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 2019
December 2, 2019
“An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zacharias, because your request has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to prepare a people prepared for the Lord.’” Luke 1:11-17, WEB
God was silent for four hundred years. The people were waiting for the Messiah, believing that God had not forgotten. They settled down, living by the Law of Moses in a land occupied by foreigners, but they longed for a sign from God, anything to get them through their suffering and pain. They longed to hear His voice again, to have a genuine word that God is still with them. They longed for the fulfillment of the promises which the prophets spoke according to God’s word. Malachi said that God would send a messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. Isaiah spoke of a voice crying out in the wilderness that would make the people turn to the LORD. He would preach repentance and baptize the people for the forgiveness of sin.
Finally, it was time.
Luke tells us the story of a man named John who was the fulfillment of those promises. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias that was married to a woman named Elizabeth; both were upright in the eyes of the God and they wanted a child. But Elizabeth was barren and they were well past childbearing age. It was disgraceful for a woman to be childless. One day, when Zacharias was on duty in the Temple, he had a vision. The angel of the Lord, Gabriel, appeared to tell him that his prayers would be answered. Zacharias and Elizabeth would bear a son.
As I was reading the story today, the thought struck me that the angel specifically said, “your request has been heard.” Now, Zacharias was an old man and Elizabeth far from childbearing age. I pondered this and had two questions. Did they continue to ask for a child even after becoming too old? Or did God take a long time to answer their prayer?
Both questions provide us lessons in trust. If Zacharias and Elizabeth continued to pray for a child, then they had incredible perseverance. When we cry out to God, are we willing to continue to ask God for the things that seem impossible? If God took a long time to answer the prayers of their youth, will we , do we have the patience and trust that God hears and that He will respond in His time and way? I think that Zacharias and Elizabeth gave up a long time before the day he met Gabriel. After all, he asked, “How can I be sure of this?” He doubted the word of the angel, it was an impossible promise! Yet, despite Zacharias’ doubt, God did what He said He would do. He opened Elizabeth’s womb and she bore a child that would grow up to be the fulfillment of the promises spoken through the prophets.
Yesterday was the first day of Advent, the time when we count down the days to the coming of the Messiah. This is a time of repentance, of preparing ourselves to experience the joy and peace of seeing how God does fulfill His promises even when they seem impossible. It might take so much time that we give up or begin to doubt, but God is faithful even when we aren’t. His timing is not our timing; His ways are not our ways. When we trust God enough to persevere in prayer and wait patiently, we will be surprised by God’s grace.
“Zacharias said to the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.’ The angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. Behold, you will be silent and not able to speak until the day that these things will happen, because you didn’t believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.’ The people were waiting for Zacharias, and they marveled that he delayed in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple. He continued making signs to them, and remained mute. When the days of his service were fulfilled, he departed to his house. After these days Elizabeth his wife conceived, and she hid herself five months, saying, ‘Thus has the Lord done to me in the days in which he looked at me, to take away my reproach among men.’” Luke 1:18-25, WEB
Zacharias doubted Gabriel’s message and was left speechless until the child was born. Why would God choose this punishment for his unbelief?
There are several answers to this question, the first of which has to do with Zacharias’ place in the work of the Temple. After his time within the Holy Place, Zacharias should have gone out and made a public proclamation and blessing before the people of Israel. How could he do so when he stood before the angel, and before God, in unbelief? He communicated the best he could, and the people perceived that something incredible happened to Zacharias in the Temple. Since he was mute, Zacharias could not tell them about the vision he had. He could not brag or publically doubt what happened.
A commentator suggested a third reason for his silence. When you compare the stories of Zacharias and Mary, you see that they both asked a question of Gabriel, but Mary was not punished for questioning the angel. Mary’s question is different; she doesn’t doubt what Gabriel told her like Zacharias, but asked how it would happen. Instead of doubt, Mary responded with song. Zacharias eventually does so, too, but not until after the promise has been fulfilled. He sings his song when the child is born. The commentator suggested that to sing and praise God is to allow the Holy Spirit to move through you, which Mary did. Zacharias wanted proof before he would believe. So, God would not allow Zacharias to speak again until he was willing to believe and praise Him.
Zacharias went home and Elizabeth conceived. Elizabeth responded to this incredible gift by hiding herself away for five months, though we do not know why. She recognized that God had finally answered her prayer, taking away the reproach of men. The fact that she had been barren was seen by others as a punishment from God for some unknown sin. She was probably spurned by the other women. It was a lonely and distressful life for her. A baby would change everything for her. I imagine that despite the promise of the child quickening in her womb, Elizabeth had her own worries about whether the baby would be born.
God will probably not send any angels to give us such an incredible message, but He speaks to us today as He did to others in the past. He speaks to us through His Word, through the liturgy, through the encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. How do we respond? Do we question God like Zacharias, asking for proof of God’s faithfulness? Or do we sing praise to God like Mary, unsure how things will happen, but willing to believe? Do we hide the Good News like Elizabeth, thankful for God’s grace but worried that something could go wrong?
Advent is a time to ponder the stories of God’s people and the coming of the Messiah. Zacharias and Elizabeth give us comfort in that despite their uncertainty, God remained faithful. We have faith, but we are not always faithful. We believe, but we have a hard time keeping our own doubt and worry out of our own response to the Good News that God has for us. Trusting God is not easy, but the more we surrender to His will and the Holy Spirit like Mary, the more we’ll be blessed.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 8, 2019, Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Matthew 3:2, WEB
We make judgments all the time, often without even realizing it. I think the worst time for me is when I’m driving. I was on a highway some time ago when a semi, disobeying all the rules, wove in and out of traffic. He used the left lane, which was prohibited for that type of vehicle. He cut off multiple cars, including mine. He didn’t get much farther than me because the traffic was dangerously slowed by something ahead. His antics were frightening, so much so I slowed significantly to let him get far ahead. I didn’t want to be in the accident he was certainly going to cause.
I made a judgment. Of course, it was probably a good judgment. It may have been a lifesaving one. Sometimes we have to make judgments to remain safe. Sometimes, however, we make judgments because we are annoyed or inconvenienced. I do this often. I grumble whenever another driver does something brainless and usually say something nasty. I make judgments about public figures who don’t live up to the standards I think should be kept. I make judgments about the people I hear on the news or see on the streets. I even make judgments about fictional characters in movies or books. “I can’t believe they would do it that way,” I think to myself.
We all make judgments, both good and bad. We make judgments that are helpful and others that are not so helpful. The judgment of a court can help transform someone who has done something wrong; other judgments can cause people to rebel or retreat. Our judgments can help or they can hurt. That’s why we are warned to be careful about how we judge our neighbors.
We make our judgments based on our biases and our experiences. I judged that truck driver because I knew that dangerous driving can hurt others. However, some judgments just aren’t right. When we judge someone just because they are different than us, because of something beyond their control, we can harm them in ways we might not expect. Too often, and all of us do it in some way or another, we judge because of what we see and hear. We judge because someone looks different or acts different or sounds different.
In our first lesson, Isaiah describes the perfect leader, the shoot that would come. This leader has wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear. Perhaps this sounds redundant, after all, isn’t wisdom, understanding and knowledge the same thing? No: a good leader has all three. Wisdom is the ability to discern between right and wrong, good and bad. Understanding comes from the heart, being able to identify with the circumstances. Knowledge is having the facts. A good judge has all three. A good judge also accepts counsel, heeding the advice of those who might have a better grasp of the situation. Might, or strength, means authority and power, and when used appropriately can provide justice. Fear is not meant to be understood in terms of a bad horror movie, but as a state of awe for the One who truly rules. A good leader will be all these things.
Isaiah says, “He will not judge by the sight of his eyes, neither decide by the hearing of his ears.” Human judges have limitations. We do judge by the sight of our eyes and decide by the hearing of our ears. We also make mistakes. We are not always as wise, understanding, or knowledgeable as we should be. We fail to listen to good advice; we take advantage of our power in inappropriate ways. We don’t always fear God as we should.
A good leader will be righteous. This means he (or she) will have a right relationship with God. This means having a heart to do what God would do. And a good leader is faithful. He keeps his promises. Can you imagine what the world would look like if we had leaders that are wise, understanding and knowledgeable, who accept right counsel and proper authority, and who fear God? Can you imagine if we had leaders that were righteous and faithful in all things? We might have leaders that display one or more of these characteristics, but it seems like none truly fit this bill. Only One, Jesus Christ, is the perfect leader.
During Advent we await the coming of that perfect leader. As Christians we know He arrived more than two thousand years ago, but even as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we are called to live in the hope of His second coming. During Advent we await the shoot of Jesse that was promised by God through the prophet Isaiah.
