Welcome to the December Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture quotes taken from the American Standard Version
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2009
December 1, 2009
“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and take of them rods, one for each fathers' house, of all their princes according to their fathers' houses, twelve rods: write thou every man's name upon his rod. And thou shalt write Aaron's name upon the rod of Levi; for there shall be one rod for each head of their fathers' houses. And thou shalt lay them up in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. And it shall come to pass, that the rod of the man whom I shall choose shall bud: and I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you. And Moses spake unto the children of Israel; and all their princes gave him rods, for each prince one, according to their fathers' houses, even twelve rods: and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. And Moses laid up the rods before Jehovah in the tent of the testimony. And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and bare ripe almonds. And Moses brought out all the rods from before Jehovah unto all the children of Israel: and they looked, and took every man his rod. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept for a token against the children of rebellion; that thou mayest make an end of their murmurings against me, that they die not. Thus did Moses: as Jehovah commanded him, so did he.” Numbers 17:1-11, ASV
Children go through phases, and we are pleased to watch them as they grow and mature from day to day. Not all the phases are enjoyable, particularly when the children are testing their independence. We know it has to happen. They have to start making their own decisions. When a child becomes a toddler, they fight to be free to move around on those newly found legs. They especially want to walk when it is most inconvenient. Early school-age children decide that they want to choose which clothes they will wear. This is fine if they make good choices, but sometimes they want to wear their swimming suit in the middle of winter.
In the later elementary years children pull away from parents in other ways. Every parent vividly remembers the first time their child screams “I hate you.” We agonize over the decision about when to leave our children home alone for a few hours or when to allow them to walk to school with their friends. We are nervous the first time we let them walk to their friend’s house to play, hoping they won’t lose their way or forget the time. The teenage years are even worse, because at that point they start questioning the wisdom they hear from their parents. They don’t believe us when we tell them something, although they usually believe it if they hear it from someone else. We finally have to let go completely when our children are grown and ready to move out on their own.
It is usually at the point of having their own children that our children realize that we had it right all along. They see how hard it is to let go, to discern between the times to let the children test their wings and when to pull them back into the nest. The decisions we make as parents don’t always seem right at the time, especially to the one whose will is being overruled, but in the end a parent does what they believe is best for the child.
Israel was like a child, to God and to Moses. As we read the stories of their wanderings and the establishment of the nation, we see that they went through similar stages. The people often fought for their independence, from God and from whomever was God’s chosen leader. Today’s scripture is the third fight for the Aaronic priesthood in the book of Numbers. In chapter 11, a man named Korah and a group of fighters rose up against Moses. They were beaten back, not with warfare but by the miraculous hand of God. First, the families that rebelled against Moses were eaten by the earth and the men who followed them were consumed by fire. Then the whole assembly of Israel grumbled against Moses about the loss of those people, and God sent a plague. Each time, Aaron played a role in establishing God’s sovereignty over the people of Israel. Yet, God knew that He had to declare, in a most magnificent way, the leadership of Moses and Aaron to the people.
So, He asked Moses to collect staffs from each of the tribes, Aaron’s staff representing the Levites and the priesthood. He had them write the names of the tribes on each staff, but on Levi’s staff they wrote Aaron’s name. The staffs were placed in the tent of meeting overnight and the next morning they discovered something spectacular. God had not only sprouted Aaron’s staff, which in itself would have been incredible but would have left room for skepticism. God made Aaron’s staff bud, blossom and bear fruit. That staff was placed near the Ark as a sign for the people to remember their rebellion and God’s sovereignty. With this story, we recall that those whom God chooses will lead the people in the ways that are right, even when they do not agree with them.
We may not like the leaders that have been placed in our path and we may disagree with the decisions we make, but we can always trust that God will accomplish the things that He has promised. Saul was a terrible king, but he was chosen by God for a purpose. Though David was a better king, he still was imperfect and made mistakes. God chose his for a purpose and God’s purpose was fulfilled, is fulfilled and will be fulfilled as God’s story continues. Like little children, we don’t always trust those who are put in charge, but we can always trust God. He is faithful even while human beings aren’t.
Scriptures for December 6, 2009, Second Sunday in Advent: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
“Because of the tender mercy of our God, Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, to shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death; To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79, ASV
I don’t know about you, but every year I promise myself that I am going to make this Advent and Christmas much simpler. I promise myself I won’t do too much. I promise myself – and God – that I’ll focus more closely on ‘the reason for the season.’ I fail, every year. I suppose that’s why it is good that we meet John the Baptist so early in Advent. John reminds us what is happening and calls us to prepare.
We are waiting for what? If you ask any children this question, and perhaps some adults, they will tell you that we are waiting for Santa and presents and parties. For most people, especially Christians, the story of Christmas is about the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. While this might be true in the sense that we remember an event like we remember the birthdays of long dead presidents, the nativity was a historic event that took place two thousand years ago. We might focus on the manger and the story of Jesus’ birth during this time of preparation, but this is not what John is proclaiming. After all, John was born just a few months before Jesus. He was not crying out in the wilderness, calling for people to come see a baby. John was only six months older than Jesus. John and Jesus were contemporaries whose preaching and teaching overlapped.
John was one of many prophets sent to the Jews over the years. He was the final prophet calling the people to repentance. The Kingdom of God was near. It was time for the people to finally turn around to really see the God of their forefathers and His promises. The people in John’s day weren’t much different from us. They were easily distracted by the promises of other prophets. They were weighed down by worries and fears. They were caught up in the cares of the day. And worst of all, they were focused on God as they thought He should be, not as He really was.
Malachi reminds us that facing the Lord is not a walk in the park, an image of God that we prefer to keep. Malachi, which means “my messenger,” asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming?” In the past few weeks we’ve seen apocalyptic images and experienced the fear that comes with curses of fire and brimstone. We see a similar image in today’s Old Testament passage. Malachi writes, “For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap: and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto Jehovah offerings in righteousness.”
In this promise, or curse depending on how you look at it, the refining will come to the sons of Levi. The sons of Levi were the priests in the Temple. The Levites were the ones who continued to man the altar of God, to present the offerings, to do the work of bridging the gap between the people and their God. Zechariah, John’s father, was a priest. He was in the Temple when he learned that his elderly wife would bear a son. This was such an unbelievable promise that Zechariah questioned the angel that gave him the good news. They were old, well beyond childbearing age. When he asked how he could be sure of the good news, the angel answered, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak unto thee, and to bring thee these good tidings.” He wasn’t meant to believe based on any tangible proof, but to trust the Word of God brought by His messenger. Because he doubted, Zechariah went silent, unable to speak until the promise came true.
Zechariah was able to speak again when John was born and named according to the Word of God. John was an unusual name, not chosen based on tradition or family practice, but because it was the name given to the baby by God. When all was done, and God’s Word was proven true, Zechariah began to sing the hymn that is our psalm today. The people who saw this marveled at what had happened and wondered what would become of this first born of Zechariah.
It was certainly expected that John would become a priest like his father. Have you ever wondered about his life? John was born to very elderly parents. How long did they live after he was born? What happened to him? Did he end up living in the desert alone from a young age or did Zechariah and Elizabeth have family nearby who could care for him? We do know that John was an unusual man. He wore sackcloth made of horsehair and ate desert insects. He was a wild man. The description we have seems almost unreal. It would be easy for us to write off John the Baptist as a mythological character in a story made up by some ancient author.
However, Luke puts John into historical context in our gospel lesson. Luke gives an accounting of the leadership, both Roman and Jewish, those who were in power when John the Baptist began his ministry. These same characters continue to play a role in the story. Since there is a historical record of these leaders, it adds a note of credibility to Luke’s story and gives us the assurance of knowing that John the wild man was real. We can also rest assured that the rest of the story of Jesus Christ—His birth, ministry and death—is also real.
Zechariah’s song praises God and prophesied about the life of his newborn son. “Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High: For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people In the remission of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, to shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death; To guide our feet into the way of peace.” John came to bear witness to the coming of forgiveness, to proclaim the grace and mercy of God.
Yet, the image of John in today’s Gospel lesson is not one of compassion and tolerance. It is harsher, calling the people to change their ways. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This is not an easy process. To fill the valleys, the mountains have to be leveled. Making the road smooth takes digging and scraping and pounding. We have been warned repeatedly that seeing the salvation of God won’t be a pleasant experience.
This brings us back to the images in the text from Malachi. There are two images of cleansing in this passage and though the end is the same—purity and cleanliness—and they are very different.
The refiner’s fire is extremely hot because it burns out the impurities from the liquid metal without destroying the metal. The refiner is actively involved in the process, but from a distance. With launderer’s soap, the process is much different. The launderer is physically involved; he applies the soap directly to stains, scrubbing the stains until the garment is perfectly clean. Though these are two very different processes, they both describe the relationship we have with God. We are cleansed by the refiner’s fire and by the launderer’s soap. Impurities are removed both when we experience the harsh realities of life but also as we experience the loving kindness of our God. Through the tough times and the intimate moments we are made ready to stand before our God.
Imagine how hard this season must be for children, perhaps even more so than it was as we were growing up. The holiday season began after Thanksgiving. I remember how Black Friday was always like a holiday in itself. The malls were transformed between Wednesday night and Friday morning. Santa came during a special ceremony accompanied by pretty girls in reindeer costumes galloping in front of his sleigh. We stood in line for hours to meet the jolly old elf and give him our Christmas lists. This year I went to the mall a few weeks before Christmas and realized Santa was already there, bored by lack of children. The stores have had Christmas displays up for months, and radio stations have been playing the music of the season since before Thanksgiving. What used to be the twenty-five days of counting down to Christmas has become months of preparing. Children don’t have a sense of time. They see those first signs of Christmas and become excited about what is to come. But now that those signs come so early, it is easy to become disappointed and lose interest. Adults become frustrated because there is too much to do. We get lost in the busy-ness and forget the purpose. People don’t change. Just like those Israelites in Malachi’s days and the Jews who heard John the Baptist’s cry, we need to be called to repent, to turn around, to wait patiently and seek God.
That’s why the cleansing is not a once and done process. A refiner tempers the metal over and over again until all the impurities are gone. A launderer might have to rewash an item several times before the stain disappears. We have to be reminded over and over again to turn to God, to remember what He has done. That’s why we look forward to the Nativity year after year. In the story of the coming of the Christ we see God’s grace and remember His promise. In the cry of John the Baptist, we see the promise of forgiveness and are called to return to the God who is faithful.
Paul was concerned for the Philippians. He knew that though they were doing well at living the life they had been called to live, they would face difficult times. There were those who had gone into Philippi to stop the growth of the Church and destroy the faith of the young Christians. Paul wrote to encourage them to stand firm in their faith and to keep their eyes on Christ. We wait for the Nativity, but we are also waiting for the Day when the Lord will come again. We have to be ready for Christmas, but we are reminded to be ready for the Great Day when Christ will come in glory. Paul writes, “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.”
