Saturday, December 25, 2021

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Thank you for sharing this Advent journey with me!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Blue Christmas: Wearily We Look to the Light

During a Passover Seder meal, it is traditional to spill a bit of wine from your glass at the mention of each of the ten plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians. The leader often says something like this: “We cannot allow ourselves to drink a full measure. Our own loves are diminished bye the recollection of this catastrophe. We express our sorrow that the Egyptians had to suffer punishment.”

So too with Blue Christmas.

Christmas and the season of Advent leading up to it are all about hope, peace, joy, and love. Those are the traditional names of the candles we light around the Advent wreath. But there is great suffering in this world. And it must be both acknowledged and grieved.
And so, on December 21 we set aside the longest night of the year to do just that.

But we don’t sit in darkness in self-deprecation. We recognize that the darkness of night makes the light of dawn so much more anticipated and awesome.

The other day as I was scrolling through Instagram, I happened upon a suggested post from ShannanWrites. She said, “Without the weariness, there is no thrill of hope.”

She, of course, is referring to the first verse of O Holy Night:

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
I think we can safely safe we live in a weary world. And it appears wearier still from the effects of political unrest, racial tensions, economic hardship, and an on-going pandemic.

But in the “good times,” we have no need for hope. It’s only in desperate circumstances that we cling to hope that things might change for the better. This dichotomy is so striking. God is forever in the business of Light, but He permits the darkness so that we can better see the Brightness that has always been shining. We can call Him by name: Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12)--God with Us, Immanuel.

Tish Harrison Warren speaks often of this in her book, Prayer in the Night. I did not imagine this would be an Advent book, but so many themes have aligned this year. Allow me to share a few passages (note that all page numbers are from the eBook version):
“Mysteriously, God does not take away our vulnerability. He enters into it. Jesus left a place where there is no night to enter into our darkness. . .  To look at Jesus is to know that our creator has felt pain, has known trouble, and is well acquainted with sorrow. But our hope in suffering is not merely to gaze on the biography of an ancient man frozen in the pages of the Bible. The story of the gospel is not a mere mantra or a relic of history. It is alive and on-going. The work of Jesus continues, even now, in our everyday lives. So in hardship we do not look to Jesus solely as one who has been there before, once upon a time in a distant past. We find he is here with us, in the present tense. He participates in our suffering, even as, mysteriously, in our suffering we participate in the fullness of Christ’s life. (p. 92-93)

The hope God offers us is this: He will keep close to us, even in darkness, in doubt, in fear and vulnerability. He does not promise to keep bad things from happening. He does not promise that night will not come, or that it will not be terrifying, or that we will immediately be tugged to shore. He promises that we will not be left alone. He will keep watch with us in the night. (p. 103)

Redemption itself does not skip over the darkness, but demands that every last tear run. (p. 157)

As Christians, we take up watching as a practice, a task even. We stay on the lookout for grace. We proclaim that even in the deepest darkness there is one we can trust, who will not leave us. We believe that even if the worst comes to pass there is a solidity to beauty, to God himself, that will remain. Our posture of waiting does not deny the horrors of the night, but it bets on the morning to come. . . So, we pray for those who watch. (p. 165)

May we hold onto this truth. And let us pray this night for those who watch, and wait, and weep, weary and wore down by a myriad of weights. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.



Monday, December 20, 2021

Tolkien's Lost Christmas Poem

In 2016, a school principal from Abingdon, Oxfordshire found a long-lost Christmas poem by J.R.R. Tolkien. The poem had been published in a 1936 school magazine. 

I haven't shared very many Advent poems this year, so let's remedy that.

Here, I present: "Noel" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind, the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.


Sunday, December 19, 2021

Intrusions of Glory

R.C. Sproul had a well-known teaching series through the Bible called From Dust to Glory. Paraphrased, he says, “God’s glory is set above the heavens and displays His majesty, but then when He comes to this world, He sets aside His glory and takes the role of a servant.” The natural progression is from humility to exaltation. But in the supernatural event of the Incarnation, the trajectory is reversed. Jesus set aside His glory. And yet the glory of God is all around the story of Christ’s birth.

