Friday, December 25, 2020

Thursday, December 24, 2020

"The Truth Sent from Above"

I am going to end Advent with a quote I read, by author Sarah Clarkson, at the very beginning of Advent, when I was seeking places to glean inspiration and shareable truths. This quote is kind of long, part of an essay, really, and its purpose is an introduction to the season. But, as we draw this season of Advent to a close, I think its use as a reminder is just as important.

To set the stage, listen to this English Carol, The Truth Sent from Above. The author is unknown, but this arrangement is by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Note in particular the third verse they sing:

I was listening. And when they came to that verse –

Thus we were heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose
For so a promise soon did run
That he would redeem us with a Son.

Oh. In an instant my heart stirred into yearning. We, oh Lord, me, here in the shadowlands bearing the endless woes and toil of our good, hard, fallen, grieved days. Me, striving, working, yearning, forgetting, losing my patience in the meantime… we here with all those small woes (and great ones too), we are the ones to whom this truth from above is sent: that He’d redeem us with a Son. I felt the yearning to be more than I am, to love more deeply, to know more fully, to return to worship rise up in me as my great sorrow and my real, returning health.

And this, I think, is a small image of what Advent does for all of us. From the clamour and work and grief and distraction of life in a fallen, modern, belligerent world, we are drawn aside into the chapel of Advent devotion. We are invited into a space where we can step away from the pained, frantic life that has become untethered from Love and come face to face with quiet. We’re invited into a moment of hush where we can learn to hear the music of God’s presence again. We often don’t know we even need it until we sojourn there a bit and find ourselves unravelled, and so achingly happy to be so.


Thank you for joining me again on this Advent journey.
Blessings to you, as the old year passes into the new.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

"Forever's Start"

On this Christmas Eve Eve, I want to share one final Madeleine L’Engle Advent poem. It’s never made its way onto my blog. I’m not sure why. It’s glorious, and full of the type of mystery that so grabs at my heart during this season. The poem was first published, without a title, in L’Engle’s The Irrational Season. This version, I copied from Miracle on 10th Street. It includes this prelude:

Forever’s Start

The days are growing noticeably shorter; the nights are longer, deeper, colder. Today the sun did not rise as high in the sky as it did yesterday. Tomorrow it will be still lower. At winter solstice the sun will go below the horizon, below the dark. The sun does dies. And then, to our amazement, the Son will rise again.

Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come
In Your fearful innocence.
We fumble in the far-spent night
Far from lovers, friends, and home:
Come in Your naked, newborn might.
Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come;
My heart withers in Your absence.

Come, Lord Jesus, small, enfleshed
Like any human, helpless child.
Come once, come once again, come soon:
The stars in heaven fall, unmeshed;
The sun is dark, blood’s on the moon.
Come, Word who came to us enfleshed,
Come speak in joy untamed and wild.

Come, Thou wholly other, come,
Spoken before words began,
Come and judge Your uttered world
Where You made our flesh your home.
Come, with bolts of lightning hurled,
Come, Thou wholly other, come,
Who came to man by being man.

Come, Lord Jesus, at the end,
Time’s end, my end, forever’s start.
Come in Your flaming, burning power.
Time, like the temple veil, now rend;
Come, shatter every human hour.
Come, Lord Jesus, at the end.
Break, then mend the waiting heart.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Be Not Afraid

There were many times Mary and Joseph could have turned around and given up. Not because the journey was so hard, or the task of birthing the Messiah was too lofty, but because so many times along the way they were met with events that required much courage.

  • Mary tells Joseph about the special baby growing inside her womb. Should he go back on his betrothal?

  • Caesar announces a census in everyone’s hometown. Should they travel to Bethlehem, with Mary so pregnant?

  • They arrive in Bethlehem tired and dusty. It might be Joseph’s hometown, but they have nowhere to stay, no friends to help the delivery. How can they go on?

But then, the baby is born. And the angels cry out,

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
(Luke 2:10-11)
Amid the unpleasantness of a strange room, a manger for a bed, and swaddling clothes for newborn garments, a band of shepherds come to worship the newborn King, and all seems to be at peace.

This image is stamped across greeting cards and Christmas carols more than any other. But real-life uncertainties continued for the holy family. In fact, they were just kicking into high gear.

The Wise Men unknowingly informed King Herod about young Jesus when they asked,
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. (Matthew 2:2-4)
Instantly, Jesus became a rival, and Herod retaliated by issuing a death sentence for all young boys under two.

Another time where Mary and Joseph could have been paralyzed with fear. But an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13)

The road to Egypt was long and dangerous. The land, filled with foreign gods and unknown ways. Fear.

Jesus’ whole earthy life was met with contention and antagonism. Opportunities for fear. But Jesus’ time in human form is book-ended with the angels declaring: “Fear Not! Do not be afraid.” I think there’s a message in there for us.

A couple years ago I wrote about A Charlie Brown Christmas, specifically the scene where Linus is reciting from Luke 2. As he gets to the part about the angels, a strange thing happens. You have to really be watching to notice. Linus drops his blanket. The item he kept close for security and possibly even courage—he lets it go.

“Fear not!” said the angels. “Do not be afraid.”

I am really good at living in anxiety and fear. In fact, it’s the part of my character emphasized in the Enneagram.

If Jesus wasn’t God, I imagine he could have met his roadblocks with a similar mind. But instead, Jesus passed through His earthly reign as the Prince of Peace, heralded at the beginning and the end with the words, “be not afraid.”

Sometimes we need narratives like the accounts in Luke and Matthew to show us the truths we’ve been seeking all along. Authors like C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and J.R.R. Tolkien knew this. God, the author of life, knows this. We need to hear the angels say to the shepherds, “do not be afraid.” To hear Aslan whisper to Lucy, “courage, dear heart.” Or watch Vicky’s fear wash away as she swims with the dolphins in Grandfather’s cove. And observe Gandalf declare to Theoden, “Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair.”

Fear is a common part of human existence. Jesus knows this because he humbled Himself and become a man. He empathizes with us, helps us, comforts us, loves us. But fear is not the end of the story. The final chapter is yet to come, and it is then that darkness will meet its end.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Blue Christmas: Darkness and the “Christmas Star”

We did not see the star. Or rather, we didn’t see the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter known as the “Christmas Star.” A group of friends and I converged, masked, bundled up, and distanced, in the middle of a large field in the suburbs. That was where we thought the view would be best. And it probably would have been. If it hadn’t been so cloudy.

