Just a Daily Thought for Advent 2019…week one, December 1-7

December 1… Do Not Be Afraid!

Read Luke 1:26–38   

The first words of Advent… Do not be afraid! These words were echoed to the shepherds who watched their flocks by night, Luke 2:10.  These same words were spoken by Jesus to reinforce the weakening faith his disciples, John 14:1, 27.  In our reading for the day, Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the Son of God. I’ve often thought that this was really a done deal and that the poor girl had little choice in the matter. After all, how can you turn God down? But I realize now that she did have a choice—to surrender to God in trust or to be a fearful and resentful Christ-bearer. Her “favored” position would bring suffering: bearing the shame of a pregnancy out of wedlock and explaining that to Joseph; facing the weight of responsibility of being a mother to God’s Son; experiencing the piercing pain of seeing her son treated like a common criminal and watching him die on the gallows tree.  Imagine how much easier it would have been if God had “favored” her less. Yet, she did not allow fear to drive her to write her own story, but bravely chose to place herself in the hands of God and become a part of his Story of Redemption for the whole world!  “If we should ever become brave what on earth would become of us?”* Mary was brave only because she trusted; because she trusted, she surrendered; because she surrendered, look what became of her—and us, and the entire world!  

*Joy Davidman Lewis (CS Lewis’ wife) On Fear.

Prayer: Lord, I don’t feel very favored because of the things happening in my life right now and may even be feeling some resentment building. Forgive me, Lord; may I learn from Mary that to trust you is to surrender to you so that you will help me find my place in your greater plan for the world. Lord Jesus, help me to see that my pain is really saying “Amen” to your pain for me, and my surrender is saying “Yes” to your surrender for me and my salvation, and that of the whole world. AMEN and YES!

December 2… Bowing Low Before the King

Read: Philippians 2:5-11   

Advent manifests the humility of God who was made flesh for us in Jesus Christ. He who was the very Royalty of Heaven became a poor mortal. As Athanasius said, “He became like unto us that we might become like unto Him.” There is a wonderful hymn, unfamiliar to most evangelicals, with words taken from a prayer written in the fourth century. This prayer was used by the Orthodox Church in Constantinople and still recited by Orthodox Christians to this day. The tune is based on a French carol melody called Picardy. It was translated from the Greek in 1864.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

And so Advent reminds us that we mortals must bow in humility before the One who bowed low to become our Savior. Pride, hubris, power, and self-proclaimed righteousness have no place before the One who emptied Himself for us. How can we ever think that our earthly credentials could ever impress or gain entrance to the Courts of Heaven?

Prayerfully meditate on this hymn: https://youtu.be/8wl4u8lnDQs

December 3… God Wrapped in the Ordinary

Read: Hebrews 2:14-18    

ET INCARNATUS EST DE SPIRITU SANCTO EX MARIA VIRGINE: ET HOMO FACTUS EST.    And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary: and was made man.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory of the One and Only God, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Most of us would agree that these are among the most important words that a Christian can utter.  But most of us would also find it unusual if we got very excited about them.  We would like to; with every fiber of our being we would love to shout WOW!!! Unfortunately, such a mystery awakens within most of us little more than a yawn, “Oh, that’s nice.”

Before we rake ourselves over the coals of shame and guilt, I would say that such a bland reaction to a glorious truth is part of the fabric of being human.  It is very difficult to keep things straight, to keep the really important things of life on the top of the list and the little things of life on the bottom.  Most of the time the choice between a Big Mac and Quarter Pounder with cheese looms more important to us than the choice between Heaven and Hell.  The whisperings of our friends at school and the what they think of us seem more important than the trumpet-blast of the prophets telling us what God thinks of us.  Alas, we humans have a very difficult time keeping things straight.

That isn’t all.  We humans do not have the ability to stay very excited about anything for long.  Whether it is some incredible grief, some great joy, some ravishing mystery we cannot sustain that emotion for long.  If you lose a loved one, you cannot cry all day; you have to stop and eat a sandwich, change your underwear, sweep the kitchen floor.  If you fall in love and are swooned into some state of ecstasy, you still have to look for your keys, brush your teeth, go to work.  In neither case does it mean that you don’t care, or that these things no longer matter.  It simply means that you’re human and you can’t sustain a particular emotion for very long.

