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 2011
December 1, 2011
“Thy lovingkindness, O Jehovah, is in the heavens; Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the skies. Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God; Thy judgments are a great deep: O Jehovah, thou preservest man and beast. How precious is thy lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge under the shadow of thy wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; And thou wilt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: In thy light shall we see light. Oh continue thy lovingkindness unto them that know thee, And thy righteousness to the upright in heart.” Psalm 36:5-10, ASV
I think I’m still stuffed from our Thanksgiving meal which was a week ago. We’ve been eating leftovers and I even had to freeze some of the turkey. Even though I was cooking for just the four of us, I still bought the biggest turkey I could find, and I cooked the sides as if I was expecting an army. Our table was overflowing with delicious food. It is never surprising when I overdo it for the holidays; I want to make sure everyone is happy and satisfied. I imagine that the same is true for most, if not all, of my readers.
When I read a scripture like today’s about the feast in heaven, provided by God out of His abundance, I can only expect the feast will be far greater than I have ever created. If my table is overflowing with goodness, God’s goodness can’t possibly be limited to a banqueting table! We know that God is able to do more than we can envision, so we read the text from the point of view that God’s feasts must be better than our Thanksgiving dinners.
But picture the table of a family in a small village in Africa. They are as thankful for some bread or porridge, fruit and clean water. Too many children, even in America, go to sleep with a grumble in their belly because they have not had enough food. What do they see in their mind’s eye when they read the promise that God will be sure that they are satisfied? Do they see an elegant feast fit for kings, or do they see a table filled with enough?
As I thought about this the other day, I began to realize that my image of what God has waiting for us is built on my life experience, and is rather selfish. We hear that heaven is filled with mansions and streets paved with gold. We imagine the banquet to be extraordinary and our robes to be the finest silk. We imagine our life in heaven as the life we always wanted on earth, with the best of the best and everything we ever desired at our fingertips. Perhaps it isn’t really selfish, because we have been promised that the world to come would be better than the world we have. Yet, is a bigger house, a shiny street and a banquet table filled with more lobster and Kobe beef than we can ever eat really better?
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8 that though Jesus was rich, gave up everything for our sakes to be born as a man and to die on the cross. The life He lived on earth was not filled with rich things. He may have banqueted occasionally as He ministered, but there were times when He was hungry. He walked everywhere, relied on the generosity of others and probably slept on the floor of someone’s living room more often than we can imagine. He was satisfied because He had enough. He knew God would provide, and God was faithful.
We may find heaven to be exactly what we expect, because God is faithful and He has promised that we will receive out of His abundance. But we can know without a doubt that we will be satisfied. Do we need a banquet table overflowing with good things to be satisfied? Do we need heaven to be a place full of mansions and gold covered streets? Perhaps this Advent would be a good time to think about what it means to be satisfied, to understand what it means to have enough.
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward. Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophesyings; prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, ASV
Mrs. Charles E. Cowman writes, “It was our privilege to spend a number of years in the mission fields of the Orient–Japan and Korea, but the trying climate and overstrain of heavy work cause my dear husband’s health to fail, and we were compelled to return to the homeland, where for six years a battle was waged between life and death. ‘Then cometh Satan,’ tempting us to faint under the pressure, but each time when the testings had reached their utmost limit, God would illumine some old and familiar text, or a helpful book or tract would providentially fall into our hands, which contained just the message needed at the moment. One day, while walking along the seashore, wondering almost of ‘God had forgotton to be gracious,’ a little leaflet lay at our feet. We picked it up and read, ‘God smiles on His children in the eye of the storm,’ and we caught anew a glimpse of His love face. ‘His choicest cordials were kept for our deepest faintings,’ and we have been held in His strong, loving arms these trying years till we have learned to love our desert, because of His wonderful presence with us. Our own trouble has drawn to us hundreds of troubled hearts and we have tried to ‘comfort them with the same comfort wherewith we have been comforted of God.’ For a period of three years we have passed on these daily messages to the readers of God’s Revivalist, and the numbers of requests that have come for them in book form have led to the publication of Streams in the Desert. The book is sent forth with a prayer that many a weary, way-worn traveler may drink therefrom and be refreshed.” – Lottie B Cowman, Foreword to Streams in the Desert 1925
Mrs. Cowman once said, “Two winds are necessary to lift our souls toward God: prayer and praise. Prayer asks. Praise accepts the answer.” The answers are not always what we wish them to be. When we are sick, we want to be healed. When we are lonely, we want to find friends. When we are poor, we want to be blessed with good things. Sometimes we are not healed. Sometimes friends do not come. Sometimes we are left wanting. Yet, even in those times of sickness, loneliness and poverty we are still blessed because God remains with us. When we remember that He is the answer to every prayer, we will see the blessing in all our circumstances and praise Him even when we do not receive the answer we desire.
So, the question we ask on this day of Advent is this: when is the best time to praise God? There is no best time because we are called to praise Him constantly. It might seem hard to praise God when we are sick and lonely and poor, but the reality is that it is equally as hard to praise God when we are healthy, well-liked and rich because it is in those times we forget to pray. We have no need, so we do not seek God. We have all we could want, so we do not pay attention to His presence.
But as we begin to live a life in the presence of God, praying and praising without ceasing, we will find that we will feel blessed no matter our circumstances. Mrs. Cowman was disappointed when the work they were doing in the Orient had to stop due to her husband’s illness, yet she managed to see God in the midst of their trouble. They learned to love their desert, to praise God for His presence even in those times when it seems like God must be far away. Living this life blessed by faith will grant us so many more opportunities to do God’s work and share God’s grace with others. Just when we think we have nothing left to give, we will see that God has already provided what we need to do what He is calling us to do. So, let us praise God trusting that God has already answered the prayers will we pray tomorrow.
“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
Two days before Thanksgiving, a local barbecue place experienced a fire. They are well known not only as a restaurant but as a caterer. They had turkey orders pending for the holiday, and the fire made fulfilling their promises difficult. The fire apparently was electrical and started in or near the kitchen, and though the smokehouse is a separate building, the kitchen and main dining room received the worst of the damage. It was going to be a challenge to take care of all their customers. The fire was a shock to us all, but probably more so to those families who were expecting a Harmon’s smoked turkey for their table. Would they have a turkey for Thanksgiving?
There is never a convenient time to experience disaster, but I know the people at Harmon’s are probably wishing it had not happened just before the holiday season. They have reservations for Christmas parties and catering jobs, all of which will be difficult to do. I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted this to happen at all, but it would have worked out better for everyone is this had happened in January.
The story was shocking, but there was something really wonderful about the attitudes of the people involved. It would have been easy to wallow in self pity, to be defeated by the fire. But they were not. They set up a temporary location in a part of their building that was not destroyed and delivered the turkeys to the customers. Since their appliances were damaged, they had to find a place to store their meat. With good, old-fashioned small town generosity, the fire department offered to keep the meat in their freezers. The owners are determined to reopen quickly and until then are making due as best they can. I’m sure that they will be up and running in no time.
We can’t schedule the hurdles that make our life more difficult. Disaster comes when it comes. What we can control is how we respond to disaster. The people in our small town have worked together to help this beloved business by being patient, generous and compassionate. I’m sure there will be those customers disappointed and upset by the inconvenience the fire will cause them, but most will find a way to make it work for the good of all. The owners have already shown their commitment by producing the turkeys under extraordinary circumstances.
Though the time was not convenient, we might just discover the spirit of Christmas in the midst of this disaster, as people help one another. Some might help with the clean-up, others with the grace to find another place to have their party. Others will help by continuing to support the business and the people who work there, from owner to busboy. We all know someone who is struggling this Christmas season. What can you do to help? The work we do to make life a little easier for someone does not have to be something great. It might just be enough to be patient or to share a kind word. During this season, let us be generous in our blessings so that those who are struggling might be help up through the trouble. As we are generous, we will be so much more aware of the generosity of God and experience the spirit of Christmas in a very real way.
“Be not deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” James 1:16-18, ASV
Christmas is often about going overboard. A funny series of television commercials shows families going the extra step to do something spectacular to celebrate the holidays. In one commercial, the spokesperson says that they wanted to have the best caroling group, so they hired Bette Midler. The plan backfired because she took over, singing her own song and leaving the other carolers speechless. Another one stars Gordon Ramsey, the chef known for being loud and demanding. The woman says that wanted to spare no expensive for their holiday dinner. The plan backfired when Gordon gets upset with the kitchen help, yelling about their incompetence and firing one of the staff. The commercials are for the Acura “Season of Reason Event”, and encourage people to buy their car for the holidays. Now, the commercial does not suggest buying the car as a present for someone, although anything at Christmastime has that underlying implication. Is it reasonable to give cars for Christmas?
Patrick Warburton, actor and star of the television series “Rules of Engagement” is the spokesperson for Honda. In one commercial for the Honda Civic LX he asks the question, “Are you a millionaire?” Then he says, “No? Then you probably don’t give cars to people as presents.” He pulls a big red bow from the car, and then adds, “But you might need one for yourself.” He goes on to talk about the reasons for buying the car right now. I like this commercial because it is honest. Most of us won’t be buying cars for Christmas gifts. Other car companies show happy people surprising loved ones with every type of car in the driveway with a big red bow. When I watch those commercials I wonder, “Who really does that?”
Christmas is a season of giving, and it is not wrong to give generously to those we love. It is not wrong to give our loved ones the things they want. It is not even wrong to buy a car, although I tend to think a purchase like a car is best made with the person who will drive the car; it is too big an investment to buy the wrong one, and is usually not returnable.
