Category Archives: Advent

Third Friday in Advent

Ruth in Advent

“I could just use a damn break!”

The exasperated mom of a middle school student made that exclamation in my friend’s office over a decade ago. The student was in trouble, and the mom already had as much as she could handle on her plate. It was a plaintive cry in the middle of too much. My friend and I have adopted it for when our lives are over-full, and when one more thing seems to be one thing too many. I wonder how people find themselves in a time like that today. If that’s you, perhaps consider the story of Ruth, one of Jesus’ ancestors, and the last of the women we’ll consider on these Fridays in Advent.

The book of Ruth comes as a welcome respite if one is reading the Old Testament straight through. After the violence and despair of Judges, and before the drama of Saul, David, and the other kings, Ruth’s story offers rest and hope. How perfect for Advent – rest and hope in the midst of anxiety and longing. How perfect on this Friday before Christmas – when our culture is ramped up at maximum speed, volume, and bitter division.

I encourage you to read the book of Ruth today and this weekend. It’s only about four pages long, and one can feel the movement from distress to peace as the story unfolds. Redemption comes to a young widow, and to a family, beautifully and unexpectedly.

There are many angles from which to consider Ruth’s story, but in the spirit of a break, a respite, let’s just consider one thing – the particular field in which Ruth ended up. Ruth lost everything in her homeland, and then she risked everything else by accompanying her mother-in-law back to Israel. Once they arrived, there was only one way for them to eat: Ruth went out into the fields and gathered the leftovers after the harvest. She had no guarantee that anything would ever be different. And yet, of all the fields around Bethlehem, she ended up in the one whose owner was noble and kind. She ended up in the one whose owner could legally and financially redeem her and her mother-in-law. She ended up in the one whose owner was raised by Salmon and Rahab (Matthew 1:5). What other man in Israel would have had the inclination to marry a foreign woman with nothing to offer him, except her courage and maybe her faith? Perhaps a man raised by a father who chose to marry a foreign prostitute with nothing to offer him except courage and faith. Ruth made the choices she made. And she ended up in the presence of the man who had both the power and kindness to redeem her life.

I would suggest to you today that we are all like Ruth. We have lost things that we can’t get back. We need things we can’t provide for ourselves. We have nothing to offer that our Redeemer needs. And yet He looks on us with kindness and delight. If you are in the middle of too much, He can give you rest and hope. Boaz is to Ruth as Jesus is to you. You can rest in His kindness today.

Amen.

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Third Sunday in Advent

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Scripture passage: Matthew 2:1-15

I don’t often jump for joy. I don’t often shout for joy, either.

In fact, years ago, after an important meeting went better than I could have imagined, I called a friend to talk about it as I drove back to the office.

“Are you excited?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, in about the same tone as if she had asked if I ate breakfast that morning.

“Where??? In your TOE?!!!”

We laughed about my lack of verbal enthusiasm then, but I have returned to that moment many times as I have found that I don’t quite know what to do with joy.

It’s not a new thing to me. Consider two of my favorite lines in two of my favorite books:

“…Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy, than felt herself to be so…” (from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen).

“’Anne Shirley!’” exclaimed Marilla. For once in her life she was surprised out of her reserve; she caught her girl in her arms and crushed her and her flowers against her heart, kissing the bright hair and sweet face warmly (from Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery).

When I first read that line about Elizabeth knowing she was happy more than feeling it, it felt as though someone had been following my heart around, taking notes. And, though I grew up wanting to be Anne, it has been some time since I realized that there is plenty of Marilla in me – feeling deeply, but not quite letting it show, especially if it’s good. During a counseling session not long ago, I hesitantly said, “I think…I’m happy.” Indeed. I might think it, and feel it, but it doesn’t often show up on my face or outwardly in my body.