This message from the prophet reminds us of the promise made to David long before Jesus was born. Imperfect, but loved as a son, David, Jesse’s son, was the first in a line of kings that would last forever. “He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Samuel 7:13) Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of that promise, and during this Advent season we await His coming again.
Isaiah tells us what the world will look like under this promised leader. The lamb will lie with the lion, the bull and the bear will eat together. The world will be at peace; there will be no more enemies, no more hunter and prey. This is a world we long to experience, but it is a world that will not come by means of flesh and blood. Only Jesus can fulfill this promise. As we wait the coming of the Christ child, we are reminded by this text that we also await a second coming, for only in that advent will everything come into fruition.
Paul writes of the harmony that exists in a kingdom where God rules. Like the promise in Isaiah, the people join together as one voice, glorifying God. We can’t do it without God’s help. Jesus came at Christmas as a down payment on the promise, to give us a glimpse of what it will be in the day when He rules over all. Until that day we dwell in the tension of Advent. We know Christ has come. We know the Kingdom of God is near, but we still long for Christ to come again. We are still waiting for the king who will bring peace to the earth so that the lion will lie with the lamb and the powerful will lie with the powerless. We live in this hope even while we see the disharmony of the world that surrounds us each day, the disharmony of which we are a part. That disharmony comes because we do not judge righteously. This is why we need to be continually reminded to repent, because we still fail to live according to God’s Word.
Paul reminds us of the promise from Isaiah so that we can live in hope and joy. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” This joy and peace won’t come from our work or our righteousness. It is a gift of God. When we live in this hope, we can find harmony where there is disharmony.
There will come a day when the entire world is in harmony again. The wolves and the leopards will lie with the sheep and the goats. There will be no need for animals to kill, for they will be satisfied by God’s provision. In that day even human beings will live in harmony with one another. No longer will men and women harm others for the sake of some unnatural desire. There will be no need for war or hatred. We will be restored to our God and will live in His presence for eternity; we won’t have need of anything because God will provide. Our work will be praising God and our joy will be lasting. It is no wonder that we sigh with anticipation, especially since our human leaders so often fail us.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the leaders of God’s people in John’s time. In the Gospel lesson from Matthew we hear his voice, the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” John the Baptist knew that the leaders were not taking care of God’s people. Israel’s history was filled with leaders who sought their own righteousness, their own power, their own glory. They were called to rule with justice and peace, but they failed. Nothing was different in John’s day. John spoke to those that had followed him into the wilderness and asked, “Who told you to come here?” The Pharisees and the Sadducees had their history, the same history we read in the Old Testament prophecies, but they did not understand.
John promised the coming of the One who has wisdom, understanding, knowledge, authority, righteousness and faithfulness, as well as that humble relationship with His Father. He will come and He will make all things right. He will baptize with more than water and feed us with more than bread and wine. He will give us His Spirit and remove from our lives the imperfections that bring us down. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in the next few weeks. It’ll take a lifetime or more; it will happen in God’s time.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees went to the river because they were curious about his ministry. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah. They wanted to squelch his ministry before it got out of control. They wanted to destroy him. John was talking to them when he said “You offspring of vipers,” but his word cuts to our hearts too. We have our facades, our masks, our sins from which we must repent. We are arrogant and haughty. We do not bear the fruit worthy of repentance. We judge according to what we see and hear rather than according to God’s Word. This is why we remember John’s call for repentance each year, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. Though Christ has already come, we are still longing for the fulfillment of the promise of a world restored to God. We remain sinners even while we are saints. We have been baptized with the Spirit, but we still need daily repentance.
We dwell in a time between the already and the not yet. We know that the Christ child has come, but we wait for Him to come again as King. We know that Christ has died, but we wait until that day when the forgiveness that came with His blood is fully realized. We wait for that which already is but is yet to be.
The psalmist prays that God will give the king justice, that he will dwell in God’s righteousness. Every good and perfect thing that can come to a nation and a people begins with the goodness of the king. Today’s psalm was written by Solomon, and during his reign the nation of Israel did prosper. His heart for God, his desire for wisdom, his pursuit of justice brought a golden age to the land. The world sought Solomon’s wisdom and the kingdom benefitted. The kingdom benefitted because Solomon stood as a leader and the people followed. They did what was right. They listened to his wisdom, experienced his understanding, sought out his knowledge. They respected authority and had a healthy awe of the Lord. Together they lived in God's blessing.
But even Solomon was not perfect and his kingdom didn’t last forever. The offspring of Jesse - David, Solomon and the kings that followed - failed to be all that God intended for His kingdom. Only Jesus could fulfill the promise. Only when Jesus rules the entire would will peace abound and righteousness flourish. Until that day, however, we can try to be wise, understanding, knowledgeable, seeking counsel and might, fearing the Lord. Perhaps, just maybe, we’ll experience a little bit of that promised peace.
The world as God created it to be will not be restored until His second coming. Until that day, the lion will not lie with the lamb. However, in Christ we can live in harmony with one another, the powerful with the powerless. We still live in an age of repentance as we wait for the coming of our King. In the meantime, we can work for justice, caring for the poor and the weak. We can be heralds of God’s grace, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom so that others might prepare their hearts to receive Him now. Through our witness, God will be glorified in this world.
“Now the time that Elizabeth should give birth was fulfilled, and she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. His mother answered, ‘Not so; but he will be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.’ They made signs to his father, what he would have him called. He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ They all marveled. His mouth was opened immediately and his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God. Fear came on all who lived around them, and all these sayings were talked about throughout all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ The hand of the Lord was with him.” Luke 1:57-66, WEB
Zechariah’s doubt the Gabriel’s word he would be speechless until the child was born. He must have, at some point, told Elizabeth about the vision in the Temple because she knew that the child was to be called John. Though she had hidden herself for five months, her friends and neighbors rejoiced with he when her son was born. Perhaps it was the visit of Mary that gave Elizabeth the confidence that everything she had heard was true. When Mary learned that she would bear the Messiah, the angel told her that her elderly relative was also pregnant. Mary went to Elizabeth to see that miracle. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting from Mary, the baby in her womb leapt for joy. Everything God promised was being fulfilled.
When the baby was born, Elizabeth named the child John, according to the wishes of Zechariah. The people questioned this choice because John was the first born son. It would have been typical of families in that time and place to name him after his father. Zechariah shook his head and motioned for something to write with and he told them, “His name is John.” From that moment he could speak again and the first thing he did was praise God. He also prophesied about his son. John came to bear witness to the coming of forgiveness, to proclaim the grace and mercy of God.
I would not consider John the Baptist a particularly joyful person. As a matter of fact, I would think that living in the desert wearing camel hair and eating locusts would make me a cantankerous person. Yet, there was something about John that drew the people to his presence. He had a gift, an anointing, that made them want to listen to him and follow him to the banks of the Jordan. He must have had joy because it was first seen during that visit between Mary and Elizabeth.
We are reminded that joy does not always manifest as happiness as the world expects. John’s joy was in the promises of God and in his calling to be a prophet. We know, however, that the prophets never lived easy lives. They were persecuted. They were rejected. They were outcast. They were killed. Yet, every one of them who spoke the Word of the Lord was blessed, and they knew true joy in God. Elizabeth and Mary had worries and fears since childbearing was a very difficult thing. They also dealt with the judgment and gossip of the people in their lives. Yet, they had joy in God’s grace because they were the chosen ones called to help fulfill God’s promises. Will you be joyful even in the tough times? Will you leap for joy at God’s calling in your life, even if it means you will have to struggle against the flesh and the world?
“‘Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!’ says Yahweh of Armies. ‘But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like launderers’ 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 3:1-4, WEB
John the Baptist came as a voice in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. He cried out for repentance, so that the people would be prepared for that day when Christ did come, so that they would be ready to receive Him. John the Baptist came to point the way toward Christ.
Malachi foretells of John’s ministry to announce the coming of the Lord. According to Malachi, the day would not be easy. He asks, “But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears?” Who, indeed can stand against the power and the authority of God? We won’t find the answer to that question in the ranks of soldiers or in the palaces of kings. We won’t even find the answer in the religious bodies of self-righteous men. The one who can abide the day of His coming is the person of faith. It is the one who believes that Jesus came to reveal God’s kingdom to the world, to bring forgiveness to the sinners and make all those who believe heirs in the promises of God.
