This week I am joined by a good mate and a lecturer in ethics at Moore College, Chase Kuhn. As we usually do whenever we get together, Chase and I end up chatting about ethics, but the main focus of our conversation is Chase’s new Advent-focused book, Waiting for the Christ, which is due out any day now.
I hope you find our conversation edifying.
Waiting for the Christ
Tony Payne: So Chase, you are currently on study leave and I have had the joy of teaching your ethics class at Moore College while you’ve been away. Before we get into talking about your new book, tell us a bit about this ‘study leave’ lark.
Chase Kuhn: Well, during study leave, we get a chance to dive a bit deeper into the research that we try to stay engaged with throughout the normal course of our employment. I've been working for the last four to five years on a book on ethics. And so for the last four or five months, I've been writing on ethics, and it's been a real joy for me.
TP: And what is it about ethics will you be talking about in your book?
CK: Well, what I’m writing about, in short, is trying to help Christians to really have confidence that there is goodness, to help relate our beliefs about God with how we think about ethics in the world that we live in, both in relating to other Christians and non-Christians. I think a lot of Christians get nervous telling people that something is right or something is wrong, almost as if that’s the chief offense. But I don't want people to be shy about the fact that we think that there really is a good order to the world, and that that's something God has given to us.
TP: So it sounds like you're connecting the goodness of God and the goodness of the created world with right and wrong. What a strange thing to do!
CK: Well, it's a biblical thing to do, and a wonderful thing to do. The title at this point is: God, the World and Goodness. So I'm really trying to connect those dots between who God is and how he made the world with how we think about what is good in the world.
TP: It's really important because there's a tradition in Christian thinking about morality that God’s moral revelation of right and wrong is like a rulebook; there are certain things that “thou shalt” and there are certain things that “thou shalt not”. And, of course, we want to obey them. But the idea that it might be connected to a bigger reality about what was actually good, probably never occurred to me until much later in my Christian life.
CK: I think I'm much the same. There is the sense that I don't want us to be shy out in public about believing there is right and wrong that accords with goodness. But what I actually want us to see is that goodness is something beautiful. That actually, when we submit ourselves to Christ and live with him as our Lord, that is the best thing possible. That is the most beautiful way and the most satisfying way to live. And so, spoiler alert, the book finishes with that beatific vision that the righteous will see God. We will be before the Lord, where the only thing left then is good. That's it. And that's a wonderful vision for our future when Christ comes again. I'm really excited about that.
TP: And in that way, ethics can be good news. I think we're used to thinking or sometimes even apologizing for the moral requirements of the Christian life, almost like it’s the fine print. You get eternal life, which is fantastic, but unfortunately, there are a few rules you have to follow. But look, it's a small price to pay for eternal life.
CK: I've never done a study of this, but I suspect there's a history of evangelism where we just dangle the good things, and then we'd give the fine print after, like the old bait and switch. Here's eternal life, but now it’s going to mean that the next 50 years of your life is going to be terrible, and you're going to have to give up all this stuff.
But actually I think there's something significant in the present about eternal life, that actually knowing God in Christ makes the world that much more wonderful, even as it gets harder. And I think that's how Paul can rejoice in suffering for the sake of Christ, because he sees it as, in one sense, participation in Christ. It's something really spectacular that he gets to be more and more like his Saviour Jesus so that he can know and behold that resurrection hope that he has. And I think that's the promise of the Christian life. There's something very sweet about that in the face of sometimes very challenging things.
TP: Because not every experience of our lives is an experience of ‘the good’, and sometimes we experience ‘the bad’ because of our fallen world. But the idea that there is a real, objective good that resides in God himself and which he has imbued in all his creation—that he frees us to participate in this good order, to understand and live in right orientation not only with our good Creator but with his creation—well, that’s why ethics and the Christian life is good news. It’s a liberation to live.
CK: Absolutely. And I think that as we have new life in the Spirit, we are actually free to live in that good life.
TP: Well I'm looking forward to this book!
CK: Thanks, Tony.
TP: But let’s talk about the other book you’ve written that is just about to come out, an advance copy of which I’m holding in my hand. It’s a beautifully bound, little leather volume called Waiting for the Christ: Advent readings to focus your heart and mind on Jesus. As we record this conversation in early November, I believe it's going to be available in stock in Australia in late November. But I wanted to ask, why did you write this book?
