Hope Advent Illustrations
In his book, Simply Christian, N. T. Wright begins his chapter entitled "Putting the World to Rights" with the following personal story:
I had a dream the other night, a powerful and interesting dream. And the really frustrating thing is that I can't remember what it was about. I had a flash of it as I woke up, enough to make me think how extraordinary and meaningful it was; and then it was gone … . Our passion for justice often seems like that. We dream the dream of justice. We glimpse, for a moment, a world at one, a world put to rights, a world where things work out, where societies function fairly and efficiently … . and then we wake up and come back to reality.
According to Wright, our longing for justice "comes with the kit of being human." Unfortunately, although we all strive for justice, we often fail to achieve it. As Wright says,
You fall off your bicycle and break your leg. You go to the hospital and they fix it. You stagger around on crutches for awhile. Then, rather gingerly, you start to walk normally again … . There is such a thing as putting something to rights, as in fixing it, as getting it back on track. You can fix a broken leg, a broken toy, a broken television. So why can't we fix injustice. It isn't for lack of trying.
And yet, in spite of failures to fix injustice, we keep dreaming that one day all broken things will be set right. Wright contends, "Christians believe this is so because all humans have heard, deep within themselves, the echo of a voice which calls us to live [with a dream for justice]. And [followers of Christ] believe that in Jesus that voice became human and did what had to be done to bring it about."
My wife's aunt Gladys has always had a little apple orchard at her home. But this year when we paid her a visit, I couldn't help but notice the huge harvest of apples. The branches hung heavy, and some were cracking with the weight of abundance. Never, in many years, had anyone seen such a harvest.
When I asked her why, she told me that last year there was a late frost in the spring, and all the buds froze. When that happens, Gladys said, an apple tree does a miraculous thing: It stores up its energy in thousands of small bumps, or nodules, called scions (pronounced "see-ons"). All that energy pulsates through that network of scions until the spring of the following year, and then, BAM! You have an exploding riot of buds, as an apple tree unleashes all that stored up energy.
Gladys' description made me think about our spiritual lives. Sometimes the harsh frosts of this life—cancer, divorce, bankruptcy, trauma, grief, depression—cause our hearts to freeze. But at the core of the Christian faith we also live with an incredible promise: in and through Christ, there will be an abundant harvest in our lives. God's power is pulsating under the gnarly bark of this world and even our bodies. In Christ, we are being formed into a small nodule of living hope. During certain seasons of our life we feel our hearts waiting, longing, and even aching for those frozen places to burst into life. Our living hope is that one day, all of this stored up glory will be unleashed in a joyful riot of splendor.
Keith Mannes, Highland Church, McBain, Michigan
Peace Advent Illustrations
In a sermon entitled The Beauty of Biblical Justice, pastor Timothy Keller defines the biblical concept of shalom as universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. Keller states, "God created the world to be a fabric, for everything to be woven together and interdependent."
Keller illustrates his point with the following picture of biblical shalom: "If I threw a thousand threads onto the table, they wouldn't be a fabric. They'd just be threads lying on top of each other. Threads become a fabric when each one has been woven over, under, around, and through every other one. The more interdependent they are, the more beautiful they are. The more interwoven they are, the stronger and warmer they are. God made the world with billions of entities, but he didn't make them to be an aggregation. Rather, he made them to be in a beautiful, harmonious, knitted, webbed, interdependent relationship with one another."
Then he offers a concrete example for the need to practice the Bible's call to shalom. In large cities around the world, children are growing up as functional illiterates—largely due to school and family situations. By the time they become teenagers, they can't read or write. According to Keller, at that point, they're often locked into poverty for the rest of their lives. Some people pin this problem on unjust social structures; others blame the breakdown of the family. But nobody says it's the kids' fault.
So Keller concludes, "Nobody says that 7-year-olds need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And yet, a child born into my family has a 300 to 400 times greater chance for economic or social flourishing than the kids in those neighborhoods. That's just one example of the way in which the fabric of the world—the shalom of this world—has been broken … . It's not enough to do individual charity; you have to address [larger social issues]."
