Friday, December 22, 2006

Advent Devotion for Friday, December 22

Based on Luke 1: 46-56 (read it here: )

This precious prayer is preserved for us as the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song of Prayer. It is beautiful because it points to Jesus as the culmination of all the promises made to Israel. “He has helped his servant Israel,” Mary sings, “in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promises he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”

Who’d have thought it? God showed his mercy through a baby boy. People thought that all those promises God had made to Israel were about restoring their earthly power, making them a great nation. Instead, they turned out to be about a baby boy–no ordinary baby boy, but one who would offer life freely to the whole world, to anyone who would receive it.

God delivers on promises in funny ways, doesn’t He? God has a wisdom all His own. When I was starting seminary 8½ years ago, I was doing all I could to be on the fast-track to a Ph.D. in New Testament studies. I wanted to be a person who would hole up in a library with arcane texts in ancient languages, seeking to better parse and understand Scripture.

I wanted to be that person because I so keenly felt the call of God in my life, and in my limited experience, that’s the only way I could imagine it being carried out. I didn’t understand that my calling was different because I didn’t understand it could be different. Yet what I found is that the call on my life was no less real but so different from what I could understand. I didn’t know that I had spiritual leadership qualities, I didn’t know I had a pastoral soul, and I didn’t even know the field of Liturgical Studies (the study of Christian worship, in which I am pursuing my Ph.D.) even existed! I was right that God had a call on my life, a promise to use me, but I couldn’t even imagine what that call meant. Now I think I know–but who knows what I will see in another 8½ years?

God answers promises in ways we never expect–when people expect a general, he sends a baby; when people expect one kind of calling, he delivers another.

No doubt you are waiting on God to deliver a promise today. We all are. We all live with
the pain, sometimes dull, sometimes acute, of waiting on God. And we have expectations for God. We expect God to heal our sick husband, to help patch up a broken relationship, to end the war, to restore our family. And certainly God has all of these situations close to His heart. Yet we must realize that God may not (and likely will not) answer those concerns in ways we expect. There is a deeper logic than we can process at work here, a mysterious heart of God that has created us from eternity for eternity. And we will not understand right away why God sends death instead of life, why God allows relationships to stay broken and wars to proceed, why God allows our families to stay estranged.

All we can say is that God is surprising, and God is good, and God never ever forgets us, even when he sends us what we do not expect.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Advent Devotion for Thursday, December 21

Based on Luke 1:39-45 (read it here: )

I’m always intrigued by this passage. Remember first that Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, had thoroughly blown it by failing to believe that the angel Gabriel was telling the truth. Gabriel, in response, had sentenced him to be silent until the baby was born. So when Mary shows up on Elizabeth’s doorstep, she is surrounded by two people who had seen Gabriel–one who had believed and one who hadn’t. And so I’m very amused by what she says to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed”–you can almost imagine her staring daggers at her sheepish husband–“that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” I love the comedy of that situation: Elizabeth still frustrated with her foolish husband and greeting her cousin by saying essentially, “I’m glad you’re not like him!”

But I’m also amazed by the babies. Elizabeth says to Mary that not only is she blessed, but also her child–“for as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my heart leaped for joy.” John the Baptist has not even been born yet, and already, he is excited at Jesus’ presence, leaping around, trying to show people that this Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

“Unless you become like little children,” says Jesus later on in the Gospels, “you will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” This seems to be taking it to extremes a little bit–“unless you become like pre-born children...” Still, look at the bare facts of it: salvation is coming and the wizened priest Zechariah cannot see it; but an not-yet-born baby leaps for joy, just sensing that the Savior of the World has been carried into the room in his own amniotic sac.

Who among us has ever seen God face-to-face? I know some people who have had visions, but they are few and far between. Most of us settle for seeing God like John the Baptist saw Jesus. That is to say, we don’t really see him at all. Jesus doesn’t walk the earth in physical form much anymore, and so we don’t see him physically. Rather, we sense him like John the Baptist did–even though they were separated by flesh and fat and fluid, something in him just knew that God was there. Just so, we also sense when God is present–something in us just knows it when God is there and working.