What we have to remember in these weeks before Christmas is that the gifts are not the center of our celebration. We give because God first gave to us. We share our blessings because we have been blessed. If God had not first given to us, we’d have nothing to give others, both in Spirit and in material possessions. But let us remember, though God has blessed us with tangible things, the real gift is not something we can grasp with our hands or drive down the street. The real gift is the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. We have been blessed by His grace to share that grace with others. We have been saved to share His Word with the world. Whether we buy a car or some other gift for the one we love, I pray we will all share the gift of God’s Word during this season of giving.
Sunday, December 11, 2011, Third Sunday in Advent; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Luke 1:47-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
“He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light.” John 1:8, ASV
Have you ever gone visited a cave? That’s one of my favorite touristy things to do. There is something fascinating and beautiful about the formations. The stalactites and stalagmites are formed by dripping water leaving behind miniscule amounts of calcium; drop by drop the water leaves behind delicate structures like soda straws, cave bacon and even crystal in the shape of fish tails. Flowstones and cave popcorn are formed when water runs another way. Some cave sites are miles long, room after room of dripping water and beautiful ‘living’ stone.
One typical activity during a cave tour usually happens a spot where the tour group can sit for a moment. The tour guide warns the crowd that it is about to get very dark, explaining that we will understand how dangerous it was for the first discoverers. What would have happened if they lost their only source of light while exploring? Then the tour guide turns off the light. We are left in absolute darkness, so dark that we cannot even see our hands in front of our face. We can turn all the lights out in our house at night, but there is usually still some source of light. The moon and stars provide some light. The streetlights and clocks in our houses provide light. Even if we are in a room with no windows some light usually sneaks underneath the door. We do not really know what it is like to be in total darkness. It is a frightening experience to sit there in the cave, and we know we are safe. Imagine what it might have been for those first explorers, crawling through the dark, through puddles and mud.
After a few moments, perhaps just when the tour guide senses our extreme discomfort, he or she turns on the light again. Sometimes they will begin with just a flashlight, and we can see how hard it would have been for those explorers with so little light. The light of a flashlight only reaches so far, making it difficult to decide which direction to go or to see what else might be in the cave. But then they turn on the lights which have been wired and placed by the developers. We are given a full view of the cave again; we are able to see in the little nooks and crannies, able to see that there is nothing dangerous sharing the cave with us. We are able to see the way out. The tour guide is not the light, but provides access to the light.
John was not the light, but John was a witness to the light. He pointed the way. He pointed at Jesus. There were those who thought John might be the Messiah, but John never said he was. He told them from the beginning about the one who would come after him. This week’s Gospel lesson echoes what we heard last week: John was the one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. John knew that he was not worthy to be called the Messiah. He did not even think he was worthy to serve Him. Yet, that did not stop John from doing what He was called to do: prepare the way of the Lord.
His task, besides preaching, was to baptize the people for the remittance of sin. The priests and Levites were offended by his boldness. Who was John to baptize? Did he think he was the Messiah? Or Elijah? Or a prophet? John answered that his baptism was nothing. “I baptize in water: in the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not, even he that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose.” The baptism to come would be far greater than anything John could do. Even now, though, John warned them that they would not even recognize the Messiah. The Messiah was in their midst. He was standing with them on that shore, and they did not know it. It was like John could only turn on the flashlight: the Light would only shine by God’s power.
Many who went to John would never recognize the Messiah because they were not looking for the Servant that God would send. Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in Jehovah, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with a garland, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.” These words are echoed by Mary who says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Both Isaiah and Mary talk of the good news to the oppressed: the brokenhearted will be made whole and the captives will be set free. They offer hope in the midst of loss and fear. The leaders of the Jews were looking for someone strong, someone with earthly authority, someone with military power.
The scriptures today look forward to the ministry of Christ as an adult, which may seem strange as we are preparing for the babe in the manger. We are constantly rushing toward everything, can’t we just enjoy Christmas for what it is? Why do we look ahead to Christ the man while we are waiting for Jesus the baby? Why do we have to see His rejection even before He was born?
We are waiting for a promise, and the promise is not fulfilled in the manger. The baby we celebrate at Christmas is the incarnation of the God who has fulfilled the promises that we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson. Isaiah speaks with his own voice, but also with the voice of the One to come. Isaiah spoke to the Babylonian captives, but the words speak also to those who are imprisoned by other cages. We don’t have to be trapped behind iron bars to be imprisoned. Oppression, broken heartedness, captivity can come in many forms. Isaiah looked forward to the day when the exiles would return to Jerusalem. We look forward to the day when all those who suffer will experience God’s grace.
At Christmas we are faced with the shocking image that God broke into the world: not as a white haired king to rule, but as an innocent and helpless child who lived and loved and learned about the world just like you and I. Yet that infant was different. He was not just another human born into a cruel and chaotic world. He was, and is, the Word in flesh. So, while we see the image of God in the manger at Christmas, and adore the image of the baby in His mother's arms, we are reminded that the baby also came for a purpose: to glorify God in the most shocking and horrifying manner. He lived and loved and served, but He came to die. He came knowing that He would be rejected by the very people to whom He was sent.
A few were blessed with the faith to believe. John knew Jesus the moment He was revealed. The disciples knew Jesus as He taught them about God. Mary knew Jesus from the moment she conceived, and she praised God for the promise that was to come with His birth. God chose to redeem the world by taking on the very shape of the creature that has done the most damage—the one who was created in His image but turned away—man. God came in flesh to save the world. God chose a young woman living in Nazareth to be the vessel of this great gift. Her purpose was to bear the Christ child. The good news that brings us such joy at Christmastime could not have been very good news for Mary. Yet, despite the suffering she would experience, the rejection and the ridicule, Mary rejoiced in Her blessedness. She would be a torchbearer, too.
Mary received the news with joy. She accepted her purpose in life with thanksgiving and praise. Could we praise God if we found out that we have been chosen to do the impossible? She may not have completely understood the plan. She may not have realized that her son would be brutally murdered at the end of His life, but she gave herself over to the call of God without fear or doubt. She saw her purpose and willingly faced it. She echoes the words of Isaiah, praising God for fulfilling the promises He made to their forefathers. “And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,” she sings.
The same joyful hope is found in the psalm for today. The psalmist recognizes that the great works of God in and through His people reveal His presence in this world. When we praise God for His goodness, the nations see His mercy and His grace. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them.” In our joy we are witnesses to the Lord. We are the ones with the flashlight.
But Paul takes this joy to an extreme. “Rejoice always,” he says. How is that possible, especially at this time of year? At Christmastime we expect everyone to be happy. We are singing songs like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Jingle Bells.” At this time of gift giving and parties, it seems like we should be happy all the time. And yet, by the middle of Advent we begin to get worn out. It is as often a time of depression for folk. We are exhausted, broke and there are a million things we would like to do but can’t find the time or finances. Those who have lost loved ones feel the loss especially hard at this time of year. The physical darkness of winter and the nasty weather does not help. Instead of joy and hope, we all too often feel pain and despair. Instead of the fulfillment of promises, we know only disappointment.
Perhaps that’s why we are reminded of the big picture on the third Sunday of Advent. If we were waiting just for a baby in a manger, it would not be easy to remain joyful. But we are waiting for more: we are waiting for a Savior. Though it might seem impossible to rejoice always, but it are the very acts that Paul encourages that will give us the strength to face the hard times.
This passage finishes with these words from Paul, “Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.” We can trust in the promises. The good news is that we will not always be oppressed or imprisoned. We will not be brokenhearted forever. We will be set free from whatever has held us captive. We will know the favor of the Lord. Those who mourn will experience joy once again, even though it does not seem possible. We don’t have to laugh to rejoice, we simply have to trust that God will help us through.
The rest of Paul’s words in today’s passage do not seem any easier, “pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward. Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophesyings; prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” This is a great deal to ask of us. We cannot uphold all these expectations. We can’t rejoice always. We can’t pray without ceasing. We can’t, or don’t, give thanks in all circumstances. It just is beyond the ability of our flesh. We will doubt what we hear, and we should question every word, until we are sure that it comes from God. Our grasp is tenuous, and no matter how hard we try we will let go of what is good and we will fall into that which is evil. But through it all, the God who calls us is faithful and He will be with us and will help us through. He will help us to rejoice, pray, give thanks, listen, accept, grasp and abstain. And He will forgive us when we fail and give us another chance to live faithfully according to His Word.
We aren’t the light. The Christmas season isn’t about what we will do. This season is about God and what He did. Thankfully, it isn’t about us. We are going to fail. We are going to get too caught up in the commercial aspects of Christmas, buying gifts for all the wrong reasons. We’ll hang too many Christmas lights and bake too many cookies. We’ll forget to pray and we’ll get so wrapped up in ourselves that we will miss the opportunities to live, love and serve God’s creation in a way that will glorify Him. But we are reminded in these final days before Christmas that God came in flesh to fulfill His promises. He is faithful and He will use our gifts to shine His light in the world. He will be glorified despite our failure to live up to the purpose for which we have been created and called. But as we live lives of rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving, we will shine the light so others might be able to see in the darkness. We are no more worthy than John, but we are given the flashlight help others find the way. We don’t offer anything spectacular, but the One to whom we point will change hearts and spirits by His grace.
“And he hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ASV
I was a retail manager before I was married, working more hours than is typical for a full-time job. For a time it was like I was working two jobs; I spent normal hours at my store and the rest of my time helping with a remodel project at another store. In one three week period I put in more than three hundred hours. The paychecks were terrific, but I had no life outside my job. I relaxed during the hour long drive to and from work, and hit my bed as soon as I got home at night. It was a good thing that I was not married at the time, because I had no time for anyone.