As it was Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, it is my prayer for you during this season. Whether we face the refiner’s fire or the launderer’s soap, now is the time to be cleansed and to be ready, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. He is coming to lead us home. He will make the mountains fall and the valleys fill so that our way will be easy. But that doesn’t mean the process will always be pleasant. But if we keep our eyes on God, we will have peace no matter our circumstances because He is always faithful.
Advent is indeed a time of waiting. It is a time for looking forward to the coming of the Christ. It might be a time of difficulty, a time of tempering by the refiner’s fire. It might be a time of cleansing by the launderer’s soap. Perhaps we are like those who are going home, traveling over mountains and through valleys with our eyes on the Lord so that it seems like a level path. Or we might be like those who are anxiously and longingly awaiting the return of those we love. Whatever it is we are experiencing today, Christmas is not just about getting ready for a holiday or about waiting for a baby in a manger. It is time when we are called to repentance, a time when we are to prepare for the coming of the King of Glory.
“Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed.” 1 Timothy 6:17-19, ASV
I’m listening to the radio and a commercial just came on for a local jeweler. The speaker asked if the listeners were having trouble finding the perfect gift for their loved ones. He then assured us that we would find the perfect gifts at the store. “Diamonds, gold, silver…” they have it all. Every other store makes similar appeals to the shopping public. They all have the perfect gift. They all have the one thing that will make all our loved ones happy. The ads for Black Friday were filled with claims, “Best presents” and “Perfect gifts!”
It can be hard to decide which gifts to give. It is even hard to decide for whom we should buy presents. When Bruce and I were first married, we purchased gifts for everyone in our families. That was eventually reduced to family gifts and then the family gifts became homemade ornaments. We bought gifts for the nieces and nephews when they were younger, when it was easy to purchase a small toy or book. It became much harder as they grew older. We did not know them very well since they live so far away, so we had no idea of what things they have and what things they were interested in having. Eventually we stopped buying gifts and sent money or gift cards instead.
It was at this point when we realized how silly it was to be sending those gift cards. None of us could afford so many presents; it was a struggle to buy for every child. Besides, our gift cards would just pass in the mail. We’d send gifts cards to their kids; they’d send gift cards to ours. This is not to say that gift cards are bad gifts. Sometimes money and gift certificates are the perfect present, especially for those who have very specific needs. By giving them a gift card from a store where they can purchase exactly what they want, you’ve remembered them in a very special way while giving them the freedom to have the right thing.
The problem is in our motive. Why are we buying these gifts? Are we buying them out of duty or for some reward? Do we purchase gifts for someone in the hopes that they’ll give us something back? Or are we repaying a gift with our gifts? Are there better ways to share our love with our friends and family? Do we really need to find the “perfect” gift to continue having a relationship with them? I love to give presents, and I particularly love to give presents that I know will make people happy.
So, as we work out our preparation for Christmas Day, it is good to think about the gifts we give and the reason we do so. It has long been said that children prefer the boxes to the presents. Sometimes they do, because a box uses imagination. Many people would rather a handmade ornament than an expensive piece of jewelry. Do we really need to buy a big dollar gift for our friends, or would it be better to spend time with them? What is the perfect gift, really? Is it an item that fulfills some duty or reaps us enough praise? Does saying “I love you” require a lot of money? And do we really need to buy things for everyone we know? Are we really making them happy, or are we establishing expectations that they can’t meet? After all, if we expect a gift as great as we’ve given, we may hurt someone who can’t give us the “perfect” gift.
So, let’s remember what it is all about. Yes, the greatest gift is Jesus, and the season is about Him. But we can’t forget that giving gifts among God’s people has been a long held part of the celebration. The wise men gave gifts. People from every generation have had traditions they have upheld from year to year. But, we need to remember why we give gifts. We share what we have to make others happy. We give as we have been given to glorify God. We don’t have to buy that big screen TV or that diamond necklace. The gift that will really make a difference is love, time, presence in the lives of those we love. We can follow the example of God, who has not promised us castles and gold, but a babe in a manger. He gave us His son to dwell among us, to love us and to lay down His life for us. So, too, we can be generous and willing to share all we have with those we love, not just at this time of year in packages covered with bows, but with our lives and resources every day.
“Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song; For he hath done marvellous things: His right hand, and his holy arm, hath wrought salvation for him. Jehovah hath made known his salvation: His righteousness hath he openly showed in the sight of the nations. He hath remembered his lovingkindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise unto Jehovah, all the earth: break forth and sing for joy, yea, sing praises. Sing praises unto Jehovah with the harp; with the harp and the voice of melody. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the King, Jehovah. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein; let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before Jehovah; for he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98, ASV
I’m sure by now everyone has heard at least one Christmas song. The television commercials have used the tunes of old favorites for weeks, the stores have been playing Christmas tracts since before Thanksgiving and some radio stations have turned over to playing only Christmas music. Of course, the music we hear is usually the happy Santa songs or secular Christmas tunes. Some of these are fun to hear but some of them become extremely annoying very quickly. How many times can you listen to the dogs barking “Jingle Bells”? My daughter can’t stand hearing “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and I have to admit that I have trouble with it after I’ve heard it four times a day.
The story of the song is interesting. Dr. Elmo, Elmo Shropshire, probably never expected to become a hit. He was a Kentucky native, a veterinarian and worked at racetracks. After he moved to San Francisco, he opened his own veterinary hospital and was part of a blue grass band. The song, written by Randy Brooks, was strange to everyone but Dr. Elmo. The recording was first played on a radio station in San Francisco, and was met with controversy. The Gray Panthers, a group advocating for older people, picketed a local performance, which gave far more exposure to the song than anyone ever expected. Now, thirty years later, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is a most beloved and equally despised song. It is one of the most parodied Christmas songs, with hits like “Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
Of course, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is not the most appropriate song to be discussing in a Christian devotional, but it leads us to the thought that music is a way of sharing our hopes and dreams, our fears and concerns, our laughter and our tears. Most of the songs being recorded by modern artists are cover songs that were originally recorded by others, but those songs are long time favorites and they really speak to the way we feel about the season, about our loved ones and about the birth of Jesus. Who can hear “Joy to the World” and not feel a very real joy and peace?
It is interesting that the song was not popular in the time of the writer. Isaac Watts was a rebel. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a person who refused to conform. He felt the hymns of his day were boring and uninspired. His father challenged him to do better, and so he began writing over six hundred hymns, many of which are still sung today. He came up with “Joy to the World as he was reading Psalm 98. He was inspired by the words, “Make a joyful noise” and he penned the poem that became this most beloved Christmas hymn. Unfortunately, many of the people in his day were bothered by his rewriting of the psalm, so they did not use the hymn.
We aren’t all musicians or songwriters, but what inspires you today? What will make your heart sing as you go through the day? Will you embrace a song you heard and will it give you a sense of the joy that comes with knowing the Lord has come? While songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” might be popular hits on the radio, we can also hear the hymns that bring us into focus during this season. Some songs lighten our hearts with laughter, but others, like “Joy to the World” helps us to remember that real joy is more than laughter, it is peace in Christ.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room, And Heaven and nature sing, And Heaven and nature sing, And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.”
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, doth not first sit down and count the cost, whether he have wherewith to complete it? Lest haply, when he hath laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all that behold begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.” Luke 14:28-30
I feel like I have A.D.D. today. I have a million things that I would like to get done, and every time I turn around I catch a glimpse of something else. I think each thing is a greater priority, so I pick it up and begin, and then I remember something else I really should be doing first. I’ve only completed one task so far, but I’ve begun a dozen. I should be able to get everything done by the end of the day, but it doesn’t seem that way at the rate I’m going.
That’s the way it gets at Christmastime, especially since it seems like so many things have to be done at the same time. Just about the time we should be making cookies, we also need to be addressing Christmas cards. Plus, we are in the middle of decorating the house. For some, it is also a time to plan for parties, ship gifts to family far away and prepare for special programs. Choirs are rehearsing and charitable organizations are both collecting donations and giving aid to those they serve. Schools are wrapping up the year with finals at university and celebrations for younger students.
Needless to say, it is crazy out there and in here. The tree is up, but not yet decorated. The Christmas letters are being printed. I’m getting ready to make Christmas cookies this week. I still have a few handmade projects to complete. Along with all the special projects I need to complete today, I have some normal work to be done. There is a pile of bills to be paid and a growing grocery list on my desk. There’s laundry in the dryer that needs to be folded and dishes in the sink to be washed. It is crazy today.
We know we shouldn’t let ourselves get so overwhelmed by the tasks at hand that we forget what it is all about, but it is really hard not to have at least a few days like this through the holiday season. This is not just a holiday problem, however. We get overwhelmed throughout the year with the tasks we face. Sometimes it is our fault. We wait until the last minute, procrastinating until we can’t put it off any longer. Unfortunately, when we put things off for another day, we discover that we already have things that need to be done then, so we pile our tasks on top of one another, leaving us with a day like today. Sometimes the tasks just come all at once. Who hasn’t had three birthday parties on the same day? Or a schedule full of sports, church and school events, all at the same time?
We learn how to prioritize, but some days are just busier than others. This is a part of life in this world. It may have been simpler in years gone by, but I’m sure they must have had their days, too. Farmers in early American might have little work to do when the fields are growing, but at harvest time they were faced with a brief period of time when everything must be done. If weather turned bad, they had to deal with that, too. If we go further back in time, the people had other things that kept them busy. For us a trip to the grocery store might take an hour. For them, it could take all day as they had to walk to the market which could be miles away. Then they had to carry their food home again. Busy-ness is a problem for every generation of men.
Through it all, we just need to do our best. Perhaps when we begin to become overwhelmed by all the things that need to be done, we need to consider which things do not need to happen. Do we really need to make 50 dozen cookies? Do we really need a thousand lights on the Christmas tree? Do we really need to become involved in every project and activity this season? It is not important to do everything, but what is important is that we finish what we start. If we’ve made a commitment to be part of a charitable event, the people are counting on us, so we should find a way to be present. If we’ve made the dough for our cookies, we should bake them in good time or the dough will go bad and the ingredients will be wasted. Instead of baking 10 different kinds of cookies, we can begin with a few, and then make more as we have time.
So, as we go through Advent and into the new year, let’s remember to count the cost of our work. We can work to procrastinate less and to learn how to prioritize the things we have to do. But no matter how hard we try to do everything, we find that we can’t. We also must learn to say “No”: “No” to too many lights on the tree or cookies in the oven; “No” too ever project that is offered’ “No” to every invitation. Each “Yes” costs us something, and unfortunately it is usually God who gets left behind. Let’s learn to do a few things well, but when things do get crazy, let’s remember to keep our eyes on our God who will give us the strength to get us through.
