. A liberated mother is a wonderful inspiration. While it’s true Mom was more exceptionally domesticated than the TV Mom’s we watched in black and white, she embraced her God-given uniqueness as woman and colored outside the box. Somehow she became acquainted with the producers at a local television station in Toyama (a large city in which an American woman was a standout). And before long she was hosting a weekly television program fluently in Japanese (we kids with Dad even got to be her guests once!). Using her unique, God-inspired gifts, coloring outside the box, ministering as a woman—a liberated woman is an inspiration.

6. Be a learner all your life. My mother was Exhibit A that this must be God’s intention for us all. Whisked away by Dad before she could finish nurse’s training—off to Japan and mission life—good-bye schooling—but not Mom. On our second furlough, she enrolled in a school of business to study office administration. Then with her kids finishing college, she found a school that offered her life experience credit and eventually graduated with her Bachelor’s. Before long she was enrolled in Loma Linda University’s off-campus Master of Public Health degree, graduating at the same time Kari graduated from college. Then with her MPH Mother established a community health clinic in Portland OR, for which she was feted at a downtown hotel with a Community Services award. Always learning and growing, you go, Mom!

7. Be friends with God. I not only learned about prayer from kneeling beside my mother mornings and evenings—I also learned from those early mornings when I’d peek around a corner to find my mother alone, quietly reading and marking her Bible and  praying. When I would look inside her Bible at the markings and writing in the margins, I instinctively knew—she never had to tell me—how important this personal daily commitment truly is. For her, religion was a friendship and prayer a conversation. How many times when I was in college was she pouring her heart out in intercessory pleadings for me, as I later learned, at the very time the battle for my own heart was raging. She knew Jesus—and He knew her—and therein was the secret to her loving heart and fruitful life.

Ellen White describes the reunion one day in heaven: “Many will raise their crowns in sight of the assembled universe, and pointing to their mother say, ‘She made me all I am through the grace of God. Her instruction, her prayers, have been blessed to my eternal salvation’” (Reflecting Christ 195). To which I bow my head this day and whisper, “Amen.”

Dec
21
December 21, 2016

Some time ago Charles Schultz’s syndicated Peanuts cartoon went apocalyptic. Frame 1: Lucy to Charlie Brown, “I don’t worry about the world coming to an end anymore.” Frame 2: She continues, “The way I figure it, the world can’t come to an end today because it is already tomorrow in some other part of the world.” Frame 3: Lucy turns and asks Charlie Brown, “Isn’t that a comforting theory?” Final frame: Lucy smiling but Charlie Brown muttering, “I’ve never felt so comforted in all my life!”

What do the end of the world and Christmas have to do with each other? One word: Advent. Which being interpreted, of course, means the Messiah’s coming. First time. Second time. Both times, “God with us.” Advent.

The American lawyer and social activist, William Stringfellow, in his essay, “The Penitential Season,” bemoans the loss of meaning of this Advent season in America: “For all the greeting card and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing.” Why the loss of a deeper joy in this season? “The depletion of a contemporary recognition of the radically political character of Advent [i.e., “that message that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers of the world are judged in the Word of God”] is in large measure occasioned by the illiteracy of church folk about the Second Advent and, in the mainline churches, the persistent quietism of pastors, preachers, and teachers about the Second Coming. . . . Yet it is impossible to apprehend either Advent except through the relationship of both Advents” (in Watch for the Light 104, 105). Did you catch that? “It is impossible to apprehend either Advent except through the relationship of both Advents.”

In all holiday candor, it makes me wonder—not just about Americans, but about those of us who bear the name “Advent-ists.” Have we inadvertently (and no doubt, innocently) abandoned the apocalyptic connection between the two Advents, between Christmas and the Second Coming? And yet in this season’s most beloved and lauded of compositions, George Frederick Handel’s The Messiah, the composer powerfully and convincingly weaves together the theme of both Advents in his magnum opus. Isaiah’s grand prophecy—“For unto us a Son is given”—is inseparably joined with the Apocalypse’s mighty Hallelujah chorus—“For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” Because it is impossible to comprehend either Advent “except through the relationship of both Advents.” Stringfellow was right.

