Lo, he comes

LO, he comes with clouds descending,

once for favoured sinners slain;

thousand thousand saints attending

swell the triumph of his train:

Alleluia!

God appears on earth to reign.

‘Advent’ (Latin, adventus) means ‘coming’. For centuries, Christians have observed a season of preparation for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is a solemn season, but by no means sad. It is characterised by a sense of joyful expectation as we anticipate the second coming of Christ, as well as remembering his first coming. (From the inside of our church service booklet)

Our sermon this Advent Sunday was, unsurprisingly, all about watching and waiting for Jesus’ coming, both as a baby born in a cattle stall and as the Judge, coming on clouds descending. It is the latter that has particularly caught my attention this year. The preacher laboured those terms. Watching. Waiting. In the run up to Christmas, I’ve found I so easily get distracted by all the tat that I’ve often missed the point of Advent. I can’t shake off some of Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading this morning. ‘Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come … What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”‘ (Mark 13:33 and 37)

I find that lighting a candle aids meditation. It’s hardly a new idea, but I haven’t grown up in a tradition that heralds the merits of silence and contemplation, watching and waiting. This year, however, I’ve gone candle-tastic, and used it as an excuse to have some mother-daughter bonding time as she has taught me how to make Advent decorations. It’s also because I found myself with the slightly daunting task of making our church’s wreath, where one candle is lit each Sunday to symbolize the passage of the four weeks in Advent. I thought I’d share some of the fruits of my candle-inspired labours. (The church warden informed me how disastrous last year’s wreath was, and that I couldn’t possibly do any worse …)

I found inspiration in German and Dutch magazines – they’re everywhere over there. They told me everything I needed to buy: oasis, oasis trays, oasis fix, stub wire, candles, silver and gold spray. My mother then sent me out foraging in our local woods for tree ivy, holly, fir, and pine cones, that kind of thing. She brought a selection of other things that she’s collected over the years that can be sprayed like dried poppy heads, dried fruit, and so on. There’s no need to spend lots of money on expensive decorations in garden centres if you can spray your own, I have discovered! In the end we made a good number of decorations, which can be seen below.

I was informed that churches tend to like traditional foliage with not much glitz. This reflects the ‘solemn’ nature of Advent. Consequently, I avoided too much sparkle. I sprayed the tree ivy berries with the smallest amount of silver spray to give a hint of shimmer. Otherwise everything else is totally natural and collected from the local area – including the churchyard! (My mother also made a wreath for her church, and put me to shame! Hers is the second of the two.)

The stand was simple and metal and provided by the church. We then taped down four small dishes with oasis in (which were left over from our wedding and happened to fit) and added foliage. As a rule of thumb, cut off leaves about an inch from the bottom of the cutting, and put long stuff at the bottom, short stuff at the top.

My sister-in-law decided to make a wreath as a table decoration involving large candles. You can stand them in oasis using stub wire heated by a hob flame, so that the wire more easily fits into the bottom of the candle without making it crumble. Large candles obviously mean that there’s not a lot of space for foliage. My sister-in-law wisely chose to make her decoration quite simply, and it is beautiful:

My decoration was different in that I used stump oasis and had long thin candles, which resulted in the slightly ‘exploded’ look, as much more foliage is needed to fill the oasis. The cinnamon sticks can be purchased cheaply from florists. Otherwise everything else in the decoration has been foraged and in some cases sprayed. I found that the candles are very difficult to keep straight! I might try wider candles next year.

I also wanted to make something for the door to our house, but didn’t have a lot of time to spend on it. Mum gave me an old bare wreath made up of wired twigs. I wove ivy round it and added a few red baubles:

Last, I wanted to use the leftover foliage to make a stand for an Advent candle I’d bought in a Christian bookshop. For each of the days of December running up to Christmas day, there is a name or a characteristic of Jesus to meditate on. It reminded me a bit of the chorus of a song we sing on Quantock called ‘You are Holy’, where we recall many of the names we have for God. They are numbered as follows:

1

Lord

2

Saviour

3

Messiah

4

The Vine

5

The Way

6

The Truth

7

The Life

8

Immanuel

9

Redeemer

10

The Rock

11

The Word

12

Son of God

13

Counsellor

14

Lamb of God

15

High Priest

16

Anointed One

17

Living Water

18

Morning Star

19

King of Kings

20

Lord of Lords

21

Lion of Judah

22

Good Shepherd

23

Prince of Peace

24

Resurrection

25

JESUS

I hope and pray that lighting this candle each day of Advent will help me to become more aware of the many wonders of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yea, Amen, let all adore thee,

high on thine eternal throne;

Saviour, take the power and glory,

claim the kingdom for thine own:

Alleluia!

Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

The dangers of a ‘spiritualized’ Gospel

In the last year, my church took up the subject of ‘Social Justice and the Gospel’. I nearly wept with joy: as the main preacher in the series pointed out, social justice has been on the backbench in many evangelical circles over the last half a century at least. I had been thinking about issues to do with social justice for a long while and, after a number of discussions with various Christian friends, thought I’d share my thoughts and encourage people to give me their thoughts on the matter.

My main line of thought is this: I think motivation for social justice can only be understood in terms of the Gospel, and not as separate from it, and that evangelicals have had a tendency to read our own hermeneutic into what ‘the Gospel’ means. Working to bring about God’s Kingdom must therefore include striving for social justice. Now I can’t think of any Christian I know who would say that social justice isn’t important. But I’d argue that ‘salvation’ means much more than ‘spiritual renewal’: shrinking the good news about Jesus to a simply ‘spiritualized’ meaning, which I think we are sometimes in danger of doing when we evangelise, results in a faulty idea about creation, which may manifest itself in unhelpful ways, which I address below.

If it’s true that evangelicals have stressed preaching ‘spiritual’ salvation with the result that ‘social justice’ slid off the agenda somewhat, I sense that this has led to something quite unhelpful: the shrinking of ‘the Gospel’ into a ‘spiritual’ one, plus ‘social justice’ as some sort of add-on (which is nevertheless compulsory). I believe, passionately, that they are inextricably linked and must be understood as one, bound tightly together, and I think the New Testament supports this. What proceeds is, I suppose, some kind of justification of why I think this is the case.

I suppose it depends on what we understand by ‘the Gospel’. To figure this out, I asked some of my evangelical Christian friends what they understood by it. Most said, ‘the good news that Jesus died for us so that we can go to heaven when we die’. This concerned me, because, while it is in some sense right, it is at best only half the truth. If this were all there is to the Gospel, we would have to come up with a theology of this world as well as having one of the next. What’s the point of creation if we’re just chugging away, waiting to live with God in heaven?

As far as I can tell, the NT suggests that the good news about Jesus is that God, in spite of our rebellion, is going to restore/renew his creation and he has already begun this work through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God by dying on the cross for our sins and rising to new life: it being our rebellion that caused the world (and us as individuals) to be out of joint with God in the first place. This is, I think, what Ephesians 1 is all about, esp. verses 7-10, i.e. that God will bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Jesus is the first fruits of them that sleep (1 Cor 15:20), i.e., God has brought into the present the start of this new creation, this union of heaven and earth, which will be fulfilled at the end times as portrayed in Revelation 21. By acknowledging our sins and trusting in him, we share in his inheritance: we too shall be raised, and we live now as Christians in anticipation of that new creation (2 Cor 5:17 etc). So far so good, but it means that trusting in Jesus is less about ‘going to heaven when you die’, still less about disembodied heavenly bliss, a philosophy which I worry a great proportion of the (perhaps lay) worldwide church subscribes to and which is more Aristotelian than biblical, but rather seeking God’s Kingdom in anticipation of the new creation, living as aliens and strangers in this world. To my mind, yes of course that means telling everyone possible about the good news of Jesus Christ, just as we are commanded to do. But it’s not only that we can share in ‘eternal life’ in the sense that it will go on forever, but that that ‘life’, which we have a foretaste of as Christians in this world, obviously also involves the total renewal of creation so that there will no longer be any death, sickness, broken lives, etc.

