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 on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2018
December 3, 2018
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ Your watchmen lift up their voice, together they sing; for they shall see eye to eye, when Yahweh returns to Zion. Break out into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for Yahweh has comforted his people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. Yahweh has made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” Isaiah 52:7-10, WEB
Modern warfare is much different than in ages past. The weaponry is more advanced. In the ancient days, most wars were won by siege. The soldiers usually fought with hand-to-hand combat. They used mostly knives and swords, so the armies needed to be at close range. To strike an enemy who was far away took some sort of projection. The bow and arrow, slingshot and catapult are just a few examples. As time passed they developed weapons that could do more harm faster and from much farther distances than a man could to on his own.
Most of the people lived within walled cities. When battle became too difficult, the army closest to their fortress would rush inside and lock the doors. The enemy would try to breach the defenses, however those who were behind the wall had the advantage. They used hot oil, which they poured on the heads of the soldiers attacking the walls. They also dropped stones on their heads or shot with arrows. The attacking army would eventually give up and set up camp outside the gates. They cut off the supply of the army inside. After several months, the army inside the fortress gave up or died from hunger and starvation. When the invaders attacked again, they were faced a far less formidable foe.
We don’t live in fortresses anymore, and the combat is rarely hand-to-hand. Laser guided missiles can be sent from an airplane that is miles away from its target, and the bomb will hit. Other weapons are remote controlled with computers, so there needs not be any soldier close to the danger.
Another major difference is in communication. The advent of photography, telegraph, telephone, television and the Internet, many people are able to witness the action from the comfort of their own homes. We watch the news happen as it happens, almost as if we are living it with those who are fighting. The technology helps on the battlefield also. Those at the front lines can send messages instantaneously to those who remain in a central command location.
In the ancient days the armies communicated by messenger. The messenger was usually a young boy, one who wanted to be part of the battle but was not yet strong enough to actually fight. When an army needed help, or when there was news of the battle for the king and people, a messenger was sent with the news. When the war was over, the messenger was sent ahead of the army to announce victory or defeat.
In ancient wars, the messenger who brought good news was treated with honor and was warmly welcomed home. The messenger with bad news was not quite so welcome. At times the people even killed the messenger. When Isaiah wrote the words in this passage, it referred to both an earthbound war and the one we are still fighting today. Jesus has won the Victory over sin and death, and we are His messengers. We are sent to give the people this good news!
In warfare, it is at times difficult to discern the enemy from a friend. The lines between armies in the heat of battle are rarely clearly drawn. For us, living in this world, the enemy has breached the wall and is inside the fortress. When we take the good news of Christ Jesus to the people, we often give that news to people who do not consider it good, because they have fallen for the deception of the devil. Let us always remember that it is the Good News we carry, whether we face the enemy or our friends. The Victory has been won – our God reigns! How beautiful are you who share that with the world.
“If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:1-3, WEB
We took a trip to the Crater of Diamonds State Park when we lived in Arkansas. This small park consists of a field in which people can mine for gemstones, including diamonds. We went on a nice, dry day, thinking it would be the best time to go. After all, this is nothing more than a big pile of dirt where people can dig until they find treasure. A rainy day would make the trip a muddy, messy experience. However, we learned while we were there, that the rainy days were much better for gem hunting. As with all other stones, the rain helps the gems rise to the top, making them much easier to find.
It is rather amazing what appears after a heavy rain, not only in the diamond field, but elsewhere. I once heard a report that the flooding from one of the hurricanes caused coffins to be unburied. A report from another time and place showed a house floating down a river. Archeological artifacts often appear after a heavy rain. A life size statue of Jesus was once found on a sand bar on the Rio Grande.
No one knew where the statue originated. There was no signature to indicate the creator or producer. There was little evidence of damage, just a few scratches from its trip on the river. There were no reports of stolen statues from any churches along the Rio Grande. Since this statue was such a mystery, many people in the town where it was discovered saw this as a message from God. It was called “the Jesus of the undocumented.” The Eagle Pass police stored the statue in their station and it became a pilgrimage site for faithful believers. They did not know what to do with the statue after the required waiting period; several churches requested the statue for their ministry.
There are many possible explanations for this unknown statue appearing out of nowhere. It is possible that it was stolen long before and buried along the side of the river, unearthed during heavy rains. Perhaps it had been on a boat that sunk along the Rio Grande as it was being shipped to a market to be sold. It may have come from a church far from the river that never heard it was found. Wherever it originated, this Jesus statue brought something to the people of Eagle Pass.
It is strange to think how easily things rise to the surface of the earth from deep inside. Our visit to that state park in Arkansas helped me to understand something that had bothered me for some time. I never could figure out why or how the rocks ended up in my garden every year. The water moves the dirt, sometimes washing it away, sometimes lifting the objects found under the surface. It happens during floods and at constant bodies of water. Though a river travels in the same general direction, it constantly changes as the riverbank washes away.
We are born into this world wallowing in the muddiness of sin and death. This has been the human condition since Adam and Eve fell in the Garden of Eden. Their sin, which continues to be our sin even today, brought suffering to the whole world. However, God loved us so much that He appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in the flesh of man. Jesus Christ, our Lord the living water, raised us up out of the muck to be changed and sent to be witnesses of His love. He will appear again and in that day we will join Him in His glory forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 9, 2018, Second Sunday of Advent: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
“For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like launderer’s soap; and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer to Yahweh offerings in righteousness.” Malachi 3:2b-3, WEB
We have, for the past few years, hosted an open house for our friends on the second Saturday of December. It takes a lot of work: cleaning, decorating, shopping, baking and cooking. We always give a homemade ornament to our guests, so we’ve had that work to do, too. It is a crazy time. It seems as though I finish one task and find a dozen more to do. I clean up clutter and discover dust. I clean up the dust and realize I need to vacuum. By the time I finish those tasks, something else pops up to be done. It takes constant vigilance to complete the work.
Advent, of course, is a time for more just a party; it is a time of joy and friendship, of happy times and pleasant experiences. We are waiting for the coming of the Christ child, but while we wait we are attending parties with friends and family and gathering for programs starring our little ones who sing with great passion and gusto even if they are a little out of tune. We are lighting our homes with Christmas lights and filling our kitchens with the most delightful smells of Christmas cookies, cakes and other goodies. We are listening to, and humming, Christmas songs all day long. I can’t help but think to myself, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” as I go through my day.
Yet, what does Christmas look like? To the world it is Christmas trees and Santa Clause and perhaps even a nativity scene here or there. It is “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” but how does that line up with scriptures like the one from Malachi in today’s lectionary?
John the Baptist does not portray a typical image found in Christmas cards or children’s stories. He is rough, wild, and harsh. He cries out in the wilderness for the world to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Isn’t it funny how we prepare for Christmas by overspending, overdrinking and overeating, but John brings us the message of repentance.
Malachi foretells of John’s coming as a witness and messenger to prepare for the coming of the Lord. However, the messenger won’t bring a happy story or expectation of a silent night. Instead, Malachi warns that the coming of the Lord will be sudden and that He will come like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. Something is going to happen when the Lord comes and it will mean transformation, cleansing. There are two very different images of cleansing in this text. It takes a great and hot heat to refine metals, a heat that is almost unbearable even for the refiner. For the element being refined, it means destruction of everything that is impure, burned away by an unimaginable heat. This is not a typical image of Christmas for us. Neither is the launderer’s soap. Today is laundry day in my house. There is bound to be some garment that will need extra care. I will have to spray the item with a special cleaner and perhaps scrub it a little before throwing it in the washer to be cleaned.
One image - the refiner’s fire - is harsh and perhaps a little distant. Though the refiner must remain close to the metal while it refines, he does not become actively involved in the refining. The fire does all the work. On the other hand, the launderer is thoroughly involved with the cleansing of a garment, handling each item with the special care necessary. We are reminded by these two images that our God is both distant, refining with fire, but also very near, intimately involved with our very souls. He cleanses out the impurities in whatever way is necessary to make us as He has created and redeemed us to be.
God has always had a plan for us, but we have not done well to stay on the right path. We need to hear the words of the Law and the cry of John calling us back to life in God’s kingdom. Adam and Eve failed in the Garden of Eden and we fail today. Even then, however, God had a plan. He knew that human beings would need to be saved, and He promised to do so when the time was right.
Advent brings us to the moment when that plan became flesh and blood. The birth of Christ was a carefully orchestrated series of events. God planned every detail long before the day Jesus was born. The story began hundreds, even thousands of years in the past as God foretold of His birth through the patriarchs and the prophets. The story includes not only Jesus, but families whose stories are woven throughout the history of Israel.
John was just one of many. John’s mother Elizabeth was very old, the wife of a Levite. Zechariah, his father, was a priest who served in the Temple. They had both almost lost hope in having a child, Elizabeth’s child bearing years had long since past. Yet, Zechariah still prayed for one day when he was serving in the Temple an angel came to him. Zechariah trembled in fear, but the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zacharias, because your request has been heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
Zechariah was so taken aback by the statement that he responded, “How can I be sure of this?” We will hear similar words from Mary, but for Zechariah this was the wrong question. It showed doubt and a need for some control in the situation. Yet, can we blame him? After all, he was elderly; he was so old that having a child would be a strain on both his wife and on him. Would they be around to help the child grow? Would they see him successful? Would they see him married? Would they see him even walk and talk and laugh?
Zechariah doubted the angel and he was struck speechless until the day of the child’s birth. The words in today’s psalmody are the first things Zechariah said after the promise of a son was fulfilled.
When John was born, Elizabeth did as she had been told; she said that the child’s name is John. The people who were there for the happy occasion were shocked. After all, it was customary to name the first born after the father, so the child should have been called Zechariah. Zechariah asked for a writing tablet and he wrote, “He is to be called John.” And so it was. Then Zechariah’s voice returned and he sang this song of praise, this prophetic psalm of grace. He foretold the coming of the Messiah and blessed the child. The song tells of John’s place in the unfolding story of God’s salvation, as the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. For Zechariah, the Lord was God. We know that the Lord is manifest in the child for whom we are waiting: Jesus Christ.
Zechariah did not speak these words on his own. They came by the power of the Holy Spirit. They continue the prophetic heritage that had been pointing toward the coming of the Christ for generations. The psalm reflects the promise found in the prophets, such as the words from Malachi. John came to cry out in the darkness to prepare for the coming of the light. Zechariah knew by faith that they were on the edge of a new day, the dawn of a new beginning. His doubts long since passed, Zechariah gave his beloved son to the Lord to do as had been planned so long ago.
During the Christmas season many people tend to think of the Nativity as just a story with characters. There are characters that we love and characters that we hate. We wonder at the way things happen, but some of the details are so extraordinary that it is hard to believe them to be real. The Nativity is more story than history, particularly in a cynical world.
There was once a program called “Studio City on the Sunset Strip.” The main character Matt was a producer and the head writer for a hit comedy variety show. He was a cynical man who lived in a cynical world; he had no real sense of the importance of faith. As a matter of fact, he thought people of faith are brainwashed wacko nut jobs. His writing often focused on the absurdity of faith and the Christian lifestyle. Some of the skits were funny, particularly if you can laugh at yourself.
Another character named Harriet was a brainwashed wacko Jesus freak Christian and she was one of the actresses who starred on the program. Matt was in love with her. Their relationship was like a roller coaster, partly because Matt couldn’t take Harriet’s faith seriously. On one episode, Matt decided to focus on Christmas. Knowing Matt’s opinion of Christians, the writing team kept looking for the absurdity of Christianity. They found many websites proving the unreality of the Christmas story: the star was a comet, Mary wasn’t really a virgin, the first Christmas could not have been in December. They thought Matt wanted them to find everything that is wrong with Christmas and make fun of it. In reality, Matt wanted to do a Christmas show, funny but real.