In his sermon on the Transfiguration of Christ—I know that’s a later story, but follow me here—Sproul describes the event as a “intrusion of glory.” But he names another, found earlier in Luke chapter 2: The angels’ appearance to the shepherds.

Let’s back up for a second and take a look at the Transfiguration.
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”
(Luke 9:28-35)
Jesus in dazzling white light. The ones who wrote the law and the prophets arrive from history past to meet with the One who would fulfill it all. Clearly an intrusion of glory. But Jesus’ glory is not just a reflected glory. He is Himself the source of the Light, it is coming from His very being. Sproul calls this, “Jesus’ divine nature breaking through the veil.”

And when the disciples see all this, God’s glory—Jesus’ glory—they are ready to act. They are called to action, though misguided in the moment. The three have no need for first century tents. Moses and Elijah know about God in a tent, and that way of securing the Lord’s presence is no longer needed. The King needs no tent, for He is the exact imprint of the Father, chosen and perfect in light.

How does this compare to the New Testament’s first “intrusion of glory”?
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

(Luke 2:8-15)
The angels dazzling in the Lord’s glory light. Proclaiming the fulfillment of the prophecies, the salvation promised to the Patriarchs.

And here we have the same turning point. Once the shepherds saw the glory of God, they were ready to act. To find the Chosen One, that the Lord made known to them.

Both times, the glory is revealed to the laborer—the fisherman and the shepherds. Jesus had other work for the fishermen, Peter, James, and John. And their vocations changed. I wonder if the shepherds continued their careers caring for sheep. If we know anything from the Gospels, it’s that the glory of God transforms. Either way, the shepherds would never be the same again.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Like a Christmas Tree

At the beginning of Advent I read through a book I found in my church library. It was Max Lucado’s Because of Bethlehem. I really haven’t read much by Lucado, apart from his children’s books. But there it was, so I thought I’d see what I could glean for this year’s Advent reflections.

I read this passage nearly three weeks ago. But today it preached to my heart. There are things I don’t understand about where God has placed me in this new season. I feel a bit like the forlorn Christmas tree in the beloved TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. I feel misplaced, not quite right for the task in front of me, a little lonely. But that is not how the tree ends up. Because Charlie Brown cares. And he cares for the tree.

Many of us decorate a tree to celebrate Christmas. I’m not here to discuss the historical roots (pun intended) of the practice, both secular and sacred. But just as we can draw Truth from Creation, so too can we render it from the image of a Christmas tree.

Allow me to quote at length from Lucado’s book:

In the manger God loves you; through the cross God saves you. But has he taken you to his home? Not yet. He was work for you to do. He wants the world to see what God can do with those purchased through Christ’s sacrifice.

So . . . he prunes you.

He takes an ax to your prejudices and clippers to your self-pity, and when there is a tilt in your character that needs to be removed, he’s been known to pull of the old Black & Decker. Jesus said
, "My Father is the gardener . . . He trims and cleans every branch that produced fruit so that it will produce even more fruit" (John 15:1-2 NCV).

Once He stabilizes us, the decorating begins. He festoons us with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). He crowns us. Most people crown their Christmas trees with either an angel or a star. God uses both. He sends His angels to protect us and His Word as a star to guide us.

Then he surrounds us with His grace. We become His depot, the distribution point of God’s gifts. He wants no one to leave our presence empty-handed. Some people find the gift of salvation. For others the gifts are smaller: a kind word, a good deed. But all the gifts are from God.

Our task is to stand tall in His love, secure in our place, sparkling in kindness, surrounded by His goodness, freely giving to all who come our way.

You, me, and the Christmas tree. Picked, purchased, and pruned.

(p. 125-127)

May we trust in God’s work, rest in His care, grow with His love, and find hope in His Light. Now and forever more.


