Sunday, December 19
“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.
Saturday, December 18
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.
Friday, December 17
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.
Thursday, December 16
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.
Wednesday, December 15
So Joseph also went up… I’m impressed by how Joseph’s life unfolds step by step as he humbly bows in submission to God’s plan for his wife. Although he had no choice but to obey Caesar’s decree, was there ever the thought, “Oh no, this on top of everything else? Will it never end?”
Just five words begin the description of Joseph’s action, and the first is a word too easily overlooked: SO. One language expert writes, “To begin with ‘so’…is to signal that the coming words are chosen for their relevance to the listener.”
I’m also impressed by how many times we find SO–and the subsequent relevant words–in the Bible. Here in Joseph’s case we find another step of obedience, a step God uses in the fulfillment of his plan. In Micah’s prophecy of the destruction and eventual restoration of Israel is hidden the message that small Bethlehem will be the birthplace of the Messiah. SO Joseph went up… Did Joseph know the prophecy? Or was he just walking in the dailiness of life, leaving the unknown future to God? That two-letter word (in English) is also used in Genesis when God calls Abraham to a future unbelievably grand. SO Abram went as the Lord told him… (Genesis 12:1-3).
When you first obediently bowed to God’s will, whether as a child quite simply loving Jesus with all your heart, or later in life when you made a studied decision to be his follower, it’s unlikely God showed you the entire path that lay ahead. But he still has a plan that begins with that small word. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, SO that we should walk in them (Ephesian 2:10). How and where are you walking this Advent? How do you feel about taking the next step when the way is clouded with indecision? Let SO be your word for today.
Tuesday, December 14
Mary and Joseph have slowly learned to live with each other. It’s likely they both experience apprehension at what lies ahead, but Joseph continues to work in his shop while Mary draws water at the well, prepares meals, sewing for the expected child. As the baby grows within her, her body changes, her back aches, her sleep is disturbed. Have the families “come around” as they often do when circumstances aren’t understood or approved but when a baby is on the way?
And then the unexpected, inviolable news trickles from Rome to Nazareth. The Caesar has declared that everyone in the Roman word will be counted. This isn’t an option, something to be debated, no recall of local or national leaders is allowed, no exceptions granted. And this isn’t a mail-in ballot procedure. In order for the count to be official, everyone must go to their ancestral “headquarters,” and since Joseph belonged to the house and line of David, they prepared for the ninety-mile journey to Bethlehem. We’re unsure exactly when in Mary’s pregnancy they began their trek, despite poignant pictures of pregnant Mary on a donkey, but for all who’ve experienced pregnancy travel, it’s undeniable that this definitely wasn’t the preferred time to be on the road.
The narrative of Jesus’ birth and life is filled with the unexpected. With the exception of a few people like Simeon and Anna whose faith remained firm because they believed the prophecies of old, Jesus–then and now–brings us to the point where, to some degree and at some point, human understanding and logical expectations are suspended and we step into the unknown.
Both Mary and Joseph had the benefit of angelic announcement. Today we live by faith, the faith described as being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). Their journey–and ours–are not promised to be without discomfort or pain, but joy and fulfillment are guaranteed. At some time. At some place.
Monday, December 13
Each of the gospel writers has a specific purpose or emphasis, and these verses–inserted between the angel’s message and Joseph’s response–are among the first to highlight Matthew’s intent: to prove that Jesus Christ is Israel’s long-awaited and promised Messiah.
When the angel appeared to Joseph, the message contained several important points: Joseph need not fear accepting Mary into his home, the conception was not of man but of the Holy Spirit, Mary will have a baby boy, Joseph is to name the child Jesus, and Jesus will be the Savior. But then Matthew confirms to his readers that all this is to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 7:14).
This doesn’t astound us as it should, as it did to first-century Christians. God will break into centuries of separation between people and himself. No longer need God-followers travel to a tent or temple. No longer will they wait outside to hear from God–as they did during Zechariah’s service–but God will somehow mysteriously be WITH them.
God is not a philosophy or concept though we sometimes reduce him to that. He is not an untouchable “being.” Not an idea to be discussed. Not untouched by my joy, sorrow, care, celebration. The words in John 1:14 are a theological foundation for us. The Word (Christ) became flesh and and lived among us; and we [actually] saw His glory, glory as belongs to the [One and] only begotten Son of the Father… (Amplified Version). But Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase stops me in my tracks. The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.
It’s time to stop for a few minutes. How can you best see Jesus with you? Place a chair nearby, close your eyes, remove all distractions, ask God’s Spirit to help you see Jesus in that chair. What difference would it make if this practice became a daily habit? Try it for the remaining days of Advent!