There are plenty of people who will try to criticize the Christian perspective about this time of year, to reduce the Nativity to nothing more than a nice story with a creative plot and characters. What we see in today’s passage, however, is that Luke found it essential to include historic references in the midst of his telling of the story. He placed John in history, putting him in the context of other people who lived in that time.
As we look at the story of John, it is easy for us to think that it would be ridiculous and perhaps even compare him to the ancient myths. John was born to elderly parents and was likely very young when they died. Though he may have been raised by family or friends, his adult lifestyle was so unusual it is reminiscent of stories of feral children. Perhaps his wild man persona with horsehair clothes and bizarre diet was because he lived alone in the wilderness from a young age? We might assume that John is little more than a myth, like the story of Romulus and Remus. However, Luke puts John in the context of history which gives us some reference in time and space for not only John, but also the birth of Jesus. The Nativity is not just a story; Luke gives us a report of an event that changed the world. Even though some of the details seem unbelievable, we can be assured that the birth of Christ is real and is worth our time to know and experience in this world.
John the Baptist was the end of an era. He was the final prophet to live and die under the Old Covenant. He came, as was promised, to point the way to the One who would make all things new. All the prophets were tasked with the same message, "God will save His people." Some of the earlier prophets spoke to the very real needs of their own people, but in doing so, God also revealed the ultimate promise, "A Messiah will come." John was not really different that those who came before him, and yet he was much different. John met the Salvation of the world face to face. God gave the words of hope and warning about the coming of the Day of the Lord to the other prophets, but John saw the fulfillment of those promises in the flesh.
I don’t know about you, but every year I promise myself that I am going to make this Advent and Christmas much simpler. I promise myself I won’t do too much. I promise myself - and God - that I’ll focus more closely on “the reason for the season.” I fail, every year. This year is no exception. As I prepare for our party, it seems as though I will never get everything done that I need to do. I suppose that’s why it is good that we meet John the Baptist so early in the Church year. John reminds us of the reason for Advent.
Advent is not just a time for warm fuzzies or getting ready for the festivities of the season; Advent is a time of repentance. Repentance means turning toward God, renewing our faith and hope and trust. When we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season, we forget that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and transformation. He came to cleanse us, to make us new. He came according to the prophecies of the prophets throughout time to be both Judge and Savior for His people.
Paul’s flowery language in today’s epistle lesson might seem a bit overwhelming. Did he mean to be so gushy when he was writing to the church in Philippi? These verses are part of the formal greeting, which in Paul’s day would have included a formal word of thanksgiving and reassurance of continued relationship. For Paul, it was incredibly importance that the Philippians know that he was with them in spirit, bound by the Holy Spirit, and that he cared for them very much. Even more importantly, he cared about their everyday lives.
Among our many tasks this season is writing Christmas cards to be sent to friends and family members in the next few weeks. Many people include some sort of newsletter in the card to get those far away up to date with what’s happening in their lives. These newsletters are filled with good news, highlights and remembrances of the big events. Or, they are filled with bad news of illness or death, difficulties and hardship. When you have just a small space to share a year’s worth of news, you pick the most important things. Yet many people do not like those newsletters because they are sound too boastful or depressing.
Paul’s letters aren’t always pleasant to hear because he does speak forcefully about living rightly and righteously. He corrects and rebukes the churches for their failures and failings. He demands much from the Christians under his care. However, he cares very deeply for each and every one of them. He cares about their hearts, about their souls and especially about their eternal life in Christ. This is evident in his words. He writes to encourage them to be all they can be, to continue living in God’s grace to the fullest. He writes to build up the church from the inside, so that work that Christ began will be perfected and will flow out into the world.
During this busy time we have lists of things we need to accomplish. I once joked on Facebook that I did not get half of what I had hoped to get done and I often still feel that way. There is so much to do and so little time. “What should I do?” we ask ourselves as we see everything that needs to be done.
“What should we do?” This is the question that the crowds asked John as He was preaching and baptizing at the Jordan. They were busy doing all the wrong things and were missing the life God was calling them to live. The multitudes asked John what they should do and John told them to give clothes and food to those in need. The tax collectors asked and John told them not to extort more than their due. The soldiers asked and John told them to act justly in their work and to be content with what they have earned. John answered them with a call to repentance and faithfulness to God's Word.
And so, in this second week of Advent, we ask, “What should we do?”
John answered, “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.”
Paul answered, “This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
When the refiner is finished and the launderer is done with the work, the finished product is pure and clean. The same is true of the work God does in our life, and yet we never seem to be complete. Christ finished the work of salvation, but we are still being refined and cleansed by our God until that day when Christ will come again. It is like my housework: there will always be something to do. During this time of Advent, we long for the peace and joy that comes with the child in the manger, but we should never forget that we are longing for something even greater: the Day when Christ will come again. Even more so, let’s constantly remember that Christ comes to us daily in mercy and grace, and let’s live in faith so that we will experience the peace that God has promised to those who believe.
“And I thank him who enabled me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me faithful, appointing me to service; although I was before a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent. However, I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. The grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1Timothy 1:12-17, WEB
One house in Texas recreated a scene from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” which has caused concern in their neighborhood. The scene shows Clark Griswold hanging from the edge of his roof where he fell while trying to over decorate his home with Christmas lights. The stuffed man hanging from this house has frightened passersby who thought it was an actual man in danger. Perhaps this scene is the catalyst for a recently popular Christmas decoration of Santa Claus hanging by his fingertips from the rooftop as if he had slid off the roof and is holding on for dear life that I’ve seen around my neighborhood.
Santa is everywhere. He is at the mall getting his picture taken with children who are giving him their Christmas wish lists. Santa is in every Hallmark Christmas movie and even has a few movies of his own. He shows up on floats in parades. He is all over the ugly Christmas sweaters. Television ads, music, and books include images and references to good old Santa Claus. He is a major part of the American Christmas celebration and he’s making his way into the cultures of other countries.
Santa did not start out as a big fat guy wearing a red suit trimmed in fur. He evolved from a much older story of a Christian saint that did wonderful kindnesses. It is said that Nicholas was orphaned at a young age; his parents had been quite wealthy. His generosity showed from a very early age. One story tells of a poor man who was going to have to sell his daughters into prostitution because he could not afford their dowry. Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window of the poor man’s house, a generous gift that saved the girl from a horrible fate. Nicholas also gave the man dowries for his other daughters. Other stories describe him as a lifesaver; sailors were saved from a storm and three innocent men were savedfrom execution whose deaths were bought with a bribe. Yet another story tells that one day as Nicholas knelt in prayer in a church, an elderly minister approached him and asked who he was. The young Nicholas replied, “Nicholas the sinner. And I am your servant.” Soon after, Nicholas was made bishop of Myra.
December 6th is the day when the Feast of St. Nicholas has been celebrated. It was traditional to give gifts to children on his feast day. Children were always an important part of the celebration of St. Nicholas’s life. A boy was selected to be bishop from December 6th to Holy Innocent’s Day (December 28). This probably came from the story of how Nicholas answered the call into ministry. As Christians began to celebrate Christ’s birth around the winter solstice, Nicholas became known as Father Christmas and the traditions surrounding his feast were moved to December 25th.
As St. Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus, the focus continued to be on children, but now he is more like a magician than a saint. The giving of gifts became a way to bribe the children into good behavior; the presents are more like rewards than gifts. The true gifts of St. Nicholas saved the recipients from horrible lives, even death. The dowries were given not because the girls had earned the money, but because Nicholas had such great love that he wanted to save them from the life of prostitution. The men who were saved from death were not necessarily innocent, but Nicholas gave them the gift of life. In these stories, we see examples of the kind of love our Lord Jesus had for us. We did nothing to earn His love or deserve His gifts, yet He gave more than we can even imagine.
Santa Claus is very much a part of Christmas in many places in the world. Gift giving also has a long tradition, for many it is the whole purpose of the holiday. We spend Advent preparing for the day, spending too much money on too many things that have little to do with the real reason for the season: Jesus. We can still include kindness and giving as part of our Christmas traditions if we recall stories the Christ-like generosity of those figures we identify with the Christmas story. The wise men gave gifts, just as St. Nicholas is remembered for his generosity. We need to remember, however, that it is not the presents that make Christmas, but rather the birth of our Lord Jesus, the greatest gift of all. Though we should be wary of the focus on Santa Claus, there are many aspects of the St. Nicholas story we should continue to impress on our children: love, generosity and commitment. But most of all, we can look at the stories of St. Nicholas and remember the great sacrifice made by our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave us the greatest gift of all, forgiveness and true life.
“But you, beloved, remember the words which have been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you that ‘In the last time there will be mockers, walking after their own ungodly lusts.’ These are they who cause divisions, and are sensual, not having the Spirit. But you, beloved, keep building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. On some have compassion, making a distinction, and some save, snatching them out of the fire with fear, hating even the clothing stained by the flesh.” Jude 1:17-23, WEB
We celebrate Thanksgiving in November, but the entire holiday season is filled with thanks. We thank those who serve us with extra tips and gifts. We thank our teachers and bosses and employees with tokens of our appreciation. We thank our friends and family for the gifts they send to us. We thank God for sending Jesus to save the world. There are so many reasons for us to be grateful.
Do you want a new way to say “Thank you”? Try one of these thirty languages: Orkun; Doh je; Xie-xie; Dekuju; Dank je wel; Moshakir; Kiitos paljo; Go raibh maith agat; Danke schön; Evkaristo; Mahalo; Toda raba; Shoukriah; Takk; Grazie; Domo arigato; Kamsu hamnida; Paldies; Attyu; Vayarla; Salamat; Dziekuje bardzo; Obrigado; Spasibo; Gracias; Asante sana; Sagol; Cam ôn; Diolch yn fawr; Merci.
Merci. This is what the French say to thank someone for something. This word comes from the same root as the word “mercy.” Mercy is a broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious, social and legal contexts. We have mercy on the poor. We have mercy on people who deserve punishment. We have mercy on those who have sinned against us. We think of mercy as being a free gift. After all, a criminal might not deserve mercy, but receives mercy at the hands of a compassionate person of power. However, the root of the word means “price paid, wages.”
“Thank you” is, in essence, the price paid for a gift. Unfortunately, too few people remember to give thanks. How many of us have sent presents to someone long distance, either for Christmas, a birthday or a wedding, and never received a note? I’ve often worried that the item did not arrive because I had no response from the recipient. One friend who is a grandmother stopped sending gifts to her grandchildren because they never said “Thank you.” She told me, “If they can’t acknowledge the gift, then I can’t waste my time and money to send it.” I have felt the same way, but thankfully God has so much more patience than we do. See, He’s given us the greatest gift of all, mercy. He paid the price. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus paid it for us.
Though God’s compassion is without requirement, He is so blessed when we respond to His gift with merci. And mercy. See, God’s mercy makes it possible, and compassionate, for us to have mercy on others. In today’s passage, Jude points out three ways to have mercy. We have mercy on those who need to see God’s grace. We have mercy on those who are on the verge of being destroyed. And we have mercy on those who do not deserve it at all. We have mercy in response to God’s mercy, paying Him with our thankfulness by sharing His grace with the world.