Marcellus speaks to his companions of the time of Jesus' birth. In Christmas, in the birth of Jesus, in the birth of that baby boy we have a time a day where life stands still. It is a holy peaceful time he says, a time in which life grows still. Christmas is like a lake or a river at peace, In Jesus the turmoil, the waves, the things that make life unclear subside. Its like the surface of a river so calm and clear so that we can look down into it and see glimmering there in its depth something timeless, precious, other. He goes on to And a gracious time, Marcellus says—a time that we cannot bring about as we can bring about a happy time or a sad time but time that comes upon us as a grace, as a free and unbidden gift. Marcellus explains that Christmas is a time of such holiness that the cock crows the whole night through as though it is perpetually dawn, and thus for once, even the powers of darkness are powerless.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a romantic comedy about culture, family, and acceptance. Nia Vardalos plays Toula Portokalos, the awkward middle child of a proud Greek family. Her father, Gus (Michael Constantine), often embarrasses her because he always lectures people on Greek history. "Give me a word," he says, "any word, and I'll show you how the root of that word is Greek." Toula has ambitions to go to college and find a good job. Her father, on the other hand, just wants her to marry a nice Greek boy and give him Greek grandchildren.
When Toula meets Ian Miller (John Corbett), a long-haired English teacher who comes from a reserved and proper-mannered family, they fall in love and begin a complicated and secret courtship. Her family eventually finds out, and her father is livid that she's dating a non-Greek. When the couple decides to marry, the two families must come together, making for a number of misunderstandings and uncomfortable moments.
Toula's father is devastated that she's marrying outside of her heritage, and he is against the wedding from the beginning. He simply does not understand the Millers' way of life. Over time, he begins to realize how important Ian is to his daughter and how in love they are. Seeking a way to reconcile their differences, he turns to the Greek language. At the wedding reception, he gives the following speech in broken English:
"Welcome to the Portokalos family, and welcome to the Miller family. I was thinking last night, the night before my daughter is going to marry Ian Miller, that—you know—the root of the word Miller is a Greek word. Miller comes from the Greek word "milo," which means "apple." So there you go. As many of you know, our name, Portokalos, comes from the Greek word "portokali," which mean "orange." So, here tonight, we have apples and oranges. We are all different. But, in the end, we are all fruit."
Joy advent Illustrations
According to Psychology Today, in 2008, 4,000 books were published on happiness—up from 50 in 2000.
Suppose we were to come up with a set of Beatitudes for the 21st Century. What if we made a list of the kinds of people who seem to be well-off—who seem to have it made—by today's standards? It might go something like this:
Blessed are the rich and famous, because they can always get a seat at the best restaurants.
Blessed are the good-looking, for they shall be on the cover of People magazine.
Blessed are those who party, for they know how to have fun.
Blessed are those who take first place in the division, for they shall have momentum going into the play-offs.
Blessed are the movers and shakers, for they shall make a name for themselves.
Blessed are those who demand their rights, for they shall not be overlooked.
Blessed are the healthy and fit, because they don't mind being seen in a bathing suit.
Blessed are those who make it to the top, because they get to look down on everyone else.
Early in his career, the great American playwright, Eugene O'Neill, wrote the imaginative play Lazarus Laughed. It's about Lazarus's life after Jesus raised him from the dead. Near the beginning of the play, guests from Bethany are gathering for a banquet in Lazarus's honor. They are all desperate to hear what Lazarus has to say about his experience. As they take their seats, one guest says, "The whole look of his face has changed. He is like a stranger from a far land. There is no longer any sorrow in his eyes. They must have forgotten sorrow in the grave." Another guest, one who had helped roll the tombstone aside, recalls the scene after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in even more beautiful terms:
And then Lazarus knelt and kissed Jesus' feet, and both of them smiled, and Jesus blessed him and called him "My Brother" and went away. And Lazarus, looking after him, began to laugh softly like a man in love with God. Such a laugh I never heard! It made my ears drunk! It was like wine! And though I was half-dead with fright, I found myself laughing, too."
While attending a 2008 awards presentation at the Strathmore Music Center, a concert hall just outside of Washington, D.C., author Mark Gauvreau Judge witnessed what can only be described as unashamed joy—something we don't often get to see in a broken world, let alone the church. The scene was made all the more powerful because it included different people from different cultural backgrounds—a Nimiipuu Indian, a saddle maker from Idaho, a Brazilian street dancer, a leader of the music liturgy of the Ethiopian Christian church, an Iroquois choir, a bluegrass band, a master of Peruvian folk art, a quilter from Alabama, a Korean dancer from New York, and a jazz musician specializing in the traditional New Orleans style. Judge writes:
After almost three hours, it was time for a curtain call—one last bow to end the evening. As [the host of the event] reintroduced everyone, [the] featured jazz band played "When the Saints Go Marching In." That's when something happened.