Friday, December 17, 2021

Creator and Created

This week I began a new job at a new library branch, and it’s been hard. I don’t do well with change, and this new location is all sorts of different.

There are a lot of semi-religious platitudes that could be spoken into my experience. But instead, I am trying to think of something in the Nativity story that could speak to into this struggle. We are in the middle of Advent, after all.

I could write about Mary and how radically different her life became after the angel Gabriel appeared to her. Or Zechariah, having to completely shift the way he communicated for nine months, not knowing if and when he would be delivered from his muteness. I might even think on Jesus, experiencing a new identity as a human baby after inhabiting the expanse of the heavens.

But I think what I want to focus on is the life-giving thing that I’ve found in the midst of feeling unsettled.

The first day at my new branch I unintentionally began working on a holiday display about an hour and a half before closing. It was a simple and cute sign with a reindeer in the middle. It turns out, I really needed those minutes of designing and arranging, cutting and pasting. I left feeling like things could be okay. All because I allowed my brain to engage in something creative. To build and shape and imagine.

Today when that hour and a half time rolled around, I intentionally began working on a new bulletin board. Taping and stapling, cutting, and arranging. One of the after-school kids even came over and asked if I needed help. So I put him to work taping up the winter trees I had just made.

How does this connect to the Advent narrative?

I think it’s the whole point. God began work on an intricate and highly creative story when He decided (long ago back in the Garden) to send a Redeemer to save His people. Every step of the way was something completely new that God had never done before. From Abraham to David, from Solomon to Josiah, from Jechoniah to Joseph. Unheard of promises, unique leading characters, strange means and methods, the rise and fall of empires, circumstances no one could have imagined, the miraculous and the mundane. All so that the Son would arrive in a manger in Bethlehem.

I don’t think it was an accident that Jesus’ earthly father was a carpenter. Jesus spent the first 30-ish years of his life on Earth learning and creating, working with his hands. And when His ministry began, He plied that same sense of creativity, originality, and joy in everything He said and did. The Word made flesh, Creator, Teacher, Mediator, the Bright and Morning Star, the image of the invisible God, the Way, the Truth and the Life, Immanuel.

To say we serve a creative God is an understatement. How much can we learn from Creator in the flesh?

In her book, Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren quotes from English author and teacher, Francis Spufford and then goes on to say:
“’We don't have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story.’ This is why, no matter what we claim to believe or disbelieve, what rises to the surface in our most vulnerable moments is inevitably the story on which we build our lives” (p. 88).
We are weak and vulnerable every day, some moments worse than others. But we are also creative beings, formed by a Creator God, saved by the Firstborn of all Creation. That is our story.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
- Colossians 1:15-17



Monday, December 13, 2021

A Lowly Savior

My small group has been slowly (for the last year) reading through Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly. Some of you may have heard of it. But it’s surprising that a book based on Puritan writings about Christ would be so popular last year—it must have been the impact of living through a pandemic. Stretched thin by anxiety and worry, people have been drawn to the image of the tender heart of God.

In some ways, the book is a perfect book for Advent. If we call Jesus “gentle and lowly” we can’t help but acknowledge his earthly beginning from the depths of a manger.

Ortlund writes, “Although his ways are higher than our ways, the way in which his thoughts are higher than ours is that we do not realize just how low he delights to come” (p.162). He then quotes from Isaiah 57:

Thus says the one who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
 and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive this heart of the contrite.

(Isaiah 57:15)
“Where is the heart of God, the unspeakably exalted one, naturally drawn, according to Isaiah?” He continues, “To the lowly. When Jesus showed up 700 years after Isaiah prophesied and revealed his deepest heart as ‘gentle and lowly,’ he was proving once and for all that gentle lowliness is indeed where God loves to dwell. It is what he does. It is who he is. His ways are not our ways.” (p. 162)

When I read this passage, it reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in his book, Miracles:
“In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down from humanity; down further still, if the embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.” (p. 173, 179)
Who are the lowly? We are. And why do we call Jesus lowly? Because he descended to lowliness to be with us. It is our very weakness and sinfulness that prompted the Lord of all the Universe to make a way; calling His own Son lowly so that He could bring us salvation for all eternity. That is love. Immanuel.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

And They Shall Rejoice

Today we light the third candle on the Advent wreath. It is traditionally called the Gaudete candle—the candle of rejoicing.

