Advent Devotional – November 29

Advent Week 1: Hope

November 29

Philippians 2. 4-8

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

There is an old teaching about a scholar who studied Zen for many years but never attained enlightenment. After tremendous effort, the scholar sought out a Zen master for guidance. At their first encounter, the teacher offered the scholar a cup and slowly filled it with tea. The scholar, so busy imploring the teacher for wisdom, did not notice the tea until it began to spill over the sides onto the table. The scholar shouted, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full.” The Zen master replied, “You are like this cup. You seek wisdom, but you are too full to receive it.”

Our lives give us plenty to protect. We start out meek and dependent, but slowly take on identities, talents, degrees, jobs, children, partners, houses, iPads, and fears. It’s hard to say which comes first—the fear or the stuff—but we live in an age of plenty. It’s hard to look away from your own interests in this kind of environment. There’s a lot to build, a lot to protect.

The Philippian poem is a beautiful reminder that we fall into the love and grace of God. Each of us bears the Image of God, and in that we are complete. Still, we strive to prove ourselves, control our lives, and defend what secures us. That work obscures the Image of God; it makes us slaves to a life of perpetual self-interest. In more common language, we climb the ladder higher and higher only to find more rungs.

Instead, Jesus tells us, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25) The Philippian poem reminds us that our security in this world must come from the Image of God within us all. That is the kind of security that frees Nelson Mandela to say, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (The Dock Quote by Nelson Mandela on April 20, 1964) Imagine the daily practice of letting go that must have been required for Mandela to spend 26 years unjustly imprisoned. And yet, this is precisely the self-emptying act that made him a national hero and universal image of racial equality.

In Advent we await the Christ who came not to be great, but to be love and to be free. We commit ourselves to the hard work of letting go when we feel the need to hold ever tighter and work even harder. We trust God to bring light into the world, not through our striving, but through our being.

Prayer: Source of life and hope, free us of every feeling, thought, and possession that obscures your Image within. We ask for peace and courage, even as we consider emptiness. Soften our hearts that we may be humble enough to know your grace. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Action: Identify an aspect of your identity that you fear losing (parent, professional, partner, etc). Notice any ways that you feel or act defensively about that aspect of yourself throughout the day. Ask God to help you let go of that fear each day and transform it into something more life-giving.

Derek Elkins is Protestant Chaplain at St. Norbert College in Green Bay, Wisconsin and Data and Analytics Manager for the NJ-STEP program through Rutgers University.


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