Sunday, December 12
Matthew 1:20, 21, 24
What do you do when God speaks? Although no angel is mentioned, Paul clearly understood that the night-time message was from God (Acts 16:9-10), a message that changed the trajectory of his mission. An angel appears in a burning bush to Moses and he fearfully hides (Exodus 3:2-6). Peter’s story (Acts 12:6-10) is almost humorous as he sleeps, chained between two guards, at least sixteen Roman soldiers nearby, sentries at the entrance when an angel awakens him by poking him to semi-consciousness.
In all cases, action follows the message although Moses is slow and Peter seems a bit sluggish: Peter followed…but had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening… Matthew records Joseph’s reaction tersely: When Joseph woke up, the did what the angel commanded him…
Envision the scene and make it human. After a momentous experience, whether filled with joy or sorrow, most of us don’t bound out of bed, filled with purpose, plans made and immediately carried out. Did Joseph rub his eyes, wondering if it was really an angel’s voice he heard? Why would God intervene in a plan he had carefully, even lovingly, considered? How did the angel know he harbored fear? Did he reach for a crust of bread, piece of fruit, a few olives before going to Mary with this new news? Was the house he’d been building ready for them? Are you in the story?
Whatever Joseph’s actions that morning, Matthew wants us to know the intent of his heart was obedience. God sometimes gives us clear guidance, even details about his plans. Other times–in fact, I believe most times–he asks us to trust him enough to get up and obey. Joseph will hear the voice of God at other crucial moments, but perhaps this is practice for the future?
What have you been hearing lately? How are you responding?
Saturday, December 11
She walked into the Bonn church each Sunday with regal bearing, her snowy white hair a crown. It was some time before we heard her World War II harrowing story–family separation, loss of goods, husband imprisoned by the enemy, forfeiture of status, falling from position in aristocracy to maid in a house she once visited as a favored guest.
But it was during a spirited discussion that we saw a deep-rooted faith that carried her through circumstances that swamped others. The theologically liberal group leader was giving his well-documented opinion on the existence of angels, or what he considered their non-existence. As though the usually quiet woman could be silent no longer, Frau von H. spoke up with quiet dignity to share undeniable stories of how she personally experienced the presence of life saving angelic activity during the war.
After what had been a day (or more?) of earth-shaking revelation about his well-planned, orderly future, and probably only after much tossing and turning, Joseph finally lays down his head in exhaustion. He had thoughtfully considered all the alternatives and come to a decision that would save Mary from public disgrace although he knew that both of them would be forever changed.
Into the darkness of the night and the darkness of his soul comes an angel with a message of unmistakable clarity. We have no evidence that Joseph and the angel discussed the issue. Did Joseph fall into seamless, dreamless sleep after the angel left? We don’t know.
Unlike our Bonn friend, I’ve never experienced the presence of an angel, but when God has a message so life altering that only a heavenly being is adequate for the plan, God acts. When Advent closes and Christ is born, we will see that God again calls angels–choirs of them–for the celebration. Will I see them? Will I hear them?
Friday, December 10
In my translation of this text, only twenty-one words are used to describe the most critical decision of Joseph’s life. Do not move on before re-reading those words several times, and even better, examine the words in several translations or paraphrases.
Write down answers to these questions. How does Matthew describe Joseph’s primary character trait? How did that trait influence Joseph’s action? What was Joseph’s principal concern? What is Joseph’s decision? How did he arrive at that decision?
Because translators use few words to describe the scene, we’re tempted to pass over this momentous situation and move on with the story. But is there something here worth digging into? How can Joseph’s character, decision making, compassion become a mirror for our own lives this Advent? I believe Matthew’s succinct portrayal doesn’t fully describe how long is the scene, nor the possibility of tears, the questions, the silences. Matthew may somewhat rob the scene of emotion but upon careful reflection, we can feel it. Everything he believed about Mary–and perhaps about God?–is now up for question. Who can he trust? What will be the cost no matter his decision? Although we don’t discover it until we overhear the angel, Joseph is also afraid. He certainly didn’t intend to be a stepfather.
The text says he had in mind to divorce her quietly… Joseph comes to a decision. He had in mind means he now chooses, determines, plans, decides, intends to take action that will neither shame nor disgrace Mary.
toRecall a decision you once faced that you knew would drastically change–or decidedly alter–your life. How did you make the decision? Would you change your reasoning now? Where did God “fit” into your decision-making process? How does he fit in your decisions this Advent, particularly as those decisions influence the people near you? Your answers may change your future. And the future of others.