Sunday, December 18, 2011


Now to God Who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles. (Romans 16.25-26)

Mechanics and Meaning

Though I find dogs endearing and admire the mutual loyalty that binds them and their masters, there’s no getting around it. I’m a cat lover through and through. And if I’m not careful, I can easily turn into the worst kind of cat lover—the insufferable kind that bores people blind with tedious testimonials of how clever and unique his felines are. But, as much as I resist saying so, our two are remarkably clever and unique. While Cody and Max get along splendidly, their interests couldn’t be less alike. Mechanics fascinate Cody. We catch him watching us use gizmos, and once he’s sure he’s got the process down, he’ll practice until he masters it. He turns on faucets, flips off light switches, awakens computers, and retrieves pages from the printer. Max doesn’t care how things work. He’s intrigued with what they’re for. He connects their function to the world around him. When suitcases come out, he knows we’re going away. When the microwave whirs, he knows we’re about to eat. When darkness begins to fade, he scurries to a window and doesn’t budge until the sun finds its place in the sky.

So much about Max and Cody reminds me of our responses to God’s promises. Sometimes we’re like Cody. A promise sets off an obsession with how it will work. We devote exorbitant time and energy to questions we can't possibly answer. Then, sometimes we’re like Max. Curiosity about what the promise is for—what it means—overtakes us and we won’t rest until we connect its function to the world around us. Neither is necessarily bad, except when God isn’t forthcoming about the promise’s mechanics and/or meaning. In those cases, our only choice is to let it play out, because obsessing about it is the way of madness.

Advent’s Big Lesson

What is Advent, if not a refresher course in the inscrutable mechanics and indecipherable meaning of God’s promises? It plunges us into the murky depths of Second Coming parables and prophecies, and challenges us to compare our befuddlement to the bewilderment surrounding Christ’s birth. Advent makes no pretense that we’ll solve either mystery. But when we do the hard work it assigns us, actively engaging its material—instead of trudging through the semester to get to the holiday—we come out with increased certainty that God’s great promises always include an intricately detailed strategy to back them up. And with that, we gain a richer understanding that the difference between our relationship with God and those we forge with one another rests in their opposing ideas of mutual trust.

We gauge confidence in human relationships by how we openly confide in each other. With God, comfort with not knowing indicates the extent of our faith that God knows everything about us and what’s best for us. For no reason besides pure love for us, God spares us the heartache—and headache—of wrestling with what we can’t possibly absorb by telling us only what we need to know. We never offend or anger God by asking for more information. Before we ask, though, we should prepare not to be offended or angry when God refuses. God loves us too much to burden us with more than we can digest. In return, God trusts us to wait patiently on God’s promises, knowing they’ll be honored in ways that ultimately make their mechanics and meaning transparent.

That’s the Big Lesson of Advent, isn’t it? While we’re perched in a tumultuous present, peering at impenetrable promises of future peace and deliverance, Advent teaches us to refresh our recall of how God’s promises come to fruition. The immense complexity of God’s covenant with Israel cripples the mind. It spans thousands of years, involves countless people and dozens of nations, accounts for each step in human progress, and acquires no end of finely nuanced implications that affect every aspect of our existence. Even though the Bible records its epic proportions in painstaking detail, synthesizing its mechanics and meaning would exceed our capabilities were it not for how they’re revealed.

The promise arrives wreathed in simplicity and haloed with wonder. It’s revealed through a maiden so far removed from the nexus of political, social, and religious power that the Child she bears irrevocably redefines power’s meaning and importance for all time. Every mortal expectation is subverted by something so impossible it never crossed the brightest minds. Sacrosanct prejudices are abolished, inequitable judgments overturned, and manmade traditions dismantled. And all of this transpires not by deafening pronouncements in vast arenas, but by the barely audible cry of an illegitimate Baby born in the seedy obscurity of a borrowed stable. The promise Israel struggled for generations to grasp becomes transparently evident in ways they never imagined.