What does “rejoice” even mean? It is not a word we use often in modern English. To rejoice is to “feel or show great joy or delight.”

But if you’re anything like me, these last years of the pandemic have made rejoicing pretty difficult. The things we celebrate have changed. We might rejoice over routine accomplishments like getting out of bed in the morning; or feel joy over a delicious cup of tea or coffee; we can shout for joy over a negative COVID test.

But I think the Christian tradition of rejoicing goes deeper than that. This past Spring our church did a sermon series through the book of Zechariah (not to be confused with the Zechariah of Luke 1 and 2).

Prophesying to the people after their return from the exile in Babylon, Zechariah provided messages pertaining to both their immediate and distant future. Mixed among the themes of rebuilding the temple are some of the clearest and most numerous passages about the Messiah in the minor prophets. Zechariah brings messages of hope and restoration for the people of God—exactly what they need after being apart from God’s presence for so long.

And so that is one of their first goals: to rebuild the temple, the dwelling place of the Lord. Enter Zerubbabel, from the line of David, and governor of Judah. Quickly he sets to work on reconstruction. Funny how so many from this kingly line find their occupations tied to the building of this temple. And it was so, until the final descendant, Jesus Christ, will build for us a new temple, and eternal place with Him.

But Zerubabbel just as fallible as his ancestors, and so God reminds him: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6b). The people’s expectations of what a rebuilt city should look like were so small and basic compared to what God had in mind.

“The Christian life is being called to be a craftsman,” our pastor explains. “None of our work done in faith, is done in vain. God’s design has no limits.”
And so, God spoke to Zechariah:
“The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line [a measuring tool] in the hand of Zerubbabel.” (Zechariah 4:9-10a)
For whoever despised the day of small things shall rejoice. Great joy and delight. Not from anything the people accomplished, but all from the Lord.

Do you ever wonder at Jesus’ earthly occupation? Scripture tells us he was a carpenter or tradesman. He built things with His own two hands. Can you imagine?

In her book, Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren reflects on this idea. She says,
“Jesus spent time, decades even, building stuff. Jesus was a tradesman. A builder who used his hands. God came to earth and apparently thought it worth his while to take some wood or stone or metal and make something. What did he make? We have no idea. Apparently nothing earth shattering enough to have kept around. But in this dark world, where men and women were dying, or the poor were suffering, where injustice raged in a vast and violent empire, God became flesh and built some furniture. During all those decades that he spent building things, he wasn't preaching, healing, or clearing out temples. He wasn't starting a movement or raising the dead. The light came into the darkness and did ordinary work. All of Jesus’ work brought redemption. Not just the work that odd the crowds, the feeding of the multitude, the sermon on the mount, the raising of Jairus’ is daughter, but also his quiet craft. (eBook, p. 233-234)
And with each finished product, I imagine Him rejoicing and saying, “and it was good!”

We may never see the fruit of God’s movement in our lives, but as a collective body of Christ, we will know and celebrate the work. So take courage and rejoice, your labors of faith are not in vain.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Stable Mess

We have curated the Nativity scene to fit our needs. It is often clean and cozy, gentle and serene. But that is the opposite of what Jesus’ first night on earth would have been like. Even from the distance of a stable or cave or whatever the shelter was, there was the unmistakable din of the sound of thousands of people descending into narrow streets of Bethlehem. It was a Census year, after all.

The stable would have been loud. The mooing of cows, the clucking of chickens, the uncomfortable rustle of straw. Not to mention the annoyingly bright star that shown overhead, when all new parents would want was some peace for their new baby to fall asleep. They must have forgotten, in the thick of things, that the Prince of Peace was right there with them in the chaos.