When Bruce and I got married and I moved to California, I decided that I did not want another managerial job. I was happy to be a cashier, to work my few hours a week and do my job serving customers. It was easy to get a job with my resume; the home fashions department manager snapped me up immediately. I loved my job. I enjoyed helping people make choices about color and fabric and I was very good at my job. It didn’t take very long before the bosses took notice.
One day I spent hours helping a woman who was decorating a bed and breakfast. She walked out of the store after spending thousands of dollars, confident that her rooms would be beautiful and welcoming to her guests. She was so happy with her purchases that she wrote a thank you letter to the store manager, singing my praises. He called me into his office one day and thanked me for making such a good impression on our customers. He told me that her letter was not the first time he had noticed my hard work and enthusiasm. It made me feel good to know that I was doing my job well.
The department manager was not so thrilled. She was happy to hire me when she thought I could make her look good, but when my work brought attention to my own abilities, she began to worry. Despite my repeated assurances that I was only interested in working part time, she became convinced that I was trying to steal her job. After all, why would I work so hard if I weren’t working to rise in the company? That was her attitude; she was never happy with the job she had, she was constantly working to rise to the next rung on the corporate ladder. Instead of being happy that I was making her department look good, she began to undermine the work I was doing. She found ways to make me fail. She gave me the worst hours and rejected any requests for time off. She stuck me in the warehouse as often as she could so I couldn’t work with customers. She had the power but she was so frightened that she would lose the power that she destroyed herself in the process. I eventually quit that job and I heard that she was fired a short time later.
We live in a world where we are expected to strive to be the best, the highest, the strongest. We live in a world where we are expected to work so that we can move ahead. It is a world where accepting to be less than our potential is seen as weakness. Could I have been a good manager at that department store? Yes, I believe so. But I was happy with my job: it was enough. Paul knew what it was like to live with ‘enough.’ He recognized that true power was found in God’s grace. He didn’t need to strive according to the expectations of the world; he was happy to embrace weakness and let God’s strength shine through. As we journey through Advent, are we willing to be weak so that God can be strong? Are we willing to be less so that God can be more?
“And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. And it came to pass, when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child. And all that heard it wondered at the things which were spoken unto them by the shepherds.” Luke 2:8-18, ASV
I usually make a dozen different types of Christmas cookies and each type makes dozens of cookies. We give some of our cookies away to friends and neighbors, but we end up eating way too many cookies over the Christmas season. It is part of the holiday, a tradition that has carried over from our mothers and grandmothers. Since we are all trying to eat better, I don’t want to have so many sweets in the house. Also, though the children will be coming home soon, their time is too short to eat all those cookies. So, at Thanksgiving I asked them to tell me their favorite cookie. It is a hard request, I know, but I don’t want them to be disappointed.
This empty nest has affected the way I look at all my Christmas preparations. It has been hard to find the enthusiasm to decorate. I love decorating for Christmas with all my pretty things, but sometimes it seems like a lot of work for just Bruce and me. The kids will enjoy everything when they come home and I didn’t want to wait for them so that we can spend the little time we have enjoying everything. I missed having them around while everything was happening, but I’ll be glad to focus on them rather than the work.
Those traditions are an important part of our celebration because they are part of our memories. As I hung Christmas ornaments on my trees, I remembered when we got them or the people who gave them to us. One ornament is from when I was a child, a small gold ball that hung on our tree at home so long ago; it brought back memories of those Christmases with my mom and dad, sister and brother. Another ornament was made by my mother. Other homemade ornaments came from my sister, and there are some that I made myself. I have ornaments from Victoria and Zachary’s colleges, keeping them close even as they are far away. I have a few that remind us of our years in the military and from the places we have lived and visited over the years.
Many of the ornaments and other decorations around our house reflect the story of Jesus, both from the nativity and His later ministry. I have an ornament of a nail, reminding us that Jesus came to die. Stars and wise men remind us that Jesus came to be a light to the whole world. Doves remind us of the peace that comes from the Spirit of God. Angles call us to join with them in singing God’s praises. I think what I missed most about decorating with the kids around is talking about these things, sharing our memories and the story of Jesus that we all love to hear.
We do these things to remember, not only our own personal past but also the story of God in our world. The story of Jesus is not something meant only for private devotion or for worship within the walls of a church, it is meant to be shared with the world. The shepherds understood that what they heard was meant just for them, it was given for everyone. It might seem like too much trouble to get out all our decorations, but our own remembrances and stories help us continue telling the story that really matters: that Jesus came for the sake of the world.
“We speak wisdom, however, among them that are fullgrown: yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought: but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory: which none of the rulers of this world hath known: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory: but as it is written, Things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, And which entered not into the heart of man, Whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, ASV
When we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, I was taken aback by the adoration of Mary. As we toured the cathedral, I noticed woman on their knees at the foot of the statues of Mary. The toes of one statue were nearly worn away from the women’s hands that touched her, seeking comfort and grace. I have to admit that I was bothered by this at first, because they seemed to be giving Mary the honor that is due only to God and to our Lord Jesus Christ. I realized, however, that I had to consider the situation from the point of view of those women. They live in a society that treats women much as they were treated in the ancient days: as property. While their worship belonged only to God, they needed to take their pain to someone who would understand. They needed a mother who could comfort and love them, rather than a God who was a master.
We understand that God is much more than just a master. We see God from many points of view: as Creator, Redeemer and Savior. We see Him as Friend, Teacher and Shepherd. He can be what we need Him to be. If we need comfort, we know He will provide comfort. If we need forgiveness, we know He’ll provide forgiveness. We know that God can give us everything we need. But those women in Paris had a more narrow understanding of God because they saw Him through their own experience and knowledge.
They aren’t the only ones that turn to Mary for an understanding of Divine Grace. The native cultures in Mexico had great difficulty accepting the Christian faith when first visited by the missionaries that traveled with the conquistadors. They heard the stories of God and Jesus, but saw Him through eyes that could only see Him as a conqueror. Even if the missionaries gave them an image of God that is kind and full of grace, they understood religion in terms that any god must be greater than the greatest of men. The image of greatness that came from the Spanish was of a conquistador who oppressed and enslaved them. It is no wonder that after a generation only a few hundred native Mexicans came to faith in Jesus.
Then one day in 1531, miracles began to happen. A man named Juan Diego witnessed the appearance of Mary, the Lady of Guadalupe. Miraculous signs accompanied this appearance and it ended with the building of a church. When Juan went to the bishop with his vision, the bishop did not believe him. He wanted proof. So, when Juan asked for proof, the vision told him to pick some roses. By the time Juan returned to the bishop, the roses miraculously turned into an image of Mary on his cloak.
In that image, the native people of Mexico saw something they could not see in the conquerors. If the Virgin Mary was chosen by this God of the Spanish to bring His Son into the world, then He must not be just a conqueror. Thousands were amazed by the miracles and came to faith. They continue to be thankful that Mary brought them the truth of God, that Jesus is indeed a Savior, not an unapproachable God. Those for whom the image of God is distant can find Him through Mary, who was the least in her own world. They can see that God does not only honor and bless the great and powerful; He blesses and honors the lowly. Mary teaches us that God can come to people through means that may seem impossible to believe, touching them in a way that makes them see the truth beyond their circumstances.
Can you be like Mary? Can you be the way God speaks His grace into the life of someone who needs His salvation? Can you be the image that helps them see the truth of God despite their circumstances? We will never carry the Christ the way Mary did, in her womb and in her arms, but we will have opportunities to be the vision of Christ to others. God will appear to them through our lives, as we live the Gospel and speak God’s Word to our neighbors. God can use any of us to reveal Christ to the world. It isn’t by our power or greatness that Christ is made known, but by God’s grace.
Sunday, December 18, 2011, Fourth Sunday in Advent: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
“Go and tell my servant David, Thus saith Jehovah, Shalt thou build me a house for me to dwell in?” 2 Samuel 7:5, ASV
There may be a few churches that are growing and successful, but it seems to me that most churches are struggling in some way. The pews are less full than they were a few years ago, the bills are harder to pay. People are struggling, and so they have less to give to the church. The division that is seen so clearly in so many aspects of our life has found its way into the churches, too. The issues might be great or small, but they are there. Now, perhaps it is not worse today than always; after all, conflict has been a part of the Church since the beginning. Yet, in some ways it seems like we just don’t have the strength to fight the burdens and obstacles that are inside and outside our walls.
We are even finding it difficult to define our mission in the world. The neighborhoods around us are changing, and we have to realize that what we did a few years ago might not continue to be the work we should be doing today. It is easier to see in our own individual lives because we recognize that as we grow we have to change with our circumstances. I’ve been a mom for twenty-two years, but now that my children are grown, I will have different work to do. The same can be true with the Church, especially if we define ourselves by the work we do.
But perhaps that’s the problem. We invite people into our fellowship by using the programs and ministries as a draw. “My church has a great choir, come and hear them sing.” Or, “We are having our annual soup supper, come enjoy some homemade soup and stay for worship.” We ‘sell’ our church based on the good works we do around town, or the preschool where we help the neighborhood children grow in knowledge and in faith. These are all good; they are excellent ways to both share our gifts and reach out to the community. But they will never build the kingdom of God. Perhaps a family or two will become members because of the good things we do, but we will never be truly faithful if we think that we can build a house for God; we have to understand that God builds a house for us.
In the Old Testament lesson, David wanted to build a house for God. This is not a bad aspiration; David offered to do it as an offering to the God who had brought the people out of Egypt and built them into a great nation. David’s reign was a golden time. They were strong and independent, prosperous and full of joy. David simply wanted to give God the same rest and blessing that He had given to them. Nathan even thought it was a good idea, until God gave His word on the subject.
