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Advent Devotional Guide

Hello SAU family and friends. Join us over the next five weeks to celebrate this Advent season. Four members of our Theology Department have written a devotional reading, one for each week of Advent. We invite you to connect with us through December to be encouraged by the themes of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy this Christmas time.

Introduction to Advent

When I was a kid, I was back and forth attending Sunday services with my Catholic grandparents and with my mom at the Lutheran church across the street from her house. After high school, when I made a personal faith commitment and attended an independent church, I noticed something was missing during the weeks leading to Christmas. The church celebrated Christmas, but the sense of anticipation was different, and not until I attended seminary and cast my lot with the Free Methodist tribe did I realize there was more missing than candle lighting and special readings for a month.

In his book, Living the Christian Year, Bobby Gross (2009) talks about how the Advent season holds the tension between anamnesis (the drawing near of memory) and prolepsis (to take/tell beforehand). Anamnesis is used in Luke 22:19 at the Last Supper where Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in ‘anamnesis’ of me.” This is an action of remembering as much as a cognition of remembering. In our actions, we are bringing the past to our present to “identify with Jesus and vicariously participate in his life in a way that brings spiritual dividends to our own” (pg. 30).

Prolepsis, according to Gross, is similar to anamnesis but refers to the future, instead of the past. Remembering the future is not actually possible unless you have a DeLorean (or, if you prefer, a blue English phone booth called TARDIS). The context is instead an anticipation of “the hope to which we are called” as Paul puts it. Gross uses Eugene Peterson to describe this anticipation as “The end time is not a future we wait for but the gift of the fullness of time that we receive in adoration and obedience as it flows into the present” (pg. 31).

As we intentionally celebrate Advent through lighting candles, singing Christmas carols, listening to the readings of the prophecies anticipating Christ’s birth and those imagining the future of His second coming, we remember the past and the future. We focus on the characteristics (hope, peace, love, joy) of the Kingdom of Heaven which is both here and not yet. We practice this tension which we are supposed to hold every day of our lives, not just in the Advent season. Not just in good times, but also in the trying times. This reminds us our immediate moment in time is connected to an eternity beyond our circumstances and that we are living in one chapter of an epic tale of women and men who we now see as heroines and heroes. In Advent, we tangibly celebrate eternity intersecting time, bringing the Light of the World who broke into the darkness before creation, and the Hope of the renewed and redeemed creation to bring fullness and power to live daily.

As you read each post from our Theology Department, and join your local congregation this Christmas season, may God’s Spirit bring Hope, Peace, Love and Joy to your family. Thanks in advance for joining us the next 4 weeks.


Written by: Rev. Brian S. Kono, Ph.D. – University Chaplain, Associate Professor of Theology

To view full bio, click here.

Hope

It was Sunday morning. Two friends were headed home after a weekend in the big city where they came yearly to commemorate, always looking forward to the next visit. After all, the celebration always brought together families and friends. Everyone took a few days of break from their hard work in the country to join thousands of other visitors to celebrate in the bustling and hustling city, with excitement and expectation.

This year was no different, except a heightened sense of hope because of a new guest in the city, a young charismatic preacher whose gatherings drew crowds like they had never seen before. He had gone all over their land holding impressive rallies. He spoke about their people, their values, their challenges, and their hopes. He took a special interest in the least among them—the poor majority of the nation—and he stood against oppression and injustice. This eloquent and energetic leader quickly came to embody the hope of the people and so to win their hearts. But the corrupt leaders had long wanted him dead for that.

The fateful day came that weekend, as the people flooded the city for the holiday. The leaders finally got a hold of the preacher and took his life, dashing the hopes of hundreds of thousands of people. Terrified and demoralized, his closest friends vanished in the city. Two of them decided to leave quietly and retreat in the safety of their little-known village. As they made their way home that morning, a seemingly uninformed guest joined them and inquired about their lively conversation. “The chief priests and our rulers crucified Jesus,” they bewailed, “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:17, 20–21). Later in the evening, they found out their guest was the very one they hoped would bring redemption. Shocked and overcome by joy, they ran back to the city to break the news to their friends. Their hope was alive! Again!

The hope of the disciples was the hope that Mary and Joseph first nurtured three decades ago when the angel announced they were going to be parents to the Son of God. It was the hope that filled Elizabeth as she welcomed Mary in her house. It was the hope of Simeon as he waited for the consolation of Israel and welcomed the infant Jesus at the temple (Luke 2:25-35). It was also this hope that sustained Anna as she prayed several decades for “the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:36-38). It was this hope that drew the crowds to the young charismatic preacher as he healed people, addressed their physical needs, and proclaimed a message of freedom from political oppression, economic exploitation, and spiritual enslavement.

