Please take a moment and wrestle with this question: As I think about my Christian journey, have I pursued God…or has God pursued me?
As I’ve been reflecting about my own life, I’ve realized something. If God hadn’t pursued me, I wouldn’t be a pastor today. I might not even be a Christian.
I grew up in a home with high moral standards which were based on Biblical principles and I was taught Jesus is the Savior, but I wasn’t taught what it meant to walk with God. Although Mom took us to church when I was a child, I hardly attended at all when I became a teenager.
After my wife, Stephanie, and I got married, we sensed God was calling us to attend worship so we started going on a regular basis. Stephanie and I grew in our spiritual maturity but I had no desire to be a pastor. When I was 23, I began to sense that God was calling me to preach. I was so opposed to doing this that I actually did things I knew were sinful just to show God he was calling the wrong person.
Some people say that when they became Christians, they no longer desired to do the sinful things they had been doing. This didn’t happen to me. The changes God made in me happened slowly because my flesh fought him every step of the way.
However, God is persistent. He doesn’t give up. From the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, God desires to have a close relationship with the humans he created. This is why he came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ. He wants to redeem us from the sin that separates us from him. We are now in the season when the church celebrates his entrance into our world.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It means “arrival” or “coming.” Christianity.about.com says “Advent is a period of spiritual preparation in which many Christians make themselves ready for the coming, or birth of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Celebrating Advent typically involves a season of prayer, fasting and repentance, followed by anticipation, hope and joy.
While we in the Protestant church celebrate Advent every Christmas season with hope and joy, how many of us actually spend extra time in prayer, fast or repent of our sins? We typically concentrate on celebrating Jesus’ birth and skip over some of these other aspects of spiritual preparation.
Our theme for Advent at Snake Spring Valley CoB this year is “Christmas Around the World.” Today we’re going to Greece. While we’re here, let’s take a brief look at how the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Advent.
Rather than start four Sundays before Christmas like Western churches do, the Greek Orthodox Church starts Advent 40 days before Christmas and it includes a Nativity Fast. The fast includes the practices of simplifying life, curbing appetites and intensifying prayer.
Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church says, “During Advent, even though we live and move in a world that has highly commercialized Christmas, we can partake to some degree in the fun activities surrounding the Birth of Christ, while staying Christ-centered through it all. We are able to do this,” he continues, “because we willingly adopt certain dietary restrictions as a way of keeping us vigilant and aware of God’s presence at every moment.”
We live in the period between his first coming, which is why the church celebrates Christmas, and his second coming, which we believe will happen at the end times. So, while we rejoice at the first and anticipate the second, what do we do?
We start by listening to what Jesus says in Matthew 24. In this chapter, Jesus is teaching his disciples what will happen right before he returns to earth. In verses 36-44 he says, “36 But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
We look for the signs of his coming and we wait in anticipation for his arrival. When this happens, sin will be destroyed once and for all. The second thing we can do is learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters. We become more aware of God’s presence in our lives right now.
One issue we all face is that deep down within ourselves there are doubts, struggles, areas of weakness and imperfections that we try and hide from each other.
We do this with our physical appearances. Some people dye their hair to hide the natural color they don’t like. Others wear makeup to cover the blemishes which have mysteriously appeared during the past few years. Long sleeves and slacks conceal the effects of both time and gravity on our bodies. We do this because society tells us we have to look a certain way. The problem is that, underneath it all, the natural hair color, wrinkles and blemishes remain.
We do the same thing spiritually. Some people that attend worship are struggling in their faith. Others are lonely even though there are people all around them. There are those among us who wonder if they would still be loved and accepted in church if everyone else knew the things with which they struggled. A few of you are wondering if God really loves you because of the things you have done in your life. After all, church culture says we have to look and act a certain way if we’re truly Christians. Many people think, “It would be so nice if I had it all together like everyone else here in worship this morning.”
But, just like with our perceived physical inadequacies, we try to hide our doubts, struggles, areas of weakness and spiritual imperfections from each other by coming to church with a happy face and acting like everything is OK.
In the eyes of God, things are OK.
(If you are able, please watch the following video now – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjLlLPZderk)
God broke in to our world 2000 years ago so he could die on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Once we become Christians, sin still affects us but, as John writes in 1 John 3:1-3, – “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
Yes, we struggle with sin and God does deal with it. Still, we are God’s children and he loves us in spite of our imperfections, doubts, fears and sinful habits. Because God broke into our world with the birth of Jesus, the life he lived on earth and his death on the cross, we are flawless in the eyes of God if we have made Jesus our Messiah and are walking with him.
During Advent, let’s make sure we enjoy his presence in our lives.
How do we enjoy God’s presence in our lives right now?
1) Just like our Orthodox brothers and sisters, spend time in prayer, fasting and repentance. Begin slowly if these things are new to you. Add a few minutes of extra prayer time to your daily devotions. If you don’t pray at all, then start. You could do a 24 hour fast or a partial fast by cutting out sweets or your favorite drinks. Tell God you’re sorry for your sins and ask him to give you the strength you need to quit doing them.
2) Let God love you. God is pursuing you too. You wouldn’t be a Christian if he wasn’t. You’d find other things to do with your time instead of worshipping and serving him. God loves you in spite of your quirks, flaws and sins. Enjoy the love he showers on you. If you don’t feel his love in your life right now, ask him to open your eyes and your spirit so you can sense it.
Jesus came to earth as a baby so he could die on the cross and make us flawless. We celebrate this. He’s coming back some day to annihilate the sin that wants to destroy us. We anxiously await his second coming. In the meantime, enjoy being a child of God and relish the love he’s showering on you right now.