Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

Willpower Is Weak

If you’re considering making some New Year’s resolutions this year, consider this: like other exercises of raw willpower, most New Year’s resolutions fail miserably.

According to research, 80 percent of those who make resolutions on January 1 have given up by Valentine’s Day. Nutrition experts say that two-thirds of dieters regain any weight lost within a year, and more than 70 percent of people who undergo coronary bypass surgery fall back into unhealthy habits within two years of their surgery.

“Most of us think that we can change our lives if we just summon the willpower and try even harder this time around,” says Alan Deutschman, the former executive director of Unboundary, a firm that counsels corporations on how to navigate change. “It’s exceptionally hard to make life changes, and our efforts are usually doomed to failure when we try to do it on our own.”

As we think about New Year’s resolutions, it’s important to realize something about human nature: people do what they want to do. The Reformation theologian Thomas Cranmer held this view of human nature (as summarized by Anglican historian Ashley Null):

What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.

So making a resolution and summoning up all your willpower does little good if, ultimately, your heart isn’t in it. Does this mean you should abandon any hope of change? Not at all. If you’re going to make a New Year’s resolution, here are a few things to keep in mind.

 

1. Is It A Good Resolution?

Try to determine if the resolution is actually good. Are you planning on working out more? If so, is it because you want to be a good steward of the body God gave you or is it vanity? In reality, it is probably some of both. But what is the driving desire? Is it a good one?

 

2. Just Do It

If your resolution is actually a good one, just do it. Go ahead and work out more, smoke or drink less, read your Bible more, pay down your debt and save more for retirement, focus on your marriage, spend more time with your children. Every once in a while, people start a New Year’s resolution and it sticks. But most don’t. That’s because (1) you are sinner and (2) your heart is an idol factory.

 

3. Grace Actually Works

The reality is that your resolution is likely needed because, like everyone else except for Jesus, you are not loving God with your entire being and not loving your neighbor as yourself. These two failures lead to havoc, discord, pain, and destruction. Jesus gave us the basic requirement: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40).

That basic failure is why we need the gospel: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection deal with the guilt and the stain of sin. It’s also why we so often fail at our attempts to improve ourselves.

But Jesus also gave us the Holy Spirit, who can change our desires and empower us to love God and neighbor. As Paul tells us, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). With us and our willpower, Jesus says, change is impossible, “but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).

 

God Gives Grace to Change

As Cranmer realized, our wills are captive to what our hearts love, and we are powerless to change ourselves without the work of God’s Spirit changing our desires. When you think through New Year’s resolutions, here’s a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer as you ask God to work on your heart:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

White Horse Inn: “Sexual Abuse & the Gospel Grace”

White Horse Inn: “Sexual Abuse & the Gospel Grace”

Lindsey and I were guests on the White Horse Inn podcast and interviewed by our friend, Dr. Michael Horton.

The interview is on iTunes. Here is the information on the interview from their blog:

According to a host of recent indicators, sexual assault is on the rise, and unfortunately it appears to be occurring just as frequently inside the church as it is in the outside world. So how are we to deal with this growing challenge? More importantly, how are we to apply the gospel of grace to both victims and perpetrators of this type of abuse? On this program Michael Horton discusses this issue at length with Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.

Advent IV: God Keeps His Promises

Advent IV: God Keeps His Promises

On the fourth Sunday of Advent (Advent IV), we celebrate God’s faithfulness in sending Jesus, and we remember that faithfulness as we look forward to Christ’s second coming.

The Scripture and Theology of the Fourth Week of Advent

Scripture readings for Advent IV focus on the coming of the Messiah who fulfills God’s covenant with David, bringing salvation for all people and the eternal reign of God on earth.