Our natural inclination is to ‘do something.’ When someone is sick, we ask what we can do. When someone is going through a tough time, we want to do something to help them through. When we face a time of struggle, we want to do something to get out from under the struggle. Even when things are good, we have to find something to do. We are blessed to be a blessing, so when we are feeling blessed, we strive to find a way to be a blessing. The trouble is, we often decide to do something for the sake of doing it, instead of waiting to discover what God intends for us.
David rightly wanted to do something to bless God. How could a temple be a bad thing? It would be a place where God’s people could gather and give Him honor and glory. God obviously was not against a temple because He gave the responsibility to David’s son Solomon to build it. David could even collect the materials that were necessary for building it. Yet, David was not given that responsibility. God asked, “Did I ever ask you for a house?” He didn’t need four solid walls because He stayed among His people wherever they went. He led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. The day would come when David’s seed would build that house, but that’s not where the promise really lies: the promise is that God will build the house and the kingdom. Out of David’s seed would come a kingdom that will never end, a throne that will last forever.
The time came for a temple, but it was not up to David or even Solomon to decide when it would be built. God is our guide, our true King. He is the one to whom we should turn when trying to discover our mission and ministry in the world. I know this is impossible, especially since you can ask a hundred people in a congregation and you’ll get a hundred different answers. But the reason we come up with so many answers is because we are asking the wrong question. We ask, “What should we do?” when we should ask, “What is God doing?” We try to build a temple when God is telling us to wait. When want to build a place where we can put God when He wants to build us into a place where He can dwell.
Of course, we are not very good at listening. How can we know for sure that what we are planning is, or is not, God’s will? Nathan didn’t know and gave David the go ahead. How do you trust one another when one is sure that they have heard God’s voice and another hears something completely different? How do you decide as a body to go one way when all the parts have heard different directions? Our uncertainty makes us struggle with one another. This is why the question should never be, “What should we do?” It isn’t about what we do, but what God does among us. The response we make to God’s grace is not something that is decided by a committee at a meeting, but naturally flows by faith.
Think of it this way: you have a hundred dollars to share. You sit down and make a list of all the charities that could use that hundred dollars and then consciously decide which one deserves it more. In the meantime, you discover your neighbor just lost his job and doesn’t have enough to buy groceries for the week. Charities are certainly wonderful ways to share our blessings; helping those organizations is good stewardship of our money. But we have to ask ourselves, are we open to the possibility that God is inviting us to use this blessing to do a kindness for our neighbor? Where is God working? What is God doing? What is God calling us to do?
Mary certainly didn’t ask for her blessing. Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given the most extraordinary purpose: to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” What if Mary had been like Sarah and Abraham, trying to fulfill the promise of God by her own works? We usually think that Mary was overcome by the Holy Spirit at this moment, but the scriptures do not actually say that it happened just then. What if there was some time—days or even weeks—between the promise and the fulfillment? What if Mary tried to become impregnated in those days or weeks instead of waiting for God?
But, Mary did not immediately think of ways to make this promise come to fruition. She asked the angel, “How can this be?” We should not read Mary’s response to the promise as doubt. She may have been frightened or perplexed, but perhaps she simply wanted to understand what was to happen. “How shall this be?” does not question God’s power to do the miraculous, but instead seeks information. She didn’t ask, “What shall I do?” She asked what God would do.
Mary willingly accepted the Lord’s Word and received His promise and she didn’t run off trying to make the promise happen. The point of this example is so that we’ll realize how often we jump into work for the sake of doing something rather than waiting expectantly for God to do His Work in us. We jump into a ministry because it sounds good, but we do not see what God is really working in us. Even worse, we hang onto ministries that are no longer viable because we aren’t willing to see where God is moving us. We want to build that temple and keep God in one place because is it so much easier for us to do what we want to do if God is kept in one place.
Yes, I know. I feel useless when I’m not doing something. I feel lazy and selfish because I’m not using my gifts at every opportunity. I feel like the possibilities are passing me by. I am worried that I’m missing something important. But I have learned that sometimes we miss the real work God has ordained for us because we are so busy doing the work that we think we are supposed to be doing. David had other work to do, so God put a stop on the work he wanted to do so that he could focus on the work he was meant to do.
We are just one week away from Christmas. The expectation is all around us, not only for the religious celebration of Christmas, but the secular. Children are excited for Christmas day. Families are anxious to gather together. Friends can’t wait to share the gifts they have purchased for one another. There may still be things to do, but our text for this fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us that we can’t make God come by our work. Christmas Day will come whether we finish our shopping or cook the perfect meal. Even moreso, Christ will come whether we are ready or not; and He’ll come in His way, not by our work. We can’t build the temple that God has built for us. We can’t make a kingdom that God already rules.
So, instead of asking the question, “What are we going to do?” perhaps it is time for us to simply praise God for the work He is doing among us, letting Him create the miracles that change lives in and through us rather than trying to constantly find things to do. Paul recognized that there was a mystery in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He saw that God was working miracles in people who were not of Israel. He saw Gentiles being moved by the Holy Spirit into faith, active faith. It wasn’t just a confession of the mouth, but it was a movement of spirit and flesh that was changing the world. One person’s testimony led to a community gathering together to praise God. That praise was testimony for others who joined along in the song. The scriptures tell us that hundreds, even thousands, came to believe just on the word of one or two witnesses. This seems impossible to us, especially when we think about the differences in culture between the apostles and the gentiles. Yet, God is able to do this thing. Our problem is that we spend so much time trying to make this happen in our churches that we miss what God is trying to do among us.
God is able to bring the obedience of faith through the words offered by those He has called to believe. He is able to give strength to His people to face extraordinary odds, to do the impossible, to tell stories that are ridiculous and yet true. The purpose of the Gospel is not only the salvation of those lost in the darkness, but to bring the obedience of faith to those who hear the message. God is able to make His hand move in the lives of those who were never expected to hear or understand the Gospel message. God gives us the strength to continue taking that message into the world. This is the obedience of faith, to believe that God can do whatever He plans to do and leaving ourselves open and willing to let it be according to God’s Word. We believe and God moves through us into the world. This is a most extraordinary thing, beyond belief. We can’t believe that God can do something without our help.
It is natural for us, in our faith, to feel like we need to do things for God. David was king. By God’s hand, the obstacles to establishing a strong and independent kingdom were overcome under David’s rule. With a city in which to live, a palace for the king and roots being planted by the people, Israel was finally settling down into a golden age of peace and security. David was greatly blessed, and since he was a man who sought after God’s heart, it is natural for him to want to give God an offering of thanksgiving and praise. For David, whose life had been characterized by upheaval, the security of a place to live is the most logical gift. David finally had a home thanks to God, so he thought God deserved a home, too. We do the same thing in our own way; working because we think we have to give back to God all that He has given to us.
So let us, for a moment at least, take time to sing with David, praising God in song and proclamation. There is a lot of work to be done. There are charities that need our resources. There are people who need our help. The scriptures are clear that even while we are waiting for God we must be busy preparing for His coming. He does call us to do something. But while we are busy with the work of the Kingdom of God, and the preparations for Christmas, let’s always be open to the work God is doing among and around us so that we can respond to His calling with everything we have. David wanted to build a Temple, but God built an everlasting Temple through David’s seed. We want to do so much, but let’s not get so caught up in what we want to do that we miss God, for He is still building that Temple and Kingdom He promised to David, and He has invited us to be a part of it.
“It was necessary therefore that the copies of the things in the heavens should be cleansed with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us: nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place year by year with blood not his own; else must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment; so Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for him, unto salvation.” Hebrews 9:23-28, ASV
We usually decorate the outside of the house with hundreds of lights and some other decorations. This year is no different, except that we had some electrical issues. We were able to get everything up and working, and then one day something blew and nothing worked. The weather has been cool and rainy, making it nearly impossible to work outside. The wet weather stopped long enough for Bruce and Zack to work on it last night and they finally managed to get the lights working. There was something wrong with the circuit, something that apparently began sometime in the past. The extra output sent it over the edge. Once the outlet was replaced, everything began working again.
I think we are all like that outlet: we have things that are wrong deep inside. We might still ‘work’ but we are not as strong as necessary to handle the burdens of our life. Everything might seem perfect, but eventually we get overloaded and we pop beyond repair. That moment is like reaching the bottom of the barrel or the end of our rope. There is nothing we can do. We need help. We need to be changed. We need to be made new.
There are those who do not understand the reason for Christ. They’d rather diminish Him to nothing more than a wonderful teacher, a radical, and an example of good works. Those who are willing to accept some of the more outrageous claims about Jesus will even say He is a healer and miracle worker. But many refuse to go so far to accept that Jesus came to die for our sins. They are bothered by the idea that God required a sacrifice. After all, why would a God of love require death for forgiveness? This has led many to reject the reality of sin and the need for salvation.
We had to replace the outlet to make the lights work. Jesus makes us new, too, by wiping away the sin that is destroying us from within. He transforms us and fills us with His light. We need Him to be more than a wonderful teacher, a radical and an example of good works. We need a Savior. So in these last days before Christmas, let’s remember that Jesus is more than a baby in a manger, He is the sacrifice that has destroyed that which destroys us. He is the Savior we need. Take time to consider what might be simmering deep down, waiting to pop. But with Jesus our Savior, we have nothing to fear. He will help us through, raise us up, catch us when we fall. He has provided all we need to be forgiven and transformed into a new creation. And the light will shine. His light will shine. Thanks be to God!