Long before I bundled up and drove 45 minutes in the sprinkling rain, I knew what I was going to write about tonight. Today was the shortest day of the year. Tonight is the longest night. In the church year calendar, some refer to tonight at Blue Christmas. It is a time to reflect and lament the hurt and brokenness that exists in our world and acknowledge that our God is a God who hears and sees us in our deepest need. In a way, tonight is the epitome of Advent.

As I was looking online for photos from those who did see the “star,” I ran across many Twitter posts with blurry, yet amazing snapshots of a bright spot in the sky. (Check out #StarofBethlehem or #ChristmasStar for yourself!) We stargazers were all looking for a glimpse of light, but the thing is, the best pictures were those taken from a position of deep darkness.

If Advent teaches us anything, it is this: we need darkness in order to more brilliantly see the Light.

At the end of this weary year, what a glorious thing for us to seek. A conjunction of planets shoots us right back to that night in Bethlehem. We can imagine we are the shepherds, or Mary, or Joseph, or the Wise Men. Or just an ordinary person in Judea, waiting for the Promised One.

One Twitter-poster said it best:

In the midst of so much pain. Jesus shows up. But He always shows up. We simply need to look. This symbol, which comes near Christmas, is a reminder of the season, His love and so much more.
Even hidden behind clouds and light pollution, we know the “Christmas Star” was there, shining bright. Isn’t that how life often looks?

There’s a verse at the end of the famed 1 Corinthians 13 Love passage that speaks to this:
For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
The “then” refers to “when the perfect comes” from verse 10. Perfect what? Perfect love. Paul finishes the chapter with this: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Scripture is full of contrasts. God knows how such comparisons help our brain rationalize more clearly and our hearts feel more deeply. Every darkness is intentional. Each brilliant light serves a purpose.
  • The land of Israel was in deep darkness. Until “on them a light has shone.”

  • Mary gave birth to Jesus in a strange town, in a leftover, dusty room. Until a brilliant star appeared to light the Bethlehem sky.

  • The shepherds watched their sheep on a dark hill as social outcasts and smelly misfits. Until a host of angels appeared and “glories streamed from heaven a far.”

The Light in Bethlehem was a symbol of God’s love.

In her essay “On them a light was shone,” Hannah Brencher remarks,
This light was embedded into the story hundreds of years before it even happened, through the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shone.”

. . . Of course, this light mentioned here is not the star in the sky but Jesus, himself, coming into the picture. It is through his coming-- him shaking up the story-- that the light pours through and gives us hope that better is on the way.
Tonight, the planets Jupiter and Saturn were the closest they’ve been in hundreds of years. Scientists theorize that such a convergence could have been how the Bethlehem Star shone so brightly 2000 years ago. We may never know.  But this we do know: We live in a broken world. And it often seems like we are staring at hope from behind a blanket of clouds or a dark, lonely place. But wait for the Light. It is there. It will shine. According to His great love.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Nearer Love

I had originally named my fourth Advent candle Joy, but upon reflection, the third candle became a combination of Proclamation and Joy. This, the final candle before Christmas, will be Love.

This season, my church is going through a sermon series based on Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly. A few weeks ago, this quote was shared from the pulpit:

Jesus is nearer to us now, than he was to the sinners and the saints two thousand years ago.

He is closer to us now than he even was to his mother, who held him softly that first Christmas night. As a baby so small, Mary and Joseph were the ones responsible to reach out, and make sure He was safe, and secure, and ok. The shepherds reached out, wanting to see for themselves the Messiah the angels had spoken about. Simeon and Anna reached out at the temple with prophecy and blessing. The wise men came, later, and reached out with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But now, Christ is the one who reaches out to us, in love.

Psalm 63:7-8, penned by Jesus’ ancestor David says,

Because you are my help,
    I sing in the shadow of your wings.
 I cling to you;
    your right hand upholds me.

Today’s sermon had an illustration from Ortlund’s book: a small boy holding hands with his father as he walks into the shallow end of a swimming pool. At first, the child is clinging to the father. Maybe he is a bit scared, or at least uncertain of his steps. But as the water gets deeper, the grip changes. Before long, it is the father who is holding tight. Keeping the boy safe, making sure he will not come to harm.

We were reminded that that is God’s love for us. Jesus came down, first as a baby and then as a man, in order to reach out, and take us by the hand.

In times of hardship, we don’t immediately think of God’s love. We go into survival mode. Our prayers turn to guttural cries for aid, release, and peace. But His love is there. And it is what sustains us, whether we realize it or not.

God’s love sent Jesus to earth. To a world full of sickness, and pain, fear, and regret. He did it on purpose. To provide a way for eternal nearness, salvation, hope, and grace.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Walking and Waiting

Walking. The idea came to me recently when I heard someone remark how walking has saved them during this pandemic.

Scripture is full of people walking. People journeying from point A to point B. We also refer to the spiritual life with walking motifs. I Googled “Advent and walking” and found countless resources on that theme: Walking Through Advent, Walking to the Manger, How to Organize an Advent Hike, Walking the Road to Bethlehem, and the list goes on.

Advent is a journey we take from Day 1 to Day 25. Each day is a mile marker as we make our own way to see the Christ child in the manger. The characters in the Christmas story encountered literal journeys full of walking as well. Mary probably walked to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah. Mary and Joseph walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with their donkey in tow. The shepherds herded their sheep all day, walking throughout the countryside. And the wise men walked the longest distance (or rode camels, either way someone in their party was walking), led by the light of the star.

If you are a walker, you know it is a slow undertaking. It is rarely a race, but a gradual movement towards a destination. Walking reminds us that Advent is like that as well. It is a time to slow down the pace of daily life and focus on the details that make up the journey to Bethlehem. Each step is deliberate, nothing we read or hear is unimportant. All the pieces are intentionally laid out to lead and grow us along the way. Walking involves waiting. And in Advent, we get a crash-course in what it means to wait well.