John came before Jesus and though he was greater than any of the prophets, he was lesser than the least of those who live in Christ. He lived under the Law and he died under the Law. John came to prepare the way for the Lord. When he saw Jesus, he cried out “Behold, the Lamb of God.” He knew that his purpose was not to be great, but to point toward the One who would bring salvation to the people of Israel. He had many disciples who listened to his preaching. However, when Jesus Christ came to him to be baptized, John knew he was not worthy to touch even the sandals on His feet. John was the greatest among prophets, yet he was nothing compared to the One who would follow.
When the self-righteous came before John, he called them a brood of vipers. They thought they were good enough to meet the Lord. He reminded them of the prophets who said that the Day of the Lord would be one of judgment. They would not be saved by their own righteousness; they would be cut off from the blessings of God if they failed to see the promise fulfilled. John baptized the people, a sign of their repentance, but he told them that the baptism of Christ would be even greater. We often see a seashell used as a symbol for baptism, which reminds us of John’s baptism, but also our own baptism into the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Lord that is coming brings the restoration we have been waiting for; He renews our relationship with God for eternity.
We aren’t perfect; we are becoming perfect each day as we live in Christ. Unfortunately, we still fail. We are sinners even while we are saints. That is why God must to work out the impurities of our lives. The work won’t be complete until the day we meet the Lord face to face. Until that day, we will experience the pain and suffering that is brought on by our sin. We are easily distracted from the goal, our attention drawn from what is good, right and true.
A Christian abides in faith, but we look to John as an example. He knew that he must diminish so that Christ could increase. As we grow in faith and knowledge of God’s grace, we become less and less until the day when all God will see is His Son in our face. In Malachi, we are reminded of the story of the silver refiner, who heats the silver over and over again until there are no longer any impurities left in the metal. When the silver is perfectly refined, the refiner can look into the molten metal and see His face. This happens in our lives as we are transformed into His image. He casts out the demons, heals our wounds, grants us forgiveness until it is like looking in a mirror with our face and His face like one.
“Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man whose name was Joseph, of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. Having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!’ But when she saw him, she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered what kind of salutation this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and shall name him “Jesus.” He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?’ The angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God. Behold, Elizabeth your relative also has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing spoken by God is impossible.’ Mary said, ‘Behold, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:26-38, WEB
It seems odd that Jesus was not born in a palace or that He was not the son of a king. After all, the promise was that the throne of David would never end. Yet, it was impossible for Jesus to be the son of a king because the kingdom of Israel had fallen apart. There were Jews, of course, who could pinpoint their lineage back to David. There were even those that claimed to be the Messiah; they claimed to be that earthly king born to restore Israel and make them a great nation. Certainly God could have chosen a powerful person, a wealthy family, a place of prominence and value to bring forth the king and fulfill His promise to David.
Instead, an angel approached a very young girl and gave her some amazing news. “Rejoice, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!” He went on to tell her that she would bear a son, the Son of God. She was to call Him Jesus. He would be great and would be the fulfillment of that promise to David. Through Jesus, the kingdom would truly last forever. Mary was startled by this appearance and troubled by the angel’s greeting. The news was even more startling. She was unmarried and she was not from the House of David. She responded to the angel, “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?”
Mary was betrothed to Joseph who was from the House of David, but she had not yet known Joseph as a wife knows a husband. She wanted to know how it could happen. Jesus was not the first miraculous pregnancy in her family. John the Baptist was born to aged parents. When the angel announced the promise to Zacharias, he asked a similar question, “How can I be sure of this?” Zacharias doubted the angel’s words and asked for a sign. The sign was silence until the child was born. When the baby was named John, Zechariah could speak again.
Mary’s response to the promise is not doubt. She was frightened and perplexed; she simply wanted to understand what was to happen. “How can this be?” did not question God’s power to do the miraculous; instead, Mary sought to know and understand how God was going to accomplish the task. She had not yet known a man, but was betrothed to Joseph who was a member of the House of David. Did the Lord want her to be married early, to know Joseph as a wife knows her husband? Or did God have something else planned. “How is this to be?” Mary asked because she wanted to do what was right, and the angel told her all she needed to know.
“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Then the angel gave her a sign, “Behold, Elizabeth your relative also has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” John’s birth was miraculous, but the birth of Jesus was even moreso. John was born of a man and woman, conceived in the normal way even if the circumstances were extraordinary. Jesus however, would be the Son of God, born of a virgin and conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. “For nothing spoken by God is impossible.”
The American Standard Version translates this last line, “For no word from God shall be void of power.” God is faithful to His Word, and when He speaks things happened. In the beginning God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. To Abraham He said, “You will inherit this land” and four hundred years later the Israelites returned to the Promised Land. To David He said, “I will make you an everlasting kingdom” and through the son of Mary whose husband was Joseph, the House of David was restored.
Yet even while we celebrate the birth of the King, the fulfillment of the promise to David and the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, we are reminded that Jesus was also the son of Mary. He was born, lived and died. He laughed, He cried. He knew hunger and thirst, anger and doubt. He knew what it was like to have blisters on his feet and to be tired from a long day. Though the beloved Christmas hymn “Away in a manger” makes Jesus sound as if He was the perfect child, rightfully so because He was the Son of God, the reality is that He did all the things a child would do. He probably even cried when He was wet, hungry or just needed the love of His mother.
During Advent we look at both the coming of the child and the coming of the King in Glory, yet on this day we focus more heavily on the child. We see through the promises and in the eyes of His mother, that Jesus is a man sent by God to fulfill His promises. He did not do so by bringing the Christ into the world in a palace or as the son of a king. He did not send Him as the son of a powerful or wealthy family. And though Jesus’ birth was extraordinary, it was missed by most of the world because He was born to a lowly handmaiden, young and unmarried.
Mary’s response to the angel’s explanation was simple. “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” She accepted the word that the angel spoke and was blessed for her obedience. Are we willing to believe God’s word and be obedient to what He says? Do we trust that He knows the right way to fulfill His promises, even if His way sounds impossible? The Nativity story is really unbelievable, but we are called to believe and to trust that God has made Jesus the King of an everlasting kingdom into which we have been adopted and counted as heirs.
“Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah, and entered into the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She called out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy! Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord!’” Luke 1:39-45, WEB
We live in an amazing time, when we can communicate with people near and far very quickly. Not so very long ago we had telephones and email that allowed us to talk to people all over the world. Now cell phones not only allow us the same communication, but we can access information instantly. High powered telescopes and other technological advances even make it possible for us to communicate with the far reaches of the universe. What would you do if you could not communicate at all? Even though we joke about our reliance on those modern marvels of communication, there is a sense of something missing in our lives when we aren’t connected. Sadly, we don’t remember what it is like to receive a letter in the mail from a friend. Even at this time of year, it seems fewer and fewer people are sending those annual Christmas cards and letters. We text or message our friends and neighbors rather than talk with them face to face.
We have all this modern technology, yet some of the best communication has nothing even to do with words. There is something very special about a hug from a friend when we are sad. So much is said between a husband and wife as they sit on a couch holding hands. Friends playing games can say so much with body language and silence. Facial expressions give away happy secrets and tears speak volumes. You can’t communicate in these ways from the far sides of the earth.
In another time and place, Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth. When they met, they communicated in ways that did not need words. Being in the presence of Mary gave Elizabeth great joy because she knew that Mary was the most blessed woman. Even John, growing in the womb of Elizabeth, jumped for joy at the presence of the Christ. There is no explaining such a miraculous event, particularly in our world where technology is so important. Would Elizabeth have been so happy to hear this message over the phone? Would the baby in her womb leap for joy when the email arrived in Elizabeth’s account on the Internet?
In the story of Mary and Elizabeth we see several different things. We see a woman too old and a child nearly too young to have babies meet to share their joy in the miracles. One of those children would be the last prophet of the old covenant and the other the first born and bearer of the new covenant. Mary went to Elizabeth’s house to escape persecution and Elizabeth offered to her a place to rest. Even more important in this story we see the fellowship of two women who have come together to support one another in their difficulties. It could not have been easy for either woman to bear her child. Emotionally, physically, even spiritually they faced questions, doubts and fears. Yet, together they could bear witness to the joy of their situation and praise God together for His amazing grace. In this story we see the sweet fellowship of two women and we are reminded of how wonderful it can be. There is communication that can’t be found on the telephone or Internet.
I pray that during this holiday season you will find the time to be with others, to have the kind of fellowship that does not need words. I pray that in those relationships and encounters you will find peace and joy.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 15, 2019, Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-11; Matthew 11:2-15
“Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” Matthew 2:11, WEB
It is said that there has been no year in recorded human history that there has been no war between nations. There hasn’t been a global war for many years, but there is always some battle waging between neighboring countries or clans or kingdoms. If there isn’t war on our continent, there’s war somewhere. Violence between enemies takes lives every day. Perhaps there have been years when those wars were minor with few deaths, but conflict is always a part of life. Unfortunately, it seems that even individuals these days make it a habit to find a reason to argue. It seems we are constantly looking for an enemy.