“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways,’ says Yahweh. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky, and doesn’t return there, but waters the earth, and makes it grow and bud, and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so is my word that goes out of my mouth: it will not return to me void, but it will accomplish that which I please, and it will prosper in the thing I sent it to do. For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace. The mountains and the hills will break out before you into singing; and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn the cypress tree will come up; and instead of the brier the myrtle tree will come up: and it will make a name for Yahweh, for an everlasting sign that will not be cut off.’” Isaiah 55:8-13, WEB
We had an open house on Saturday and invited friends from the many different parts of our lives. There were some invited that I did not know, some that I would not recognize when they arrived. Bruce and Zack invited co-workers. They invited friends from Bible studies and school. We invited friends from our present and former churches. The people who live in our neighborhood were welcome, too. I posted the invitation on Facebook so that all our local friends could plan on coming, so our long distance friends were invited, too. I knew that those friends were too far away to come, and several even posted their regrets that they could not come. They wished they could be here, but we all knew it was impossible.
We heard the knocks on the door as guests arrived and as we answered we saw the faces of people who have come to mean something in our lives. Our friends generously brought items to donate to several of the causes we support. There was joy and laughter with each new guest. We directed their way to the food and invited them to eat, drink and be merry.
At one point I answered the door and was greeted by vaguely familiar faces; the woman was holding her phone as if recording. I could almost hear the gears groaning in my brain as I tried to recall where I should know this person. Was this one of Bruce’s co-workers? Was she someone from his Bible study group? Bruce came to the door and suddenly cried out in glee. He called Zack to the door. “You won’t remember because you were too young, but this is your Aunt DeeDee and Uncle Emery.” That’s what we called them, though they weren’t blood relatives. They were friends from our newly-wed days in California that we haven’t seen since we moved to a new assignment twenty-four years ago.
They saw the invitation on Facebook and decided to surprise us. They didn’t tell anyone they were coming and they rearranged their schedule. They got in their car and drove, probably two thousand miles, to come to our party. They have enjoyed a few days in San Antonio, staying at a lovely hotel downtown and visiting the sites of Texas, but the purpose of their trip was to see us. It is so unbelievable that I am still trying to comprehend the grace and love that led these very important people in our lives to do something so unexpected and wonderful.
The Christmas season is the most wonderful time of the year. Think about all the memories you have of Christmases past and the expectations of Christmases to come. Think about your favorite traditions, your best recipes, and the most incredible surprises you have received over the years. It is no wonder that it is a time of joy and laughter. The fellowship with those we love is the icing on the cake.
Yet, there is someone and something even more surprising about this season: the birth of Jesus Christ. The whole story is incredible, even ridiculous. A virgin mother? Shepherds hearing angels? Wise men from afar traveling to surprise the couple with expensive gifts for a child that had no bed but a manger? It is all so unbelievable that we spend the days of Advent trying to comprehend the grace and love that led our God to do this most amazing thing.
The text from Isaiah is familiar to us. The chapter begins with the call for those who are thirsty to seek God: what He has He offers freely and abundantly. In today’s passage, we are reminded that everything that comes from God is fruitful. It is productive. God is actively involved in His creation, and He is faithful to His promises. His will shall be done, and He will make certain it is. Isaiah tells us in this passage of promise that instead of thorns, the earth will bear cypress and instead of briers the earth will bear myrtles. In other words, instead of plants that are useless and damaging, God will make the world productive and useful again.
God’s ways are not our ways. He does amazing and incredibly surprising things. He sent His Son to be born in flesh, to live and to die for our sake. From the life of Jesus Christ we learn how to be children of God, to follow His ways, to do His work and to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. We learn how to live lives of grace and love that will cause others to trust in God’s promises and receive the greatest gift of eternal life that comes from faith in Jesus.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk worthily of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and humility, with patience, bearing with one another in love; being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you also were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all. But to each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” Ephesians 4:1-7, WEB
I love shopping for Christmas presents. I love being generous and I love finding the absolutely perfect gift for those I love. I have to admit, though, that this quest has become much harder these days. I don’t like to just give gift cards, even if they are gift cards to a place that person loves. Shopping for Victoria this year has been limited by the fact that she’s not coming home, so I have had to make sure I buy things that will fit in a shipping box. She also lives in a small apartment and is trying to keep the clutter down, so she doesn’t want “stuff.” Bruce’s mom and dad are getting older and they don’t need more clutter; what do you buy people who don’t need or want anything? Two of our great nieces are old enough that they don’t want the latest toy and they live far enough that I’m not sure what books they would enjoy. I’ve had to deal with those gifts so I can get the boxes in the mail, but I have barely even thought about Bruce and Zack.
Unfortunately, gift giving isn’t always as thought filled. Some people don’t shop to make people happy, but for other reasons. They feel that they have to impress the recipient. They feel that it is a duty to get something. They think they have to spend a certain amount of money. They are motivated by selfish needs rather than gracious love.
The plot of one of those Christmas romance movies was about a guy who hired a girl to do his shopping for him. He had a list, but the girl didn’t think he was thinking through the quest enough. He wanted to buy his best friend an expensive gadget because they always tried to outdo each other with Christmas presents. The item on his list was completely sold out, everywhere, so based on conversations with her employer, the shopper bought a gift that would remind the friend of their past. The guy was angry because she didn’t do what he wanted, but the friend was thrilled. The present meant so much more than another expensive gadget. The relationship between the guy and the girl continued and she bought great presents for his entire list.
There are always people who put on a facade. There are people who are huggy and kissy whenever they are in the presence of other people, sweet as pie, but as soon as they turn the corner they are gossipy and completely unwilling to help. They are some that appear to be madly in love with their spouses, but linger in the bushes with a lover. There are some who will gift fabulous gifts but as soon as the season is over, they abuse those they claim to love. The love they show is insincere; it is a mockery of real love, because it does not come forth in humble service to those whom they claim to love.
Unfortunately, even Christians display this kind of hypocrisy. They speak the words of love: love of God and love of neighbor. They show love to their brothers and sisters in Christ with joyful embraces but they never show that love in meaningful and merciful actions. They are unavailable when their neighbor needs a helping hand. They gossip about the other members of the congregation. They will fight until they get their way, not considering the feelings or opinions of others as valid and valuable. They speak of Christian love, but the love is insincere.
We are called to love one another as Christ loved us. This means a sacrificial love that acts as it speaks. It is a love that humbles itself before God and for the sake of the neighbor. It is a love that does not concern itself with superficial facades or gifts given for all the wrong reasons, but loves with active support and grace. It is not a love that is all show but no substance. It is a love that benefits others, not just self. This love, while meant for all people, should especially be true among those who claim to be followers of the Christ.
There is a great deal of insincere love in this world. I am sure that every one of us can even remember times when we’ve bought gifts for all the wrong reasons. We are all guilty of insincere love for our neighbors and have fallen short in active service to those we claim to love. Yet, this is exactly why we are called to grow in our faith, to grow in our active living of the faith Christ has given. We fail but Christ forgives. He does this because of the deep love He has for all His people. His love is real and as we grow in the faith He has given us - not gaining more faith, but living more fully in it - we see that love that is given fully with heart and hand (not just voice) is the kind of love Jesus asks us to live. It is hard. It means patience and humility. It means getting our hands dirty doing things we would rather not do. It means thinking about the gifts we give. It means speaking the truth in love and listening with the same spirit. It means giving up our selfishness to live in peace with one another. That is love without hypocrisy.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 16, 2018, Third Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7, WEB
I have heard it said that fire was one of the greatest inventions of man. Yet, man never invented fire. Man invented ways to create fire. He discovered the use of sticks or stones that make sparks. He found ways to control fire and to use fire. But man never invented fire. After all, a lightning strike can cause a forest to burn without any help from mankind. It is likely that the ancient people of the world first used fire that was created during a storm, and perhaps even carried live coals from place to place to build new fires to use.
Even though man did not invent fire, the ability to use and control fire was one of the most important accomplishments of human history. Unfortunately, fire is always been controllable. Lightning still strikes and controlled fires go out of control. During the winter all too many houses burn down because some candle flame has been placed too close to something flammable or sparks flew out of a fireplace. Fire can destroy within minutes, but even when it destroys it can do good things.
Farmers burn their fields after a harvest to remove the stubble and to renew the earth. We learned last week that fire burning at an intense heat will remove the impurities from metal during the refining process. It might seem horrific when a fire burns a forest, but forest fires play a vital part of the ecological process; it thins the brush and dead wood while opening up the pinecones which releases the seeds. All this brings about new growth and strengthens the forest.
The voices of Advent call God’s people to live joyful and peaceful lives, so we would expect a similar theme in this week’s Gospel lesson. Then, as we begin to read, we hear the words of John the Baptist, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This is not a very pleasant passage; who wants to face the destruction that comes with the wrath of God? Where is the Good News?
The good news is in the very fact that God is a consuming fire. His wrath is not like an out of control fire that completely destroys a house. His wrath is like the refiner’s fire that destroys all the impurities and makes the silver pure. His fire will destroy all that makes us unrighteous, taking away our sin and our hardness of heart, leaving behind that which is good, right and true. His fire cleanses without destroying. His fire tempers and makes us pure.
That is truly good news. The God who comes to dwell amongst us has baptized us with the Holy Spirit and fire, destroying all that separates us from Him. While it might seem like John the Baptist is preaching hellfire and damnation, he is giving the people a message they need to hear: “Repent!” They receive it with enthusiasm, asking, “What can we do?” They hear the message that brings joy: the promised Messiah is coming and they want to know what they can do to be ready.
It is a message we still need to hear today. Will our good works bring the salvation we desire? No, because God has already accomplished that salvation. That’s the good news. But John reminds us not to run from the coming wrath, because it is that very wrath that will cleanse us, renew us, and make us pure and righteous before God. God’s fire does not destroy, it makes us whole. It gives us reason to rejoice.
The book of Zephaniah is hardly joyful. The prophet announced to the people that God would bring judgment to the nations, including His people who had abandoned their faith. Yet, the prophet does not leave them without hope. Today’s reading tells of the restoration that will come when God completes His work. Zephaniah foretells the rejoicing that will go on within the city of Jerusalem. “Sing, daughter of Zion! Shout, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem. Yahweh has taken away your judgments. He has thrown out your enemy. The King of Israel, Yahweh, is among you. You will not be afraid of evil any more.”
To the Jews, prosperity meant God was near, misery meant that He had abandoned them. Though God was never far away, it was not hard for them to fear when things began to go wrong. It was obvious that God was no longer protecting them when the nations could overwhelm them with their power. Yet, God has a purpose for all things, including those times of pain and suffering. God did not intend for the Jews to be destroyed, He knew that He would provide salvation in His time and way. After judgment, God cleanses His people, purifies their lips and they call out to their God. The day will come when He will bring them home. “At that time will I bring you in, and at that time will I gather you; for I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says Yahweh.” Sometimes suffering helps us to turn to Him, to repent of our sin and look to Him for salvation.
Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’” Christmas is a time for joy and peace. I am not a singer, but I couldn’t help but sing along to the carols I heard in the grocery store the other day. Our schedules are filled with happy moments: parties, gift exchanges, opportunities to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. There are characters like Santa who always have smiles on their faces and stories that always have a happy ending. It seems like at this time the charge from Paul should be easy.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time being happy all the time, especially when I’m going through a tough or hectic time. The hustle and bustle of the season makes it a stressful time. Demands from co-workers and family give us little room to rest. Exhaustion leads to illness, which makes everything harder. There is not enough time to do everything, not enough energy to accomplish all the tasks and not enough laughter to get us through. It is made especially difficult when faced with people who expect that smile on your face at every moment. “What is the matter with you, it’s Christmas!”
Yet the joy and peace to which Paul refers is not the kind of joy and peace that most people are seeking at this time of year. As a matter of fact, it is the very seeking of an external joy and peace that makes us even more stressed. As we chase after laughs and good feelings between all people we lose sight of the real source of our joy and peace. We forget that Paul has called us not to be happy, but to rejoice in the Lord. We forget that the peace of God does not necessarily come with peace on earth, but that it is something that dwells within the heart of a Christian who trusts in God.
