Advent 2013: Nomad’s Land

God gave me the theme for this year’s Advent series a few weeks before Typhoon Haiyan made first landfall and wreaked havoc in my country. The theme, Nomad’s Land, is about being homesick for that heavenly country spoken of in Hebrews 11. God began to reveal what I should be writing about this Advent through the study of the book of Genesis, a few lessons after we took a deeper look into Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s nomadic life, in my BSF (Bible Study Fellowship) class.

For those of you who are reading this slightly unorthodox Advent devotional this year, a brief introduction: I first wrote this as a Christmas gift for the friends and family I was leaving in Manila. In December 2005, I was getting ready to move to Singapore; my suitcase was packed, and all I needed was the phone call saying my employment papers were approved. So I didn’t have the money and time to buy everyone presents. So I wrote.

The theme then was waiting for God’s timing, whether it was for the job, or for a life partner, or for the next step. We looked to characters from both Old and New Testaments for examples on the right attitude while waiting.

Advent is a time for waiting. The first Advent, and all those years before it, from the time Adam and Eve fell from grace, people had been waiting for God’s promised Messiah.

Now, we live in a time of waiting for Messiah’s second coming. And it seems like that time is ever nearer: volcanoes are erupting within days of each other throughout the world, record-breaking typhoons are washing away towns and populations, and wars and rumors of wars fill newspapers and shows. Yet there is hope despite what appear to be doomsday events.

On social and mainstream media this Advent, you will see many mentions of a people who will be homeless this Christmas. Yet you will hear about their resilience, too, and their grateful hearts, as they rebuild their homes after the storm. On behalf of these, my countrymen, I thank you should you decide to give from your Christmas gift stash towards the rebuilding of their homes in the Haiyan-struck places of the Visayas region.

But apart from this, I entreat you to think about a different homeless people. We who have roofs over our heads, and family and friends to pray with over a Christmas meal — we, too, are missing our home, that heavenly country. Can you feel homesick for a home that you don’t yet know? Or are you so comfortable where you are that you don’t think about the heavenly country at all? Do you know if your loved ones will be going home with you to that heavenly country? What is your eternal perspective?

Revelation 21:1-4 NIV
[1] Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. [2] I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. [3] And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. [4] ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

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FIRST SUNDAY

The first Joseph

Genesis 45:4-7 NIV
[4] Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! [5] And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. [6] For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. [7] But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” 

When I was little, my mother bought this tapestry-like Advent calendar at our church’s annual Christmas bazaar. An Advent calendar is a lovely family tradition to have: Each night after dinner, from December 1 till Christmas Eve, my parents gathered us in front of the poster-sized velvet calendar with its 24 little pockets each containing a piece of the Nativity scene. December 1, I remember, was the angel, and the verse was about the angel’s appearance to Mary, telling her that she would be with child. That first year, my younger brother and I alternated days reading and hanging the different pieces on to their rightful places (our youngest was just a baby then).

We also grew up with Advent candles to light every Sunday. Our church provided devotionals, with appropriate carols, Scripture and reflections to read with the family. This is where my tradition of sending out Advent readings came from.

Three years ago, I was blessed to work with some very talented teenagers in producing an Advent devotional for the church that I worshipped at (in Singapore). Little did I know then that a few months later I would be so exhausted (from being too involved) that I wouldn’t work in that church again. I attributed my burnout to leading that ministry by myself. I was needy and whiny, and at that time did not have Joseph’s example to remind me to keep my eyes on God.

God, as always, has impeccable timing, sending me Joseph’s lesson when I wasn’t hurting and angry anymore. Joseph, you see, was the ultimate foreign talent (or OFW). At 17, he was carted off to Egypt, sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. And yet despite his homesickness, loneliness and despair, he honored God in his work and in his lifestyle. It wouldn’t be until 22 years later that he would reunite with his father and the rest of his family, as Egypt’s prime minister. A Hebrew slave with the golden touch, he had vastly improved his master Potiphar’s fortunes. And then a prisoner falsely accused of raping his master’s wife, he became most trusted by the prison warden. And finally, a dream-interpreting visionary, he secured Pharoah’s country through a devastating famine “because…God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance”.

Joseph had an eternal perspective that far outweighed the loneliness and hardship that he went through. And so now, whenever I feel the homesickness, loneliness and hardship of being a foreign talent – especially one away from family during this season – I remind myself of Joseph, and of God’s promised plans and purposes.

Do you have an eternal perspective? What are God’s plans and purposes for you? How does your life reflect this?

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SECOND SUNDAY

Psalm 37:4 NIV
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Genesis 38:26-29 NIV
[26] Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah. ” And he did not sleep with her again. [27] When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. [28] As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” [29] But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez.

For the first time since God called Abraham to become a nation set apart for Him, a foreign woman stepped into the picture not as a symbol of the defilement of the chosen race, but as an instrument to perpetuate the Messiah’s ancestral line.