CK: If I can be gut honest with you, the first reason I wrote it was for me. Every year I really love to go into Christmas time with purpose, yet somehow, year on year, the most important thing about Christmas, that is Jesus, gets crowded out. In America, it was crowded out by the commercial influences, with shopping and Christmas lists and whatnot. Here in Australia, I think it gets crowded out by social happenings, parties and everything else. They are wonderful but I just miss focusing my heart and mind on Jesus. So I undertook this project in the initial days just to help myself do that.
But as I talked to my wife about it, I realized this was a great chance for me to try to serve many people that I know and love here in Sydney, and even more so people around the world who I know have eagerly wanted to fix their heart and mind on Jesus. Around November a few years ago, we were in a Bible study group here in Sydney and my wife was sharing how doing Advent devotionals has been so good for her and she asked if anyone would be interested in her picking one out for them. Out of 15 people in the group, I think at least 12 put their hands up; they were hungry for something to help them think about Christ day by day through the Advent season.
TP: Yes, I certainly resonate with what you're saying. I think during the busyness of family life at Christmas time, it can become a season where you just grit your teeth and endure. And this great moment in the Christian year where we pause and think about the incarnation, which then makes us think of Jesus’ next coming as well … it just passes me by. I end up feeling quite negative and even resentful about the Christmas season instead of joyful and appreciative of what the season actually marks.
CK: Yes. And Advent being the four weeks before Christmas affords us a simple way to anticipate the coming of Christ. So in one sense, we are marking something really important that has happened in history, but we are also marking the promises that God has made to us and anticipating another coming of Jesus. And so Christmas gives us that dual emphasis as we live in expectation of that hope.
TP: Well, what better thing to do in the midst of this sometimes distracted and distracting season of the year than to set aside a few minutes every day to read the Bible? Because essentially, as I look at this book, you've basically got a little Bible reading for each of those four weeks. What's the goal of each reading?
CK: Yeah, so I've given a 10-minute devotional for every day, and it’s not an intimidating book. It is only about 100 pages long and there's a little over 25 readings, if you include the introduction and the preface and postscript.
For each reading, I've included the full text of the Bible passage that I'm focusing on for the day. I offer a short reflection afterwards and then a one- or two-sentence prayer. So it’s a succinct but hopefully meaningful, heartwarming and challenging reflection on Scripture that I hope will help people think about the Christian life in anticipation of Christmas.
TP: Who is it for and how would they use it?
CK: I've aimed it at Christians in churches anywhere around the world. So I hope that even people like my daughter, who's a young teenager, would read it and benefit from it. I hope that my family in America that's a bit more nominally Christian would read it and be edified and maybe excited again about Christ. I hope that Christians that have been around church and maybe have been more disciplined even at Advent season will find this a refreshing and maybe even different kind of devotional for them at Christmas time, too.
The four parts that I lay out in the book focus on, first of all, anticipating Christ's arrival. The first section is called “Preparing the way for Christ” looking at a lot of the prophecies that predict and tell of the Christ who will come. We then talk about the “Arrival of the Christ child”, really focusing on the incarnation of the Son of God. Then we talk about “Waiting for Christ's return”, which is really emphasizing our lives in the present moment in between Christ's first and second coming and what it means for us—grieving, hoping, thinking about mission, setting our minds on Christ even when we can’t see him, waiting watchfully as Mark says at the end of his Gospel. And then the final section is on “The return of Christ”, which is what it will actually mean when Christ comes for us again, when he will perfect the creation, when evil will be eradicated, and when we will know the real joy of his presence fully.
TP: That's really cool because sometimes when we think of Christmas, we see popular or sometimes slightly shallow presentations of the meaning of Christmas—it's all about baby Jesus and the stable and wise men. Whereas Advent and the earthly incarnation of Jesus, biblically, is about the coming of the Christ, the coming of the Lord. And so to prepare for that is to think about his whole mission, what he did and how he is coming again.
CK: Yes, absolutely. And what I do in the introduction is talk about why the Son of God became man and stayed a man. I've had many conversations with people over the years about thinking almost as if God's Son takes on flesh for a season. Once he's died, resurrected, and goes back to heaven, it’s as if he leaves his human presence behind and just goes back to being God. Well, he never stopped being God, and now since the incarnation, he'll never stop being man. And that's remarkable. It's really remarkable to think about what that means for us in terms of how we are welcomed by God and what the Son of God did for us by taking on flesh and keeping flesh into the entirety of the future. That's a wonderful promise for us. And so the book explores that throughout.
