New Year Thoughts

“The wrong shall fail, the right prevail…” So wrote Henry Wadworth Longfellow during the blight of the un-civil Civil War in the United States in 1863. Today, living in similar incivility when raucous bluster replaces intelligent discourse, when innuendos are swapped for thoughtful factual investigation, when pursuit of personal “blessings” supersedes Jesus’ call for humility, peacemaking, thirst for all that is God-good and holy, yes, even when right standing that frequently brings persecution is accepted with grace, even now we who claim to be Christ followers must with clear eyes and dogged determination proclaim “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”

This isn’t blind pie-in-the-sky, sugar-coated, always smiling “faith,” but firm reliance on God’s ultimate plan, purpose and love. And that reliance gives me courage to act hand-in-hand with him to bring about the right even when such actions seem futile and misplaced.  I’ve learned not to blithely misquote Romans 8:28: “God works out everything for (my!) good…” instead slowly trusting God’s benevolent, just, gracious, merciful hand mysteriously operating—usually behind the scenes—to bring about the ultimate end when “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” and all will shout, “Hallelujah! God Almighty reigns” (Philippians 2:10-11 and Revelation 19:7).

Yes, to some it sounds like pie-in-the-sky, but Longfellow got it right and we, often with faltering faith, agree, “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”

Advent Thoughts

Friday, December 24
Luke 2:19

Imagine overhearing the conversation between Luke and Mary as she relived those Bethlehem events. The trek to Egypt lies ahead, pre-teen Jesus in rabbinical Temple discussion will be mystifying. But now she remembers only the precious infant softly swaddled in the manger, the shepherds bowing, the innkeeper wondering what all the excitement is about. She tells Luke that hard, mysterious days lay ahead but in those first hours, she just rested in the now.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Most versions begin this passage with “but”–Luke contrasting the shepherds’ response and ensuing action with words about Mary. She does’t jump into action to deliver the message, nor does she engage in debate about the meaning of the events.

Interpreters use several words to understand the verse: Mary gave careful thought; she put the events together in silent heart-pondering; she compared and interpreted the events; she weighed (original meaning of pondered) everything, turning the events over and over in her mind.

There are times when we are to follow the shepherds’ example to spread the word. But it’s crucial that we just as often take time to treasure and ponder which, in my experience, is a much more difficult practice. The cries of the world–strident, wretched, heart rending–rightly call us to action. Cries of my world–indecision, discomfort, pain, grief, weariness–easily leave me immobilized. But this Christmas Eve I need to ponder. Action may or may not come. Solutions may be delayed, detoured, or denied. But just now it’s time for pondering.

Advent Thoughts

Thursday, December 23
Luke 2:17-18, 20

As we near the end of Advent, two responses to Jesus’ birth and events surrounding his birth capture my attention. First, let’s look again at the shepherds. Can you see them approaching the animal shed where they seek a manger? The hymn writer says, “Haste, haste to bring him laud…” but I see their steps slowing as they near their destination. What will they find? Who will they find? Luke’s concise words again demand us to fill in the blanks: When they had seen him… Did they look confused at this baby who looked just like any other Jewish baby but according to the angels was anything but ordinary. Did they possibly see with eyes enlightened by the Spirit?

Second, it’s interesting that when the shepherds left the manger they didn’t announce the infant’s blue(?) eyes, nor how perfectly formed he was, nor Mary’s peaceful gaze, nor Joseph’s stalwart protection. Instead…they spread the word concerning what had been told them about the child…

What was the essence of the message they’d heard?

Don’t be afraid
This is good, joyful news
This news is for everyone (even shepherds)
The long-awaited Savior has come

The response to the shepherds’ message? …all who heard it were amazed… When we share how the good news of Bethlehem has changed our lives, are people amazed? When you tell people about Jesus, are the shepherds’ “four spiritual laws” what you communicate? Do people hear that God’s love conquers fear; God’s news is good, without condemnation; God’s news contains no exclusion clause; God keeps his promise–the Savior has come.

The shepherds see, believe, and tell. Has that been my role this Advent? How can my message more align with the angels’ message?

Advent Thoughts

Wednesday, December 22
Luke 2:15

Luke is again spare with his words, leaving the scene to our imagination, perhaps encouraging us to fill in the blanks. When the angels left them… My questions: Were the sheep (or the flocks’ predators) aware of the angels? After rising from crouching fear, did the shepherds gaze into the sky as the disciples would more than thirty years later? Shepherds are entrusted with the sheep in their care. Who protected the flock when their protectors went to Bethlehem?