So it is with our ability to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation- God becoming man in Jesus Christ.  The importance of this event is staggering.  “The Word became flesh…” The Eternal God took up residence in a human body within the confines of human history.  The One, who was of the same stuff as God, the Father, became the same stuff as us.  What do you think it was like to be a disciple of Jesus?  What do you think you would see if you looked at him?  Do you think you’d be blinded by that halo around his head?  Do you think you’d see him doing card tricks around the supper table at night?  Do you think you’d see someone with boundless energy, who never tired, never slept, never cried, and never raised his voice?  I don’t think so, that’s not the impression I get when I read the gospel accounts.  Jesus was not God masquerading as a human; he was truly human.

In many respects his disciples were in a relationship with a very ordinary man.  On the other hand John reported and we beheld his glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.  By his actions, by his character and by the words that he spoke they came to believe that he was God in human flesh.  John spoke of Jesus this way, in another letter he wrote: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim to you concerning the Word of Life (1 John 1:1).

Isn’t that fascinating?  God wrapped Himself in the ordinariness of human flesh.  The disciples were not typically overwhelmed by the glory of Jesus.  They were not transfixed in some permanent state of awe.  They walked with him, talked with him, got ticked at him, touched him, and ate with him, slept in the same room with him.  Yet, in the midst of life they beheld his glory.

And so, the mystery of the incarnation hasn’t been given to us by God “to rivet us into a paralysis of adoration” (Tom Howard), but so that we might experience the reality of God in our flesh, in the midst of the ordinariness of life.  The shepherds went back to tending their flocks.  The wise men went back to that far away land.  We come to the manger once a year to contemplate the baby Jesus and to celebrate his birth.  But we must also go back to our everyday lives — back to grind, to the sorrow, to the silence and sleepless nights — and there we must behold his glory, that he is with us and will never leave us.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me not to wait for a moment of ecstasy or beatific vision in order to worship and live for you. May I worship you in the ordinary things of life; may I serve you as I do simple things for the ordinary people around me; may I worship you in your hiddenness knowing that some day all the world will see what I see now by faith, and that every knee shall bow before your Majesty and Glory. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

December 4… Benedictus 

Read Luke 1:68-79

You have just read Zechariah’s psalm or song which contains keen prophetic insight.  It is one of the four canticles or songs in Luke’s gospel. Each named according to the first word (Latin) in the songs: Mary’s song (Magnificat, my soul magnifies the Lord), Simeon’s song (Nunc Dimittis, now dismiss your servant), the Angels’ song (Nolite Timere, do not be afraid), and Zechariah’s song (Benedictus, Praise to the Lord).  Let’s look a little more closely at Zechariah’s song because it sets forth some characteristics of the kind of people we ought to be.

This song was sung by a mature and pious man who still had a lot to learn about God. It shows us that no matter what level of spiritual maturity we have obtained, we still need to grow. Perhaps Zechariah’s heart had grown indifferent towards God, because of the routines of ministry or being a priest and thinking he knew pretty much everything. Maybe he was preoccupied with his own life circumstances and a little angry that he had not been blessed with a child after all he had done for God.  How many of us who have been Christians for a long time have stopped learning and growing, and have become indifferent towards God?

Do you ever look back at a previous time in your life when you were more passionate about your faith than you are now?  Maybe you have some lingering issues with God and feel he has not dealt fairly with you after all your years of service. What will it take for you to have a growth spurt and to sing your own Benedictus?

Zechariah grew by keeping his mouth shut, listening to the Word of God, and then obeying it.  This seems to be a spiritual principle in times of uncertainty.  Psalm 46:10, Be still and know that I am God. When was the last time you kept your mouth shut in God’s presence, just listened to Him speak through His Word, and then said, “yes sir.”

This song was sung by a man who was striving to understand his time-bound circumstances over against the timeless coming of the Messiah. At that time, Israel was dominated by the iron hand of Rome. Zechariah catches a vision that God was going to give him a son, John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the Messiah. This Messiah, Jesus Christ, would redeem his people and save them from their enemies and all who hated them. Zechariah had this perspective that God’s salvation was both spiritual and physical—redemption from sin and deliverance from the abusive power of Rome.