“But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at length ye have revived your thought for me; wherein ye did indeed take thought, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4:10-13, ASV
I read an article out of England yesterday about a girl, thirteen, who had some extreme demands for Christmas. Her list was not a wish list, it was a list of expectations. Her list was written in a letter to Santa Claus, odd enough because she is a teenager. But in the letter, she threatened Santa Claus, telling him that if he did not bring at least two of her requests, she would kill him and then kill his reindeer to eat them. She saw nothing wrong with her demands, despite the fact that she was asking for extremely expensive items, the best of the best. Her list included a phone, an item she routinely loses, according to her mother. She believes she is entitled to these things and that she can do anything to get them. She said, “'I don't see any problem with the letter, I want all of these things and I don't see why I shouldn't get them.”
Sadly, the mother said that she would try to get the girl everything on the list, including the people she wanted. “I would fly over Austin Mahone and Justin Bieber, but I guess they will be busy with their own families on Xmas day.” The mother goes on to say, “'She loses phones constantly, so I know the Blackberry won't be in her possession for long, but she will be furious if she doesn't get one. So I’ll probably be getting her a phone and some money. She is a lovely girl but can be very demanding. She is very energetic and has to burn off all her excess energy playing sports or she can be hyperactive when she finally gets home. She is always the life and soul of the party - there is never a dull moment when she is around so we can forgive her for being a bit of a diva.” (from dailymail.co.uk)
Yes, this is what is wrong with the world, and with the state of Christmas expectations. Our kids write long lists of things that they want, thinking they deserve to get everything. But this is not only true when it comes to Christmas expectations. We often have similar expectations of God. We demand through our prayers what we want and are disappointed when we get a different answer. We demand that God be what we want Him to be and to do what we want Him to do and even love the way we want Him to love. But what we want is not always what is right for us, or good for us.
Is it good for the teenager to get everything on her Christmas list? Certainly not. Does she, and her mother, think that the world revolves around her that people would be willing to be ‘flown in’ to fulfill such a demand? Will she learn to respect other people that way? Will she learn responsibility and gratitude if she is always given everything she wants? Will she learn the blessing of humility and grace and generosity if she is embraced for her selfishness? Will we be blessed if God gives us everything we want instead of giving us what we truly need? Will we learn to be thankful if our demands are always fulfilled?
“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 have been thinking about my mom lately. I was standing in a line the other day, something we do especially at Christmastime. We stand in lines at the check-out. We wait in traffic. We wait in lines with our children to see Santa Claus. Bruce and I went into a store last night, not really planning to buy anything, but willing to if we found the right thing. When we arrived, the line at the check-out was rather long, but doable. As we wandered around the store, however, the line of two dozen became a line of more than fifty in minutes. We didn’t find anything we thought was worth standing in that line.
We aren’t always lucky enough to have the choice. I was in a line a few days ago and it was one of those lines with a person who was very slow. You know the type: they pay with exact change, counting out fifty-eight cents in pennies. Or they can’t decide between the blue and the green one. Or, they get into a deep and personal conversation with the cashier. What should take minutes seems to take hours. Of course, we are all in a rush at this time of year, and we don’t have the patience we should have with others. We want to get our tasks done and move on so that we can go on to everything else we have to accomplish.
While I was in that line, I thought about my mom. Now, Mom was generally seen as a proper lady, perhaps even a little prudish. She certainly had her faults, as we all do, but she was a good woman. It is funny how the things I remember are often those things that she did that proved she was also a little naughty. My mom knew how to tell a dirty joke; they were often funnier because she was seemingly so prudish. The thing I remembered in line the other day as I was waiting was a phrase she used to say when she was frustrated with waiting. She said, “Poop,” (but she use the other word), “or get off the pot.” I found myself thinking that as I waited impatiently behind the woman in line who was taking her time.
I was in a hurry. I was frustrated by the cashier who let the sale take so long when the crowds were so deep. I wasn’t rude, and I graciously accepted her apology when it was finally my turn. And yet I know that I did not act as I should. I know that I should not have even thought, “Poop or get off the pot.” I know I should have been gracious and merciful, patient and even grateful for the chance to catch my breath. I should have been thankful to have the memory of my mother instead of grumbling about my neighbor. I should have stopped worrying about my schedule and enjoyed the moment. I witnessed two people being kind to one another, being friendly. I witnessed grace and hospitality. I witnessed the Christmas, Christian spirit at work. And all I could see was the clock ticking and think about how many other things I could be doing at that moment.
We know Jesus came to save us from death and darkness, to die on the cross so that we might be forgiven. We know we are sinners in need of that Savior. Yet, we often think of sin only in terms of the overall nature of the human condition. Or we limit sins to the big ones. Jesus did come for those reasons, but He also came to help us deal with the things that make us a little naughty. He came to help us see grace and be gracious. He because even the most proper of ladies say and do things that shock us into realizing that no one is truly perfect. He came to transform us into the people we were meant to be, willing to experience grace in the everyday moments when we think there is something better for us to do. It is in those moments when God is truly glorified, when God’s grace flows into the world and transforms us into what we were meant to be.
“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
Someone on Facebook a few days ago asked the question, “What was the first Christmas present you remember receiving.” That’s an interesting question, although perhaps not as easy to answer as we might expect. I can remember getting books and toys, even specific toys, although I can’t always tell you when I got them. There was a doll that I vividly recall, one that rode on a tricycle; I can still remember playing with that toy and what it looked like when I rediscovered it years later with battery acid all over the machinery. My aunt made me a stuffed cat that I adored because it was big and fluffy and pillow-like. Another cat stuffed animal had a pouch to hide away jammies or something that I am sure was a gift but I couldn’t tell you what occasion or year. Another special memory was of a music box with a dancing ballerina that played, “Oh what a beautiful morning.”
The most prominent memory of a Christmas present, however, was from my early to mid teen years. I wanted a robe that I had seen when I was shopping with my mother. It was a little expensive, I recall, but wonderful. It was full length, fake blue fur, and it looked positively warm and luxurious. This thing was so big and fluffy that it would not fit into a regular clothing box. There was no way for my mom to buy, wrap and place this robe under the tree as a surprise because I would have figured it out.
So she decided to be sneaky. Now, everyone knows to put something in a box a little big or unusually shaped to hide an odd or easily recognizable shape. I’ve done that with music, movies or video games. I have put a picture of an extremely large object into a tiny box, and kept the actual item hidden elsewhere. The receiver often feels a stab of disappointment when that item is not near the tree, but is then overwhelmed when they realize that the picture means the gift is somewhere. My mom took her sneakiness a step further. Instead of just putting the one item in a large box, she wrapped all my presents individually and then put them all in a large box. She wrapped that box and put it under the tree. I only had one present waiting for me Christmas Day.
When I went to the tree, I was pretty sure she bought me that robe anyway, even though it was hidden in the box, but I thought maybe she bought just the one thing. I was surprised, and delighted, to discover so many wonderful gifts inside the box, including that robe I wanted so much. I kept that robe well into adulthood, and never forgot how much trouble my mother went to so that the gift would be a surprise for me.
I drive my children crazy because I try to make Christmas morning a moment of surprise and delight. They give me wish lists, and I want them to be happy, so I try to buy what they want. But that doesn’t leave much mystery to Christmas morning. They would know that they got the videos or video games they wanted based on the box sizes, unless I find a way of hiding it. I haven’t been sneaky like my mother, but I’ve played my own games, just to give my kids the mystery of the unknown.
We don’t have very much that is mysterious in our world these days. I’m not sure many people even like surprises anymore. We have to find explanations. We have to know and understand everything. We can’t have questions left unanswered. And we expect things to go our way, leaving no room for surprise. But God is like a parent who wants His child to experience those moments of overwhelming delight that come when one is allowed to wait without knowing. He answers prayers, but not always the way we expect. He gives gifts, but not always what we ask. He lets some things stay mysterious so that we’ll keep looking for Him with wonder and hope.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 25, 2011, Christmas Day: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:[1-7], 8-20.
“And they shall call them The holy people, The redeemed of Jehovah: and thou shalt be called Sought out, A city not forsaken.” Isaiah 62:12, ASV
Christmas on a Sunday gives us a unique challenge, one that we only have to face every seven years, give or take. The last Sunday Christmas was six years ago, on a Sunday in year B. For that Midweek Oasis I used the other recommended text for the occasion (Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]; John 1:1-14), and for that reason I chose the other texts this year. If you want to read what I wrote six years ago, you can find it at http://www.angelfire.com/ak3/dailyword/oasis_december25_2005.html.
The real challenge for those planning Christmas worship is the question of what to do. Do you make this service unique because it is such a special day, or do you follow the usual worship liturgy? The advantage to something distinctive is that the people who might have stayed home because it is Christmas might attend for a worship filled with carols and lessons after the season of Advent hymns. On the other hand, Christmas Day is an opportunity to remind those Christmas and Easter Christians why we gather together around Word and Sacrament. Some churches have even questioned whether or not to have worship on Sunday, since they’ve put so much time and energy into Christmas Eve services. Do we need both, even though it is a Sunday? If you have it, will they come? These are all challenging questions. To some, they are easily answered; to others, the choice is more difficult. It depends on the community. It might seem shocking that a church would choose to remain closed on a Sunday, even if they had worship just hours before, but for some communities, especially those in the country, that is often the best choice.
The third set of scriptures provided for this time are those generally used on Christmas Eve (Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14, [15-20].) The texts I’ve chosen have given me a perspective that is counter to what many are saying these days and yet may be just what we need to hear in these strange and sometimes dangerous times.
What I find interesting this year is that many people are fighting tooth and nail (or at least words) this year to keep Christ in Christmas. I can hear the rebellion in people’s voices when they say “Merry Christmas” at the check-out at the superstore. I see people vocally offended when someone uses another phrase like Seasons Greetings or Happy Holidays, even when it is appropriate to the moment. We are, after all, in the midst of a season of holidays, not just those of other religions, but also holidays that are more secular. Thanksgiving, New Years are holidays worth sharing a wish of good cheer. Even Epiphany is worth remembering.
