Advent Day 24: Days of Wonder

“…And Wonders of His Love”

     Well, Advent has come to its fullness, and Christmas day has arrived (and as I type, is nearing its end). There is always a bittersweetness to this moment as I return from my grandparents and the festivities that we so enjoy. While my day is filled with joy as I celebrate among my families, the closing of the advent season brings with it a return to the everyday, and the anticipation that has been building for weeks is now quieted.

     The nature of all things finite is that there comes a moment when they come and go. The bittersweetness is inevitable. That said, the final verses of Luke’s Gospel introduce a response to Jesus’ birth that stand in contrast to moments like this. As the Shepherds return and celebrate, we are told that all who hear them “wonder.” At the beginning of our time together we stated that wonder is this two-pronged feeling that combines the excitement we feel as we see our hopes and longings about to come to their realization with the surprise and mystery of getting a glimpse of a fulfillment that we did not expect and cannot fully process. In this moment we have no response but to excitedly, yet quietly dwell on what has happened, and marvel at the mystery of it all. It leaves us bewildered, and yet ready for more.

     I hope that these devotionals have helped bring about some of that wonder as you re-read the nativity accounts and were reminded of their beauty, but if wonder was truly awakened, the amazing reality is that it doesn’t stop here. You are hungry for more, and there is infinitely more to explore and ponder. You have seen the mysterious goodness of God, and you are ready to know him further. I hope the year to come is marked by that endeavor. May you wonder as you wander.

Passage:

-Luke 2:18

Thank you all for studying the nativity with me this year. I hope you enjoyed reading these devotionals as much as I did writing them!

Merry Christmas,

Pastor Dan

Advent Day 23: Silent Nights

“The World in Solemn Stillness Lay, to Hear the Angels Sing”

     While rave reviews say a lot about the quality of a good meal, they aren’t the only response that one might have. There are times when loud proclamations of “mmmmmm” communicate to others how much we are enjoying our dining experience, but sometimes even more telling is the silence that takes place after every bite.

     Last Christmas season I found myself sick with perhaps the most persistent head-cold that I’ve ever experienced. Beginning the day after thanksgiving, for weeks I could not taste anything due to how stuffy my nose was, and during the holidays that was one of the most miserable realities I could imagine. When Christmas day came, I could feel the blockage beginning to break. Not completely, but every now and then I would regain my sense of taste, and I would use that moment to sit down, eat, and enjoy what I could. I wouldn’t say anything during those times. Enjoyment of holiday food had been in far too short supply that year, and for the time being, I just wanted to sit in silence, enjoy the delicious food without interruption, and channel all of my senses towards that moment.

     In contrast to the rowdy shepherds, Luke tells us that Mary quietly treasures all of the things that she had experienced in her heart. In a world that is defined by noise and activity, we are sometimes prone to forget to take moments like this. Even our prayers are usually defined by noise, with us talking and making our requests of God. While there is of course nothing wrong with this, it does little to give God a chance to speak to our hearts. This Christmas Eve, set aside a time and sit quietly. Choose the passages, messages, and realities about God that meant something to you, and take a few minutes to simply sit in silence, repeat them to yourself, and remind yourself of them.

Passage:

-Luke 2:19

Discussion Question:

-Review the nativity accounts and the realities about God that you’ve been reminded of this year. Choose one of them, boil it down to a phrase or two, and take 5-10 minutes to reflect on it in silence. No discussion today. Treasure what you’ve found.

Advent Day 22: Repeat the Sounding Joy

“Go Tell it on the Mountain, Over the Hills and Everywhere”

     Having reached the end of Luke’s nativity account, we have just about arrived at Christmas day. All that’s left is to look at the reactions to this event that Luke records, and reflect on how we might share in the same reactions. These final days of advent will serve as a reflection on all of the things that we have discussed. We will look at 3 different responses that 3 different characters have, and how we can mimic them. I pondered for a long time how I could give some practical examples to these spiritual reactions, and in the end, the best I could do was bring you the admittedly crude example of a delicious meal, and how we respond to one.

     So as we look at the Shepherds and their response of praise as they returned to their fields, let me tell you about Outlaws. This small burger stand near my old house in Vineland, NJ is still one of my favorite stops when I go home. Their Smokehouse burger stacked with a spice crusted burger, sharp cheddar cheese, jalapenos, onion rings, and a homemade BBQ sauce may be the most delicious thing that I have ever eaten, and every time I bring a friend around, I make them stop here for lunch.