A chapter in the Bible, Genesis 38, tells us about Tamar, Judah’s Canaanite daughter-in-law who was twice widowed because Judah’s sons were so wicked that God gave them the death sentence. Why couldn’t Tamar have just stayed away from this family, especially after both husbands died? Why did she not just stay with her own people, and look for a husband among them?

The answer was that she wanted so desperately to belong to their faith, to believe in their God. And this, after having been married to two men so wicked that God chose to kill them off, and after having been shut out by her father-in-law from what she rightfully deserved.

How much do I want to be in God’s family?

On Saturday morning I had a phone conversation with a lady whom I was referred to by one of my role model-mentors, Aunt Page (you may have read of her in my last Seven Wednesdays reflection series on Lent), with regards to finding a home church in Singapore. I’ve lived here since 2006, and yet years later, I am searching again. She asked me what was it exactly I was looking for, so that she could help me identify a suitable church. I said, I don’t really know — all I know is that I should be worshipping with a family of believers, rather than worshipping by myself on Sundays. And I knew that I should just commit to one family of believers rather than consistently hopping, as I have been for more than a year now.

Considering how much time I’m taking, and how little effort I’m making in finding and committing to that church family, I’m way off the mark compared to Tamar and her desire to be a part of God’s people.

While little is written about Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar, he counts among his descendants such Bible legends as Salmon and Rahab, Boaz and Ruth, David the King, and Jesus the Messiah. Of course nobody in Jacob’s household could have foreseen such a bloodline, so imagine how they must have reacted when a largely pregnant Tamar (she was having twins), whom Judah had sent away after the death of his second son, showed up to live with them.

Genesis 38:26 says that Judah did not sleep with Tamar again, after confessing his shortcoming and acknowledging that she was pregnant by him. But her twin sons grew up in Jacob’s household, and Judah who was then a widower, was identified as their father (not his son Er, Tamar’s first husband). I assume that although he may not have lived with her as his wife, he honored the mother of his two youngest sons — Tamar.

How much do you want to be in God’s family? Is it evident in the way you wait for His answers, and in the way you reach for His promises, particularly during this season of waiting for Messiah’s return?

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THIRD SUNDAY

Lion of Judah 

Genesis 49:8-12 NIV

[8] “Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. [9] You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? [10] The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his. [11] He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. [12] His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.

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The picture on the left, of a lamppost strewn on the sidewalk, was taken on Tuesday evening. I was having an alfresco Italian dinner with some friends at No Menu Bar on the corner of Telok Ayer and Boon Tat Streets. A tourist bus was reversing on Telok Ayer to turn towards Amoy when it hit the lamppost across the street from us. The lamp itself bounced off the sidewalk onto the table of young people at the café opposite our restaurant, its glass shattering all over them. The bus lingered to see if someone was hurt, before driving away. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Previously, on Sunday night, another bus hit an Indian foreign worker in Little India. The poor man was killed, and the result was Singapore’s first riot in four decades. Police cars and an ambulance were set aflame; 39 police and civil defense staff (five of whom are Malaysian) were injured. There is no report about whether any of the rioters were hurt.

A lot has been written about the riot, which involved an estimated 400 migrant workers (24 Indian nationals have already been charged for inciting it) – about the simmering discontent over the living conditions of migrant workers, about the growing xenophobia amongst locals, and about the need for integration.

This is not about the riot, but there is a little bit about integration here.

Someone who didn’t have a problem integrating was Judah, Joseph’s half-brother – and the father-in-law and one-night-stand of last Sunday’s heroine, Tamar. Genesis 38:1-2 tells of Judah leaving his brothers to live in a Canaanite city with his friend, Hirah. There Judah met a Canaanite woman, married her and had three sons with her (the first son married Tamar; the second son married her when she was widowed).

Judah’s seemingly seamless integration into Canaanite society, however, is not a good illustration because it was, in fact, an act of rebellion (for Abraham’s descendants were not to marry Canaanite women). One can only imagine that Judah left Jacob’s household to enjoy the bachelor life with his pal Hirah, rather than live their nomadic shepherds’ life as they waited for God’s promised land. Judah’s moral degeneration went from selling his brother Joseph into slavery, to abandoning God’s call for Abraham’s family to be a people set apart for Him, to denying Tamar her widow’s rights, to consorting with a “prostitute”.

And yet in Genesis 49, when Jacob/Israel gives his final blessing to his sons, he lifts Judah up to be the head of his family, to be the ancestor of the Messiah. From this prophetic blessing comes one of Messiah’s names, “Lion of Judah” (and so I have the movie poster on the right, because Aslan has come to be known as symbolizing Jesus Christ in the Narnia chronicles).

How did Judah go from rebellious son and brother to receiving the firstborn’s blessing of leadership? What was the redeeming factor? For the answer, you’ll have to read Genesis 43-44 yourself to see how God had transformed Judah’s heart and allowed him to foreshadow the promised Messiah.