“My soul cleaveth unto the dust: Quicken thou me according to thy word. I declared my ways, and thou answeredst me: teach me thy statutes. Make me to understand the way of thy precepts: so shall I meditate on thy wondrous works. My soul melteth for heaviness: strengthen thou me according unto thy word. Remove from me the way of falsehood; and grant me thy law graciously. I have chosen the way of faithfulness: thine ordinances have I set before me. I cleave unto thy testimonies: O Jehovah, put me not to shame. I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.” Psalm 119:25-32, ASV
There was a terrible accident on one of the local highways that closed down the road for a few hours. The clean-up was nearly finished just as rush hour was beginning, but many people were still affected by the delay. Sadly, a woman was killed when she ran onto the highway at 4:30 a.m. An eighteen-wheeler could not avoid hitting her, although he managed to stop his truck without further incident. The woman was killed instantly. The truck driver was not hurt although he was shaken by the event. He found to be not at fault for the accident and allowed to leave when he had calmed down.
The question now is why? Why would anyone attempt to run across a major highway at 4:30 in the morning? Was she in trouble, running away from someone who threatened her? Was she under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medication? Did she really think she could make it across the highway but misjudged the speed of the vehicles? Was she suicidal? Could she really have intended to die in such a horrible manner? Every possibility is sad, but the last one is the worst of all. How does anyone get to the point that life is no longer worth living? How does someone decide that the best thing they can do is to die? Accidents happen and sometimes they are tragic, but sometimes the accidents come because of the decisions we make.
We don’t realize how much our decisions can affect others. Even those decisions we think will only affect our lives have some impact on the lives of others. The affects of drugs and alcohol harms our family and friends and sometimes even strangers. The choice to risk life and limb can affect the world in which we live. Suicide may be painless to the one doing the deed, but it rips a hole in the world that is not easily healed.
Though most of our decisions are not nearly as dramatic as what might have caused today’s accident, but how often do we consider the consequences to others when we make decisions? We consider our self interest, not realizing how much of what we do can make a difference in someone else’s life—good and bad. Even simple, everyday decisions like the food we cook or the places we shop can make a difference in a stranger’s life without us even realizing it. When we make decisions, we usually think, “What will it mean for me?” How different might the world be if we think, “What can I do to make the world a better place for my neighbor?” we might just choose differently, even in the mundane things of life.
The decisions are not always easy, and there isn’t always an answer that will serve everyone well. We may never know the reason why the poor woman ran into the path of a speeding truck, but we can see in her story that the decisions we make might affect the world in which we live. As we go through our days, let us remember that our lives are connected to others and everything we do can make a difference to them. This is why we seek to know the Lord and His Word, so that we can choose the right path. Keep others in mind as you do what you do, even as you remember your God in all you do. It just might make a difference for someone you don’t even know.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 13, 2009, Third Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
“Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.” Zephaniah 3:14, ASV
I saw a video on YouTube today apparently from a episode of a community access Christian talk show. The show ended with a couple of women singing the song “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” a song of rejoicing over the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a song that reminds us that Christmas is Good News and we should sing it from the mountain tops.
The video is on YouTube because singers just can’t sing. Now, I’m sure I would sound just as bad, since I really can’t sing very well. What surprises me is how sad the singers look as they are singing this joyful song. Either they were very nervous or they simply did not want to sing on television. The girl, who only sang the chorus, kept looking to one spot, perhaps the karaoke machine they were using for the music, afraid she’d forget the words. Her mouth barely moved and you could only occasionally hear her voice. The video gave plenty of fodder for the bloggers who made fun of every aspect of the performance.
Though I was bothered by the squeaky highs and the out of tune verses, I have to say I was far more disappointed that they were so sad singing the song. If they had at least smiled, we would have seen the joy of their faith. We might have wanted to know what kind of faith a person has giving them the boldness to share their gifts with others. Who would want to become part of a religion that leaves its followers so sad?
But then again, who would want to follow a religion that brings out guys like John the Baptist? After all, he is a man who is perceived to be wild, harsh and demanding. He was very unusual and acted counter to the culture in which he lived. He lived in the wilderness, wore clothing made from camel’s hair and ate locusts for lunch. This description brings to mind an image of a rough and tumble man, unkempt and unclean. He has been compared to the smelly homeless man on the street corner preaching the end of the world to passers-by.
He was taken seriously, however. He had a huge following. There was something about him that drew the people into his presence, even Herod wanted to hear him speak. It is unlikely that Herod would have invited an unkempt, smelly wild man into his palace. It was not John’s appearance that offended. It was his words. The temple leaders joined the crowds by the Jordan to hear his preaching. We know that in the end most of them rejected Jesus, but in the beginning of this story, they thought they might be seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises. The leaders were educated and they were religious experts; they knew more about the signs of the coming and they were anxious to see those signs fulfilled.
John didn’t greet them warmly. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t seem any happier than the two women on the video. He calls the crowd a brood of vipers, snakes fleeing from the wrath of God. Did they think that John would give them the freedom from the things they feared? Did they think he was the Messiah come to set them free? They saw the Messiah as one who would come to release Israel from foreign rule, which would guard and protect them because they were children of Abraham. John warns them that their heritage is not enough to keep them from the coming fire.
This isn’t a joyful message. It is a message of Law, not mercy. When the crowd asks, “What shall we do?” he answers with a list of righteous actions: share with others, don’t cheat or threaten others, be satisfied with what you have. John was calling the people to repentance and to manifest the repentance in their relationships with other people. It is interesting that verse 18 says, “With many other exhortations therefore preached he good tidings unto the people.” Even in the midst of calling the people to a better life, he was pointing toward the fulfillment of God’s promises. “Live as God calls you to live now, because He is coming soon! When He comes, the Day will be frightening. Be ready because His coming is truly Good News.” Is this really a sermon damning those who have come to him? Is the wrath of God something to be avoided? John wonders why they are fleeing. Perhaps facing the wrath of God is not destructive and unmerciful experience we think it might be.
The wrath of God is often described like fire, but when we think of the references of fire relating to God, we realize that it is not something that will necessarily destroy everything in its path. When Moses met God it was at the foot of a bush that was on fire but did not burn. The people of Israel were lead through the desert at night by a pillar of fire that did not destroy anything in its path. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the upper room like tongues of fire. Last week we heard that God is like a refiner’s fire—He burns the impurity out of the precious metal leaving behind something pure and perfect. God’s wrath is not necessarily meant to destroy, but to refine.
But those times of difficulty, when we are going through the refiner’s fire, aren’t pleasant, and we find it difficult to rejoice. How can Paul ask us to rejoice always? Can we really rejoice when we are feeling ill or when we don’t have enough money to buy decent food for the table? Paul is not calling us to be happy all the time. He is calling us to rejoice in the Lord always. In everything we do, in everything we are, we are to live in the joy that is found in our relationship with God. It is a matter of coming before others with that joy so that they’ll see the good works of God in us.
We might think that John the Baptist was unlovable, but we know that he attracted crowds from every part of the Jewish society. There must have been a joy in his preaching, a sense of peace the people wanted to experience for themselves. He couldn’t have been comfortable wearing camel skin and eating locusts, but he mustn’t have complained about it. Though he was a wildman, he must have had a gentleness about him, or who would have let him baptize them in the Jordan? He must have been prayerful, or who would have believed he was a prophet of God?
Rejoicing in the Lord is about living that life of repentance fully assured that God’s promises are true. That’s where our peace is found, no matter what our circumstances. If we love God even when our bank accounts are empty and our muscles ache, the world will know there is something special about the God we love. The Good News we have been given is that God is near. Through thick and thin, through good and bad, God dwells among us. He came to earth in the flesh of a child, the one for whom we wait this Advent. He will come, but He has come and He is here and now. This is truly good news, news about which we can rejoice.
And sing. Even if we can’t sing, like those ladies in the video, we can make a joyful noise. The message of Christ’s birth is good news to the world. It is happy news. It is news that deserves to be sung with smiles on our faces.
Zephaniah shares with us the Good News from an Old Testament point of view. The Lord has taken away judgments! He has turned away your enemies! He is in your midst! He will rejoice over you and renew you in His love! He will exult over you with loud singing! Wait… the Lord will exult over us? Who is this God who will rejoice over people like us, sinners in thought, word and deed? We deserve the wrath that is threatened by John, but God’s wrath is not destructive, it is healing and transforming. Who is this God who would care enough that He would choose to live among His people? If we have a God who can rejoice over us, why is it that we can’t sing with joy over Him?
Isaiah sings a song of thanksgiving. He knows what God has done. God is our salvation. He is our strength and might. How do we live in the knowledge of this good news and not sing for joy? How do we not tell the whole world about the good things He has done?
Zephaniah and Isaiah call the people to lives of joy. Paul confronts us with this charge to rejoice always. He assures us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. I’m not so sure that I have ever felt so totally at peace that I can rejoice always. I’m not so sure I have ever been able to rejoice always to know the peace of God. But I can see the Good News that John brings to us: God is near. He has come to dwell among us. His fire will transform the world and make everything right. We need not fear the Day of His coming for He comes to save. Let us sing this Good News with joy so that the world might know His peace.
“I will extol thee, my God, O King; And I will bless thy name for ever and ever. Every day will I bless thee; And I will praise thy name for ever and ever. Great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised; And his greatness is unsearchable.” Psalm 145:1-3, ASV
Today would have been my grandmother’s birthday. She’s been gone for nearly thirty years, but I still remember the day. I couldn’t tell you how old she was, and we never really did anything special for her. My grandfather died only months before my grandmother, but I have no idea when he was born. I don’t remember Grandma’s birthday for any other reason than it fit into a pattern. My birthday, my dad’s birthday and my grandmother’s birthday all fall on the tenth of the month; mine is in October, Dad’s was in November, and Grandma’s was in December. I added to the pattern by getting married on September 10th.
Patterns help us to remember. The nine times table can be quickly learned using the fingers of both hands. Hold your hands in front of you. Reading left to right, put down the first finger, this represents one times nine. How many fingers are to the right? Nine. One times nine equals nine. Now, fold down the second finger. Two times nine equals the number of fingers pointing up on the left (one) and the number of fingers pointing up on the right (eight). Two times nine equals eighteen. Fold down the third finger. Three times nine equals the number of fingers on the left (two) and the number of fingers on the right (seven). Three times nine equals seventeen. Do this through all ten fingers until you get to the last finger, which shows nine times ten equals ninety (nine fingers on the left and zero on the right.) Someone figured out this pattern and it has been taught to children for generations.