      Again, while a crude parallel, what I am doing is bringing praise. I have tasted the wonderful goodness of this delicious meal, and I want everyone around me to experience the same goodness- it is an overflow of my excitement and enjoyment. The shepherds of our story have experienced an infinitely greater goodness. The sincerity of their encounter is demonstrated in the way their praise overflows from them. For them, what has happened is so good, that it seems wrong of them to not tell every possible ear (including that of the creator of all this goodness, God himself).

     So on this Christmas eve-eve, remind yourself of everything we’ve talked about. What made you excited? Take time today to let that excitement overflow.

Passage:

-Luke 2:20

Discussion Question:

-What was the best meal you’ve ever eaten? Recall it, and as you do, tell everyone about it. Did you get hungry for more? In the same way, reminisce about the story we have talked about this year? What was the most exciting thing that you learned about God? Tell everyone about it- tell God about it. (Did you get hungry for more?)

Advent Day 21: "That's What Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown"

“Sleep in Heavenly Peace, Sleep in Heavenly Peace”

     There is a list of 9 Christmas movies that I schedule myself to watch every year, and towards the top of that list lies one of the greatest explorations of human fear, loneliness, and “shalom” that the world has ever seen. I am referring of course to A Charlie Brown Christmas- Shultz’s 1965 masterpiece. You may think that praise is a bit lofty, but honestly, I don’t know that there’s a better way to explore today’s story.

     As the host of Heaven arrives in the midst of the Shepherds, we are told that they announce the coming of “Peace (Eirene) on Earth”. That Greek word is the translation of the old Hebrew word, “Shalom”. While in English we render both of these words as “Peace”, this misses the richness of the original definition. Perhaps more rightly, the word ought to be rendered “wholeness”. The angels are not simply declaring an end to wartime, but rather they are proclaiming a restoration of the original state of completeness and goodness that comes when human relationships with God and others are restored- when that which was missing is found.

     Consider Charlie Brown. The special opens up with Charlie Brown in a state of depression. He says that he knows he should be happy, but he just isn’t. Despite no real threats, he finds himself afraid (with the help of Lucy he self-diagnoses himself with “the fear of everything”) and lonely. As he goes about he finds characters who are nursing the same desires with Christmas presents, extravagant Christmas productions, decoration displays, and more. When he finally calls for someone to tell him what Christmas is all about, Linus famously quotes Luke 2:8-14. In the midst of doing so, he drops his security blanket at the imperative “fear not”, and closes with the declaration of peace (Shalom) on Earth.

     Charlie Brown walks away happy. In the angel’s announcement of Shalom, we take comfort not only in the idea that Jesus will end war, but that he acknowledges our deep incompleteness that we feel (even during the holidays), and intends to address it with the repairing of our divine and human relational brokenness. The special ends with the Peanuts gang singing together around the tree- a wonderful little look at what that real “wholeness” looks like.

Passage:

-Luke 2:13-14

Discussion Question:

-Have you ever been hurt, depressed, or felt incomplete during a time like a holiday season when it feels like you should be happy? Why do you think you still felt that way? How can Jesus’s “Shalom” address that hurt in ways that regular “peace” cannot?

(This video is a great explanation of “Shalom”)

Advent Day 20: Blurring the Line

“He hath Opened Heaven’s Door and Man is Blessed Forevermore”

     In some ways, the story of the Bible could be summed up as the story of Heaven and Earth. While Tom and Jerry Cartoons have depicted Heaven as gold-streeted clouds where good people go to play harps, the Bible’s definition is much simpler. Heaven, or, the Heavens, is God’s space, and the earth is our human space. In the beginning of the Bible we are told that God’s space and our space were once one in the Garden of Eden. God dwelled with man. Sadly, when sin entered the world, God’s space and our space were separated, and we could not live together. The prophets did not give up hope though. God told them that the day was coming when he would reunite Heaven and Earth in a new creation, and there, God and man would live together in perfect peace.

     Against that backdrop, the moment of the nativity story when the angels appear to the shepherds may be one of the most wonderful, unbelievable events in the whole story. The scene opens with our very down-to-earth shepherds being startled by the appearance of an angelic being, and as the story crescendos, the glory of God shines around them, and the whole host of heaven (the inhabitants of God’s space) appears before them.

     In that moment, the lines between Heaven and Earth, God’s space and our space, are blurred. And that night the shepherds (and you, the reader) received a glimpse not just of the coming of Jesus into the world, but of the new reunited world that he intends to bring to full realization in his return and new creation. Jesus is going to show us what it looks like when he rules the world and lives among us again. Jesus’s birth points to what our future looks like. When Heaven and Earth are one, low shepherds will be welcomed in as honored guests, outsiders will come and be loved by God, and we will experience the love and peace that Christ’s rule ultimately brings to a restored world. (Now that sounds a whole lot better than harps and clouds, don’t you think?)

