On Failing at Advent

On Failing at Advent

We have a beautiful set of handmade Jesse tree ornaments at our house. Beginning in Genesis on December 1, each day we can place an ornament on our little tree, read a Bible story with our kids, and talk about the message of God’s love that culminates in Jesus, but has been told since the foundations of the world. It’s a wonderful routine to practice in Advent, for kids and parents alike.

It is December 15, and we have hung six ornaments. We hung four of those ornaments in one day, only reading the Bible stories for two of them. 

The truth is, with kids ages 4 and 8, a routine like this is difficult for us. In the morning, our oldest has to be to the bus stop by 7:15, and our youngest doesn’t get up until after he leaves. Plus, adding something else to the craziness it is trying to get out the door seems insane. In the evening, because of the early rising, we try to get the kids in bed by 7:30. A little dinner, homework, and playtime, and the night disappears in a snap.

In theory, Advent practices sound amazing. In real life, they can be surprisingly difficult to complete.

What do we do when we fail at Advent?

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One small detail of the story of the wise men visiting Jesus caught me off guard when I first noticed it. 

When the magi arrive from the East, the first place they go is Jerusalem. Whatever is happening with the stars is really more like a map than a GPS. The wise men have an idea of where to go, but they don’t know the specifics. They assume since they are being led to a king, they should go to the palace. So they end up in a conversation with Herod about where to find the baby.

Herod doesn’t know. But he wants to find out. So,

When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied. - Matthew 2:4-5

The religious leaders know where to find the Messiah. And yet, when travelers show up looking for him, they don’t follow. Their spiritual practices have become an end instead of a means. The routines that were meant to help them learn about who God was became such a strong focus that they missed God when He actually came.

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There are many wonderful spiritual practices that can become part of our Advent routines. Yet these practices themselves aren’t the goal of this season any more than Christmas trees or songs or shopping or any other tradition.

It’s human nature to judge ourselves based on our ability to successfully complete tasks, especially for someone like me who struggles with being an achiever. But this is not the point of Advent practices.

The point of Advent is to make space in our lives to recognize our longing for Christ. That sense of longing may come during a Bible reading or a candle lighting, but it may also come in times or places when we least expect it. If we get caught up in our sense of failure for not doing Advent right, we may miss the opportunities to connect with the longing of Advent when it does break into our lives.

Christ’s coming is not dependent on my emotions or actions or obedience. As was true thousands of years ago when Christ was birthed in this world is true today when there are opportunities for his presence to be birthed in my life. His grace has always been and will always be a gift, not a reward.

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Our Jesse tree still stands prominently in our living room. We will do what we can to hang the ornaments and tell the story in these last 10 days before Christmas. I don’t know if we will get it done.

But maybe an incomplete Jesse tree tells the story of God’s love just as much as a full one. The empty spaces of an unfinished Jesse tree tell the story of a God who comes not because we do all the right things to earn His presence, but because He is the fullness of love incarnate. It’s all the story of His grace.

Like Christmas day in the story of the Grinch, He comes just the same. Somehow or other, Christ comes just the same. Christ comes without candles, He comes without tags. He comes without ornaments, readings, or bags. 

This Advent, I am longing for a Christ that comes just the same. 

Grace, grace, grace.

The Chorus that Sings through the Scriptures

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his love endures forever.

They are the words that were sung when the ark of the Lord, the primary symbol of God’s presence, was finally returned to Jerusalem after years of being lost (1 Chronicles 16:34).

They are the words that were sung when that same ark was placed in the Temple for the first time (2 Chronicles 5:13), and when fire came down from heaven and the Glory of the Lord filled that space (2 Chronicles 7:3).

They are the words that were sung after the exile, when the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem and began to build the Temple once again (Ezra 3:11).

They are words that close the Shepherd Psalm 23 and the Thanksgiving Psalm 100. They are the words that open Psalm 107, and provide the introduction to the third book of the Psalter,

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.” – Psalm 107:1

The goodness and love of the Lord seem to be the most repeated of God’s characteristics, the chorus that sings throughout the Scriptures.

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How would you define “good”?

It is in Genesis, when the Lord is forming the earth, that the word “good” is first used. “Towb” is the word God uses to describe the new world He is creating.

It is in Genesis 1:11-12 that God brings life to His creation for the first time. But God doesn’t create plants, He creates seeds. It is the earth that brings to fruition the life that was in His imagination. But God doesn’t call the plants good. What He declares to be good is plants bearing the seeds of future life.

This points the way to what it means to believe in the “towb” of God. God’s goodness is life that brings life that brings life that brings life.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” is a declaration that our God is One who brings life and the progression of life. Our God is the Light to our darkness, the Water to our thirst, and the Bread to our hungry souls.

Sometimes, our belief in God’s goodness feels unshakeable. The life is springing all around us, and we are satisfied in ways we know can only come from Him.

Other times, belief in God’s goodness feels like a mental chasm too vast to leap. Death feels much more tangible than light.  What then?

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How would you define “love”?

The word for love in Psalm 107:1 is “checed” in Hebrew. This is the word some translations render “lovingkindness” or “faithful love.”  Because it is not simply a word for affection, but of covenantal devotion.

God’s checed love is what the Jesus Storybook Bible defines as a “Never Stopping, Never Giving up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”

God’s checed love is a promise that no matter how we feel or what we do, His love will pursue us all the days of our lives.

“His love endures forever.” is a declaration that our God’s love for us is not dependent on our obedience or the strength of our faith. God’s love is an everlasting commitment to me that is not dependent on my devotion to Him. (Thanks be to God.)

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“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.” – Psalm 107:1

It seems natural that praise for God’s love and thanks for God’s goodness would go hand-in-hand. Soil hardens, gets dry, and grows weeds. It takes devotion to tend to the earth and prepare it to be a place where seeds can grow.

Perhaps it is God’s love that cultivates us, and allows life to be brought forth by His goodness again and again and again and again.

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A life of faith is not a linear journey. Like the Israelites, we will meander through devotion and doubt, faithfulness and failure.  But no matter where we go, we can hear this chorus singing through the ages,

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”