It is no wonder that we find great comfort in the words of Isaiah, “Tell those who have a fearful heart, ‘Be strong! Don’t be afraid! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution. He will come and save you.’” We want God to do away with our enemies, to punish them for the harm they have inflicted on us. It is particularly strange, though, when the enemies fighting one another both believe in the same God. Take, for example, the wars in England between the fifteenth and seventeenth century. Those wars were about power and control, mostly between family members, but there was often an underlying question of religion.
The question was not what religion, but which type of Christianity would be followed. People were beheaded because they wanted to follow the ideas of the reformers and people were beheaded because they wanted to continue to follow Rome, it all depended on who was in power. The years during Henry VIII’s reign were particularly difficult because he was so easily swayed by whoever was in his favor. If he liked you, he believed you, and you could convince him to implement policies favorable for your point of view. But the minute you did something to fall out of favor, and it could be the silliest thing, you were out and the next guy moved in to implement the policies favorable to his point of view.
Of course, this meant that the average person had no idea what was in favor and what was not in favor at any moment. There was confusion not only in the court, but in the streets. It was the death sentence to disagree with the king, but how do you agree when you don’t even know what he believes today?
I read a lot of historical fiction from that time period in English history. I am fascinated by the relationships of those in the court. One book revolved around Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr. While the book was fiction, historical fiction writers try to stay true to the historical evidence of what happened. This particular book showed the constant jockeying between courtesans to be in favor not only with Queen Katherine, but especially with King Henry. After all, if the queen falls out of favor, you better have your foot in the next door. And with King Henry, we know the queens fell out of favor. Katherine did eventually, but she was lucky that Henry died before he could remove her head.
The passage from Isaiah brings light to the real question: who is my enemy? Of course, in those years of battle in England, the religious wars always quietly disappeared while the country was in battle against France. It was easy to love one another as they faced a common enemy. But as soon as one war was settled, the old disagreements rose to the top and the fighting began again.
We are human. The reality is that no matter what we believe, there are always human beings that just can’t get along. We have conflicting personalities. We see the world differently. There are just some people who rub us the wrong way. This happens within the closest groups, even families. As Christmas draws closer, many are dreading the impending gatherings because it is almost certain someone will say something to make someone else angry. There is no way to escape, especially when you are visiting distant family and friends. We are human and even the best of us simply do not get along with all the other humans.
But does that make them our enemy? See, we might not agree about the issues, the big and the little ones, and we may even get into heated discussions with them, but does that make them an enemy? Sadly, I have to admit that I have cried out to God about those who have hurt me. Did I want Him to hurt them? I wish I could say I didn’t...
But when God says that He will deal with our enemies, He’s not really thinking in terms of those neighbors with whom we do not agree. See, we have greater enemies about which we should be concerned, i.e. the devil. When we disagree with our neighbors about the silly things, and even the big things, Satan takes advantage of our weaknesses. He makes us think that those people are our enemies. He wants us to hate them. He wants us to divide. He’s done a pretty good job.
In the days when Jesus was born, the people were waiting for a Messiah, a savior or liberator. They wanted someone who would defeat the Romans and return Israel to the Golden Age of David. They wanted God to take vengeance on their enemies. But the Jews faced the same question as we do today: who is the enemy God intended to take vengeance on? Jesus came to save the people not from the threats in this world but from the threats that keep them from God. Jesus is the Way that will make the desert a land of flowing blessings.
Isaiah says, “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? I see these words come to pass happen each year in Texas. If the conditions are perfect, the rains of October and February as well as the cold of December will bring out the Bluebonnets in such numbers that the fields turn to blue. There are other wildflowers, too, and for months the dry, brown landscape is filled with color. Isaiah says, “It will blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing.”
Isaiah was telling the people that something spectacular was about to happen. This promise is given to the exiles as they waited to be released from captivity. It must have been difficult to wait. We know that God is faithful, but when things don’t happen in a timely manner, we begin to doubt. We forget that things happen in God’s time for a reason. Perhaps they weren’t ready. Perhaps they did not fully understand the depth of God’s grace. Perhaps there were still some that needed to be cleansed of the attitudes that sent them into captivity in the first place. The people were there to be transformed, to remember the God of their forefathers and the power of His Word. The promise would be fulfilled when the time was right, when God was satisfied that all were ready to return into His presence.
God’s people would return home with shouts of praise and song. When it happened, extraordinary things would occur: the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the speechless tongue would sing and the lame would dance. They shall see the glory of God. But this promise was not for all men, it was for God’s people. The highway leads directly to the gate of Zion: the unclean would not walk the Holy Way.
Though the words were spoken to those in exile, these words speak also to another day, a future time when God would redeem the world and would transform His people forever. Can you imagine a world as is pictured in the text from Isaiah? We might catch glimpses today, but there are still those who are blind, deaf, dumb and lame. The lions and jackals still roam. Was the world really different when the exiles returned to Jerusalem? People still became sick, children were born blind. By the time Jesus was born, the unclean were still walking into the gates of Zion.
So, they continued to look for the Messiah. Even John, who leapt in joy in his mother’s womb and did not want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he was not worthy to even touch His feet, wondered whether Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. In today’s Gospel lesson, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus. He wanted to know if Jesus was the One who would set them free.While it is true that Jesus was the Messiah, He wasn’t coming to set them free from the enemies they thought needed God’s vengeance. Jesus said, “Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling in me.” Jesus was not going to be what they wanted Him to be. He was going to be what God intended Him to be. And that would cause the religious leaders and those who wanted to continue to have power to stumble.
Jesus’ ministry certainly did not make sense to the religious elite of His day. He touched the untouchables. He brought wholeness to the outcast. He gave life to those who were dead to the world. He set the prisoners free, opened the eyes of the blind, and made the lame walk. He did not do good things for the righteous; He did great things for the sinners. It made no sense in Jesus’ day and does not make sense today. Human nature expects reward for goodness, but Jesus gave gifts to the humble. No wonder so many people doubt that He is the Messiah even today.
After sending John’s disciples back with the good news, Jesus spoke to the people about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.’” Once again, Jesus pointed to the Old Testament prophecy to show the fulfillment of God’s promises.
But how could John who was truly a great man be lesser than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven? The point of this verse is that John was of the Old Covenant, a covenant based on a different kind of promise. He was looking for salvation in flesh; the New Covenant promises a greater salvation. The power of the Old Covenant was fire and brimstone, it was destructive and judgmental. The power that Jesus came to bring was of healing and forgiveness, restoring people to God and making them whole. While His work has been complete, we do not yet see the entire fulfillment of this promise. This is the hope in which we live. The day will come when the ills in Isaiah will be gone forever.
The central theme of today’s texts is the ministry work of Jesus in fulfillment of God’s promises. Isaiah tells us that the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unstopped, the lame man will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing. The psalmist made the same promise.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist heard stories about Jesus Christ. He was imprisoned by Herod and could not go see it for himself, so he sent some of his disciples. “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” they asked Jesus. Jesus answered, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see,” and goes on to list the same promises. Jesus was opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. He was making the lame walk and the mute sing. He was raising the dead. Jesus was fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament in their presence, proving by His works that He was the One for whom they were waiting. Most importantly, Jesus was preaching the Good News of God’s grace.
We are still waiting for the fulfillment of these promises even now two thousand years after the birth of Christ. The blind are still blind. The lame are still lame. The wicked still walk in our midst. But the day will come when God will completely fulfill all these promises. That day will come in God’s time, not in our time. Will it be a day? Will it be a thousand years? We don’t know. What we do know is that God is faithful.
So James tells us to be patient. “Be patient therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receives the early and late rain.” God knows what He is doing. He is longsuffering. He is forgiving. He wants all to know Him. He wants everyone to walk on the Way. It is all about God’s mercy. He is the One who will make it happen. He has made a plan that will fulfill all His promises, and one day we’ll know what it is like to live in that wilderness that has been transformed into a garden of life. The water will flow.
The water will flow. Actually, the water already flows. While we are still waiting for the promises of God, they were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the Living Water that makes the desert bloom, and He is already doing so through His people. Though He never defeated the Romans, He did defeat the real enemy: death. The devil is still wandering around, trying to convince us to hate one another and taking advantage of our faults, but God is still in control.