Passage:

-Luke 2:8-14

Discussion Question:

-Read Revelation 21:1-5, 10, 22-27; 22:1-5. These passages describe the New Earth. What sounds most amazing or wonderful about it? How do you see glimpses/parallels of it in the nativity story we have been reading this advent season?

 

 

Advent Day 19: Facing our Fears

“Now ye Need Not Fear the Grave, Jesus Christ was Born to Save”

     Everyone seems to having something that they fear. For Indiana Jones, it’s snakes, for my wife, it’s spiders, for me it was an elephant-costumed person dancing around on a certain episode of “Barney and friends”, but that’s probably more than you needed to know about my childhood.

     As human beings, fear seems to be inescapable. We live in a world of chaos and disorder that we can’t control. We fear pain, we fear death, we fear oppression, and a whole slew of other things. Many religions tell us that the solution to our fears is God, but if we are honest with ourselves… sometimes we fear him too.

     It’s important for us to know that we aren’t unique in feeling that way sometimes. When the angels appear to the shepherds, the good old king James tells us they were “sore afraid”. Why? Was it the sudden appearing, the frightening profiles of the angelic figures? I imagine all of these things contributed, but perhaps most of all it was that “the glory of God shown around them”. In Judges 13:22, when Samson’s parents realized they had been in the presence of an angel, they thought for sure that they would die. Whenever human beings experience God’s glory, they realize they cannot exist in his presence. They realize it would be right of him to destroy them in their sin, and they seem to even be able to feel as though their very existence is at risk of being disintegrated (Isaiah 6:1-7)

     But the angel’s (and Luke’s) surprising message is “fear not!” In Jesus’s birth, both our fears of pain and death and the world, and our fears of God’s consuming glory are simultaneously addressed. God has come, and thus all of our fears will be dealt with, and he has come as a child in human form. He has laid aside the fullness of his glory so that we might approach him, and rather than consume sinners, somehow he has come to be with them. There is nothing to fear here, and the greatest sign is the baby, Jesus Christ.

Passage:

-Luke 2:8-12

Question:

-Are you ever afraid of God? Do you ever do certain things as a way of bargaining with God so that he will bless you or at least not curse you? How does the Luke’s message of “fear not”, and the incarnation of Jesus as a baby challenge this way of thinking?

 

Advent Day 18: Another Bum from the Neighborhood

“Long Lay the World in Sin and Error Pining till He Appeared and the Soul Felt its Worth”

     As Christmas looms close, and advent begins drawing to its conclusion, there is one last group of human participants that we must talk about. These are of course the shepherds who are residing outside of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. These lowly workers that night received a key role in the unfolding drama, and their characters would represent one of God’s greatest messages to the world that evening.

     In the now-classic movie, Rocky, there is a moment in which, before the climactic fight against Apollo Creed, the boxer says to Adrienne, his girlfriend: “Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.” (If that was hard to read, believe me, it’s no easier to try to make out from Sylvester Stallone’s signature dialect), but the message is clear. Rocky believes his worth will come when he proves himself as someone who can rise up and accomplish something. In order to believe he is anything but a worthless “bum”, he has to perform. It seems to be an inherent human longing of ours.

     The Shepherds of the story are quite literally bums. Not the ones from Rocky’s neighborhood but lowly workers with no social status nonetheless, and so when the angel appears God communicates something altogether wonderful to our world. He communicates, perhaps for the first time to them, that these shepherds are not bums, but not because they can go the distance or because they have performed, but simply because they are created by and still loved by God and he still desires to be with them. If that is true of dirty shepherds, then it is true of the whole Roman world and the whole world for all of time. In the shepherds God tells us that he values us, and he intends to restore the relationship we once had with him and restore our identities solely by his own act of love.

Passage:

-Luke 2:8

Discussion question:

-Have you ever felt worthless? What do you do to reassure yourself of your value on a daily basis? How might your life look different if you turned to the nativity for your sense of value rather than one of these other strategies?