I saw a Facebook post from the local professional soccer team a few weeks ago; one of their cheerleaders made a visit to the children’s hospital. The caption said that she went to the hospital to spread some holiday cheer. Several people posted that the caption should have said that she went to spread Christmas cheer, rejecting the idea that she is there to cheer all the children, not just those who celebrate Christmas. Yes, we have to be bold enough to say the words, to openly praise God for His great gift and to live Christ-like in this world. But we also have to be gracious. Is it the word that matters? Or the heart?
I get it. So many have been so brazen with the demand that we take everything Christian out of the holidays that the only way we know how to fight it is to be just as brazen. If someone will demand we don’t say it, then we’ll demand that they do. I love Christmas, and I love Jesus, but I celebrate the holidays. This season is about so much: Jesus, generosity, family, hope. It is about Thanksgiving and New beginnings. It is about light and peace. The whole season, in my opinion, is holy. Happy Holidays means Happy Holy-days. We don’t have to confine God to the celebration of Christmas Day when we can worship Him through so many other celebrations.
What I want to know is this: will those who are being so brazen with their demand for a Merry Christmas be in church on Christmas Day? Will they even be there on Christmas Eve? Will they gather with other Christians to celebrate the birth and worship God? Are they living the Christ-like life every day? Are they being gracious? Are they sharing the story of Jesus? Are they calling people to repentance and to faith? Are they being witnesses for Christ or are they simply demanding words that make them feel better? Do we really think God cares how we are greeting each other at the superstore check-out when there are so many other words we should be saying and things we should be doing?
We make a big deal about making Christmas a public holiday, and there might be good reason to do so since most people in our nation consider themselves Christian. And yet, Christmas is really a very personal, private experience. Who knew Jesus was born that night? Shepherds in a field heard the news from angels; a few people in Bethlehem heard it from them. We don’t hear about it in the text for today, but we know that some wise men saw a star. Joseph and Mary were there, and perhaps someone to help them through the birth. An innkeeper was nearby, and others in the inn would have heard that a baby was born, but did any of them actually know what was happening? Children are born every day. It was an intimate encounter with people who believe, not a global revealing of Christ. As a matter of fact, instead of making Christmas the day to share Christ with the world, we should be celebrating Epiphany with that sort of gusto! Do any of those who are fighting for that Merry Christmas even know about Epiphany?
The Old Testament lesson is a promise for a very specific people: God’s people. They have been exiled, oppressed, burdened by foreigners. They thought God had abandoned them. But in this text, they are returning to Jerusalem. They have been set free. They have been restored to their homeland. They have been saved. Now God is promising that they will no longer toil for others; they will benefit from their own work. They will not have to carry other’s burdens; He will give them rest. The text is a comfort to God’s people; their enemies are left out and rejected. This text promises that God’s people will see their Savior and receive the reward of faith; they will be called the Holy People and the Redeemed of the Lord. This is not a promise that the world will be saved, but that the faithful will.
Yes, Christmas is the beginning of something great that will transform the whole world, but perhaps for a moment we can realize that Christmas was a silent, even lonely night. The world did not know what was happening. They did not see the baby. They did not believe that a Savior had come. Christ did come for the whole world, but Christmas is for the faithful. It is for those who see the baby in the manger and know that He is the King.
I just read an interesting little story by Gordon Atkinson called “A Christmas Story You’ve Never Heard.” He has taken the meager details we have been given in the story according to Luke and added some of his own details. He has added reasons why Mary might have gone to Bethlehem with Joseph even though she would not have been required to be there, and why they might have ended up in a stranger’s house even though Joseph would have had family in town. He adds the pain and fear and confusion that the characters must have experienced, including the shepherds who were not eloquent or bright. He shows Mary in the pains of childbirth and introduces us to some of those people who we do not meet in Luke but know must have been there.
In Mr. Atkinson’s story, Mary and Joseph are alone. They’ve been rejected by family, friends and strangers. They are penniless, hungry and homeless. They are in desperate need and left with only one choice: to pray. Then we see God’s hand in the midst of their struggle as God provides comfort, healing and peace. We like to whitewash the Christmas story, hiding the reality to make it as palatable as possible. We want to make it a story that the world will love. But God has given us this story to help us see that in the worst circumstances, He has not abandoned us. When we think there is no hope, we can know there is hope. We can see Him at work in humble but extraordinary ways. That’s a promise for believers, not for non-believers.
Perhaps those who demand that we wish everyone a Merry Christmas believe that they are doing something good for God. To them it is a good work to remind people the reason for the season. In some ways it is, because the world certainly does need to know that Jesus came to save them. Yet, this seems to have become more than a way of witnessing for Christ, and it is often done without grace and faith. The act is no longer one of evangelism but one of passion and selfishness. They think they have to do it if they are Christian and that God will bless them because they have fought so well for Him.
Paul reminds us in the letter to Titus that God does not save us because of our good works. The chapter begins with a list of things that we should do: obey rulers, do good works, do not speak evil of your neighbor, don’t fight. Be gentle and merciful to all people. Titus is asked to remind the Christian community that they were once non-believers, too. But then Paul tells Titus why they should do those things. It isn’t about getting God’s blessing, it is about responding to the blessing God first gave to us. He saved us not because we deserve it but because He loves us. We are faithful because He is faithful. We have been given grace so that we might share it with others. The gift is given to those who believe, to those who will receive it. If they are not ready to wish us a Merry Christmas, then our job is not to demand the words but to share the Gospel so that they will hear and experience the mercy of God.
God is King over all the earth and Jesus came to be its Savior, but to me the texts of this Christmas remind me that the event in the stable was not for the world. It was an intimate moment given to those who trust in His promises. It is a reminder to us that many did not see Him arrive, that it was a silent and lonely night. But as we quietly worship the baby who will be King, we are encouraged by the shepherds to go out into the night and tell others what we have seen. As we receive this gift, given to the faithful, we are sent out into the world to share God’s promises with others. Then, as they come to trust in those promises, to see the fulfillment in Christ Jesus, they will experience the gift with us next year as we gather around that manger.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, but I also wish you greetings for this season and Happy Holy-days. That baby did not come for just one special day a year; He came to fulfill the promises of God. He came to dwell amongst us so that we’ll never feel abandoned and alone. He came to redeem His people. He came to make us a Holy people. He has reached so many more than just those who believed on that first Christmas day, but we will see that as His story continues to unfold before us day by day. Whatever happens on Sunday, whoever goes to church or not, let us all remember that Christmas is just the beginning of a story that we are called to share all the year through.
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think as to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith. For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same office: so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another. And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:1-8, ASV
Do you have family coming for the holidays? What sort of preparations have you been doing to make everything wonderful for your guests? I’m sure, on top of the special holiday tasks like shopping, wrapping and baking, you have also been cleaning the house and stocking the pantry with special foods. You have probably checked the guest room to make sure that everything is fresh and comfortable. You may have even bought tickets to a show or arranged a visit to a local tourist site. We want everything to be perfect for our visitors.
What are you doing to prepare for the visit from that extra special guest that is coming this weekend? I don’t mean Santa, of course. What have you done to prepare your heart for the coming of the Christ child? It might be too late to begin an Advent devotion, but it is never too late to make our hearts ready. I imagine most who are reading this devotion have some sort of nativity in their decorations. A few probably have an Advent wreath and have been doing some sort of devotion. Others have put time and resources into charity. These are great ways to prepare.
I wonder, however, if we have done the kind of preparing we would do for our family and friends who visit our homes. Have we dusted? I don’t think Jesus would mind a few dust bunnies in our house, but He’s looking for those who cleaning up their souls. Have we prepared our hearts as we would prepare a guest room? Perhaps Jesus doesn’t need fresh linens on the bed, but He’s looking for hears that will receive Him with hope and trust. Have we filled our pantries with something new? Perhaps we do not need physical food for our special visitor, but have we been changed, transformed, and renewed by the promises? Are we so busy with the preparations for Christmas Day that we’ve missed out on the opportunity to become something new?
There are so many things we need to do for the holidays, and we generally think of Lent and Easter as being a time of transformation. Yet, as we wait for the baby in the manger, we are reminded that we are also waiting for the King to return. Now is the right time to be transformed, to live as we are called to live, to do what God has ordained for us to do. How will you use your gifts to prepare for the visit of the King?
“What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboreth? I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them, than to rejoice, and to do good so long as they live. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that men should fear before him.” Ecclesiastes 3:9-14, ASV
The presents are wrapped and under the tree. The pile is not quite as big as those years when the children were small, but their “toys” these days are a lot more expensive. I love this aspect of Christmas because I love making my family happy. I think I’ve fulfilled their wants and managed to find a few surprises. Even the cats have a few gifts I’ve never considered for them. Christmas morning is going to be a wonderful time.
Now, since I do most of the shopping, I know what’s under the tree. I’m even aware of the presents the kids have gotten each other and for Bruce. This way we ensure that we haven’t overlapped in some way. I can point to almost every box and tell you what is inside. There is a couple, however, that contain secrets: presents for me. We’ve had a joke, for as long as I can remember, where I ask anybody who has come home from shopping, “What did you buy me?” Sometimes I get a little sneaky and simply ask where they went shopping. I really don’t mind that there are surprises, but I enjoy playing the game. Can I get them to slip? Can I find out what’s in those boxes before Christmas Day? I really don’t want to know the answer because that would take the surprise out of it for me.
We talk a lot during the Christmas season about being generous, giving from the heart. We talk about how it is more blessed to give than to receive. There is truth in that adage, but in these last moments before Christmas, I want to remind us that it is good to be a gracious recipient. If we do all the giving, then others do not have the chance to experience the blessedness of giving. When moms hear the question, “What do you want for Christmas” they will often answer, “I just want you to be happy.” Good answer, except that it takes away the joy the children can experience from making Mom happy.