This Advent season 2019, our concerns differ from those of Zechariah’s. We may not fear Rome, but we may fear the economy, the turbulent political situation and the direction of our nation, home-grown terrorism, the greatest refugee crisis since WW2, racial injustice, and gang violence on the streets of our cities. We may fear our own life-dominating issues such as disease, substance abuse, sexual addiction, or marriage and family crises.  Jesus Christ has come in order to save us from our sin, to deliver us from those things that dominate us, and to usher in a kingdom where peace, righteousness, and justice reign.

Pie in the sky? Ted Turner once said, “Almost every religion talks about a savior coming.  When you look in the mirror in the morning, you’re looking at the savior.  Nobody else is going to save you but yourself.” (Christian Century, Dec. 20-27, 2000) The reality is that most people in time will have the bottom drop out of their lives and will soon realize that they cannot save themselves.  Most will feel overwhelmed because they live in such a crazy world where there really are no safe places or super heroes who will save them. But to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, because of His tender mercies, God has sent a Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.  And when we acknowledge our trust in Christ, even though things are not yet perfect and there is a lot of pain yet to be faced, we can still sing Praise to the Lord…because He has redeemed His people and has raised up salvation for us from the house of his servant David…to rescue us from the hand of our enemies and to enable us to serve him without fear.

This song was sung by a man who believed in a God who keeps His Promise. In fact, three of the four songs of Luke’s gospel revolve around the theme of God keeping His Promise. Mary acknowledged that through the birth of Messiah, God was remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever. When Simeon saw the Christ child, he said, Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, now dismiss your servant in peace. And Zechariah praised God because, in the Messiah, He was granting salvation for the house of David as he said through his holy prophets long ago… remember(ing) his covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham.God keep His promises.  In fact Zechariah’s name means “God remembers” and Elizabeth’s name means “God’s oath.”

It had been 400 years since God last spoke to Israel through the prophets.  His last words were, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5, 6), and here in John the Baptist, was the fulfillment of that prophecy. Jesus called him the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:14). We can also be assured that even though it has been 2,000 years since Jesus said that He was going to return, God will remember His Promise. God is not slack in keeping his promise…He is being patient…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

In your time of prayer: lay out those concerns which are so burdensome and overwhelming to you; then submit them one by one to a God who has covenanted himself to you in Jesus Christ and has promised never to leave your or forsake you. 

December 5… People Who Missed Christmas

Read Micah 5:1-4  

I remember watching an old Alfred Hitchcock thriller many years ago about a banker, a very quiet man who lived a very private life with no family or friends with whom to share it. His work was his life; always the first one at the bank in the morning, making sure the vault clicked open for the day, and he was the last one to leave in the evening, doing inventory and making sure the vault was locked.

He worked every day, taking no time off because there was nothing else in his life but his work. The one exception was Christmas; he always took Christmas off. He would seclude himself in his tiny apartment and cook himself dinner. He would then eat, sitting by his scraggily Charlie Brown Christmas tree watching old movies on his 12-inch black and white TV, and drinking his yearly glass of beer.

Well, it was Christmas Eve and the bank closed at noon. He was looking forward to going home for his yearly ritual, but ended up staying at the bank until 4 pm doing extra work since no one would be working the next day. He was a bit distracted by this change in routine, and as he took all the cash into the vault he carelessly forgot to prop the door open. It slowly closed behind him with a loud thud and a “click.” He was locked in and the vault door was set not to open again until the day after Christmas. And there he sat all alone in the dark. He was used to being alone, but not like this. He had no food or water — he was just alone.

The day after Christmas finally came and the vault clicked open. He dragged himself to the bathroom to clean up and get water and then to his desk where he kept some stale biscuits. The other employees began to arrive and noticed he looked a bit haggard, but no one greeted him or asked how his Christmas was. He was glad no one cared because then he would have to tell them that he missed Christmas altogether.

