Monday, December 31, 2018


Today, more than any other day of the year, we confess that we live with eyes for tomorrow. We confess that we are looking ahead to fresh starts, to new opportunities, to the first morning of a new year. Yes, tomorrow...

Tomorrow, we will do the things we want to do today. Tomorrow, we will begin the things we should have started long ago. Tomorrow, we will wake up with new eyes and a fresh vision. And, by the grace of God, it seems, a new hope. 

Today, the whole world revolves around tomorrow. 

And this is one of the constant challenges, one of the ongoing struggles for Christians, both now and in the world to come. We live with eyes for tomorrow, and we can live with eyes for tomorrow so strongly that we spend all of today looking at it. 

For a lot of Christians, the best, most awesome, most important thing God is ever going to do comes "tomorrow." It comes after death. It comes at eternity. It comes when this life is over and a new life has begun, when our eyes close and then open again to a new vision, a new hope. A promise fulfilled that has finally come to life. 

At the same time, while we prepare for this kind of tomorrow, it feels so wholly other that it doesn't seem to have a lot of relevance to today. just feels like wasted space. Today just feels like one more period of time to slog through. Today just seems like, well, like today, when tomorrow is where it's at. 

So most of us don't bother living today like we want to live tomorrow. We don't invest today's energies into the kind of eternity that we want to have. We don't live with hope and faith and joy and love because that stuff? That stuff's for tomorrow. Today is just today. 

And we're missing it. 

We're missing today. We're missing our chance to get a jump start on things. We're missing our chance to make today our tomorrow, to make this day our day for new things. For fresh starts and new opportunities and the first morning of the rest of our lives. We're missing a whole period of time in which we could be living like tomorrow is already come, and in doing so, we're missing out on the glory of today and everything that it offers. 

All for a tomorrow that isn't here yet. 

It's the challenge of being a faithful people. It's the challenge of knowing what tomorrow brings but being stuck as sojourners yet today. 

But the dirty little secret this world, with all its clocks and calendars and schedules, doesn't want you to know is that today has just as much hope as tomorrow. It always has. 

The question we have to ask ourselves, as people of the greatest hope, is, what are we waiting for? What do we think we can do tomorrow that we can't do today? 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Discernment Required

Of course, when we talk about engaging the culture and going into the world to make the Gospel known (without sacrificing what it is that is special and sacred about the church, even in the fallen world), we do not mean that we should go out and do anything and everything that the world is doing in the hopes that we might be able to turn it around and make it into good for them. 

For example, when we talk about being the church in a bar, we do not mean that we should go out and sit at the bar and drink all day. Or even that we must drink at all. But our choosing not to drink does not mean that we should not go into a bar in the first place; there is plenty of great ministry that can be done there. And in fact, we may even find one of our brothers and sisters there, struggling with an addiction that we never could have seen on Sunday morning. Thus, going into the bar puts us in the place to help him or her.

If we can't go into a whorehouse without our eyes being tempted, we shouldn't go into the whorehouse at all.

We should not go into a drug house and start shooting up or snorting or whatever kind of drugs the people are doing these days. We should not involve ourselves in that kind of behavior. But that does not mean that we do not go into the drug house at all, ever, for any reason. In fact, there is plenty of good that we can do in a place like that.

When I was a young teenager, I was serving on a mission trip in north-central Ohio when a little boy, six years old, would show up at my work site every day. All he wanted was a bite of our food, so we started packing a little extra in the morning and giving up each a little bit of our allotment to make sure this young boy had food. One day, a man we assumed to be his dad rode by on a bike and cursed at him for being there, but told him not to go home because his "mom was shooting up." One day, we followed him home and found a house that didn't even look like a child lived there - no front door, just an open hole; beer bottles and needles everywhere outside and in; trash covering the floors. Not a single toy in sight. 

So we bought the kid a ball. And a real sandwich. And we cleaned up his yard and whatever part of the house the adults present would allow us. 

Not once did any of us actually take a drug. 

See, we can go into the broken places of the world and do incredible, amazing, sacred, simple things without getting ourselves caught in the trappings of sin.

But it takes discernment. It takes wisdom. It takes knowing what we're getting into and how we're going about it and our own strengths and weaknesses. 

We should not, for example, put ourselves in danger, either physically or socially. We should not be part of things that could get us arrested, injured, killed, or the like. If you know you have an addictive personality and could be tempted by a drink, you probably shouldn't go into the bar at all. But that kind of temptation is few and far between; most of us would be okay in the bar if we could get past our self-righteousness to pull the door open. 

If you know that someone you're trying to minister to is about to make a major mistake or commit a violent crime, don't get in the car this time. If you're even in the car when they pull the trigger, you're just as guilty as they are of murder in many states. That doesn't mean you don't ever get in the car with them - or that you don't get out of the car if you get wind of something - but it means you pay attention and are able to discriminate when is a good time for outreach and when you're putting yourself at undue risk. 

Discernment is actually our biggest problem when it comes to engaging the world. It's why we set ourselves apart and refuse to engage in any of it. It's why we draw our lines so high and refuse to step down. Most of us just don't exert the energy necessary to develop the wisdom to know how the world works so that we can work in it; we'd rather just be saints and leave the sinners to it. We'd rather pretend that we're so far above all that that it doesn't even make sense to us. 

But really, we just don't know. We don't care enough to know. We don't love God's children enough to know. So we're missing our chance. 

Yes, we ought to go into the world, but not blindly and not foolishly. We go as messengers, sent by God to the dark places to bring light. After all, what good is your fire if there's no darkness? 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

In the World

Of course, if we really want to be more like Paul, then we need to work on how we engage the world. It absolutely must be off-limits to bring the world into the church, and especially to set it at center-stage, but that does not mean that we should be off-limits to the world. Too many Christians believe that the best way to engage the world is to separate from it, to be wholly other...all the time. They don't even tell their kids about Santa, don't participate in holiday parties (for many holidays), refuse to enter a bar, don't drink or smoke or chew or kiss those who do. 

But the answer to the world is not to pretend that we're better than it. We cannot pretend that we're perfect. And we cannot pretend that we aren't human.

If we do, we put the emphasis on us, not on Jesus. We set up the idea that we have it all together and that's why Jesus loves us, rather than Jesus loving us and helping us get it together. 

Not only that, but we set up an impossible standard for Jesus, one that we know (whether we admit it or not) He doesn't meet. Those outside the church look at us and think, gosh, their Jesus makes their lives perfect. They never have any troubles, always have enough food and money, don't have to worry about anything. And then they come to Jesus and find that their lives are pretty much the same. Redeemed, but day-to-day? The same. And they think there must be really nothing to this Jesus. 

He's just not all He's cracked up to be. 

And that's what Paul's talking about. He says that he became all things to all people in the hopes that he might save some. What he means is that he let others see the sides of him that they needed to see. If they needed to see someone with questions, he asked his questions out loud. If they needed to see someone with faith, he spoke boldly about what he believed. If they needed to see someone who loved, he loved them and the least among them in visible ways. If they needed to see someone grieve, he grieved publicly. If they needed to see someone still wrestling with the imperfect world, he wrestled. If they needed to know that Jesus doesn't fix everything right away, he bragged about his trials and weaknesses. Whatever someone needed to see about the Christian faith, it is that that Paul put on display. 