This is also a time to be a gracious receiver of the greatest gift of all, God’s Son, our Lord Jesus. We get caught up in the hustle bustle of the holidays, the parties and gatherings of family. We get caught up in the shopping and wrapping, the decorating and baking. We know it is all about Jesus, I don’t doubt each of us has made some attempt at keeping Christ in Christmas. But are we truly thankful for the gift? Have we praised God for what He accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? Have we embraced the reality of God’s presence in our lives today and for eternity? No matter how faithful we are, it is good to remember daily that Christmas is a gift. It isn’t something we earned. It isn’t even something we asked to receive. It might not even be the gift we want it to be. But it is a gift, chosen and given by God Himself because he loves us.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a life filled with surprises from the God who loves you and knows what will make you happy. Be a gracious receiver and be truly blessed by His gifts.
“Come now, ye that say, To-day or to-morrow we will go into this city, and spend a year there, and trade, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. What is your life? For ye are a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall both live, and do this or that. But now ye glory in your vauntings: all such glorying is evil. To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” James 4:13-17, ASV
We’ve been talking about it for much too long, but we are hoping that we will be moving into a new house in the coming year. We want to move closer to where Bruce works, and since the kids are in college, we don’t have to stay in the school district. We’ve been looking online at houses, but the whole process is a bit overwhelming. I can’t imagine moving my household goods; it would be the first time we’ve moved without help from the military. Even though we are looking to move just across the city, it is as much work as it would be if we moved three thousand miles.
Since we have it in our mind to move to a new house, I have been more careful about my shopping. There have been a few Christmas decorations I thought about buying, and they were really tempting when I went out this morning since they are half price. I was tempted, but I keep thinking to myself, “What if it won’t work at a new house?” We have no idea what sort of yard we will have, whether it will be big enough for some of our displays or big enough to need something new. We don’t know if the façade will be conducive to the type of lights we like to use or if we’ll have to try something different next year. I don’t want to buy something if it just won’t work, but I hate leaving it on the shelf in case we don’t move by then.
Isn’t it funny how we live day to day without thinking about tomorrow, as if we knew what the future holds, but when we know there could be a change, we put more thought into the choices we make? We don’t want to buy furniture or even electronics until we will know how it will fit into a new house. My curtains are looking a little worse for wear, but why replace them now? If I didn’t know there was a chance for change, I probably would have spent more money today.
What sort of decisions would we make on a daily basis if we lived life as if tomorrow were a mystery? What would we do if we knew that tomorrow we’d be living in a new place or if we knew we would not have a job? What would we do if we knew our relationships would be different? How would we live and make decisions if we knew that tomorrow would not be what we expect it to be? We don’t usually think about it, but the reality is that we don’t know what our life will be like tomorrow. Anything can happen today to change the course of our life. Good or bad, tomorrow is a mystery.
It makes sense to buy Christmas decorations when they are on sale, but I kept reminding myself that the next Christmas is a long way off. There is so much that we can do today without concerning ourselves about what we will do in a year. Though we expect that our life will continue on as normal, we can’t possibly know what God has planned for us. We may wish things to remain the same, but God has a way of shaking our world. If we are so stuck in our place by the roots we’ve planted or the plans we’ve made, we may miss the opportunities God gives us. The money we spend on things for tomorrow might better be used to help someone today. So perhaps we should consider everything we do from the point of view, “What if…?” We might just find that we will listen more closely for God’s voice in our life and follow His will with trust and peace.
“Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all the captivity, whom I have caused to be carried away captive from Jerusalem unto Babylon: Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them. Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply ye there, and be not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto Jehovah for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. For thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel: Let not your prophets that are in the midst of you, and your diviners, deceive you; neither hearken ye to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed. For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith Jehovah. For thus saith Jehovah, After seventy years are accomplished for Babylon, I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith Jehovah, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you hope in your latter end. And ye shall call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith Jehovah, and I will turn again your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places wither I have driven you, saith Jehovah; and I will bring you again unto the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.” Jeremiah 29:4-14, ASV
Do you ever feel like you are in the wrong place? Do you ever wonder why you are stuck somewhere that doesn’t make sense. Do you feel helpless and useless? Do you feel like you don’t know what to do with your life? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What is God calling me to do? And how will I do it here, now, in this place? As we near the end of the year, I suppose many of us are thinking about our future and our calling. The New Year is a time for change, a time to rid ourselves of the past failures and be transformed into something better. It is hard to do so when we are uncertain about our place. How can we be all that God means us to be if we aren’t where we belong?
The exiles didn’t belong in Babylon; at least they didn’t think they belonged there. They wanted to just pass time and wait until they were home before they went on living. They did not want to settle or go about daily life as normal, because it wasn’t normal for them to be in that foreign land. They might have been afraid, but I think they probably just felt defeated and unwilling to act as if everything was fine. It is difficult to live normally when everything seems out of place.
But God told the people to settle down, to go about being normal. “Go and do,” He said, “and soon I will carry you home.” They weren’t supposed to wait to live until they were where they thought they belonged. God was calling them to live in that place at that time. They belonged there; God sent them there for a purpose. They were there to learn to trust God, to turn to Him, to be transformed into the people God meant them to be.
You might feel like you are out of place, like you are in exile for the moment. You might not know what you should be doing, or how you should be living. God says, “Go and do.” He has you in this time and place for a reason. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps this is a time to learn to trust God more deeply. Perhaps it is a time to be transformed into something new. You won’t have to wait seventy years or a generation. You will only have to wait as long as God intends and you’ll find that He has come to take you home again. So for now, live as if you were there, experience life in its fullest, do what is normal. God is with you even when it feels like you’ve been abandoned; He is working for you and with you to create something wonderful and real.
Sunday, January 1, 2012, Name of Jesus or First Christmas: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21 or Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
“And his father and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning him.” Luke 2:33, ASV
When I was pregnant with Victoria, I was absolutely certain that she was a boy. Bruce and I had decided that he would name the boy and I would name the girl. Since I believed that I was carrying a boy, I didn't think I needed to worry about coming up with a name. About a week before she was born, Bruce said, “Honey, this really might be a girl. You should have a name prepared just in case.” I said, “Fine” and blurted out “Victoria.” Even though I had not spent much time thinking about it, I had been through all the books and for some reason that name was on the tip of my tongue. I don’t regret the decision and I don’t think Victoria minds, either. Though we have used the nickname “Vicki” over the years, as an adult she has generally referred to herself as Victoria.
There was nothing particularly special about the way we chose our kids’ names or the way we gave them their names. We didn’t go through a ritual or wait a period of time. We picked a name, wrote it on the paper and began calling them by those names immediately. We may have solemnly announcer their names to those who were nearby, and we sent notices to our friends and family announcing their births, but we didn’t follow any age old traditions in choosing or giving their names, as happens in many societies.
Some traditions use family names, especially those of deceased loved ones to keep their memory alive through the generations. Others honor the living by naming children after grandparents. Many cultures wait a few days to have a naming ceremony, often at seven days, with special food and rituals. In China, they have eggs died red to symbolize new life and good luck. Other traditions use rice and saffron in the ceremony. Some traditions use fake names in the beginning, to ward off or fool evil spirits. In some places the baby’s name is given when he or she is thought to be able to hear, and it is whispered in their ear first. Some families provide a sacrifice as an offering of thankfulness for the baby. In one Native American culture, the baby sleeps with an ear of corn for a month and then the corn is rubbed on its skin while the baby is faced toward the rising sun and is named at the moment the first rays hit.
Some of the rituals and traditions sound so odd to us because we are used to naming our children whatever we want. We go through baby books and listen to trends; we make up our own names, using creative juxtapositions of letters from other names or words. Some celebrities have become infamous for their odd use of words as names for their children. In some societies, however, the parents did not even have a choice. The names are given by elders or masters. In others, the expectation is to give names that will help the child rise in stature or succeed in their world. Names mean something, which is why we go to so much trouble giving our children the right name.
January 1st is the day we celebrate the naming of Jesus. As a young Jewish boy, Jesus would have been dedicated to the Lord on the eighth day, circumcised according to the traditions of the Jews. According to Luke 2:21 He was named Jesus that day; He was given the name that had been told to Mary and Joseph before He was born.
The Gospel lesson shows how Mary and Joseph followed all the traditions according to the Law of Moses. Forty days after Jesus was born Mary had to go to the Temple to be purified. They offered the proper sacrifices, but the visit was something special; it was the fulfillment of more promises. While at the Temple, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met two people who were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. They knew, without a doubt, that they had seen Him in flesh. Simeon, an old man who was righteous and devout, was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he died. The moment he saw Jesus, Simeon cried, “Now lettest thou thy servant depart, Lord, According to thy word, in peace; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; A light for revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of thy people Israel.”
What a marvelous promise fulfilled in a baby! And yet, we are reminded that with the promise of salvation came great pain and suffering. Simeon blessed the family, but turned to Mary and told her the truth. “Your soul will be pierced.” Salvation would come at a price, and Mary among all people would feel the pain in a very real way.
The other person that Mary, Joseph and Jesus met was a woman, a prophet, who was aged and had been living in the Temple for many years. She worshipped, fasted and prayed constantly. At the moment Anna saw Jesus, she knew that God’s promises were fulfilled in Him. She began to praise God and tell everyone that the Redeemer they were waiting for had arrived. Isn’t it amazing that these two people, Simeon and Anna, seemed to live to an old age for one very specific purpose: to praise God for Jesus.