So, instead of seeking joy in our activities and peace between peoples, we are called to keep our hearts and minds on God our Father. When things get out of control, when we get too busy to smile, when we exhaust ourselves into illness, we are reminded that none of that has anything to do with true joy and peace. Joy in the Lord and peace to His people have everything to do with our relationship with God and His place in our life. The Christian life does not guarantee a life without difficulty, so why would we think that the Christmas life would guarantee a turmoil-free idyllic state?
Instead of expecting unattainable happiness and perfect relationships, Paul reminds us to rejoice in the Lord always. When we do so, we keep our eyes, and our hearts, on the true prize which is peace in our hearts. When peace dwells in our hearts, we have a whole new perspective about the world around us. Instead of being stressed by too many activities, we realize that there is one thing that matters: Jesus. Then perhaps we’ll take care of ourselves by choosing a better way to celebrate this wonderful season and we’ll end up truly knowing what it means to have the peace of God.
We have difficulty trusting God. It began so long ago in the Garden of Eden, when Eve believed the lie of Satan about the Word of God. She did not trust that He spoke the truth; she saw goodness in the thing He said would bring pain, and took it into her own hands. The Israelites did not trust that God would take care of them. They grumbled in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. They turned to other nations for help against their enemies. They asked for a worldly king when they had the King of kings as their ruler.
God does not force Himself on us when we turn from Him. He allows the natural consequences of our mistrust to humble us before His throne so that we will repent and cry out for the One we know can overcome our difficulties. He never allows more than we can bear, but He does allow enough so that we will remember His covenants and faithfulness, so that we will trust Him again. God did this with His people over and over again. They were defeated by their enemies and then restored when they turned to Him. They were taken into captivity, but then were returned to their home when they gave Him their trust. We suffer our own consequences when we turn from God, but He is always near to respond when we repent and trust Him.
I have mentioned to several people that once our party was over, the rest of the season is easy. I’m done with decorating and crafts. My house is clean and I’ve done a bunch of baking. I still have to mail a few boxes, write my Christmas cards and buy a few more presents. The stress of preparing for our party is over and I’m just about ready for Christmas.
For many, this is the moment when they begin rejoicing, because now they can relax and enjoy the season. Yet, why are we so stressed and exhausted as we prepare for something so special and wonderful as the birth of Christ? We shouldn’t rejoice when we are done with our shopping and decorating, but should rejoice with thankfulness and praise to God for giving us the greatest gift at Christmas.
It could not have been easy to be John the Baptist. He was born to elderly parents who probably died when he was very young. Though he may have had family to provide for him, his circumstances led him to lead a most extraordinary life. He lived in the wilderness, clothed himself in camel’s hair and ate locusts for lunch. We picture him demanding, even angry and hateful, full of wrath, harsh and perhaps even violent with his message. Perhaps instead of seeing John the Baptist as confrontive and offensive, we should be looking at him as an example of the way to prepare for the coming of the Lord. He lived simply and preached the good news. He called people to live simply, to share their blessings and to do what is right.
John said, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” As the people asked him what they should do, he told them to share their abundance, to live honorably and be satisfied. Prosperity often leads to dissatisfaction and greed. When we have enough we want more. When we have more we think we need even more. To keep up such a lifestyle it becomes necessary to keep more than we need and to do anything to get more. That’s why John told the people to give away their second tunic, to collect only the right amount of taxes and to take only their due wages. Be satisfied with what you have; John could speak this message to the people because he was satisfied with camel’s hair clothing and locusts for lunch. He lived a simple life and called the people to live that kind of life also.
As we prepare for the coming of our King, we tend to think in grandiose terms: more tinsel, more lights, more presents, and more food. We decorate our homes in silver and gold and fill our bellies with rich things to eat. We exhaust ourselves to prepare and stress out over details, forgetting that the One who was to come would not come into a world filled with light and life. He was coming to a world filled with darkness and death. He is the Light, and John came to be a witness to the Light. He did not need to be adorned with finery or eat grand feasts. He had something to give to the world: hope. He lived a simple life and spoke the truth. The people were drawn to him and they listened to what he had to say. He called them to repent – to live the simple life, to do what is right and to wait patiently for the One who was to come. He calls us to do the same as we prepare for Christmas.
We may not realize it, but we look toward many things that we think will save us. We get involved in relationships to save us from loneliness. We work hard to save us from poverty. We chase after all sorts of leisure activities to save us from boredom. We do everything within our power to keep our bodies healthy and our minds young to save us from death and dis-ease. We even think that having the perfect Christmas will make our life better. As we chase after the perfect holiday, we often miss what is truly important.
The simplest thing is the necessary for human survival: water. We need air more, but we can’t live even a few days without something to drink. We can live for weeks without food and we can survive under extreme circumstances. However, we need water to live. The same is true of all things living - plants, birds and animals. Some beings can go a long time without water, but eventually they need something to drink. I suppose that is why water has always played such an important role in religious ceremonies. During the Feast of Tabernacles - the feast that memorialized the journey from Egypt to Canaan - the priest gathered water in a gold jug from the pool of Siloam to pour over the altar as a form of sacrifice. It was done in remembrance of God’s gracious provision for the wanderers in the desert. There were times when the water God provided saved their lives.
The psalm for this week is from the book of Isaiah, a song of thanksgiving and praise. The singer recognizes that we choose things that we think will save us from difficulty. However, the singer confesses in faith that the only source of salvation for him is God. So he pours out a sacrificial offering in thanksgiving of water, the one physical thing that is really necessary for life, trusting confidently that God will provide.
Isaiah spoke of the judgment that would come to those who did not trust in the Lord, but he also knew that there was hope. “In that day you will say, ‘I will give thanks to you, Yahweh; for though you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you comfort me.’” This verse is not included in today’s readings, yet it speaks of the reason for our joy. God forgets His anger and comforts His people. We rejoice that God is our salvation, that He is our strength and song.
Isaiah goes on to say, “‘Behold, God is my salvation. I will trust, and will not be afraid; for Yah, Yahweh, is my strength and song; and he has become my salvation.’ Therefore with joy you will draw water out of the wells of salvation. In that day you will say, ‘Give thanks to Yahweh! Call on his name. Declare his doings among the peoples. Proclaim that his name is exalted! Sing to Yahweh, for he has done excellent things! Let this be known in all the earth! Cry aloud and shout, you inhabitant of Zion; for the Holy One of Israel is great among you!’” That’s what we do at Christmastime. We declare the wondrous gift of salvation from God that comes to us in the cries of a newborn in a manger in Bethlehem. We sing songs of joy that the world will see that God has indeed done the most marvelous thing. He has come to dwell among His people and to give them light in the darkness.
There is no real salvation apart from God. As we draw closer to Christmas during this season of Advent, we are reminded of everything that God has done. We are reminded of the baby in the manger and we look forward to the Day of the Lord’s coming who was, is and will be our salvation. That day, though it will be a day of judgment for the world, will be the day when God’s promises are finally fulfilled. It is for this reason we can live in joy today.
John’s message seems unpleasant, and yet there is Good News. The coming One is greater than John. John baptizes with water to cleanse the people from their sin, to purify their lips as promised in Zephaniah. But another is coming. “He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: whose fan is in his hand, thoroughly to cleanse his threshing-floor, and to gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.” On a first reading, it is easy to assume that God will cleanse the world from the unrepentant, to remove our enemies with His fire. Let’s not fool ourselves, however, because we all have imperfections that need to be removed. We all have sins we cannot overcome on our own, ways which we turn from God.
It was not until I saw John the Baptist as a merciful preacher that I could understand the connection the Gospel lesson has with the other texts for today. Zephaniah and Isaiah called the people to lives of joy. Paul confronts us with this charge to rejoice always. He assures us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. I’m not so sure that I have ever been so filled with joy that I was totally at peace. This is especially true at this time of year when we are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays. This is the time of peace and good will to all men. We are expected to be happy during the Christmas season, enjoying all the good things in life, yet we face stress, disease and even death, leaving us at times empty, lonely and exhausted.
We know we need to rejoice that Christ is coming in the manger and in His glory, but this is the day for us to rejoice. Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi to live that joy daily. Like John, he encourages them to display the fruit of repentance. “Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” And like John, Paul offered a message of hope and Good News. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”
“But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at length you have revived your thought for me; in which you did indeed take thought, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect to lack, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content in it. I know how to be humbled, and I know also how to abound. In everything and in all things I have learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in need. I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:10-13, WEB
The big story in gift giving for this year is the number of people who are paying off layaways in different stores around the country. It began with the incredibly generous act of a celebrity or two, and has expanded to other people following their example. This is not the first time this has happened; people have done this in previous years, but it seems like it is taking off this year. Perhaps it is because the very public report of the celebrities who have done so. At least a few of the talking heads are suggesting following the example of those celebrities to find a new joy in the Christmas season. Instead of putting a ton of presents under our own trees, we are being encouraged to put presents under others’ trees. Every Christmas season is filled with opportunities to do good things for people who are less than able to give their kids a happy Christmas and it is truly a joy to do so.
Not everyone is so focused on being generous to others during the Christmas season. I once read an article out of England about a girl who was thirteen at the time and 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 was asking for some extremely expensive items and she saw nothing wrong with her demands. She thought she deserved the best of the best and expected it under the Christmas tree. In the article she was quoted as saying, “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 people. “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 went 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. 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 will 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. Did she, and her mother, really think that the world revolves around her that people would be willing to be “flown in” to fulfill her demands? Would she learn to respect other people that way? Would she learn responsibility and gratitude if she is always given everything she wants? Would she learn the blessing of humility and grace and generosity if she is embraced for her selfishness? Would we be blessed if God gave us everything we want instead of giving us what we truly need? Will we learn to be thankful if our demands are always fulfilled?
I’m glad that the celebrities are modeling and encouraging generosity. We don’t have to go pay off the layaway of strangers, but there are plenty of other ways to give Christmas to people who won’t even have a cheap toy under the tree let alone a new phone or a private concert. Paul reminds us to be content and humbled and to realize how blessed we are. We are blessed to be a blessing. How will you share your blessings today?
“Sing to Yahweh a new song! Sing to Yahweh, all the earth. Sing to Yahweh! Bless his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day! Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised! He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him. Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to Yahweh, you families of nations, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength. Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name. Bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship Yahweh in holy array. Tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, ‘Yahweh reigns.’ The world is also established. It can’t be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice. Let the sea roar, and its fullness! Let the field and all that is in it exult! Then all the trees of the woods shall sing for joy before Yahweh; for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, the peoples with his truth.” Psalm 96, WEB
Everyone has their interests and gifts. Music is not one of mine. I don’t mind listening to music, but it isn’t something I pursue. I sing a joyful noise, but I’m not very good at singing. I can read music, a little; I can go up and down the scale according to the notes, but I don’t have a clue where to start. I don’t know whether the note I am singing is a C or a D or a Z (I know there aren’t any Zs.) I can usually mimic what’s happening around me, but I doubt I’m hitting the notes just right. Music is important, especially to worship, but I do not often break out in song.
I have noted this year, however, that I have been singing along with the Christmas music in the stores. Not in my head, but out loud and loud enough that others can hear. I’m making that joyful noise without concern whether anyone is hearing me. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not feeling so stressed about the holidays this year. I don’t have a clue what to buy my boys for under the tree, but I’m not really worried about it as I have in the past. I am not struggling to get a million things done every day. I limited the cookie baking, I’ve reduced my Christmas card mailing list, and I finished projects well before the hectic season so that I wouldn’t be rushing to get things done. I was in a store yesterday that I rarely visit, just looking around to see what they might have, and the songs on the loud speakers was on my tongue. I was content, happily wandering the aisles without the stress of trying to find something specific.