Which means that none of the human experience was foreign to Paul, and he didn't pretend that it was. 

That's a lot of our problem. We like to pretend we're above all that. We don't want to admit that we're just as much in this world as anybody else. We like to pretend that we are no longer human, no longer susceptible to life in the flesh. But the truth is...we are. 

We need to get better at letting the world see that. We need to stop thinking that what they need to see is a perfect life because Jesus is perfect. What this world really needs to see is our messy lives that point to a perfect Savior. And yes, they do. 

When we're down and out, Jesus is up and at 'em. When we're grieving, Jesus is comfort. When we're lost, Jesus finds us. When we're joyous, He rejoices with us.

We spend so much of our time wanting the world to see who we are "in Christ," but the real question is, how is the world ever supposed to see who Christ is if we're not honest about who we are "in flesh"? 

May we be a real people, a vulnerable people, an authentic people. In the world, but not of the world. Not afraid of the world, but wholly engaging it. Not separating ourselves, but diving in. Being a part of the human race, a part of God's people, a part of all people, embracing what it means to be here, to live here, to love here. That's what the world needs to see of us. 

So that they may see Him. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Engaging the Culture

Hopefully, at some point over the past few days, you've had the opportunity to partake of a church service designed to celebrate the Christmas event, the miraculous birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Hopefully, that service did not include Santa Claus or elves or reindeer. 

But that's not a given.

More and more, as our churches are trying to bridge the gap between culture and Christ, we find ourselves in a tough spot around things like this. Many churches have gone the acculturation route and decided, hey, if it gets people in our doors, we're all for it. And they've adopted Santa for Christmas. In some churches, he even preached the sermon - standing right next to the manger. 

Churches have their staff dress as elves and hand out gifts. Or dance around on stage. They bring in live reindeer for children to pet. Hey, there were animals in the manger, right? We're just...modifying the story a little bit to get more butts in the seats. 

I will not mince words: if this is the kind of church service you're attending, you're attending the wrong kind of church service. And pastors, if this is the kind of church service you're pastoring, you're doing it wrong. 

There is something to be said for using the culture to engage the world, but we have to be careful about how much we let the culture creep into the church itself. It's a far different thing to host a cultural Christmas event inside your building than it is to have a cultural Christmas service that's meant to glorify and worship Jesus. 

If the world walks into our church and sees something not fundamentally different than they see when they walk into Wal-Mart, what's the point? Why should they be attracted to our church? Why should they come back after Christmas? If we're no different at all than the world that we live in, except that we offer eternal salvation at whatever price you choose to pay for it, we have cheapened not only the Cross of Christ, but the birth of Him, as well. Particularly in this season. 

The argument, of course, is Paul. Paul was a master at cultural contextualization. He went to the hill where the Greeks were worshiping all of their gods and used one of their own statues as an entry point into the Gospel. He said that he became all things to all people in the hopes that he might save some. Shouldn't we do the same?

Yes, but no. We have sold ourselves, and our churches, out in an effort to be all things to all people, and in doing so, we have become nothing at all.

You'll notice that when Paul engaged the Greeks at the worship of their own gods, he did not then drag those god statues into the synagogue or into the church and set them up so that he could bring the people with him. He didn't change the fundamental nature of the church into all things to all people; he only changed what he was doing. The message he preached was spot on. The Christ he proclaimed was non-negotiable. Jesus was never buried or hidden or wrapped in culture. 

He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and a crown of thorns. Every time. 

That's just not the case the way we're doing it. I think sometimes, our churches get more enamored with the idea that the people ought to love our churches than we are with the idea that the people ought to love our Christ. We think we have to get them to be part of our churches before we can get them to know and love our Christ. 

So we work really hard to make our churches "relevant" and "cutting-edge" and "seeker-sensitive," which are all nice, clean, church-y ways to say..."cultural." We make our churches an event, and we push aside the Christ event (whatever the season) for our own sake. We'll hook them later, we say. Right now, we just have to get them in. 

Ho, ho, ho. 

You want to know the truth? I mean, can I tell you something? If we can get the people to love our Christ, they'll come to our churches. If we tell them who He is, really put Him on display, they won't be able to resist. There's always been something compelling about our Lord; we don't need to wrap that up in any kind of programs. 

Preach the Gospel. Proclaim the Lord. Love people. Extend grace. Offer forgiveness. Be present. Be radical. Radical - the Gospel has always been radical. It's never needed culture to make it that. 

Be Christian, and the people will come. And you'll be offering them something they can't get anywhere else, something that matters more than anything they could ever pick up at the Wal-Mart, even this time of year. 

Get Santa off your stages. Put the elf costume away. Forget the reindeer. 

If a manger was enough for Christ, it's enough for His church. Yes, even today. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

On the Mountain

At long last, the day has come, the child is born in Bethlehem. There, in a manger, lay the Son of God, the Son of Man - Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. And as we have prepared our hearts and minds for this day, we have but one thing left to do: go and tell others what a glorious morn' this truly is. 

It's one of those Christmas songs that we don't understand the full meaning of when we sing it, so far removed from the manger. So far removed from the intense, hopeful anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. We sing Go Tell It On the Mountain, and we think, simply, of course. The mountain is the tallest place on all the earth; we should shout from the tallest places that Jesus Christ is come. That way, the whole world will hear us. 

But there's more to the mountain than what we know of it. 

For the faithful who were awaiting the birth of the Christ, the mountain is much more than just a tall place. It's a holy place, a sacred place. It always has been.

It was on the mountain where God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It was on the mountain where the Ark came to rest after the flood waters receded. It was on the mountain where Moses met God face-to-face and where God gave to him, and to the people, the Law. It was on the mountain where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal in an epic showdown. It was on the mountain where the people of God worshiped. 

In fact, the biggest rift between the Jews and the Samaritans, who are known so well for not liking each other, was over which mountain was most holy to God. Which mountain they should be worshiping on. When Jesus meets the woman at the well, this is what she asks about - the mountain. We worship on this mountain, but the Jews worship on that mountain. Which is the correct mountain for us to be worshiping on? 

So when we sing, go tell it on the mountain, it's not just about shouting it from the highest places to all the ends of the earth while all would know; it's about informing the faithful that the day they have prayed for, the day they have longed for, the day they have waited for for generations upon generations, for hundreds and thousands of years, the promised day of the Lord has come

He's here. 

This Christmas, may we share the hope of the faithful, a hope fulfilled this beautiful morn'. May we let our hearts swell with joy, knowing that the fullness of all the Lord has promised us has come. A baby in a manger in a little town of Bethlehem, pushed out to the edges of a too-crowded inn. A silent night, a holy night. 

He's here. 

Merry Christmas. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Prepare Him Room

On this Christmas Eve, and on these final few days of Advent, our journey toward the Christ child brings us finally to the inn, to the place where there was no room for the traveling family, though the woman be very pregnant and ready at any time to give birth. 

We know that Bethlehem was crowded. We know there were many traveling through and many more who had come to stay. We know that there was not room at the inn for even two more persons, not even two more - and we assume it was only two because we know that Mary and Joseph were poor young lovers. (When presenting Jesus, they brought an offering of birds, which was the poor man's offering. This likely implies that they were not traveling with servants, as some of the wealthier might. They were more likely to be just one unexpected bill away from being servants.) 