Evan Welcher, a pastor and poet from Iowa, has written extensively on the topic of Advent, waiting, and grief in his book Advent: a thread in the night. In an article he wrote for The Gospel Coalition, Welcher says,
Advent helps the saints to persevere until he who began a good work in us brings it to fruition (Phil. 1:6). It reminds us that prophets of old looked longingly into the future for the hope of Christ’s coming (1 Pet. 1:10–12). Their hope is the same hope we look back on. And like them, we also look to the future, awaiting his return.

For in the here and now we are sojourners in the valley of the shadow of death, plodding between the two advents of our God and King.

. . . Perhaps you have prayed, in the quiet hours of the night, "O Lord, how much sadness can be poured into one fragile human vessel, composed of little more than dust, before she irreparably shatters?"

Warm waves of resurrection will at long last thaw out and restore your tattered heart. So take heart, beloved. Resurrection day approaches.

Until then, though, we need Advent.

Advent is a walk we need. This year more than ever. As we near the end and approach Christmas day, many of our walks will continue to be characterized by waiting, sorrow, fear, and uncertainty. But as we take each step, let it be a saving force of Hope as well. Just like Paul Harvey’s story of The Man and the Birds (see my post from 2011), we have this assurance:

Jesus has come. And He will show us the way.  

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Completing our Joy

My small group has been meeting over Zoom and watching R.C. Sproul’s Dust to Glory video series, a survey of the major themes, events, and people in the Bible. In April, we landed in the Psalms. At the end, we discussed an idea found in C.S. Lewis’ book Reflection on the Psalms. In it he says,
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. . . It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . .
Praise completes the joy. This is why I like to share photos of the beauty I see around me on Instagram. It is why I share links for amazing music, articles, and ideas with family and friends. Not only am I celebrating what I enjoy, but I am drawing others into that enjoyment as well.

We see this throughout the Christmas story:

  • Mary, upon receiving the message of the Incarnation from Gabriel, could not keep her joy to herself and raced to meet Elizabeth.
  • The shepherds, upon hearing the Angel’s heavenly proclamation, ran to see this amazing thing for themselves, and then could not help but spread the word.
  • The wise men, upon discovering an extraordinary star in the sky, immediately set out to find the king it symbolized, so they could worship him.

We are people made to wonder, made to enjoy. And praise is the completion of that joy.
In an article written for The Cultivating Project, scholar and theologian Junius Johnson explores the idea of wonder and light in Advent. Though he doesn’t mention “enjoyment” or “praise”, I don’t think he is far off from Lewis’ view. He says,

The first work of Advent is not the transformation of the world into the wonderful, magical land of Christmas, but rather the revelation that the world is and has for quite some time been such a place. In our history, at a date and time we can roughly fix and at a place we can visit, God entered history, lived, died, and rose again. This world is therefore the greatest fantasy setting ever imagined.

Wonder shines, because wonder is light. All wonder is light, and all light is wonder-full, for every good gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights (James 1:17). Fundamentally, then, what we are watching for at Advent is the illumination of the world.
The arrival of the very Light of the World will illuminate all there is to see. As we reflect on the ultimate Gift God sent 2000 years ago, and the good gifts He continues to shine on us through the wonder of His grace, love, and mercy, this is a reminder that our response will influence our joy.

Lewis ends his reflection with this:
The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.
“Glory to God in the highest!” the Angels sang to the shepherds gathered outside Bethlehem. It was almost a command. Go and see Him: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

You will find Him. He is worthy of our worship. He is worthy of our praise.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Humble Flocks, Strong Shepherd

Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
    for a siege is laid against us.
They will strike Israel’s ruler
    on the cheek with a rod.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

 Therefore Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

 He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the LORD,
    in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

(Micah 5:1-4)
I used to wonder at God’s choice to first vocally announce Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds. But the longer I return to the Christmas story, the more I see the deep theology in His choosing lowly sheepherders.

Micah’s prophecy helps us unwrap these truths. Up until now, Micah’s message has been about the future and promised restoration of Israel. Now, in chapter five, he speaks of the One who will do the restoring.

When our strength fails, when we are humbled and humiliated, brought low and ashamed. That is when the Redeemer will come. He sees us in our weaknesses. And that is when He acts. That is where He meets us.

All of this is describing Israel, waiting for the Messiah, weak and dejected.

But is also a picture of the shepherds, living out in the Bethlehem fields.

Being a shepherd was not an esteemed career. It was dirty, smelly, and exhausting. The hours are non-stop. A warm, clean home with loved ones was but a distant memory. And all for what? A few sheep that will die of cold, be eaten by a wild animals, be killed for food, or be sacrificed at the temple. Job security wasn’t implied. A humiliating existence, really.

And it is for these that Jesus came.
It is to these that Jesus’ birth was first revealed.

As John Piper has said, “God is not constrained by human worth, achievement, or dignity.” Though He came as a baby, weak by anatomical standards, verse four says, the One to come will “stand and shepherd His flocks in the strength of the LORD.” Later in the Gospels, we hear Jesus called the Good Shepherd. He does not leave us to our own devices, unprotected from peril or death. These were terms they, and any rural dweller, would understand. In addition to being humiliating work, shepherds had to be quick, and strong, brave, and compassionate towards their sheep.

“And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.”

I no longer wonder at God’s choice to use the shepherds. It could have been no one else. A Shepherd announced to shepherds.

Like the shepherds, we all live humble and humiliated. Yet, as God chose them to be messengers that night, He chooses us to spread this Good News.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

(Luke 2:15-18)


(Inspired by Edgewater Baptist Church sermon, March 1, 2020)


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

"The First Coming"

There is a well-known poem by Madeleine L'Engle entitled "First Coming." I tend to share it every Advent. This year, as I was reading through Miracle on 10th Street, L'Engle's collection of Christmas writings, I stumbled across a similarly named poem: "The First Coming." This poem was first published in WinterSong, which she wrote with Luci Shaw.

Here is "The First Coming," in its Lineage of Expectation debut:

He came
throwing off glory
like fiery suns,
leaving power behind,
leaving the storms of hydrogen clouds,
the still-forming galaxies,
totally vulnerable
as he emptied himself.

She took him in—
into the deepest part of her being;
she contained the tiny Word,
smaller than the smallest
subatomic particle,
growing slowly
from immortality into mortality,
mother and child
together in the greatest act of love
the Maker could give the made.