I think I’ve found an attitude of praise that just naturally comes out in song. Part of it has to do with the insights I have found in writing my study on the Book of Revelation. I have realized that we have no need to worry or fear what is to come because God has given us the greatest gift and with that gift we can dwell in His presence, worshipping Him at all times.
Advent is not just a time for looking forward to the birth of the baby Jesus, but it is also a time to look forward to the coming of Jesus in glory. In that day, whenever it shall occur, all of creation will rejoice. The trees will sing out for joy. The thought of such an event might bring fear to our hearts, for Christ will come with power and authority beyond anything we can imagine. The world will be turned upside down and things will never be as they were. He will come as judge. Yet, we do not wait in fear but rather hope because the coming of our Lord is the fulfillment of all His promises. The singing trees will be just one sound in the symphony of peace for which we long.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if we lived daily in the praise and thanksgiving of God's grace we feel and let it shine into our everyday encounters? Oh perhaps some people would think we were crazy and others will persecute us for our foolishness. However, many people - those open to the Gospel message - will see our joy and want to know from whence it came. Evangelism, witnessing the grace of God to the world, does not come simply by telling others their need for a Savior, but rather it comes from praising God in thanksgiving for what that Savior has done for us so that the world will see. Our joy will help others to realize their own need and then they can look to the one that meets all our needs: Jesus Christ our Lord.
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, most certainly I tell you he will in no way lose his reward.” Matthew 10:40-42, WEB
I attended a party long before we had GPS on our phones. I had never been at the house in a development with which I was unfamiliar, so I was given detailed instructions. The notes explained the directions and ended with, “You have to drive by Jesus to get to our house.” Their house was a few blocks into the development and a beautiful decorated house stood as a landmark. Once I passed that display I would see their house on the left.
It was a fun way to lead me to their home, but it made me think. How often do we pass by Jesus to get to our destination? During this hectic holiday season, what things are we forgetting to do while we rush around in the hustle bustle of the season. We don’t think there is time to do anything else as we struggle to finish all our preparation for the big day. We complain about time, but are reminded that there are many families who won’t have a Christmas because they don’t have the resources to create the perfect holiday. There are organizations in every city providing help to those families.
I’m scheduled to volunteer at an emergency Christmas store tomorrow for families who would have a sad Christmas without it. I got an email from the organization last week begging for more items. They did not have enough to meet all the needs. They were especially desperate for gifts that would suit teenage boys. I stopped at a dollar type store last week and bought as much as I could afford, feeling guilty that I was buying cheap. As I paid $10 each for a few watches, I wondered if I would buy the same for my family. Yet, I know that five watches will give gifts to five young men who would otherwise get nothing, besides, a $10 watch tells the same time as one worth much more. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
I passed by Jesus as I went to that party. In this case, it was just a beautiful yard display, which I enjoyed seeing. Every day we pass by people who need something from us: our love, a smile, a message of hope or a reminder of God’s grace. Others need more tangible help, such as a present to give to their child or some meat for Christmas dinner. There are plenty of opportunities to share of our wealth during this time of year, through organizations like food banks and Toys for Tots. We should never think that giving something is not enough, because it is sometimes the small things that make the biggest impact. Most importantly, let’s remember to see Jesus in the opportunities to share our gifts, time and resources. We should be watching for those small things we can do for the people who cross our paths. If we don’t, we might be passing right by Jesus. It is in living the life that Christ has given to you, by sharing Him with others, that you’ll find the true blessings of this season.
“Again, the next day, John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is to say, being interpreted, Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come, and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother, Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah!’ (which is, being interpreted, Christ.) He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, ‘You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas’ (which is by interpretation, Peter)” John 1:35-42, WEB
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Raphael paints wisdom, Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.” In this quote, Emerson names some of the greatest men in their fields. These are men who accomplished great things and are remembered long after their deaths for what they did. If he would speak those words today, he might add some other people like sports figures, politicians and entertainers that are important figures in the world. Great people have an effect on others by their words and by their deeds.
These great people came from somewhere. There is always someone - a parent, teacher, grandparent, pastor, Sunday school teacher, neighbor, friend - who had an impact on their life. Their words and wisdom help guide them into the right path for their lives. While each of these men also have incredible God-given gifts, it took someone to encourage their growth and learning in their field so that they might become great. These forerunners are often unknown; they never reach greatness or fame for the contribution they have made.
Peter was a great man of faith. He is known for his willingness to follow Jesus and for his leadership in the Church after Jesus ascended to heaven. He wasn’t perfect, but he was willing. Peter is always close to Jesus in the Gospel stories, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. His confession of faith was the foundation on which Christ built the Church. He was given the keys to the Kingdom of God. He stood in the forefront of the activities of the disciples and he preached Christ to the crowds at Pentecost. He did amazing things in his ministry, just like Jesus, like healing the sick and raising the dead. We remember Peter as being the greatest of the disciples, and yet he was not the first. He was not the first one called, nor even the first one to show faith in Christ. He was not the first of the Apostles to be an evangelist.
Andrew was the one who took Peter to the Lord. Andrew was the one who had faith enough to give Jesus five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand men. Peter may never have become a follower if Andrew had not gone to his brother and said, “Come and see. We have found the Messiah.” That is a most important confession of faith, because Andrew, even before Jesus had really taught them all about Himself, knew that Jesus was the Christ. There were many who claimed to be messiahs in those days, men who tried to defeat Rome by military power. But Andrew, the guy behind the guy, knew by faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the One promised by God.
We can identify Jesus as many things. He is friend. He is teacher. He is a merciful healer. He is Lord. He is the High Priest. He is the Lamb. He is the Light. He is the Word. He is the Baby in the manger. He is the Coming King. He is all these things, but there is one identity on which our eternal life rests: He is the Messiah. He is the Coming One who saved His people who will come again. Andrew somehow saw that; he knew that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting, and he took that message to Peter. “Come and see!” We are reminded that have been chosen to continue this work of telling the world that the Messiah has come, to invite them to “Come and see!”
Scriptures for Sunday, December 23, 2018, Fourth Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:2-5a: Psalm 80:1-7: Hebrews 10:5-10: Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)
“Turn us again, God. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.” Psalm 80:3, WEB
It is the season of parties, so I am sure we have all seen at least one invitation to some gathering such as an office party or a friend’s open house. Invitations use an abbreviated form of communication, giving only the most important information, answering only the necessary questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? We try to make our invitations as attractive as possible, so that our guests will want to come. We promise fun, good food and fellowship, adding a bit of glitz and glamour to the invitation to guarantee that we’ll have at least a few people come to be with us.
Our scriptures for this week are like an invitation. In Micah we learn “where” the party will take place in Bethlehem. Micah also tells us the party will begin when the woman in labor gives birth. There are several people “who” are involved. Mary cordially invited us to the birth of her son; Elizabeth told us that child is Lord. God, Savior, the Mighty One is the Host, according to Mary. The psalmist recognizes the Shepherd of Israel and the Lord God of hosts. Notice how the characters, even God, are described in lowly terms. Mary is humble; Elizabeth feels unworthy to be in the presence of the mother of her Lord. God is described as the Good Shepherd, a rather unusual identity considering the shepherds were the lowest of the low in the culture of the day.
With this invitation we learn that God does not do things the way we might do them. We add glitz and glitter to everything, going bigger which we think must be better. We get caught up in the hustle and bustle, rich food and expensive presents. God turns everything upside down, choosing the lowly and humble above the grand and privileged. The psalmist recognized that the circumstances of God’s people were brought on by their disobedience to God’s word and will, but the psalmist had confidence that God would fulfill His promises to His people. He would answer them and turn His face back to them. He would raise them up and He would shine His face upon them. In their darkest hour, He would come to save them. Thus we see the “why” (because we are sinners in need of a Savior), the “what” (salvation), and the “how” (by sending Jesus.)
This week we are invited to that moment. It is not a moment of glory as we might expect, but instead it is a moment of pain in a stable in Bethlehem as a child is born. The invitation is not for the rich and the powerful, but for all who are humble and repentant. The invitation is to come before a manger, but the manger will ultimately lead us to the cross of Christ. When we cry out for salvation, it won’t be found in something glitzy, but in the shine of God’s face. It won’t be found in a palace, but in the manger. It won’t be in the glow of candlelight or Christmas lights, but in the shadow of the cross.
Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month heavy with child by the time Mary met with the angel Gabriel. It must have been particularly difficult for her, as she was an elderly woman. When Mary heard the words of the angel, she went immediately to see Elizabeth. Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, had no reason to believe that she might be pregnant except for the words of the angel. She didn’t seem to doubt the words; she simply asked “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” The angel answered that it would happen by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary did not question the words of the angel, but accepted what had been told to her with a willing obedience to the call of God.
Mary quickly departed and traveled to see her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s pregnancy was the sign that the angel gave her to confirm everything. Mary needed to know that Elizabeth was pregnant. It was too ridiculous to believe without seeing. If Elizabeth was indeed having a baby, then everything the angel said was true. It was real. Then Mary could deal with it all knowing that God was indeed with her. It was then that she could sing her song and praise God for this gift. Without this encounter, Mary may not have ever had the certainty or the strength to stand up against the struggles she would face with her family and friends.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, probably to help her elderly cousin in those final months of her pregnancy. Mary could do so much for Elizabeth, to allow Elizabeth to stay off her feet and yet still provide for the care of Zechariah. It gave Mary time to pray and to grow accustomed to her situation. It also gave the baby time to grow in her womb until her pregnancy was just becoming visible to the world. Then that she returned to face her family, her friends and her betrothed.
During Advent we take a moment to remember the woman who was chosen to carry the baby Jesus in her womb and then in her arms. She is an incredible example of faith, but we should be careful to not raise Mary to too high a pedestal. There are those who make Mary almost god-like and perfect. She is equated, in some circles, with the goddess of pagan faith.
However, Mary need not be perfect to be blessed of God. Her life certainly was not pain free. She was just a child when she became pregnant and she was mistreated as a whore. She gave birth in a cold stable, and then went on the run with her husband and young child to save his life. She deeply loved her son, but at times he seemed to disregard and disrespect her. Think about the stories: He went to the temple and they could not find him, He told her that it wasn’t time at the wedding in Cana, she went with Jesus’ brothers to talk to Him because they thought he might be crazy. He told her that those listening were His mother and brothers. And then, after all this, Mary watched her son die a horrible death, executed on the cross.
Mary’s story is not one of a goddess or a woman of sinless perfection. She was a woman, chosen of God to bring the good news of salvation into the world. She had the rare, single honor of being the one to bear His body, but this is not why she is called blessed. She is called blessed because through all these trials, Mary remained humble and faithful to the God she loved.
Mary has been raised to a pedestal that is not hers. She has been made by some to be equal to Jesus in virtue claiming it is necessary for Jesus to be perfect. But this rejects the reality that Jesus is also fully human. Mary gives Him that part of His character. She gave Him the flesh and blood, the will that can be tempted and the heart that can cry out in agony on the cross. God, the divine aspect of His character, gave Him the ability to stay perfect and sinless. In this passage, Mary herself tells of her failings, crying out in thanksgiving to her Savior. If she were perfect, why would she need to be saved?
Mary deserves our respect, not because she is greater than you and I, but because she is just like you and I. She was specially chosen to bring the Gospel to the world in a very unique way, but her story as a sinner and saint is just like ours. There were times her actions as the mother of Jesus put her as an obstacle to His ministry. She was a sinner in need of a Savior.