Many students of Hebrew history and prophecies, especially the words in Micah, believe that these shepherds were specially chosen to watch over lambs that would ultimately be offered as temple sacrifices with their fields about one mile from Bethlehem. Trained according to rabbinical rules, the shepherds had small stalls to protect and raise raise these lambs to be without blemish.

Earlier I wrote that Luke determined to record an orderly account…carefully investigating everything from the beginning. Many speculate that details of the birth narrative–from the Elizabeth/Zechariah events through the birth of Jesus to the visit of the wise men to Jesus in the Temple at age twelve–came from the lips of Mary herself. Did Luke also find one of those shepherds who “lived to tell the tale”? How fascinating must have been that conversation.

Nothing and no one is left to chance in the birth story. Nothing and no one is left to chance in our stories. The promises in Psalm 139 have always been important to me: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? …if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast…

The angels left the shepherds, but the Spirit of the always-guiding One would forever be present. Remember that this week when you wonder where he is. Reach out for his hand even when you can’t see it.

Advent Thoughts

Tuesday, December 21
Luke 2:13-14

Imagine the unimaginable. From their beginning, angels fell at the feet of our Creator God, our Savior Christ, our Enabler Holy Spirit. Then one of those three, the Word, left the peace and glory and worship of heaven to become a man, to move into our troubled, dark, divided, and divisive world. For a moment imagine that the angels have personalities and minds similar to our own. Can you see them confused at this decision? “Who would leave all this for all that? For them?”

But then comes Bethlehem and Mary and Joseph and shepherds. Blazing with glory, Gabriel–if that is the one chosen–triumphantly declares a Savior, the Savior, has been born. Heaven can no longer contain the secret hidden for thousands of years.

But the one voice of Gabriel isn’t sufficient to announce the news and so soon a great company of the heavenly host…roar out praise.

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

The moment the angels wondered about, the mysterious time prophets looked forward to, the event we all crave has happened and it takes an army to blast open the universe with the news. “Sweetly singing”?? No, I imagine the unified reverberation in a football stadium to be an an inadequate example of what the shepherds heard.

This was news too world changing to be whispered. Our voices are small but we join the chorus: Glory to God…

Advent Thoughts

Monday, December 20
Luke 2:11

Did the shepherds–speechless, cold, fearful, in awe–catch the consequence of this one word from the angel: To YOUa Savior has been born to YOU…

We Christians, especially in the Western world, frequently fall victim to the theory of personal entitlement. We miss the significance of this three-letter word, our base neediness so easily covered in a veneer of education, social standing, wealth, religious and even personal expectations. The shepherds knew they were beneath the bottom run of society. If human courts called them unqualified, how could the angel declare this message was for them?

Yes, as Christians we have been chosen. We are loved. We stand within the priesthood of believers. We have been ransomed and redeemed. But let us not forget Paul’s honest evaluation of himself: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst (I Timothy 1:15).

I’m not calling for “navel gazing” (self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself at the expense of a wider view), but for occasional quiet meditation on Psalm 139:23-24. Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me: cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about; see for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong–then guide me on the road to eternal life (The Message). Then I move to honest confession and bask in God’s generous forgiveness.

Yes, the message was emphatically for the shepherds. And the message is emphatically for me and my sisters and brothers. I am in the privileged company of shepherds.

Advent Thoughts

Sunday, December 19
Luke 2:8-12

“Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plaines…” Sweetly singing??? It’s beautiful Christmas poetry but it wasn’t sweet singing that struck terror in the shepherds.

Because we have been well trained in an intellectual understanding of our Christian faith, it’s easy to look at passages like this as study texts for the existence of angels, for delving into the details of the angel’s message, for proof of the validity of Old Testament prophecies. And no one likes such study more than I.

But in all our sound analyses we miss what I’ll call the heavenly vision. Close your eyes and see the angel (Gabriel again?) surrounded by, and even embodying, the blinding glory of God. See the night once inky black, now electrified by holy light. Block all other sound from your ears and hear the angel echo what was first heard by the One who thundered, LET THERE BE LIGHT! The true light has finally come. The shepherds–just like Zechariah, Mary and Joseph–are stopped in their tracks before they hear Do not be afraid.

A Swedish minister who wrote the original lyrics to “How Great Thou Art” was caught in a midday thunderstorm with flashing violence, followed by brilliant sun, and then the sweet songs of birds in nearby trees. The experience prompted him to “fall to his knees in humble adoration of his mighty God.”

Too seldom are we struck by “God’s power throughout the universe displayed.” Sometimes we feel his presence when we walk through the “woods and forest glades,” but that night in the Bethlehem fields, the shepherds were thrown to their knees by the brilliance of God’s power, Oh, for the occasional–and even fearful–glimpse of the glory of God as we sing, “How great Thou art!” It’s not a song now–nor was the angels’ chorus then–to be sung without joyful sky-shattering praise.