And that brings me to the Wise Men, or Magi, who visited Jesus and His family. Last week, I asked you to move the wise men in your nativity scenes across the room, if you could. That’s because the wise men weren’t there on the night Jesus was born! Matthew tells us that this group of scholars, or priests, or astrologers, arrived in Jerusalem sometime after Jesus was born. As the story unfolds, we learn that they first saw a star about two years before, and they took it to mean that a great king had been born in the nation of Israel. At some point, they decided to come and see this king, to worship Him and bring Him gifts. They stopped in Jerusalem to find out from King Herod where this new king had been born. King Herod and his own scholars and priests sent them on to Bethlehem, which had been identified as the Messiah’s birthplace by one of the prophets centuries earlier.

As they approached Bethlehem, they saw the star again, right over the place where Jesus was. Matthew 2:10 says that, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (NASB). This is one of those places where English does a poor job of conveying what actually happened. I consulted my own (language) scholars about this verse, and they told me that an adverb follows the Greek for “rejoice,” telling the extent of the action of rejoicing. My scholar reports: “The effect in the Greek is to communicate that their rejoicing was very visually physical and loud.”

Very visually physical and loud. What springs to mind when you consider that description? My guess is that it doesn’t look like the figurines in your nativity set.

Let’s look at the whole scene. A group of men from a foreign country, presumably speaking another language, showed up at the house. When they realized they were in the right place, and had found the right child, they rejoiced in a way that was probably more like My Big Fat Greek Wedding than the average American nativity scene. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way, “They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!”

Also in the scene were Mary and Joseph, parents of a toddler, and Jesus, the toddler. Obviously, there were cultural and technological differences from our own time, but to a great extent, parents are parents and toddlers are toddlers. What do you suppose that scene was like? Can you hear the shouts and see the gestures, and maybe the jumping, from the visiting magi? Can you imagine the looks on Mary and Joseph’s faces? Do you think Jesus hid behind His parents’ legs or went about His toddler business, ignoring the guests? How about when the guests fell to the ground and worshiped that toddler? Can you imagine Jesus tugging on one of their hats in curiosity?

How did Joseph and Mary receive the gold, frankincense, and myrrh from these men? They were a carpenter’s family who had had to move to Bethlehem just before Jesus’ birth. They almost certainly didn’t have gold, frankincense, and myrrh lying around in abundance. And, they couldn’t know it then, but those gifts would soon finance their escape to Egypt, as refugees fleeing violence. Can you imagine their eyes meeting as they packed up those gifts before they fled?

Taking the time to imagine that scene, according to what’s written in Scripture, stirs my wonder and awe at the story of Jesus. This week, it also causes me to stop and think about joy, and rejoicing. The magi’s joy showed up in their bodies. If we saw a photo of them, there would be no doubt in our minds that they were thrilled. If we had video and audio footage of them, it would be loud and exuberant. It would be different from how joy most often shows up in me.

Though Scripture does not direct us to imitate the wise men, it does command us to rejoice (Philippians 4). If we would be more like Jesus, that toddler who was also the Savior, we must learn to rejoice, even in the face of suffering (Hebrews 12). What do you suppose that might look like, for you, this week? Will you join me in considering joy in these next days?

What if we think about these questions?

  • When have I visibly and audibly been unable to contain my joy? What was it, in those moments, that was different from other moments? (I’m making a timeline of moments.)
  • What would it be like if I didn’t try to contain my joy? What would it look like, sound like, and feel like?
  • What about people who don’t struggle to express their joy? What could I learn from them this week? What could they learn from me?
  • How could this kind of joy move me on to worship?

 

No matter how the week turns out, may we know we’re in the right place, may we know we’re here at precisely the right time, and may we be unable to contain the joy that wells up in us.

Amen.

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Second Sunday in Advent

 

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Mary Did Know

Bible passages: Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:21-35

I ran across a Twitter fight last week. One side complained about the song, Mary Did You Know? The argument went something like, “Hello, have you ever read the book of Luke? Of course she knew!” The other side seemed to suggest lightening up a bit, and letting the song speak to the emotional side of Mary’s story. The whole thing took me back to Luke, wondering, “What did Mary know and when did she know it?”

