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A Christmas Meditation

December 25, 2011

This year marks my first sustained foray into observing the Christian calendar. I’ve stuck my toe in a few times in the past, but this Advent season marks my first attempt to really submerge myself in it.

Advent, I was surprised to learn, begins with the second coming of Christ; it isn’t all about His first coming, about Christmas. It is a season of preparation which entails reflection and meditation on both the first and second comings of Christ, on the state of the world that needs a Savior, and on my own need for the constant flow of the coming of Christ into my life.

Such a continuous consideration of our need and of the coming Savior who holds the answer to our needs has made the contrast of sin and holiness or purity more clear to me, not simply with regard to specific sins, but with regard to the whole picture, the whole scheme of things. Even in the best of circumstances, even when life is going well overall, sin still intrudes. Its presence is obvious as I look inwardly, as new external crises occur, and as I think about ongoing problems that haven’t been resolved and for which no resolution is in sight.

I have never wanted the second coming as much as I have this Christmas season. That might sound awful. Is life really that bad? It’s not that in my own circumstances things are terrible. It is simply a result of observing that the world really isn’t getting better overall. There is good, but it’s always colored by fallenness. The optimism of modernism was ill-founded. Every day in every way things aren’t getting better and better. Progress is made, but sin still intrudes. This attitude might be attributable to my age, of course. You know the rant about mid-life crises. Things haven’t gone in life as one dreamed they would, and realizing that sends a person into a tailspin. I think, rather, that one can come to that realization without having one’s world fall apart. There is no reason for despair even if sin occasions heartache and discouragement. After all, this isn’t all there is. Something greater is coming for those who love the Lord. The realization that not much is going to change, then, is appended by the great promise that Jesus will come and complete that which He started long ago.

But all this raises another question. Why didn’t Jesus complete the job the first time? I think the answer lies in looking at the big picture of what God is doing. First, Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t Plan B devised when humans blew it. It was in God’s plan “from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pe. 1:20; Rev. 13:8). As uncomfortable as that thought might make us, we need to understand that God has always had in mind that it would be through faith in Jesus who died and rose again that we would become sons and daughters of His.

Second–and this is the most surprising (I’m tempted to say “bizarre”)–God chose to do the work of expanding and building up His family on earth through us. Why would He do that? He didn’t have to. We can learn how this is to be done in Scripture–by the power of the Spirit we are regenerated and formed more and more into Jesus’ likeness and we carry out the project of reconciliation–but that still leaves me wondering why. We know that in doing His work we are individually and corporately built up. I suppose God could have waved His divine hand and, presto change-o, made us perfectly holy. It’s instructive to remember that it was through suffering that Jesus himself learned obedience. There is something special about the quality of a life forged through hardship. I don’t know the whys of God’s doings apart from what He’s clearly revealed. One thing I do know is this: He has given us the job of building up the church; by the power of the Spirit, to be sure, but it is our duty nonetheless.

Some in the evangelical world get jittery when people start talking about works. There is such a deep-seated fear of bringing works into salvation as meritorious that they are thought of simply as nice things we do for God out of love, kind of a bonus. “Works” has become a special category of things that we relegate to theological debate (mostly to decry any dependence upon them). But works are deeds, the things we do. We do works most of the day. We let the other guy in on the highway (a good work) or we speed up to cut him off and smile triumphantly (a bad work). We care for our neighbor in need or we look the other way because we’re just too busy.

So the question is, are our works godly or ungodly? Are they things honoring to God or things that offend His holiness? Are they things done in faith that serve God’s purposes or are they not? There are things all of us should be doing: showing kindness to one another, practicing justice, loving our neighbor, etc. There are things we should be doing as well that are unique to us individually given our particular gifts and our stations in life. According to Scripture, when we face the Lord in the end, we will have to give an account of what we’ve done. What have we done to continue the work He began a long time ago?

Jesus came to do what was necessary to take away the presence, power, and penalty of sin. He has accomplished all that is needed for our salvation. Because of what He did for us, we have all things necessary for life and godliness at our disposal if we will but take hold of them. Now it’s up to us to be about God’s business, being models of Jesus to others and especially to the “household of faith.” This has God’s plan. And we do this knowing that, although our efforts will be always touched by sin in some ways, we are moving toward something good. There is a telos, a goal of perfection or fulfillment, toward which we are moving.

So we say thank you, Jesus, for coming the first time and for promising to come again. We look forward to it (some days more than others!). Help us to be faithful in the meantime.

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