Yet the innkeeper, in all his compassion, not only found space for them on his grounds, but he prepared them room in his barn. 

It's easy to think that Joseph and Mary may have prepared their own room. That they went out to the barn, where they were thankful even for space, and started pulling together bunches of straw and hay to make little beds for themselves, that they started pushing aside troughs and moving animals from one stall to another, just to make a little spot for themselves among the, well, among the animal waste and food and grunting and nesting. 

But in a culture of hospitality, and at a time when extra travelers were likely expected, even if not able to be accommodated, and at a time when Mary and Joseph likely did not have bedding in their bags, but were depending upon the provision of the innkeeper, it's very likely that the innkeeper himself, or some of his servants, went out to the barn to do some of the heavy lifting. It's likely that he provided them with an extra set of bed sheets that were not being used in the inn at the time. It's likely that he brought them maybe even a loaf of bread and a cup of drink, as would be the custom of anyone hosting anyone at the time. You've read in the Scriptures about the man who knocked on his neighbor's door looking for flour for bread in the middle of the night when friends stopped by unexpected.

Make no mistake about it - the innkeeper did not point them toward the barn and wish them good luck; he walked them out there and made them room. 

It's so easy for us to get lost in Christmas, to have so much going on with our families and our friends and our churches and our trees and presents and cookies that we kind of just want to point Jesus toward a corner and tell Him to make Himself at home. We want Him to be there, but there's not a lot of room for making our Christmas really about Christ. We're full. We're overwhelmed. We're exhausted. And Jesus? Jesus just seems like one more thing to do, like one more person to squeeze into an already-overcrowded inn. 

Then, a couple of days after it's all said and done, we find a little manger, and we think to ourselves, good. He made it. He found a place, and He was here all along. 

Don't let that be your Christmas. 

This year, make room. Prepare Him room. Take the time to be hospitable not just to family and friends, but to Jesus. Take your extra sheets and make Him a bed. Take your extra flour and knead Him a loaf. Take your extra drink and pour Him a cup. The inn may be crowded, but make room for the Christ child...and prepare it for Him. Don't let Him be a relic or an afterthought or a castaway this Christmas. 

Because you're busy; I get it. But you're not that busy. You're full, but you're not that full. Take five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes, and make room for Jesus this Christmas. You might just find, on an otherwise silent night, that all of a sudden, you hear the faint sound of a newborn baby's cry coming from the barn. 

And you might just remember that this is Christmas. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Betrayed and Forsaken

One of the persons who was present at the birth of Christ, one who we often neglect or even forget, is to become one of the most important persons in the life of Christ - it is His earthly father, Joseph. And maybe it's easy to think, well, yeah, Joseph was there; he was engaged to Mary and Mary was there, so of course Joseph was there. 

But that's not a given.

Remember back when Mary became pregnant. At the time that she did, and even for the first several months of her pregnancy, Joseph knew nothing about it. It wasn't until she was obviously pregnant and Joseph realized it was not his that the angel came to him and told him what was going on. Joseph came late to the party, at a time when it was difficult and even almost impossible for him to believe, even if the angel so declared. It required of him a great gift of faith.

The truth is that when Joseph first discovered his pregnant wife, he was angry. More than angry, though, I think he was hurt. He was wounded. He felt betrayed, forsaken - this woman to whom he had given so much, to whom he was prepared to give his life, who he was inviting into his family forever, was pregnant, and he was not the father. He loved her, but...did she love him? Really, did she? 

Imagine all the questions that must have been circling in his head. Imagine the aches that must have been digging into his heart. Imagine what it must have been like to have been Joseph, to be suffering the deepest wound that a man could suffer in that time - what looks for everything like an unfaithful woman - and having to decide to stay, having to decide to believe. Having to decide to still be there when the baby Jesus is born. 

We should never just assume that of course Joseph was there; there were a lot of reasons why he might not have been. 

I'm going to let you in on something - there are those in the church, in our churches - who aren't givens this Christmas. There are those who feel betrayed, forsaken, and wounded by the church, and even though Christmas seems so clear, the proclamation of the angels, the real and known and recognized coming of Christ, they still have to decide whether or not they're going to be there. 

There are those among us looking at the pregnant virgin, the bride, the church...and thinking, for one reason or another, that she must have stepped out on them. She must have broken her faithfulness. She must have gone a-whoring. Because they are wounded, and it's hard for us as humans to see past our wounds.

There are those in our churches...and maybe that's you. If it is, let me say this:

Come anyway. The church isn't perfect; it can't be. It's full of imperfect human beings in need of a perfect Savior. Everyone there is just as broken as you're feeling right now, and we know...we know that we've wounded you. We didn't mean to. It's just that we're broken, too, and sometimes, we do things that our Jesus doesn't love. 

But that doesn't mean we don't love our Jesus, and it doesn't mean that you shouldn't be able to, either. He is Love. And He is coming. And even if you feel forsaken, betrayed, forgotten, rejected, abused, whatever...come. Come see it. Come see Him. 

This Advent, be a person who comes anyway, believing in the bigger story. Believing in the message of the angels. Believing in Christmas. 

And if you're one not wounded by the church, keep in mind that the person sitting next to you in the pew this year may be. It's not a given that he or she is there; it took a great act of faith to come at all. Honor and embrace them. 

For God is, this Christmas as all Christmases, doing a new thing. And the new thing God is doing might just be you, whether you're one who, of course, was coming or you're one who really, really, really had to think about it long and hard. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Angels Sing

This week, we're talking about witnesses to the birth of Jesus. It's easy for us to think about the earthly witnesses - those in the manger, the family, the shepherds, the wise men - but we don't often think about the heavenly host who also witnessed the birth, not only witnessed it but were sent to tell some of the others that it was coming...and to come. 

It was an angel who first told Elisabeth, and then Mary, about the baby that was to come. It was an angel who told Zacharias and Joseph they were going to be fathers. It was an angel, and then a whole host of angels, who told the shepherds to come in from the fields. 

And it was all the host of heaven who, for the very first time, watched Jesus leave them and sojourn down to this place called Earth so that He could live among the people whom He loves so much. It was the angels who, as the world was saying hello, had to say goodbye and give this greatest gift to humanity. 

The angels are a cool story because they already knew what humanity was about to find out; they knew it to the full. They knew exactly who Jesus was, what He was going to do, how He was going to do it. They knew the love that He brought with Him. They knew how He did the good and perfect will of His Father. They knew it all, and so it was not sadness for them when they sang over His birth, but joy. 

Tremendous joy. 

Christians, you've probably never heard this, may not be aware, but if we are anyone in the Christmas story, we are the angels. At least, we're supposed to be. 

See, we're the ones who know what those who don't know Jesus this Christmas are about to find out. We're the ones who know it to the full. We're the ones who know who Jesus is, what He did, how He did it. We're the ones who know that the just the beginning; greater things still have come. We know the love that He brought with Him. We know how He did the good and perfect will of His Father. We know it all, and so we ought to be singing...with joy. 