(Credit to Pastor Timothy Keller for the Rocky illustration)

Advent Day 17: The Day Jesus Redefined Greatness

“The King of Kings Lay thus in Lowly Manger, in all our Trials, Born to be our Friend”

     Arriving at the nativity moment in Bethlehem, Luke is sure to inform us of the lowly circumstances into which Jesus is born. Displaced from a proper living space by the overwhelming busyness of census-crowded Bethlehem, his family is forced to reside in an animal stall where Mary gives birth, and lays him in a feeding trough. This is a shocking scenario, but why is it so shocking? We have certain expectations. Kings are supposed to be glorified. They are supposed to be served and pampered, not born in barns in the conditions of servants. The birth of Jesus seems absurd in light of our expectations, but perhaps, we ought to consider that our expectations might be absurd in light of Jesus’s birth…

     As the fullest revelation of both God and man, Jesus demonstrates for us what human beings were always created to be. The sin of the world began when Adam and Eve (who had ironically been commissioned by God to rule his creation) decided that in order to be great in God’s world and rule, they needed power, and the right to determine right or wrong for themselves. From there, every kingdom of the world has relied on this principle, and thus, we find ourselves steeped in sin and oppression. In Jesus however, the suggestion is made that perhaps all of those expectations that we have of what it means to be great are all just remnants of Adam’s flawed idea, and that in fact, a king who is born in humility and serves the weak and overlooked is quite appropriate and right, and maybe even the true solution to all of the brokenness.

     It’s undoubtable that as the true God, Jesus deserves all praise and honor, and that a manger in ancient Palestine is infinitely below him, but in embodying for us what true humanity looks like, Jesus’ birth forever cements the reality that there is in fact no better way to be great in God’s world than by abandoning our entitlements and becoming low. At Christmas we wonder at the idea that perhaps, we were all wrong from the beginning, and that maybe we are now seeing a glimpse of the truth that will change the world.  

Passage:

-Luke 2:1-7

Discussion Question:

-What are some things in your life that you feel that you deserve as a human being? How does Jesus’s example challenge your view? Are there any of these “entitlements” that you might have to give up in order to follow Jesus in the example of his birth? How would that change the way you live?

Advent Day 16: Upside Down

Sweet Hymns of Joy for the Slave is our Brother and in His Name all Oppression shall Cease”

     Because the Christmas story sometimes gets relegated to nativity scenes in our front yard, we sometimes miss the grand, sweeping implications that it has for all of people in all of time. We see that Jesus is born to a poor virgin and visited by lowly shepherds, and we are grateful for how nice Jesus was to people like that by giving them the first look, but we don’t let the imagery reach much further than that.

    Mary certainly doesn’t miss the implications though. In Luke 1:46-55, she sings a song that has become known as the “Magnificat”. In it, she declares that this reversal of roles is actually the beginning of God turning the entire world upside down. He is bringing about a world where the humble and weak are welcomed in, and powerful, oppressive people are sent away. This small moment in history, for Mary, is the beginning of the world that God always promised, where truth and justice and goodness would reign and oppression would be gone, because God alone would rule.

    I could talk more about this, but The Bible Project has already done it in a far more exciting way than I ever could. Follow the link to their video- it’s definitely worth the watch!

Passage:

-Luke 1:46-55

Advent Day 15: Pardon the Interruption

“Let Loving Hearts Enthrone Him”

     What we wonder at most in the book of Luke is the upside-down nature of it. In its opening stories we see that God is working through and appearing to not those of high rank and status, but rather through those who are low, and barren, and ashamed. The question arises, why? Perhaps those of low estate don’t have such an issue with interruptions.

     Interruptions are never pleasant. As I write this, I do so having just returned from a student’s concert. I found myself in front of a few people who were particularly loud, and had a tendency to talk during the performances. This was frustrating, because it was an interruption to our show. We all have agendas- plans that we want to advance, ideas of how we want to be seen by others, and desires to accomplish things that will bring us pleasure, but what we find in Luke is that we are dealing with a God who is quite interruptive.

     For those of us who feel that we ought to be held in high estate, interruptions are particularly disturbing. “Who would dare to come between me and my agenda- don’t they know who I am?” This is the posture that we see in Herod, who takes swift and cruel action to try and stop the birth of Jesus from being an interruption to his reign.

     In Mary though, we see a willingness to be a servant. A servant does not view herself in high estate, and so an act of God is not so much an interruption (that which happens when someone “below” us inserts themselves into our lives and endeavors) but rather an invitation (that which happens when someone “higher” than us chooses to insert themselves into our lives). For the humble, acts of God are never intrusive or life-destroying. Instead they are opportunities to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and grow closer to that goodness which God promises for all who are part of his kingdom.

Passage:

-Luke 1:34-38

Question:

-What parts of your life do you think you would be most frustrated about if God “interrupted”, why? What do we have to believe about God in order to be at peace with him invading these parts of our lives?

Advent Day 14: Spot the Difference

O Rest Beside the Weary Road, and Hear the Angels Sing!