We are lucky because we have the resources to have the scriptures available to us. We can search for anything in the Bible on the Internet, with almost every version available online. We can copy and paste the scriptures into our Facebook posts or into our writing. We can see the text in a number of different versions at once to compare and contrast the way they have been translated. We can study in more depth because the commentaries are all available at our fingertips. Yet, I think in many ways we are less biblical literate than they were a hundred years ago. The reason? We haven’t learned the Bible texts the way they used to. I have dozens of Bibles on my bookshelf, but in Jesus’ day the only scriptures were the scrolls held in the synagogues and the temple. The people knew God’s word because they had memorized it. Mother’s sang psalms to her children and they learned to hold them in their hearts. The story of Moses was repeated every year so that the people would never forget. The Christians followed the same practices before Bibles were available.
That’s the irony of our modern age. We can all have the scriptures in our hands and the books are rarely opened. We would be better living in an age when the books are sparse so that we’ll know the words. It is so convenient to grab our bible, check out the concordance and find the words we want to share. But as we see in the writings of Jesus and the apostles, the scriptures were closer. Yes, Jesus was the Son of God, but He knew the words because His mother had shared them with Him as her mother had done for her. Peter and John were not educated, but they could quote scripture for the edification of the brothers and sisters.
God’s Word is designed to be remembered, although it is harder for us today than it was for them because our language is different. Many of the psalms are written in an acrostic form, which means that the first letter of each line follows the alphabet. We can’t see that in our translations, but I’m sure the pattern of letters helped the listeners remember each one. Psalm 119 is certainly the most obvious to us today because our bibles tend to divide the stanzas with the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic poem praising God. It would be fun to see this poem in its proper form, to see the poetry and the pattern in the words. It is lost to us, but the psalm is still a beautiful song that we can sing.
It would be fun to make up our own acrostics praising God. You don’t have to use the alphabet; you can use a word or an idea. The word Grace is remembered by many as “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.” What kind of statement can you put together with the words of faith? What is your psalm for today? What can you create that will help others to know the Word and majesty of our God?
“But this I say, He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart: not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound unto you; that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work: as it is written, He hath scattered abroad, he hath given to the poor; His righteousness abideth for ever. And he that supplieth seed to the sower and bread for food, shall supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness: ye being enriched in everything unto all liberality, which worketh through us thanksgiving to God.” 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, ASV
I bought this small, cheap kit for growing Christmas trees. The box it came in was very small and it seemed impossible that anything could grow out of this kit. When I opened the box, I found a small clay pot, about an inch in diameter, a brick of dirt (and it felt like a brick, I had no idea how I would plant seeds in it) and a small package of seeds. The instructions told me to add a certain amount of water to the brick, allow it to soak up the water and then fluff it with a fork. Magically, the brick became dirt. I put the dirt into the pot and then added the seeds.
The instructions said to put only five seeds into the pot, then throw the rest into the garden. There were only six seeds in my package, and they were very small seeds, so they all went in the pot. It didn’t matter much to me anyway because I didn’t think any of them would grow. I’ve been watering regularly and watching carefully, and this morning I saw what I thought might be a seedling peaking out through the dirt. By this afternoon, I knew I was right. The seedling is nearly a quarter inch tall already, and a couple other spots seem to be more seedlings seeking the light. In the next few days I might have a few more seedlings, and then I get to watch them grow. I don’t know if I will get six, but I should get a few to eventually plant in my garden.
I don’t know what I’ll do with my Christmas trees once they are too big for the tiny pot. I might transplant them into another pot, but I will have to put them in the garden at some point. We’ll probably never see these trees full grown. We’ll certainly not use them for Christmas because I expect we’ll move to another house long before they are big enough. But we don’t plant something just for our own benefit; we plant for the benefit of those who will follow us. We hope that the tree will be here for the next generation and for many generations after that.
The biblical writers often used agrarian examples in their stories, including Paul. He talks about sowing seeds of generosity. It is unusual to think about sowing seeds at Christmastime because the fields are mostly fallow during the season of winter. You can’t grow food when the ground is frozen. I suppose that is what makes it so much fun that I’m growing a Christmas tree right now. It is good to see a growing thing when it is so dark and cold outside. But Paul’s example is excellent at this time of year when we are thinking about how to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is right to be generous now, sowing seeds by giving to those who do not have.
How will you celebrate the birth of Christ? Will you spend all your time, energy and resources making your world more beautiful, or will you take some of what you have and give it to another so that their world might be a little more beautiful too?
“But we beseech you, brethren, to know them that labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work's sake. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be longsuffering toward all. See that none render unto any one evil for evil; but always follow after that which is good, one toward another, and toward all.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15, ASV
I went to the post office today. I know. I heard the report on the television that today is the biggest mail day for the post office. I knew that they would see twice as much mail today as they do on a normal day. I saw the video from a post office that already had lines forming even early in the morning. I know the post office is usually pretty busy at lunchtime.
I knew all these things, but I went anyway. I thought that if everyone heard the report they might skip the post office today. I decided to go to the post office where there usually isn’t very much business. I thought I was being smart. I knew I’d made a mistake when I pulled into the parking lot. It was full of cars. When I got into the post office, the line was going around in circles. It was going to be a long wait. Luckily, they had two people at the counter and they were doing everything quickly. The customers all needed relatively easy services, so the line went fast. It still took about twenty minutes to get out of the post office.
I tried to stop for my mail on my way home, but the mailman was still putting the mail into the mailboxes. He was running very, late. I guess that’s the way it will be for the mailmen in the next few weeks. Everyone is getting around to sending out packages and Christmas cards. Catalogue companies are trying to get those last minute orders. Charitable organizations are looking for those end-of-the-year donations. There is a lot of mail being delivered. The news story warned that December 16th will be another extremely busy day when more mail is delivered than usual.
Sadly, my trip to the post office was not really necessary. I was sending an odd sized card and with the new postal regulations I wasn’t sure how much it would cost. I might have just added another stamp, but when I searched online for the cost of an extra thick card, I found that it would cost way more than I expected. I didn’t think it was right, but I knew the best way to deal with the situation was to take it right to the post office. I would have been fine adding a second stamp, but I didn’t want the card to get lost in the mail due to insufficient postage, so I was happy to stand in line to do it right.
Advent is a time of waiting. We wait in line at all the stores. We wait on the highways in traffic jams and we wait for parking spaces at the mall. We wait for our online purchases to arrive and we wait for holiday greetings from our family and friends far away. The children are waiting for Santa to arrive and even parents are anxious to see if they’ve found just the right gifts for under the tree. We even wait in line at the post office, to send packages or buy stamps. We wait because we know that at the end of the line we’ll find a special something that is either meant for us or that we want to share with someone else.
We aren’t always patient about our waiting. I know I’ve grumbled at least a few times when someone has jumped into the parking space I had scoped out driving through the lot. I’ve tapped impatiently on my steering wheel as I’ve waited for traffic to move. I’ve sighed at the sight of long lines at the stores. But, I’ve also been excited to know that I found the perfect gift or that at the end of my trip is a chance to share God’s grace with others. We might have to wait in lines, and we might not do it as patiently as we should, but it will help if we constantly remember that at the end of the line there will be something terrific waiting for us: Jesus. We might find Him in the smile of a child receiving a gift or a family that has a meal because we’ve donated a can of food. We might find Him in the Nativity, the baby born to bring reconciliation and peace to God’s people or in the trumpeting of the angels announcing the coming Promised Day. Whatever we find at the end of the wait, we know that it is worthwhile because through it we will receive God’s grace.
“Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is the Christ, or, Here; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you beforehand. If therefore they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the wilderness; go not forth: Behold, he is in the inner chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man. Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” Matthew 24:23-28, ASV
I heard a noise the other day. It was faint, and sounded like it came from the other end of the house. It sounded like an alarm, but not one I recognized. I thought, perhaps, a watch was ringing or that someone had a piece of electronics that had a timer that accidentally got set to go off. I headed toward the sound, but it stopped too quickly. I heard it again sometime later and again tried to locate it. I have heard the noise a few times in the past few days, but it has stopped every time. I heard the noise again this morning and realized that it was a background sound on a commercial. It is the sound of Christmas bells ringing.
Other moms will understand the next example. How many times have you been in a crowded place like a store and heard the word “Mom” and immediately looked in the direction of the sound? Even now, with my kids grown and not shopping with me, I turn to look for the child calling out. We know the sound of our own children’s cry, but when we hear that word, we automatically turn to see what is happening.
We hear and we react. I went looking for the source of the ringing each time I heard it, and now I feel silly. I should have known it was something on the television. But I felt it was important to find the source of the noise, to turn off the alarm so that it would not bother us at inconvenient times. I was afraid that the ringing would happen in the middle of the night, waking us from sleep and causing us to be tired the next day. Now I can rest because I know it won’t happen.
It is easy to be deceived by voices. During this Advent season we have heard messages about the end times and warnings to be watchful and aware. It is easy, when we aren’t thinking about it, to mistake one noise for another. I mistook a sound on a television commercial with something in my own house and I’ve mistaken the voices of other children for my own. When we are not watchful and waiting we can hear many things that sound good and feel right, but are not really what God has planned. False prophets preach messages every day that appear to be trustworthy and faithful.
Yet when these words are considered according to the Word God has given to us, we know there is something not right about what we hear. Jesus warns us not to run after everyone making claims or doing great things. Pray, study, listen carefully and wait. It is hard to do this, especially when there is a noisy ringing or the cry of a child or a prophet preaching the coming of the Day of the Lord. But if we consider what we hear before we overreact, we’ll see that it is not what we think it is and we’ll keep our eyes on the only one who can save.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 20, Fourth Sunday in Advent: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-46 [46-55]
“Lo, I am come to do thy will.” Hebrews 5:9b
I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, in a town called Allentown. Allentown was part of a metropolitan area that included Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Allentown was the largest of the three cities, Bethlehem the middle and Easton the smallest. Surrounding these three cities were lots of smaller communities, all of which were unique and yet part of the whole. It is hard to tell the difference between city and town as you drive through the Lehigh Valley. One runs into another. We went to Bethlehem regularly for a variety of reasons. But to me, it was just part of one great big city. Allentown overshadowed both cities, especially Bethlehem, which was right next door.
Bethlehem has a unique place in the history of the Lehigh Valley, though. It was founded by a group of Moravians, who settled there on Christmas Eve in 1741. The named it Bethlehem after the town where Jesus was born. Beginning in the early 1900’s the city of Bethlehem installed an electric Moravian Star that shines over the city year round. That star is a reminder of the Moravian heritage and its namesake, a small town where a great thing happened.
When the town was first founded, it was open to only members of the Moravian Church. The church owned all the property, and everything was shared between the members. A number of buildings still exist in the historic part of the city which gives us a peak at what communal life might have been like. The city has grown up around that first community. Citizenship is no longer limited to Moravians. It has been a center of industry and innovation. The first waterworks in America was built in Bethlehem and was home to Bethlehem Steel, one of the largest steel producers in the United States.
