It’s the Most Wonderful Time . . . Always

Craig St. John / December 9, 2018
Advent, Sermon

By Craig St. John

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—words sung by the late Andy Williams that we can’t seem to get away from during the holiday season. To me, these words are more than a trope. I really do love this time of year. While I’m not at all a fan of the busyness, the traffic, the consumerism, and the greed, I indeed love the tremendous amount of love and joy that abound in the midst of what is often chaos, as well as the traditions. This is the one time of the year that billions all over the world, Christian or otherwise, draw from a common narrative and partake in a unified series of rituals.

Don’t get me wrong; this narrative has little to do with God becoming a human being, living, eating, drinking, ministering, and serving on earth for a few decades, and the rituals don’t necessarily include Advent candles and midnight mass. But there is still something, dare I say magical, that most of us share.

Whether we’re dropping a few coins in a Salvation Army bell ringer’s bucket, sending cards to people we haven’t spoken to all year, going door to door to sing to our neighbors (which would frankly be rather frightening any other time of year), or simply getting together to dine with extended family and friends, many of us are acting apart from the character and general flow of things as they occur from January through November.

For some, there may be a sense of obligation; for others, it’s general nostalgia; but overall, this season does tend to generate immense joy, compassion, and generosity (and yes, again, in the midst of extreme selfishness). Even those who don’t follow Christ tend to be a part of the magic of this season. So yes, I can echo Andy Williams. However, at the same time, it makes me lament that most of us get back into a routine of neglecting all the wonderful things about this time. As the lights come down, the joy also fades to black.

For those of us who are Christians—and if you’re reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you are—we may have a greater tendency to make Jesus “the reason for the season,” and yet, we also let that sentiment wane as our trees go into the woodchipper or back in the attic. We may yell at a barista who had nothing to do with their employers’ choice of nonsectarian holiday cups (though I hope none of you would ever do such a thing), thinking we’re taking a stand for Christ, while we fail to acknowledge that Jesus is the reason for our entire existence, not simply this season.

If you’ve been tracking with us this Advent season through our sermons, podcasts, as well as this blog series, you should be aware that our theme verse is John 1:14—”And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (ESV). Last week, Pastor Josh Butler kicked off the series, preaching and writing specifically on the Word becoming flesh. For these next three weeks of Advent, we’re going to touch on certain spiritual disciplines that correspond with Christ dwelling among us, revealing his glory, and filling with grace and truth. It is our hope that the incorporation of these and other practices, not only during this season, but throughout the entire year, will help us have a greater realization of Christ’s presence by the Spirit, a greater appreciation for what he gives us, and a greater sense of joy, compassion, and generosity that we can display on an ongoing basis.

The Word dwelt among us.

As has already been preached, the Greek word John used for Word is λόγος (logos), which he employed four times in his first chapter in reference to second person of the Trinity, who existed “In the beginning” (v. 1), long before Joseph named him Jesus (Mat. 1:25). Logos is a Hellenistic philosophical idea referring to the Reason that gave order to the universe. John’s Greek readers would have quickly grasped this concept and have seen how he was identifying Jesus as this utmost Reason from eternity past (v. 14), and his Hebrew readers would have understood that John was acknowledging that Jesus is not only the Son of God, but is also God himself—“The Word was God” (v. 1, emphasis mine). θεός (theos), the Greek for God, is often used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, to translate יְהוָֹה (YHWH), a Hebrew name for God.

This is a profound and extraordinary claim made to either category of John’s original audience toward the end of the first century, most of whom would not have been around at the time of Christ’s birth. The Son of God—God himself—became a man. A human being who walked the earth for over thirty years existed from eternity past and created everything with God the Father (v. 3).

And what is perhaps foreign to most present-day American Christians, John doesn’t even mention Jesus as a baby, the Nativity scene (which largely doesn’t follow the narratives of Matthew or Luke anyway), shepherds, magi, or Mary and Joseph. To John, the important aspects of Christ’s incarnation—of his putting on flesh or “becoming meat”—was being the “true light” (v. 9), giving people “the right to become children of God” (v. 12), and, as we’re covering specifically, dwelling among us, displaying his glory, and offering grace and truth (v. 14).

This week, we’re narrowing in on the Word having “dwelt among us.” The Greek word for dwell is σκηνόω (skēnoō), which can also be translated as “to tent,” “to tabernacle, or “to abide,” among others. As Pastor Riccardo mentioned on Sunday, this causes us to think of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament and specifically the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary where God’s presence appeared. However, the author of Hebrews tells us that with the coming of Christ, such a dwelling place is no longer necessary (9:11). Christ came to tabernacle among us, he later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9–11), where he presently dwells in the “greater and more perfect tent” in heaven, mentioned in Hebrews 9:11, and finally, John tells us that heaven will come to earth, where:

. . . God’s dwelling (tabernacle) is here with humankind. He will dwell (tabernacle) with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:3–4, CEB, emphasis and parentheticals mine).