Then shall we not join him, and this Christmas set ablaze the candle of our joy, not only for the Advent that is past, but also for the One who is coming? “Oh that today the human family could recognize that song [“Glory to God in the highest”]! The declaration then made, the note then struck, will swell to the close of time, and resound to the ends of the earth” (Desire of Ages 48).

*Originally published on December 16, 2015 in "The Fourth Watch" blog.

 

Dec
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December 14, 2016

Her nose is hardly the stuff of Christmas, to be sure. But there may be a Noel connection yet. My last blog noted that the French mathematician philosopher, Blaise Pascal, a devout Christian (1623-1662), wrote in his Pensees that had Cleopatra’s nose “been shorter the whole face of the earth would have been different” (No 413). I.e., such a small but attractive detail (her nose) left Mark Anthony’s heart smitten, plunging him into a war for her, forever changing the Roman Empire which changed the world we live in today. Etc. Seemingly small details can have enormous consequences.

In this season of gift giving and receiving, you may remember the promise of Jesus: “‘If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!’” (Matthew 7:11)

Jim Moon, a pastor friend of mine, sent me a quotation the other day—came across it during his time of worship and prayer. He’s been listening to our #RxF4Now series and in connection with the teaching “2nd Hand Faith” he texted the quotation. Throughout the fall season at Pioneer we’ve been focusing on God’s omnipotent word—so omnipotent that when He speaks it, that word immediately creates the reality it describes. Hence, “Let there be light” in half a nanosecond resulted in—no surprise—light! “For He commanded and it stood fast; He spoke and it was” (Psalm 33:6). The astounding omnipotence of the word(s) of God is chronicled throughout Scripture (see also Isaiah 55:11; John 6:63; 2 Timothy 3:16, et al.). When God breathes a word, that very word immediately creates the reality it describes.

But how does it work? Paul declares (2 Corinthians 1:20) that all of God’s promises are a mighty “Yes!” in Christ, because Jesus is both the eternal Creator and the very Word of God (John 1:1-3). In Him every promise (or word) God has ever spoken is powerfully ratified with a divine exclamation “Yes!” All we mortals need do is declare “Amen” to Jesus—“. . . and so through him [Christ] the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:20). When you and I declare “Amen” to one of His promises, we are simply adding our “Yes!” to God’s “Yes!” and opening ourselves to receiving that promise, that gift.

Now the quotation Jim sent me:

For the pardon of sin, for the Holy Spirit, for a Christlike temper, for wisdom and strength to do His work, for any gift He has promised, we may ask; then we are to believe that we receive, and return thanks to God that we have received. We need look for no outward evidence of the blessing. The gift is in the promise, and we may go about our work assured that what God has promised He is able to perform, and that the gift, which we already possess, will be realized when we need it most. (Education 258 emphasis supplied)

Ponder those italicized phrases: “any gift He has promised,” “the gift is in the promise,” and “which we already possess.” Take any promise God has made in Scripture—put your finger on it and with childlike faith declare “Amen!” for that promise—believe you have in that moment received that gift—thank God for the gift—and with no further “outward evidence” resume your everyday living—with the assurance that (here’s the astounding part of the quotation)  the gift you “already possess” will be “realized” (made evident, made plain, manifested) when you “need it most.” Amen!

“Yes, but I prayed and believed that God would heal me (heal my loved one), and He has not done so.” First of all, God is not through answering your prayer (no matter the circumstances). And secondly, the same God who answered Jesus’ anguished pleading in Gethsemane—“Take it away from Me, but not what I want, but what You want” (see Mark 14:36)—will just as surely answer your prayer, too—in just the way He answered Jesus’ prayer—at the precise time and through the very circumstances that both maximize His glory and save your life (and the lives of countless others through your radical faith testimony).

Read it again: “We may go about our work assured that what God has promised He is able to perform, and that the gift, which we already possess, will be realized when we need it most.”

Such a small word—but what enormous and eternal consequences for your whispered faith in God’s bountiful promises this very Christmas—“Amen!”