Advent Thoughts

Saturday, December 18
Luke 2:8

They were just doing their jobs, clad in rough clothing as protection from foul weather, alert to dangers ready to attack their flock. Nothing special about this night. Just ordinary life.

And then God broke in.

Where and when do you most experience the presence of God? In church when the choir sings “O Holy Night” or when the worship band leads in “Majesty, worship his majesty”? Or when you sit with open Bible in candlelight in a special corner of your home? Or when you walk through silent woods?

All special places where God loves to break in, but what about when you’re standing in line at the bank? Or folding that ever-present laundry? Or even at the cancer center with chemotherapy slowly dripping into your veins?

Trish Warren writes in Liturgy of the Ordinary how God can break in the “ordinariness” of life if we are intentionally attentive to his whispers.

Recently I had a day filled with interruption, delays, disappointments, frustrations plus the “ordinary” work of cooking, cleaning, etc. By evening I was physically exhausted, mentally dull, and spiritually…? You can easily guess my spiritual state! It wasn’t until twenty-four hours later as I sat quietly with the the Lord–and yes, I had started that previous day in similar fashion–that I recalled not one moment during that terrible, awful, no good day when I’d intentionally turned my attention to my Father.

The shepherds were startled out of their ordinary night duty by blazing angelic glory. What will it take for me to turn my attention not from the ordinary, but in the ordinary moments of the day? Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God” whether in the kitchen, in conversations, or on his knees. I suspect I need more practice.

Advent Thoughts

Friday, December 17
Luke 2:8

Whether clad in bathrobes at a Sunday school pageant or standing guard in fields outside Bethlehem, shepherds are integral to the birth narrative. This is another of those verses easily overlooked, taken for granted. I love that several versions begin with and or now as Luke turns his–and our–attention from the manger to what is happening in fields surrounding crowded, noisy Bethlehem.

Shepherds often take center stage in Israel’s history. Most notable is David called in from the field to be chosen as king. It’s important to note that young women were also shepherds: Rachel is name and honored, Jethro’s daughters were in the Bethlehem fields long before Luke’s treatise. In the time of the patriarchs, shepherding was a noble occupation, but when Egypt ruled over Israel, shepherds were looked down upon, even despised. By the tine of Jesus’ birth, Randy Alcorn writes, “…shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers…”

We will look further at these evangelist-shepherds (announcers of good news), but for now I want you to look around at the most “unacceptable” people in your community. Is it the unshaven, unwashed, homeless person on the corner? Or the tattooed, pierced purple-haired teen? Or the woman covered in a black hajib? Sit with–perhaps even literally?–the homeless,the teen, the woman for a while. Are you restless, uncomfortable? Do you shift your eyes away? Could you invite them for coffee?

God consistently uses the unlikely for Kingdom work. Abraham was too old, Jacob was a liar, Moses was a stutterer, Rahab was a prostitute, David was a murderer, the Samaritan woman was an outcast, Zacchaeus was too small. God is ready to work through you during these Advent days. Don’t limit yourself. Or God.

Advent Thoughts

Thursday, December 16
Luke 2:6-7a

Once again Luke uses simple words to describe profound circumstances: While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.

Nine months earlier Mary broke out in a song of adoration when Elizabeth blessed her. Did you notice that there is no record of Mary singing now?? Her belly is taut, pain has begun and intensified, sweat drips from her brow. A midwife (or Joseph?) stands nearby with dampened cloth to wipe that sweat, tools to cut the umbilical cord, soft cloths to swaddle the infant. No Gabriel here. This is real life down from the mountaintop of angelic announcement.

After a unique mountaintop spiritual experience that produces not only our verbal praise but also a feeling of exultation (which is what I believe Mary experienced in Elizabeth’s presence), comes life in the valley. We are convinced God led us into a particular area of ministry and can hardly wait for “saved souls.” We’re sure that a new neighborhood will warmly welcome us. Engagement to the most wonderful woman or man on earth seems a sure promise of marital bliss. Following hard after God for a lifetime guarantees a pain/disease-free older age.

Mountaintop experiences are important and valuable. Rich blessings are to be treasured and remembered. But valley life is not only the norm but is ordained by the loving Heavenly Father who says, I will never leave you nor forsake you.

Are you living on a mountain or in a valley this Advent? Are you ready to sing for joy? Or is your brow sweaty from disappointment and discouragement? Is there pain from unavoidable and unexpected circumstances? No matter the road, we can travel well with the promised Immanuel, God with us.