Mary received information about Jesus from the angel Gabriel before she became pregnant. She also received information about Jesus from Simeon, a devout and elderly man who prophesied about Jesus when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be circumcised at 8 days old. So, when she received that information from the angel and from the old man, what was it? What did she know before and just after Jesus came? Let’s take a look.

Gabriel’s announcement (Lk. 1:26-38) Simeon’s prophecy (Lk. 2:21-35)
Mary had God’s favor. In Jesus, Simeon saw God’s salvation, promised to all people.
God was with Mary. Jesus was appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel.
Mary would have a son, though she was a virgin, and she was to name Him Jesus. Jesus would be opposed.
Jesus would be great. A sword would pierce Mary’s soul.
Jesus would be called Son of the Most High.
Jesus would have the throne of King David and reign over Israel.
Jesus’ kingdom would have no end.
Because of His miraculous conception, Jesus would be the Son of God.
Elizabeth was already pregnant.
Nothing would be impossible with God.

 

For the sake of our reflection today, what if we consider just the last thing on each list: Nothing would be impossible with God, and a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. Mary knew that she would be blessed among women, that she would be the mother of the Messiah, though she was a virgin, because nothing would impossible for God. She also knew that a sword was going to pierce her own soul, whatever that might have meant. Think about all the times those words might have echoed in her mind and heart, about how the liturgy of Mary’s life might have taken shape:

When she caught the eye rolls and pitying glances of her relatives and neighbors. “Right, she didn’t cheat on Joseph. That’s God’s boy.”

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When strangers from a foreign country showed up with gifts and worshiped her toddler son.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she had to leave her home in the middle of the night to escape violence.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she heard that, after she left, all her neighbors’ toddlers had been slaughtered.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she told her son to do something about the wedding party running out of wine.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she thought her son had lost his mind.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she saw the body she had once carried and sheltered stripped naked and brutally beaten, hanging on a cross, and she was powerless to stop it.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she first saw her son after His resurrection.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When years, and maybe decades, passed, and she was left here to live without this son, whom she loved.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

My guess is that sometimes she forgot both sentences in the everyday matters of life. Perhaps she was jolted with the memories whenever a new astounding thing happened, or when some new suffering came. She knew what was to come because of the announcement of Gabriel and the prophecy of Simeon. She could not possibly have known all the ways those things would play out, how she would be astounded by God’s goodness and power, or how she would suffer.

And that brings us to us. Though Mary was, of course, uniquely set apart in history, she was also a human woman, living after the corruption of the world and before the world is made right again. So then, we are like her. We live in the tension. We know, and we don’t know. We, too, can affirm that nothing is impossible with God. We, too, are bound to suffer. Are you aware of the tension?

I knew what I was getting into when I adopted a son from foster care. I also had no idea how that would play out, in joy or in desperate exhaustion.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

I held my friend’s hand and felt the final pulse in her wrist as she died. I knew what was coming. I could not possibly have known the pain of the grief that would come next.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

How would you write your liturgy of knowing and not knowing? When have you been astounded? When have you suffered? What would it mean to believe both sentences right now, today, on whichever side you find yourself? Will you take a few moments to fill in these blanks, as many times as you can?

I knew that                                                    .

I had no idea that                                                                                                                     .

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

As I look back over these words, I’m aware of more tension than peace. And yet, here we are in the second week of Advent, considering God’s peace in the midst of this often-dark world. Perhaps we can add some more words from Mary to our liturgies this week. Do you remember what she said to Gabriel?

I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true. (Luke 1:38, NLT)

It will take courage to add those words, but I believe we will find peace in the tension if we do. Let’s try. May God bless us as we do.

I knew that                                                    .

I had no idea that                                                                                                                     .

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.

Amen.