     I was a somewhat short child for the majority of my elementary and middle school years. I have a number of pictures from childhood side-by side with my wife, where I am about a head shorter than she is (there is a far larger gap between us now.  I overtook her in high school). That said, when you grow up short and begin to get taller, you often get told to stand back to back with so and so and have your heights compared. It’s a fact of life.

     Biblical authors often employ a similar strategy. Similar stories in the Bible are often placed next to each other for sake of comparison, and such is how the book of Luke begins. As the story opens, we have two birth announcements- one to an elderly priest, Zechariah, and one to a Young girl, Mary. The shock comes when we compare the reactions.

     Zechariah responds with a question: “How shall I know this?” the repercussions are swift, as Gabriel, the angelic messenger strikes him with muteness (and possibly deafness) until the birth comes to be. Mary, on the other hand, asks Gabriel: “How will this be?” and yet receives no such rebuke. Far apart, these responses may seem identical, and their follow-ups unjust, but close together we can compare them and spot the difference.

    Zechariah responds to the announcement in disbelief. Desiring assurance and control, he demands a sign. He is priest of the LORD, and yet he struggles to entrust himself to God. Meanwhile, Mary, a simple girl, responds with wonder. Prepared to accept this announcement as truth, she simply asks “how will this be” marveling at the power of God who could bring about life from a virgin.

    Luke’s story begins upside down- those of status struggle to believe, while the low readily accept and wonder at the news. We are prone as humans to seek control and security, and yet at Christmas we realize that “wonder” at God’s power is how the truly blessed liv in relation to him.

Passage:

-Luke 1:5-35

Discussion Question:

-In what areas of your life this season are you trying to maintain control and fighting to keep in order. How do you think a struggle for control stops us from relating to God more clearly and rightly?

Advent Day 13: Luke's Surprising Gospel

“Why Lies He in such Mean Estate, Where Ox and Ass are Feeding?”

As we mentioned at the start of advent, there is a danger in the familiarity we have with the Christmas story. That familiarity causes us to often take the scene for granted, and lose sight of the wonder it brings. In Matthews account, we saw that wonder came through the rekindling and fulfillment of Old Testament expectations. For the second half of Advent though, we shift our attention to Luke, who invokes wonder in us through another means…

In order to fully engage with Luke, we need to make sure our familiarity with the story does not blind us. Luke demonstrates the wonder of this event by presenting us with a picture that is completely unexpected- one that seems good, but is also hard to make sense of. However, we often miss this because the nativity scene seems so normal to us- Our lawn nativities seem so festive and quaint that it’s sometimes hard to even imagine that Jesus would be born in any other way. We start to imagine that Jesus is kind of like those people who have their weddings in barns and go for that farmhouse kind of look.

We often treat God like this though. Too often we are content to let God simply be a distant figure, and we allow our ideas about him that we gained from our culture, or our tradition, or even our preferences, to define and confine who he is. When we do this we make a god in our own image, and we never be ravished by any of the wonder that comes from exploring a God who is unexpected, and infinite, and beyond our comprehension- all things that form a basis for true worship.  If we are going to appreciate Luke for the amazing story of who God is, we need to remind ourselves of his glory, and then come and wonder at his humility.

Passage:

-Isaiah 6:1-7; Luke 2:1-21

Discussion Question:

-Read and reflect on the passage above. Compare the scene with Luke 2:1-21. How are the depictions of God different? How do you think a Jew would have felt about Luke claiming that the same God of Isaiah 6 was born in human form in an animal stall?

Advent Day 12: We Esteemed Him Not

“God and Sinners Reconciled”

     As we noted yesterday, one of the wonderful things about the nativity story is that it begins to show us glimpses of the worldwide forgiveness of sins, We noted that the effects of sin are not just personal, but worldwide, and that the coming of the Magi shows glimpses of the day when all nations will be at peace and come into Gods kingdom.

     However, lest we forget how deeply sin has stained us personally, the nativity forces us to remember that it is not just the world around us that is broken, but that we personally are more in need of saving than we might have imagined.

     At the height of the story, Herod finds that he has been duped by the Magi, and still lacks an identity for this future king of Israel. Frightened by the threat to his throne, and enraged by the treachery, he commands his soldiers to enter Bethlehem and slaughter all the baby boys of the small town, and Jesus’s family must flee to Egypt. This is a horrifying picture, but even more horrifying when we fully understand what Matthew is getting at. Remember the story of Moses? It began when the king of Egypt felt his power threatened by God’s people. He commanded the genocide of all Hebrew baby boys, and in the end, God led the Hebrews to the land of Israel. Now, the tables have turned. The land of God’s people has come to look more like the Old Testament land of Egypt, so much so that Egypt now looks like a safe haven in comparison.

