Welcome to the Season of Advent. Over the past years I’ve really appreciated the this season-before-the-season because I think it’s a wonderful tool and jumping off point for what Christmas is all about. I appreciate the Advent wreath that has one candle lit each week – and having to wait seven days to see the next… and then another seven days to see the next. I think it’s good practice. That’s what Advent means… it simply means “coming”. Something is coming and we are to wait for it.
I think what I appreciate most about the Season of Advent is that instead of jumping straight into the craziness of Christmas, our forefathers had the foresight to set aside four weeks where all believers could take some time the practice something that many of us are not very good at: waiting.
I created a little video the other day this week to help illustrate this point.
Black Friday vs Advent
We, as a culture, are not very good at waiting. In fact, we’ve almost turned waiting into a dirty word. While the Christian church is talking about the people who waited whole life-times to see Jesus – after waiting for hundreds of years between prophecies, and thousands of years since Adam and Eve were promised the coming of one who would “crush the serpents head” – the culture around us is ramping up to higher and higher speeds.
This year was even more ridiculous as I noticed more and more pre-black-Friday sales. We can’t even wait for Black Friday anymore! That’s nuts by even the world’s standards. A presale for the big presale to kick off the Christmas sales season.
The Christian church talks about slowing down and reflecting, preparing ourselves to meditate over the story of Jesus Christ’s birth and life; taking a whole month to get our homes and hearts ready. I feel like, as we sit here today, we’re in the eye of the storm. It’s calm right here, but everything around us is swirling with as much noise, lights and commercialism as they can muster. It’s quite a dichotomy.
We sit here and say “wait for the coming of Jesus”, while everyone else says get everything you want right now! Black Friday is all about “getting it now”. Don’t wait until Christmas! Don’t even wait until the store opens! Camp outside and we’ll open extra early for you, so you can stampede over your neighbours to get things you don’t really need for the same price they’ll be in two weeks and then again on Boxing Day. And then go home and sit in front of your computer all night, credit card in hand, so you can get the best of Cyber Monday. Sure, get people some gifts, but you know you’re not going to get what you really want for Christmas, so use this day to buy those things for yourself!”
Not exactly the true meaning of Christmas, is it?
Advent is the time where Christians are encouraged to remember that waiting is a good thing, that patience is a godly virtue, and that being first and getting the most is actually not good for our souls. Advent tells us to stop for a while, listen to what is going on around is, reprioritize what matters: our relationship with Jesus and others. It reminds us that a relationship with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, or with anyone else, isn’t built with speed – but requires time and patience.
I recognize – because I’ve felt it in myself – that there is a temptation to start ramping up for Christmas. It’s hard not to leave the eye of the storm and get sucked into the whirlwind of activity. But I want to encourage you to relax for a moment this morning, realize where you are, appreciate a moment dedicated to God – and then consider extending this moment for the rest of the season. We are here, today, worshipping Jesus, remembering His coming, His birth, and our salvation. I just want us to hang onto that and let it fill the rest of the season.
Let’s talk a little about waiting. Have you ever had to wait for something? We all do. What kind of waiter are you? Are you the kind that can sit and wait, or are you more like the people in the video that mash on the button over and over and over until it changes? Can you wait for an elevator without hitting the button two or three times? Can you send a text to someone and then turn off the phone and wait for a reply, or do you have to text them back a few times to remind them that you texted them?
What about waiting in line at the grocery store, or a theme park? Do you size up the lines and see if you can find the fastest one? If your car or something else in your home breaks down, do you need it fixed that day? Have you ever had to put off a project wait for a replacement part? How well did you do then?
Christmas is a time when there is an inherent impatience built in. Some of us even have an advent calendar where we count down the days. We wait for the Christmas season to come – some of us start waiting in August. When do you start playing music? I started before Remembrance Day. I couldn’t wait anymore. We order gifts and then have to wait for them to come. We have relatives that we want to see, but we have to wait until they arrive. There’s a tonne of things that Advent, that “Come”, during this season, that we have to wait for, isn’t there? And sometimes that waiting is hard.
God Plays the Long Game
God doesn’t seem to have a problem with being patient – nor does He seem to have a problem making people wait. He seems to really like the “long game”, where everything takes much, much, much longer than we would ever expect or desire.
He had the power to create the universe in an instant – but He took six days whole days (unless you’re an evolutionary creationist, in which He took considerably more time), and then took a day off! He told Noah there would be a flood coming 120 years before the flood came. God told Abraham that he would have a son 15 years before he fulfilled the promise . God’s people were in slavery in Egypt for 400 years before He raised up Moses. And then God sent Moses away for 40 more years, and then had his people wander the desert for 40 more years.