James writes, “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” The language of the New Testament has a sense of immediacy that seems to contradict the reality. Two thousand years is a long time since the first disciples followed Jesus. It is enough to make us doubt what we believe, just like John the Baptist. It makes us ask, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” In this world many people look for salvation in so many places. They cry out to God for all the wrong reasons. They don’t even realize why they need to be saved. They see enemies in every person who disagrees with them, but do not see that the real enemy has been defeated by God.
The psalmist speaks of the hope we have in Jesus. “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah his God.” This is not good news the righteous; it is good news for the sinner, because it speaks of looking beyond oneself and trusting in a higher power. That higher power, by virtue of its greatness, must know better how things should be accomplished. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises two thousand years after the coming of Christ because God still has work to do. There are things to be accomplished and we are called to wait both patiently and expectantly while God finishes what He has started.
What are you waiting for? Does your impatience make you doubt the truth of what God is doing? Do you wonder if Jesus really is the One, or if we should be looking for another? The answer is the same for us today as it was for John. “Go and tell the things which ye hear and see.” The blind see God, the lame go forth in faith, the filthy are cleansed, the deaf hear God’s word, the dead are raised to new life in Christ and the poor are given the treasures of the Kingdom. This is truly good news.
This is a time to trust in God as we wait. We might be confused, like John, and wonder if we are really seeing the work of God. Despite our doubt we can know that God’s promises are real and He is faithful. That’s what makes us greater than John. We live in the New Covenant; God has redeemed His people and restored us to Him. He will make the world right, in His time and in His way. Jesus is coming, not just as a babe in a manger, but as the King of Glory. One day God’s creation will be as Isaiah imagines. Do not be afraid. He is here now and will be here then. Even now His Spirit is sweeping across the land, transforming the dry land with His Word.
“Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, for he has looked at the humble state of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name. His mercy is for generations and generations on those who fear him. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down princes from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty. He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” Luke 1:46-55, WEB
One of my favorite scriptures is from the book of Revelation. It is the passage from chapter four that shows what worship is like in heaven. John describes the throne room of God, a description of something so wonderful that we cannot even imagine the beauty and splendor. John’s words give us a taste of the glory we will see one day, the glory of the One who deserves our worship and praise. “Behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting on the throne that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius. There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald to look at.”
We think of God’s glory as something like a bright light, something so shiny and magnificent that we cannot even look at it with our own eyes. The scriptures often tell us that death comes to those who see God face to face, for His glory is too much for us to see. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God put him in the cleft of a rock and covered him with His hand until He passed by, then Moses could see God’s back, but His face could not be seen. Martin Luther said, “We only see the glory of God from behind, in hindsight, for what He has done.”
God’s glory is not just found in this incredible scene of what it will be like in heaven; it is not only a bright light like rainbows or jewels. That vision is something that we look forward to, but will have to wait until we finish this journey of faith in this life. Still, we are able to see God’s glory today. We see it like Moses did, we see His back as He passes by, catching just a glimpse of the glory through what He has done. We see God’s glory in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We see God’s glory in the testimony of the witnesses provided through the scriptures and the Christian community throughout all the ages.
Mary glorified the Lord with this song of praise and thanksgiving. She sang this when she had learned she was to be the mother of her Savior. This young girl saw God’s glory in His faithfulness, mercy and grace. She saw it in the way He lifted the humble and put the mighty in their place. She saw it in the way He kept His promises. Though she had not seen an incredible vision of heaven, she was chosen to play a role and be a witness to the incarnation of God! Her soul glorified God by bearing witness to His works.
How I long for the day when I will see heaven as John saw and recorded it in Revelation. Yet, I am amazed at what God has shown to His people in this age: His love that we can see in the life of our Lord Jesus. We can look forward to the day when we will live in His presence and will stand face to face with the Lord God Almighty, but for today we can worship God as Mary did, by living lives of thanksgiving and praising Him for His marvelous works!
“His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside, they sent to him, calling him. A multitude was sitting around him, and they told him, ‘Behold, your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are outside looking for you.’ He answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Looking around at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Behold, my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, and mother.’” Mark 3:31-35, WEB
Mary was a young girl living in a very strict society facing an incredible blessing from God. But was it a blessing? When she was found to be pregnant, her fiancée wanted to cancel the marriage. The community looked down on her as a fallen woman, perhaps even as a prostitute. Her people were praying for the Messiah but they did not believe her story. The news from the angel was not good news. Yet, Mary did not complain. As a matter of fact, she humbled herself before the Lord, and sang for joy from the very depths of her soul.
Mary will always be remembered as the woman who gave birth to the Savior. She was His mother, she fed Him when He was hungry, cleaned his tiny body. She taught Him to walk, to laugh, to sing and to pray. She taught Him the scriptures, as she knew them from her own heart. The mother of our Lord was not an extraordinary woman in any sense of the word. But she loved the Lord with her heart, soul, strength and mind, and she served him in a very extraordinary way. She humbled herself before Him, sang His praises, and did according to His will and purpose for her life. She was not perfect, however. 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 she worried about Him. The holy family was something extraordinary, but as ordinary as you and I.
Mary did not need be perfect to be blessed of God. Her life certainly was not pain free. She was just a child when she became pregnant and mistreated as a whore. She gave birth in a cold stable, and then went on the run with her husband and young child to save his life. She was widowed early since Joseph was much older, so her position in society was quite low. She deeply loved her son, but at times he seemed to disregard and disrespect her. Think about the stories: the day he went to the temple and they could not find him, the wedding at Cana where He told her that it wasn’t time, the time she and Jesus’ brothers went to talk to Him and He told her that those listening were His mother and brothers. And then, after all this, Mary watched her son die a horrible death, execution on the cross.
Mary’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 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, but she persisted in a life of faithfulness loving the Lord in a way as only a mother can. We are called to be like Mary, to be humble and faithful to the God who has given us this great gift of Jesus. We are sinners and saints, never perfect but it is our imperfection that we need Him most. He calls us to listen to Him, to be His disciples, to do His will in this world.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was like this: After his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, before they came together, she was found pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, intended to put her away secretly. But when he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take to yourself Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She shall give birth to a son. You shall name him Jesus, for it is he who shall save his people from their sins.’ Now all this has happened that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall give birth to a son. They shall call his name Immanuel,’ which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us.’ Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife to himself; and didn’t know her sexually until she had given birth to her firstborn son. He named him Jesus.” Matthew 1:18-25, WEB
Mary was engaged to be married to a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph. Mary and Joseph had not been together as husband and wife when they discovered she was pregnant with Jesus. Joseph was a simple carpenter and such a scandal would have destroyed him. He was a good man who saw only one solution to the situation; he thought he should divorce Mary quietly until God spoke to him in a dream. Joseph was from the house of David; he was a descendent of the great king to whom God made the promise of an eternal kingdom. Joseph was selected by God to be Jesus’ earthly father, the man to raise him in the ways of righteousness and through whom Jesus also became a son of David. Jesus was the shoot that came up from the stump of Jesse.
The angel told Joseph to take Mary as his wife, to name the boy Jesus and raise Him as his own. Joseph’s dream revealed more about this son who was to be born. The promises of God made through the judges, kings and prophets had become twisted and confused through the years; the people did not understand the purpose of the coming Messiah. They expected the Son of David to save them from the Romans, to set them free to be an independent nation, and to reestablish the Golden Era of David. They expected the Messiah to be a mighty warrior, a great king. The Lord sent Jesus to do far more. He was to be the incarnation of the Living God, God in flesh born to save the people from their sin.
Joseph obeyed God’s words. He took Mary as his wife and raised Jesus as his own son. He had him circumcised as was prescribed in the Law. When the child was in danger, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt according to God’s command to protect him from the slaughter in Bethlehem. He took his family to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover. He was a good father to the young Jesus who would grow into the Savior of the world.
All we know about Joseph is that he was a carpenter. God chose Joseph to be Jesus’ earthly father, the one who would build Jesus into the man He became. Jesus was God in flesh, but He was also a human being. Through the mentoring, teaching, and loving of His earthly father, Jesus was raised in knowledge of the Law and Prophets. He also knew how to work with His hands and to be a responsible adult. The LORD chose Joseph to be part of the life of Jesus and as such he became part of the redemptive process.