TP: That's wonderful. I was thinking you could read us one of these reflections—perhaps the one on Mary’s song—to give us a sense of the devotions?
CK: I will, thank you. The reading comes from Luke 1:26-38, 46-55.
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour 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.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be since I'm a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
(Luke 1:26-38, 46-55)
The annunciation of the birth of Christ is one of the most magnificent moments in history, as it signaled the fulfillment of God's promises to his people. After years of waiting for a king and a saviour, Mary, the virgin would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, who would be the Son of God (v. 35). Here the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 would be completed:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
Immanuel—’God with us’ in human flesh—would take David's throne and reign eternally (Luke 1:33, cf. 2 Sam 7:8-16). With this great announcement of the coming King, an important question arises: To whom does God show mercy (Luke 1:50, 54)? Mary's response to the annunciation and to her famous words of praise, often referred to as ‘the Magnificat’, give us the answer.
It's a strange thing to think about ‘magnifying’ the Lord. I find an old fisherman's trick (one that I've used many times) helpful in thinking about what Mary does in this passage. Whenever a fisherman is photographed after catching a fish, instead of holding the fish close to his body, he'll hold the fish closer to the camera. This, of course, does not cause the fish to be any larger—only to appear larger. Here, Mary ‘holds up’ many wonderful truths about God, especially about the mercy he shows in faithfulness to his promises. As Mary holds up these truths, God is glorified and held in greater esteem by all who hear (or read); and so as we consider the Magnificat, God is more highly esteemed in our hearts, because of the mercy he has shown us in sending his Son.
Mary gives us three main reasons that she magnifies the Lord. First, she magnifies the Lord because he looks upon the humble. Mary was moved because God has taken notice of her—a nobody—looking upon her “humble estate” (Luke 1:48), her low social status. In effect, Mary is baffled that God has taken notice of her. Why her?! The answer: there is no obvious reason. We need to be careful to see that she isn't being chosen because she's humble in a virtuous sense. She may have been humbled in this way, but this isn't what the passage is telling us. Mary is overwhelmed by God's grace. Why should she receive favor—a word which means ‘grace’—from God?
‘Grace’ is a favorite word for many of us, but often not because of our real grasp of the concept. In so many areas of our lives, our aim is to gain status. This status issues from our achievements, making us somebody in our social circles, professions, or the broader community: we are well educated or trained, or have a specialist skill or a high rank in our profession; perhaps we own a business or have wealth; or maybe our well-curated social media profile gives the appearance of success. All of this is how we're shaped by our culture to relate in the world, which is why status is so strange when we think about who we are before God. If we think all our achievements and networks of relationships give us social status, what gives us a status worthy of being noticed by God? The answer is “Nothing”. This is in part what makes Mary’s song of praise so moving.
In choosing Mary, God looks upon the humble. For her, it was a special favour: she carried the Son of God in her womb. But in looking upon her—in her lowly estate—by extension, God looks upon us. Mary rejoices in God her “Saviour” in verse 47. And in sending his only son into Mary's womb, God sends his only Son into the world for us and for our salvation. God looks upon our lowly estate. Why? There is no reason of merit that we can give. It is grace.
Second, Mary magnifies the Lord because he is merciful. We've asked, “To whom does the Lord show mercy?” The answer is given clearly to us in verse 50: “His mercy is for those who fear him.” Fear has always been one of those strange ways of thinking about relating to God. We shouldn't put fear in a negative category when thinking about God. Fear is utter respect for God's authority. He is sovereign over all people, all places, all times, and all circumstances. In other words, to fear God is to know that he is the rightful ruler over our lives—indeed, all things—so fearing God is really respecting him for who he is. And to respect God as he is, we must then relate to him the way he determines is appropriate.
Finally, Mary magnifies the Lord because he remembers. God does not make empty promises. Mary recognizes that the Lord has kept the words of promise that he made to our ancestors—like his promise to Abraham in Genesis:
“I will make of you a great nation. And I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonours you, I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3)
This is only one of a long line of promises God made to his people. Now in the gift of Jesus, God has kept his word. He helps his people Israel who have been waiting in faith. Luke 1:54 tells us that this is “in remembrance of his mercy”. God keeps his promise to show mercy. And his promise still stands today and will stand forever. It is a promise for all peoples—all the families of the earth. This is a promise for you and for me.
