Advent 2015: Words

Advent 2015

Romans 15:13  (NIV)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.


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Hope
I hemmed and hawed about writing this Advent. Those of you who had been receiving this devotional series since its beginning know that I first did this in 2005, when I was waiting to begin my new life in Singapore. This would be the tenth year to write, and I didn’t know if I still had it in me. How do you write about the same topic – waiting – again and again and again? And yet God, in His grace and infinite wisdom, has always shown me what to write. And so even as I tried to escape the assignment, like Jonah, God gave the words.

The interesting thing: words. I cannot resist words. If I had known then, I might have majored in linguistics instead of architecture. I make a living with words. In the flurry of fairy lights, and the rainbow of baubles and tinsel, the words of the season jump out – even for those who do not believe in the reason for the season, and for those to whom the season is simply a commercial one – Joy, Peace, Hope, Love. Never mind the liturgical background. To many, these words represent the season.

However.

This year, the words compete with headlines of war, with sadness over loss of lives and freedoms, with fear for what the future holds. Even as our hearts break and we are drawn to our knees for the world, and the world says, “I don’t need your prayers”; we pray. We try to pick up the pieces. We make plans. We have hope.

1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

Why do we hope?

Today being the first Sunday of Advent, the message at church was all about hope. Our guest speaker said we look for hope because we’re looking for something better, something to take away the pain and fear. And this is definitely a time of pain and fear.

Just as Israel was under threat of Assyrian invasion when Isaiah prophesied about the coming Messiah. Just as Israel endured Roman rule when Jesus Christ was born 700 years later. The world is, again, in labor pains; living in a time of conflict and war. And we, like they, need hope to see us through these desperate times. Until deliverance comes. Until the promised Redeemer returns. We hope.

And how do we hope? We hope because our God is sovereign, our promise-keeping God fulfilled those Messianic prophecies of old; He will bring us light once more.

Isaiah 9:1-2 (NIV)

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan— The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

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Peace

It always surprises me when a co-worker remarks on how calm and unruffled I am in the face of deadlines. I think, it’s because they don’t see how frantic I am inside – like a duck seemingly floating placidly on the water, yet paddling furiously underneath. But then I think, too, when I look back even as far as high school: maybe people see God’s peace in me, and they just don’t know that that’s what it is. Sometimes even I don’t know that that’s what it is. To be honest, sometimes I think it’s just because I was taught to keep my emotions in check (I was scolded a lot for being a moody child/teen), and not let the world see my pain.

John 14:27 (NIV)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I love that verse, and I love that it’s essentially explained by this:

1 Corinthians 1:25 (NIV)

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

We don’t understand God’s peace. We don’t understand why bad things are happening, why He allows them to happen. It’s hard to even try. We don’t know what the future holds. But we can trust in a God who keeps His promises, who is sovereign over all creation, who knows our hearts. He gives us His peace: this how we have peace, even in the midst of all that is happening in our world now. Even in the midst of all that is happening in our daily lives…or in our hearts…or in our minds.

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.

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Joy

Just before the first Sunday of Advent, my 39-year-old cousin went into a coma because of a ruptured vein; he died a week later, leaving behind his wife and toddler son. I used to play with him and another cousin his age because all the other girl cousins were so much older than I, and they were the boy cousins who weren’t savvy enough to shake me off. When we were teenagers and too cool to be running around with the little kids at family reunions, he would catch me up on his two classmates who fancied me. He was a jolly little giant (he wasn’t that big, but he carried himself like an imposing figure) who was always smiling and serving.
A few days later, one of my best friends messaged me that she was in the process of a miscarriage – her ultrasound indicated that her baby’s heart had stopped beating, but her doctor advised her to let her body expel it naturally. She has three children to whom she had to break the news, even as she wrestled with her own grief.
In between these events, another best friend and I had a long discussion about coping with diagnosed depression. I asked her how I can hold a loved one’s hand through it, and she told me what she does when she feels an episode coming on. She said that because she knows her triggers, she can identify what is grieving her and what she needs to turn to in order to minimise or prevent a breakdown.
John 16:20-24 (NIV)

Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

Grief is the antonym of joy; however, it’s not exactly the opposite. Grief entails loss; but there are people who have nothing, and are joyful nonetheless. On the flip side, there are people who lost nothing but have everything, except for joy. It’s difficult to explain joy; it’s not exactly happiness, and it’s so much more than contentment. I love this quote that I stumbled upon on Pinterest, that captures a facet of joy: “It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”
When there is so much loss and when so many parts of the world are at war, it’s even more difficult to explain that we can be joyful this season despite of its present-day circumstances. But we are called to rejoice.
How do you rejoice in the midst of grief? How can you rejoice in a time of turbulence? I don’t know, and to be honest, I haven’t had the kind or amount of grief where you can’t see through your tears for the light at the end of the tunnel. What I know is this: my aunt (my cousin’s mother) will always ask how she can pray for the person she is meeting, even in her grief. My best friend and her husband will pray with their children, and create joyous moments for them. My other best friend will go to the places that bring her joy, even if ‘going’ is simply the promise and plan of a trip and not the trip itself so immediately.
The things that make each of us happy may be different, even if the world tells us otherwise. As joy is more than happiness, then it follows that the Source of joy is more than things. The great author and apologist C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” Heaven came down in the form of a baby so that we can sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”
Perhaps, if you can afford it – because you are not surrounded by little children for whom this is the most joyful of seasons – you don’t have to be joyful right now. Just know that your grief will turn to joy, and that someday, when the Source of true joy returns, your joy will be complete and permanent.

Isaiah 9:3 (NIV)

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.

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Love

1 John 3:16 (NIV)

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

1 John 4:8b-10 (NIV)

God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

What else is there to say after these two sets of verses from 1 John? That He who is pure and holy, glorious and majestic, would exchange all that He is to become a messy human being – soiled diapers and runny noses, splinters on his fingers as he learned his human father’s trade, blisters on his feet as he walked through desert and seashore to share his Good News with multitudes – so that 33 years later He could die as that one final sacrifice for all human beings. That is love. He who is Love demonstrated the choices that love makes, and the actions that love takes.
He is the Love that we celebrate this season. His love is what we should emulate most of all (and not just this season!). What are the choices we make for love? What are the actions we take for love?
Until recently I called someone “love”. But I think our definitions of love were not quite the same. From the beginning I had prayed to be a channel of God’s love to him, and I hoped that the choices I made and actions I took were according to that. In a way, I was willing to give up my life (in Singapore, at the very least) for him.
Now I know – maybe a fraction – of what Jesus Christ feels when I turn away from His love. And yet despite His heartbreak, His arms are always wide open, ready to welcome me back to His love. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t He amazing?
And yes, I know that our imperfect, human love cannot compare to His, and that as flawed human beings we will long for another flawed-yet-tangible human being to love. Oh, but how comforting it is to be in His love, and to know that He who is Love will restore our lost years!
Romans 8:35,38-39 (NIV)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Christmas 2015: Jesus
When I was a child, my mom (or was it my grandmother? Actually, it sounds more like my grandmother, but she’s no longer around to correct me if I’m wrong, whereas…) taught me to say “Jesus” if I was too afraid to say anything, or too full of emotion to pray actual sentences. By the end of this year I’ll have been living on my own for ten years now, and that one-word prayer still works.
It’s not a party trick. Sometimes the only Word that makes sense is “Jesus”. When words fail me, or I’m too afraid to put something into words because that would mean acknowledging its reality, praying His name somehow brings comfort.
John 1:14 NIV

[14] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
***
1 Peter 3:15 ESV

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
That hope is Jesus.
John 14:27 NIV

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
The source of that peace is Jesus.
John 16:20-24

Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
The bringer of joy is Jesus.
1 John 3:16

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
The author of love is Jesus.
And the reason for today’s celebration is Jesus. I wish you hope, peace, joy and love this CHRISTmas and for the coming year. Most importantly, to quote Scott Wesley Brown, who wrote this song* that was released the year I was born, “…I wish you Jesus; for if I wish you Jesus, I’ve wished you everything.”
*Click the link to listen to this lovely young girl’s version of the song: http://youtu.be/xmAVvQXKjsA