Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, the liturgical season observed by many Christians as a period of waiting and preparation for the Nativity of Jesus. This season begins four Sundays before Christmas and concludes on Christmas. The hanging of greens, adorning sanctuaries and wearing vestments of purple, and lighting the Advent wreath candles in order to move from darkness to light are key components in Advent observation. All of this is in anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a birth that people anxiously awaited then and a symbolic birth we should anxiously await now. But some may ask, “Why must we wait for something that has already happened? Why exist in symbolic darkness for a time in order to celebrate that which was revealed some 2000 years ago? Why is this relevant to our time?” I suggest that we must wait in order to reclaim the wonder of the light that was brought into this world.
Earlier this year, during an Ash Wednesday service at a large Baptist church, I looked forward to ushering in the season of penitence with somber worship and a penitent message. Ash Wednesday is supposed to remind us of our finitude and it plunges us into a season of penitence, and the journey into the wilderness with Christ. But as I sat in that Ash Wednesday service, I was jolted from somber reflection with songs of joy and a sermon celebrating victory. Not a moment in the service–besides the impartation of ashes which concluded the service–was spent ushering people into the dry season ahead of them because the church couldn’t not praise. On one hand I understood the church’s inability to squelch their praise. It’s a church that has seen many trials and tribulation and its membership are a part of the resilient race in this country who can’t not praise because of how far they’ve come by faith. Why would they want to launch themselves into a period solemnity? But on the other hand, I desired for this congregation to withhold their praise and shouts of victory in order to rightfully claim it at the end of the Lenten season. In doing this, they would truly walk with their redeemer and taste the sweetness of victory because they had made the journey by way of symbolically situating themselves on Ash Wednesday as sojourners with Jesus. This too is our call during the season of Advent except that we are not sojourners with Jesus this time around but sojourners with a generation of people who were awaiting his arrival. People who heard a particular prophecy about the coming of Jesus and who were waiting and preparing for his arrival. People who didn’t have Christmas gift shopping, parties to attend, and a plethora of “holiday” distractions, but who were watching and waiting for him. I imagine that their wait was one of wonder mixed with skepticism fueled by the rumors of Mary, a virgin, who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit with the son of God. How unbelievable that had to be then and how unbelievable we should consider it now in order to rekindle the wonder of it all. Awesome wonder is what this season is about.
Yesterday in church I was reminded of how in danger we are of losing that wonder because we are so familiar with the stories that tell of the coming of Jesus. Some of us know it like the back of our hands and it has become so commonplace that the narrative of a young virgin impregnated by the Holy Spirit and giving birth to the son of God seems just as plausible as a man getting pregnant and giving birth. Some of us are no longer moved by the story because we’ve spent years with it in our churches, in our seminaries and Bible colleges, and in our homes, but we force ourselves to be moved just a few days before Christmas because that’s what we’ve been trained most to do. Many wind down and reflect as they start to wrap up their Christmas shopping, place the last few gifts under the tree, and bake the last batch of cookies. A reflection on the true significance of this moment on the Christian liturgical calendar is sometimes left as an afterthought to what is given top billing on the calendar of capitalism. But we must wait, and wait longer than a few days, to acclimate ourselves to the coming of Jesus. When we take hold of the season of waiting that Advent is, we give ourselves the opportunity to experience the wonder of every occasion that lead up to the birth of Jesus.
When we read the Gospel narratives that foretell of Jesus’ birth, of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, of the Magnificat, we must stop ourselves from breezing through it quickly because we’ve heard it all before. Instead we should be held captive by every word as if we were hearing it for the first time and as if we may never hear it again. When we repeat the refrain, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear,” we are implicating ourselves as those in captivity in need of a release from our self-imposed exile. Given the capitalism and consumerism that has marked this season—and the violence it has wrought—we are now, more than ever, in the need of the discipline of waiting. We must wait in order to restore the wonder of this blessed season we are in, a season that shines light into dark places and gives many hope. We must wait, not only for ourselves but for every person who has yet to experience the great hope that many of us know so well. We must wait so that we refresh ourselves in the wondrous love to come over receiving it as an entitlement that we might take for granted. We must wait, because in waiting we are forced to slow down, and in slowing down we gain perspective on the significance of this season which brings us back to wonder. The awesome wonder of the coming of Jesus is what this season is about, just wait for it.