There are some folks in the Bible who also missed Christmas, but for different reasons…

Although there is no mention of an innkeeper in the Christmas story, we do know there was an inn of some sort. So, we assume there was a man or woman who ran the place. Also, we do not want to unfairly criticize the owner because it wasn’t his fault that Caesar Augustus had declared a census, which made the little town of Bethlehem swell to several times its normal size. In his defense, he was probably overwhelmed with work which only people who own their own business would understand. Someone has said that it feels like “being lost in a forest of a million trees, and each tree is a thing to be done. A million trees…a million things and finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into that thing.”

Do you indentify with the innkeeper? Is your favorite Christmas carol “O little town of Bedlam?” Is your life just too frenzied and cluttered that you are tyrannized by the urgent and no longer have time for the important? No, we don’t want to criticize the owner, but we do want to point out that the Messiah was born right under his nose and to our knowledge, he didn’t even know it. He was so busy, he missed Christmas

Herod the Great was a man who could not brook any competition. History tells us that he murdered at least one wife and at least three of his sons. People said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a member of his family. So we can understand why he was so upset when the Magi visited and said there was another king in the region- they had seen his star. Herod hatched a maniacal plan to destroy all the male infants in Bethlehem. Here is a man who was probably 70 yrs. old and was threatened by a baby. So let me ask you whether your self-centeredness will make you miss Christmas this year? You may be struggling because there is room for only one king in your life and perhaps you see Christ as your competitor. Are you trying to snuff him out by a cynical or uncaring attitude towards Christianity? Are you afraid of Christ because of what he might demand? Let me ask you one more question” “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Well, the innkeeper missed Christmas and Herod missed Christmas; there was another whole group of people who also missed the birth of Jesus. These were the Jewish religious leaders that Herod had called upon to tell him where the Messiah was to be born. They immediately referred to the prophecy in Micah 5:2, which said it would be in Bethlehem in the land of Judah, where a ruler would be born who would become the Shepherd of God’s people Israel. These men knew chapter and verse, but they did not even go and investigate. They were religious and yet they missed Christmas.

Religion has not only prevented people from finding Jesus, but has often been used to justify Crusades, Holocausts, and Jihads.  Even in our own history as a country, the Bible was used as a justification for slavery. You see, sometimes religion creates a kind of blindness or builds a certain immunity against the real thing. Maybe you are religious, but the question is do you know Jesus Christ?  Are you substituting religion for the real thing — a relationship with him? If you are, then you’ll miss Christmas this year and every year to come.

Let me challenge you not to become locked in the vault of busy-ness, self-interest, or religion. Instead, learn from Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Guys, that Christmas is about Jesus. He is the Child born and the Son given (Isaiah 9:6).

A suggestion for application: Spend some time in prayer for those people in your life who may miss the real meaning of Christmas this year because of things taking place in their lives. Pray for yourself as well that the Lord will teach you one thing about himself that you have never known or realized.

December 6… Wait! Gloom is not Final; Darkness is Not Absolute!

Read: Isaiah 9:1-7 

Did you ever stop to think how much of your life you have spent waiting for something? In fact, over the course of your lifetime you will spend at least five years waiting in lines and two years just trying to get in touch with people by telephone. You can also look forward to spending eight months opening nothing but junk mail and six whole months sitting and staring at traffic lights that refuse to turn green. In fact, if in order to get to work, your time behind the wheel or on the train averages 60 minutes a day, you will spend six 40-hour work weeks just getting yourself to and from your workplace (taken from Jeff Davidson, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Time[New York: Alpha Books, 1995.]). That is a lot of waiting!

Speaking of waiting, how would you like to wait 800 years for God to fulfill His Promise in sending the Messiah? That is about how long the people to whom Isaiah wrote Isaiah 9:1-7 had to wait for Christmas, in the face of a gathering darkness over their culture because they had turned their backs on God.

In 8:21, 22, Isaiah described a nation that was experiencing emptiness and dissatisfaction (loss of meaning and hope); a nation angry and cursing their government and their God because they believed that no one cared.  Does this sound like our nation? America is filled with people who have diametrically opposed political vision calling down doomsday curses on those who do not agree with them. Many spout love for country and patriotism, while on the inside they are angry and empty people living in fear and anxiety. They resemble the Hollow Menin TS Eliot’s poem… “We are the hallow men, we are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw, our dried voices are quiet and meaningless… we are shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without meaning… hollow men, stuffed men.” When we (individual or nation) run from God, we run from meaning and hope and light into darkness and confusion.

