We are now in week 4 of the Advent season. Advent is the 4 weeks before Christmas (or 3 full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas). Advent is the season in which we symbolically await the coming of Jesus Christ which we will celebrate on Christmas, while we wait (for real) for him to return at the end of the age as he promised.
Last week we ended with the age-old question that haunts the world of evangelical discipleship: What do I do now that I am saved? With the sola fide-focused understanding of the Gospel that is prevalent in much of evangelicalism, this is a very poignant question because the death Christ died for me does not have any immediate, practical relevance for me until I die and am standing face-to-face before God. But with a Kingdom-shaped understanding of the Gospel, this question becomes a non-starter. Christ is coming to reign in our world, and he has invited all of humanity to join him in the new community that he is building even as we speak.
And what does this Kingdom, this new community that we get to be part of, do?
We walk toward the messes. In our own lives, in the lives of those closest to us, in our communities, and in our world.
We all have an idealized, romanticized image of what Christmas is supposed to look like. Every Nativity scene you have ever seen has the baby Jesus lying there in the straw with Joseph and Mary standing or kneeling there beside him (doesn’t Mary look great for having just given birth?) The shepherds and wise men are gathered all around, with a few sheep, horses, mules, camels, or whatever thrown in for good measure. All are watching and adoring, caught up in the moment. And then there are the angels up above the whole thing.
But the Nativity is one thing we cannot afford to idealize. If we do so, we lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ coming into this world was a monumentally messy affair. Joseph and Mary were just teenagers when all of this went down. Mary had an angel tell her that she was about to be pregnant without ever having been with a man, and she would have to tell Joseph that her child was the son of God. She did, and it went over about as well as you would expect. Joseph did not believe her, and it took another angel appearance just to keep the whole thing on the rails. And then they got the news that they were going to have to take a road trip. With Mary eight months pregnant. They got to Bethlehem and wound up having to stay in somebody’s stable. More than likely there was a powerful stink, and the animals were not well-behaved or happy about having to share their space.
This is how Jesus chose to come into the world. Think about it: He could have come into the world any way he wanted. He could have come through one of the wealthiest or the most politically powerful families of the day. He could have come through the cleanest, most hygienic facilities available at that time. But he didn’t. He chose to come in a messy place.
Jesus did not shy away. He walked toward the messes. And we who follow him are called to do the same.
Earlier this year my church did a sermon series called “Christian”, in which the big idea is that Christianity has an image problem because the word “Christian” appears very seldom and is not clearly defined in the Bible. The word “disciple” is all over the place and is very clearly defined. One of the marks of a disciple is that we love others in the way Jesus loved them. Here is the link to part 1; from there you can access any other part of the series.
If you’re down for a good time, I strongly recommend part 5. This message contains a juicy illustration and it stirred up some controversy in the blogosphere as a result. It got this reaction out of Albert Mohler; I would count that as stirring up controversy.
I wrote a response to Mohler’s reaction. This post gets lots of pageviews, and has even gotten a few comments. It has been instructive (to say the least) to see how the commenters have reacted. All you have to do is say the word “homosexual” and people’s panties get up into a wad. We can’t stand the thought that any of those people might–God forbid–actually be in our churches. One might actually think that the Gospel is being compromised if we have any of those people in our midst.
Grace is scandalous stuff, people. Just go on and get used to it.
If you are loving people the way Jesus loved them, then at some point people will call you “postmodern” or “emergent” or they will accuse you of “abandoning the Gospel”. Get used to it. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day constantly leveled similar accusations against him.
Allow me to close with a quote from a Michael Spencer essay entitled “Our Problem with Grace”, a long piece but one well worth the read:
Sometimes Christians go very, very far down the road of sin’s allurements and dwell there for years. When this happens, we shouldn’t be outraged by such behavior, as if the church is scandalized. The church ought to be a scandal of grace every day, and when it’s not, the Gospel is missing. Go find it. Our treatment of that wayward person, in personal relationships and in the congregation, is all about God’s determination to be glorified in the lives of those for whom Jesus died as a substitute and a sacrifice.
Grace doesn’t approve. Grace just refuses to give up on us. (God really is amazing!)