The once tiny town of a few hundred grew into a successful and prosperous town and despite the loss of the steel industry is still home to more than 70,000 people. The little town of Bethlehem is in many ways the same. The place where Jesus was born is now home to about 25,000 people. The tiny town that was once six miles from Jerusalem has grown into the outstretching city. It is hard to tell the difference between city and town now.
When we see pictures of the Bethlehem of Jesus’ day, we see an image of a bustling town with many people. As a matter of fact, with the counting of the census, the little town is pictured overflowing with people: the streets are packed, the inns are full and there is nowhere left for a small family to stay. We picture Joseph going door to door, from inn to inn, trying to find a room. It is possible, even probable, that Bethlehem had very few places for people to stay. Only six miles from Jerusalem, it would have been a common place for people to stop on their way to the city.
Some scholarship suggests that Bethlehem was not a very big city and that it was unlikely that it was crowded at the time. It seems the census was not done in a day, a week, or even a month. It may have taken years. Josephus mentions a time of Roman taxation in AD 6, which would have been based on a previous census. They couldn’t do it the way we can, so it is possible the census began well before the birth of Christ. Why Joseph and Mary would try to travel when Mary was so close to being due is a puzzle, but it fulfilled the prophecies that we read in today’s Old Testament lesson. Jesus was meant to be born in Bethlehem, and God found a way to make it happen.
Why Bethlehem? It was such a small town, very unimportant. It’s only claim to fame was Rachel’s tomb. Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, died during childbirth. Isn’t it interesting that all the people important to this story are the least and yet are so important to God’s purpose? Jacob, the second son, was a conniving cheat. Rachel, the beloved wife was the younger sister, but Jacob worked seven extra years to earn her hand in marriage. In the end, she had difficulty conceiving and was scorned by a servant. Joseph, the beloved son of Rachel, was the least of his brothers and yet a spoiled child. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, suffered unjust cruelties and was eventually blessed by God in a way that would save his family from famine.
Bethlehem was the hometown of David, through his father Jesse. Jesse was the son of Obed and the grandson of Ruth. He was a sheep herder. We often think of Jesse as an important man because we see this image of the prophet Samuel visiting Jesse in search of the new king. Surely Jesse must have been a man of means? Yet, he was from Bethlehem, the grandson of a foreign woman, a keeper of sheep. It may have been a large herd of sheep, but he was still nothing but a farmer and breeder. David was not even the most important among his brothers. He was the last, the youngest, and small in stature.
This seems upside down. Shouldn’t God have chosen the biggest, the firstborn, the capital, the strongest? Shouldn’t He have chosen the best of everything from which to bring forth the Savior of the world?
God turns the world upside down. He doesn’t choose the way we choose. He looks to heart. He sees beyond the surface. He knows the way the world works, but He also knows there is a better way. His King was not meant to be a conquering hero born in a palace made of gold. He was meant to be a humble shepherd willing to care for God’s people. The majesty is not found in the façade, it is seen in the heart.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy, to follow in the footsteps of David. This is what the people expected from God; a new Israel that would be like David’s golden kingdom. David, though he was the weakest of his brothers, turned out to be a strong king. He led his people to prosperity. They wanted to defeat the Romans and become an independent and prosperous people again. David knew God and kept his trust in the God of his forefathers. Though they knew David’s story and the promises of God, they were still caught off-guard with Jesus. He wasn’t what they expected. He wasn’t going to defeat Rome or establish a new earthly kingdom. He came to turn the world upside down.
This is what we see in Mary’s song. Again, we see Mary as a very special young woman, perhaps even perfectly righteous. We see her willing obedience in her answer to the angel, “Let it be to me as you say” and we wonder if we could ever be so devoted to God’s word or even if we could believe Him as she did. But, even though she humbled herself and submitted to that which she had been told, there may have been a sense of doubt or uncertainty in her mind. She asked the angel how it would be, how she would become pregnant since she had never been with a man.
Who was Mary? Again, she was a nobody. She was just a child when she became pregnant, and then she was mistreated as a whore. She gave birth in a cold stable, and then went on the run with her husband and young child to save his life. She was widowed early since Joseph was much older, so her position in society was quite low. She deeply loved her son, but at times even He seemed to disregard and disrespect her. Think about the stories: the day he went to the temple and they could not find him, the wedding at Cana where He told her that it wasn’t time, the time she and Jesus’ brothers went to talk to Him and He told her that those listening were His mother and brothers. And then, after all this, Mary watched her son die a horrible death—execution on the cross.
Mary was uncertain about the word of the angel, but he gave her a sign that everything was true: her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age. So Mary had to see. She had to know. She had to witness this sign for herself to know that everything was real. She left Nazareth to travel to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home. When Mary arrived and greeted her cousin, baby John leapt in her womb. That was the moment when Mary fully believed. That was the moment when Mary cried out in praise and thanksgiving for the gift she had been given.
Mary’s song reveals that Mary was a humble recipient of God’s grace. She says, “…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” God does not choose the rich and the mighty, but the poor and the lowly. He chooses the humble, the unimportant and even the unworthy. For it is the unworthy who look to one who is greater, they are the ones who humble themselves before God. It is the humble who listen to God’s word and believe.
Jesus didn’t come to be a king, but to be a humble servant. He came to be a shepherd, to take care of God’s people in the deepest needs. He came to save us, not as a conquering hero, but as a son sent to do His Father’s work. That work is the most shocking part of the story. The Son did not come to rule on an earthly throne or lead an army into war. Jesus came to die. We have made the Christmas story to be one of sweetness and light: a mother and a baby, the farm animals close by keeping the happy family warm on the cold night. The pictures have beautiful angels singing praises to God and kings dressed in robes of spun gold fabric. It is a beautiful moment until we realize that Jesus came to die. God turned the world upside down, using the wrong people in the wrong places to do what He knows to be right.
When we think that the world is upside down, we can look to God’s promises and know that if it is, He will turn it right in His time and in His way. This is the promise of Christmas: that despite our insistence of making God fit into our expectations, He does the most incredible things to bring us back to Him. In Him we will find peace.
“Of whom we have many things to say, and hard of interpretation, seeing ye are become dull of hearing. For when by reason of the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of solid food. For every one that partaketh of milk is without experience of the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But solid food is for fullgrown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil.” Hebrews 5:11-14, ASV
The kittens are a year old today. They are full size cats with the energy and heart of a kitten. I think, sometimes, that they have not realized that they are much stronger now than they were a year ago. They are very rough when the play and they are more likely to get into trouble. Samson has not yet learned that word “No” means “No.” Just the other day he was trying to do something he wanted to do that I did not want him to do. He was only a few feet from me, so I could not only say “No” but I could also physically remove him from the situation. He tried to do this thing over and over and over again. Sometimes he shows signs that he understands my request to stop doing whatever he’s doing. He looks at me with guilt when he’s caught in the wrong place. He runs away when he realizes I’ve seen him do something he shouldn’t do. But sometimes, he’s so bent on doing the wrong thing that he continues to do it.
I know, this is a cat, so I shouldn’t expect a conscience and a long term memory. But cats can be trained (stop laughing all you cat owners!) with time and patience. Tigger has been watching the kittens with a holier-than-thou attitude because he avoids the things that make me upset. But, I remember when he was a kitten and he did all the things wrong that the kittens are doing now. He was one year old, once, and did all the same things. There’s still a little bit of kitten left in him, but he’s learned there are a few things that he should not do. Samson has not quite figured it out.
It is more obvious right now because it is Christmas. There are plenty of opportunities for bad behavior right now. Though this is the second Christmas for the kittens, they were too small last year to get into trouble. And, this is the first Christmas in our house, with our decorations. I had to make a few changes, baby-proofing, so that the kittens won’t destroy anything that is special. The ornaments at the bottom of the tree are unbreakable and we did not use tinsel at all this year. The Christmas village with its fake snow is out of reach.
The kittens, of course, like to bat at the ornaments on the tree. I haven’t caught them trying to climb it, although the branches are pretty close together. They like to play with the tree skirt and the water in the tree stand. The ribbons on the packages are very tempting, and I have no doubt by the time we reach Christmas morning, most of those ribbons will have teeth marks. It isn’t just the kittens that get into this trouble. We’ve caught Tigger batting at ornaments and chewing ribbons. The Christmas temptations are so rare that despite his years he hasn’t had time to learn what is right and what is wrong.
Our life of faith isn’t necessarily about obeying a list of rules or doing things the way someone wants us to do it. It isn’t about doing what is right and not doing what is wrong. Faith is trusting in God’s grace and mercy so that we can live in the forgiveness He has promised. But, we are called to respond to this Good News with a life of faithful living. When we live in faith, we are careful not to lose touch with the God who has given us the incredible gift of Jesus Christ. We keep in touch with our God through prayer, study and the sacraments. And when we are in touch with our God, our life reflects the things He expects of us. He expects good works and right attitudes, not demanded for salvation but given so that the world will see Him glorified in our lives. But all too often, we continue to act like kittens or babies, still taking the milk without solid food, doing what we want rather than living a mature faith that knows the difference between good and evil.
“That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full.” 1 John 1:1-4, ASV
We saw a limousine on the street the other day. It used to be a moment of wonder when a limousine passed because you knew that behind those shaded glass windows there was someone famous or important. We don’t wonder so much, anymore, because there are so many companies that hire out limousines for special occasions, for affordable prices, that it could be almost anyone inside. High School kids chip in together to rent a limo for the prom. Brides book special cars for their wedding day. I heard a story once about a guy who wanted to have a really great birthday, so he hired a limo service to take he and his friends from bar to club to bar to celebrate. Just because a limousine drives down a road near my house does not mean that someone important or famous has decided to visit the common folk. It might just be a common person behind that shaded glass.
There is a good reason why powerful, rich and famous people separate themselves from the public. It can be dangerous. Heads of state need protection. Stars can be overrun by adoring fans. Rich people are constantly accosted by people seeking money and donations. Leaders are busy and can’t waste their time getting hung up in conversation with everyone who has input about their business. Sometimes they do it to avoid the public, but there are often reasons they have to do so.
But, I have to admit that I enjoy hearing stories about important and famous people who mingle with the common folk. When we visited Balmoral Castle, the Scottish retreat for Queen Elizabeth and her family, we were told that she tends to visit with the people who are visiting, chatting with the guests and making them feel at home, when she is there. Unfortunately, we visited Balmoral on a day she was not present, so we never got to meet her face to face.