Old Testament Readings        

Old Testament passages for the final week of Advent reflect on prophecies, which are fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. Isaiah 7:10-16 recounts the story of King Ahaz, king of Judah at a time when Judah was facing a foreign invasion. Ahaz hoped for help from the king of Assyria. The prophet Isaiah, however, downplays human-oriented deliverance and instead points to God’s divine intervention to bring about his kingdom—an intervention that would come through a baby born in Bethlehem. Isaiah says, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

We see something similar happen in 2 Samuel 7:1-16 when God corrects King David’s human plans by revealing his divine plan. When David starts to make plans to build a temple for God to dwell in, God counters that he himself will build his own “house” through the dynasty of David, ultimately dwelling among his people as God with us—Immanuel—in Jesus Christ. God promises that he will make for David a great name, give his people eternal rest from enemies, and give him an everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 7:9-16); these promises are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.

Micah 5:4-5 looks forward to how God will rule over his people through Jesus: “He shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord…And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”

Readings from the Psalms

In Psalm 80:1-8 we see the psalmist praying for deliverance and restoration. Because of God’s past deliverance, the psalmist calls for God once again to let his face shine upon his people so that they can be saved. The Gospel of John says that those who have seen the face of Jesus Christ have seen the face of God (John 14:9). In Jesus Christ, God fulfills his promise of salvation by making his face shine upon his people.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 shows God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. God said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations’” (Ps. 89:3-4). God said he would be faithful to David, and through Jesus, God keeps his promise.

New Testament Readings       

New Testament readings for Advent IV continue to reflect on God’s faithfulness to his promises. The gospel was “promised beforehand through [God’s] prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:2-4). The good news of salvation is that God has been faithful to his promise to David in sending Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.

Hebrews 10:5-10 reminds us that Christ’s coming obliterates the old system of sacrifice, through the sacrifice Jesus made for us, once for all. Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:9-10). Jesus’ birth points us forward to the cross. As Karl Barth put it, “Except we see the Cross at Golgotha we cannot hear the Gospel at the crib of Bethlehem.”

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent IV tell the story of the angel coming to Mary and Joseph to announce Christ’s birth. In Matthew 1:18-25 the angel Gabriel tells Joseph that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This fulfilled what the Lord had promised to the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, ‘God with us’)” (Matt 1:22, from Isaiah 7:14).

Luke 1:26-38 tells another more of the story and connects Jesus’ birth to the lineage of David. The angel tells Mary that her son “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

The Symbolic Spirituality of the Fourth Week of Advent

The Jesse Tree and Advent Wreath both bring to conclusion the theme of repentance throughout the Advent season. The Jesse Tree tells the story of God bringing his people out of exile through Jesus Christ, and the Advent Wreath expresses the peace that we experience through God’s redemption.

The Jesse Tree                       

The Jesse Tree in Advent III felt somber; Israel was in exile, and there was little hope in sight. But the story now takes a positive turn with the arrival of the one who paves the way for Christ. God’s promise has arrived, and by telling the stories of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80, 3:1-20, 7:18-30), Mary (Luke 1:26-38), Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56), Zechariah (Luke 1:57-80), Joseph (Matthew 1:19-25), the Magi (Matt 2:1-12), Jesus (Luke 2:1-20), and Christ (John 1:1-18), the Jesse Tree becomes fully lit. The story that God began with Adam reaches the top of the tree with the arrival of the Second Adam, Jesus, who reverses the curse of sin by crushing the head of the serpent on the cross.

The Advent Wreath

On the last Sunday of Advent, a fourth candle on the Advent Wreath is lit. Traditionally, this purple candle has been called the “Angel Candle” and represents the peace that Christ’s birth brings to earth. All four of the candles around the Advent Wreath are now burning, each at a different height. Only one candle remains: the center, white Christ Candle that is lit on Christmas Eve, representing the pure lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world.