Together they created
immortality from mortality
How? His father was Who?

He looked like any child
from the vulnerable top
of his tiny skull
to the little curling toes.

The whispered Word made
the sun and stars,
wind and water,
planets and moons, and all of us.
But he left this joy
to be

God With Us!
understanding lowly shepherds
and two old people in the Temple.
Later, three Wise Men—
one from each human race—
came, pondering,
Most of the powerful people
were skeptical at best
God become Son of Man? Nonsense.

Christ will come,
expected or unexpected,
when God is ready,
even while we are loudly demanding
signs and proofs
which close our hearts and minds
to the Wildness of Love.

Word of Love,
enter our hearts
as you entered the virgin’s womb.
Come, Lord Jesus!



Monday, December 14, 2020

Rebel Against the Darkness

Soon after the four Pevensie children arrive in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver whispers to them:

“They say Aslan is on the move— perhaps has already landed.”

When the children press for more information, Mr. Beaver recites a prophetic poem about the great Lion:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

It speaks of such longing, such expectation. It sounds like Advent.

“Always winter, but never Christmas,” the talking animals used to whisper.

As Christmas draws near, Advent invites us to long for Christ as the Narnians longed for Aslan. But the woodland creatures were not passively expectant. As always, we have much we can learn from between the covers of these Narnian tales.

In my daily search for Advent inspiration, I ran across a church in Ohio that used C.S. Lewis’ beloved children’s classic, along with Heidi Haverkamp’s Advent in Narnia to inspire their Advent devotionals. (I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it before. Maybe it’ll spark a series like my children’s Nativity books last year). In their devotional from December 23, 2018, the writer expounds on this section of the Narnian story:
As soon as they hear the words “Aslan is on the move,” the creatures of Narnia do two things: they celebrate, and they go to join him. (Even the Pevensies, who are not from this world and could very easily just turn around and go home, decide to join the cause.)

What began as whispers between squirrels and beavers and fauns has now become a full-scale rebellion against White Witch’s reign of fear and control—and that rebellion includes cake.

Isn’t it interesting to think of joy as rebellious?  

We live in a cultural moment when it’s easier to be angry than it is to be excited and joyful. Everyone is angry about something—and there is plenty to be frustrated about—but the ability to pause long enough to find joy, even in the midst of chaos, is rare indeed.

Perhaps what we need today is an Isaiah moment: a big, loud, raucous reminder that
Joy To The World isn’t just a nice song. It’s an invitation to join in the celebration, because as we speak, Jesus is on the move.
I have written a lot about ancient Israel’s disdain for their oppressors and their long wait for deliverance from whomever was in power at the time. But I don’t think I’ve ever thought of Jesus’ arrival as rebellion. Yet, back in the Garden of Eden, when sin first entered the world, God set a plan in motion to defeat sin once and for all. A rebellion—against the power of death and destruction.

When Jesus’ birth was foretold and when Mary and Joseph received His name, it was clear that this Messiah would do more than rebel against earthly authority. He was coming as a Savior, an Everlasting King, a Prince of Peace. But that is not the whole of His character. As Mr. Beaver later explains to the children, in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. . . “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you…  He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

When Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple for their purification, they are met my Simeon, an old man who had waited long for the consolation of Israel. Blessing the family, he said,

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35).

Not a warm, cheerful blessing for a new mother to hear. But I believe Mary had already begun to realize how different this child was going to be. His birth rebelled against Israel’s royal expectations. His message of peace would rebel against our sinful hearts. His great sacrifice and resurrection—surely a rebellion. And when He comes again—it will be a final rebellion against the powers of Hell. A tame lion? No. But He is good. All for His glory, and for our joy.

This Advent week we proclaim Joy! But Advent is also a rebellion against the darkness.

But I will echo a caveat that the Ohio church gave at the end of their devotional:
Joy will not come easily for many of us. We are missing loved ones, mourning loss. We are lonely, dealing with stresses and weaknesses, fears and complicated situations. But this is a reminder: that no matter what you carry, how low you feel, how many tears you cry, Jesus has come into the world for you. And He is the same Jesus who will hold you up, fight for you, right every wrong, and end every sorrow.


Sunday, December 13, 2020

At Our Height

Today we light the third candle of Advent. It is traditionally the Gaudete candle, the candle of Joy. I have named this the candle of Proclamation, marking the night that the arrival of embodied Joy was proclaimed.

The birth of Jesus could have been accompanied by global fanfare and festivities. Instead, the awaited Messiah’s arrival was rather unassuming. Two unknown people and a baby in a small, over-crowded town, with only a star to light their dirty dwelling, and only smelly shepherds to spread the word.

But God is the business of turning expectations upside down. And the birth of his Son was no exception.

Hannah Brencher writes about this in her essay, “Finally with Us”:
I always wonder why. Why so anonymous? Why far out from the crowds? Why in a secret place?

Because that’s the way our God moves a lot of the time.

Author Alicia Britt Chole writes, “The Father’s work in us does not sleep-- though in spiritual winters he retracts all advertisement. And when he does so, he is purifying our faith, strengthening our character, conserving our energy, and preparing us for the future.”

Though in spiritual winters he retracts all advertisement.
That line gets me every time I read over it.

I believe this is what was happening as Mary and Joseph prepared to give birth to their baby. God was doing something big. Actually, the biggest thing he’d ever done. But it didn’t come into the world looking how we expect the “big things” to look.
It came simply. It came unassumingly. It came out of a lowly place, an environment no one would think to enter into looking for a king.
Simple and unassuming. The opposite of what Christmas has unfortunately become for so many. But is in that lowly place, where the sparkle and noise can settle, that we are able to quiet our hearts and really hear the proclamation: Immanuel is born!

In the early 1970s, as his TV show was becoming a hit, Mr. Rogers was asked to help decorate Hallmark’s Christmas window in midtown Manhattan. After scoping out the location, he agreed. But his design was not what they were expecting. A recent article in the Washington Post records the story this way:
His [Mr. Rogers’] window display would be this: A Norfolk Island pine tree, the height of a three- or four-foot-tall child. No ornaments or decorations, just a simple green tree, planted in a clear glass Lucite cube so that onlookers could see the roots of the tree. And in front of it there was to be a plaque that simply said: “I like you just the way you are.”