Yet, it was in such a cultural context that Isaiah 9 wrote “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan– The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

Matthew quoted this Scripture in Matt 4:15, 16 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a Messianic fulfillment. However, the Matthew text not only refers to the area of northern Galilee where the ancient tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were once located, but also to a more specific region called “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was the region in which many non-Jews lived; those who were despised by the majority Jewish religion, and seen as having no hope and living in spiritual darkness. Thus Matthew saw the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of Messiah coming not only to a run-away culture, but also to those most hopeless, most benighted—those “walking in the darkness,” those “living in the shadow of death.” It is upon these that the great light of Messiah will shine.

And so we see the Promise over against the waiting here in Isaiah 9; the gloom is not final and the darkness is not absolute. A light will shine, life will come, hollow men will become real, hungry people will be filled, and thirsty people will be satisfied. Because… A child will be born, a Son will be given. His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace and His government will never end.

Christmas was promised 800 years before it was fulfilled. Against the darkness of national tragedy and personal humiliation there was a Promise of the Coming of Jesus Christ; a light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sadness, victory in the face of defeat. I love this because it is an example of the very pattern of God to show up just when we think things are beyond hope. It is in the darkness that the light shines most clearly. It is in the presence of death that we see most powerfully experience the hope of eternal life. Martin Luther saw this pattern in the crucifixion: it was at the moment of greatest darkness and despair for the disciples that God was doing his greatest work. Luther called it the “Theology of the Cross.”

And so, if in this Advent season you are at the end of your rope and feel there is no hope left. “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you… ” (Isaiah 60:1-3) A child has been born, a son has been given and God may be doing a great work in your life! Remember the Cross!

Prayer: Heavenly Father, how can I ever again lose myself in the darkness of discouragement and despair knowing that you are a God who has shattered the darkness in Christ. Let me always remember the cross; that when you were most silent you were most present, and when it seemed most dark and hopeless, it was then you were going your greatest work. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

December 7… God of the Stars; God of the Brokenhearted

Read: Psalm 147:1-11

The Incarnation: God became flesh and dwelt among us. The infinite, eternal God became one of us and fully entered into our human situation so that he might redeem us. I think we still have this mythological notion that if we are facing difficulties, feeling depressed and experiencing life’s unfairness then our Christmas will be ruined. I’m going to make a bold statement; it isn’t until we do experience these things that we will understand the true nature of the incarnation; that the God of the Stars has become the God of the brokenhearted.

The birth of Christ was revealed to the outcast, the old, the brokenhearted, and the dispossessed. This is the truth of the Christmas Story: God stooped so low in Jesus that no one is excluded from his grasp.

I want to take you back to Christmas Eve 1944. The place is the Dachau concentration camp where a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, has been held prisoner for seven years because of his involvement in the Confessing Church. Niemoller was the man who wrote the now famous “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Trade Unionist. The they came for the Jews and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.” Listen as Pastor Niemoller preaches to his congregation of skeleton-like figures huddled around him in their cold-dark bunk room:

God, the eternally wealthy and almighty God, enters into the most extreme human poverty imaginable. No man is so weak and helpless that God does not come to him in Jesus Christ, right in the midst of our human need; no man is so forsaken and homeless in this world that God does not seek him, in the midst of our human distress…This is what is so singularly peculiar in the Christian message of salvation, which tells us, “You need not go to search for God; you should not imagine that he is far from you and is not concerned with what crushes you! He is here and is close to you in the man who, as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, was lying in a manger. All your need is so far from being alien to him that on the contrary he gave himself freely to bear it with you.” Whoever can grasp this in faith is not forsaken in prison and in death; for in the worst darkness he may say, ‘Thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me.

It is the people who walk in darkness who will see a great light. It the people who live in a land of deep darkness who will have a light shine upon them. (paraphrase of Isa. 9:2). O Blessed Incarnation!

Thinking more deeply: Imagine yourself as a prisoner in Dachau listening to Pastor Niemoller preach. (The entire message at https://nickvoss.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/christmas-eve-1944/amp/ ) What is it that would have given you hope then? Is it the same thing that sustains you now?