It is time for the royal family to gather at Sandringham, the family’s country estate a few hours outside of London. Now, when they go there for Christmas, the home is closed to tours so that the family will have a peaceful vacation. Queen Elizabeth has access to a special train—the Royal Train—but it is very expensive to use. So, this year she decided to get to a ticket on the train that runs from London to Norfolk. She had a car for herself and her attendants, first class, of course. Instead of spending tens of thousands of pounds to travel to Sandringham, the tickets cost less than fifty pounds a piece. That is a nice savings for the taxpaying public of England. Along the way, Queen Elizabeth even took a moment to greet a girl with flowers and smile at a toddler that escaped his father’s grasp.
It is important for people like Queen Elizabeth to have a way to get from one place to another safely and in good time, but it is nice to know that she doesn’t think herself too good to use the same transportation as the people of England. It is good to know that she is willing to stop for a moment to receive a gift or smile at a child. All too often, the powerful, rich and famous of our world prefer to remain separated from the common people. They use helicopters to take them from one place to another. They own private jets. They rent an entire restaurant so that they do not have to mingle with the public. I’ve even heard of people renting an entire movie theater so that they can watch a movie in peace. I have to admit that there are times I have wished I could have done something like that; it would be nice not to have to put up with the tall guy in front of me or the screaming child behind.
But it is easy for the powerful, rich and famous to forget what it is like to be real and humble. They set themselves on a pedestal, above all others, demanding special assistance because of who they are. But in setting themselves apart, they miss out on some special moments. I bet even Queen Elizabeth will remember the image of that young boy with his nose pressed to the window of the train door. He made her smile. He touched her heart. We can’t experience those things if we hide ourselves in private jets and shaded glass window limousines. We are meant to enjoy one another no matter our station in life. After all, Jesus had the glory of Heaven and He left it all to dwell on earth as one of us.
“It is a good thing to give thanks unto Jehovah, And to sing praises unto thy name, O Most High; to show forth thy lovingkindness in the morning, And thy faithfulness every night, with an instrument of ten strings, and with the psaltery; With a solemn sound upon the harp. For thou, Jehovah, hast made me glad through thy work: I will triumph in the works of thy hands. How great are thy works, O Jehovah! Thy thoughts are very deep. A brutish man knoweth not; Neither doth a fool understand this: when the wicked spring as the grass, And when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; It is that they shall be destroyed for ever. But thou, O Jehovah, art on high for evermore.” Psalm 92:1-8, ASV
Just when you think everything is going too smoothly, something happens to bring chaos into the order. Our chaos has come with the sound of squeaking brakes on our way home from church yesterday. Thankfully the car continued to stop when I wanted it to, but we knew that the brakes had to be fixed before we made any major trips. Unfortunately, with Christmas just four days away, there’s too much to do to leave the car sitting around on the driveway.
So, Bruce and I got up early this morning and took it to a local car repair. The repairs will cost a lot of money, but no amount is too much for the safety of our family. This is not the best time to have an extra bill to pay; I don’t know about you, but our bank accounts are diminished by holiday festivities. But when is it ever a good time to have unexpected expenses? We’ll find a way.
As much as we hate to spend the money, the hardest part is the wasted time. We had plans for today, things that have to be accomplished. Now those errands will have to wait until another day. Our schedules are filled with holiday festivities and there are still things that need to get done. How will we manage with an entire day lost? Again, we’ll find a way. Maybe something will have to be set aside. We can live without that extra present and we can find something tasty in our pantry to create a dish for the potluck. Instead of become hassled by the chaos, we can see this as an opportunity. In the midst of this hectic time, we can receive this day as a gift, a chance to rest, a day of possibilities and promise. We can watch a movie together, try a new cookie recipe, or take the time now to do some of the things we planned to do later. It doesn’t have to be a wasted day just because we can’t do what we expected.
We can be thankful that we found the problem now. We could have been far from home, running our errands, when the brakes stopped working. We might have even been in an accident. We might think that this is inconvenient, but how much worse could it have been? One day without a car is much better than any of the other possibilities. Perhaps this hardship was God’s way of keeping us safe. And though we think now is not a good time, tomorrow might just have been worse.
So, we can grumble and complain about what has happened. We can worry about whether or not we have enough money to cover the costs or time to do what needs to be done. But instead of thinking negatively, we can praise God that it was not worse and be thankful that we are all safe. It is all about the attitude.
With only four days left until Christmas, how are you feeling? Are you happy, rested, peaceful? Are you ready or do you feel like you will never get anything done? What would happen if you found yourself in the middle of a crisis right now? Could you survive without your car or would you panic if you lost a day? Can you find thankfulness in the midst of chaos and praise God even when you know things are out of your control?
“But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, And gave gifts unto men. (Now this, He ascended, what is it but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a fullgrown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Ephesians 4:7-13, ASV
I don’t exactly know why, but I have been enjoying all the Christmas movies on those chick flick channels this season. The movies are formula and campy. There is always an evil dude out to ruin Christmas and some kid with big brown eyes that makes you go “Awwww.” The conflict is generally different but is similar in all the stories: someone can’t pay a bill or buy presents or accomplish a task and is being harassed by the bad guy who is more than willing to take what little money, or stuff, or time that he or she can. Something happens to make the bad guy look at life and Christmas and the suffering people a little differently and they give in to the feeling of the season. In the end, someone falls in love or gets their heart’s desire and everyone lives happily ever after.
So, I don’t know why I have enjoyed watching these movies this year. I suppose it has something to do with the happy endings. Someone always discovers the beauty of faith and is transformed by it. I like the feeling of peace that comes with the resolution of the conflicts. I like that every movie ends with a Merry Christmas. I suppose that isn’t very realistic, since too often our endings are not so happy. Life doesn’t normally solve itself in two hours. But when times are tough, it is good to know that sometimes things do work out for good.
Some of this year’s new movies are based on real life stories. One movie is based on the life of Thomas Kincaid. It was a lovely story of a boy turning into a man who discovers his gift is bringing the light to people. This is a lesson he learns from a man who had lost the love of his life and touch with the world and from his mother who was losing everything. He found grace and has spent his life sharing it with others.
Another movie I really enjoyed was based loosely on the life of a man who started a choir. Pierre Anthian was a man of faith that was called to serve at homeless shelters, first in Paris and then in Montreal. He was a dentist, but was trained in music. When in Canada, he discovered some homeless men that had a talent for singing. He eventually gathered twenty men together and they started singing on street corners and in the subway for some money. The men were too proud to take charity but unable to overcome all that kept them from being able to care for themselves. The few dollars they earned gave them a sense of independence and victory.
The Accueil Bonneau Choir became very successful. They were popular locally until a tragedy put them on the front page of the international news. The Accueil Bonneau shelter burned to the ground, killing three, injuring sixteen and leaving many without a warm place to sleep. The choir performed at a fundraising event and the center was rebuilt. The choir recorded six albums and performed internationally. With every success, the men became more confident and had a better self-image. This led many of the men to overcome their fears and find a place in the world with jobs and homes. Pierre changed lives by following a calling to use his gifts.
In the end, Pierre Anthian and his choir touched many lives, although I doubt that was his intent when he began the choir. As a matter of fact, I think they all would have been happy to have a few extra dollars in their pockets. Pierre did what he felt called to do. Thomas Kincaid found a way to share the light. They used their gifts and walked forth in faith. How much could we do if we did the same?
Scriptures for Sunday December 27, 2009, First Sunday of Christmas: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
“And he hath lifted up the horn of his people, The praise of all his saints; Even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye Jehovah.” Psalm 148:14, ASV
I’m sure many of us are making those annual treks home to visit family and friends. This is particularly true in our society where children do not always stay close to home. No matter how far we roam, however, there’s no place like home for the holidays, so they say. And so, many have packed their suitcases, gathered their gifts and gone by plane, train or automobile to that place where family has gathered for the holiday.
While it might be easier for us to go long distances, after all, we can drive hundreds of miles or fly thousands of miles in just a day, we aren’t the first to take regular pilgrimages to visit the ones we love. As a matter of fact, in today’s Old Testament lesson we see Hannah taking an annual pilgrimage to offer her sacrifices and to see her beloved son Samuel, the son that God gave to her when she was thought to be barren. Each year she took Samuel a new robe and Eli blessed the family. Each year Samuel was found to be growing in many ways. How hard it must have been for Hannah to leave her son year after year; even harder for her than for us in these modern times. At least we have telephones and email. She had to wait another year each time she went home.
In the Gospel lesson, we see the story of another boy growing in stature and favor. Jesus was twelve years old and His family traveled to Jerusalem for the annual festival. They traveled in large groups, for safety on the road and because they stayed close to family. Uncles, cousins, grandparents were all together, enjoying the adventure of the journey. Their families we close because they lived close. Everyone cared for everyone. One child could easily be lost in the crowd. Jesus, at twelve, was old enough to be somewhat independent. It is no wonder that Jesus was not with Mary and Joseph during the trip. They thought He was in the crowd.
Eventually they went looking for their son and could not find Him. Can you imagine the panic? Most parents have a moment like that with their kids. For me, Victoria was playing in the clothing racks at a department store and then was suddenly gone. I called and searched; others joined in the search. I was in tears out of fear. It didn’t help that there had been a nationally reported kidnapping of another child just weeks before this incident. I couldn’t help but think about the worst possibilities. We eventually found her, crying hysterically in a dressing room at the other end of the store. All was well in the end, but for a brief period of time I was inconsolable. I know how Mary felt at that moment when she realized He was gone.
I also know how she felt when she found Jesus. I was so happy that Victoria was found, safe and sound, but angry that she had wandered off. “How could you do this to me?” I asked. So did Mary. We often place Mary on a pedestal, forgetting that she is a normal woman and mother. And though Jesus was the Son of God, He was also her son and a twelve year old boy. In this story we see this holy family not as something extraordinary, but as ordinary as you and I.
However, Jesus was not quite ordinary. He wandered off, not because He was playing in the racks of clothes at a department store or even to play stick ball in the streets. He was in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions. His questions were not like a normal child’s questions, but were thoughtful and intelligent. He amazed the teachers with His understanding. He amazed even His parents. Even so, Mary asked, “How could you do this to us?” He didn’t understand their concern. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Samuel and Jesus were extraordinary young men. They were where they belonged, even if their mothers didn’t quite understand. We have to let our children go when they become adults, as they go off to college. Hannah and Mary had to let their boys go at a much earlier age. But they were equipped for the work they had to do. God was with them. Perhaps we would be more patient with our children if we could be so sure that God is with them, too.
There is so much for us to learn. I’m not sure we as adults feel equipped to do the work God calls us to do. Paul writes to the congregation at Colossae, “Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness.” I’m not sure I can do all this. I can’t seem to do it all the time, at least. Perfect? Not in this life.