David spent years waiting for God to fulfil his promise that he would become King of Israel. God established dozens of Kings in Israel after that, over more than 200 years, each getting worse than the last, and then God sent the Israelites into the Babylonian exile for 70 years!
It was over 700 years after Isaiah prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, and 400 years after the last Old Testament Prophet, Malachi, died that the prophecies about Jesus started to come true.
God has absolutely no problem with waiting. He always comes through, but it’s always in His own time. He never rushes. It’s almost as though He believes that the act of waiting itself has benefits! Strange concept for us today, isn’t it?
Today, I want to take a little time to look at a man in the Bible who is known as the man who waited. God gave him a promise, but he had to wait for his entire life – almost the very, very end – before he saw it fulfilled. He waited for decades before the promise came to light.
His name was Simeon and his story is found in Luke 2:22-35. This story occurs forty days after the shepherds have come to see Jesus in the stable, right after Jesus was born:
“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’”
A Brief Bio
We don’t know a lot about Simeon. For example, we don’t know how hold he is. He could be 30 or a hundred. But, judging by him statement of “departing in peace”, most people assume that he lived a good many years and died shortly after seeing Jesus.
We don’t know his job, either. He may have been a priest, or he may have been a spiritual layman who listened well to God.
One thing we do know is that he was a good waiter. The descriptors we have of this man talk mainly about his attitude and spiritual understanding. He “was a righteous and devout” man, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (meaning the time when God would rescue His people) and had “the Holy Spirit upon Him”.
He was a man of good integrity with a bona-fide faith in God. He didn’t come to temple out of habit or religious duty. He came because he took his faith seriously, loved God and God’s people, and wanted to live it out every day. He lived every day in eager anticipation that God would speak, act and help His people.
Of course, he wasn’t alone. A lot of people were waiting for the Messiah. King Herod was a cruel dictator and the Romans made life miserable for the defeated Israelites. Even their religious leaders made life miserable. Pharisees had turned their religion into a grueling set of rules, regulations and tasks, and their love for God had run cold. The Sadducees spent their time reinterpreting the scriptures, denying the miracles God performed, and rejecting the prophets.
A corrupt government filled with unbelievers and a corrupt religious system that made one choose between overwhelming rules or a powerless, spiritless, sterilized God. But there were still some who had faith – and they waited hopefully for a time when God would finally straighten it all out. Simeon was one of these people.
What I want to do with this story is to pull out one simple truth: there are two different ways to wait for something… worthwhile waiting and worthless waiting.
Waiting does have value, as clearly God thinks it does, but we can negate that value by refusing to accept the value that comes during the waiting time. Worthwhile waiting is the kind where we use the time to prepare ourselves for the advent, or coming, of the thing we are waiting for. Worthless waiting occurs when we allow that time to turn our hearts towards things like bitterness, sloth, procrastination or greed.
Me encouragement to you today is to embrace waiting, and allow the time in between to build your character, skills, faith, and heart. Don’t waste it.
I know there are people here that are waiting for something. You’re waiting for healing, for love, for a relationship, for forgiveness, for release from pain, for your next position, for an answer. You’re waiting until you are old enough to do something, or strong enough, or wealthy enough, or brave enough. You’re waiting for someone to respond to you, or waiting for the right moment to do something. You’re waiting for marriage, a baby, for your kids to grow, or your parents to finally see how much you’ve grown. You’re waiting for retirement or a new job. You’re waiting for the government to fulfil their promises, or the next election cycle so you can hear all new promises.
We all here, today, are waiting for something. Christians here today are waiting for Jesus to return. We can sympathize with Simeon who saw corruption in his leadership, corruption in his church, his family, and his own heart, corruption all around him, and longed for the time when God would send the Messiah. We’re there too. We can’t wait until Jesus comes again to make it all right.
But right now… we wait. We wait for big things and small things, relational things and practical things, life-changingly important things and mundane things.
So my encouragement to you, on this first day of Advent, is to wait well.
Simeon waited well. Consider those descriptors again. He was “righteous and devout” and “the Holy Spirit was upon him.” He was given the promise that something would happen – he would see the Messiah – buy year after year, as he waited, his waiting didn’t lead him to sin, but to faith. His waiting was worthwhile because it was focused on God.