. . . At first blush it seems beautiful, because it is: centered on a child, a tree just their height, reinforcing the message Rogers most desperately wanted his young neighbors to hear. Working to combat shame, isolation, trauma; working to help build resilience in the lives of kids he could never hope to reach one by one.
“In the middle of all the tinsel and lights, there was that little tree, all alone.”

Sounds like another tree I know, created by another famous individual dedicated to imparting truth for children young and old.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that A Charlie Brown Christmas holds a dear spot in my family’s heart. The TV classic centers on Charlie Brown and his friends as they try to pull together a Christmas play. But the stage will not be complete without a Christmas tree. So, Charlie Brown and Linus go trudging to the tree lot, in search of the perfect tree. Everything they find is too shiny or too tinny. And then they see it: a small, unassuming little tree. Not the tree Lucy would have chosen, for sure. But Charlie Brown thinks it’s perfect.

It mirrors Mr. Rogers’ tree in so many ways. The message of Christmas is not about consumerism or busyness. The wonder of Christmas can be found with child-like faith. All we need to do is kneel down beside the shepherds and see the humble arrival of the King of Kings. He has given us the gifts of imagination and hope to thread all the pieces together into a beautiful, full picture—worthy of any greeting card or stain-glass window. But it starts by drawing close.

Brencher concludes her essay with this:
We cannot discount what God is doing when it feels like nothing is happening. . . What we need to do is draw close. What we need to do is trust that, even when we cannot see the full story emerging, God is there. He is with us. Immanuel. He is totally and completely with us for the steps ahead.

I imagine that is what Mr. Rogers was picturing when he decorated his scene. A God who loves us so much that He entered human space at our height, in a way that we could understand. That is worthy of glorious proclamation.


Friday, December 11, 2020

Tendency and Tension

This year, I’ve relied a lot on being inspired by what I run across—books, articles, poems, songs. I didn’t set aside time to collect things the way I have in years past. And that’s ok. I’ve been able to write more this year than any other. But tonight I wanted to share some poetry. So I put on some choral music and went hunting. This is what I found. The first isn’t strictly a poem, but it’s close. They speak to the tension that is the Advent season. They speak to our tendency to shy away from the very things that will help us find our way.

The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come. In that Advent tension, the church lives its life.

- Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ

Toward the Light

Too often our answer to the darkness
is not running toward Bethlehem
but running away.
We ought to know by now that we can’t see
where we’re going in the dark.

Running away is rampant… separation is stylish:
separation from mates, from friends, from self.
Run and tranquilize,
don’t talk about it, avoid.
Run away and join the army of those who have already run away.

When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace
comes only when we turn and face the darkness?
Only then will we be able to see The Light of the World.

-Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Sovereign Serendipity

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

(Luke 2:1–5)
Eleven years ago (the first year writing this blog), I reflected upon the upcoming 2010 Census and compared it to the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. What an amazing thing to think of Jesus being listed in a Roman census!

This year our country underwent a census again. But its execution ended up drastically different from the initial plan. Human plans have that tendency. We cannot fully foresee things like pandemics, natural disasters, economic plight, social unrest. We have trouble factoring in the possibility of something we could have never imagined seeing in our lifetime.

When Caesar Augustus decreed that the whole world should be registered, he could not have known that he was bringing the actors of Christ’s birth story closer and closer to their intended setting. If we didn’t know any better, we could call it coincidence. I think it’s sovereign serendipity. A marvelously orchestrated puzzle in the Master’s hands.

A few years ago, John Piper compiled a PDF of daily Advent readings called Good News of Great Joy. The reading for December 4, “For God’s Little People,” speaks to just this theme:
Have you ever thought what an amazing thing it is that God ordained beforehand that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem (as the prophecy in Micah 5 shows); and that he so ordained things that when the time came, the Messiah’s mother and legal father were living in Nazareth; and that in order to fulfill his word and bring two little people to Bethlehem that first Christmas, God put it in the heart of Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world should be enrolled each in his own town?

Have you ever felt, like me, little and insignificant in a world of seven billion people, where all the news is of big political and economic and social movements and of outstanding people with lots of power and prestige?

If you have, don’t let that make you disheartened or unhappy. For it is implicit in Scripture that all the mammoth political forces and all the giant industrial complexes, without their even knowing it, are being guided by God, not for their own sake but for the sake of God’s little people — the little Mary and the little Joseph who have to be got from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God wields an empire to bless his children.

Do not think, because you experience adversity, that the hand of the Lord is shortened. It is not our prosperity but our holiness that he seeks with all his heart. And to that end, he rules the whole world. As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”

He is a big God for little people, and we have great cause to rejoice that, unbeknownst to them, all the kings and presidents and premiers and chancellors of the world follow the sovereign decrees of our Father in heaven, that we, the children, might be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.
How many times have we looked at the pandemic, or politics, or the economy, or the topic of races and equality and asked God why things haven’t turned out differently? God isn’t above using things like these to teach us lessons, but if we look at the dramatic events of 2000 years ago, we see that God wielded a very empire to show His love. This year has not gone the way we expected. But I’m confident that we will look back on these days and see miraculous channels of God’s sovereignty and grace. His timing is not our timing, nor are His ways our ways.

God is an advocate for those who feel insignificant and disheartened. He is a God of compassion with hands big enough to move mountains and shape all of human history. We need only remember that He sent flood and plagues, famines and war, exile and silence in order to move us closer and closer to the birth of His Son. And He has the mercy and strength to do it again.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Encouraged Joy

As soon as the angel left her, Mary “got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39b-40).

She wasted no time. There was no email, facetime, or even snail mail to transport what she wanted to share with her relative Elizabeth, and so she traveled there herself.

Though Mary had joyous news to share, there are two ways the meeting could have gone: celebration or competition.

I don’t know about you, but when I first read news of a friend’s engagement, pregnancy, job promotion, or other significant life event, I don’t always rush to congratulations. Often I am weighed down by feelings of inadequacy and comparison. I have to mentally kick myself and remember the love I have for my friend. This calls for celebration and joy, not pity, resentment, or rivalry.