Maybe they could hear the herald from the angels, as a shepherds received the good news. But how much less were they expecting visitors when they had still to wipe up the muck of birth, when Mary was still damp with the sweat of such a midwife-less feat.
But God does not make mistakes. He could have made it easier; simpler for a young woman and her husband to have a baby who would grow up to be the Savior of the world. But instead, God embraced—even chose—the mess.

All through December I run across wonderful Advent one liners as I read books and articles and posts on social media. Last week I saw this one, a quote from pastor and author Ashlee Eiland. She wrote: “Your mess is a suitable stable for the Light of the world.”

If it wasn’t, God would have become Immanuel some other way. Despite what those in Herod’s palace thought, God’s son was not going to be cradled in marble halls and clothed with fine robes. He came to be like us; He came to be with us. His birth, life, and death were messy—all so that He could show us the way. And in His resurrection we have this hope of heaven:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
- Revelation 21:3-5
We have this assurance: The King who traded the glory of the Throne for the mess of a stable, He is coming again, and this time He will bring order to the chaos, unsnarl the tangles, cleanse the stains, restore the fragments, and redeem the ruined.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Behold the Lamb

One of my favorite things about Advent is finding seemingly serendipitous connections between the Old Testament and the Nativity story. Today’s reflection is no exception. Except it might not all be true. . .

Being a librarian, I know the value to going back to the original source. For most of what we learn about Christ’s birth, that comes from the pages of Scripture. Some things are historical and backed up by archeology. But this story is hard to pin down. A little bit from the extra-Biblical Mishnah, some from messianic rabbis and theological writers, but most passed along on blogs like this one.

Regardless, it is a fascinating thing to consider, so I will share it:

In the fields of Bethlehem, there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks—we know this from Luke chapter 2. But what if they weren’t ordinary shepherds. Many believe that the nearness to Jerusalem means the sheep kept in this region were meant for high holiday sacrifices at the temple, most specifically Passover. Temple-appointed shepherds, if you will.

There are no recorded laws about the shepherds keeping sheep for the sacrifice, only what the lambs were to look like: without blemish or spots. Whether of not priests had assigned the shepherds to that Bethlehem field, I have no doubt that at least some of these lambs made their way to Jerusalem for sacrifice.

But here’s the most interesting part: Some believe that to keep the blemishless lambs clean, the shepherds would wrap them in “swaddling clothes,” maybe even leftovers from used priestly garments, and to keep from injury, they would lay them in a manger.

When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they say,
“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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10b-12)
Not very specific directions. One part of this story sheds light on that. Many believe the “Tower of the Flock” from Micah 4:8 is Migdal Edar, a specific structure for birthing and determining the lambs for sacrifice on the outskirts of Bethlehem. With the information that the baby would be “wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger,” there was only one place matching that description, and the shepherds would have known where that was.

Again, these will likely remain just theories, so take them with a grain of salt. But, they are super fascinating to think about and help point us to what we do know. Scripture is full of parallels between Jesus and the sacrificial lamb. Indeed, “the story of the lamb” as Tim Keller put it in his 2002 sermon by the same name, is a Bible-long story. He says, “At the very center of Biblical faith is the bloody death of an innocent victim.” God cannot forgive without payment—someone had to bear the price.

During the Exodus, God tells Moses He is sending a massive destructive force (death) against the Egyptian firstborn sons, and the only way the Israelites could protect themselves was with the blood of a lamb, spread across the doorposts of their houses. The lamb paid the price, on behalf of the Hebrew sons. But this was not the last chapter. As incredible as this Passover lamb was, they needed a deeper one, for a more radical and long-lasting salvation.

Fast forward to the Last Supper, where Jesus essentially tells His disciples, “I am the Lamb.” Keller imagines Jesus’ actions and words during the Passover meal to say, “My death will be the central event to which all of the history of God’s relationship with the world has been moving.”