He didn’t hold himself up in a cave and wait for God’s promise to come true – he continued to go to the temple and do what was right. He didn’t spend his life bragging gthat he had some kind of special knowledge – instead he allowed that knowledge to spur him in to righteous and devout actions.
Waiting for God to fulfill his promise didn’t make him bitter, but drove him to a closer relationship with the Holy Spirt. Waiting for the promise didn’t make him doubt his faith, but drove him to a greater commitment.
Above all, his waiting was active – not passive. He kept doing the good things he was supposed to do – praying, serving, attending, giving, studying, caring for others – while he waited!
That is my my simple application for today. Waiting is a spiritual exercise. Waiting is a gift from God. Whatever God has given you to wait for, the gift isn’t just the receiving at the end, but the entire time of waiting in between. Use that time to grow closer to God. Don’t waste your waiting time.
Sometimes we sit there and hammer God with the desire for instant gratification. “When God? Why not now, God? How about now, God? Now? What about now?” It’s like banging on that button over and over as though it is going to make the light change – make God act faster. It’s not. All it’s doing is creating bitterness and anxiety in our hearts.
And God does what that little crosswalk sign does. He says, “Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.”
This world hates to wait. They won’t wait for marriage before they take the benefits of marriage, which causes them much trouble. They won’t wait until they have the money before they buy things, which puts them into debt. They buy lottery tickets hoping for an instant fix to all their problems. That’s not how it works. That’s not how God designed it.
No, instead, God wants us to build our faith and dependence on him. He says in Hebrews “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Waiting gives us the opportunity to build our faith. And it is by faith that we are saved, and by which the next verse in Hebrews says, “we receive our commendation” from God, and “understand that the universe was created by the word of God”.
At the end of that chapter in Hebrews, after giving a list of people who lived by faith alone, it says, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us they would be made perfect.” (Heb 11:39-40)
If we want that “something better” – which is a strong faith in Jesus Christ, and a commendation from God – then we must learn to wait.
Let us, as we wait for Christmas, (or whatever you are waiting for), be like Simeon, and trust in the God who makes us wait.
I’m back from vacation and looking forward to catching up on my posts. I had a wonderful holiday and I’m very thankful to the church for allowing me to be able to spend time with my family taking a break. I hope you are all able to do the same this summer.
Planting & Growing
My family is growing things this year. We went out to the store and bought seeds and little plants, each one of us has their own planter on the deck, and we’ve started a little garden in the back yard. There’s no rhyme or reason for what we planted. I’m growing hot peppers, Anita has flowers, Ethan has garlic onions and spearmint, Edison has carrots, Erica has corn, and Eowyn is growing cucumber.
Our plan was simple: take the seeds and plants, stick them in some dirt, and hope for the best. It’s been going pretty good, actually, and we are excited to see if there will be anything we can eat in a couple months.
Now, I said “I’m growing hot peppers…” but that’s not quite accurate is it? I bought the pepper plant, I bought the soil, I chose the planter, and I stuck it in the dirt – but I’m not “growing” it, am I? No, that’s something don’t really have much control over.
I can do my best to choose the right soil – which is something I’ve learned is important since we planted a Venus Fly Trap in regular potting soil and almost killed it because it needs to be in sand and peat-moss – and I can do my best to give it the right light and spacing and all the rest, but what I can’t do is make the plant grow. That’s up to forces beyond my control.
Parable of the Growing Seed
Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like that.
“And he said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’” (Mark 4:26-29)
We’re still in the Gospel of Mark and if you remember our context, Jesus was having a shore-side teaching time where He told the Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Four Soils). He then took a few people from the group somewhere else and explained the parable to them – and told them a few more parables.
This parable, called “The Parable of the Growing Seed” is similar to The Parable of the Sower, but instead of putting emphasis on the soil (that is, the person hearing the Word of God), Jesus puts the emphasis on the power and mystery captured in the seed itself.
In the Parable of the Sower, the seed is scattered, and Jesus tells us that our response to the message will be dependent on the condition of our heart. Here, Jesus zooms in beyond the soil to the seed itself, reminding us that the Kingdom of God, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God is not dependent on us to make it active, but has its own power. It’s not about the goodness of the soil, it’s about all of the power and potential that is within the seed. Good soil, by itself, produces nothing – it needs good seed.
And this has two important applications in Evangelism and Spiritual Development.
First, let’s talk about the implications on evangelism – which is simply Christians sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. Sometimes we get confused thinking that the reason someone gets saved – or doesn’t – has to do with something we’ve done or not done.