To whom does the Lord show mercy? Mary magnifies God because he shows mercy to the humble, to those who fear him, in accordance with his promises. He has shown grace to Mary, and in that act of grace he has shown grace to the world. God has promised to show mercy to all who fear him.
Heavenly Father, you are faithful to your promises. I've seen your great mercy and the gift of your Son. I pray that all honour and glory be given to you, as I rejoice and magnify your holy name. I pray these things through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
TP: Thanks, Chase, that was encouraging and wonderful to hear. I particularly liked how you thought about what ‘magnifying’ means. It means to make something bigger, and it is often a puzzle: how does our soul ‘increase God’? Or how do we make God any bigger than he is? We can't make God bigger than himself, but as you say, it's like holding the fish up and saying, “Look what he has done and look how great he is!” In praising or ‘magnifying’ God—that is, in declaring how wonderful he is by his works, character and promises—we’re burnishing God’s reputation and making him bigger in people’s minds and hearts, including our own hearts. And that is what Mary is doing here as she sings about what God has done for her in her low estate.
There's been a tradition of seeing Mary as a model, almost as if she earned her place in the history of salvation by what an exemplary person she was. But as you point out, that's not the way grace works and that's not what the humility in this passage is.
CK: That’s exactly right. Mary is wonderful because she responds in faith to the word that God delivers to her and is a model for us—that if the Lord is declaring a promise or making demands upon our lives and calling us to certain things, we respond in faith. That's the life of faith. Mary is exemplary in that way, but she is not sinless in the way that we think about the sinlessness of Christ. And I think a lot of confusion comes around what was required for the Son of God to be born in flesh. I don't think it was required that he had to be born into a sinless woman, but rather, what makes him so wonderful is that he was conceived by the Spirit of God.
TP: And it's hard to think of Mary thinking of herself as sinless given this song.
CK: That's right. She's praising God for a saviour.
TP: That's right. And you tie that into the ancient promises, that the things happening to her now which she is singing about have been announced before and are the culmination of this great history. In your other Advent readings, you dig into these Old Testament promises, how God wills his servant to become the shoot of Jesse who will rule forever… and all of this bounce around in Mary’s song, don’t they?
CK: Yes, absolutely, and it is really wonderful that Mary knew the Scriptures and promises and could identify the angel's declaration to her of what was happening—this climactic moment in history. Which is why I think she's so overwhelmed. “Wow! God is answering our prayers that he would fulfill his promises, and he's allowing me to be part of that!”
The promises that God has made are real for me. And now as we tell of Christ, we are telling of the realization of all those promises. We are saying this is what we believe. And as we tell of Christ coming again, we're telling of the promise that still remains: he will come.
TP: Chase, if that's a little taste of what it's like to just pause each day and think about the promises of God and their fulfillment in Jesus—not just in his first coming but in his whole life, death, resurrection, in his rule as a man and as the king, and in his coming again—I'm looking forward to getting my copy of your book when it comes out. By the time you hear this, dear listener, I'm hoping it will be available.
CK: Yeah. And I have to say, Matthias Media has done such a lovely job with this volume. I think it's such a handsome book, the way that it's bound in leather and has this beautifully embossed gold leaf print on the front and on the side. I think they're hoping that people will be excited to give it as a gift as well.
Even as I hold a sample copy in my hand, I've been so excited to reflect again on these passages. And I'm hoping that some people might be glad to return to this book again in following years and reflect once more on these truths that we really cling to, and maybe even hand it on to somebody else that might benefit from it. So that's my prayer.
TP: Well, you were saying that you wrote this for yourself initially to mark the season, to prepare your own heart and mind to think more positively and more spiritually about the coming Christmas season. And I just want to thank you on behalf of all the readers who will benefit from this. I'm certainly looking forward to getting a copy and having a different Christmas experience this year where I'm not hassled or resentful or bored, but rather using the time to think about the coming of Jesus.
And dear listener, you can find this book by heading to the Matthias Media website. You’ll need to get hold of it because you’ll want to read it in these four weeks leading up to Christmas, give it to some friends or go through it with your small group or your family.
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