All these people displayed deep trust in God (Psalm 42:5; 130:7; 1 Tim 6:17). They believed in the goodness and faithfulness of God (Psalm 147:11), and so they saw a future where many could see none, often talking about it with an unwavering assurance of God’s power to make it happen (Job 13:15; Col 1:27; Heb 11:1-2). They were tested and their hope refined (Rom 12:12), but time and again their faith encountered God’s faithfulness and hope for all seasons was born that sustained them.

Hope is God’s way to make a way where no way seems possible. Hope is the light God shines through the darkest of nights. Hope is the gentle whisper of God’s Spirit that turns pain into purpose. Hope is God’s power by which we struggle but never give up. Hope is God’s tender look into our brokenness as he speaks healing and restores wholeness. Hope is what brings God and humanity together to sing the song of victory in the face of pain, struggle, and doubt, as they sail across the ocean of life’s great mysteries.

In this season of Advent, let us join the Bible’s cloud of witnesses whose hope sustained them through dark times and tough circumstance. Advent invites us to persevere in prayer, to believe in God’s goodness, and to trust in God’s love, faithfulness, and power to care for us in our struggles. Advent invites us on a journey of hope where we experience God’s renewal, joy, and peace in Christ. Let’s hope! Always!

Written by: Elisée Ouoba, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

To view full bio, click here.

Love

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton)

Love can change the world! I believe this. At least on a good day. But how is it true? How is it true in the vast scale of human history? How, this Advent season, is it true in my own small life-story?

Love changes the world by bringing together that which was separate. Instead of segregation and isolation, we discover communion.

Love starts with two worlds, and after it has done its work, leaves one. Maybe your kid is distressed and can’t process their feelings. Here’s what I’ve learned from my wife(who is a therapist!): Reasoning with the kid usually doesn’t help. Instead, enter into their sorrow or pain. Sit with them, like Job’s friends initially did (but don’t follow their impatience by then trying to “fix” the problem). When love nudges you to call that family member that you’d rather avoid, call them! (Those Home Alone movies actually do contain jewels of truth!) Share kind words on social media. Smile and wave to that stranger on the street. I know, love requires far more than pleasantries from us. But it’s a start. By overlapping your world with another’s, you’ve created – for a moment –a hospitable place to acknowledge, and even nurture the other. You will find yourself following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Miroslav Volf, a renown theologian born in war-torn Croatia argues that “[i]t may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference.” Too often (especially in these divisive days in our country) we define our identities based on the other: “I’m not X… I’m not like Y.” We use the logic of opposition and exclusion to try to understand or assert ourselves. As Thomas Merton suggests, this “stopping to judge” gets in the way of our loving those who are different from us. Yet, what if Christena Cleveland is right: “People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross”?

Let’s remind ourselves of that famous biblical passage from Philippians 2: Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness….”

One of the “Odes of Solomon” (a collection of ancient Christian hymns written in Syria around the 2ndcentury AD) puts it this way:

His love for me brought low his greatness.

He made himself like me so that I might receive him.

He made himself like me so that I might be clothed in him.

I had no fear when I saw him, for he is mercy for me.

He took my nature so that I might understand him, my face so that I should not turn away from him.

Around that same time, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons writes: “The Lord has given us a sign ‘as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven,’ such as we should not have dared to hope for. How could we have expected to see a Virgin with child, and to see in this child a ‘God with us’ (Isaiah 7:11,14) who would descend into the depths of the earth to seek for the lost sheep, meaning the creature he had fashioned…?”

This is the love of the incarnation. This is the love that St. Paul prays for us to “comprehend”: “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:18-19).

When love reaches out, it becomes the bond itself. At this time of the year when the nights are long, and the fields, forests, and subdivisions are silent, let us never imagine that we’re alone. The one who is Love is here, and is nudging us outward…to bring worlds together… to cultivate common ground… to find God’s incarnate grace in the presence of one another.

Written by: Thomas J. Holsinger-Friesen, Ph.D. – Professor of Theology

To view full bio, click here.

Peace

“Peace”- one of the great words that has meanings ranging from a feeling of calm to the exit of a hippie from the room. Peace shows up in scripture often, 429 times in the King James version, so it’s clearly a topic on the mind of God. But is God’s notion of peace the same as our understanding? Is it simply about a state of calm, or is there more?

When we unpack the Hebrew word for peace in the Old Testament, it can mean fulfillment, completeness, harmony, or security. It can be associated with military victories or diplomatic encounters. It can also be described as “the place where chaos cannot enter”-I really like this one, and I feel it as timely as the pace picks up around the holidays. The presence of God is the source of this kind of peace.

