Sunday, December 24, 2006

Advent/Christmas Devotions for Dec 23-25

Dec 23 based on Luke 1:57-80 (read it here: )

Once John is born, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed and he is allowed to speak once more. And he stands before the people and speaks a prophecy, a special word given to him straight from the Lord.

I’m struck by the beautiful blessing he gives here to his son John. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” I love how he prepares the way for his son’s life, gives him a parent’s insight into what he should be and do. He cannot, of course, choose this course for John, nor can he force him to go this way. But he can give shape to his son’s thoughts and life and can provide him with insight for life’s journey.

I’m sometimes envious of John because John knew precisely what he was called to do. His father even helped to make it clearer by speaking these words out loud, providing precious guidance, saying, “Here’s what I see in you.” How it must have helped to have these words, given by God through his father, to provide form to a chaotic life.

December 23 is an easy day to say this, but life is chaos. For most of us, especially now, we run around, so much to do, so little time to think, much less think with any reflective clarity about our lives and our direction in life. And chaos strikes a double blow: it keeps us from reflecting on our lives and it makes the thought of such reflection less appealing, because it would mean being silent, which we are so afraid of.

In the midst of this chaos, we do each other a favor when we act like Zechariah. It is a gift to another person when we can look at thatperson’s life and say, “Here’s where I see God acting in you.” Since that person may feel too busy to reflect on their life, you are helping them with that work of reflection. You may say, “When you came to visit me in the hospital, that lifted my spirits and gave me strength. Thanks.” And that word might change a person’s self-perception, might help them to serve God in a whole new way. You might say, “Would you mind helping me when I go to serve meals at the soup kitchen? You have such a way with people, and I’m sure those people would appreciate your presence there.” Asking for help that way might help a person know a gift was there they never would have known if you hadn’t said something.

In the chaos of modern life, we must be able to help each other see our callings–just like Zechariah did John.

Dec 24 based on Luke 2:1-7 (read it here: )

I’m so struck by the ordinariness of this story. The rest of the story of Jesus’ birth rings with extraordinary majesty–angels visiting priests! Virgins becoming pregnant! Spiritually sensitive fetuses! Songs and prophecies straight from the Lord! Angels singing in the sky!

But this is just an ordinary story, almost scandalously ordinary really. “While they were there, the time arrived for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth...” They could be written about my child or yours, these simple words.

One of the many things I have learned over the past year is that childbirth is earthy. There is nothing romantic about it, nothing about the experience that makes you want to lean back and savor it as it is going on. There is blood; there is sweat; there are tears; there is almost every other bodily fluid imaginable flying around that room. There is a wife who does not believe she has what it takes to make it through the next contraction which is relentlessly coming on. There is an exhausted husband who has no idea how to help her. There is a midwife who knows the mysteries of the human body (at least as well as anyone can know them) and does her best to cajole a baby out. Even a naturally reflective person, like this husband, just wants the whole thing to be over.

It is ordinary. And it is terrifying. And it is a downright scandalous way for God’s perfect Word to come into the world. But it is the way He chose–because it was ordinary. No other way would do.

We all live with ordinary pain everyday, pain that terrifies us. Cancer is ordinary and terrifying. Job insecurity is ordinary and terrifying. A rebellious son or daughter is ordinary and terrifying.

Hear the good news: God came into the world tonight. And he came here in an ordinary, terrifying way. The ordinary, terrifying pain of a young mother brought in the greatest good the world has ever known: God in the flesh.

What if I told you that God’s goodness might yet be borne out of your ordinary, terrifying pain? What if I told you that your job insecurity, your rebellious child, even your cancer may just yield a greater gift than you have ever known? Would you believe me?

When Gracie was born, she was very alert. She always stares at people, and her first night in the world was no exception. She was passed from nurse to mom to dad to grandparent, and all she did was stare. And we stared back. And it was so beautiful (those of you who have experienced the first night with a newborn know this) to see her here, and safe, and well.

Sometimes, there is a miracle on the other side of ordinary, terrifying pain. It is the ordinary, terrifying experience of the first day of school which yields a strong, refreshed mind. It is the ordinary, terrifying experience of calling an old nemesis on the phone which yields a reconciled relationship. It is the ordinary, terrifying experience of death which ushers us into eternal life.

All of these gifts are made possible by a God who comes to us through our ordinary, terrifying pain.

Dec 25 based on Luke 2:8-20 (read it here: )

You have arrived at Christmas Day now. Those of you who read this in the morning are likely anticipating a crazy day. You may be traveling or having family over to your place; if you have kids, you may be watching the adrenaline-fueled, paper-ripping action of Christmas morning. You may be preparing a feast or preparing to eat a feast; you may be pondering pie and eggnog and Christmas cheer. Those of you who read this at night have already experienced this excitement and now are looking back on it.

The first Christmas had this kind of excitement, had it in spades. Angels showed up and talked with mangy, unkempt shepherds, singing them a song the likes of which has not been heard before or since. The unwashed shepherds ambled down to the stable where they heard the action was, anxious to see this baby that inspired the song. They showed up, wiping their dirty noses on their sleeves and telling the surprised new mother what they had heard and seen, and everyone around was talking about all these things they had heard from the shepherds. It was quite a scene: shepherds mingling with townsfolk, a happy father and tired mother chatting and gabbing outside a stable where the cattle and sheep and goats did what cattle and sheep and goats do. The first Christmas had chaos to rival Christmas 2006 in your household.

And yet, there is a phrase here that seems almost random, but holds a golden key for us. “Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” As the shepherds came down and tried to sing the angels’ song, as the animals carried on, as the happy, twittering Joseph entertained the guests, something in Mary was watching and treasuring it. Something in Mary was almost bottling these moments and saving them up, holding them dear in her heart, reflecting on the good things God was doing, reflecting on how God was changing the world in this ordinary, extraordinary way.

You will not see God’s redeeming work as purely or clearly as Mary saw it today, for you will not see Jesus with your own physical eyes, but you will see flashes of it. You will see children–by nature self-centered–giving! You will see the malls–our churches of consumerism–closed, for one precious day acknowledging that something greater than shopping exists. You will see long-embittered families lay down their arms; you will see people bury hatchets. You will see a child hear the Christmas story–the real Christmas story–and decide to follow the Baby of Bethlehem.

Treasure these things. Bottle them. Keep them in your hearts. And in the cold month of January and the heat of the summer, remember them, ponder them, believe them.

And, most importantly,

believe in the God who sent them,

the God who through this Baby is making all things new.