During the Advent season as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus, we are reminded that we are also part of His redemptive process. Jesus chose us to be part of His plan and He has given us everything we need to share His Gospel message with others. We join with Him as He builds His Church by living out our faith as disciples. Like Joseph, we are called to be obedient to God’s purpose for our lives, to be merciful in words and deeds, to be God’s hands in this world. Joseph was an ordinary man just as we are ordinary people, but as God’s chosen people we are called to continue to trust in God and do His work in this world.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, being small among the clans of Judah, out of you one will come out to me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings out are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2, WEB
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was released in December 1965, and has been a television staple ever since. The show is a statement about the commercialization of Christmas, but it is amazing to realize that it was created more than fifty years ago. We think we have it all wrong, but we’ve had it wrong for generations. At one point in the show, Charlie Brown gets upset because the other kids were making fun of the tree he picked. He begins to yell, asking if anyone knows what Christmas is really about. Linus walks to the middle of the stage and recites Luke 2:8-14, the story of the angels telling the shepherds that a Savior has been born for the world. When he finishes, Linus tells Charlie Brown, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” The monologue hits the hearts of all their friends; they see the value of Charlie Brown’s choice and decorate it together. It is made beautiful through love.
The character Linus is always afraid; he carries a security blanket everywhere he goes. Linus is often the one who gifts us a glimmer of brilliance with words of truth even though he is very insecure. Charles M. Schulz, said of the character, “Linus, my serious side, is the house intellectual, bright, well-informed which, I suppose may contribute to his feelings of insecurity.” During the Luke monologue, as Linus says, “Fear Not!” he drops his blanket, a subtle but powerful reminder that the story of Christmas is given to us so that we’ll have peace, not fear. He also uses his blanket as a skirt for the Christmas tree as he finds peace among the love of his friends. Together they sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” reminding us of the announcement of the angels in Luke 2. The story of Christ takes away our fear and gives us peace.
The peace of Christ is not necessary a world without war which is what we think we want. To many, the song of the angels in Luke 2 is about peace on earth and good will toward men, asking God to help us to be without conflict. War destroys and we should always strive toward a world without it. However, the angels do not sing “Peace on earth and good will toward men,” they sing, “And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased.” Peace in Luke’s day was Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, which was an external tranquility. The peace about which the angels sing is an inner peace, a more lasting peace of heart and spirit that comes from God, made possible only by the Savior. This kind of peace comes with faith, a faith that is given to those in whom God is well pleased. It is in those who believe in the Messiah.
The prophet Micah foretold the coming of the Messiah, but he pointed toward a rather unexpected 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.
Herod’s advisors recognized the importance of Bethlehem in the promises of God and pointed to this text when the wise men asked where to find the baby king. 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.
This is the promise of Christmas. We want world peace, but God promises inner peace. God promises that we will not have to be afraid when the world is at war around us because we have a Savior that has guaranteed a life beyond today, an inheritance that is eternal. This is not a promise for the world, but for those who believe. God wants the whole world to believe, but for today there are still many who have rejected the child who is Immanuel, God with us. For today, we may have to experience the difficulties of war, but we have been given the greatest gift to help us through: the peace that comes with faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 22, 2019, Fourth Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
“Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife to himself...” Matthew 1:25:1, WEB
Martin Luther is described as a wrestler of God. In his book about Martin Luther, Martin Marty wrote, “He makes most sense to me as a wrestler of God - indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own. However you choose to explain his life, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.”
God seems contradictory, doesn’t He? Perhaps one of the hardest contradictions for us to grasp is the fact that God is both love and wrath. We prefer the God of love, but where would He be if He did not also chastise those He loves? After all, that’s what the wrath of God is about. Wrath isn’t simply vengeful anger or retributory punishment as we describe it; God is the Holy One and His wrath is about making things right. Through His wrath He makes His people righteous. The whole point of Christmas is that He sent His Son who was the One on whom His wrath fell for our sake. God’s opposites are not contradictory, but rather encompass the wholeness of His character; God loved us so much that He took the wrath upon Himself.
Unfortunately, we see things from our own perspective, a perspective that is miniscule compared to God’s omniscience. We try to fit God into a box, to limit His character and nature to fit into our own needs and desires. We want God to be what we want Him to be. Yet, God can’t fit into our box. He is all that He is and all that He does is within His character. He can only be true to Himself. The God that Luther sought was a God of seeming contradictions, but the reality is that He is present and absent, near and far, wrathful and loving, weak and almighty, real and illusion, hidden and revealed. He is more than we can ever imagine, but always the King of Glory.
The scriptures for this Fourth Sunday in Advent tell the stories of two men who faced tough decisions about trusting in God.
The first was a man named Ahaz who was king of Judah. He was struggling deal with an oncoming invasion from Israel and Syria against his nation. God is faithful to His promises, and all He asks of His people is that they trust in Him. But Ahaz looked to allies to help him with his war. He went to Assyria for strength. Isaiah spoke to Ahaz with a promise: “This is what the Lord Yahweh says: ‘It shall not stand, neither shall it happen.’” And a warning, “If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established.” The decision facing Ahaz was to believe in God and to trust in Him.
God even offered him proof. “Ask a sign of Yahweh your God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” It isn’t very often that God offers us a sign to prove His promises, but He did so with Ahaz. Ahaz, however, self-righteously decided that he didn’t want to test God. “No thanks,” he told Isaiah. How many of us would love to have proof that something we’ve heard is really from God? I know that there are times when I just wish He would speak more clearly so I can be sure. When we are making career decisions, considering marriage or making a move to another city, it would be so much easier if God said, “Yes” or “No.” But we are left without obviously clear guidance. We don’t have an Isaiah to tell us when we are going the wrong way. We just have to trust that God is guiding us and that He can use even our wrong choices to do His Work in the world. We glorify Him by our trust. Ahaz didn’t trust God, and He didn’t want the proof of God’s promise because then he would have to do things God’s way. God sent the sign anyway, and in the end Ahaz was not established. Ahaz faced war and God was prepared to save Judah from destruction. Ahaz seized control and his plan failed.
Isaiah described the sign which Matthew referenced in today’s Gospel lesson. Isaiah is often considered the fifth Gospel because it has the most Messianic references of all the Old Testament books. Matthew quotes Isaiah nine times; he sees Isaiah’s words fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He tells the story and explains the significance so that others will see how this fits into God’s plan. God knew before the days of Isaiah how Jesus would come to earth, and He promised it through the words of the prophet. In love, Immanuel came to take God’s wrath on His own shoulders to save God’s people forever.
Jesus was righteous from the beginning; He was in a right relationship with God; He trusted in Him and obeyed His commands. Jesus willingly lowered Himself, giving up the glory of heaven to take upon His shoulders the burden of our sin. He was righteous so that we might become truly righteous, not by our own actions but by His grace. Jesus made an eternal difference for God’s people. Jesus, born of Mary, was set apart from all others. Mary was the virgin about which Isaiah was speaking and Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.
Ahaz was given proof that God would provide, but he chose to go his own way. He followed his own path, but the Gospel story tells the story of a man who trusted God. He was legally bound to a woman who became pregnant. This was catastrophic for this couple. Not only would they suffer the ridicule of their community, but there were legal ramifications for this kind of unfaithfulness. Joseph could legally have Mary stoned to death. He did not want to do so, but there was still a problem: the child in Mary’s womb belonged to another man. That man had all the rights and responsibilities of that child. That’s why he felt he should divorce her, to free her to marry the father of her child.
God appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take to yourself Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” God was in control. The child was not the product of infidelity, but of the Holy Spirit. God is the Father, and in this dream He appointed Joseph to act as Jesus’ legal guardian. “You shall name him Jesus.” By naming the child, Joseph became His legal father with all the rights and responsibilities. It was all part of the plan.
Joseph was from the house of David; he was a descendent of the great king to whom God made the promise of an eternal kingdom. Joseph was selected by God to be Jesus’ earthly father, the man to raise him in the ways of righteousness and through whom Jesus also became a son of David. Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Many years had passed since the prophets spoke God’s promises to His children, plenty of time for them to become confused and interpret God’s promises to meet their expectations. They expected the Son of David to save them from the Romans, to set them free to be an independent nation. They expected the Messiah to be a mighty warrior, a great king. But God sent Jesus to do far more. He was the incarnation of the Living God, God in flesh born to save the people from the wrath of God they deserved for their unfaithfulness and sinful behaviors.
Joseph obeyed God’s words: he took Mary as his wife and raised Jesus as his own son. He had him circumcised as was prescribed in the Law. When the child was in danger, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt according to God’s command to protect him from the slaughter in Bethlehem. He took his family to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover each year. He was a good father to the young Jesus who would grow into the Savior of the world.
God chose Joseph to be Jesus’ earthly father, the one who would mentor Jesus into the man He became. Jesus was God in flesh, but He was also a human being. Through the mentoring, teaching and loving of His earthly father, Jesus was raised in knowledge of the Law and Prophets; He learned the work of the carpenter and knew how to work with His hands. He grew up to be a responsible adult.