Hannah Brencher, in her Advent essay, “Choosing to Cheer,” says,

God uses this moment in the text to bring together the lives of two women who both carried so much purpose-- Elizabeth and Mary-- for the sheer purpose of celebration.
I think about all the other ways this story could have played out. I think about all the opportunities they had to compete with one another or compare themselves to one another.
They don’t choose comparison or competition-- they immediately pick celebration.
Comparison is a fatal flaw that so many of us carry. Competition seems ingrained in our very society. Many of us feel like imposters in our own skin. But Brencher concludes, “When we choose to compare ourselves with [others], we take the focus off of God and what he is up to and we place it back on ourselves. We make ourselves bigger in the process instead of exclaiming the bigness of God.”

We just saw Mary proclaim deep faith in God’s enormous plan for the Messiah, but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t have been flawed like the rest of us. Gabriel shares that “even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child. . .” Thoughts like “why her?” or “but that makes my baby not as special” could flown through Mary’s mind. We don’t know what was going through Mary’s mind as she traveled to the Judean countryside, but when she arrives, Elizabeth greets her with pure joy:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
(Luke 1:42-45)
Elizabeth not only chooses celebration, but she showers Mary with encouragement. Not a beat passes and everything welling up inside Mary spills out. (Note that Luke describes Mary in 2:19 by saying, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”—a sure sign of a deep thinker and a deeper reflector). Now, it’s possible Mary could have proclaimed the Magnificat before Elizabeth burst out with her blessing, but I don’t think so. We all need encouragement, especially when the stakes are this high. Indeed, Ray Ortlund, in his Desiring God article, “The Surprising Ministry of Encouragement,” says, “Encouragement is what the gospel feels like as it moves from one believer to another.”

The meeting of Mary, Elizabeth, and their babies was nothing short of cosmic. And it confirmed that the One in Mary’s womb was truly destined to be the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

If infant Jesus, not yet born, had the power to spark such fruits of the Spirit in these women, how much more can we depend on the risen Christ and indwelt Spirit to guide us gently from the trenches of comparison and competition to the heights of celebration and joy?

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

They Mattered

One of two main women in the Christmas story, Mary lived at a time when women were not given much consideration. If not for God’s choice to include her in Jesus’ birth, I doubt she would have made it into Scripture. But, like I mentioned in the last post, nothing is happenstance for God. His choices are deliberate. And they are full of grace. The five women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy showcase this. Their inclusion was an incredibly rare occurrence. But before their names were ever written down, their lives were chosen to be a part of Jesus’ rich lineage. These women were not the ones we would have chosen as Christ’s descendants. They were scarred. They had criminal and embarrassing pasts. But God gave them the opportunity to reflect His mercy. He lifted them higher. He showed that they matter. He flipped the world’s expectations upside-down.

And so, when Mary encounters the angel Gabriel and he says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28), I bet you could have knocked her down with a feather. She, probably illiterate, living in the tiny rural town of Nazareth—to be called highly favored! It was not expected. Indeed, “Mary was greatly troubled at his words.”

But Gabriel, knowing the human tendency to fear, gently says, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God” (v. 30). I bet a lot of things rushed through Mary’s mind at this proclamation. As women, we are inclined to take a phrase and spin it in a thousand different directions before the sentence is even finished. Maybe Mary was thinking about a task she had left undone, or a dark path she didn’t like to walk alone. Maybe she was thinking about her family, and the weight of the taxes they had to pay to Rome each year. Maybe she was worried about her betrothal to Joseph.

When the angel said, “Do not be afraid,” did all those fears wash away? It certainty prepared her heart for what was coming next:

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.30-33)

Now, just like Zechariah, Mary asks, “How can this be?” But instead of being banished into silence, Gabriel goes on to explain: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” (v.35-37)

The Lord knew Mary’s heart. He knew she had faith in the Rock beneath her feet. And He also knew her uncertainty. Not because she doubted, but because, as a woman she had probably never been taught the same things about God’s character that Zechariah the priest had. What she said next came not from experience or foresight, but from deep faith:

“I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)

Do not be afraid.
No word from God will ever fail.
I have to believe that the presence of an angel, plus these words sent from God Himself had the power to produce a deep peace in Mary.

We don’t often encounter angels, but we can hear from God. Do we allow His words to affect us like they did Mary?

Madeleine L’Engle talks about this when she describes her experience with story.

When we try to define and over-define and narrow down, we lose the story the Maker of the Universe is telling us . . .

And that is how I want to read and write story. This does not mean that story deals only with cheeriness, but that beneath the reality of life is the rock of faith. I ask God to set me upon a rock that is higher than I so that I may be able to see more clearly, see the tragedy and the joy and sometimes the dull slogging along of life with an assurance that not only is there rock under my feet, but that God made the rock and you and me, and is concerned with Creation, every galaxy, every atom, and subatomic particle. Matter matters.

This is the promise of the Incarnation. Christ put on human matter, and what happens to us is of eternal cosmic importance. That is what true story affirms.

(Miracle on 10th Street, p. 77-78)
I don’t believe Mary was naively agreeing to God’s plan. When the angel spoke, I think he gifted her with the ability to see God holding all of Creation with this one decision to send His son. The tragedies, the joys, even the dull sloggings of life all matter. They mattered for those living the Lineage of Expectation, and they matter for us, awaiting Jesus’ second Advent. God does not waste what He has created.

Monday, December 7, 2020

To Not Remain the Same

When Zechariah was chosen to enter the temple and light the incense, it was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was weight to his task. It was not a daily routine for him. That day, he was the ambassador for the people, selected to lift up the nation’s prayers before the Almighty.

Nothing is happenstance for God. That day, that task, that man, were all appointed with a purpose and a plan.

Zechariah begins to light the incense, a prayer might have already been on his lips, when an angel appears out of nowhere. He is terrified. He was probably already quivering with nervousness as he sought to do the task correctly and reverently. But now an angel! Like angels are wont to do, he says, “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 1:13) Did it help?

And then the angel goes on: “Your prayer has been heard.” Which prayer? The prayer that was on the tip of Zechariah’s tongue? His petition for all the people of Israel? Or the prayer he and his wife had been praying for years and years without answer. The prayer for a child.