It's easy not to, of course, with all the stuff the world wraps around Christmas. But we can't let that change it for us. We can't let that make us miss what's happening. Yes, it feels cheap sometimes to share our Jesus with so much commercialization. It feels like a tremendous loss to have to put Him beside Santa Claus and reindeer and presents and bows. It's a great disappointment because we think the world is missing what a truly incredible event this is. 

That's why, though, we have to tell them. That's why we have to sing it out with joy. That's why we have to tell them about His coming and invite them to come. Because we know something they don't...yet. 

This Advent, let us reflect on what it means to be a part of the angels, a part of the host who knows what's happening in a little manger in Bethlehem and who sings with tremendous joy and declares to the world the coming of the Christ child. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What Makes a Man Wise?

The wise men who came to see Jesus never made it to Bethlehem; they started out that direction, but by the time they were traveling, the Babe was already gone. (Many assume that the wise men and the shepherds were one and the same or at least that they ran into each other, but neither is true.) You see, by the time Herod got word of the greatness of the baby born in Bethlehem, he had to issue a decree to kill all the children born in Bethlehem up to two years prior. So it may have been two years before the wise men came.

The star, Matthew tells us, led the way to where the baby was. The wise men, he tells us, entered into the house - there was no house in Bethlehem; just a barn. The baby, he says, was with His mother, Mary - not lying in the manger, as we would have expected if they had come actually to the birth.

Nevertheless, we include the wise men in the Christmas story, so let us include them in the Advent season, as well. 

The wise men are an interesting case because they weren't drawn to Jesus, and they weren't called to Him. They may or may not have really known much, if anything, about Him or what He meant to the Jewish people. They may or may not have had any interest at all in going to see Him. They were sent. By Herod. Essentially as spies. It's unclear whether the gifts were the idea of the wise men or of Herod, whether they were genuine offerings or part of the ruse.

But they went anyway, bearing gifts, and brought them to the Child and His mother. And something amazing happened when they did - upon meeting Jesus, at somewhere more than a day but less than two years old - before He'd done a single miracle, before He'd spoken a single word, before He'd done anything truly amazing at all on His own, while He was likely still even in diapers, the wise men believed in Him. Just from seeing Him in person. 

They probably never thought they'd believe the whispers. Probably never thought they'd believe the rumors. Probably never thought they'd believe what the Jewish people were talking about, all those religious nuts that were overpopulated in the Roman territory. They probably never thought that He'd be anything but a baby, anything but a nice story, perhaps. But they came, they saw, and they believed. 

Perhaps they were truly wise men after all. 

We know that they believed because after they met the baby Jesus, they turned and went home another way, deciding not to go back to Herod and tell him anything at all. In fact, it was only because the wise men never came back that Herod believed he had something to worry about from this Jewish Boy. 

This Advent, maybe you - or someone you know - is like the wise men. Maybe you only go to church because you have to. Maybe you only come because you're sent (or dragged). Maybe you think that you ought to at least go and hear the Jesus story once. After all, it is Christmas and certain persons - even if they are an overpopulated group of religious nuts - can't seem to stop talking about Him. If that's you this Christmas, you're not alone. 

But to you, I say this - leave yourself open to believe. Come bearing gifts, whether they are genuine or forced. Come and see for yourself. Hear the story. Listen to the words. Meet the Baby. Bless Him. 

This may be the Christmas that you find that you can't help but believe.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

From the Fields

When the first cries of life were heard in a little manger in Bethlehem, among the first to arrive were shepherds who had been grazing their flocks in a field nearby. The shepherds are a great choice for early witness for oh, so many reasons. 

They were, of course, likely nearby, which means that they could come quickly and see the baby before he moves on in the morning. They were relatively isolated out in their fields, which means that the angel could come to them fairly easily, without being seen by the masses. They were of a lowly state in society, most likely. Notice that the angels did not come to proclaim the birth to the priests or to the tax collectors or to the Roman guard. They didn't come to those who were known, but to those who were unknown, who were just doing what they were supposed to be doing, what they were entrusted to do. 

The faithful become the first of the faith. 

See, it's a strange thing about shepherds - they're never taking care of their own flocks. The animals sort of become their own the more time they spend together out in the fields, and the animals respond to the voice of the shepherd, but they always belong to someone else. Sometimes, the shepherds were hired hands, servants. They were brought in solely for the task of tending the flocks and keeping them. 

Often, however, the shepherds were sons. Think about the Old Testament, when the Lord is ready to anoint David to be King over all Israel. Samuel goes to Jesse, David's father, in search of the selected King and finds no one. When he inquires about another son, there is but one - the one who is out in the field, tending the flocks. The shepherd boy. 

The shepherds become the first witnesses to the promised descendant of the shepherd.

The sons (likely) become the first witnesses to the Son of God. 

We should also say here that it's quite possible that some of the shepherds may also have been female. We know that when Jacob goes back to his home country to seek a wife, Rachel has brought her father's flocks to the well for a drink and is waiting on the other shepherds to arrive with their flocks. So it's quite possible that some of the first witnesses of the Christ child may have been not sons, but daughters. But I digress.

The shepherds were conveniently located to the manger in Bethlehem, but that's not why God called them to be witnesses. He didn't call them because they were already shepherds and therefore less likely to be offended by the smell of the barn. He didn't call them because they were simple folk and wouldn't think to try to exalt the child before His time. He called them because they were humble folk who could appreciate the sacred moment unfolding before them. He called them to be witnesses because they had so much in common with what was happening in that stable.

And He sent the whole host of angels to call them to come. 

We don't have much of a frame of reference for shepherding these days, but this Christmas, there's a lot that we can learn from them as we prepare our own hearts and minds to see. 

Perhaps most pressing, we must remember that we are but servants, and we must be faithful servants. What we have here is not our own, though we are called to care for it. Being separated, set apart, we become the voice that our flock knows; we must be the ones our flock trusts. We must be the ones who give our lives for others, who invest all we have in what we are given.

This Advent, let us be faithful. Let us be good stewards of our lives, of our responsibilities, of our opportunities, that we may be called among those who come to see the Faithful One in living flesh. Let us be the kind of servants who give all we have for the sake of the One we serve, that we may be called to come and see the One who will give all He has for our sake. 

O come, all ye faithful. Like shepherds from the fields. 

Monday, December 17, 2018


In the first week of Advent, we talked about some of the persons who lived with anticipation, in the hopes of centering our own anticipation on the coming Christ. In the second week of Advent, we looked at some of the places that were making preparations (or not) for the birth, hoping that we might prepare our own hearts for His coming. In this third week of Advent, we journey into the manger, to the witnesses, to those who came to see that holy night.

In the hopes, of course, that we might be a people who come. 

Let's face it - Bethlehem wasn't exactly Jerusalem. It's not like there was a lot going on there or even probably a lot to do. You would not, if you were accustomed to big city life, probably go there on your own. And certainly, you wouldn't have gone there at this time if you didn't have to. 

Because you were probably already on your way somewhere else, somewhere called home. That's why the manger was so easy to miss. It's not just those who had come to Bethlehem who were traveling for the census; everyone was on his or her way to somewhere to be counted. That means that a lot of persons were far from home, traveling in and through places they might not normally (or at least, often) be. And that's true everywhere.

Those who might normally have been in Jerusalem weren't in Jerusalem. Those who lived in Nazareth might not have been in Nazareth. Bethlehem, we know, was full of travelers - the no-vacancy sign at the inn tells us that much - but it's also true that parts of Bethlehem might have been vacant if those families had to go elsewhere to be counted among their clans. 