Just like Ahaz, Joseph was faced with a dilemma: believe or not believe? Joseph chose to believe. He did all that the Lord told him. He took Mary as his wife and cared for her. And when the child was born, Joseph did what God said, and named Him Jesus. Joseph certainly could have taken matters into his own hands, did what was legally within his rights. Mary could have been sent away to have the baby in secret and then given up for adoption. The choice to take Mary, to live with the ridicule and raise a child that was not biologically his seems crazy. Just as the choice to face the enemy without allies seemed crazy to Ahaz. God calls us to trust Him and do the crazy because He is able to make it all work out right. When we don’t trust God, God still manages to make His plans succeed, but ours end up failing. We think we know better than God, but in the end we discover that we don’t know much. We try to succeed by doing things our own way, but we are truly blessed when we trust in God.
I think we often prefer a God who is far off, separate, and out of touch because we want to be in control. We want to do what we think is right and follow our own ways. We are far more like Ahaz than we are Joseph. I don’t know many people who would be so quick to follow a dream, to do something that goes against their very character. We want proof, and yet like Ahaz, we feign a righteousness that refuses to demand that sign. God knew that Joseph’s righteousness was not a false humility or a self-righteous obedience to the Law. Joseph had a right relationship with God, a heart to do God’s will, and a spirit that discerned that what he heard was true.
God does not leave us to our own faithlessness. He chose to come and dwell among us. He sent Jesus, His Son, our Lord. It is for this Immanuel that we wait. It is for this Messiah that we watch. He will be all that God has promised, all rolled up in a tiny baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. This is perhaps the most incredible thing about our Christian faith: God came to be born of the most humble circumstances and live among us. He took the risk that His chosen helpers would do what He asked of them. What other god would become like his creation rather than demand the creation strive to be like a god? He saw our heartache close-up. He experienced our temptations. He is Immanuel. He is the one on whom God’s wrath fell so that we would be made righteous before our God.
We are not made righteous by doing what is right; we are made righteous by what God has done. Those who are righteous in God’s eyes are those who trust in Him.
Paul professes his faith in his greeting to the Romans. “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Good News of God, which he promised before through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the offspring of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship for obedience of faith among all the nations for his name’s sake; among whom you are also called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is the promise fulfilled in Jesus. It is for this reason that we praise our God. We can count on God. He is faithful. We can’t expect that we won’t face the consequences of our failures and suffer the effects of our perishable flesh, but we can know that God is true to His promises.
We face so many contradicting ideas in the world. One day the ‘experts’ tell us that something is bad for us. They recommend removing that item from our lives completely. The next day another ‘expert’ tells us that new studies show us that the old studies were wrong and that the item is not harmful at all. Another ‘expert’ comes out the next day suggesting that moderation is the best choice. Someone suggests a little of the item is healthy. Another will give recommendations as to how much. All this information floats on the Internet and in the news, sometimes taking so long to get through the system that it has been proven wrong even before it has been announced. It is very confusing. What do you do? Whose advice do you take?
Science is an integral part of our understanding the world in which we live, but it is also constantly changing as new discoveries are made. What was true yesterday might not be true today simply because the scientists and researchers have discovered something new. Scientists a hundred years ago did not have the equipment to do some of the things they can do today. With every new investigation we have more knowledge about the world which changes how we see individual aspects of it.
We can count on God, He is faithful. The psalmist reminds us that the earth and everything in it is His, He is the Creator and He knows the purpose for all things. He gives man the intelligence and ability to search His creation to discover what we need to know. We don’t know it all today, and we will not know it all tomorrow. As the world changes around us the things we know has to change. It is good that we seek to know the world in which we live, but let us always remember that there is One who is greater. God is good and right and true and His grace will last forever. Let us never forget to seek Him even while we search the world in which we live.
Human beings never reach the point of perfection; we cannot approach the throne of grace on our own. We must look to Jesus Christ who can ascend the hill, receive the blessing and vindication as described in the psalm. As His followers, believers in His name, we can go with Him before the throne. He clothes us in His righteousness; we are called to simply believe. We are called to trust in God and to be obedient to His Word. He will always do what is right; He is faithful.
Advent is almost over, our wait is almost complete. It will soon be Christmas Day and we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. But Jesus came for more than a holiday. He came to call His people to lives of discipleship, lives of sharing the forgiveness, compassion and hope that comes from God through Christ Jesus. It might seem like the world is against us. It might seem like the world has rejected God and wants to destroy God’s message. It does, because the message of God is that He is greater than the world. The world wants to stop what God has done, is doing and will do. But God always has a greater purpose and now is the time for us to trust that He is in control. We are called to be like Joseph, responding to God’s word with faith. We should not be tempted to take the battle into our own hands, but instead learn what God would have us see in the circumstances that surround us. Jesus took the wrath for our sake. It is up to us to let go and believe that He has heard our cries and has come to make all things right.
“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. While they were there, the day had come for her to give birth. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:1-7, WEB
We have a romanticized idea of what happened on that first Christmas Eve. We imagine that the first Christmas looked like the nativities we have placed on our mantles. We see a pristine stable with calm animals, clean hay, and ethereal light. We imagine a young, clean boy with a sheep standing in awe and three kings kneeling before the King of kings. It is a beautiful scene, one I love.
Yet, this image is not quite what is written in the scriptures. First of all, we assume that Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey, but that creature is nowhere to be found in the biblical accounts. We can find symbolism in the images, such as the parallels between Jesus arriving in Bethlehem in His mother’s womb on a donkey and entering into Jerusalem on a donkey. The donkey is a symbol of a humble king entering the world, so our art and literature has included that image in the Nativity for the same symbolism.
We have a negative opinion of the poor innkeeper because he turned away a very pregnant woman. We watch as Joseph and Mary go door to door seeking a place to bed down for the night, but over and over they are turned away. Should not someone have had mercy and found a place for this young couple? Bethlehem was overcrowded with those who had traveled there for the census, so I doubt Joseph and Mary were the only ones left out on the street. The scriptures tell us that when Mary gave birth, she placed her son in a feeding trough. We assume that he was born in a barn. Some claim that it wasn’t a barn, but rather a cold, dark cave.
They were going home. Joseph was of the House of David, Bethlehem, and that is where he needed to register. He most likely had family who still lived there. Think about how it is when family comes together for a special occasion. Where do you put all the guests who are coming from far away? These days there are plenty of hotels, but there were no Motel 8s for Joseph and Mary. They would have relied on family, but so would all the others visiting the city at that time. Each home was probably crowded with family and friends.
The word translated as “inn” can also be understood as “guest chamber.” In Jesus’ day, homes did not have a separate stable for the animals. Instead, the home was usually made of several rooms, rooms for the family and the animals and one at the back or on the roof for guests. It is possible that Joseph was simply told that the guest chamber was already occupied, but welcomed into the space where the animals were housed at night.
We think of it as a lonely night, but Mary probably did not give birth without the help of a midwife. Even if they were staying in a barn or a cave, someone would have come to help. Mary was young, Jesus was her first born. It was unlikely that Joseph had any experience since the men were sent out of the birthing chamber. She needed someone to care for her. Giving birth was one of the most dangerous activities for women. It was risky under the best conditions. Infant mortality was high. Even if the room was warm and clean, there were still animals present, and their waste. The couple needed help and supplies to ensure a healthy birth.
The birth may have gone smoothly, after all this was God’s Son, but it was not a silent night. Mary would have cried out in the pain of childbirth. Jesus may have been the Son of God, but He most certainly cried when He was hungry or wet. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to keep animals quiet. And if it was a house filled with family, there would have been a constant murmur of conversation.
So much of what we love about the Christmas story is not based on the stories found in the Gospel, but that doesn’t make the story any less true. We have to remember that God made promises to Israel throughout her history about the coming of the Messiah. Some of the images we have are found in the fulfillment of those promises.
There is nothing wrong with the way we see the Nativity, they are good stories. Our lovely nativities are a way to help our children learn that there is more to Christmas than trees and presents. As we remember the places and characters, we see how God had planned all along to send the Savior and how He prepared His people to know when He had come. The promises of the Old Testament make sense when we see them in the context of the birth of Christ. The salvation that Jesus won for us on the cross would not be any different if he was born in a barn or a cave or a guest chamber. He would still have lived and died for us if His mother walked to Bethlehem or if she’d ridden on a chariot.
These details we’ve come to know and love don’t change the story one bit. They give us an image to embrace, an understanding of God’s grace that we can see woven into the scriptures from the beginning of time. These images serve as a witness to how God has shown His people the promise during every generation and it gives us a further witness to share with our neighbors. “Come and see how God made this miracle happen...” Some will believe while others reject the story, but those who believe will receive the forgiveness that the Christ who was born to die won for us.