Pentecost is one of the most important days in scripture, one of the most important days in Church history, and one of the most significant days for all Christians because it is the birthday for the Church. But it is a day that often passes with little celebration and attention in the lives of many believers. Why don’t we celebrate Pentecost?
The other major Christian holidays have found widespread secular adoption and commercialization. Christmas season is still the greatest period of retail sales in the world, with images of Santa Claus, reindeer, gifts, and winter weather dominating our consciousness. The popular images are far removed from the poor young girl from a small unimportant town giving birth to baby Jesus in Bethlehem that is the true meaning behind the holiday. Easter has widespread fanfare involving bunnies and eggs, chocolates and baskets in the popular culture. But believers rarely forget the Good Friday services, Easter outfits, and proclamations of “Hallelujah” in response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. Christians almost universally celebrate Christmas and Easter.
But Pentecost, the occasion of the Holy Spirit appearing from heaven in the upper room and filling the disciples that began the church in Acts chapter 2 has no such consistent celebrations or commercial fanfare.
We should absolutely celebrate that the Holy Spirit has come to dwell among believers. The new creation has begun and the “already but not yet” Kingdom of God is made visible in the lives of those who follow Jesus Christ. We should have fanfare that God’s promise of living in our hearts, calling all people to Himself, and dwelling among humanity have been fulfilled. The Church being given the power to destroy the works of sin and evil in the world were fulfilled on Pentecost. In Acts 2, the Apostle Peter clearly explains that Pentecost is the fulfillment of scripture, that people were able to know God who speaks their language, and that the Holy Spirit was evidence of God among those who believes. God is not a distant force or impersonal figure. The Holy Spirit is at work everyday in our lives as believers. We can experience God in completely new ways because of His presence with us. We can discern God’s truth, share spiritual gifts with one another, and overcome sinful behaviors and sin-filled systems through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost allows us to move from knowing God’s works in the past to experiencing them in the present. Because of Pentecost all nations were invited to know the God of Israel in the ways they could understand Him. We should celebrate that the Holy Spirit is God with us today, by celebrating Pentecost. Our celebration may not have commercial Holy Spirit clothes and toys to buy. We may not hear seven sermons in a day as we reflect and are uplifted. We may not see a Pentecost holiday special on TV or Pentecost music on the radio, or Pentecost memes on our social media timelines. But we can give thanks to God for the greatest gift of the Holy Spiritin our lives. We can praise God in our worship services as we remember the birth of the Church. We can reflect on the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. And we can celebrate Pentecost however we celebrate it as believers have been called to celebrate it for thousands of years.
The 58th Grammy Awards were everything we expected filled with great music, interesting acceptance speeches (Taylor, we’re looking at you.), and phenomenal live performances. And in case you missed it, here’s a recap on which of your favorite gospel artists walked away with the highest honors during music’s biggest night of the year.