In other words, nobody's where they usually are, some are already where they're supposed to be, and many others are still yet traveling through. And while that seems like probably quite a bit of a mess and it's easy to wonder how we're supposed to sort out who was when and where, and why and how, it's actually rather good news.

Because it means that almost anyone from almost anywhere could have been near that manger that night. Almost anyone from almost anywhere may have heard that newborn baby cry. Almost anyone from almost anywhere could have seen that baby Jesus. 

If only they had gone.

The same is true for us this Christmas. A lot of us are traveling. We're between places. Some of us are where we're "supposed" to be, the places where we spend most of our lives, but some of us aren't. Some of us are coming to those places. Others are going from them. Some of us are on the road somewhere. And it feels like a transient place, like a place in motion, like a place where it is impossible tell who is where and when, and why and how. But that's actually good news.

Because it means that any and every one of us can be near that manger this Christmas. Any and every one of us can hear that newborn baby cry. Any and every one of us can see that baby Jesus. All we have to do in the midst of all our come. Because we're certainly close enough. 

This Advent, let us be a people who come. A people who pay attention to the signs of the season, to the sacred signals all around us. Let us be a people who look up to the sky and see the star, who open our ears and hear the cry. Let us be a people who, on the move already anyway, take that extra time to go a little farther and visit the manger. 

O, come. Let us adore Him. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Holy Child

The last place we'll peek into this year as Christmas approaches is the Temple, the sacred place of the Jews, who were long-awaiting their Messiah. None of the Gospel writers tell us much about what was going on in the Temple during this time, although Luke tells us of two of the faithful who joyously welcomed Jesus on His eighth day. But it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to figure out what was probably true about the Temple at this time. 

And it doesn't have a lot to do with Jesus.

Everyone in the Temple community knew that something was afoot. God was at work in the world; there was movement on the Messiah front. In fact, it's probably fair to say that everyone in the Temple community was excitedly anticipating the birth of a spectacular child, a blessed child, a child that could perhaps be the one

It's just that for this particular community, that child was, in their minds, most likely John, not Jesus. 

After all, Zacharias was a well-respected priest within the Temple. He'd been chosen that year by lots to cast the big offering in the Most Holy Place and had come out struck dumb by what he witnessed there. His wife, Elizabeth, long past her child-bearing years, was pregnant with what they all assumed was a boy (remember, this was before ultrasound) and, well, wasn't that the pattern of God? Abraham and Sarah were pregnant long after their fertile years and had Isaac. Jacob's most beloved wife could not have children, but finally bore Joseph. Over and over again, the Bible tells us that it is women past their child-bearing years who bear the most beautiful and sacred children. So naturally, the Temple is abuzz with the coming of...John.

Mary? She's just a teenage whore in Nazareth, and nothing good comes from there. An angel coming to a virgin? Hardly plausible. That's never happened before in God's story. God uses old women, not young women, and if you want to talk about young women in God's story, the sad truth is that they are poor, desolate, often abandoned or raped. Think about Tamar. Think about Ruth. They both had redemptive stories, of course, but redemption didn't come until later. Until these young women became old women. 

Clearly, then, all this talk in Nazareth is just a distraction. It's just noise to take the focus away from the very spectacular thing that is happening right there in the Temple family - the blessed coming of the holy child through Elizabeth and Zacharias. 

Imagine, then, the disappointment when John is born and is cool, but not really that cool. I mean, he's a nice boy and all, but he doesn't really seem to be all the sacred and holy things they thought he might have been. He's kind of, at least on the Messiah front, a dud. But the Temple community is watching him anyway. He's the best chance they have. 

Notice, of course, that neither Anna nor Simeon seem to have anything to say about John. Not the way they did about Jesus. 

And this, without a doubt, is one of the greatest dangers for us at Christmas: we look for it all the wrong places. 

We think we know the beautiful things in the world. We think we know the holy things. We think we know the best things and how they come and where to look for them. We think, at Christmas, they come in families and feasts and boxes and bows. We think they come when we see the smiles on our children's faces when they open those gifts that we labored so hard to find for them, those things they really, really wanted. We think they come in cookies and fireplaces and brand new pajamas and waffles for breakfast. We think they come in the songs of the season and the tinsel and lights and trees. Yes, we think we know how Christmas comes. 

The manger? Really? That's just a distraction. A decoration. 

This Advent, let us remember where Christmas comes. Not in the places we think to look, but in the place that is all too easy to miss. Let us not neglect to believe that God is amazing and that He's doing new things all the time. Let us remember that Christmas is one of those new things, something that's never been done before in the history of Creation...and hasn't been done since.

This is Christmas. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018


One of the places we don't often think about Christmas happening is in the palaces of the rulers of the region where Christ was born. Even though we know that Herod persecuted the baby Boy and sparked His family's flight to Egypt, this is not part of the way that we tell the story. When we cast our children in the Christmas pageant, no one is asked to play Herod, although we never leave out the three wise men that he sent. (But we must mention that we often get this wrong and believe that the wise men and the shepherds were the same; they weren't.)

But there's probably good reason for that because while there was something incredible happening in a tiny manger in Bethlehem, the palace hardly even noticed.

We know that they hardly noticed because by the time Herod realizes that the baby Jesus might be anything at all special and sends wise men to see Him and realizes, in anger, that the wise men aren't coming back (which is confirmation that Jesus is, indeed, something special), he issues a decree to kill all of the children in the region who are two years old or younger. 

Two years. It may have taken Herod up to two years to figure out what happened in Bethlehem that night. 

Yet, at two years old, Jesus had not even performed His first recorded miracle yet. So even at this point, whatever Herod discovers, he learns through whispers and rumors.

The same kind of whispers and rumors that he apparently ignored for nine months while Mary carried Jesus in her womb. The same kind of whispers and rumors that he apparently ignored eight days later, when not one, but two, persons who had given their lives to see this moment had finally seen it and rejoiced. The same kind of whispers and rumors that continued to circulate for two years. Herod ignored them all.

Until, ironically, the men who were supposed to tell him whether Jesus was anything to be concerned about never came back. 

Herod ignored the whispers and rumors until there was silence, and only then did he recognize what had happened in Bethlehem.

This is going to be the story for so many this Christmas. We're going to spend our time ignoring the whispers and the rumors. We're going to push aside and put off the church services and the worship songs. We're going to miss the star in the sky. Until some time after the season passes and suddenly, in the silence, we realize what it was. Only then, it's too late.

This Advent, don't let Christmas pass you by. Don't ignore the whispers and the rumors and the story that you think you know but need to hear again. And again. And again. Christ is coming. Indeed, He is here. Don't let your high places make you miss that. Don't wait until the silence has fallen and realize you missed it. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Hustle and Bustle

When we talk about places in the Christmas story, of course the first one that comes to mind is Bethlehem. After all, this is where all the action is - the inn, the manger, the star, the shepherds, the Christ child. It all happens in Bethlehem. 

But trying telling that, on Christmas Eve, to the persons who were actually there.