Trouble is, we’re too much like Zechariah and not enough like John the Baptist. When God is there, time is so precious. It’s so rare, and so sweet, and we ought to jump for joy. We should swim backflips like little John, going back and forth to the ends of the little world we know, kicking and punching and headbanging for glee.

God is coming! All creation rises to meet him, the born and the unborn.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Advent Devotion for Wednesday, December 20

Based on Luke 1:26-38 (read it here: )

Luke intentionally plants this story of Zechariah and the story of Mary back to back to reveal the differences in the way they responded to unbelievable news. The angel Gabriel visited each one and gave them the same news: “You are going to have a son.” In each case, the news was hard to believe. In Zechariah’s case, experience told him this was unlikely: their previous attempts at having children had been unsuccessful, and Elizabeth was getting old. In Mary’s case, inexperience told her this was unlikely: Mary was a virgin, and after all, sex is normally a requirement for becoming a parent.

Yet while their circumstances were very similar, their responses could not have been more different. Said Zechariah, “How will I know that this is so?” In essence, Zechariah looks for proof. He wants the angel to give him some sort of obvious supernatural token to show him that this is indeed true. Perhaps the angel will show him God’s glory or speak in some heavenly tongue that will demonstrate that this is true.

But Mary says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Where Zechariah asks for proof, Mary simply wants to know how God is going to do this amazing thing. Certainly, it is unusual and beyond Mary’s comprehension. But rather than being like Zechariah and seeking proof and reassurance, Mary wants to know more about God’s way. How is God going to do this amazing thing? Tell me more, Gabriel; I want to know how God is going to do this. Zechariah’s response reveals a self-centered heart, anxious for assurance; Mary’s heart is wide open to what God wants to do and wants to know more about God’s ways.

Suppose I told you that God wants to do a great work in your heart. Even if I have not told you that in so many words, it is true! God has a plan for each of us that is no less noble or exciting–or invasive–than his plan for Elizabeth and Mary. Suppose I told you that God wanted to make you into something you could not imagine–this too is true.

Some would respond like Zechariah, and doubt whether or not this is true. Don’t you know, Michael, that I am just an ordinary person living in an ordinary suburb looking for an ordinary church? You’re young, Michael, and you are zealous, but you don’t understand me. Prove to me that this is what God wants to do, Michael–I don’t think you can.

But some would respond like Mary–how is God going to do this? What might this look like in my life? How might God want to use me? What gifts do I have he can take and shape and use? How might God transform me? What great thing might God have created me for?

The Mary-like people are obviously very rewarding to a pastor. And I believe they are rewarding to an angel too, and to the God that sends angels. I pray that each of us may have Mary-like faith and believe God can do amazing things in our lives.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Advent Devotional for Tuesday, December 19

Based on Luke 1:5-25 (read it here: )

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth should feel familiar to readers steeped in the Old Testament. The story of a barren woman having children as the result of divine intervention was a common theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham’s wife Sarah, Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, and Samuel’s mother Hannah all were believed to be unable to have children until God directly intervened.

Especially in the story of Abraham and Sarah, one of the important points is the belief (or failure to believe) of the parents when God promised a child. As those of you who have children know, a woman doesn’t usually know right off the bat whether or not she is pregnant. Even with the advance of modern technology, women have to wait at least a few weeks to find out if they are pregnant or not. In this culture, the wait surely would have been longer. So a person could not appeal to evidence when deciding whether or not to believe God; one simply had to have faith.

In this respect, Zechariah failed the test. He did not simply believe an angel who told him that Elizabeth was finally going to have a child. He wanted proof in an age before home pregnancy tests. The angel interpreted his demand for proof as a lack of faith, and so Zechariah was struck silent as a sort of punishment for failing to believe this messenger of God.