I think the most interesting verse in the Gospel lesson for First Christmas is verse 33. “And his father and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning him.” They marveled? They were amazed? I suppose that could be true, but I have to wonder what it means that they were amazed? Was it surprising to hear these things about their son? How could that be? After all, they both were met by angels who told them all these things. They knew going into this parenthood that Jesus was special. They knew He came from God. They knew He was the promised one. How could they be amazed by the words of Simeon and Anna?
I think what this says to me is that even Mary and Joseph continued to be amazed at what was happening to them. Even though they had knowledge about Jesus and His future, they continued to experience the faithfulness of God in new, miraculous ways. Perhaps we can read this story about Mary and Joseph and realize that no matter how well we know God and understand the scriptures, we should still view God as surprising every day.
We often study the scriptures from a very intellectual point of view. While it is good to know and understand the history and language behind the passages, we let it become something rational and scholarly. We look at the text from a point of view that lifts facts above faith. When we see what we think are inconsistencies, we question the entire text. Take, for instance, the final verses of our text has Mary and Joseph returning to Nazareth when Jesus was still a baby, right after their trip to Jerusalem. Yet, Matthew tells us that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem and then the family fled to Egypt. Intellectually this makes the whole story difficult to believe. Yet, there is no reason to doubt the reality of God’s presence in the world based on two different stories without clear timelines. We can believe even if we can’t come up with a day to day lifeline for Jesus. We can still be amazed by the stories our neighbors tell us about Jesus.
Why should we be so concerned about the name of Jesus? By any other name, Jesus would still have been the salvation, the redemption, the promised child of God. God is given dozens of names in the scriptures: Creator, Almighty God, Father, the Lord our Righteousness, “I AM.” Jesus is identified by certain names : the Light of the World, Savior, Redeemer, the Son of God. Even the Holy Spirit has a special name: Counselor.
In the Psalm 8, God’s name is exalted. “O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth, Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens!” The Psalmist goes on to prophesy about Jesus. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him but little lower than God, and crownest him with glory and honor.” God's name is excellent, but the day would come when a new name would bring salvation. It is not the name of another god, but a new name for God: God in flesh, Immanuel. That is why the name of Jesus is important: Jesus means Savior.
Paul writes to the Philippians that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names, that at His name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It is His name we take when we are baptized, we become Christians by faith. His name is written on our hearts and on our heads. In His name we are adopted and made heirs of the Kingdom of God. And then as Christians we bear His name into all the world that all those who hear might be blessed and become heirs with us to the promises of God.
In the Old Testament lesson from Numbers, God established a naming ceremony for the people to become His people. They became part of Israel through a blessing; God’s name was spoken over them. “Jehovah bless thee, and keep thee: Jehovah make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. So shall they put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” They are blessed by the name of Jehovah. The name they received was “Child of God.”
The world is going to question the words we speak. They are going to think intellectually about the facts of Jesus’ birth, life and death. They will see the differences in the stories and doubt whether there is anything to believe. We, however, are called to be like Simeon and Anna. We’ve been created with one sole purpose: to praise God for Jesus. Oh, we have other work to do. We are called to live our gifts and share the Gospel. We are called to be disciples and to share our resources with our neighbors. We are called to be just and generous and faithful. We are called to live as Christ in this world and to invite others into His presence.
It doesn’t matter what the world thinks. The speaker in Isaiah rejoiced in the promises of God even as God’s people were waiting to be restored to Jerusalem. Salvation was assured because God is faithful. The same continues to be sure for us. In the name of Jesus, we are assured salvation even as we wait for the day when everything will be fulfilled. God is worthy to be praised, and our words of praise will reveal God’s magnificent work to the world. By them, they will see that God has vindicated His people, they will see the glory of God and know that we are called by a new name: “Child of God.”
There is now and will always be something to marvel about when it comes to God. Though we know Him and we know the Salvation He has promised, He continues to surprise us daily with new glimpses of His glory. Though we know He loves us and that He has guaranteed forgiveness for those who believe, He surprises us with moments of grace.
Our names mean something, but even more importantly, Jesus’ name means something. However we come by our name, whether we keep it the same throughout our life or change it for some reason, the name that really matters is the one that we are given by our God. He has promised that by the name of Jesus we will be saved. With faith and joy, we can go about the world telling our story to our neighbors, glorifying God by sharing His grace so that others will hear and be transformed by the blessing of His Word, so that they too may be called “Child of God.”
“Jehovah answer thee in the day of trouble; The name of the God of Jacob set thee up on high; Send thee help from the sanctuary, And strengthen thee out of Zion; Remember all thy offerings, And accept thy burnt-sacrifice; Selah Grant thee thy heart's desire, And fulfil all thy counsel. We will triumph in thy salvation, And in the name of our God we will set up our banners: Jehovah fulfil all thy petitions. Now know I that Jehovah saveth his anointed; He will answer him from his holy heaven With the saving strength of his right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; But we will make mention of the name of Jehovah our God. They are bowed down and fallen; But we are risen, and stand upright. Save, Jehovah: Let the King answer us when we call.” Psalm 20, ASV
I like to watch those history shows that try to explain the great mysteries of life. I don’t often believe the experts that they interview because the theories are bizarre. Most of the shows find a way to explain away biblical stories and Christian concepts with ideas that are even more peculiar than the miraculous and divine hand of God. They find ways to credit space aliens, supernatural beings and other legendary creatures. Just the other day I learned that Jonah’s whale was actually an alien underwater craft. The theories put forth are ridiculous, but it is fascinating to see the way people are willing to interpret the facts to make them fit into their assertion. If they want to see aliens, they see aliens in everything.
It is true that some of the biblical accounts are strange. A man in a fish? Seven headed beasts? Dreams and visions of angels? A king born in a stable? The Savior crucified on a cross? It is ridiculous to think that this is the way God works. I suppose the experts putting forth our stories and interpretations might sound as bizarre to a non-believer as those experts on the history shows. Yet, by faith we know this is true.
As we look around the world today, it is hard to imagine that God is still active. After all, the world is filled with suffering and pain. Those doubting the reality of God’s miraculous and divine hand do not understand how this God we love could possibly allow bad things to happen. As I looked back into my archives, I realized that I used this text a few weeks after the bombing of the World Trade Center ten years ago. At that time many people were asking the question, “Where is God?” They wondered why we should even bother praying.
Where was God? God was with us, transforming the events from the intention of the bombers to something that He could use to transform hearts and minds. He brought us together in hope, in prayer, in faith, in unity, and in love. He wept with us, sustained us with His gifts, moved in our hearts and brought us to this moment. Why pray? We pray because God hears. He is with us today, listening and moving in our world in a way that will bring glory to His name. He speaks into our hearts, the Word of hope that is in Christ Jesus. When we sacrifice our own selves, trusting in God by humbling ourselves in prayer, He will answer.
The experts on those shows might like to find ways to change the stories we love by giving a scientific or supernatural explanation for the strange things that happened in the bible, but we know that God has done spectacular things. He is worthy of our praise and of the honor we can give Him by telling the stories and trusting in His presence. The experts may ask why we bother to pray when they think the stories point to something other than a God of Grace. But God is here. Trust in Him above all else and praise Him. The world may question His presence and call us unreasonable, but I will see His hand in those miraculous stories and call on Him for everything I need.
“I will give thee thanks with my whole heart: Before the gods will I sing praises unto thee. I will worship toward thy holy temple, And give thanks unto thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name. In the day that I called thou answeredst me, Thou didst encourage me with strength in my soul. All the kings of the earth shall give thee thanks, O Jehovah, For they have heard the words of thy mouth. Yea, they shall sing of the ways of Jehovah; For great is the glory of Jehovah. For though Jehovah is high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly; But the haughty he knoweth from afar. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me; Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of mine enemies, And thy right hand will save me. Jehovah will perfect that which concerneth me: Thy lovingkindness, O Jehovah, endureth for ever; Forsake not the works of thine own hands.” Psalm 138, ASV
I like the line, “Jehovah will perfect that which concerneth me.” In the NIV version it is translated, “The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me.” That’s a great thought going into the new year. It seems impossible that another year has come and gone, and many of us have been left dazed, wondering where the time has gone. How do you feel at the end of this year? Was 2011 good or not so good? Has anything changed in your world? Has anything changed about the way you see the world around you? On Saturday night the calendar will change from one year to the next, but will the days look any different?
Think about your life a year ago. Perhaps everything was the same then as it is now: same home, family, job, and church. Are you still really the same person? I hope not. If we are not constantly moving forward, learning, growing and maturing, we are stagnant. If we stay the same, we might as well be dead. But what is different? Are you happy about the changes? We might automatically think about things in term of jobs and success, but there are aspects of our life that are more important. Have you grown closer to God, more gracious to your neighbors? Are you a better Christian than you were a year ago?
We spend time at the beginning of each new year making resolutions about the things we would like to change. How did you do with the resolutions you made a year ago? We start out in the beginning with high hopes and expectations, and most of us fall back into our old routine quickly. I wonder if we focus on the wrong aspects of our lives to change, and that’s why it is so hard. Perhaps if we looked deeper, into our hearts and spirits, we’d find the true transformation that would change our world. Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about the outer changes, and instead seek God’s kingdom so that we will be transformed on the inside. Inner transformation will always lead to outward change. So as we go into the new year, let’s consider not what we can do to change, but what God has already done and continues to do in and through our lives.
At this time it is good to remember the source of our greatest gifts and transformation. The calendar brings the new year, but Jesus Christ brought the dawn of a new day. He is the source of all our new beginnings. Through the grace and mercy of God we are changed, transformed and set on a journey where our pasts are forgotten and our futures are set in His blood. According to our calendar we are on the verge of a brand new year, so let us begin by singing God’s praise and worshipping the One who has already made a difference in our lives.