God Keeps His Promises

The Advent season is a journey through the biblical story that shows us how “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 1:20). Advent points us to Jesus, just like all Scripture. At his first coming, which we celebrate at Christmas, Jesus showed us his humility, his love for us, and his heart of grace toward sinners and sufferers. At his second coming, which we look forward to in Advent, he will complete what he started at his birth, bringing a final end to suffering, sin, and death, restoring his creation, and setting up a new kingdom of righteousness and peace. God keeps his promises.

This post is part of a series on Advent:

A Great Joy For All The People

A Great Joy For All The People

“The angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” Luke 2:10–11

Jesus’ arrival brings joy and hope for all people. The shepherds felt that joy when they received the announcement of Jesus’ birth from the angels. We feel that joy when we celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas and when we look forward to Jesus’ second coming—when everything will be made right.

A joyful future

In Isaiah 35:1–10, the prophet looks forward to the future promised for the people of God—a future inaugurated at the first coming of Christ and consummated at his second coming. When Jesus returns, the effects of sin’s curse will be removed: the wildernesses and dry land will blossom, and streams will come forth from the desert. The miracles Jesus did illustrate what life will be like in his kingdom: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:5–6).

When God brings restoration, tears will be turned into shouts of joy.

God cares about those on the fringes of society, those who have no voice of their own and cannot speak for themselves. The Messiah has been anointed by God to bring good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of God’s vengeance on evil and oppression. God is one who loves justice and mercy, and in his kingdom those who suffer from injustice will be restored. Jesus “will save the lame and gather the outcast, and [he] will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zeph. 3:19).

Tears into shouts of joy

Our joy at how God has saved us—and our hope for the complete salvation that is coming—leads Christians to want to share that joy and hope with others. Psalm 146:4–10 says that the one “who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” is blessed. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the downcast, keeps watch over sojourners, and upholds widows and orphans (vv. 8–9). When God brings restoration to his people, there will be laughter and joy, and tears shall be turned into shouts of joy (Ps. 126:5).

What God has done for us motivates us to spread that joy.

In Matthew 11:2–11, John hears rumors about what Jesus was doing and asks him (through his disciples), “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus responds to John’s followers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4–5). Jesus’ answer is incredibly fitting—“Look at what I’m doing,” he says. “You know that the Messiah will bring healing to those in need, and that’s exactly what I bring.”

As Christians, our joy at what God has done for us motivates us to spread that joy to others through both words and actions. We get to participate in God’s mission and help share the joy that is for all people: the Savior is here.

Advent III: Rejoice! God Is With Us

Advent III: Rejoice! God Is With Us

The third Sunday in Advent (Advent III) shifts from a tone of expectation of Christ’s coming to one of rejoicing at the arrival of God’s kingdom with the coming of Jesus.

The Scripture and Theology of the Third Week of Advent

Scripture readings for Advent III reflect on the salvation and restoration Jesus brings, which is cause for rejoicing and perseverance.

Old Testament Readings 

Old Testament readings for Advent III highlight the universal restoration Jesus accomplishes. In Isaiah 35:1-10, the prophet looks forward to the future promised for the people of God—a future inaugurated at the first coming of Christ and consummated at his second coming. When Jesus returns, the effects of sin’s curse will be removed: the wildernesses and dry land will blossom, and streams will come forth from the desert. The miracles he did point to his kingdom: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 shows God’s concern for those on the fringes of society—those who have no voice of their own and cannot speak for themselves. The Messiah has been anointed by God to bring good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of God’s vengeance. God is one who loves justice and mercy, and in his coming kingdom those who suffer from injustice will be restored. The coming Christ “will save the lame and gather the outcast, and [he] will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19).

Readings from the Psalms

The Psalms for Advent III carry on the theme of the justice and mercy brought about by God’s coming kingdom. Psalm 146:4-10 says that the one “who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” is blessed. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the downcast, keeps watch over sojourners, and upholds widows and orphans (146:8-9). When God brings restoration to his people, there will be laughter and joy, and tears shall be turned into shouts of joy (Psalm 126:5).

