The Manger in the Shadow of the Cross

December 19th, 2016

The manger stands in the shadow of the cross.

I will never forget that image. At first it seemed so contradictory as my heart prepared to remember the incredible moment of the Incarnation – that moment that God became man. My mind was preoccupied with Christmas shopping lists and peppermint mochas and the shadow of that cross over the manger convicted my heart.

Of course it would. The reason that Jesus came among us – humble, meek, and as a child – was to ultimately die for our sins. Our wrongs against God have a cost and that cost was bound up in the life of this precious child.

It feels contradictory to remember the cross at Christmas. We sing “Joy to the World” not “Were You There?” As Christians, though, our preparation for Christmas is actually not preparation for what has happened – but what will happen again.

As a Catholic I celebrate the season of Advent – many other liturgical denominations (and non-liturgical churches) celebrate this season, something that is finding renewed interest in our Christian world because it isn’t simply about remembering what God has done, but what God will do.

During the Catholic liturgy, we profess, “We proclaim your death, O, Lord, and profess your resurrection – until you come again.”

At the heart of the Advent season is the truth that Jesus Christ will return.

Our Lord came into our world to redeem it during that first Christmas, but a time is coming when Jesus will return to solidify the victory already won on the cross. Jesus is going to return with an army of angels to bring a new heaven and new earth. All will be made new (Revelation 21:5).

Are you ready?

In a world that is so temporally focused, this truth cannot be understated. Our teens focus on the immediate moment – even our calls to enter into a personal relationship with Christ seem temporally focused: “Give your life to Christ now, start living for Jesus today, in this moment make a decision.” Advent reminds us that while we live in relationship with Christ today we also are looking forward to something – something that could happen any day. Jesus Christ is coming again. Are our hearts ready?

There is an old joke about Jesus coming and someone shouting, “Quick, everyone look busy!” There is an even older parable about some people that aren’t prepared for a bridegroom to arrive (Matthew 25:1-13). The people knew what they were waiting for but weren’t prudent in their waiting. Their hearts weren’t actually set on the bridegroom – if there were then their planning would’ve been better.

The season of Advent takes place four weeks before the celebration of Christmas and asks us the question, “Are you ready?” It is a question that echoes the words of John the Baptist – are you preparing the way of the Lord in your life? Perhaps, more importantly, are you preparing the way of the Lord for your teens? You may be saying, “Of course, I know the Lord,” but have you gotten lazy in bringing that Word to your youth? Have you done well with what God has entrusted you with? Or has a fall of youth ministry, lock-ins, parent confrontations, and retreats gotten you tired? Are you burning through your oil and coming up dark?

Are you still willing to have that one conversation with the teen that claims to be an atheist even when you feel like you can’t offer another word or give anything more? Are you willing to give 100% to preaching when your feel like you want to just phone the lesson in? Can you still go to that football game even though you want to stay at home this Friday?

If you are preparing for the Second Coming then your answer is a resounding, “Yes,” because the Lord is coming soon and nobody knows the day or the hour but when He comes I want to be found working. I want to be found in the vineyard. I want to be burning brightly. He will know me.

A Tradition of Anticipation

Advent calls us to this. An ancient tradition of anticipation. In my church we focus on two major figures – John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus. John the Baptist called people to repent and prepare for Christ. Mary was ready for whatever God’s plans were and her “yes” is an example to all of us and the ways that God asks us to also say “yes” to how Christ will break into our lives. We call to mind the imminence of the second coming and ask if we are really living up to our name as Christian. We pray and prepare. We rejoice in the reality that God became man to save us and that God will come again to wipe away every tear and usher in joy. We pray. We wait. We prepare.

I challenge all of us to embrace the season of Advent this year. Teach your youth about John the Baptist. Ask them to emulate Mary – the person that knew Jesus from the moment of his birth until the moment of his death. Challenge them to repent, to say “yes” and to proclaim the Gospel. More than that, challenge them to know Jesus. Don’t grow weary in your work because the Lord is coming any day and He wants to come and claim the atheist, the doubter, the backslider, the sinner – those that don’t know Jesus yet – but he needs you to proclaim the Word to them. He needs you to do something. He needs you to be that city set on a hill and a light on a lamp stand. Christ desire that when He returns all would be saved – and He is trusting you with that mission.

This Advent, how will you respond?

joelJOEL STEPANEK has been actively and passionately involved in youth ministry for over ten years. What began as a simple internship in a parish youth ministry office evolved into an incredible adventure that led him on numerous middle school lock-ins, high school retreats, and ultimately to meet his wife, Colleen, who is a campus minister. Joel is the Director of Resource Development for LIFE TEEN INTERNATIONAL where he creates engaging youth ministry resources for middle and high school students. Joel is a sought after speaker and has traveled across the world training youth ministers and speaking to teenagers.  He is the author of two books, THE GREATEST JOB ON EARTH: SEVEN VIRTUES OF AWESOME YOUTH MINISTERS,” and TRUE NORTH: A ROADMAP FOR DISCERNMENT.”


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