“Destined to Win [Live],” Karen Clark Sheard
“Living It,” Dorinda Clark-Cole
“One Place Live,” Tasha Cobbs
“Covered: Alive in Asia [Live] (Deluxe),” Israel & Newbreed- WINNER
“Life Music: Stage Two,” Jonathan McReynolds
“Worth [Live],” Anthony Brown and Group Therapy
“Wanna Be Happy?,” Kirk Franklin- WINNER
“Intentional,” Travis Greene
“How Awesome Is Our God [Live],” Israel and Newbreed featuring Yolanda Adams; Neville Diedericks, Israel Houghton and Meleasa Houghton, songwriters
“Worth Fighting For [Live],” Brian Courtney Wilson; Aaron Lindsey and Brian Courtney Wilson, songwriters
Contemporary Christian Music Album
“Whatever the Road,” Jason Crabb
“How Can It Be,” Lauren Daigle
“Saints and Sinners,” Matt Maher
“This Is Not a Test,” Tobymac- WINNER
“Love Ran Red,” Chris Tomlin
Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song
“Holy Spirit,” Francesca Battistelli- WINNER
“Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains),” Crowder; Ed Cash, David Crowder and Seth Philpott, songwriters
“Because He Lives (Amen),” Matt Maher
“Soul on Fire,” Third Day featuring All Sons & Daughters; Tai Anderson, Brenton Brown, David Carr, Mark Lee, Matt Maher and Mac Powell, songwriters
“Feel It,” Tobymac featuring Mr. Talkbox; Cary Barlowe, David Arthur Garcia and Toby McKeehan, songwriters
Roots Gospel Album
“Still Rockin’ My Soul,” the Fairfield Four- WINNER
“Pray Now,” Karen Peck and New River
“Directions Home (Songs We Love, Songs You Know),” Point of Grace
I remember the feelings of pride and confidence I felt as a child when I heard Bible stories that told of God’s triumphant powers reigning supreme over all the other gods and rulers and kings. Even though I did not consider myself as a “Child of Israel,” I did connect with “God’s chosen people” and felt that I had access to this same power. I felt that with God on my side I would overcome any obstacle and triumph in any situation. I felt invincible. I felt unstoppable. But this wasn’t just youthful arrogance. I had biblical support.
Moses’ fight with Pharaoh’s magicians was not a fight between slaves and tyrant, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den, it was not a fight between man and animal, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When the three Hebrew boys were thrown in the fiery furnace, it was not a fight against man and fire, it was a fight against gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When David fought Goliath, it was not a fight between men, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? Each time, as we know, the Living God prevailed and the consistent winningness of God increased the reputation of the Living God (of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
Each day, we all fight similar battles with our own fiery furnaces and personal giants — against political edicts and social and cultural pressures that conflict with our understandings and convictions. But the results of these battles are different from the results during the biblical era.
Too many Christians today carry their Bibles to church and profess their faith in the power of Jesus, but then go back to decrepit communities and overcrowded houses, where they are suffocating in bills, poor health, and an overall dissatisfaction with their lives. Inwardly they struggle with having a better life on earth and being a poor person who suffers long because they are Christians. Any suggestion of one’s life being a physical manifestation of the quality of one’s faith is immediately dismissed as “prosperity gospel” and even anti-Christian. Their (misguided) logic goes like this: heaven is their reward; and though evil appears to be winning today, in the very end good will make a comeback.
As honorable and sincere as this may sound, what would have happened if David had that mentality when he fought Goliath? What if Moses thought like that when he was freeing the Children of Israel out of bondage? Not only would there be no Christianity today, there wouldn’t even be Judaism! And because we have chosen this as our stance today, we are in danger of being the reason why the Christian faith has lost its strength and relevance for the contemporary world.
As a rule, people do not gravitate toward that which appears not to work. And this, I believe, is how the younger generations of Christians interpret Christianity today: anemic, irrelevant, powerless.
Is this a surprise? Either the Living God is losing His power, or Christians are doing something wrong. I say Christians are doing something wrong. Our faith must be more than hope in eternal life with God. It must be a bulletin board for all to see consistency in our lives to show the power that God holds for helping us live holy, purposeful, and relevant lives TODAY.
Young people are not interested in being a part of something that is not working. Young people are uninterested in carrying on traditions for tradition’s sake. We want evidence. We don’t want to be defeated. We want power. We want to feel excited about God and God’s people again.
Let’s have a conversation. Do you think God is losing His power in today’s church? What can we do to make our faith more real to the younger generation?