Hannah Brencher concludes her essay on this very topic with this: “He [God] doesn’t pick random locations. . . He picked the breeding grounds for Passover lambs to be the birthing grounds for the lamb of God-- blood poured out for all of us.”

Bethlehem was chosen for a reason. The image of shepherds and sheep throughout Scripture were chosen for a reason. Regardless of theorized details in this story, we can confidently join John the Baptist and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Implausible Journey

Yesterday while “weeding” children’s nonfiction at the library (looking for outdated and damaged books to discard), I ran across a fun book called Packs. It describes various groups of animals; what they are called and how they function as a community. On one page I read that a herd of wildebeests is called an implausibility. Can you believe that? This mostly useless fact seemed to jump off the page at me. “That’s something for the Advent blog!” it shouted.

Wildebeests, also called gnus, are large African antelopes. One online article describes them as “one of nature’s most befuddling quadrupeds… with the thick, horned bust of a buffalo, the spindly legs and wispy tail of a horse, and the scraggly whitish beard of a wizard.” They are itinerant enigmas, migrating up to 1,000 miles a year, across dangerous routes filled with predators.

Now for the word, implausibility—"the quality of being unlikely or difficult to believe.”

Sounds like the Incarnation to me.

There is a quote from Charles Spurgeon that goes something like this: “See how low He fell to lift us from our fall!”

Jesus didn’t just journey as a fetus from Nazareth to Bethlehem, He shattered the dimensions of time and space by traveling from Divine to Divine Incarnate. A huge distance. For us. To identify with us and vanquish the powers of sin and death for eternity. Sounds a little implausible—that the Lord of the Universe would descend to Earth as a defenseless baby. Implausible, like a herd of wildebeest.

“The story of Christmas is the story of God’s relentless love for us,” writes Max Lucado in his book, Because of Bethlehem. “The moment Mary touched God’s face is the moment God made is case: there is no place he will not go. If he is willing to be born in a barnyard, then expect him to be at work anywhere—bars, bedrooms, boardrooms, and brothels. No place is too common. No person is too hardened. No distance is too far. There is no person he cannot reach. There is no limit to his love. When Christ was born, so was our hope.” (p. 134-135)

It is a hope that often doesn’t make any sense. But if Christ was willing to travel that distance for us 2000 years ago—to become our Immanuel—oh, how much we can trust in Him today!


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Mary's Strong Song

We call Mary meek and mild. We imagine her serenely sitting astride a donkey or piously cooing over a sleeping Christ child. We imagine her a simple young woman caring for her family’s farm.

But if we look closely at her song, named the Magnificat, she appears as a totally different woman—full of joy and passion and acknowledge of Scripture that seems unexpected for a woman at that time.

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Almighty's servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God's name.
God's mercy is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God's arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped servant Israel,
in remembrance of God's mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

- Luke 1:46-55, variation on NRSV
It is a bold song. But it is also like the proclamation from the father of the boy with the unclean spirit in Mark 9, who declares, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Hannah Brencher, in her recent Advent essay, calls Mary revolutionary. She quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who likewise refers to the Magnificat at "the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung."

I don’t think we often ponder that God chose Mary for more than her betrothal to Joseph, a direct descendant of David. From her song, we can imagine how God chose Mary for her heart—devoted to God, with a “hopeful yet rebel spirit.”

Jesus learned how to be a carpenter like his father Joseph, but oh how much he must have learned at Mary's knee. In a different lifetime she could have been a brilliant and compassionate teacher, equipping and advocating for her students across many decades. But instead, she was chosen to be mother to the Messiah; the first teacher of the son of God.

May we walk forward with this same strong courage and faith.


Monday, December 6, 2021

New at Every Turn

When I began this blog thirteen years ago, my goal was to teach about Advent, to share poems and verses and thoughts. I was reacting to the emphasis on consumerism and an apparent gap in the Christ-centeredness of Christmas. Not much has changed, in general. But over the years, more and more people have added their voices to the chorus. Online magazines, spiritual influencers, inspirational writers, mental health advocates, mommy bloggers, ministry websites, poets, pastors, and saints—everywhere you turn in December, Advent is being written and talked about.