I think this means, if we are truly to live as ambassadors of Christ in anticipation of new creation, that ‘social justice’ or whatever we want to call it really is part of the church’s mission and must be part of the ‘message’ of the church, because the Gospel cannot be understood fully without it. That’s not to say we should abandon evangelism – of course not, and I grant that there may have been this tendency in some parts of the church. Rather, the two go hand in hand, at best not separated at all, at least in theory. How this works out practically is, of course, another matter. Nevertheless, helping others’ physical needs is central to building God’s Kingdom, and not only to make our faith look attractive, although this is an important and noble motivation.

After all, Jesus spends most of the gospels telling people to give to the poor and help the needy, so keen is he to stress that he has come to turn the world as we know it upside down: to put down the mighty from their seat, and exalt the hungry and meek, etc. I can’t think of an example where he adds the caveat ‘but you should only do this so that people believe in me’. Moreover, I can think of no example of Jesus’ healing where he distinguishes between spiritual and physical healing (e.g. Mark 2). For him, the two are one: in the new creation, our whole being – mind, soul, body, the lot – will be renewed altogether. I’m not suggesting for a second that this means, when someone becomes a Christian, their physical ailments will definitely, simultaneously, miraculously disappear. Of course not – we know that this can sometimes happen, but there’s no guarantee that it will. But we can be sure that in the (fulfilled) new creation, it will. And since Jesus embodies this new creation, he is the heaven-come-down-to-earth, God-with-us foretaste of the fulfilled new creation, when heaven and earth will be irrevocably sewn together in the New Jerusalem. All this suggests to me that ‘salvation’ cannot be divided up into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’, at least ideally not.

I realise that, for the purposes of everyday trusting in Jesus, what I’ve described above amounts to little more than subtle differences in definition. All traditions in the church tend to stress something at the expense of something else, and at least evangelicals stress repentance and forgiveness of sins! I think there are, however, a couple of dangers that one risks falling into the trap of if one (perhaps inadvertently) allows the Gospel to be shrunk down to a ‘spiritual’ (and most often, ‘individual’) reading.

First, I fear this may manifest itself in a faulty idea about creation. So immersed are we in the West in the shade of Aristotle that there’s a hint that we buy into the idea of escaping a wicked, evil creation on this earth to enjoy everlasting bliss with God in heaven, which, of course, is Gnostic nonsense and thoroughly unbiblical. God created the world and saw that it was good, after all. When we evangelise, we often play this down, in order to stress individual forgiveness of sins. From experience, I’ve found this can lead to the tendency for non-believers to perceive God as a petty judge, ‘needing’ to be ‘satisfied’ by the blood of Jesus if he wants to let us in to heaven, and a holier-than-thou attitude on our part stressing our own individual eternal salvation: neither is right, or ideal.

Second, I think some Christians within evangelical circles risk losing a sense of the importance of space and buildings, because we’re so keen to stress that Jesus is our holy temple and that we can pray to him anywhere (again, with such good reason!) Space is important, church buildings and tradition too, if for no other reason than they’re the place where the saints have been meeting for two thousand years, and we worship with those saints, given that God stands outside of our understanding of time. Several unbelievers have told me how they have felt drawn to Christian teachings because of the peace they experience within the walls of a church building – the only quiet they can find in their otherwise hectic lives. We shouldn’t condemn this. We should encourage people to seek the truth behind that feeling of peace.

Eucharist is another difficult topic. It’s easy for us to play down its importance, because, inheriting the church’s past and coming from a tradition that rebelled against that past, we’re fearful that our congregations will start thinking we have to ‘do’ things to earn God’s favour. Your average evangelical doesn’t, by and large, spend a lot of time contemplating the Eucharist. But obviously it’s recorded in at least three gospels and in 1 Corinthians in an almost identical way, i.e. it was important from the Church’s very beginnings. I once read somewhere that Jesus didn’t give us a theory of the atonement, he gave us a meal. For in the new creation there will be a banquet, and when we celebrate the Eucharist we share in that feast with the church past, present and future. I’ve read that the Greek for ‘eat’ in John 6 is more literally ‘munch’. God’s Kingdom is not just a spiritual one; it involves all the senses. This does not, of course, have to mean that anything necessarily sacrificial is going on, or that bread and wine ‘become’ body and blood of Christ, etc etc. But it does mean that the Eucharist is a profound and important part of the life of the church which, if I put my hand on my heart, I don’t always feel is the case in some of our churches, because we ‘spiritualize’ it away for fear of misunderstanding it. Importantly, I believe that both our hesitancy regarding the Eucharist and physical space as somewhere to meet God have their root in a shrinking of the Gospel into a ‘spiritual’ one, with renewal of creation as a sort of extra doctrine.

