I was raised in the American evangelical tradition, in Baptist churches in New Jersey. These are the sorts of churches that would be non-denominational in other parts of the country. They are independent but not fundamentalist, preaching from the Scriptures and baptizing confessing believers. I don't know if they were members of any convention, but they were certainly not under the governing authority of any other body.
The traditions of my family are also decidedly non-liturgical. The idea of a sacred calendar or a catechism seemed foreign and even vaguely Romish to me. Reciting creeds and chanting in unison was done on occasion, but more an exercise of congregational unity and instruction than a matter of ritual or liturgy. After all, ritual is Pharasaic: perhaps beautiful, perhaps useful in some ways, but ultimately legalistic and contrary to a gospel of freedom.
A Gospel of Grace - I would not have used the term three years ago except perhaps at random. Since my complete giving over to Reformed soteriology (or Calvinism, as it is commonly called), I have had occasion to participate in some forms of worship that I would have previously considered questionable. I have recited parts of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, joined in congregational readings from the Book of Common Prayer, and even meditated on the Heidelberg and Belgic Confessions.
I am still not a member of a formal liturgical denomination. But recently, among Presbyterians, I was struck by the concept of "Advent" (and by extension the concept of a "sacred year" that runs in tandem with the calendar we consult daily). The season of Advent is one of expectation; as R.C. Sproul describes in his thoughts on Christmas, history was so pregnant with this moment of the incarnation that it could not have been a moment sooner or a moment later.
So this is the season of expectation, of reflection that God the Son was preparing to lay aside his glory and come to earth to walk among mortals - as one of them! I have remarked on the scandal with which John confronts his readers when he declares simply "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us". The image we want to have is that of pure, ethereal spirit, like clear and burning light, suddenly being mired in the basest of elements, the creaturely, secreting, digesting, procreating flesh.
If you'll indulge me, these are the words to a song by the Christian group Downhere. I think they pose the question well:
How many kings, stepped down from their thrones?
How many lords have abandoned their homes?
How many greats have become the least for me?
How many Gods have poured out their hearts
To romance a world that has torn all apart?
How many fathers gave up their sons for me?
Only one did that for me
This is the season of expectation of this miracle. The recalcitrant question, of course, is: why?
There are books on the subject, so I just want to address a few points of "why". Probably the most rehearsed answer is "love", citing John 3:16. This is legitimate, of course; the Scriptures are unambiguous that it was the Love of a God Who is Love that motivated Him to partake in this glorious and gruesome redemption. But this is not a complete answer to the question "why". The problem with the incompleteness of this answer is that it has left open the door to what I consider misunderstandings of the nature of the redemption.
A recent news story about a Times Square jumbotron ad got my attention on this subject.
The American Bible Society shares my awe about the Deity choosing to mire Himself in His creation, and they even capitalize on the season of Advent in prompting us to reflect on the impending arrival of our God-Man Redeemer. And so their message, "God came near because you were worth the trip" is even more starkly misplaced. Am I being a grinch about this, over-analyzing what was meant to be an exposure for the Gospel in perhaps the nation's busiest intersection?
The problem is that we were patently not "worth" the trip. The Bible tells the story that true Love is making the trip for those who are not worth it. What is this love that God has shown the world? Paul tells us in Romans that God's love is demonstrated by fact that He sent His Son while we were yet sinners, and he is rather unequivocal about the fact that sin makes us worthless enemies of a just and holy God. Jesus, after exhorting His listeners to return evil with good, explains a little further: "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil."
This "love" that is the answer on every tongue when asked why God came to Earth is a very precious love. It is a love that loves the unworthy. And this is the crux of the problem: Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose not by any means because you were worth it, but rather, to make you worthy! "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." Like the centurion in Luke 7, we must be ready to say "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy..."
I submit that the message of the Gospel is not that a loving God saw the plight of a people with intrinsic worth and "made the trip" to do something about it. Rather, God, according to His good pleasure, loved a fallen and unworthy people and demonstrated it by making some of them worthy.
The video is well-intentioned and correct in that it means to communicate that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and you, reader, viewer, listener, are a sinner. So in the midst of your walk to Lord and Taylor (or wherever people go as they walk through Times Square) or before you click over to Amazon or NewEgg (for my readers) observe the season of Advent by reflecting on this incomprehensible truth:
God came near even though you were not worth the trip.
Merry Christmas to all.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God 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.”