When you read the scriptures, it is obvious that her son came for the poor, the sick and the humble, those who need a Savior to change their lives. He did not reject the rich and healthy, but it was those who had a real need that found refuge in the words and actions of Jesus. There are people in this world who call themselves Christian because they find something in the life of Jesus that they want to emulate. They often see Jesus as a friend, as a role model. Yet, when asked about sin and their need for a Savior, they will deny they have any such need. They do not truly understand the reason Jesus came into the world.
Mary knew. Mary knew that Jesus offered a life-changing gift, the gift of forgiveness and eternal life. If a person sees themselves as good, they have no need for forgiveness and salvation. This is why true faith comes to those with a humble heart. It comes to those who recognize their true need, the need for mercy and grace which is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not an example of how we are to live in this world; it is the gift of life for those who are dying from their sin. He gives us everything we truly need.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Micah foretold the coming of the Messiah. He pointed to a rather strange place, the very small town of Bethlehem. Though Bethlehem was the birthplace of David and was the site of the tomb of Rachel, it was relatively unimportant in Jesus’ day. Bethlehem was not the seat of kings. The people expected the king to be born in a palace and Bethlehem had no palace. The seat of the king was in Jerusalem.
Someone greater would be born in Bethlehem, a ruler in Israel whose origins were of old. Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Everlasting, the eternal One. The text from Micah gives us a clue about the One who is promised, this man who will give us peace. He would be born in Bethlehem. It was to this text that Herod’s advisors pointed when the wise men asked where to go to find the baby king who was born. They knew from the prophecy that the ruler of Israel, the Messiah, would come from this small town. Bethlehem means House of David; it also means House of Bread. Jesus is the descendant of David and He is the Bread of Life. In this promise we see that Jesus is truly Immanuel, God with us, both human descending from the House of David and the Son of God. We needed Jesus because He is the only one able to give us peace.
In the reading from the Psalm for today, the writer asked God to save Israel from her enemies and from His wrath for their sin. “Turn us again, God. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.” There is no salvation apart from God’s presence. When God’s face is shining on His people, they prosper in all things. God is never far from us but we have this tendency to turn from Him, to walk away. We turn to others for our help; we sin against God’s Word. The wrath we suffer is deserved.
Try as we might, we can’t restore ourselves to God. We can’t make ourselves righteous enough. We can’t redeem our lives. We can’t do anything to make ourselves worthy of God’s grace, to gain His forgiveness, despite the ways we try. We can’t make God come any closer, even through prayer, because our God is never far. Our petition is not for God to change anything about Himself, but for God to turn us back to Him. “Turn us again, O God.” Mary knew this; she was a humble handmaid of the Lord singing praise to God her Savior.
By the time Jesus was born, it had been four hundred years since God had last spoken to His people. They forgot the prayer of the psalmist and tried to turn to God on their own. They tried to make themselves righteous through obedience to a bunch of rules, to cleanse themselves with the sacrifice of animals. The temple priests were busy day and night slaughtering birds, sheep, goats and bulls, begging for God’s mercy. The people gave generously to the temple (oil, incense, grain and coin) hoping that God would be pleased with their offerings and shine His face on them once again. God was not happy with those sacrifices. Instead, Jesus Christ offered Himself to do the will of His Father. Born of flesh and blood, Jesus would never rule on a throne made of gold and fine wood. Jesus was born to die. Through Him we are all made holy, not by our good works or our righteousness, but by His sacrifice.
During Advent and Christmas we are very aware of the presence of God. Many of the signs are secular, but even those signs point to the baby in the manger, for those of us who wait for the Savior. Twinkling lights remind us of the Light, the gifts under our trees remind us of the best gift, and our parties are experiences in hospitality. We are generous not only with those we love, but with strangers as we give to charities serving those in need during this season. Santa Claus might not seem very religious, but his story has a foundation in faith. We can see our God everywhere if we pay attention. God is with us in the most human ways.
The writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus came because the ways of the world do not work. We think bigger is better, but it isn’t always. We think we can earn our way to heaven, but we can’t. We think that if we are good enough, if we do everything right, if we obey the Law, then we’ll experience the blessings of the righteous. But it is impossible for us to become righteous by obeying the Law. Jesus came to do what we cannot.
The Christmas story is sweet and wonderful until we remember why Jesus came. We love the images of Bethlehem, the manger, the starry night and the shepherds in the field. We honor Mary and Joseph, rejoice with Elizabeth and Zechariah. We follow the wise men on camels carrying gold and myrrh and frankincense. We smile at the donkey and cow and sheep surrounding the baby with golden light and soft soothing music. We love our Christmas trees and the presents, the cookies and the parties. We love everything wonderful about the holidays.
But Christmas is not all sweet and wonderful. Jesus came because there was work to do. He came to turn the world upside down, and God did it in a way that is the opposite of everything we might expect. Jesus didn’t come to be a king, but to be a humble servant. He came to be a shepherd, to take care of the deepest needs of God’s people. He came to save us, not as a conquering hero, but as the Son sent to do His Father’s work.
That work is the most shocking part of the story. The Son did not come to rule on an earthly throne or lead an army into war. Jesus came to die. We have made the Christmas story to be one of sweetness and light: a mother and a baby, the farm animals close by keeping the happy family warm on the cold night. The pictures have beautiful angels singing praises to God and kings dressed in robes of spun gold fabric. It is a beautiful moment until we realize that Jesus came to die. God turned the world upside down, using the wrong people in the wrong places to do what He knows to be right.
Bigger might be better and glitz might make us happy, but we are reminded in today’s lessons that God doesn’t choose the biggest or most perfect for this story. He chose the lowly, the humble, the littlest. He chose those who would be turned, who could be changed by His grace. He chose those who willingly obeyed His call. He still does. He chooses you. Are you ready to face the upside down world right side up? You might be among the lowly, but God is ready to bless you in ways you cannot imagine.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 15:57-58, WEB
We were stationed in England, on our last few weeks before moving on to our next assignment. Our household goods were already on their way and we were left in a house with borrowed furniture and a few personal items. It was Christmas, and we didn’t have any of our decorations. It was Christmas and we had to be careful about how much we gave the kids because we had to carry those items on the plane when we traveled back to the states. It was going to be a miserable holiday unless we did something. Thankfully, the base travel office offered a trip to Austria over the Christmas holiday, so we decided to go.
The trip was lovely. We left very early one morning and drove for two days. The people on board the double-decker bus, around sixty men, women and children, were strangers when we began; some were American, some were British. We all had a common purpose: to spend Christmas in the Alps. It is difficult to spend so much time in such close quarters without getting to know one another. We shared our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams. We ate together and watched out for each other. We shared everything: batteries, cold medicine, books and even chocolate. We were equally confused by the language and currency. Someone was always willing to bail out a fellow passenger when they did not have the appropriate coin to use the rest rooms. Even the children joined in the fellowship by sharing their video games.
We left England as strangers, and returned as a family. The only thing that drew us together was a common purpose. It was going to be a most unusual Christmas for all of us, and we knew that it would be miserable unless we found some way to work together. Those who were traveling alone were welcomed into families. We watched over each other’s kids. We even worshipped together at a special English language carol service held at the local church.
We were nearing the end of our journey. After eight days the cargo areas were packed full of suitcases. We even had a trailer hooked to the back for more stuff. We had all bought souvenirs, so the bus was full and heavy. The travel was long, but going well. We were on schedule as we drove off the ferry after the Channel crossing. That’s when the trouble began. We found ourselves stuck in the middle of a traffic jam. After an hour, we had only moved a few miles. At that rate, we would never make it home.
The bus drivers decided to turn off onto a country road. The map showed that it went through to another highway just a few miles to the north. The road was a fairly wide country road. Our only real concern was the low branches. It had snowed in England so some of the roads were wet and a bit icy, but this road seemed to be in good condition. As we traveled along this road became smaller and smaller; it led up a hill, climbing deeper into the woods. Eventually it became a single-track road. The trees were scraping against the top and the sides of the bus. We had difficulty making some of the turns, and it grew darker by the minute.
Unfortunately, the road was thick with ice. The tires began to spin under the weight of the bus. We were stuck. There were chains for the tires, so as we hung precariously off the side of that hill, the drivers began the hard work of putting them on. They chains worked and we continued on our way. After a time, we came to the top of the hill and headed back down. The road widened a bit, the forest thinned.
Just when we were breathing a sigh of relief, we realized our misadventure was not over. As we reached the bottom of this tiny country road, we came across a stalled car in the road. Always willing to help, a bunch of men got off the bus and began to move the car. As they did, a man came running out of a house yelling, “Do not move the car, it is a stolen vehicle!” We had nowhere to go. We could not get around the car; we could not go back up the hill. We were all tired and ready to get home, so the men moved the car, let the bus pass, and then moved the car back to where they found it.
At the end of this adventure, our bus driver said, “Obviously that was a wrong decision.”
Our Christian walk is often just like this misadventure. We seem to be stuck in a traffic jam, going nowhere and wanting desperately to get to our destination. So, we find a cut off, a different path. Unfortunately, what seems like a good way often turns out to be more difficult, more dangerous. Do you feel like you are stuck in a traffic jam? Stay the course. Wait patiently for God to clear the path ahead. Do not try to take your own way into the woods. Your labor, even if it is just sitting still, is not in vain when you do the work of the Lord.
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that you, always having all sufficiency in everything, may abound to every good work. As it is written, ‘He has scattered abroad, he has given to the poor. His righteousness remains forever.’ Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness; you being enriched in everything to all liberality, which produces through us thanksgiving to God. For this service of giving that you perform not only makes up for lack among the saints, but abounds also through many givings of thanks to God; seeing that through the proof given by this service, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the Good News of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all; while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, yearn for you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Now thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:8-15, WEB
I saw a photo on Facebook today of a plastic wrapper filled with Lucky Charms marshmallows. The caption told the story of a teacher who had received this most incredible gift. It was the last day before Christmas vacation and the children had gifts to give their teacher. One child, who received the free breakfast, didn’t have anything to give. At breakfast, the child used the plastic wrapper from the utensils and carefully picked every marshmallow out of her cereal to give. It is a gift that might make some laugh at the absurdity, but for that child it was an incredible sacrifice. After all, the marshmallows are the best part of the cereal. It might seem like nothing, but for that child, it was everything.
I worked an emergency Christmas store the other day. The local Christian Assistance Ministry collects toys and then allows their clients to visit the store to “purchase” without money gifts for their children. They had enough gifts so that every child could receive two toys, three stuffed animals, a book and two stocking stuffers. There were items for children of every age to eighteen. This emergency store is not like shopping at the big box stores; there are limited choices, particularly for the older children. The book selection was terrible this year, with nothing appropriate for any children over ten. The teenage “toys” table was sparse and there were few items in the stocking stuffers for boys.
A few parents grumbled about the choices. One tried to get an extra toy because her son would not like stuffed animals. When we said that we couldn’t do it, she took the stuffed animals anyway. Some of the parents were sure to take something, anything, to fit every freebee they could get. Some picked toys that were obviously not appropriate for the children for whom we were shopping; others automatically asked for a gift card which we only give when there is absolutely nothing for the child without even looking at the options. These are the negatives of this type of event. These stories make us cynical about doing this project.
There are other stories, however, that make it all worthwhile. One mother burst into tears while walking through the Christmas store, amazed at the choices. She was so thankful because there was no other way she could have given her children a happy Christmas. Another mother had several teenagers. She found items that would make them happy. When it was time to pick the stuffed animals, books and stocking stuffers, she said that she’d rather leave those things for the children who would enjoy them. “I’m happy with what I picked and my children will be, too.”