But we are chosen, not because we are perfect, but because God loves us and because God has spoken His word into our lives. As one of God’s chosen, God’s word dwells within us. With His word in our hearts and His teaching in our minds, we can do everyone in His name with thankfulness and praise. That’s what He wants from us.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph did not understand. I do not think that their doubt was about His identity as the Son of God. They knew. The angels told them. Instead, I think they were surprised that Jesus knew it. He was a young boy, not yet ready for the responsibilities that would be hoisted upon Him. He was still a child, innocent and impressionable. They weren’t ready to give up their responsibility for Him. They had more to teach Him, more to do for Him. However, He knew. The day they had been dreading was closer than they thought. It could not have been easy living with the knowledge that Jesus was destined for something great but that greatness would come at a price. Mary treasured every moment she had with Jesus, even when those moments were filled with anxiety. She had an inner peace that is beyond human understanding even while the world around her seemed chaotic and out of control. She had that peace because she trusted in God, and did all she did for His glory.
Peace, true peace, does not necessarily mean that our lives will be without conflict. December 26th is the day we remember St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. On December 28th we remember the Holy Innocents, the children massacred in Bethlehem at the hands. We find ourselves this Sunday between these two horrific moments. Yet, in the midst of it we are called to praise.
Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. If only we would spend some time each day just praising God, singing songs of adoration and admiration, we might realize more quickly how inconsequential our troubles really are.
We are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to join with the entire creation to sing praises to God our Father. He hears our praise wherever we are, because everything He has made sings along with us. It is humbling to realize our place in this world especially when we consider the heights of the mountains, the depths of the seas. When we look at the magnificence of His creation and wonder at the vastness of the heavens, we realize we are just a tiny part of it all. Yet, He has created us to be the crown of His creation.
Then, when we look at the life of Samuel and the life of Jesus, who even as young men knew their place in the world, should we not at least dwell in presence of our God and sing His praise with one another? He has given us the heavens and the earth. He has given us the sun and the wind and the rain. He has made the animals, birds, plants and trees for us. And He has given the care and love of one another. But most of all, He has given us His Son who brings peace to a world filled with chaos. Jesus is the horn of our salvation, the baby born in Bethlehem, the boy lost in the teachings of the Temple, the man who died on the cross.
The peace we have in Christ does not guarantee a world without suffering. We’ll see horrific moments. We’ll panic in the face of danger. We’ll cry when we are afraid. We will have to let go, let others take their place in the work of God, give up the things we hold most dear. But as we dwell in Christ and sing His praise together, we will continue to grow like Samuel and Jesus, in wisdom and favor until the day we will know the perfection of God’s kingdom in our life today.
Scriptures for Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6, ASV
Are you tired yet? Has the hustle and bustle of the past few weeks caught up with you? Do you still have a million things to accomplish before the festivities begin this evening? It is finally Christmas Eve, and whatever we planned to accomplish for this holiday must be done now or it won’t happen. Funny, though, the retailers are taking advantage of every moment. They are having special sales today for those last minute shoppers. Even the online shops are working to get customers, even though the packages could not possibly make it in time. “Send an online gift certificate!” they say, giving even the worst procrastinator a way to fulfill their duties.
I’m afraid to discover I missed something on my shopping list because I really don’t want to go out there today. Despite the fact that most people did not have to go to work today, the traffic is insane. Bruce went to the bank and noticed the grocery store parking lot was jam packed, which means the store was also jam packed with shoppers. The neighborhood seems quiet this morning; perhaps most of our neighbors are bundled against the cold windy weather outside. Or, they are busy doing the last minute tasks of wrapping and decorating and cooking for tonight and tomorrow.
Most of us will try to be ready by early evening, when we will head out to church to worship the God who has come to us. We will remember the reason for the season, even if we haven’t taken the time during the past few weeks to think about Jesus. But even as we make those last minute touches on our presents and our feast, let’s keep in mind the humble and lowly state of our Lord when He was born so long ago. Mary and Joseph, tired after a long journey settled into the warmth of a stable where Mary gave birth to her son. She wrapped him and laid him in a feed box. The One to feed the world spent His first moments of life where the animals eat. Yet this child would have the most significant impact on human history than any other person ever born.
We might be exhausted by the hustle and bustle of the past month, as we have run ourselves ragged preparing for this day. We might even have more work to do to make tomorrow special for those we love. But for a brief moment, let’s remember why this day is special. Light has come into the world. A child has been born. Let heaven and earth sing for joy. What has been promised has come and is coming. Salvation is ours now and will be ours forever because God has come in the flesh to redeem us. Humble and lowly, Jesus Christ has come to turn our world upside down, to transform the world into all that He has created it to be. God be praised.
I pray that you will have a blessed and wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Keep Christ in your heart and in your mind today and always, remembering who He is and all He has done. And live as if you know that Jesus Christ is King so that God will be glorified in the world.
“Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him: because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” 1 John 3:16-20.ASV
It is hard to know how much of “based on real life” movies are really based on real life. They are often based loosely on the lives of real people, but have used artistic license to make the story fit the expectations of an audience. It needs to be interesting, believable and fit into a certain amount of time. This often takes some creative reworking of a real story. So, when we watch a movie “based on real life” we have to remember that the story may have been changed. That doesn’t mean the story is not true. Often, the story in the movie seems to settle conflict a little too easily; the resolution often seems too miraculous. Yet, the reality might actually be more miraculous than is suitable for a movie. Real life can sometimes be too unbelievable.
Take the story of Michael Oher, retold in the movie “The Blind Side.” Michael Oher was a young black man who was growing up in extreme circumstances. He had a drug addicted mother, his father left when he was very young and was murdered when he was a senior in high school. He lived in the worst neighborhood, seduced by the drugs and violence that created a false sense of family among the gangs. He was in and out of foster homes throughout his childhood, sometimes homeless. He attended eleven different schools by ninth grade. He was big and strong, but a very quiet boy. Most people thought he was stupid, and they were frightened by his appearance, so everyone left Big Mike alone. Yet, what he needed was a family. He needed someone who loved him. He needed someone willing to go out of their way to care for him. Leigh Anne Tuohy was that person.
Michael Oher’s story is amazing, but I was fascinated by Leigh Anne. She is portrayed in the movie as a strong willed woman, determined to get her way no matter the circumstances. She is unusual in that her response to Big Mike was not one of fear, but of love. Even from the first moment, Big Mike made her smile. When she realized he was homeless, she gave him a place to live. When she realized he had no clothes, she taught him to shop. When she realized he needed help catching up from a lifetime of poor education, she hired a tutor. When he was learning to play football, she found a way to use his gifts to do it well. Because of what she did for Michael, he is now playing for the Baltimore Ravens, having overcome a lifetime of obstacles because of the love and care of one woman.
What I found most fascinating about Leigh Anne was her ability to see Michael’s needs and to meet them. On Thanksgiving, Leigh Anne invited Michael to stay to eat. Everyone else grabbed a plate of food and found seats in the family room in front of the football game on the television. Michael sat at the dining room table. Leigh Anne saw that he needed a family. He needed to see what it could be like to be part of a loving family. So she turned off the television and moved dinner to the table. They prayed together, and ate together, and started to get to know this pussycat in a bear suit that had entered their lives.
The next day, she insisted that they go shopping so that he would have more than two shirts and one pair of pants. He didn’t want to take charity and refused to tell Leigh Anne anything about himself. She stopped the car and said, “Big Mike, tell me one thing I need to know about you.” He answered, “I hate being called ‘Big Mike.’” She never called him that name again. He was always Michael. She respected his feelings, gave him the room to be himself while encouraging him to be more.
In the movie we see a peak into why she was so caring. She was a Christian and tried in all things to be a good Christian woman. What we don’t see in the movie is how important her faith was to her. She had an integral role in creating and building Grace Evangelical Church is Germantown, Tennessee. She didn’t just do things because it was her duty to do so. She did things because she had a gift of discernment and didn’t know how not to do it. When she saw Michael, she needed to care for him. She trusted God and had no fear even while the world was shocked and afraid by the incredible situation. She only doubted (at least in the movie) came when someone else questioned what she was doing. She wondered if she was right in doing what she was doing, but was always encouraged to continue when she caught glimpses of God’s transforming grace in Michael’s life.
When some of her rich friends acted so impressed by her willingness to do the Christian thing, they said, “You are changing his life.” She answered, “No, he is changing our life.” And while these were scenes in a movie and not necessarily the truth, I think the real Leigh Anne probably thought exactly the same thing. If only every Christian could live like Leigh Anne. Unfortunately, we are quick to respond like the world, judging every book by its cover. We see a boy like Michael as a threat rather than an opportunity. We would rather write a check than become involved. We want to change the world to be like us rather than allow the people whom God sends our way to help us see the world through new eyes. Leigh Anne had a special gift, Michael was not just a project she could do to feel better about herself. She loved him because he was a child of God. We, too, can trust God and answer the opportunities He sends our way with love, faith and joy.
“And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren: and whom he foreordained, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” Romans 8:28-30, ASV
In yesterday’s devotion we heard the story of a boy who overcame incredible odds, with the help of some friends. Michael Oher has become a success in life and on the football field because one woman and her family removed him from the one world and welcomed him into another. They invited him into their family and he was able to escape a world where kids are lost daily to gangs, drugs and violence. He might have been lost to the system, and was for a time, but he got lucky. Someone cared and found a place for him where he could grow into the man he is today.
Another boy in the story was not so lucky. This young man was also a good athlete and was even playing football at the junior college. He was convinced by his homeboys that he didn’t belong in that world, so he dropped out and joined the gang. During one scene in the movie, it was obvious that this young man was jealous that Michael had found a way out of that world. This young man was getting lost in the cracks, like many children. The get passed from foster home to foster home until they drop out of the system completely and end up homeless or crashing in a crack house. The end is rarely pretty. Most of these kids either die on the street or end up in prison. For the friend of Michael who might have had a chance, the end came from bullet in a drive-by.
On Thursday and Friday of last week we celebrated the birth of a child that might have been lost in the system. Jesus was born in a stable because his mother and father could not find an appropriate room to stay. Shortly after his birth, he was sent to a foreign land because the king was threatened by his presence. An angel warned Joseph, so they fled to Egypt, to live for a season until God gave them a sign to return to their home in Nazareth. How hard it must have been to be in a strange place with people they did not know and a future they could not guarantee.
Unfortunately, a number of children were lost because of Herod’s unwarranted fear. When he discovered that a king had been born in Bethlehem, and that the wise men went home by a different route to avoid telling him where to find the child, Herod decided to take matters into his own hands. He had every child less than two years old killed. We have always imagined this to be a scene of blood of many children running down the streets, although it was probably a much smaller number. Every child that dies at the hands of one man’s fear and greed is one too many. This is why we remember the Holy Innocents on December 28th, so close to the birth of Jesus.