New Testament Readings       

New Testament readings in the third week of Advent show how believers are motivated to wait patiently for Jesus’ return. As 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 says, patience should be accompanied by rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving as well as abstaining from evil. God is faithful, and he is the one who will sanctify us, so Christians can be sure that we will be kept blameless at Christ’s second coming. Only God’s power can do this, and “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). Philippians 4:4-7 continues the theme of rejoicing, because God’s peace for those in Christ will guard our hearts and minds.

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent III return to John the Baptist, but in a way that points from him to Jesus. In Matthew 11:2-11, John hears rumors about what Jesus was doing and asks him (through his disciples) “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus responds to John’s followers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4-5). Jesus’ answer is incredibly fitting—“look at what I’m doing,” he says. “You know that the Messiah will bring healing to those in need, and that’s exactly what I bring.”

John the Baptist came as a witness, “to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him” (John 1:8). John came to bear witness about the light, who is Jesus. John claimed, “I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23).

John preached the gospel to the people—the good news of God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace (Luke 3:18).

The Symbolic Spirituality of the Third Week of Advent

The Jesse Tree           

During the third week of Advent, the Jesse Tree recounts the story of how God’s people often failed, revealing their deep need for a Savior. The branches on the tree this week are crooked and deathly-looking, with few leaves on them. Through the stories of David (1 Sam. 16:1-23, 2 Sam. 5:1-5, 7:1-17), Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-16, 18:17-46), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-19:19, 32-37), Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10-20, 6:1-13, 8:11-9:7), Jeremiah (2:4-13, 7:1-15, 8:22-9:11), Habakkuk (Hab. 1:1-2:1, 3:16-19), and Nehemiah (Neh. 1:1-2:8, 6:15-16, 13:10-22), the Jesse Tree narrates Israel’s fall into exile and her waiting for the Messiah.

The Advent Wreath    

A third candle—a pink one—is lit on the Advent Wreath for Advent III. This candle, often called the Shepherd’s Candle or the Joy Candle, represents joy, such as the joy the shepherds experienced when the angel told them that Christ was to be born. The Advent season is now half over, and Jesus’ coming—both his first coming, liturgically, and his second coming, historically—is nearer now than it was two weeks ago.

Rejoicing

More than any other week during the Advent season, Advent III represents a shift in attitude. One moves from hope, repentance, and fear of the coming Judge to rejoicing at the coming of salvation and the kingdom of God as Jesus makes all things new.

These Advent rhythms represent shifts that we often experience in our Christian lives. Some days we feel like the injustices in this world are more than we can handle, some days we anguish over our sin, and others we long for the day when God will finally defeat the last great enemy, death. Advent III helps us move out of these moods and into rejoicing, because God has come to save us and to be with us, and he will come again.

This post is part of a series on Advent:

Jesus And Violence Against Children

Jesus And Violence Against Children

We are regularly faced with the horror and prevalence of violence against children:

  • Almost half of all sexual abuse victims are children: 15 percent of sexual assault victims are under age twelve, and 29 percent are ages twelve to seventeen.
  • Studies suggest that up to 10 million children in the U.S. witness some form of domestic violence annually and approximately half of them are also victims of domestic violence.
  • Children are also the victims of sex trafficking at horrific rates: In the U.S., the average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over 300,000 American children are at risk for sexual exploitation, and that an estimated 199,000 incidents of sexual exploitation of minors occur every year within the United States.
  • The global market of child trafficking is over $12 billion a year, with over 1.2 million child victims. Child trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world.
  • From 600,000–800,000 people are bought and sold across international borders each year; 50% are children, most are female. The majority of these victims are forced into the commercial sex trade.
  • Today, as many as 300,000 children, some as young as eight years old, serve in armed government or rebel forces around the world.

The only thing more staggering than the prevalence of this violence is the acute emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage done to the children who experience it.

In light of all this, it’s important to look at Scripture and see how God feels about children and wants them to be treated.