As I was working the store this year, I was making a list of things we need to make it better next year. We need to collect books for the teenagers and to find stocking stuffers that would be good for them, too. I’ll probably start looking immediately, picking up a book or two every time I go into Half Price Books. I may hold a drive throughout the year so that we will be ready when it is time for the Christmas store next year. It seems insignificant when their family is struggling to find enough food to eat. And yet, every child should have a book even if they are teenagers. Access to books in the home during the growing years makes the brain better when the children are adults.
That teacher had a great attitude. The plastic sleeve filled with a few Lucky Charms marshmallows was probably her favorite gift. I’m sure other children gave her better presents, like books she might enjoy or homemade cookies. Yet that child wanted to show the teacher how much she is loved and did so in a sacrificial way. We say that “it is the thought that matters,” and that is very true. Unfortunately, as the final days before Christmas tick by, many people will be rushing out to the stores to find the best or the biggest gift. Let us remember that it isn’t the gifts that matter but rather the gifting and what it means to those who receive our gifts. Don’t buy just to have packages under the tree, give what will make those you love truly happy. The sacrificial gift will mean so much more than a hundred useless gadgets. After all, the best gift of Christmas is Jesus Christ, the sacrificial lamb that gives us hope and peace.
“Now in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s city, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enroll himself with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him as wife, being pregnant.” Luke 2:1-5, WEB
This is the time of year for journeys. For some, the journey is to a neighbor’s house for a party or down the street to a relative for Christmas dinner. For others, the journey is much longer: a plane flight to another state to go home for the holidays. For many people, even a trip to the mall to go Christmas shopping is a journey. Some trips are easy; they bring such excitement and are filled with love and joy. Other trips are more of a burden, are taken out of a sense of duty, guilt or tradition. Some journeys have wonderful endpoints but are difficult to take with construction delays, bad weather and crowded airports all make a journey difficult.
The season of Advent is a journey. Through the Sunday scriptures and our personal devotions, we have prepared our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Advent readings often lead us on a journey through the lives of God’s people that brought us to the moment of redemption. They experienced triumphs and suffered hardships and as we read those stories we experience them, too. It is never an easy journey. Busy schedules make it tough to discipline ourselves for any Advent devotional practices. We don’t always like to hear these stories, to know how quickly we can turn from God or how selfish our lives can be. We don’t understand why God does what He does and most of the journey does not make sense. Yet, we have come to the moment when it all comes together: the promises will be fulfilled and the prophecies understood. Jesus Christ is coming! But to get to that moment, there is one more journey to travel.
We complain about a two-hour wait at the airport and some bad roads along our journeys, but imagine what it must have been like for Mary. She was nine months pregnant riding a donkey for a three-day journey to Bethlehem. It seems quite odd that this journey would be necessary. Why didn’t Joseph go alone? Why did the Romans decide at that moment to do a census when they had gone so long without one? Yet, even this difficult journey fulfilled another prophecy, for the child was born in Bethlehem according to the words the prophet Micah.
God’s Word is true and He often uses the most unwilling participants to fulfill His plan. Caesar had no idea that he was chosen for that moment to cause Mary and Joseph to be exactly where they needed to be for the birth of their son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The journey was difficult for them both, but they got there by God’s mercy and survived the most horrible conditions by God’s grace. All this was for our sake, so that Jesus would begin an even greater journey to die on the cross for our sins.
We don’t always enjoy the journeys we take. Our visits home, the places where we live for our jobs or education are sometimes difficult to endure. We grumble about every inconvenience and hope something better will come along very soon. God put Mary and Joseph exactly where He wanted them to be, in Bethlehem so that Jesus would be born in the house of David, so too God will use our own experiences for His glory. May God grant us the peace to take every journey with joy and expectation.
The Story of our Savior’s Birth
The Light, Genesis 1:1-5
The Fall, Genesis 3:8-15
The Promise, Genesis 22:15-18
The Prophecy, Isaiah 9:2-7
The Place, Micah 5:2-5
The Mother, Luke 1:26-38
Magnificat, Mary’s Song, Luke 1:46-55
The Birth, Luke 2:1-7
The Proclamation, Luke 2:8-16
The Mystery, John 1:1-14
On this Christmas Day, as we are buried in the piles of paper from the gifts of love and joy we share with one another, let us give thanks to God for the greatest gift of all, His Son our Savior Jesus Christ, light from light, who brings redemption to our fallen world. We have seen the glory, Hallelujah! Our Christmas wish, from our house to yours, is that you will have a blessed and bright Christmas Day.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 30, 2018, First Sunday after Christmas; 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
“Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:17, WEB
Is it over yet? Christmas is always such a hectic time with so much to do, that sometimes we get to the point that we hope it is over soon. I still have a few things to clean up from our celebration yesterday, and I’m getting caught up on normal things that didn’t get done with the holiday, but we are still in celebration mode. Christmas Day is really just the beginning of Christmas, even though it seems like we’ve been celebrating for a month. Christmas ends with the Epiphany in twelve days.
I actually saw someone with their Christmas tree already in the back of the truck this morning. For them, Christmas is over with the unwrapping of presents. Oh, I have to admit that in the hustle and bustle of preparation I sometimes ask, “Is it over yet?” but I really don’t mean it. I really enjoy Christmas, and even enjoy the preparations. I love sharing our blessings with our friends and neighbors, but it is so easy to fall into the same attitude of those around us, to focus on getting through it so that we can get back to normal.
Today is St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen was the first Christian martyr; his story is found in Acts chapters six and seven. In the early days of the church, the apostles tried to take care of all the work that needed to be done in the growing fellowship of believers. They studied and taught the scriptures and the stories of Jesus, and they took care of those in need. They realized that it was impossible for them to do everything; they needed help if they were going to be able to focus on preaching the Word to the world. They chose seven deacons to do the tasks of administration, the business of the church. Stephen was one of those seven.
Stephen wasn’t just a servant, however. He was a man of God who also did works of great wonder and spoke with the grace of God. He was seized by the authorities because they opposed the spread of “the Way” as Christianity was called in the beginning. They claimed that Stephen spoke blasphemy and persuaded some men to testify against him. Based on lies, Stephen was found guilty and was sentenced to death by stoning.
Stephen gave the most eloquent speech, laying out before them the story of God’s love. He reminded them of the works of God’s power in the life of Israel and the promises of God that still lay before them. Then he placed the one whom they crucified in the midst of the story, showing them that everything was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He showed them how they missed the Messiah, and how they betrayed the God they claimed to love. They stoned him for his words, but even while Stephen received such brutality he knew the peace of God. He prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit and fell on his knees to ask for forgiveness, not for himself, but for the ones who were killing him.
As we read the text from Paul’s letter to Colossae, it sounds like a message filled with ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ and yet this is not a message of law, but of Gospel. You are God’s holy and beloved, you who have heard God’s word and believe. Being of God means a life of peace and joy, though this does not mean it will be a life without conflict. As a matter of fact, for many Christians the peace of God comes with the risk of violence and even martyrdom. Stephen could have appeared before the Sanhedrin and given them what they wanted: fearful trembling before their power and their authority. He might have been freed, but he would never have been free. Instead of cowering before them and giving in to their demands, Stephen spoke the Word of God into their lives. The Word of God brought death to his body, but he had no worries because he had God’s peace in his spirit.
The hustle and bustle of the holidays is exhausting and we really do want to get back to normal, but what does that mean for us as Christians? We are called to a life that is never going to be easy. We may be taken out of our comfort zone and put into a position of risk and difficulty. We may have to do something that shocks and upsets the world around us. We may have to say the very things that will bring scorn from our neighbors. Though we do not see any stonings in our corner of the world, Christians are still dying for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. We cry out for peace, and we strive to work for peace, but the peace that God promises is not something we can achieve by doing this or that. It comes from God.
The lights will start to fade on the houses in our neighborhood and some may even wonder why we are still displaying our nativity in the yard. Some neighborhoods have strict deadlines for removing all forms of Christmas from sight. The date is often well before the Epiphany. Who wants to see Christmas lights after New Year’s Day? The peace of Christmas quickly passes as people get back to “normal.” Yet we, as Christians, are meant to continue to dwell in that peace and shine the light of Christ to the world, even if we can’t have the Christmas lights on outside our homes.
We are called to be the holy and chosen people whom God has made us by His grace. This means growing in the grace of God and becoming the visible manifestation of His love in the world. We are told to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are told to bear with one another, to forgive as we have been forgiven and to put on love above all else. As the peace of Christ rules in our hearts and we live in thankfulness, the world will see the word of Christ dwelling in our lives, just like Stephen. For some, this life of peace will be offensive and they will seek to see it end. We might be tempted to hide our faith, but Christ will give us the courage to live the life to which we have been called, the life of thanksgiving and praise. As Paul writes, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.”
This is probably a vacation week for many people; they have taken advantage of the juxtaposition of Christmas and New Years to travel to see family and friends. This is particularly true in our society where children do not always stay close to home. No matter how far we roam, however, there’s no place like home for the holidays, so they say. And so, many have packed their suitcases, gathered their gifts and gone by plane, train or automobile to that place where family has gathered for the holiday. Unfortunately, our daughter was not able to come home this week. Thanks to wonderful technology, she joined us through live chat and we had fun together despite our distance.
It has become incredibly easy for us to get to where we want to go. We can drive hundreds of miles or fly thousands of miles in just a day. It is certainly easier than in the ancient days. Yet, they took pilgrimages, too. In today’s Old Testament lesson Hannah took an annual pilgrimage to offer her sacrifices at the Temple and to see her beloved son Samuel, the son that God gave to her when she was thought to be barren. Each year she took Samuel a new robe and Eli blessed the family. Each year Samuel was found to be growing in many ways. How hard it must have been for Hannah to leave her son year after year; even harder for her than for us in these modern times. At least we have easy transportation and amazing technology. She had to wait another year each time she went home.
The Gospel lesson is the story of another boy growing in stature and favor. Jesus was twelve years old in this story. His family traveled to Jerusalem for the annual festival. They traveled in large groups, for safety on the road and because they stayed close to family. Uncles, cousins, grandparents were all together, enjoying the adventure of the journey. Their families we close because they lived close. Everyone cared for everyone. One child could easily be lost in the crowd. Jesus, at twelve, was old enough to be independent. It is no wonder that Jesus was not with Mary and Joseph during the trip. They thought He was in the crowd.
Eventually they went looking for their son and could not find Him. Can you imagine the panic? Most parents have a moment like that with their kids. For me, Victoria was playing in the clothing racks at a department store and then was suddenly gone. I called and searched; others joined in the search. I was in tears out of fear. It didn’t help that there had been a nationally reported kidnapping of another child just weeks before this incident. I couldn’t help but think about the worst possibilities. We eventually found her, crying hysterically in a dressing room at the other end of the store. All was well in the end, but for a brief period of time I was inconsolable. I know how Mary felt at that moment when she realized He was gone.
I also know how she felt when she found Jesus. I was so happy that Victoria was found, safe and sound, but angry that she had wandered off. “How could you do this to me?” I asked. So did Mary. We often place Mary on a pedestal, forgetting that she was a normal woman and mother. And though Jesus was the Son of God, He was also her son and a twelve year old boy. This holy family was not extraordinary, but was as ordinary as you and I.