Much of the main thrust of this post is elucidated far more coherently in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope: it’s not something I’ve come up with myself! Some of you will know that I’ve read a fair bit of Wright’s theology, but I believe this book is among the most important Christian books written in recent years, and I heartily recommend it if you’ve not read it. There’s a a fair review of it here on the UCCF’s apologetics website: http://www.bethinking.org/bible-jesus/introductory/surprised-by-hope-by-tom-wright-a-review.htm

These are just my thoughts on having been a member of a couple of large evangelical church families for three years, coming from a background somewhere in middle Anglicanism, and are not intended to rebuke or criticise at all, rather to encourage discussion. Because I’ve sung in many church choirs and musical groups over the years, I have been blessed to get to know Christians of all types and experience their witness as members of churches of all different traditions, from the very high to the very low, from the very conservative to the very liberal, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal. My experience is that most Christians, like me, are walking the long road with Jesus towards the new creation, usually taking three steps forward but then two back. Let’s continue to pray for the church in its walk with the Lord as we seek to work for God’s Kingdom in hope, looking forward to that day when-

‘ … creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

Romans 8.21

A poem for Holy Week

I’m always stunned by the poetry of Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg. For those of you who haven’t come across her, she was an Austrian poet of the Baroque period who had mystic leanings. Her poem Uber den gekreuzigten Jesus (‘On the crucified Jesus’) needs no introduction.  For those of you who read no German, I have provided a (loose and not very accomplished) translation to give you the gist, which should ideally be read only as a gloss to the German.*

Enjoy the way she uses iconicity – particularly Jesus’ arms stretched open wide on the cross.

Uber den gekreutzigten JESUS

Seht der König König hängen /
und uns all mit Blut besprengen.
Seine Wunden seyn die Brunnen /
draus all unser Heil gerunnen.
Seht / Er strecket seine Händ aus / uns alle zu umfangen;
hat / an sein liebheisses Hertz uns zu drucken / Lustverlangen.
Ja er neigt sein liebstes Haubt / uns begierig mit zu küssen.
Seine Sinnen und Gebärden / sind auf unser Heil gefliessen.
Seiner Seiten offen-stehen /
macht sein gnädigs Herz uns sehen:
wann wir schauen mit den Sinnen /
sehen wir uns selbst darinnen.
So viel Striemen / so viel Wunden /
als an seinen Leib gefunden /
so viel Sieg- und Segens-Quellen
wolt Er unsrer Seel bestellen.
zwischen Himmel und der Erden
wolt Er aufgeopffert werden:
daß Er GOtt und uns vergliche.
uns zu stärken / Er verbliche:
Ja sein Sterben / hat das Leben
mir und aller Welt gegeben.
Jesu Christ! dein Tod und Schmerzen
leb’ und schweb mir stets im Herzen!

~

Source: http://www.wortblume.de/dichterinnen/gekjesus.htm

On the crucified Jesus

See, the King hanging as King,
see how he sprinkles us all with blood.
His wounds, they are the fountains
out of which our rescue pours forth.
See how he stretches wide his hands to enfold us all;
See his yearning to press us to his heart that burns with love.
Yea, he bows his most beloved head eagerly to bestow kisses upon us,
all his senses and gestures together stream out to rescue us.
His merciful heart causes us
to see his sides, wide open.
As we gaze upon them with all our senses
we see ourselves in them.
So many furrows, so many wounds
Are to be found on his body
such wellsprings of victory and blessing
that he intends for our souls.
Between Heaven and Earth
he chooses to be sacrificed
to match us with God.
To strengthen us, he fades himself.
Indeed, his death has given life
to me and to the whole world.
Jesu Christ! Let your pain and death
live and move me in my heart!

*There are some parts of her syntax which have – frustratingly – left me baffled. The Germanists among you are invited to comment on the inaccuracies of my translation.