As amazing as it that the Son of God was placed in the womb of a virgin by the Holy Spirit (Mat. 1:20), a momentous occasion that drew the heavenly host to praise God (Luke 2:14), shepherds to come and observe and glorify and praise God (Luke 2:15–20), and, much later, (an unmentioned number of) wise men from the Orient to come worship him (Mat. 2:2), this was only the prologue to the climax of history—Christ’s life here on earth—and the period of anticipation for the closing chapter.

It is a great thing that we follow the Church calendar, observing dates such as Christ’s birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, as well as Pentecost, as they draw us to meditate on these critical moments in redemptive history, but we shouldn’t do so at the neglect of regular rhythms that help draw us into a deeper, more transformative relationship with our triune God.

Abiding through Solitude

For this week, we’ll briefly touch on the spiritual discipline of solitude as simply one of many means by which we can better dwell with God as he dwells with us. And we’ll specifically discuss this in tandem with another favorite word of John, μένω (menō), or “abide,” which can also be translated as “dwell.” John used the word forty-two times in his gospel alone, and then another twenty-seven times in his first two epistles. He used it perhaps most famously in John 15:4, as he quoted Jesus as saying, “Abide in me, and I in you.” Theologians refer to this idea as “union in Christ.”

Though Christ physically abided with his followers during his years on earth and will again in his Second Advent, when heaven comes to earth, as we mentioned earlier, by the Holy Spirit, he dwells with and abides in us right now (1 John 4:13). As we discussed way back at the beginning of our Ephesians series, this indwelling of the Holy Spirit is permanent—those of us “who believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit . . .” (Eph. 1:13). However, that does not mean these notions of dwelling and abiding are unidirectional. As already mentioned from John 15:4, Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you.” John also wrote in 1 John 2:4–6 (ESV):

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (emphasis mine).

Christ abiding within us ought to progressively conform us to his image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18), causing us to walk as he did. Borrowing from 2 Peter 2:4, second century Church Father, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, wrote, “if the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods.” This is not to say that we literally become gods, for that would be heresy, but it does refer to Peter’s language of “becom(ing) partakers of the divine nature” (ESV). If we are to be “transformed from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV) by Christ abiding in us, we should progressively be walking more and more “in the same way in which he walked.”

So, what are some tangible ways we can do that?

We’ll cover three over the next three weeks, but for today, we will quickly look at the practice of solitude.

Throughout the gospels, we often see Jesus in solitude. In Luke 4:1–2, 14–15, we see him fasting for forty days in the wilderness, in solitude, in preparation for his public ministry. In Mark 6:30–32, he retreated to rest after preaching to and feeding the five thousand. In Luke 5:16, he withdrew to pray after healing a leper. In Matthew 14:1–13, we see him seeking solitude to grieve the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. In Luke 6:12–13, he hiked a mountain to pray all night before the important decision the next day of selecting his disciples. And in Luke 22:39–44, he prayed on the Mount of Olives in distress, knowing that within a few hours, he would be betrayed by one of his own and arrested, leading up to his torture and execution.

For these reasons and more, we, too, should frequently practice the disciplines of solitude and prayer. A Christian should never make an important decision without first having a dedicated period of solitude. This can look very different from person to person. Like Jesus, some of us may wish to go on a hike or a prayer walk. Perhaps it’s going fishing alone. Maybe it’s simply waking up before sunrise and well before the rest of the household, sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, sharing with God whatever is on the heart and remaining in silence with the hope of hearing him. Any of these means, and countless others, are ways to abide more and more in Christ as he is already abiding in us.

Solitude can be especially critical for those of us who thrive off being around others and at the center of attention. Alone, we are more vulnerable, and our souls are laid bare before our triune God. “Solitude is a discipline that gets behind those feelings (of the intoxication of being the center of attention) to who we are when we feel invisible and unrecognized.”[1]

In our solitude and silence, “God is there to accept, receive and love us. God longs for us to be our true self in Christ. He wants us to be who we are meant to be. In solitude, we see how little we embrace our true identity in Christ. We are beloved, and God is pleased with us.”[2] One of my seminary professors would often say that as we conform to the image of Christ, walking as he did, we are only becoming more human. That is to say that our true humanity was lost in the fall, and only Christ has been the perfect human. Though we will never be identical to Christ, through practices like solitude, we can become more of our true selves.

In this season of Advent, as we remember the birth of Christ, a tremendous and miraculous event in which the second person of the Trinity—when God—became man, let us also meditate on his entire life on earth, as he dwelled among humankind physically for the first time. And let’s not quickly sail through this season and then turn our attention immediately to Lent, Good Friday, and Easter. As critical as Christ’s death and resurrection are to the redemption of the cosmos, Christ was not born only so that he could die. He came to dwell among us, and in his death, resurrection, ascension, exaltation, sending of the Holy Spirit, and promise to return, he will dwell with us, in a human body, on earth, for all eternity. That is the beauty of Christmas.

So yes, we can still say that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but through solitude and other spiritual disciplines (stay tuned over the next two weeks for posts on Scripture memorization and prayer), let’s continue to remember that Christ dwells with and abides in us throughout the year.

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 129.

[2] Ibid., 130.

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