The angel says, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (v.13-17)

In that moment, God swung open the doors for his eternal plan. Israel had been waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been waiting. Now a baby was going to be born. Not the messiah—but His precursor. The one who would prepare the way. For nothing is happenstance with God.

The scene is perfect. Zechariah seems to be having the most amazing day. But then his sinful humanity encounters the awesomeness of God and he skids to a halt. “Are you sure?” he asks. To wait so long for something so big. This angel must be kidding.

This was Zechariah’s fatal mistake. Now we learn the name of the angel Zechariah has questioned: “I am Gabriel,” he says, “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (v.19-20)

As soon as I reread this portion of the story, a comparison between Zechariah’s silence and this year’s pandemic sprung to mind. Being without speech must have been incredibly isolating for Zechariah. He couldn’t perform his job as a priest. He had to write down anything he wanted to say. He couldn’t even praise God when he first saw it was all true. Elizabeth is the one who speaks praise instead: “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (v.25).

What did Zechariah’s silence do? What purpose did it serve? What have these months of isolation done for us? I don’t quite know. But I wonder if we will we emerge from a year of loneliness, fear, anxiety, and loss with praise on our lips like Zechariah did.

The events of the Christmas story were not happenstance. Why would the events of our lives, today, be any different?

I can’t speak for Zechariah, but I’m sure he learned to cherish his days and trust God’s providence more wholly after this. In his isolation, I imagine he spent quite a lot of time in silent lament before his Creator. At his own stupidity, at the nation’s hopes and needs. Those prayers in the temple he could not pray out loud, perhaps they ran through his mind in quiet meditation.  

Whether we believe it or not, we have been given a gift. Time has slowed. Seemingly important tasks, occasions, and ventures have paled. Priorities have shifted. Our perspective has been altered. Time will tell how much these events have changed us.

It’s been said that God loves us too much to let us remain the same. I doubt Zechariah felt loved by God when the angel proclaimed silence upon him. But when he finally had the chance to speak again, his heart knew. Uttering joy at the birth of his son, he burst into prophecy:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
    the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
    in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

(Luke 1:67-79)

Because of the tender mercy of our God.

(Inspired by Hannah Brencher's Advent essay, "No Random Days").

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Preparing the Way

This second week of Advent is about preparation. After waiting hundreds of years for the Messiah, the stage has been set. But one more thing remains: Someone to prepare the way.

Throughout the history of God’s people there had always been a prophet, a representative between God and man. Now, after 400 years of silence, a new kind of messenger emerges. In the last prophecy of the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi declares, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” (Malachi 4:5).

Because of this, many were on the lookout for a returning Elijah. Even today, in Jewish homes during Passover, it is customary to leave a space for the great prophet and open the front door in hopeful expectation. But the messenger Malachi calls “Elijah” has already come. His name was John.

Much later in the story, John will become John the Baptizer. This is where the author of Mark brings John into the story. He is an adult, living in the wilderness like Elijah his predecessor, preparing the way for Jesus. Mark opens with a combined prophecy from both Malachi and Isaiah:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
(Mal. 3:1)—
 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”
(Is. 40:3)

But before John was a “voice calling in the wilderness,” he was a hoped-for babe. Luke is the only Gospel author to record John’s entry into the world. Indeed, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story of expectation and faith feels so needed, so necessary for the story of Jesus’ birth. Even before John is born, he plays a necessary part. From within his mother’s womb, he prepares the way as one of the first witnesses to the coming Christ.

John and Jesus. Cousins. Similar yet unique. Deeply connected, their stories intertwined in magnificent ways. And it all begins with their births. One longed for, One an utter surprise. Both foretold. Both real humans who walked the same ground many still tread today. Born at a time when baby’s lives were fragile and their futures unsure.

We are thinking about the fragility of life a lot right now. A pandemic will do that. Nothing seems certain.

Throughout this long season of stay-home orders and social distancing, I’ve been re-watching a lot of my favorite TV shows. One of them is Call the Midwife. If you’ve never watched it, I highly recommend you do. It is at the same time gentle and raw, heart-breaking and inspiring. In every episode, babies are brought into the world with the aid of midwives from the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus. Some are longed for, others fall into line behind multiple siblings already scrambling for food, love, and care. The stories are narrated at the beginning and end by the main character, all grown up, reflecting on her (and the other midwive’s) experiences. In season eight, Jenny’s words during the Christmas special suddenly struck me as perfect for Advent. So I re-wound and re-wound until I copied them just right:
None of us have ever truly walked this way before.
But if there is no map, no route,
no arrowhead to follow there is sometimes a star.
And we do not make our way without companions.
As the road unfolds, we travel side by side
and share the shift from darkness into light.
We often think of Jesus as a lone individual on Earth. He walked around with the Trinity (invisible to human eyes) always by His side. Jesus didn’t need John as a companion for his journey from birth to death. But we do. We need someone to travel by our side, to prepare the way. Before the curtain lifts and we see the Christ child in the manger. Before the star shines brightly above Bethlehem. Before the angels sing their Hallelujahs, we need to know that baby John leaped for joy at the mere presence of his King.

The Christmas story is so familiar to us. May we not forget that every detail of the narrative was planned by the same God who hung the stars in the sky. There are no mistakes, no details too small, no concepts too big. If there is a character tasked with preparing the way, then we better we ready for something “great and awesome” to come.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Born, Your People to Deliver

 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners

    (Isaiah 61:1)
Around 700 years after Isaiah penned theses words, Jesus stood up in the synagogue, read this passage and then announced, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21).

When the angel of the Lord first visited Joseph, seeking to calm his fears about taking an already-pregnant wife, he also issued a huge surprise: “. . . You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) This was not an ordinary baby. He would not receive an ordinary name.

Though there is sometimes confusion about the translation of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus, it is clearly implied by the angel’s message that the name means Yahweh saves.

Earlier this week I read a Desiring God article, “The Name God Gave His Son”, in which David Mathis speaks about this very topic. He writes,
“That this unique child’s name would be Yahweh saves was understandable for Joseph. Of course, God’s people needed saving — from the Gentiles. From the Romans who ruled over them; from local puppets of Caesar, like Herod and Pilate.”