What Thwarts Our Faith

As Paul ends his epistle to the Romans—by far his most thorough explanation of why patient trust in God’s promises serves our best interests—he encapsulates Advent’s Big Lesson. He prays God will strengthen the Romans “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith.” (Romans 16.25-26) It’s likely this passage (Sunday’s New Testament reading) may feel the squeeze of the other texts: Luke’s rendering of The Annunciation and Mary’s song, and 2 Samuel’s account of another great promise, when God ordains David to build a magnificent temple. Yet the majesty foreshadowed in the more auspicious readings radiates its fullness in Paul’s three verses.

We have no doubt God’s promises are true. Obsessive curiosity about how they work and what they mean is what thwarts our faith. It sets us up for needless frustration and impatience. As Advent’s Big Lesson nears it close, it refreshes our memory and reminds us that full and transparent disclosure will arrive the moment God makes good on God’s promise. Without fail, we will be stunned by the extent of God’s plan and meanings it unfolds. Until then, we’re wise to trust God to perform as promised and honor God’s trust in us by waiting until the promise comes to pass. God keeps secrets in order to keep promises.

Giver and Keeper of great promises, we pray Your strength to trust Your love and wisdom in honoring Your vows to us. Increase our capacity to wait. May confidence in Your full and transparent disclosure well up within us as we defer to Your timing, plan, and purpose. Amen.

The makings and meanings of God’s promises exceed our understanding. All we need to know is when God makes good on a promise, everything about it is transparently clear.

Postscript: “All Things Are Working for Me”

What happens when we take Advent’s Big Lesson and scale it down to a personal size? At some point, our trust in God’s promises shrink in the face of looming despair and defeat. No singer/songwriter I know is more gifted than Fred Hammond at translating divine principles like trust and patience into candid responses. This song, which moves me no end, makes no mention of Christ’s birth or what it reveals. Yet few, if any, Advent hymns and Christmas carols express the struggle to wait for delivery of God’s promises—which is what Advent and Christmas are all about.


Falling apart and tearing at the seams

Tribulation lends a hand and squeezes your hopes and dreams

You say you retreat, you say you just can't win

Before you let your circumstance tell you how the story ends

God's Word says you can stand

He'll cover you with His grace

Everything you need is in your hand

So lift up your head and say

All things are working for me

Even things I can't see

Your ways are so beyond me

But You said that You would

Let it be for my good

So I'll rest and just believe

I know you say you've got it bad right now

Let me say I know that feeling well

To make good plans for life

And then you watch them take a downward spin

Let me encourage you while I encourage me

See the raging rain and wind

But He'll speak peace and it will end

All things are working for me...

Many days and night I cried because I felt let down

I won't always receive good

But a praise in my heart will remain

So with tears in your eyes

Know sometimes it might get rough

But say, Lord I love you more and that's enough to know...

All things are working for me...


Sherry Peyton said...

You have managed once again Tim to enlarge the magic and miracle beyond what I had found. What a wonderful allusion to the differences between your lovely cats. Such a valuable way to lead into this marvelous mystery that we re-live every year. Yet, it is amazing in itself, that each year it still has the power to bring us to our knees in awe.

Somehow, you and I arrive at very much the same destination, though we travel by very different roads. And that itself is a miracle and the mystery of Christ.
In loving testimony, Blessings

Tim said...

Sherry, how is it that we go bounding into Advent, almost giddy with excitement about revisiting its mystery--and then come out soberly stunned that what we encountered were new aspects of the mystery we thought we'd wrung dry?

Indeed, we do arrive at the same destination via different roads. I believe that's true for every sincere pilgrim, and the joy of our respective journeys is how they parallel and intersect at various places along the way. What a delight it is to look across our differences and spy each other heading to a common sacred endpoint.

It is a miracle--and the mystery of the Christ!

So many blessings, dearest friend,