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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Puritan Observes Advent

Before the holiday season is over, Uncle Cephas wishes to expound a few thoughts on the tradition.

I hope this will be a time when the Spirit of God works on millions of Americans and sojourners in their midst to bring forth a spirit of repentance and renewal of saving faith.

For much of my Christian life, I chose to ignore the Church Year, and much of it I will continue to ignore.  I have long thought the Puritan emphasis on a kind of worship that will not go beyond what can clearly be found in Scripture a wise one.  This regulative principle, as it is called, holds that the method God has ordained for His own worship is spelled out in Scripture, and reflects a view of authority--whether in the family, church, or state--as a kind of stewardship rather than mastery.  Hence the Westminster divines, in their Larger Catechism (designed for the training of the more mature) spill more ink on the sins of superiors than on the sins of inferiors in their exposition of the Fifth Commandment; hence their political theory wrought an idea of political compact, rule of law, consent of the governed, and right of rebellion in extreme cases a generation and more before John Locke.

But I have come to see certain observances, especially those connected with the life of Jesus Christ, as adiaphoric rather than wrong.  Clearly, God commands us to remember those events of the Gospel, and if some focus on the Incarnation in midwinter and on the Passion and Resurrection in the Springtime, let charity assume that these other Christians still remember such things for the rest of the year--especially since the use of Sunday as a day of rest and worship rather than the original Seventh Day recalls the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As long as the consciences of other Christians are not to be bound by such observances or exploited for gain, I rest content.

In this, I have been helped by Heinrich Bullinger, who expressed such a view in the Second Helvetic Confession--a document from which modern Reformed folk might proft, along with the Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity.  The Swiss Reformer wrote a little before the Vestments Controversy and other issues hit England; and well before James VI and I's infatuation with the powers ceded to the crown by the English church had turned his head (with disastrous consequences for his son Charles).

Further, our Lord Himself was willing to observe a holiday not established in Scripture, but which nonetheless served as a reminder that God had not abandoned nor forgotten His people, and remained their defender--Chanukah.

John 10:22-23 found Jesus in the Temple during this wintertime festival commemorating the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenistic and paganizing Seleucid oppressor.  It was on that occasion, when the site of atonement, cleansing, and divine presence was reclaimed, cleansed, and re-dedicated, that Jesus presented himself as the way by which his sheep approach the Father, and himself as the atonement through which they approach.

So, in this time of year, when the festivities are not going to be ruinous to my house and during which I have no intention of abusing food and drink (concerns which influenced the Parliament men in their banning the celebration during the Commonwealth times), I pray that the Gospel will reach many people who might not even give Christ a second thought any other time of the year. I myself have already used the time to quickly review Isaiah, Zechariah, Daniel, Matthew, and Luke.

Were I to become active again as an elder, I would not demand that anyone observe these times, for I remain adamant that such would go far beyond the limits which God has set for the church.  Yet I have found a new comfort during this season in thinking about the faithfulness of God in fulfilling His promises through the prophets. And I hope the gifts given this time of year will lead others to focus on God's great gift of the Messiah.

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