In the New Testament, we find the term “peace” in all of the books except I John, so it really is a pervasive theme running through the story of salvation. “Peace” is typically associated with harmony between individual or the presence of the Holy Spirit that drives out fear, again “that place where chaos cannot enter”.

When I brought my daughter home from the NICU as a foster child, I borrowed an idea from a mentor who blesses her grandchildren at bedtime. As a parent, I know days can be chaotic, and as a foster parent, navigating the courts to fight for what is in the best interest of a child can feel incredibly chaotic, so peace was an important theme on multiple levels.

No matter the level of chaos in our days together, whether at home or in the system, I wanted a consistent and intentional ending, and so I created a blessing for her. I thought carefully about my word choice and incorporated hand motions meaningful to me. Each night at bedtime, I begin by saying, “May the blood of Jesus cover you” as I swipe my finger horizontally across her forehead. I continue with “May the love of Jesus fill you” as I draw my finger vertically on her forehead. I conclude with “And may you sleep in God’s peace”, and then her forehead gets a kiss before she is tucked in for the night.

When my daughter first came home, she faced developmental challenges from her prenatal drug exposure, and I didn’t know whether she would stay long term or be reunited with her birth parents. Regardless, I wanted my time with her, however long, to be rich with meaning. The motions of my finger on her forehead mimic those of my pastor on Ash Wednesday when ashes are imposed on my forehead to remind me that from ashes I came, and to ashes I will return. The choices I make with my life in between matter, so it seemed natural to weave it into my daughter’s blessing.

My hope for her was and is that she will always know the love of Jesus and understand the gift of salvation. I want her to drift to sleep with those important words echoing in her head. The conclusion of her blessing was also intentional, “May you sleep in God’s peace”. Whatever the chaos of the day, I want her to be able to rest, knowing that God’s presence is with her.

My daughter is three now, has caught up on all of her developmental milestones, and was adopted just over a year ago. Our routine has shifted a bit since she is older, and now after I bless her, she wants to repeat the words and motions to bless me. She doesn’t have the words quite yet, and I typically leave with fingerprints on my glasses, but ending our day together with those sweet, intentional words always reclaims my perspective. When the day has been difficult, filled with big 3-year-old feelings and frustrations, we don’t have to stay there. We can reach out and claim God’s peace.

As you move through the holiday season this year, may you claim moments of God’s peace. When the chaos of your day feels like a 3-year-old navigating life for the first time, may you find your way into the presence of the Holy Spirit who brings peace. May you know the peace of God which passes all understanding, and may it guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus as it creates “a place where chaos cannot enter” (Adapted from Philippians 4:7). Amen.

Written by: Laura Widstrom, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of Theology

To view full bio, click here.

https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peace-bible

Joy

I checked my phone between classes and saw the email from our chaplain, Brian Kono. Joy? Really? In 2020? Such were my thoughts when I heard the theme I was to write on for these devotions. It’s a tough year for that theme, with all that we have gone through in this crazy, frustrating, heart-breaking year. I found out my theme just before I was set to teach my New Testament survey class on Philippians. With a sigh, I opened the PowerPoints for my class and saw the subtitle for my lecture: “Joy in chains.” Hum…. Ok, God I see what you are doing here!

Paul had a lot of reasons not to be joyful. Philippians is a part of the Pauline corpus that is called the Captivity Letters, because he wrote them while being incarcerated for preaching the Gospel. Paul’s life prior to his incarceration was a catalog of hardships and difficulties. He had been mocked, whipped, stoned and left for dead, challenged by false apostles and even by churches he had founded, and this is just a partial list. That’s a lot to be down about. Those sound like joy-killers. Yet Paul’s letter to the Philippians exudes joy. The words “joy” and “rejoice” resound throughout the brief book. He is joyful and calls his readers to joy. What was Paul’s secret?

Paul practiced gratitude and thanksgiving, embodying these in his prayer life. Most of Paul’s letters begin with him giving thanks for what God has done in the lives of the church he is writing to. Paul also reminds the churches that he is praying for them. Gratitude, giving thanks, and praying for others have a wonderful way of taking our minds off ourselves and our troubles. Cultivating these spiritual disciplines is a path to joy.

Paul measured everything in his life by the standard of the advancement of the Gospel. This allowed him to see even the awful things in his life with an eternal perspective. Paul notes how his imprisonment has served to advance the Gospel cause. He can even rejoice when fellow Christians take his imprisonment as an opportunity to have some of the Gospel spotlight. How can he think this way? Because it’s not about Paul. It’s about the spread of the Gospel. One of the most memorable lines from Philippians is Paul’s stunning mantra: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). When you look at the world in this way, one’s joy becomes less fragile.