It's true that there was a lot going on in Bethlehem, a lot more than we often remember when we tell the Christmas story. There was, as we know, no room at the inn, but this wasn't just a coincidence. It wasn't just a bit of bad luck that the inn would be full on the night Joseph and Mary so happened through the region. It wasn't just that they pulled into town on a night when many others had also pulled into town, that the little town wasn't expecting so many guests. 

The little town was, in fact, expecting more. They knew their inns would be crowded, if not full. They knew they would be over capacity. They knew there would be travelers that they couldn't accommodate. They might not have known that one of them would be a very pregnant young woman, which leads to the compassion of the innkeeper to make room where he could. But Bethlehem knew this was coming. 

Because everyone else was there for the same reason that Mary and Joseph were - the census. A census had been ordered, and that meant that everyone had to go back to his hometown to be counted among his own people. Since Joseph's people were from Bethlehem, Joseph made the trek, taking his little family-to-be with him to be counted among his numbers. And all of those people in the inn? They were there to be counted, too. 

It's fair to say that many more travelers were likely not at the inn. They were probably at the homes of family members, sleeping in corners and on roofs and wherever they could find a place to lay a makeshift bed for a few days.

There were reunions going on everywhere, bread being baked and broken, livestock being slaughtered. Laughter and joy and the sharing of stories as everyone caught up with one another, being in the flesh far exceeding whatever letters or messages they had received during their time apart. The city was abuzz with all of the things that make our Christmases so...well, so Christmas-y and exactly what they are, except, of course, that no one in Bethlehem knew that the Christ was coming. 

And they were all so busy that they probably missed it. 

When you've been traveling for weeks, maybe even months, to get home, when you've been wrapped up in preparations to see your family for the first time in a very long time, when you basically collapsed at the inn the night before and woke up with visions of breakfast and another day of travel and reunion, when your thoughts are all on the things you're doing and still have to do and the places you've been and where you're going and who is going to be there and how you're going to make it all work, who notices a baby crying in a barn? Star or no star. 

You might even look up and think to yourself, oh, what a beautiful star. Then saddle up your donkey and keep going. 

A lot of our Christmases take place in Bethlehem. A lot of them come with the hustle and bustle and movement of the season, the visions of family and the reunions and the breaking of breads. There's so much going on that a lot of us miss it entirely, only days later realizing that maybe something incredible was happening in that barn. And that at the very least, maybe we should have taken a few minutes to stop by and see the baby.

This Advent, let us be mindful of the ways that we're prone to miss Christmas. Let us be aware of our own busyness and of the pressures the push in on us and try to convince us there's so much to do, try to keep our attention on the inn and not on the barn. Let us be purposeful in making time to go out and see the baby. 

After all, the Christ child is Christmas. It's why we're here.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Talk of No Good

Although the Christmas story that we are most familiar with doesn't even really mention it, we should not forget that the story of Jesus centers around Nazareth. Note that later in His life, He is often referred to by this location - Jesus of Nazareth. That is because this is where Jesus was from, not Bethlehem. And if it is where Jesus was from, we can say with confidence that it is also where Mary and Joseph lived. And if it is where Mary and Joseph lived, then it would not be a stretch to say that when Mary became pregnant with the Christ child, it was Nazareth who knew it first. 

In fact, it's probably safe to say that this is one baby that Nazareth couldn't stop talking about. It was Nazareth where the whispers started, when a woman betrothed but still unwed became pregnant with a child that she and the father insisted was God's, but let's be honest - we all know how that happens. 

Not only that, but we know there was some disdain for the little city and perhaps this little town had picked up on some of that itself. Later, someone will ask with disgust, "Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?" So even those inclined to believe in the Spirit of the Christ child may have hesitated for this very reason. 

This baby is what? No, He can't be. This is Nazareth! Nothing good comes from here! 

In other words, stuff like that just doesn't happen, and if it does, it just doesn't happen here. Not for us. Not from us. 

And all this talk that it might? All these rumors that Mary and Joseph are trying to start? All these arguments they're making in their own defense? They just add to the shame that is Nazareth's. Really. A Christ child! 

Now, Nazareth is the laughingstock of the world. 

I don't know if you know this or not - maybe you do - but we're living in a place like Nazareth this Christmas. We really are.

We're living in a world that can't stop talking about this baby, that can't stop whispering about Jesus this time of year. We're living in a world that knows the story, that feels privy to the details, that feels entitled to share in what's developing, but that doesn't really buy into the truth of what's going on here. 

A God child? Really? What nonsense! 

Because you see, we are a broken people. We are a sinful people. We are an unworthy people in an evil world. Why on earth would God come here in the form of one of us? What kind of God could that possibly be? 

And the world laughs at us. 

We talk about the baby as though He's coming, and the world knows He is. But we talk about Him as if He's good, and the world scorns us. Good? Good? Look around, you fool - nothing good comes from here. Nothing good can come from here. Don't you know this is Nazareth? And all this talk of hope and peace and joy that we have just adds to the shame of being a broken humanity. How foolish, the world says, to pretend to have something to believe in....

But I say that to say this, and this is important: whatever the whispers, no matter the scorn, it doesn't change the story of Christmas. It doesn't change what's happening here. 

Nazareth didn't believe the story. They didn't believe that the Christ child was coming, and they certainly didn't believe He was coming through them. But He came nonetheless and was known forever as Jesus from Nazareth. 

We may not believe the story. The world may have trouble believing that the Christ child has come, and they certainly struggle to believe that He would come in human flesh to a place so dirty and disgusting and broken and evil as this one. But He came nonetheless and He's coming this Christmas and He is known forever as Emmanuel, God with us. 

This Advent, may we be aware of the whispers. May we understand what the world believes and what it doesn't, what it's talking about and what it can't stop talking about. May we know what we believe and what we don't, where we're prone to give in to the whispers and where we're confident to stand on the Promise.

And may we recognize that whatever we believe, the story is the same. Christ is come, to even such a place as this, in even such a flesh as this...and this is Christmas. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Business of Busyness

Often, Christians rail against the commercialization of Christmas. This time of year (not to mention earlier and earlier every year, it seems), everywhere you turn, there are reminders of an invitations to Christmas. Kind of. 

Nearly every store has some kind of display, no matter what kind of store it is. Even drive-thru windows are decked out in fake snow and candy cane wrapping. Walk through the streets of downtown, and you'll see wreaths around the light poles and ornaments on the official city lawn. Walk around the block a little way, and you'll see them on houses. 

Usually, there's some kind of Christmas music playing over the intercom system, some chorus of Jingle Bells always to be heard somewhere. The sounds of the season have become the muzak of elevators, so common that we hardly even hear it any more, except, of course, to be annoyed from time to time by that which is played too often (or isn't any good to begin with). 

Yes, everywhere, our world is preparing for Christmas. But here's the strange part: 

Not everywhere will they celebrate it.

That store, for example, that's had its trees up since September, won't close for even an hour on Christmas. The only recognition they'll have that it's truly a holiday is that they'll have to pay their employees a little extra for working on it. For them, business goes on as usual; the busyness was just a distraction, a decoy, a ruse.

The drive-thru with candy cane wrapping taped around its windows? It will be open, too. No magic of Christmas inside there; just the same-old smell of french fry grease and burgers on the grill, with the occasional spill of a drink or drop a napkin. It's business as usual; the busyness was just noise. 