     In the Old Testament, the response to Pharaoh’s actions was God’s bringing about of the death of all Egyptian firstborn sons whose families would not turn towards the LORD. An act of Judgement that is admittedly hard to wrestle with. In the New Testament, God’s final response to this killing will be the death of his own firstborn son- the only thing that could truly overcome the evil that had so invaded the hearts of even his own chosen people. The Christmas story causes us to wonder, because we see the evil that we as humans have done to God’s son. We remember the response that God had in the Old Testament, we expect it, and yet we marvel that in a shocking turn of events, Christ still chooses to dwell among us in a true act of grace and love.

Passage:

-Matthew 2:12-23

Discussion Question:

-How are you often similar to the characters that the Bible depicts as God’s greatest enemies? Take time to reflect on this, and worship God who still desires to forgive and dwell with you.

Advent Day 11: The Forgiveness of Sins

“To Save us all from Satan’s Power When we were Gone Astray”

     Perhaps part of the reason that the Nativity scene is not often given the gravity it deserves is that we sometimes fail to understand salvation in world-wide terms. We often think about Jesus coming so that we might individually have our sins forgiven. While this is true, our “Jesus and me” mentality can cause us to minimize the story of salvation to something personal and spiritual rather than earth-shattering, but in fact, the nativity is just that, and the arrival of the Magi demonstrates this to us.

     When the Bible talks about sin, it is not always discussing simply your and my personal moral failings. It often speaks about sin as an overarching power that has subjected the entire world to accursedness. Scripture says that nature now groans and suffers due to the power of sin’s curse, and the “forgiveness of sins” will result in nature’s reformation. Likewise, the power of sin has turned nations against each other, and the “forgiveness of sins” will take on the form of all nations coming to Israel to know the LORD more and co-exist within his glorious goodness.

     While Jesus’ cross does not come for at least another 30 years, this does not mean that we are not yet beginning to see the world-changing effects of the forgiveness of sins. The Magi coming to see Jesus is an echo in our ears of Isaiah’s promise that the nations would come to meet with and learn from the LORD in Israel (Isa 2:3), and when we look at the nativity scene we ought to be struck with overwhelming wonder that in his simple birth, Jesus is undoing the world-wide powers of sin, and bringing the nations to himself to experience this new order of peace and goodness that will be fully experienced when he returns.

Passage:

-Matthew 2:9-11; Isaiah 2:3

Discussion Question:

-Sometimes one of the things we overlook most in Christianity is the wonderful vision of the future the Bible gives when Jesus returns and fully forgives sin. Read Revelation 21-22. What kind of wonderful pictures and feelings do these descriptions bring fill you with?

Advent Day 10: The Bad News of Jesus Christ?

Let Earth Receive Her King”

     For a story nestled within a body of work collectively known as the Gospels (i.e. “the good news”) the response to the coming of Jesus within the community of Jerusalem’s leadership is striking. We noted yesterday the wonder of the arrival in Jerusalem of people from the East- the place of exile to see Jesus. Today, we wonder in quite a different way at the fact that Herod and the ruling class of Jerusalem- the place of the temple (God’s dwelling), were “troubled” by all of this.

     Despite that Herod ruled over Judea, he was in fact an illegitimate king, and a severely corrupt one at that. He lacked any connection to the Davidic line, and had simply been appointed by the Roman Empire. For Herod, the arrival of the king of Israel would mean giving up power, wealth, and control. Herod is the second half of a complete picture painted by Matthew: the infant Jesus gives us glimpses into the future: He will be good news to everyone who is ashamed and lost, and bad news to everyone who desires renown and control.

     Despite the folksiness of the Manger scene in modern culture, a real look at this story may draw from us a response similar to Herod’s. Skye Jethani puts it this way: “The character of Herod reminds us that the arrival of Jesus Christ forces every one of us into a crisis. In a way Christmas should trouble all of us because, like Herod, we are all illegitimate rulers.” The arrival of Jesus forces us to step down from our positions as masters of our own fates and determiners of our own identities. Only if we abandon these titles can we truly wonder joyfully at the Advent.

Passage:

-Matthew 2:3

Discussion Question:

-Are there areas of your life that you keep separate from your Christianity? Do you have plans that Jesus interrupts? How can you allow Jesus to reign in these areas of your life as the true king?

Advent Day 9: Go West, Young Man

“Westward Leading, Still Proceeding, Guide us to thy Perfect light.”