Another key to Paul’s joy was a paradoxical combination of contentment and drive. Paul says in Philippians 4:11 that he has learned to be content in any situation, whether he is brought low or lifted on high. Yet he is also driven to know Christ and to strive “for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:14). Paul’s contentment arises from a deep trust in the God who never gives up on us. As he reminds the Philippians in 1:6 that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”

Paul also gives some good practical advice on things that are conducive to joy. The simple exhortation in 2:14 to avoid grumbling and disputing is as relevant today as it was when Paul first penned these words. Social media and news outlets are predicated on grumbling and disputing and it takes a herculean effort to get off the grumble bus, but it’s worth it.

Nothing is more of a threat to joy than anxiety and Paul speaks to that threat in 4:4-7. His advice to “don’t be anxious” sounds trite but this is no shallow self-help advice. Paul reminds his readers that the Lord is near, not a prediction of the second coming, but a profound statement of the Lord’s real presence in our lives. Rather than anxiously fretting, Paul exhorts us to lift every request to God in prayer with thanksgiving (there’s that word again!). The peace that Paul promises is a gift from God, not some state of mind we talk ourselves into. It’s a doesn’t-make-any-sense-at-all kind of peace and such peace is the fertile soil in which joy grows.

Paul understood that what we do with our minds and what we dwell on has a tremendous effect upon our well-being. In the closing chapter of his letter he gives a list of things to “think about” (4:8) –whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Many years ago, a pastor challenged me to memorize these verses and to think of two things for each word (two things that are “true”; two things that are “honorable,” etc.). I wrote these items right in my Bible under chapter 4. The practice was to recite the verses and go through and meditate on the two things that fit each description. In a year when we have plenty of bad things to “fixate” on, this is good advice and I commend the practice to you.

Perhaps the most famous verse in Philippians is 4:13, which reads: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” What is often taken to be a “super-hero verse” if taken out of context actually means something more like “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And if I may be allowed a bit of an expansive interpretation: “I can endure, with remarkable joy, all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul has shown me, and shows all of us as Christians, a better way. A way to live joyfully even in the direst of circumstances. And that’s a word on target at this moment. That’s a good word for a year such as 2020.

Written by: Richard E. Cornell, Ph.D. – Professor of Biblical Studies

To view full bio, click here.

Christmas

Celebrating Christmas is, for the Christian believer, a celebration of wonder and mystery. The curiosity of children looking at gifts brilliantly wrapped and mysteriously appearing under a tree while they are sleeping, is the image of the wonder and delight captured in the heart of the Christmas story. While this might quickly be lost in the hustle and bustle and flurry of activities like food preparation and exchanging of presents, we must be intentional in our remembering the meaning of Christmas. Especially when we live in a season where headlines and events stir up confusion, doubt and, at times, fear over jobs, health, politics, and the future.

Bobby Gross (2009) writes, “This is the season of wonder: the Highest gave up glory to be born of the lowly, the Logos and Light became the body and the blood, the government of God began in a barn, and the angels of heaven sang the hope of all humanity. Wonder fills us with joy and moves us to self-giving love, for wonder is the posture of the humble, the grateful” (Living the Christian Year, pg. 74).

There is a Christmas hymn that isn’t often sung because of its solemn tone, keeping with a Celtic theme. “I wonder as I wander” draws attention to the simplicity and essence of the Gospel message, while acknowledging the mystery and wonder therein. When we sing this song, I am always drawn into the ‘simplexity’ of faith in Christ. This is a term I borrowed from Leonard Sweet who describes its meaning as the “two dimensions of growing in faith.” While the Christian faith is simple to apprehend, it is more complex than we can understand fully. The Gospel simply says, believe in Jesus, his birth, life, death and resurrection. But the complexity bound in a person fully human, fully divine, loving humanity to the cost of his own death is beyond reason and explanation.

As we close the season of Advent and turn toward the new year, our prayer for you is that you can celebrate the mystery and wonder of a God who has been faithful from the beginning of time and continues to be faithful, even in these crazy times. As it says in Hebrews, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (10:23, ESV).

Merry Christmas!

Written by: Rev. Brian S. Kono, Ph.D. – University Chaplain, Associate Professor of Theology

To view full bio, click here.

Words to “I wonder as I wander” credited to John Jacob Niles

1. I wonder as I wander out under the sky,

How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.

For poor on’ry people like you and like I…

I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

2. When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall,

With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.

But high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall,

And the promise of ages it then did recall.

3. If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,

A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,

Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,

He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.