Jesus and children

In his ministry, Jesus showed striking interest in and love for children. To the surprise of his disciples, he often including them in his teaching: “Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt 19:13–14). When the disciples came to Jesus asking him which one of them was going to be the greatest in Christ’s kingdom, Jesus called a child to himself (Matt. 18:2) and said, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:4). Jesus went on, telling his followers that part of their duty is to receive little children: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matt. 18:5).

In Mark 10, Jesus upholds childlike faith as admirable: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15; cf. Luke 18:17).

Jesus wants his followers to honor, protect, and care for those among them who are small and vulnerable, especially children. Part of Jesus’ ministry on earth involved healing children. In Mark 5:39, Jesus came into the house of a ruler of the synagogue, whose daughter had just died. Jesus said that she was not dead, but only sleeping. After they laughed at him, Jesus said to the child, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41; cf. Luke 8:54). Mark recounts what happened next: “And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement” (Mark 5:42). Similarly, in Mark 9, Jesus encounters a young boy who had been having demonic attacks. Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him (Mark 9:25) and the boy fell down as if he were dead. Jesus took him by the hand and he was healed (Mark 9:27). Jesus, who calls himself “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), brings life and healing to children.

Jesus wants his followers to honor, protect, and care for those among them who are small and vulnerable, especially children.

God’s care for children

The tenderness and care Jesus showed for children is an expression of God’s heart toward the small, the weak, and the vulnerable, as seen throughout the Old Testament.

Part of God’s law, given at Mt. Sinai, was that no one should “mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Ex. 22:22). Indeed, God is one who “executes justice for the fatherless” (Deut. 10:18) and curses anyone who perverts the justice due to orphans (Deut. 27:19). The Lord says that no one should do wrong or be violent towards innocent children and orphans (Jer. 22:3). Not only does God want his people to love and care for children, but they are called to do everything in their power to stop those who try to hurt, abuse, or oppress them. “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). Children are a gift from God (Ps. 127:3) and a blessing, and are to be loved, disciplined, and cared for.

Response

As we react to the shock and horror of violence against children, we should mediate on Jesus’ love and care for children. But God’s love should do more than just make us feel better—it should lead us to imitate his care for children, take action against evil like this, and pray for God’s peace and salvation to cover the earth.

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

GMMcover You can pre-order our new children’s book, God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies.

A Savior Is Born

A Savior Is Born

“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Matthew 2:6

“Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” John 7:42

As God’s people waited for the coming of the Savior God had promised, they had many detailed prophecies, which indicated how and where he would arrive. It had long been known from prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city where David, Israel’s greatest king, had been born and anointed king. God promised that the anointed one would be a descendant of King David and would come from Bethlehem.

The Humble King

Even though Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, lived in Nazareth, far from Bethlehem, they had to travel to Bethlehem to be registered in the census:

“All went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.” Luke 2:3–7

So, in an unexpected way, God fulfilled his promise that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, a fitting birthplace for the one who would succeed David as the greatest King of Israel.

Though he was the King, Jesus was born in the humblest of circumstances—into an animal’s feed trough—because his parents could not afford lodging. This reminds us of the humility of the Son of God revealed in his Incarnation.

The Word Became Flesh

“Incarnation” means “becoming flesh.” It explains how the Son, the second person of the Trinity, entered into human history in the flesh as the God-man, Jesus Christ. This central belief of the Christian faith is taught clearly in Scripture: “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” (John 1:14).

One of the church’s best theologians, John Calvin, says that the Incarnation is God’s supreme act of divine accommodation to us. According to Calvin, God accommodated to human weakness through humbling himself in the Incarnation:  “God would remain absolutely hidden if we were not illuminated by the brightness of Christ.” We would never be able to know God if not for Christ serving as our mediator: “For he assumed the character of Mediator in order to approach to us by descending from the bosom and incomprehensible glory of his Father.”