However, Jesus was not quite ordinary. He wandered off, not because He was playing in the racks of clothes at a department store or even to play stick ball in the streets. He was in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions. His questions were not like a normal child’s questions, but were thoughtful and intelligent. He amazed the teachers with His understanding. He amazed even His parents. Even so, Mary asked, “How could you do this to us?” He didn’t understand their concern. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Samuel and Jesus were extraordinary young men. They were where they belonged, even if their mothers didn’t quite understand. We have to let our children go when they become adults, as they go off to college or get jobs in another state. As much as I want my daughter to be close so that we can celebrate every holiday together, I’m proud of the woman she has become. Hannah and Mary had to let their boys go at an incredibly early age, but those boys were equipped for the work they had to do. God was with them. Perhaps we would be more patient with our children if we could be sure that God is with them, too.
There is so much for us to learn. I’m not sure adults even feel equipped to do the work God calls us to do. Paul asks so much of us. I’m not sure I can do it all. I can’t seem to do it all the time, at least. Perfect? Not in this life. But we are chosen, not because we are perfect, but because God loves us and because God has spoken His word into our lives. As one of God’s chosen, God’s word dwells within us. With His word in our hearts and His teaching in our minds, we can do everyone in His name with thankfulness and praise. That’s what He wants from us.
Luke wrote that Mary and Joseph did not understand. I do not think that their doubt was about His identity as the Son of God. They knew. The angels told them. The shepherds confirmed it, so did the wise men. I think they were surprised that Jesus knew it. He was just a boy, not yet ready for the responsibilities that would be hoisted upon Him. He was still a child, innocent and impressionable. They weren’t ready to give up their responsibility for Him. They had more to teach Him, more to do for Him. However, He knew. The day they had been dreading was closer than they thought. It could not have been easy living with the knowledge that Jesus was destined for something great but that greatness would come at a price. Mary treasured every moment she had with Jesus, even when those moments were filled with anxiety. She had an inner peace that is beyond human understanding even while the world around her seemed chaotic and out of control. She had that peace because she trusted in God, and did all she did for His glory.
Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. If only we would spend some time each day just praising God, singing songs of adoration and admiration, we might realize more quickly how inconsequential our troubles really are.
We are called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to join with the entire creation to sing praises to God our Father. He hears our praise wherever we are, because everything He has made sings along with us. It is humbling to realize our place in this world especially when we consider the heights of the mountains, the depths of the seas. When we look at the magnificence of His creation and wonder at the vastness of the heavens, we realize we are just a tiny part of it all. Yet, He has created us to be the crown of His creation.
Then, when we look at the life of Samuel and the life of Jesus, who even as young men knew their place in the world, should we not at least dwell in presence of our God and sing His praise with one another? He has given us the heavens and the earth. He has given us the sun and the wind and the rain. He has made the animals, birds, plants and trees for us. And He has given the care and love of one another. But most of all, He has given us His Son who brings peace to a world filled with chaos. Jesus is the horn of our salvation, the baby born in Bethlehem, the boy lost in the teachings of the Temple, the man who died on the cross.
The peace we have in Christ does not guarantee a world without suffering. We’ll see horrific moments. We’ll panic in the face of danger. We’ll cry when we are afraid. We will have to let go, let others take their place in the work of God, give up the things we hold most dear. But as we dwell in Christ and sing His praise together, we will continue to grow like Samuel and Jesus, in wisdom and favor until the day we will know the perfection of God’s kingdom in our life today.
“Beloved, you do a faithful work in whatever you accomplish for those who are brothers and strangers. They have testified about your love before the assembly. You will do well to send them forward on their journey in a way worthy of God, because for the sake of the Name they went out, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.” 3 John 1:5-8, WEB
I spent several years as a retail manager. It was a great job for a single woman but it required long hours. When Bruce and I decided to get married, I considered applying for a transfer to a store near our new home. Instead, I chose to set aside my career goals and focus on my family. Seventy-hour weeks leave no time or energy for developing lasting relationships or raising children.
Though I gave up my career, I needed to have a job, if only to keep myself busy. I was going to avoid retail, but one day it just happened. I was purchasing things for our new home at a department store and the manager of the home fashions department hired me on the spot. It was the perfect position for me, part time cashier with opportunities to use my talents in other ways around the department. She was surprised that I was not seeking a management position, but I constantly assured her that I was happy in that position.
I was very successful at the position, receiving commendations from the store manager and good reports from customers. I enjoyed my job; the hours, the tasks, and the store discount were exactly what I wanted. However, my manager was not comfortable with my presence. She became paranoid that I was after her job. She did everything she could to make me miserable. She gave me lousy hours, often refusing to work the schedule around days I requested off. She assigned me the dirtiest, most difficult tasks, often in the stockroom where I would not be visible to the customers or other store management. Finally she broke a promise she made and I quit. When I left, I reminded her of our original interview and my lack of interest in a management position. I told her how much I loved my job. For months after I stopped working for her, she tried to get me to reconsider but I was pregnant and ready to be a full time wife and mother.
There are times in our spiritual journey when people we encounter are afraid of our intentions. At times we are rejected from a fellowship because members are concerned about losing their position. John writes to Gaius in his third letter about a man named Diotrephes. John had sent itinerant preachers to the churches in Asia, but Diotrephes refused to welcome them at his. He wanted to be in control and did everything he could to keep the competition away. He even gossiped maliciously about John and his associates. John wrote to Gaius to commend him and exhort him to continue doing what is good.
The manager had no reason to be concerned about my intentions. However, her management practices were questionable and she realized quickly after I left how much I helped keep her department running smoothly without hurting her career. The early churches were no different than today’s churches; the church is always filled with humans who are imperfect. The Apostles sent preachers to help guide the churches and to help them resolve difficult situations. In that age, just like today, some of the leaders of local congregations did not want help. They had selfish desires rather than the desire to share Jesus Christ, with the world.
Dear friends, be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ by sharing hospitality with those who cross your path with a message from God the Father. Be kind to your brethren in Christ, even if they are strangers. They come to you in His name to encourage and edify for the glory of God. Be thankful for the opportunity to receive that which they have to offer and praise God for His grace.
“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.’ He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out, and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learned from the wise men. Then that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; she wouldn’t be comforted, because they are no more.’ But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the young child’s life are dead.’ He arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in the place of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go there. Being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the region of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” Matthew 2:13-23, WEB
The Bible tells us the stories; it gives us information to help us understand God and His work in the world. Some of the stories are incredibly detailed, with names and dates or at least names that can give us a range of dates for the events in the stories. Though we can make some educated guesses, there are some details that are hard to pinpoint. What year was Jesus born? Though we base our calendar year on “the birth of Christ” the reality is that He was probably born closer to 4 B.C. than two thousand eighteen years ago. Our nativities assume the wise men were at the manger on the night Jesus was born, but Jesus may have been as old as two years old when they got there. They had surely moved out of the stable into a better place, perhaps with relatives in Bethlehem. We have no idea how many wise men there were; we number them as three because of the three gifts, but they could have been as few as two or as large as an entourage of many. These details have become part of the story due to tradition, but whatever the date, wherever they met, whatever size of the group, these things happened according to God’s plan and for His purpose.
We are just at day four of the twelve days of Christmas, a period that lasts through January 5th. The Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th, the day we recall the meeting with the wise men. In between the Nativity and the Epiphany, we celebrate several important events in the life of Jesus and God’s people. St. Stephen is remembered on the 26th, St. John on the 27th. The circumcision of Jesus and His naming is celebrated on January 1st. Today is Holy Innocents Day, the day we remember the children who perished at the hands of King Herod. We imagine this story to be an incredible tragedy with the streets flowing with the blood of innocents. The Bible does not tell us how many children died that day; it doesn’t matter, really, because even one innocent child’s death breaks God’s heart.
The wise men, from wherever they came, were following a star, but they were probably familiar with the Jewish prophecies of the coming Messiah. Herod, the king of the Jews, heard the rumor that wise men were seeking out a child, “that has been born king of the Jews.” Though he was an old man and he was just a puppet ruler of the Romans, he was afraid this new child king would take his throne away. He met with the wise men to discover the place where the king was born. His priests pointed to the prophecy from Micah that the king would be born in Bethlehem, so he sent them on their way. “When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him.” But Herod had a different plan. God knew the heart of Herod and interceded on Jesus’ behalf.
King Herod feared the birth of the baby Jesus because the stars and signs showed that He was born to be king of the Jews. Herod ordered the all the male children under two years old to be killed. Jesus was saved from this fate because God directed Joseph to escape to Egypt with the boy. That command fulfilled another prophesy. They returned when the time was right to the place God intended, to fulfill even more prophesy. Jesus Christ lived to die and rise from death to accomplish God’s purpose of delivering the world out of the bondage of sin and death. Sadly, even the deaths of the innocents fulfilled a prophecy from Jeremiah.
This horrific detail in the story of Jesus’ birth not only fulfills the promises found in the scriptures, but it forces us to see our own sinfulness. We don’t think we are like Herod, but we are no better. We may not be murdering children to save our own thrones, but we do not always care for the innocents among us as we should. We live in a time when children are being killed because of the fear and selfishness of man. Abortion, abuse and gangs are destroying innocent children every day. Some of these children die physically, but many die emotionally and spiritually. We are all selfish. Do any of our own actions affect the lives of those who are around us, whether they are children or adults? How does our selfishness, greed or violence harm the innocents who cross our path?
Herod did not understand that our Lord Jesus Christ was not born to rule as an earthly king; He came to bring forgiveness, to transform our lives and reconcile us to God our Father. As we recall those innocent lives lost, we should also remember the children who perish every day in the violence and selfishness of this world. Even more so, let us pray that God will kill the vices in our lives that affect those around us, that we won’t bring harm to others through our selfishness. May God help us to understand that His life brings us peace and that we should not fear His presence in this world because He has promised life to those who believe.
“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent, Yahweh! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work appear to your servants; your glory to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:12-17, WEB
We have reached the end of another year and I have heard several people lament that they can’t wait for it to be over. They’ve had difficult times in the past twelve months and are looking forward to promise that next year must be better. They think that a new calendar on the wall will make a difference, but they said the same thing at the end of last year and the years before. The problem is that they go into each year with the same attitude and they see every struggle as the end of the world. From the beginning they wonder when this year will never end and hope for better times in the future.
We don’t understand the struggles. Why is there suffering? Why do people we love die? Why did we lose our job? Why did the natural disaster take our home? Why can’t I have just one year of peace?
I am reading a book about Daniel and the author told the story of a young boy who died of cancer. He was a good boy, a child who really believed in Jesus and who had a heart of gold. It is no wonder when we ask why such a child could be taken from the world too early. It isn’t fair that we didn’t have his heart and his passion for a long, happy life. We don’t know the future; we don’t have the eyes to see as God sees. The author suggested that perhaps that child died early because the future held even worse struggles, that today’s death was given to avoid tomorrow’s suffering. Death is always harder on those left behind and there are no words that can make it easier to say good-bye, but our struggles are worse because we refuse to see it through the eyes of God.
The psalmist asks God to teach us to number our days. Think about this as you go into the new year: today could be the last day of your life. Are you willing to waste today lamenting your struggles when God is using them to draw us closer to Him? We should not grumble about every perceived affliction and hope for something better tomorrow; rather, we should praise God today and be glad to dwell in His kingdom. God does not give us pain; pain is the consequence of sin in this world. However, God is able to make good come out of even the bad. The key is not about waiting for better times, but about trusting Him and being glad despite our struggles.
What sort of year will we experience in the next twelve months? We have no way of knowing. We might have a good year filled with exciting possibilities. It might also be a year of loss and suffering. What is your attitude? Will you go forth with praise and thanksgiving, singing with joy? God intends the best for us all. Even though the best does not seem very good for us, we can trust that God is working to make everything right according to His Word. May God help us to number our days and to live in gladness no matter what will come tomorrow so that we can glorify Him with whatever we do each day.