 

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First Sunday in Advent

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There is a scene in the larger Christmas story that is implied, but not described. That’s a good thing, because it was private, but it’s a moment that reminds me of the flesh and blood reality of Advent and Christmas. An old Jewish priest named Zechariah was chosen by lot to serve in the Temple by burning incense. While he was in there, alone, he encountered the angel Gabriel. Gabriel announced that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, and that son would be John, who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Zechariah asked for evidence, given that he and his wife were well past the years when they expected babies. It may be that he demanded evidence, rather than asked, because Gabriel’s response is stern, and rebukes Zechariah for his unbelief. The consequence was that Zechariah’s voice was put in time out until the baby was born. Everything was going to come to pass as Gabriel had said, but Zechariah would not be able to verbally tell anyone what had happened in the Temple. He emerged in silence, clearly having had some sort of vision, but only able to gesture to the gathered worshipers to try and communicate.

What happened next is what captures my imagination. Zechariah finished his time of service at the Temple and went home to Elizabeth. The New International Version of the Bible says, “After this his wife became pregnant…” (Luke 1:24). Though she would soon be visited by a pregnant virgin, Elizabeth became pregnant in the typical way. So, sometime after her now-silent husband returned, the ordinary sex life of a faithful, elderly couple intersected with the prophecy of an angel and the creation of John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Jesus. I’m struck by the mixture of everyday life and the work of God. Elizabeth and Zechariah were old, but had no children. They had probably been married for decades. Months and years of hoping for a baby in a culture that paired a woman’s worth with her fertility had so far brought nothing – no pregnancy that we know of, no baby. What had they endured in those years? How many times had their hopes been raised, only to be dashed again? What had people whispered about them? What well-meaning but ridiculous advice had their family and friends given? How did Elizabeth and Zechariah work out sex between them in the midst of all that? However they had worked it out, over all those years, into that came this angelic pronouncement: Elizabeth was going to have a son.

Do you imagine that Zechariah told Elizabeth what Gabriel told him? As he walked home, probably over multiple days, how did he decide whether or not to tell her? The Bible describes the couple as, “righteous,” living out God’s commands “blamelessly.” One of the things I take this to mean is that Zechariah was a loving husband. So, how did that play out as he approached his house, and his wife? They lived in a culture and time of quite distinct roles for men and women. He may have wanted to protect her from another disappointment. He may have been bursting with the news, unable to keep it to himself. And yet, if he was going to tell her, how was he going to tell her, given his silence? If he did tell her, what could that possibly have been like for her, after years of hoping for a baby, and then menopause, very reasonably ending those hopes? What was it like as they reached for one another, in the swirl of all of that?

No matter what all the answers to those questions are, at some time “after this,” Zechariah and Elizabeth both had before them the evidence of the truth of Gabriel’s message. Elizabeth was pregnant. Perhaps in fear that it was too good to be true, perhaps in awe at this wondrous gift from God, Elizabeth kept to herself and their house for five months. I’d like to return to her response a bit later this week. What I am especially mindful of as I consider their story now is that their part was to do the next, normal, human thing. God’s part was to provide the unseen, and in their case, truly the miraculous. Again, I shake my head at the mixture of everyday life and the work of God.

I wonder what resides in the, “after this,” moments of our ordinary lives in this season. After what do we find ourselves? After getting married, after losing a parent, after moving, after the first child ventures out in the world. I wonder if there are places in our lives where we have given up hope, in which God would have us hope again. I wonder if there are places in our lives where it is time to give up hoping in ourselves or other human beings, and place our hope in God. Whatever those places are, there are normal, everyday life things ahead of us to do. They all matter. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s sex life. The way we eat today. The 12-year-old’s birthday celebration. The eye contact with the person we’ve hurt, or who has hurt us. The next diaper change. The car line at school. The next time we pick up our phones. The way we handle being single, or widowed, or married, or divorced.

Most of us have not been given a promise as specific as Zechariah and Elizabeth. We do not know the outcome of either God’s silent, invisible work, or our next human thing to do. Sometimes that not knowing grows the frustration and longing through which we wait in Advent. Perhaps the hope of Advent is that the way we live next will be woven together with all the unseen movements of a God who loves us.

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