“There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people. For there is born to you today, in David’s city, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.’ Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.’” Luke 2:8-14, WEB
If we think that the Christmas season is hectic for us, imagine what it must be like for Santa! He has to get presents ready for millions of children all around the world, get his sleigh souped up and keep his elves in line. We might go to a couple of parties; he has to be at every one! Whatever we have planned, magnify it by a million or so and you have Santa’s schedule. Well, one day Santa was feeling a bit frazzled by all the activities of the day and he was ready to bite the head off the next person to ask him a question. At that moment an angel came into Santa’s office to ask him where he wanted to put the Christmas tree. Santa responded, “I’ll tell you where to put it!” and that’s how the tradition of putting angels at the top of the tree began.
Ok, so a bit of humor can’t hurt our frazzled minds, especially since we are all probably feeling a bit like Santa at this point. With only a few days until Christmas and there is much to do, yet we should not get so involved in the wrapping that we forget about the present that is found inside. Christmas is about Jesus and I wonder how many have taken the time to remember the Christmas story and think about the people involved in this wonderful event.
Take the angels, for instance. In the joke, the angel did not bring good news. As a matter of fact, the last thing Santa wanted to hear was another question. We tend to think about angels as being bearers of good news; certainly the messages they gave were good news to us. But was it Good News to the hearers? Mary was visited by an angel that told her she would bear a child; this was not good news for a young virgin. The community would make her an outcast and she would be rejected by her husband to be. Joseph had a visit from an angel that told him to take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy. Both Mary and Joseph believed the message of the angels, but it could not have been easy to accept these strange experiences. Another visit was made to some shepherds in a field.
Many people collect angels, I have several that I keep on display in my home. These statues and pictures show angels as sweetness and light, beautiful beings with wings made of soft white feathers and looks of love on their faces. They are often playing instruments or displaying a prayerful attitude. These statues make angels appear to be creatures that would bring no bad news or cause fear. Most of us would not mind meeting that type of angel face to face.
Yet, whenever we hear about the visits of these awesome beings they say, “Do not be afraid.” The message the angel took to the shepherds was indeed good news: the king was born in Bethlehem. Yet, I do not think they would have been immediately excited about the visit. Imagine what it was like for those shepherds to be in a dark field when suddenly a light surrounded them – not just any light, but the glory of the Lord. Then, a great host of angels appeared singing praises to God. We might wish we had been among those present in that field that day so that we could be the first witnesses to the birth of Christ, but I think the experience would be much different than we expect. I am sure it would have been a most humbling experience.
As we are caught up in all the hustle and bustle of the holiday, it is easy to forget the awesomeness of what is happening. The Lord God Almighty has come to earth in the form of a child. Jesus is God in flesh, Immanuel. We think of Christmas much like those angels we have on our shelves: sweet, beautiful, joyful and filled with peace. Yet, Christmas is an awesome event, the time when God ripped through the barriers of time and space to come in flesh to save the world. This is cause to make us think and humble ourselves to receive this good news that the angels bring.
“When the angels went away from them into the sky, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem, now, and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ They came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby was lying in the feeding trough. When they saw it, they publicized widely the saying which was spoken to them about this child. All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as it was told them.” Luke 2:15-20, WEB
The angels announced the Good News to shepherds in a field. We often see these shepherds represented in the nativities as an obviously poor young boy. He is usually carrying a lamb, and though he’s muscular from his work, he is also skinny and poorly clothed. He usually has a cheerless look on his face. Perhaps that image is based on David when he was anointed to be king of Israel. He was the youngest and smallest of his brothers, but God knew his heart. That is what made him king, not his appearance or ability.
The shepherds were often boys, too small to fight and too uneducated to do much else. These boys did not own the sheep; the sheep belonged to a master. It seems odd that God would use the image of a shepherd to describe the leaders of His people, and yet it makes a lot of sense. After all, the shepherds are meant to be caregivers working under the Master. They aren’t the authority; they are given the authority by God. We see this in the story of David. He was selected to be king long before he had the ability, strength and power to lead. He relied on God and obeyed His word. That is what God expects of His chosen leaders.
There is a legend in Ethiopia that the shepherds were playing a game called genna when the angels came to tell them about the birth of the baby Jesus. The word “genna” means “immanent.” It makes sense that they would have been busy doing something. Nighttime is the most dangerous time; it is necessary that the boys stay awake and watchful to protect their sheep which were particularly vulnerable in the open field. Despite their watchfulness, it must have been shocking and frightening when the glory of God suddenly shown all around them.
The shepherds were the lowliest of the low in the society of their day. They had no authority, no power, no clout. No one would even listen to them. Yet, God chose them to be the first witnesses of the great gift of Jesus. When they heard the words of the angels they “came with haste” to the bedside of the King born in a stable, a baby who seemed even lower than them, and yet was greater than all. They did not keep this great thing a secret: they broadcast the Good News to all who would listen. Those who heard it wondered about it. Did they believe? The shepherds did, and they did as their heart led them. They shared the message and then went back to the fields praising God.
Isn’t it interesting that the nativities show kings kneeling before the Christ child, but it is the shepherd that really symbolizes what the baby in manger was to become? God promised to send a new Shepherd, one who would care for the sheep always relying on the Master and obeying His word. That was Jesus. He was the seed of David who was chosen a long time ago in a field as he watched his father’s sheep to stand as an example of the kind of king God intended for His people. He also chose the shepherds in the field the night when Jesus was born to stand as an example of what we should do when we have seen the baby in the manger. Now that Christmas is over, we are to go out and broadcast the Good News, returning to our own work praising God.
“Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. He came in the Spirit into the temple. When the parents brought in the child, Jesus, that they might do concerning him according to the custom of the law, then he received him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, ‘Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.’ Joseph and his mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning him, and Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’ There was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and she had been a widow for about eighty-four years), who didn’t depart from the temple, worshiping with fastings and petitions night and day. Coming up at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem.” Luke 2:25-38, WEB
In the lesson we meet two people, a man and a woman, both were waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. The first person was a man named Simeon who was righteous and devout. This description of Simeon as both righteous and devout is interesting. Matthew Henry suggests that righteousness is lived for the sake of other people and one who is devout is devout toward God. “...these must always go together, and each will befriend the other, but neither will atone for the defect of the other.” In other words, we love God and neighbor, not one or the other. If we hate our neighbor we cannot love God. And if we love God, we will always love our neighbor. Simeon was a man who gave his life to God’s service; he loved God and his neighbor.
Simeon had the Holy Spirit was upon him. There are not many examples of the Holy Spirit on men before Christ finished His work, and yet we see the Spirit clearly in the Luke’s Gospel. Luke was a man of science and medicine and was focused on the miraculous works of God as we see have seen in this past month in the telling of Jesus’ birth and in today’s passage. Simeon apparently lived in Jerusalem; he prayed often. He lived in thanksgiving of God’s works. He was an example to us of the life that glorifies God. Simeon had been given a promise; he would not die until he saw the Messiah.
The second person is an elderly woman named Anna. We know that she was old. She was at least eighty-four, but she could have been more than a hundred, depending on the translation. She had been living in the Temple for many decades, living a life of pious prayer and fasting. Her life was indeed one of glorifying God. She worshipped day and night.
Simeon and Anna both recognized that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting. They knew He was the Messiah and they praised God for His faithfulness. Simeon boldly proclaimed what Jesus came to do, that He would be the salvation of Israel and a light to the Gentiles. This was an amazing thing to say. Simeon knew by the power of the Holy Spirit that the boy Jesus would die, and that his death would pierce the very soul of His mother. These are powerful words. Anna came upon the scene as Simeon told Mary and Joseph about their son’s future and she began praising God loudly and telling everyone about Jesus. “He’s the one we’ve been waiting for! He’s the promised King!” Simeon may have quietly shared the story of Jesus, but Anna was not going to be silent. She was ready to tell the world.
Simeon and Anna committed their lives to the promises of God. They waited patiently to see the God’s faithfulness. Their sacrifice was not blood and death, but their whole lives of hope and faith. When they received the fulfillment of God's promise, they spent their rest of their lives praising God with thanksgiving. I think my favorite part of this story, however, is the response of Mary and Joseph. They marveled at the words spoken about their son. They already knew their Son was special because they had experienced the Holy Spirit and the messengers of God, and yet they marveled at everything that happened to them after Jesus was born.
Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever feel that you know what God is doing in your life, and yet continue to marvel when it gets done? As we celebrate the passing of time on our calendars, we are reminded by their stories that God is always faithful and that we will see great things happen if we patiently wait. As we do, let us marvel at all God has done, and praise God with loud voices as we tell the world about His amazing grace.