     Thinking back to your early childhood, you can probably remember different places in your house or neighborhood that are associated with certain events or feelings. Perhaps a certain tree became a meeting place among friends and now represents feelings of fun, or perhaps a dining room table that was only used on holidays became associated with the excitement of the season and the coming together of family. Or perhaps, if you grew up like some of us, there was a place in your house where you were sent for a “time-out”. Perhaps a corner or isolated room became associated with anger or shame or punishment.

     In the Old Testament, places come to represent ideas and feelings. The temple became associated with a closeness of heart to God, which is why the Psalmist longs to go there. There are places like Mt. Sinai, which become associated with meeting God and receiving new instruction from him like Moses did. Then there is the East. The East is the “time-out” corner of Biblical geography. When people go East in the Bible’s story, they are leaving the presence of God in utter shame. The East is associated with exile. It’s where Adam and his wife depart when they are ejected from the Garden. It’s where Cain goes after his crimes are confronted, and it’s where the Israelites go when they enter exile in Babylon. The East is separation from God. It is where sinners always seem to end up…

     Which is why it’s so shocking when suddenly at Advent, people from the East arrive in Jerusalem to see Jesus, the king of Israel. This is an unprecedented moment! From the East- the place where Adam, and Cain, and all of Israel were sent away from God’s presence, Jesus, even in his birth, begins drawing people to himself. It’s the great reversal. At Christmas, we wonder at the fact that those who were most far off from God in every way for all of history, living in a place of shame, can now not resist coming and seeing the king.

Passage:

-Matthew 2:1-2

Discussion Question:

-In the Advent story, we see that the coming of Jesus draws in people associated with sin and shame- they cannot help but desire to meet Jesus. Do people in sin and shame feel drawn to you? How can you reflect the example of Jesus, and welcome in ashamed people?

Advent Day 8: O Come O Come...

“Pleased, as Man, with Men to Dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel”

     There’s a scene from the sitcom “The Office” in which, after an evening of working overtime, the cast walks out to the parking lot and finds that the lot gate has been locked for the night. Trapped, they begin panicking until one of them remembers that they have the security guard’s phone number. The problem is that they don’t know his name, and so one of them has to make the awkward call to him in the middle of the night, ask for a rescue, and do so without having to say his name. In the end, the cleaning crew lets the workers out, but they forget to tell poor Hank, the security guard, and he shows up to find no one there.

     There’s a startling parallel to the way that we often view Jesus. In our minds, his role is to come and die. He is valuable to us because he can unlock a door, but as long as he does that there’s not much need to know him personally. Certainly Jesus’s role is to save, as Matthew notes, but Matthew also highlights another role of Jesus’s incarnation, and it’s not, as it were, just about the cross.

     Instead, Matthew highlights the name that Jesus is given through Old Testament prophecy: “Emmanuel- God with us” Matthew makes a claim that would cause many of his contemporaries to wonder- God himself is not simply coming to judge the world in a glorious appearing as we expected, he is coming in human form- in order to be with us- to live and work alongside us- to make his presence known- to introduce himself to us in his fullness. The God of advent is not simply concerned with running an errand. He is not simply valuable to us because he accomplishes a task. The God of advent as revealed in Jesus is interested in us personally, and the wonder is not simply that he would save us, but that he would actually want to be with so intimately.

Passage:

-Matthew 1:20-23

Discussion Question:

-Most people think of God’s “gift” simply as a ticket into Heaven and a sparing of punishments, but Advent shows us a God who wants to live with us. How is that better? How might our view of God and our interactions with him look differently if that’s true?

Advent Day 7: Feeling Fulfilled

“The Hope of Peace Shall be Fulfilled, for all the Earth Shall Know the LORD”

As Matthew speaks about the coming of Jesus, one of the buzzwords that his account repeats over and over is “fulfill”. Matthew claims that the virgin birth “fulfills” the prophecy of Isaiah, and Jesus’s family will later “fulfill” a prophecy by fleeing to Egypt and returning. Matthew wants us to clearly understand that this moment is a fulfillment of the Old Testament.

     On the surface that is all well and good; however, a bit of Old Testament study may leave you scratching your head. Take for instance the prophecy of a virgin birth. It originally comes from Isaiah 7:14, but a quick read of the context reveals that the “virgin” Isaiah was referring to was his young prophetess wife to -be, and the child was their son, which provides the king with a sign that God would deliver Israel from invasion (8:1-3).  This can be unnerving for us modern Christians, who have a view of prophecy that is something like a crystal ball. If Isaiah’s prophecy was for his time, and didn’t seem to have Jesus in mind, then is Matthew actually using something out of context to try and make up a story about Jesus? That’s a concerning reality!

