Advent, Christmas, & Covenant Discipleship
By Steve Manskar
Advent and Christmas help us understand discipleship.
In Advent the church reflects on the need to be prepared for Christ’s return to consummate his reign on earth. How do Christians prepare for Christ’s return? We love God with all that we are and all that we have and love those whom God loves. We witness to Christ and his kingdom in the world. We follow him and his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Covenant Discipleship helps congregations form disciples who habitually follow and work with Jesus and his mission of preparing this world for the world that is coming. Covenant Discipleship acknowledges that preparing for the coming reign of God on earth as it is in heaven is a way of life. It is too important to be limited to a few weeks in December. That is why the practice of weekly giving an account of what I have done to participate in Jesus’ work of preparing this world for the coming reign of God is so vitally important.
Along with preparing for the coming of the Lord, Advent is about hope. It’s important to understand here that Christian hope is not wishful thinking. Rather, it is active anticipation of the promised reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. The practice of preparation leads naturally to such hope. I like what theologian Jürgen Moltman has to say about hope:
“Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God. Thus, faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when this trugh shall be manifested; faith believes that he is our Father, hope anticipates that he will ever show himself to be a Father toward us; faith believes that eternal life has been given to us, hope anticipates that it will some time be revealed; faith is the foundation upon which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith” (Theology of Hope, p. 20.).
Covenant Discipleship forms disciples who practice and witness to hope in Christ. They trust in God’s promises because they walk with Christ in the world. When they practice acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion they catch glimpses of the reign of God that is breaking out in the world. When people practice the discipline of discipleship their eyes and ears and hearts are opened to the reality of God’s kingdom around them. Discipline sets us free to be a people of hope.
Christmas is the church’s celebration of the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus Christ. In the words of Charles Wesley, God “emptied himself of all but love” and became one of us. In Christmas we celebrate the truth that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. … From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).
The theological term for what we celebrate in Chrismastide is “incarnation.” God became flesh, bone, and blood. God became a living, breathing human being. He became one of us, fully human, in every way; and yet, at the same time, fully God. The angel who spoke to Mary’s husband, Joseph, in a dream describes the incarnation by quoting Isaiah 7:14, “’Look, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23). Incarnation means “God is with us.”
Christmas tells us that Christianity is incarnational. It is concerned with flesh and blood human beings, communities and systems. It acknowledges that we are embodied persons who are loved by the God who became one of us to be one with us. Therefore, Christians are persons who are called to be with one another and with others whom God loves everywhere in the world.
Covenant Discipleship equips Christians to live incarnational lives. When we make acts of compassion and justice holy habits we become more and more reflections of Christ in the world. Being incarnational means obeying Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 to “Go” into the world to train everyone we meet in his way of love and justice.
Alan Hirsch describes incarnational living in his book The Forgotten Ways
“The Incarnation not only qualifies God’s acts in the world, but must also qualify ours. If God’s central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational. To act incarnationally therefore will mean in part that in our mission to those outside of the faith we will need to exercise a genuine identification and affinity with those we are attempting to reach” (page 133).
Christian discipleship, therefore, is much more than agreeing with a set of doctrines or creeds. It is more than believing Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior. It says believing doctrines and creeds are important because they compel us to follow and live the way of Jesus in the world. The incarnation tells us that Christian faith and hope are meant to be lived in, with, and for the world that God loves. Covenant Discipleship provides the accountability and support people need to make sure they live their faith where they live their lives outside the walls of the church.
Covenant Discipleship helps Christians keep Advent as a season of preparation and hope in Christ and his promise to return and complete his reign on earth as it is in heaven. When disciples live Jesus’ way of cross-shaped love they become channels of his grace for the world. Their eyes, ears, and hearts are opened to the reality of God’s reign in the world now and they give others a glimpse of that reign whey they see or experience compassion and justice.
Covenant Discipleship helps Christians embody the miracle of Christmas when they help the church be the incarnate body of Christ in, with, and for the world that God loves.