The audience at the Strathmore rose to its feet to acknowledge the fellowship winners—it seemed at the time like one last blast of applause before the exit. But as they—we—clapped in time to "When the Saints Go Marching In," the performers onstage began to dance. … The jazz band, sensing something in the air, got louder, and kept playing. And playing. And playing. Onstage, the performers formed a conga line, led by one of the jazz musicians, then a circle, each person taking his or her turn in the center. The invisible line between performers and audience evaporated. It had turned into one big party—or revival meeting.
The spiritual writer Stephen Mitchell once described a holy joy "so large that it is no longer inside of you, but you are inside of it." I used to work at a record store and wrote music reviews for newspapers and websites, and I've been to hundreds of concerts over the years. I have never seen anything like what happened on that stage at the Strathmore. It was the most totally unselfconscious explosion of bliss I have ever seen in performance; the people onstage were not hamming for the crowd or blowing kisses. They were as lost in abandon as we were. I wouldn't be surprised if they had forgotten we were there. This was a spontaneous eruption of happiness. …
After about thirty bars of saints marching in, [the host] shut things down. No one wanted to leave; I honestly believe the band could have played for an hour and no one would have moved for the exits. Staggering outside, I heard a woman say she was "swimming in joy." I myself was speechless. Then I heard someone say, "I hope there was someone from the media there." I thought of saying that I was in the media. But then I had the decency to admit there were times when language failed. Like everyone else, I just wanted to stay inside the joy.
A fascinating study done by Professor Vicki Medvec reveals the relative importance of subjective attitudes over and above objective circumstances. Medvec studied Olympic medalists and discovered that bronze medalists were quantifiably happier than silver medalists. Here's why: Silver medalists tended to focus on how close they came to winning gold, so they weren't satisfied with silver; broze medalists tended to focus on how close they came to not winning a medal at all, so they were just as happy to be on the medal stand.
Love Advent Illustrations
In a short devotional for Christian Standard magazine, Paul Williams writes about an unusually bumpy flight he once had from Philadelphia to Long Island. Being a frequent flyer, Williams wasn't all that concerned as the plane was batted around in the sky. Others, however, were grabbing onto their armrests or steadying themselves on the seat back in front of them. While observing the reactions of his fellow passengers, Williams took notice of one young mother caring for her baby. He watched as she "wrapped her arms around her infant and pulled the child very close to her breast. Then she dropped her chin, rested it on the back of the child's head, and began to sing ever so quietly, 'Hush, Little Baby.'" The moment caused him to reflect on Christmas, of all things. He writes:
Helpless fragility is the lot of the infant. Those early days leave a lasting impression on the human psyche we never really resolve. That vulnerability stays with us all of our days, reminding us of the seemingly capricious nature of things—a bitter world that does not care if we exist.
But then God came—as an infant, unable to reach out and steady himself on the seat back in front of him, fully trusting a human, fallible mother to pull him close to her breast through the pitching, shaking nature of things.
What an extraordinary risk, to trust the infant of God to a frightened young girl.
But then again—watching that new mother sing to her child all the way through the turbulent skies to the welcoming runway—I realized God knew good and well what he was doing. The power of love trumps fear, rewards risk, and brings meaning and life to an otherwise frightening world. Over and over again.
For a God who would become powerless for love, and to a mother who sings softly in her infant's ear, I give my heart for Christmas, wholly amazed at the wonder of it all.
In an Esquire magazine article titled "Larry King: What I've Learned," Larry King was asked about his marriages. After being married and divorced eight times to seven different women (for his fifth marriage he remarried his third wife), King said,
Questions about my marriages and divorces always take me to the same place. I once asked Stephen Hawking, the smartest guy in the world, what he didn't understand. He said, "Women." If the smartest guy in the world couldn't understand them, what do you expect from me?
Then King said, "The three greatest words in the English language are not: I love you. That's second. The first are: Leave me alone.
According to Martin Luther, even from his birth, Jesus was standing with sinners. Luther wrote:
Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree! Now if the Lord does that here, so ought we to despise no one … but put ourselves right in the middle of the fight for sinners and help them.