God Is With Us

In the Old Testament, God repeatedly promised: “I will be their God, and they will be my people. I will live among them and walk among them.” Christ is the fulfillment of God’s desire to dwell among his people. This is why Jesus was called “Immanuel,” meaning “God is with us.”

Advent II: The Messiah Is Coming

Advent II: The Messiah Is Coming

The second Sunday in Advent (Advent II) continues on the path started in the first week by looking forward to Christ’s first and second coming. Advent II focuses on John the Baptist, the Gentiles being included in God’s family, Christ’s coming in judgment and peace, and the church’s hopeful expectation of the completion of his promises.

The Scripture and Theology of the Second Week of Advent

Whereas the Scripture readings for Advent I speak broadly about God’s promise to bring Israel out of exile, the readings for Advent II focus more specifically on the Messiah and what his coming will look like.

Old Testament Readings

Old Testament readings for Advent II reflect on the type of kingdom the coming Messiah will bring: one of judgment and peace.

Isaiah 11:1-10 says, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (1–2). This is a beautiful image. From the dead, rotting, and decaying stump of Jesse (King David’s father)—a broken dynasty which was apparently going nowhere—God will unexpectedly cause new life to shoot forth. God did not abandon his people who had fallen into Babylonian captivity. Instead, in continuing his promise to Abraham, God works to bring new life out of death through a descendant of David. Where there is brokenness, God creates hope. Where there is darkness, God’s light shines forth.

The one coming in righteousness, with the Spirit of the Lord upon him, will bring a mix of peace and judgment. He will judge the poor with righteousness (Isaiah 11:4) and kill the wicked with the breath of his lips (11:4). This peace-bringing judgment will finally end the cycle of death begun by sin.

Isaiah 40:1-11 shifts to the prophecy concerning John the Baptist, who will come ahead of the Davidic King as a messenger preparing the way. He will “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). Then, in that day, when the glory of God will be revealed (40:5), the Anointed One will come with might (40:10), but as one who tenderly cares for his flock like a shepherd (40:11).

These passages portray both Christ’s first and second coming. While the reign of peace Jesus brings begins during the Incarnation, God’s kingdom will not be completed until Jesus returns again.

Readings from the Psalms     

During Advent II, Psalms reveal the character of the coming Savior. Psalm 72 describes him as a just king and a righteous judge who defends the cause of the poor, crushes oppressors, delivers the children of the needy, and brings peace. Psalm 85 focuses on the peace that will accompany the coming of the Lord. Verses 1–2 recall how God restored Jacob’s fortune and forgave the people in the past by covering their sin. The Psalm shifts to the future in verse 8, saying, “he will speak peace to his people, to his saints.” God spoke peace in Jesus’s first coming, and that peace will once again be spoken when he returns for his people. His salvation is near to those who trust him, and in him “steadfast love and faithfulness meet” (85:10).

New Testament Readings

New Testament readings during Advent II remind God’s people to live in hope while they wait for the second advent of Jesus Christ. Romans 15:4–13 calls the church to endurance and hope, welcoming others into the family just like Jesus did. God, in his hospitality, included those outside the ethnic borders of Israel into his one covenant family. As a result of this hospitality, Paul exhorts, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (15:13). God’s grace makes Advent a season of hope.

Second Peter 3:8–15 reminds us that God is not slow to fulfill his promises. And because God promised to return like a thief in the night (3:10), God’s people should live in holiness, godliness, and peace as we await the coming new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. Philippians 1:3–11 points to God’s faithfulness. The one who began a work in his people will bring it to completion when Christ returns.