     What we need to do is adjust our understanding of what “fulfill” means in the Biblical context.  Because we are sometimes bad at reading the Bible as one cohesive story, and instead prefer to read individual verses separately, what we often picture is a piecemeal Bible, where authors suddenly go off on Messianic bunny trails mid-thought. In this imagining, New Testament authors read the Old Testament and say “ah, I now see that that bunny trail was about Jesus”.

     What happens far more often is that these prophecies had real applications that applied to their original audience. No one was expecting anything more than that, which is why it is so shocking when Matthew begins recognizing fulfillments in his day. Jesus is bringing old prophecies to their fullest realizations. The wonder of Jesus is that he does not simply answer prayers, but reveals the deepest longings that lie behind the prayers of all people, and answers those longings with his very own presence.

Passage:

-Matthew 1:22-23

Discussion Question:

-What longings do you think often lie behind your prayers? Is it a desire for peace? Justice? Control? Love? Self-worth?  How do you think the coming of Jesus acts to meet those longings?

Advent Day 6: A Grand Finale

“Late in Time, Behold Him Come, Offsrping of the Virgin’s Womb”

     Every 4th of July, my family gathers at my Aunt and Uncle’s house for a party to see the nearby fireworks display. I say “see”, but perhaps the better word is “hear”, because every year, without fail, the trees at the edge of the property obscure a large chunk of the show. For some reason, we have not yet grasped the reality that those trees will continue to obscure our vision. Regardless of this, there is one thing that is clear, and that’s when the finale begins. Suddenly the sky begins to light up, and the explosions that were once heard every few seconds are repeating without pause.

     For those of you who can actually see the fireworks on July 4th, you’ve experienced this firework-finale formula. We see beautiful lights explode intermittently, but every show ends with a dazzling display that surpasses anything before it. In many ways, the virgin birth is the finale of one of the Old Testament’s most noticeable plot threads.

     It’s sort of amazing how often Old Testament stories begin with events that can be simplified to “so and so had an unexpected baby” Women like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth are all in a state of barrenness, yet each of these women end up giving birth to a child who will become significant in the history of Israel. With a history like this, we might expect to find that Jesus comes from a mother who is barren as well, but what we find is altogether more incredible- a virgin birth.

     With a firework-finale model in mind, we begin to understand why God would send his son by way of a virgin. He is not decrying sex as sinful or impure, nor is he making a statement about the genetic nature of sin as some may theorize. Instead, he is placing a finale at the end of his Old Testament story of unlikely births. For generations he has shown us he is capable of overcoming obstacles that seem complicated or improbable, but now, as Jesus finally arrives, God declares that his plan is capable of overcoming obstacles that are altogether impossible. Barrenness and old age have never been able to stop God, and now, even in birth, Jesus shows us that not even the laws of our reality can either!

Passage

-Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:34-37

Advent Day 5: Black Sheep

God and Sinners Reconciled”

On the surface, reading a genealogy is about as wonder-filled an experience as staring at a brick wall; however, in the hands of an author like Matthew, moved by the Holy Spirit, Jesus’s origins conveyed a true sense of excitement and anticipation. This was only one half of our definition of wonder though. The other element of wonder is the surprise that comes with seeing glimpses of things we did not expect to see- surprise that causes us to ponder, and leaves us in silence. Alongside the thread of excitement, Matthew weaves in another thread to this cord that will surprise us.

After mentioning Abraham and David, Matthew includes names like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba. These women are not at all what we would expect, in fact, they might cause some discomfort for Matthew’s initial readers. These women were foreigners, or prostitutes, or adulterers, or worse. Why would Matthew include them?

In placing Tamar, and Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheeba in this genealogy, Matthew has forever glued together the promises of the Old Testament with people who the world would view as the undeserving. The statement that Matthew has made is that the blessings of Abraham and David belong to people like these, and because of the nature of Jesus’s lineage, they can never be separated.

And so we are left in wonder. Wonder at the reality that God would attach his blessings to people like these. We rest in the comfort of knowing that we in our failures are invited in to the blessing of the advent of Jesus, and we are challenged as we begin to comprehend that the blessings extend beyond us- to everyone- even those WE would deem unworthy.

Passage:

-Matthew 1:2-6

DIscussion Question:

-The wonder of Matthethew’s genealogy largely comes from the fact that he ties unexpected people like gentiles, prostitutes, and adulterers to Jesus’s blessing. Think about the people around you today- What kind of people do you have trouble accepting that Jesus’s blessing is for?