Indeed, Isaiah proclaims in chapter 9, verse 6,
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

However, Jesus’ name and purpose was never about military might or royal rule. Long before He was given the name Yeshua, Isaiah recorded God’s intent:
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14)

Immanuel, God with us. In the wake of the Babylonians, the Persians, Medes, Greeks, and now Romans, how easily the Israelites had forgotten the sustaining power of God’s presence. He didn’t want them to think of salvation from a conquering hero, like their ancestor, David. He wanted them to remember was His presence with them in Egypt that fateful night when the lamb, the door frame, and the blood was all it took for captivity and death and darkness to pass over.

"For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life" (Leviticus 17:11).

Mathis concludes,
“And so, the Messiah came not simply to provide a different rescue than the nation expected, but to provide a far more important salvation. . . He [Jesus] is the one, singular figure long anticipated by king David and the prophets. And yet he is even more — exceedingly more — than they anticipated, more than they could ask or think.”

Circle back to Joseph, hearing the angel’s words for the first time; to Mary already knowing what the angel proclaimed: His name will be Jesus. God saves. He will be called Immanuel. God with us.

When Isaiah penned those words, he could not have known. When Mary and Joseph heard His name, when they laid Him in the manger, when the wisemen presented Him with incense, they could not have dreamed—that their son would give up His life, as like a lamb, to overcome darkness, sin, and death once and for all. A new salvation had come.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Something Greater to Come

The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon given on December 2, 1928
This year I see people drawn to Advent more than ever before. We are troubled souls seeking solace, a place to lay our grief, our anxiety, our worry, our longing. Scripture is filled with stories of calamity and chaos, waiting and fear. While this year may seem to us unparalleled, it has not been a surprise to God. Just as He knows every wayward heart that led to the Flood, every brick the Israelite slaves laid in Egypt, every pluck of the harp as David cried out the Psalms, He knows and sees us taking one step at a time in humble fear. Through all the pain, perhaps this year has provided some necessary perspective. For as Bonhoeffer advises, Advent blossoms more fully in our hearts when we are yearning for “something greater to come.”

In 2016, I wrote these words, which appear on Day 1 of my collection of Advent reflections. As my family gathered on Zoom to chat, play some games, and mark the first night of Advent, my mom read this selection. It resonated loudly. Perhaps we need to hear it again:
Advent is a time when we can climb into the pain with those who are hurting; kneel beside those who are weeping; scream at the injustice of it all; question God’s timing . . . and then stand up, re-read the message of the prophets, and look upward with expectation. We can trace Christ’s lineage from its humble, broken, weary beginnings, and see the residue of God’s faithful plan in each life He touched. The best part, is that He holds our lives as dearly as He held Jacob’s, and Ruth’s, and David’s, and Hezekiah’s. Their story is our story this Advent. We have all walked in deep darkness, but on us, a great Light shines.
As we celebrate Advent this year, may we embrace our roles as weary, weak, and flawed and inhabit the story of Christ’s incarnation in such a way that we become signposts for the Light. Signposts for God’s work, here on Earth. And signposts for the greatest Advent, the Advent still to come.


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Stumps and Stars

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)
I don’t know if you’ve looked at a tree stump recently. I was about to say, “me neither”, when I remembered the huge storm/tornado Chicago experienced this summer. Hundreds of trees around the city were felled by a single hour of wind, rain, and hail. Left behind were stumps, signs that the trees was no longer living. Their growth had been cut off.

This is what Isaiah is describing. This mighty tree of Jesse’s line . . . it has become a stump. Ancestry was especially important to the people of ancient Israel. But the royal line of David faltered. Time passed. The reign of Jesse’s son became but a glorious memory.

But wait! Isaiah foretells of a time when a shoot will spring forth from the dormant tree stump. A shoot with such strength and might that its new branches will bud, and blossom, and bear fruit! Hope is not lost.

J.R.R. Tolkien called this a eucatastrophe. It is the opposite of a catastrophe. When all hope appears to be lost, a sudden reversal of events changes the story’s trajectory, for good. The lineage of slaves, wanderers, shepherds, kings, and exiles becomes a lineage of expectation, awaiting the final Son.

Fast forward to the book of Revelation. In chapter 22, Jesus says,
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Revelation 22:16).
This is only the second time Jesus is recorded as calling himself by name. He is making His position clear, drawing not only from his time on Earth as a descendant of David’s line, but from Isaiah’s centuries-old prophecy about who the Messiah would be.

But that is not the only thing Jesus proclaims. After affirming His lineage, He says, “I am . . . the bright morning star.”

There is a proverb, first penned by 17th century English theologian Thomas Fuller that goes, “It is always darkest just before the dawn.” While this is not a scientific fact, it is in line with the motif of Jesse’s stump. From death to life; from darkness to light. When Jesus identifies as the Bright Morning Star, He is heralding His return as the dawn of a new day.  2 Peter 1:19b reminds us, "You will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." When the Bright Morning Star begins His final reign, we will have no more need of prophecies and stars, of wisemen or kings.

I’ll end with a poem. Right around Advent last year, I stumbled upon Amelia’s website, Innocence Abroad, when a poem of hers was shared by The Rabbit Room. I was immediately drawn in and inspired. This is a kindred spirit! I knew I wanted to share some of her Advent poetry on my blog. So with her permission, here is “Await”:

by Amelia Freidline
through ages long we wait the One
whose coming will mean night is done
with the morning’s dawn
sorrow will be gone
and ever on
rise the Son

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Absurd and the Divine

When I began this Advent blog in 2009, one of the greatest motivations was to build a space to reflect and share the plethora of Advent poems and quotes I was finding online.

In general, I’m not a big poetry person, but Madeleine L’Engle’s poetry—especially her Advent poetry—is some of my favorite verse. It is at the same time gritty and ethereal, cosmic and humble, vulnerable and sacred. And her prose is the same.

Poetry helps transport us to a mental and emotional space ready for the mystery of Advent. Honestly, who could have thought up a star, some shepherds, and globe-trotting wisemen to herald the arrival of God’s son? It could be fantasy, science fiction, or at the very least magical realism. But no, it is the intentional, precise story that God chose to tell. Poetry helps us open our hands a little wider, to receive the absurd along with the divine.

Here is one of L’Engle’s poems called "The Glory," which I first posted on the second Advent Tuesday in 2009, and recently read in her Christmas anthology, Miracle on 10th Street.