We remember another martyr in the days following Christ’s birth. Saint Stephen is remembered on December 26th. It seems odd that we would remember so much death so close to the birth of Christ and yet as we remember those who suffered for the sake of Jesus, we can also rest in the knowledge that God took care of each and every one of them in death as in life. We remember the saints that have died, so that we can live in the trust and hope of Christ. They weren’t lost in the cracks; they were given an even greater purpose and will be remembered for all time as special in God’s eyes. But we should not allow that to make us complacent to those who might be lost in our world today. As remember the children who died at the hand of Herod, and the saints like Stephen who willingly gave their lives for the Gospel, we are called to put our own lives on the line to save the ones who might be lost, whose lives might not have a happy ending.
Scriptures for January 3, 2009, Second Sunday of Christmas or Epiphany: Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12; Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:[1-9] 10-18 or Isaiah 6-:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
“Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of Jehovah is risen upon thee.” Isaiah 60:1, ASV
We went to visit one of those drive-through Christmas light displays a few nights ago. This particular drive is on twelve acres of land, nearly a mile long with 1.5 million lights. They have everything from a huge tree to a playful winter wonderland, biblical stories from Noah’s Ark to the Exodus to Bethlehem and the Nativity and even the cross and empty tomb. Finally the drive winds through the North Pole with Santa and the elves skiing in between dealing with final Christmas preparations. It is a cute place with lots of lights to see. It is also a little tacky, with a few blow-up displays and Santa playing football. But then, how can you put that many lights into one place without getting tacky?
I took my camera along, just in case I could get some decent pictures. It is very hard to get good shots of Christmas lights. It takes a very steady hand, which is especially hard when you are in a moving car. It didn’t help that I could only aim at the displays on the passenger side of the vehicle. Since there were many cars on the drive, you couldn’t stop very long to enjoy anything. And you couldn’t get out to enjoy anything up close. I tried taking a few pictures, but most of them came out blurred. I eventually realized that I didn’t need to try so hard to document the displays, but instead found it fascinating to photograph the light. I purposely held the camera so that the lights would blur, leaving lines of color instead of identifiable characters or scenes. I focused on the light and the pictures have given me patterns that I may be able to use in some interesting creation.
It is hard to pay attention to just one thing as you drive through one of those light displays. Just as you are beginning to understand the scene, your attention is caught by the next lights. I found myself looking back and forth, from one side of the street to another, trying to catch everything. As we turned a corner, a light flickered or a moving display made us look in a new direction. We were drawn to the light.
Have you ever driven through Kansas at night, along the interstate highway? You can go for mile after mile in darkness. The only lights are the ones on the cars. Occasionally you will spot a light in the distance; mile after mile you drive without seeing any change in the light, it is almost as if it must be moving away from us because we never catch up to it. Eventually the light gets closer and then passes by, illuminating the porch of a ranch house in the middle of nowhere. Those lights always gave us hope in the night.
Light penetrates darkness. It doesn’t take very much light to change a dark room. A candle flickering in darkness makes things visible. A flashlight in a dark forest helps guide the way. Christmas lights on a house help make the cold winter nights feel warm and cozy.
Epiphany is about light. The wise men noticed a new light in the sky and they followed it, knowing that it was a sign of something spectacular that has happened. The light was drawing those men to something. It caught their attention. And the light was not just a star in the sky. It was the living Christ, the Light of the world.
Isaiah writes, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of Jehovah is risen upon thee.” When we read the promises of the Old Testament, it is easy to think that they aren’t for us today. After all, we are not Israel, we are not children of Jacob and we do not claim Abraham as our father. We are gentiles, foreigners from another time and place. We are thousands of miles from Jerusalem and thousands of years from the promises. How can this be for us?
Epiphany is defined as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” Throughout the history of the Jews, God promised to send them a Messiah, a king who would deliver them from their bondage. The Old Testament is filled with words from the prophets and kings that speak of that promise and God’s faithfulness. The Jews longed for the day that promise would be fulfilled. In the passages we read for this Epiphany, we see that Christ has been revealed to the whole world. Isaiah writes, “And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Jesus Christ was the morning star; His birth was the dawn of a new age. He was light and He brought light into this dark world.
So, when the wise men saw the star (or the comet, or whatever astronomical phenomenon they saw), they knew that it was speaking of a change. They followed it, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. The nations did come to the light. The nations were not just Jews, but Gentiles. The promise was always for them, for the whole world. The wise men went to Jerusalem, because they found themselves in Israel and it made sense that the king would be born in the palace of the king. David was a great king of Israel who had drawn the nations. His son Solomon also drew the nations to Jerusalem as they sought his wisdom and brought gifts to honor him. Why would the King be born anywhere else?
The priests and scribes explained to Herod and the wise men the prophecy about Bethlehem. The Messiah would be born in the city of David. Herod sent the wise men to find this new king. He never wanted to worship Jesus. He was threatened by the birth of another king because he knew that his position was fragile. Though the Jews longed for the coming of the Messiah, Jerusalem was not ready to face the reality of what was happening. The Messiah might mean the salvation of Israel, but the coming also meant a radical shift from the status quo. What if the new king had new ideas? What if he not only ousted Herod, but also everyone else? They saw Him as an obstacle—a threat—to their way of life. Jesus was born among the Jews, but He came for us all. They did not recognize Him, they did not see Him as He truly is, the Lord incarnate sent to save the world from death and the grave.
Have you ever know one of those people who could draw people into their presence. There is something about them. They have a charisma, a special light that shines toward which others are moved. You can’t help it; you want to be with them, to listen to them, to follow them. Jesus had that affect on the people. Not everyone sees the light that shines; some are repelled. I suppose Israel might have expected anything of God would have repelled the Gentiles. How could they believe in what God has done since they are not part of God’s chosen? Yet, we find in this story a reversal. The light shines in the darkness and those in the darkness have seen it. Those who thought they were in the light missed it.
This is the mystery. Israel never expected that the Gentiles would understand God’s hand in the world, and yet it was God’s hand that brought the Gentiles to witness the child. Paul realized quickly during his ministry that he’d take the Good News to those outside Israel. He was the least of all the apostles because he was made an apostle apart from the twelve. Yet, from the very beginning, Paul knew His mission: to take the Good News to the whole world. It wasn’t clear to earlier generations that God’s salvation would reach beyond His people. But though they are not children through Abraham, they are adopted by God’s grace. Paul’s message would be sent to all nations, to the kings and authorities who would be drawn to the light.
It is interesting to hear the conversion stories of kings. Not all understand it immediately. Publius and the people of Malta thought he was a god. But he taught them about Jesus and the people believed. St. Augustine took the Good News to Britain and King Ethelbert and his people were baptized on Christmas in 597. St. Patrick took the story of Jesus to the pagans in Ireland, converting the king and the priests of the people who had once enslaved him, despite defying their traditions. The light they had drew the people to them and they believed.
Often we talk about the Gospel as it relates to the poor and needy of our world. But in today’s lessons, we see that there is also a place for the rulers. The light draws all people, young and old, rich and poor, those who lead and those who follow. It is important to recognize that the rulers are also called to see the light, for it is in living faithfully in our vocation that God can do His work. The ruler who knows God does what is right. When the king rules with righteousness, the people prosper under his care. The psalmist prays that the king will be gifted by God, drawing the nations and shining God’s light.
The psalm for today is a prayer given at the coronation of a king. It was used first by or for Solomon the son of David, and then for the kings that followed. It is the ideal reign of a king – a nation of peace and righteousness. It calls the king to a right relationship with His people, taking care of their needs and leading them in the right path. It is a prayer for a long reign, for a kingdom that spreads far and showers blessings on the entire world.
It is difficult for a human king to fulfill such a great expectation. David and Solomon were great kings, but they were imperfect. Like all human kings, they did not remain entirely faithful. At Christmas, we pray the prayer again, for another King of Israel, a king that will fulfill those expectations. He will be the righteous king, worthy not only to be honored with gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense, but also to be worshipped. And at Epiphany we see that this King will not only reach out and draw God’s chosen nation. He will draw all people with His light.
We are called to live in that light, to share that light so that the world will see God’s glory. He came to be the light and sent light so that the Gentiles might see. They followed the light so that we might see that He came for us, too. Epiphany tells us that the Good News is for all people. Thanks be to God.
“Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever. Let Israel now say, That his lovingkindness endureth for ever. Let the house of Aaron now say, That his lovingkindness endureth for ever. Let them now that fear Jehovah say, That his lovingkindness endureth for ever.” Psalm 118:1-4, ASV
It is New Year’s Eve. Actually, in some places that will read this devotion, it is already New Year’s Day. These two days and the weeks surrounding them are a time of reflection. We remember the past and look to the future. It is a time of counting our blessings, forgiving our enemies and starting anew. I’m sure many people have surveyed their lives over the past few weeks, thinking about resolutions to make for next year. How have we changed? What is new and different? What is the same? We think about yesterday and tomorrow, but during our New Year’s celebrations we rarely think about today.
The past is gone. In the story “The Lion King,” there is a scene between adult Simba and Rafiki. Simba has been gone from the Pride Lands a long time, afraid to return because of what he thinks he has done. Rafiki encourages him to go. Simba says, “I know what I have to do. But going back will mean facing my past. I’ve been running from it for so long.” Rafiki hits Simba on the head. “Ow! Jeez, what was that for?” asks Simba. Rafiki says, “It doesn't matter. It's in the past.” and laughs. Simba answers, “Yeah, but it still hurts.” “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it.”
The past can be joyful, too. We might want to relive those exciting moments: the birth of babies, the weddings, the graduations. We might want to experience again that special trip we took this year. The memories are wonderful, and we shouldn’t forget. But the things of the past will not happen in exactly the same way again. The past is gone.
The future is exciting. There is so much that can happen. Some of it won’t be very good, we know that. But we look forward to the great things that can happen. Perhaps this is the year for that promotion or for finding that special someone. We look forward to the future, but we have to remember that it isn’t a guarantee. We might not make it until tomorrow.
They say that yesterday is past, tomorrow is the future, but today is a gift, that’s why it is called the present. Have you treated today as a gift? Have you thought about the blessing of today? There is good reason to remember the past. I like remembering the stories of the previous year because we can learn from our failures and celebrate our successes. I also like looking into the future because there are so many things that I can do now that I’ve learned the lessons of the past. Yet, we really need to thank God for the present moment. Now is all we have.
So, on this New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day, lets keep in mind as we remember the past and look forward to the future that this moment is what really matters. Our life is lived now. Our opportunities are in front of our nose. Our memories and hopes are great, but the present is truly a gift. We only need what we have right now. So instead of wallowing in the memories or wishing for something new, lets enjoy the here and now, the people we can see and the experiences we can grasp. We’ll find so much pleasure in the reality that God is not just someone who was and will be, but that He is. And He provides for now. Let us embrace the now and praise God for it.