Often, we are called on to believe that God will deliver something for which we have no evidence. We are called on to believe that God has prepared a life for us after death. No one can vouch for this life reliably as an eyewitness. We are told to believe that based on the death and resurrection of a man born 2000 years ago across the sea who we could not pick out of a police lineup if we had to.

To believe this requires tremendous faith. Yes, there are powerfully good reasons for believing the Christian story. For instance, if Christ was not raised from the dead, why did the disciples put their lives on the line and found a church that they all died for? Did one of them just get some friends together and say, “Let’s invent a religion” knowing that any religion that competed with Caesar would get its leaders tortured and killed? That seems unlikely, and even more unlikely that none of them would recant when threatened with death. To me, the most compelling proof for Jesus’ resurrection is that none of the disciples recanted even though they were all punished to the point of death for their preaching.

There are other good historical reasons to believe, too, which you are welcome to talk with me about at any time. But for the purposes of this devotion, we have to realize that no matter the evidence, there is still a lot of faith involved. We cannot know that the Jesus story is real in the same way we know that there are leftover burritos in the refrigerator. We cannot simply go to the fridge and see with our own eyes. There must be faith for the Christian.

In a sense, our whole lives are like those few months that Elizabeth and Zechariah wrestled with whether or not they would truly have a baby. Elizabeth hadn’t developed the pregnancy “bump” yet, and there was no way to know for sure that there was a baby in there at all. Those few months seemed to take forever as they wondered whether or not there faith would be rewarded. So it is for us; we too wait for the promises of God to be revealed. But take heart; the God of Elizabeth and Zechariah is the same God we worship today, and he will just as surely reveal his gifts for us.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Advent Devotion for Monday, December 18

Based on John 5:30-47 (read it here: )

What a crazy time of year this is! Jill and I will be leaving for vacation not long after Christmas, and it still feels like I have endless tasks before I get there. There are services to plan, services which don’t only involve me, but lots of participation from people I have to line up. There are people to visit, Christmas traditions to continue, a youth group retreat to plan, family and friends to shop for, and–oh yes–a daughter to be mindful of. I am of course profoundly grateful for all of these things, but they still weigh heavy sometimes. It is very easy to busy ourselves at this time of year–with very worthy causes! I should be busy with the work of leading the church, and you should be busy with all the things you are busy with.

It’s good and right to be busy with these things–God has made us to be creatures who work and keep busy. Yet, of course, busy-ness has dangers of its own. There are times when busyness can surround us and make us forget what we are busy about. We can forget that our busyness is supposed to serve the celebration and honoring of the Baby of Bethlehem.

When Jesus speaks to the Pharisees here, he speaks to a group of people who kept extremely busy–with good things! Specifically, the Pharisees were busy about searching the Scriptures. They kept at it, parsing the ancient languages, hunting high and low for the lessons Scripture had for them. Yet, Jesus says, in their busy-ness, they have missed what the Scriptures are really all about. The Scriptures testify to Jesus, that is, they point to Jesus. Jesus points out that the Pharisees are so busy searching the Scripture that they miss the fact that the Point Of the Scriptures has arrived–he himself!

As we busy ourselves, even as we keep busy with good things, we must be on guard not to miss the forest for the trees. Remember that Jesus, the point of the celebration, is here and that our life with him is all a supreme gift.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Advent Devotion from Saturday and Sunday, Dec 16-17

From Saturday, based on Luke 3:1-9 (read it here: )

At first blush, this may look like the passage we read from Mark on Wednesday or from Matthew on Thursday. But one thing separates Luke from these two passages; actually, there are several things but one that I want to focus on. When the other gospels use the passage from Isaiah to talk about John’s mission, they use only the first sentence: “to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make his paths straight.” But Luke adds, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

This extra sentence might just seem like words on a page, but it does illuminate a bit about John’s job. Part of what John came to do was to level the world before Jesus came. The Pharisees and religious elite had to be brought low–so, as we’ve seen in the last couple of days, John didn’t hesitate to bring them low, calling them a “brood of vipers.” It was harsh, but if they were to truly encounter Jesus, they needed to be brought low. The poor and the lowly, on the other hand, had to be raised up. If they would meet Jesus, they had to learn that they also were precious, that they had every bit as much right to meet God the Son as the fancy Pharisees did. If they did not learn that they were precious, they would never truly encounter Jesus either, because they would not count themselves worthy of his friendship.