How does this Sunday’s reflection tie in with the theme of being homesick for the heavenly country? Sometimes, like Judah in his youth, we are tempted to settle in and make ourselves comfortable – to integrate – with the world. But, like Judah’s family, we are called to be not of this world. In this time of waiting for Messiah’s return, are you assimilating worldliness? How can you live out your call of being set apart for the heavenly country?

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FOURTH SUNDAY

The homebody

Genesis 25:27 NIV
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents.

Genesis 28:10-15 NIV
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Genesis 46:3-4 NIV
“I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”

Often we don’t understand why God allows certain things to happen, and we long to make sense of what we consider foolishness (oh but “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom*”!).

Jacob was a homebody, but God caused him to leave his parents’ home, to raise his family in strange lands — where he was taken advantage of, where his daughter was raped, where his sons were tempted to compromise their calling to be set apart, where his favorite was taken from him to be sold as a slave in Egypt. Some of those events were consequences of his disobedience and insensitivity to God’s call, such that in his old age, he would not move without God’s specific instruction, strange as it was.

Was Jacob confused? First, God called him to possess the land on which he was journeying — even when it was already inhabited. Years later, God called him to leave said land to go to a more powerful one (considering its contributions to civilization, Egypt must have been a superpower of the ancient world), where his family would grow to become a nation. Surely he was confused, but he didn’t question.

It’s been a whirlwind of a week for me, and my thoughts are all jumbled up in my head…and I really don’t know how this Sunday’s reflection will knit itself, and even more so, how it can connect the past three Sundays to the Christmas reflection coming in a few more days. So I went through some past Advent writings, and found the Fourth Sunday of 2011 (in bold):

I write this from home: where it takes more than twice the time it does in Singapore to charge my phone on the same voltage; where a turtle will probably get from point zero to one meter faster than the holiday traffic; where the wifi signal is strong but the Internet is super slow. I write this from home: where despite the horrid traffic, people sincerely, happily greet you Merry Christmas; where the most beautiful sunset glows through air thick with dust; where the hope of the season outweighs the ridiculous antics of our government. If there is any country that knows that there is a time to be up and a time to be down — when another typhoon has left another few hundred dead and missing, and thousands more homeless with Christmas just around the corner — it is my home country. 

Some things stay the same: a typhoon has again caused so many of my countrymen to be homeless this Christmas. Then it was tropical storm Washi. This year it was Haiyan.

Dorothy said, “There is no place like home.” 

There is no peace like home.

Even in the chaos, even in the seeming hopelessness, even in the dark or the depths.

Of course home doesn’t always mean the house or the country you were born in. In Singapore, my home is wherever T, K, M and I are together. It is where I can cry to the Father — at any moment it could be a church pew, or a quiet bus seat, or my bedroom. Sometimes, in Manila home was only the room on the third floor when the rest of the house was in testosterone overdrive; sometimes the whole house wasn’t home at all because Mom was away. But where it is home, there is peace.

Some things change: in 2011 I wrote from home, and saw peace amidst the noise. This year I write from Singapore, where a different kind of noise is threatening some kind of peace (note last Sunday’s reflection).

Despite the irony, there is this:

The better news is that wherever you call home, that home is only temporary — in our real home, peace will be absolute, eternal. 

Jacob knew that. So he was at peace with moving to Egypt. He knew wherever they went, God would be with them.

We are each a ‘carrier’ of that peace. Why do non-Christian colleagues or friends gravitate towards you when they are troubled? Because they sense that peace that you carry (do they?), even when you are not aware of it. You offer a piece of the home they do not realize they are looking for. 

*1 Corinthians 1:25

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CHRISTMAS

Genesis 3:15 NIV
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Isaiah 9:6 NIV
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Hebrews 11:8-10 NIV
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Ever since Adam and Eve turned away from the Creator, we have lived in a time of Advent — for Advent is a time of waiting and preparation for the coming of the promised Savior. For those of us who celebrate Christmas, we again wait expectantly and prepare for the second coming of the Jesus Christ, when he returns to take us home. And so we look to the first Advent for lessons on how to wait, and how to cope with the homesickness we have for that heavenly country.

Through Joseph, God taught us to be resilient in this “foreign” land we live in. And we learned never to lose hope, even as we have to deal with difficult work environments, separation from family, and loneliness.

Through Tamar, God taught us to desire Him with all our beings — and He will, as we delight in Him, give us the desires of our hearts.

Through Judah, God warned us about the dangers of integrating with the world. Then He showed us a glimpse of His redemptive work, when He transformed the heart of a worldly Judah and allowed him to step up and offer his life for Benjamin’s.

Through Jacob, God reminded us that He is a sovereign and promise-keeping God. He desires our obedience, but allows us to make our own twists and turns.

Let us continue to hold such lessons to heart as we wait for His second coming. And tonight as we celebrate His first coming, when He left His home to live among us, let that sense of homesickness for the heavenly country fuel your faith.

Peace to you and yours this Christmas!