You see, the world, for all its busyness, is still about business, and business as usual. It wants to suck you in, to sucker you in, to make you believe that they're just as into the season as you are, but the truth is that in most places in our 24/7/365 world, the holiday will pass just like any other day, and by the end of it, the only way you'll know it's over will be that the little bit that's left gets moved to the clearance corner to make room for the new things. Ironically, by our calendar, love - because Valentine's Day is only two months away. (That's enough for its own post, but we'll leave it here for now.) 

But we're not the only world to miss Christmas. We're not the only time and place to have it pass by almost unnoticed. To get wrapped up in this part or that part of it and still not understand or embrace the fullness of what is happening. 

For this second week of Advent, we're going to make a quick round through the places in the Christmas story. Each of these places had a piece of the story, but they missed it all for their busyness and distraction. And there's much that we can learn from them in understanding what exactly was going on there. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Filled with Joy

As we finish talking about anticipation and the characters in the Gospel story whose lives were changed by news of the coming Christ and their earnest belief thereof, we have to talk about John, the Baptist (although at that point, he was merely known as the-baby-to-be-named-John). 

It seems a little strange, talking about what a baby in a womb knew about another baby in a womb, as if there was any way to know or anything to be known, but there is a captivating exchange between these two unborn babes, and once again, it is Luke who gives us the details.

When Elizabeth was pretty far along in her pregnancy and Mary, only barely, the younger woman came to visit the older woman for awhile. Upon coming into one another's presence, Elizabeth let out a delighted start. She turns to Mary and tells her, "How blessed are you! When you and your blessed womb came into this room, my own little bundle leapt for joy within me." 

You can probably imagine, there's not a lot of room in the womb for leaping. 

But John did it anyway. He leapt with joy when the spirit of the Lord drew close in human form, although neither had a visible human form at the time and neither could have actually touched the other's flesh. 

I picture a cat trying to get out of a paper bag, except his movements are elicited by sheer joy. John is absolutely bursting with joy, and the space that he is in can hardly contain him. He leaps with such force of elation that Elizabeth's entire body moves, and that delighted start that she let out? Well, she can't help it - his joy is contagious. 

We get so wrapped up in Christmas, so busy tending to boxes and bows and cards and cookies and ornaments hanging on the tree that we don't leave a lot of room for the joy of the season. How could we? We're too busy to be joyful. We're too worried about pulling it all together to truly enjoy it. We're too into bringing Christmas into the world that we don't let Christmas any more bring us out of it, even for a season.

And it's become such a physical thing. Such a tangible thing, this Christmas. It's all the things we can see and smell and touch and hold and taste and give and take and share in selfies and posts on Instagram. Christmas is trees and presents and mistletoe and wreaths and toys and puppies and, if we're lucky, a few quiet seconds where we can hear the yule log crackling. 

John didn't have any of this. He couldn't have seen Christmas if he tried. There was no room for him to set up a tree or even hang a stocking, no toys for him to unwrap, no fruit cake for him to eat. John had none of it, absolutely none of it. All he had was the spirit - the spirit of Christ, yet unborn, coming into the room. The spirit of Christ pulling on his own soul while his flesh, too, still formed. 

Yet he leapt for joy, in a space too small even for leaping. He filled that womb, already brimming with life, with joy. So much joy that even his mother felt it. And she didn't tell Mary, "I just felt my baby move." No, she declared, "I have felt my baby's joy!" What an overflow!

As we embrace our anticipation for Christmas this Advent, let us be like John. Let us not neglect, as we set up our trees and hang our stockings and bake our cookies, to fill our little spaces with overwhelming joy, so much joy that our little homes cannot contain it. 

And let us remember, as well, that although it comes with plenty to look at, plenty to listen to, plenty to taste and touch and hold and experience, that Christmas is not a physical season, though it comes to us in the flesh; Christmas is a spiritual reality. What we are waiting on is not a baby, but a Spirit, that is coming to us in swaddling clothes. Let us sense the spirit of Jesus around us. 

Let us leap for joy. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Whispers of Something Bigger

One of the biblical couples that we often overlook, particularly in their own season because they get lost in the coming Christ, is Zacharias and Elizabeth. But this faithful couple understood something about Christmas that we too often forget. 

Zacharias was a priest serving in the Temple, and Luke tells us that somewhere roughly a year before the birth of Christ, his lot was chosen to serve in the innermost place of the Temple, to light the most special candles in the Most Holy Place. While there, the angel Gabriel came to him and told him about the son, John (the Baptist), that his wife would bear for him. And soon. Zacharias is so stunned that he has a few questions, and his questions render him mute for the duration of his wife's pregnancy, leaving him to hold inside of him all of the secret things that he knows.

Like, for example, that something big is about to happen. And we're not talking about an old couple having a child (God's done that so often by this point that it's old hat). Zacharias understands that his son is just the beginning of it all; something greater is afoot. 

And although he doesn't know exactly what that looks like, except to say that the angel told him it has to do with the Messiah, he knows it's something. 

His wife, Elizabeth, becomes pregnant with a son. She knows that in her womb, she is carrying a real miracle, a child long after her years of conception have come and gone. She knows that this is a gift of God, though we know not how much of what Zacharias knew that Elizabeth knew, as well. 

Then, when she is well along in her own pregnancy, her relative, Mary, arrives in the early days of her own, and the baby in Elizabeth's womb leaps for joy. He starts doing flip-flops. He's dancing around in there, and she can feel every tiny little bit of it. 

And she knows that something big is about to happen. The miracle in her womb is enough, but that the miracle in her womb recognizes something bigger in its presence? Stunning. Truly, God is about to do something greater even than this. 

Although she doesn't know exactly what that looks like, she knows it's huge. 

I think we could all use a good dose of the kind of anticipation that Zacharias and Elizabeth lived with. It's far too easy for us to think that we know the Christmas story. We know what happens. We know what's going to happen. There's going to be a manger because the inn is too full. There's going to be a star. There's going to be shepherds and wise men and, of course, a baby boy, who will grow up to be crucified, the Savior of the world. 

After all, it is Christmas and that's how it happens. Right? 

But I think what we've lost is our sense of just how big this is. Just how grand it is. Just how much greater Christmas is than a mere baby in a barn. This is the Son of God, the Light of the World, the Promised King, Love personified. This is God, come down to dwell among us for the first time since we walked in the cool of the Garden, and let's face it, the Garden ain't so cool any more; it's burning with sin and faithlessness. It's covered in dust and dirt. And He comes anyway. 

Not just to die for us, but to live with us. It's something bigger than we could ever imagine, and it's happening. Right now. 

This Advent, let us live in expectation of something bigger than we can understand, something greater than we can fathom. We have but whispers of it, even in a story that we think we know so well, and when we understand what truly happens on that blessed Christmas morn', it will blow us all away. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Of Spirit and Flesh

Luke tells us of another in Jerusalem who anticipated the coming of the Christ child, one named Simeon. 

Simeon was a faithful man, a man who lived his life looking toward Heaven, if he had known of such a thing before atonement or not. He was devout, living in faithfulness and righteousness, the kind of man that anyone aspiring to be a good Jew would attempt to emulate. The Gospel tells us that he lived by the Spirit, and as such, the Spirit revealed many things to him.