Part of what we are to do during Advent is to prepare our lives in the same way. No doubt, there are parts of our spirits which must be brought low. There are parts of us that we are sure we have all figured out, that we don’t need God’s help with anymore, thank you very much. Perhaps we are certain that we already have the right opinion on politics or poverty or prayer and that what the world really needs is more people who agree with us. These areas in our lives must be brought low–for our own sake! We must somehow be taken down a peg; we must fail somehow so we fall out of love with ourselves. Because if we remain in love with ourselves, like the Pharisees, we can never really meet Jesus.

Yet of course we are not arrogant about everything, or even many things. There are some things in our lives which we feel quite the opposite about–we do not feel that we have them solved by any stretch. Instead, they are so foreign or big or difficult that we feel we could never see them with the mind of Christ. These areas in our lives are spiritual areas which must be raised up. For example, you may feel like the Bible is a terrifying, arcane, mystifying book which you could never understand. But you must believe in yourself more than this–this part of your life must be raised up! Only when you believe that God can help you to achieve this can that actually happen. If you are resigned to never understanding the Bible, then God cannot transform that part of you! This also holds true for many other areas: prayer feels foreign to many of us. Giving feels difficult for us. Accountability is uncommon in our culture. We may look at these areas (and many more) and say that they simply are too hard for us. But these are areas which must be raised up if we are to allow God to transform us.

In each of our lives, there are things we need to not be so arrogant about, and things we need to believe in ourselves more for. May God use this Advent season to “level the ground” of your heart, so that Christ may reside more fully there.

...and from Sunday, based on John 3:16-21 (read it here: )

As we enter the third week of Advent, we read an excerpt from Jesus to Nicodemus. It is at once a great celebration and a great tragedy.

The first verse of the passage is perhaps the most famous in Scripture. It speaks of the depth of God’s love for us. In essence it says: “This is how much God loves us: he gave his Son. And he gave his Son so that everyone who believes will not die but live with him forever.” We learn this verse as children in Sunday School so that we will know just how much God loves us, just how deeply he cares: he cares so much, he gave his Son for us. (As a father myself now, I am even more in awe of a love that would give a child away.)

Yet further along in the passage, we read some of the most tragic lines in Scripture. “This is the verdict: that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” In other words, Jesus has come, but because of the inclinations of the human heart, people preferred life without Jesus to life with Jesus. Life with Jesus is the greatest gift from God to humanity, promising the total transformation of our hearts. Yet because of the human desire to do evil, we perceive this great gift of God not as a gift, but as a threat. And so people love darkness rather than light; they would rather live a miserable life that they can understand than a life transformed by God.

Advent is a good time to ask the question: Are you really serious about entering the God-centered life? Jesus comes as the light, as God’s greatest gift of love to us. All the beautiful gifts of life–the love of family, the majesty of creation, the gifts of food and shelter and happiness–all of these things pale in comparison to the gift of Jesus. Yet if we are not serious about entering into a God-centered life, then our natural inclinations will pull us back toward the darkness. If we are not intentional about seeking God, about walking in the light, we will simply drift back toward the darkness.

Eight days from now, you will be celebrating the coming of a Baby. You get to pick what this day will mean to you. You can let it mean what it means to others: a chance to be with family, a celebration of the miracle of new life, an acknowledgment of an historical event in Bethlehem 2010 years ago.

Or you can let it mean something different. This year, you can see that Baby as a gift for you, a gift that will bring all kinds of new life, a gift that leads you to a way of living you never imagined. You can let Jesus be the light which guides you to a new way of thinking and acting and believing.

The option you choose will be determined by whether you love darkness or light.