Every year during the Christmas season, we decorate our homes, spend hours baking cookies, and try to avoid going into debt when buying gifts. And what do we get for all this trouble? A wonderful January spent cleaning up, losing weight, and paying bills. Christmas can be such a hassle.
You would imagine that we would give it up, in favor of a less troublesome holiday. Thankfully, we have the season of Advent. While the world is telling us to shop and spend, to lose ourselves in the chaos of Christmas, Advent invites Christians to take a different path. We are called to remember the Messiah who comes to save sinners-to remember-not to forget.
Forgetting is a problem for Christians, especially for those who have been in the Church for a while. It doesn't happen all at once, but slowly over time we forget where we came from. Oh, we remember the big things, the date we were saved, that pastor who baptized us. But sometimes we forget the other stuff. We sweep the unpleasant parts under the rug of history.
"We're forgiven!" we cry, and so we forget. It's sad to say, but sometimes we get so far down the holiness highway that we forget we were sinners, fallen creatures who rejected the love of God. We begin to think that we deserve salvation. Amnesia slips in the back door and whispers that we are self-made Christians.
The letter to the Ephesians instructs those early converts to "remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). The author implores the readers to remember that life was not always the way it is now. A time existed when they did not belong in the kingdom of Jesus. It seems that Christians have been struggling with their memory for some time.
Remembering that we were sinners rescues us from the delusion that we somehow deserve all of the wonderful blessings of the Christian faith. Remembering that we were sinners reminds us that the joy, peace, hope, and forgiveness of Jesus came about as a gift, as grace.
We didn't earn salvation - we received it. We don't work for eternal life - we accept it.
This is especially important for holiness people like us. To remember where we have come from, to remember our past, is to safeguard us from self-righteousness. We know we don't sanctify ourselves because we remember that we were sinners.
Some churches practice this memory by confessing their sins weekly. As an act of worship, they confess that they haven't always acted like Christians. They have turned a deaf ear to the cry of the needy. They have sinned against God.
Other churches use less formal reminders. For a church that I used to serve, this "reminder to remember" came in the form of Bill. He had won every award and held every board position. When he spoke, the church listened. Every few months Bill would stand and testify to God's grace that had changed his life. For 50 years, Bill had been a believer, but he never forgot that he was a sinner saved by grace.
As a church, we learned from Bill. Humbly, we learned to lift our heads and shout to the world that we were once strangers and aliens, but now we are "citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19)." We learned to remember.
Jay Jay Ward is pastor at Pittsboro, North Carolina, Church of the Nazarene.