So, is there anything new to glean from the prophecies about Christ, from the Nativity story, from the anticipation of Jesus’ return?

In some ways, no. Everything we write about Scripture has a great probability of being recycled information. Ecclesiastes even tells us there is nothing new under the sun.
And yet, Advent speaks deeply to each of our hearts.

It is easy to think about the message of Advent on a global scale. The whole nation of Israel—flung pretty far across the known world at that point—was waiting for the Messiah. It was a collective waiting, deeply rooted in everything they knew about God and His character.

But the message of Advent was intensely personal for Mary, for Joseph, for Zechariah, for Elizabeth, for the shepherds, for the wise men, for Simeon and Anna, even for King Herod. As each character in this story encountered Christ (small and baby, yet mighty and king), they experienced something completely and utterly new.

Two thousand years later, each time we read this story, it is possible to find a new truth. Not something that wasn’t there before, but something we didn’t see before.

And so, I will keep learning, and reflecting and writing. Because in Advent I can sit honestly and humbly with stories of pain and suffering, hopefulness and anticipation, faith and joy, and know that I am secure in a God who cares for both the cosmos and the cradles, the weary and the wise.

I will close with a poem by one of my favorites—Madeleine L’Engle, whose “glorious impossible” caught the imagination of a young girl celebrating Advent with her family and sparked a lifetime of loving the richness of this timeless Story.

The Ordinary so Extraordinary
By Madeleine L’Engle

He came, quietly impossible,
Out of a young girl’s womb,
A love as amazingly marvelous
As his bursting from the tomb.

The child was fully human,
This child was wholly God.
The hands of All Love fashioned him
Of mortal flesh and bone and blood,

The ordinary so extraordinary
The stars shook in the sky
As the Lord of all the universe
Was born to live, to love, to die.

He came, quietly impossible:
Nothing will ever be the same:
Jesus, the Light of every heart–
The God we know by name.




Sunday, December 5, 2021

From Fear to Faith


Tonight I draw inspiration from the sermon I heard this morning at church. One of the elders gave the message, and in it he compared the angelic visitation of Zechariah and Mary.

Scripture tells us that on both occasions, it was Gabriel who served as God’s messenger. We don’t often think about the thoughts of angels, but we know they had desires and aspirations. What a task to be given! To herald both the Messiah and his forerunner. I wonder that he could barely hold in the news—one of the first instances of the Gospel (the good news) spoken. But such different experiences. One took place in the hallowed and architecturally stunning halls of the temple. The other, somewhere in a dusty, small town. It’s no wonder Gabriel received different responses. But they probably weren’t what he was expecting.

Zechariah definitely wasn’t prepared to encounter an angel that day, “but at least he was ready for a deep spiritual moment.” Mary on the other hand, was going about her daily life when suddenly a terrifying warrior of light appeared before her.

Without a doubt, Mary was troubled. But not at the sight of him (that was what made Zechariah become “gripped by fear”).

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29)
Mary was troubled at his words. “The Lord is with you.”

These seem like comforting words, and maybe they were. But underneath that comfort, Mary was probably recounting the stories of God showing up to her ancestors. After hearing the words, “God is with you,” nothing would be the same again.

I understand that kind of fear. It is a fear of change. Even if the announcement is a wonderful thing, a life-changing and world-shaping thing, it’s only human be at least a little afraid of how different things will be from then on.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 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.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “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.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

(Luke 1:30-38)
“Nothing was safe about God showing up and declaring His victory”—indeed the Old Testament is filled with the results of such glorious military campaigns. But Mary seems to be stilled by Gabriel’s words. Maybe she sensed that this throne her baby will grow up to sit on is a different kind of throne. Maybe she really grasped the importance of the baby’s name, Jesus—"the Lord saves.” Regardless, even though she has shown fear at Gabriel’s first words (and is probably still reeling at the improbability of it all), she does not respond in fear. She responds in faith.