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent II meditate on John the Baptist, the one sent to pave the way for Christ. Matthew 3:1–12 says that John the Baptist came calling for repentance because God’s kingdom was close at hand. John confronted the  Pharisees and Sadducees, who thought they stood on solid ground because they were descendants of Abraham. However, John said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9–10). The family of God is being extended beyond the bounds of the nation of Israel. John tells the religious leaders that their ethnicity is of no benefit to them if they do not, like everyone else, repent and bear fruit. Mark 1:1–8 similarly speaks of John the Baptist’s coming, while tracing Jesus’s lineage back to God himself, and Luke 3:1–6 adds that the coming of the Messiah will cause all people to see God’s salvation.

The Symbolic Spirituality of the Second Week of Advent

During the second week of Advent, the Jesse Tree and Advent Wreath, introduced during the first week, both help teach the theological significance of the journey through the Advent season.

The Jesse Tree                                   

Continuing the story of Christ’s family tree, the Jesse Tree recounts God’s work through Joseph (Gen. 37, 39:1–50:21), Moses (Exod. 2:1–4:20), the Israelites (Exod. 12:1–14:31), God’s Law at Sinai (Exod. 19:1–20:20), Joshua (Josh. 1:1–11, 6:1–20), Gideon (Judg. 2:6–23, 6:1–6, 11–8:28), and Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1–21, 7:1–8, 9:15–10:9). In each of these stories the lineage of Jesus is further filled in, and God’s provision for his people becomes progressively clearer.

The Advent Wreath

On the second Sunday of Advent, the second purple candle, sometimes called the “Bethlehem Candle,” is lit. This candle represents love—both God’s for us and ours for him and others—and symbolizes the manger where Jesus was born. The manger is a vivid reminder of the great lengths to which the King of Creation went, humbling himself for his people. He deserved a kingly procession into the city with much fanfare. Instead we see him born in a manger, living in poverty with no place to lay his head, and entering the city on a donkey as he makes his way to the cross. Lighting the second Advent candle reminds us of Jesus’ life of love for us.

Grace to Wait

As we continue down the Advent path on Advent II, we are constantly reminded of Christ’s first coming while we watch and wait for his second coming. The prayer for the second week of Advent puts it this way:

“Father in heaven, who sent your Son to redeem the world and will send him again to be our judge: give us grace so to imitate him in the humility and purity of his first coming that, when he comes again, we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This post is part of a series on Advent:

 

God Chooses The Weak And Outcast

God Chooses The Weak And Outcast

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1:27–29

Paul wrote these words to the Corinthians because the religious people couldn’t accept a defeated Savior, and philosophers couldn’t believe in a God who would take on a frail human body and die. Paul honed the point later by repeating what God said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Basking in this promise, Paul declared, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

THE INVERTED WAY OF JESUS

Jesus’ humble life and humiliating death informed Paul’s thinking. Jesus spent much of his time with the losers and the outcast. He talked about the last becoming first and the first becoming last. He embraced the meek and the broken—the humble ones who felt swamped with heavy burdens. He died alone, bitterly forsaken by all.

This is Jesus’ upside-down approach to our world. It is the way of his grace. We live in a world where the biggest, best, and brightest succeed, while the littlest, last, and least get trampled. But Jesus disrupts and interrupts our quest for power and our lust for significance. The ways of our world are rebuked by the inverted way of Jesus. Because of this, Christianity has from its beginning prized weakness and rebuffed strength.

D.A. Carson writes, “God has not arranged things so that the foolishness of the gospel saves those of us with an IQ above 130. Where would that leave the rest of us? Nor does the foolishness of what is preached transform the young, the beautiful, the extroverts, the educated, the healthy, the wealthy, the upright. Where would that leave the old, the ugly, the illiterate, the introverts, the poor, the sick, and the perverse?”

DESPAIR IS GOOD

This should leave us in despair. But it can be “gospel despair” if it leads to trusting in Christ and not in ourselves. As Martin Luther wrote, “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.” This means that we are not operating out of self-sufficiency, but out of total dependency on Christ and in need of being empowered by the Spirit. So, let’s boast in our weakness instead of displaying our self-righteousness and strength. This obviously looks like foolishness and nonsense to the world, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.