Most notably, it revealed that he would not die before he saw the promise come to life. And Simeon took the Spirit at His word. 

So when the Spirit led him to go to the Temple, Simeon went. There, he found Jesus on the day of His consecration, on the day of His dedication, on the day of His circumcision. Simeon, like Anna, was witness to the giving of the Christ child back to the Lord who had given Him to Mary in the first place. 

And he picked the babe up and held Him. 

This is worth our attention. So often, we think of Jesus lying in a manger, with wise men and shepherds gathered around Him and weary travelers asleep in the inn, completely oblivious to what's happening in the barn. We think about Him in swaddling clothes, but we do not think about Him having been swaddled by human hands. And we don't think about Him at all being, well, a baby.

Babies get passed around. They get picked up and held and handled. They get poked and tickled and squeezed. Worn-out mothers relish any opportunity for someone else to take over, even for just a few minutes, to give them just a bit of rest. In Temple culture, which is highly communal, we can imagine that babies got passed around much the way they do in churches, where it's not uncommon to see someone carrying a baby that is not his or her own. In the way that we do life together, the baby has become very much ours.

Simeon was not, at least Luke doesn't tell us that he is, a priest. He wasn't even, as far as we know, a Levite. That means that Simeon likely had no official role at all in the Temple. He's just a man, just a Jew, just a faithful guy. He's got no position that would entitle him to pick up a baby as part of a blessing, but he does. He picks up the Christ child, holds Him high, and declares Him a blessing.

By the Spirit of God that is in him and that has guided him to this very place, he recognizes that this baby is not Mary's, not Joseph's, not Nazareth's; this baby is just as much his as it is theirs. This Baby is ours.

May we, this Advent, take ownership of the newborn babe in swaddling clothes. May we not be afraid to step forward and take Him in our arms, coddling and cooing and swaying and treasuring every bit of this tiny miracle that is more than we could ever have imagined being born in a manger. 

May we, by the Spirit, live faithful for to see Him, and may we know that this baby is not Mary's, not Joseph's, not Nazareth's...but that He is ours

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Positioned to See

Luke gives us tremendous context for the birth and dedication of the Christ child, telling us more about His first days than any other Gospel writer. And one of the characters we come to meet in Luke's story is Anna, a prophetess who lived in the Temple and looked forward to the coming of the promised Messiah.

Anna was, by this point, a very old woman, even by the standards of that day. She had been married for seven years, but her husband died, and then she came to live in the Temple for eighty-four years to prophesy and prepare for God's next move into the world. That puts her, conservatively, at just over 100 years old at the time that Jesus is presented at the Temple, but He is all that she's ever wanted to see. 

We don't know what Anna's life looked like in her younger days. We don't know if she was always a prophetess or if God gave her a special ability to know the secret things of His glory after she moved into His holy place to dwell. We do know that she was a young woman when her husband died and for whatever reason, she probably did not have children (if she had had children, they would have been tasked with taking care of her after her husband's death, but we see no mention of this). Relatively speaking (pun intended), she could have attached herself to a kinsman redeemer and gone on living a life in the dust of this world, but she's apparently had enough of that. In the absence of the life that perhaps she had always planned (a husband, kids, a stable household, grandchildren, etc.), there was only one thing in the world she wanted - 

To see what God would do next. 

And in order to be in a place where she knew she wouldn't miss it, she moved her whole life into His holy place. When the movement of God came afoot, she'd have a front row seat. 

Eighty-four years later, her anticipation paid off and she saw the dedication of a bouncing baby boy who bore in His Spirit the very heartbeat of God.

Think about this for a minute. Anna moved into the Temple to see the greatest thing God would ever do, knowing and trusting that it was coming. She didn't know much, if anything, about a Christmas star. She didn't know about a manger. She'd heard whispers, perhaps, but whatever story was happening out there would have to pass through here, and if there was anything to it at all, she knew she was in the right place to see it. Finally. And so Anna, who invested the majority of her life in being a prophetess, in being one who saw beyond what average men and women see, was there to see the circumcision of Jesus and the dedication of Him as both a Jew and a firstborn Son. 

This Advent season, let us be like Anna. Let us be a people who anticipate that God is going to move in the world and who position ourselves to be there to see it. Let us know where God is going to pass through, and let us dwell there with eyes wide open and hearts set on hope. However long it takes. 

Let us be a people for whom this season does not pass by, but for whom it passes through, a people who come into close contact with the Christ child and see first-hand the glory of the Lord's First-born. 

Monday, December 3, 2018


As December dawns, so does the Christmas season, and Christians all over the world have begun celebrating Advent - a season of humble expectation and sacred hope as we look toward that glorious morn' when our Savior came to dwell among us. 

In the spirit of this season, then, I wanted us to take the next few weeks to immerse ourselves in the Christmas story, in the faces and places of the birth of Christ as we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas and maybe, just maybe, not to get so lost in the hustle and bustle. (It's far too easy to do.) 

And this starts, as it must, with anticipation. 

Anticipation is something very different than expectation, although we might hear the words used interchangeably. Expectation is an attitude that knows that something is coming and just waits for it to happen, plans for it, plans on it. I expect that my utility bills will arrive in the mail every month, on or about the same day. I make notes in my financial ledger to account for them. I double-check my bank account to make sure I'm prepared. 

But that's about it. I don't have any anticipation for them. I do not run excitedly out to my mailbox every day to see if they've come yet. I do not take celebratory pictures and post them on social media when they get here. I do not spend my nights lying awake, thinking about what they're going to be like when they get here. I might, in a dry season, dread my utility bills, but I would still expect them. I would never, in a prosperous season, anticipate them, but I would still expect them.

See, anticipation requires two things that expectation does not: emotion and movement. 

Anticipation requires some measure of emotion, some investment of thought- and heart-energies into what's coming. When you anticipate something, you get excited about it. You get pumped. You're energized. You are eager. You can't wait. It dominates your thoughts and your heart and your experience of the world. You hold your breath waiting for it, and it's all you can do to keep yourself calmed down, reined in. It's almost impossible to go on with your regular life because the perceived amazingness that is coming is so all-consuming. It's the difference between being a kid who has to wake up on April 12 and go to school and being a kid who gets to wake up on Christmas morning. Expectation vs. anticipation. Anticipation is laden with emotion. 

It's also inspiring of movement, of action. Yes, you may plan for your bills to arrive and account for them, but that's not the kind of action we're talking about. We're talking about action that moves in a dance with the object of its anticipation. Think of boxers in the ring or players at a chess board - the anticipation of what an opponent might do changes the way that the boxer or the player makes his own move. It's a give-and-take, a planning for the motion of the other. 

In anticipation, you believe that movement is afoot. You believe that something is happening. It's not static; it's dynamic, and it requires your participation. 

It's this kind of anticipation that we're talking about this week. It's this kind of emotional, active belief that something incredible is coming that is the focus of this first week of Advent (not the official calendar, but the way I'm doing it in this space). Because it's far too easy for us to look at our calendars and say, "Christmas is coming," and then...and then what? Many of us just expect that it will, as it does every year. 

But what if we lived in anticipation of Christmas? What would that look like? What would happen if we let this season take hold of our hearts and our minds, change the way we live and love, force us into a dance with the coming Christ? What if...?