God used both Zechariah and Mary in powerful, yet humble ways. He knew their unique circumstances would give them a proclivity towards fear. But he allowed that fear to shape their humility and grow their faith. For Zechariah, it took nine months. We may never know why Mary said yes so quickly. But I imagine a radical transformation took place in her heart: from the fear of “God with you” to an utter hope that Immanuel was on the way. For no world from God will ever fail.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Genealogy Full of Mercies

 I’ve already talked a bit about the importance of Jesus’ lineage. Not a single person listed was a mistake, they were all apart of God’s plan. But the genealogy that Matthew provides at the beginning of his gospel can teach us other things as well, specifically about the heights of God’s mercy—what Dane Ortlund calls God’s most natural work. In his book, Hidden Christmas, Tim Keller describes three insights we can glean from what appears to be a simple list of hard-to-pronounce names.

Jesus’ genealogy reads like a résumé. Keller writes, “The purpose of a genealogical résumé was to impress onlookers with the high quality and respectability of one’s roots. But Matthew does the very opposite with Jesus. This genealogy is shockingly unlike other ancient genealogies” (p. 29-30). Jesus’ lineage highlights some of the most scandalous events and dysfunctional relationships in the Bible. And it was out of these families that the Messiah came.

Yet this shows us something singular about God’s plan. From prostitute to king, male and female, Jew and Gentile, the moral and immoral—they were all sitting down to the table of grace as equals. Keller says: “Equally sinful and lost, equally accepted and loved. Indeed, in the King James Bible, this chapter is filled with ‘the begats’—‘so and so begat so and so . . .’ boring? No. The grace of God is so pervasive that even the begats of the Bible are dripping with God’s mercy” (p. 33).

The second thing we can learn from Jesus’ genealogy is a reminder that God’s timing is not like our own. It is a theme we see in Scripture on a regular basis, but one that we so easily forget. In this snapshot of names, we can see clearly how long it took for God’s promise of a Messiah to be fulfilled. Back in Genesis 12, God said to Abraham that the whole earth would be blessed through his descendants. Back further still, in Genesis 3, God provided a prophecy himself: One was coming who would crush the head of Satan and defeat evil. Thousands of years later, Mary sang,

“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

(Luke 1:54-55)

Keller emphasizes, “You cannot judge God by your calendar. God may appear to be slow, but he never forgets his promises. He may seem to be working very slowly or even to be forgetting his promises, but when his promises come true (and they will come true), they always burst the banks of what you imagined” (p. 34)

The third thing we can learn from Jesus’ genealogy is one of those deep dives into Old Testament symbolism. As modern Christians, we don’t often stop to consider the importance of numbers in Scripture, yet for the first century readers, especially the Jews Matthew was writing to, this would have made so much sense.

As the final name in His genealogy, Jesus mirrors God the Father and sits in enthroned as Rest personified. He is the ultimate rest.

Keller helps us break this down: From Abraham to David there were fourteen generations, fourteen generations from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Christ. That’s six sets of seven. Jesus was the beginning of the “seventh seven.”

If you know a bit about the number seven, you know that it is highly significant in the Bible. We first see the number seven when God rested on the seventh day after Creation. He called it a sabbath day.

Further on, in Leviticus 25, we learn about the year of jubilee. After the seventh period of seven years—the forty-nineth year—Israel was to have a year of celebration and rest.
Keller explains, “In that year all the slaves were to be freed and all debts were to be forgiven; all the land and all the people were to have rest from their weariness and from their burdens” (p.39). Sound familiar? It brings to mind Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 61, and it reads almost like a job description for Jubilee Jesus:
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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion…

(Isaiah 61:1-3a)
Matthew loved the details. I can just imagine him geeking out at these equations. In God’s plan, even mathematics declares His glory and provide us with this truth: rest will only come to us through Jesus Christ.

Friday, December 3, 2021