When did you first hear popular Christmas music this year? Listening to the radio? At the mall? What was your reaction?
Oh my gosh! Are they really starting the Christmas hype this early?!
I have a bit of that too. I am occasionally annoyed that Christmas is often over commercialized, driven by materialism, and thoroughly removed from worship and devotion to the one true God. That bothers me.
But I hear that first song, whether my secular favorite, “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, or my favorite worship song, “Do you Hear what I Hear,” and something else happens deep inside me. Joyful anticipation. Excited waiting. I become aware of myself and realize I have, without meaning too, inched to the edge of my seat.
My son Igor helps me with the magic and music and color of Christmas. He keeps Christmas lights in his room year-round. He does nothing to hide his enormous joy when the first Christmas songs come on the radio. He will play it non-stop all day and all night if Candy or I don’t turn it off after he’s asleep.
I do not know how much worship would infuse my sense of Christmas longing if I were not a pastor. But I am a pastor. Much of my eagerness at this time of year is directly tied to worship. We enter the story of the world waiting for God to do something. But, our entrance comes knowing that God has done not just “something,” but God has done the most incredible, wonderful, unexpected thing.
God has come to earth, come in the form of a real, living, breathing, touchable human – Jesus. Advent into Christmas: we enter the story, singing all the way. We know the story is one of hope that includes a cross, but ends with resurrection and the promise that in Christ we too will rise to eternal life in the embrace of God. Yes, we know the ending! Yes, we want to watch the movie anyway. Yes, it gets us as much as it did the first time.
I don’t know how much worship would be part of your Advent and your Christmas if you were not a Christ follower and did not come together with his family to worship. But you are here, seeking God. We feel the entrance into Christmas in the songs. We join hands and walk toward Bethlehem. It made me glad to say, “Let’s go to the house of the Lord together.”
We don’t always feel it. Sometimes, whether it is Advent or not, we have to drag ourselves to church on Sunday. Sometimes, the warm bed or the golf course wins. We don’t make it. Sometimes we come, but it doesn’t feel inspiring or wonderful. It’s flat and our minds wander and if we are honest, we wonder, what’s the point? Pastors ask this very question sometimes.
In his reflection on Psalm 122, Eugene Peterson, who pastored for more than 30 years, recalls an oft repeated experience.
He writes, One of the afflictions of pastoral work has been to listen with a straight face, to all the reasons people give for not going to church:
‘My mother made me when I was little.’
‘There are too many hypocrites in the church.’
‘It’s the only day I have to sleep in.’
There was a time when I responded to such statements with simple arguments that exposed them as flimsy excuses. Then I noticed it didn’t make any difference. If I showed the inadequacy of one excuse, three more would pop up in its place. So I don’t respond any more. I listen (with a straight face) and go home and pray that that person will one day find the one sufficient reason for going to church, which is God.[i]
Peterson goes on to describe Psalm 122 as the Psalm for people who decide to go to church. We choose to be here, to sing together, to proclaim God’s reality and goodness and importance. We want this.
That does not mean we feel it every Sunday. Peterson calls feelings “great liars.”[ii] I see myself as one who wants to worship God, to connect with God. That’s me. I want to be a worshiper.
But then Sunday, rolls around. Saturday night was rough. Life is stressful. Maybe sleeping in would feel better. Or, maybe I need to go for a drive, visit my favorite restaurant in the mountains. I can be there in a couple of hours, enjoy the afternoon, and be back by bed time. I’ll do church next week.
Or worse, maybe in my mind’s eye, I see the people at church, and they all have it together. They know all the songs. They are all expert Bible readers. They don’t have any problems. I don’t fit in. I don’t feel like being among them, feeling so out of place. I’ll skip it this week.
Feelings are great liars. We yearn for God. We want the blessings God gives. We want the joy that can only be known in God’s presence. But sometimes our feelings drive us from the church. Or, they kill our experience while we are here.
It made me glad to say, “Let’s go to the house of the Lord together.”
Thinking about Advent, I began writing the names of people who worship here every Sunday or just about every Sunday. I started listing names. As people popped into my head, I wrote the names down. Then I looked over the list.
I see teenagers struggling for confidence and identity.
I see cancer threatening death; such fear.
I see divorce ripping families apart.
I see people who have worshipped here less than and year and will be gone by Christmas, moving on to other places.
I see members who aren’t going anywhere; people who have been at the core of this church’s life since the 80’s.
I see people fighting to save their marriages.
I see people without jobs, anxious, uncertain about the future.
This is who chooses, Sunday after Sunday, to come. Please don’t think you don’t fit in or you don’t have it together the way everyone else does. This church is for broken to find lasting joy in Jesus. The hurting, the frustrated, the confused: this is who God has gathered to create our church family. This is who we will stand with as we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come. Let earth, receive her King. Let every heart, prepare him room, and Heaven and nature sing.” This is who we pray with and who we pray for; this is who we embrace. This is who, in the name and the power of Jesus, we love.
We are together throughout the year. But Advent, the season of hopeful waiting, allows us to more easily express our affection for one another. God uses green and red and candles and trees to open our hearts and our mouths. For some reason, we find ourselves expressing our love for one another. We are able to give it and receive it.
Psalm 122 – the worship Psalm for people who come and come gladly, even when we are quite feeling it. We choose to come. In the Psalm we read “Jerusalem.” In that name, think of where the people of God gather. We’ve been invited to be among the nation of priests. Jesus draws us into Jerusalem. Thus the prayer for the gathering place is our prayer.
In the coming of Christ, justice rules, and there is peace in the city walls and all goes well for those who love God. In another translation, that phrase, ‘all goes well,’ is translated prosperity. But, this word is not about economic gain. The actual meaning is leisure – “a relaxed sense that everything is alright because God is over us.”[iii]
Again my mind reviews the names and faces of all who make up the HillSong family. Seemingly every sort of human struggles visits someone among us. There is sickness of body, death of relationships, disappointment in life. We feel it all. Our gladness in worship is completely dependent on that baby in Bethlehem becoming who the Bible says he is – God with us. Our dependence on him is rewarded with life and Spirit; His Holy Spirit fills our songs and takes us residence in our hearts. Even in our difficulties, we know the truth in the prayer that everything is alright because God is over us.
“May there be peace inside your city walls.” The Hebrew notion of “Shalom,” often translated ‘peace,’ has a fuller force than simply the absence of conflict or violence. Eugene Peterson thinks of Shalom in this way – “God’s will is completed in us.”[iv]
Let that settle on the heart. All that God intended in creating the world; all God’s purposes in fashioning human beings in God’s image; all God’s hopes in calling Israel to be God’s chosen people and a light drawing the world into the worship of God; it all comes together in Shalom. When we have shalom, God’s will is completed in us. When we have Jesus, we have shalom.
The prophet Isaiah offers a vision of shalom.
The light of the Lord began shining with a new brightness that night in Bethlehem. Now in Advent, the theater is dimming and our favorite movie will begin shortly, one that lasts from now to Easter Sunday and gets better each time we watch it. Yet, more than watch it, we walk in it. Our walk happens in worship as we read and the Psalm for church goers who worship together. We bring all our burdens, cares, and worries. We leave with Shalom, knowing God us with us so all will go well.
In glad anticipation, we step toward Bethlehem.