Jesus makes it clear that sharing the gospel and saving souls is not about now clever or winsome we are in telling the story, how savvy, simple or spectacular our delivery is, or how deeply it touches the emotions. The delivery has far, far less to do with it than we think. History has shown us that revival does not come because of something people do, or a new form of technology, but simply because God chooses to work in the hearts of Christian leaders and laity.
During the Great Awakening at the beginning of the 18th Century, preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield looked at the dry Christianity and dying churches around them and their hearts broke. They prayed and sought God, and they started to gain a new understanding the Gospel and God’s Redemptive Plan. And so, instead of simply continuing on through the rituals and ceremonies they were so used to and hoping God would do something about it, they broke from their traditions and changed the way they spoke to people about God.
Instead of writing and reading long, dense, theological discourses where they would argue the finer points of scriptural interpretation – which was the standard way of preaching then – they started to try to help people see that the deep theology of their sermons wasn’t meant simply to be held in their minds, but had a deep effect on their souls. They changed from teaching people about God to telling them why it was so important that they needed to know Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.
Their sermons now stressed the importance of commitment, repentance, and fleeing temptation, and feeling the change that comes when a Christian makes gives one’s life to Jesus. It wasn’t about getting overwhelmed with emotions (something that both Edwards and Whitfield denounced) but having one’s heart overtaken by a love for God and His Word.
And that love isn’t something that we generate within ourselves. Which is what Jesus’ parable is all about. We can scatter the seed – tell others our personal testimony of faith, share deep theology, give emotional alter calls or appeal to their intellect – but it is not within our power or ability to change hearts or “get people saved” – that is strictly God’s province. We have the responsibility and privilege of sharing God’s truth and “scattering the seed on the ground”, but the “sprouting and growth” of the kingdom takes time and happens in a mysterious way in which we “know not how”.
There will be times that we share our faith, and the person looks close to giving their life to Jesus, but it never seems to happen – and we are driven crazy as to how they can hear the message but never commit. And there are other times when someone comes up and tells us that our life and faith has influenced someone so deeply that they become a disciple of Jesus – and we had never even shared the gospel with them. That’s God at work, using the seeds we are scattering, and growing them in His own mysterious way.
A second point we can get from this parable is about God’s timing in our spiritual development. Jesus says, “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
We’ve talked about this before, so I won’t belabour the point except to say, don’t be surprised when things aren’t happening the way you want them to, in the time you want them to. Let me pull out a few applications here.
First, Jesus says, “The earth produces by itself…” which is another reminder that spiritual development, whether that be our own, our friends, our church’s or our nations, isn’t something we are in charge of. We may desperately want to make it happen, but we simply can’t. We can’t make ourselves instantly mature, get rid of all our sinful temptations, make ourselves pray all the time and love bible study and being around Christians. We can’t put our hearts in God’s microwave, set it to 30 seconds, and have it come out ready for worship, super-forgiving, amazingly generous, and able to hear his voice with perfect clarity. It just won’t happen.
We are all on a journey, and there are stages. Like a plant, we all grow according to the soil we are in, dependant on gifts that come down from the heavens (the rain and the sun for plants and grace and mercy for us), and over a period of time. Don’t beat yourself up because you’re not perfect yet. Keep striving, keep repenting, keep depending on God, keep drinking in His grace, keep asking for His mercy, and trust that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
Second, Jesus says, “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” He is teaching us about being patient and remembering that things happen in stages. The story of salvation happened in stages. From Adam to Abraham, Moses to David, Isaiah to Mary and Joseph, and all the people in between, God took thousands of years to bring the world to the right time when Jesus was appointed to come (Galatians 4:4; Romans 5:6). It took over three decades for Jesus to grow, live, die and be resurrected. It took time for the apostles to spread the church in their part of the world, and it’s taken two thousand years to have it touch each nation. And we are now living in the time before the end when God is having patience with us (2 Peter 3:9) giving people time to come to repentance.
So if there a couple things we can take from this parable, let the first be an encouragement to not despair if there are times when it looks like God is inactive or far away. He is not. His schedule is not our schedule, and throughout the scriptures we are encouraged to be patient as we wait for God (Gal 5:22; Psalm 27:14; 37:7; Lamentations 3:25; Isaiah 40:31). That patience shows that we trust him (Prov 3:5-6).
And the second take away can be that our time of waiting is not a time where we sit and do nothing, but one where we are active in prayer, good deeds and sharing the gospel with others (Matthew 25), scattering the seed wherever we can. Soon enough, “when the grain is ripe” God will come and “put in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”