December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve--Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men

The story of the birth of Jesus didn’t end with his birth of course. God shared the news with others. The first to come were the humble and outcasts of society. Shepherds were among the least in the society of Israel. Even though the shepherds near Bethlehem raised the lambs for temple sacrifices, they were still on the fringe of society because of their job. The smell of the sheep and the long hours in the fields didn’t help.

Luke’s interview with Mary continues.

LUKE: Was it quiet after the Baby was born?

MARY: (smiles) For a while, then we had some unexpected visitors.

LUKE: Who besides the innkeeper knew where you were?

MARY: God knew and sent men to help us understand that this seemingly normal baby was really a Child who would change the world.

LUKE: What do you mean?
MARY: Well, it was such a normal birth and in a stable. All babies are miracles but Joseph and I both expected something more, I guess. Maybe we thought there would be trumpets or another appearance of angels. (pauses) We didn’t see angels but the shepherds around Bethlehem did.

LUKE: Shepherds?

MARY: You know that the fields near Bethlehem are where many of the lambs for the Temple sacrifices are raise, don’t you? Nearly year round the shepherds are out in the fields watching to be sure that no wild animal attacks the flock and making certain the sheep have grazing. Most people don’t like shepherds because they are smelly from being around the sheep all the time. Because they aren’t in town much, there are always rumors that shepherds are thieves, or murderers. It’s sad, really, because most of them are hard working men. Our ancestor David was a shepherd, after all.

LUKE: What happened?

MARY: I was dozing after Jesus fell asleep. Joseph was resting, too, on the hard packed dirt at the entrance to the cave. The murmur of many voices wakened me. At first I thought it was part of my dream until I saw Joseph barring the entrance with his staff gripped in his hands. I saw that he was ready to defend us. ‘What do you want?’ he challenged whoever was outside. I couldn’t hear the answer but I saw his head lift as if in surprise. He turned and looked at me. ‘Mary? Mary, are you awake? There are shepherds here with an amazing story.’

LUKE: What was their story?

MARY: It was the sign we were seeking. I told Joseph, ‘I am awake.’ A moment later the cave was crowded with roughly dressed men. I had to hold my breath for a second because the wave of sheep odor was very strong. They shocked me when every single one dropped to his knees and began to say things like ‘Praise the Holy One of Israel,’ ‘Glory be to God,’ ‘Alleluia,’ and ‘Hosanna.’

LUKE: That is extraordinary.

MARY: (smiles) It was what they told us that was really astonishing. ‘What is this?’ my husband demanded. One older man, probably the chief shepherd turned to him. ‘This is how the angel told us we would find Messiah.’ Joseph and I looked at each other. ‘Messiah,’ Joseph repeated softly. The old shepherd nodded solemnly. ‘We were sitting around the fire tonight, like we always do. The sheep were bedded down and we were almost dozing, too.’ Then all the others started trying to talk at once. I couldn’t understand anything except a few scattered words. ‘Angel…’ ‘baby…’ ‘glory…’ ‘Bethlehem…’ The baby started to cry from the noise and I picked him up from his manger cradle. My simple action silenced the men. ‘Please tell us what happened,’ I begged, ‘but one at a time.’ Again the old shepherd spoke. His eyes never left my son. (closes her eyes and remembers the scene)

LUKE: What did he say?

MARY: The old man knelt there at my feet staring at Jesus. In an awestruck tone he continued the story. ‘We were almost asleep and then there was a brilliant shaft of light in the sky nearby. The sheep weren’t frightened, but we were.’ He looked at his friends and they all nodded in agreement. ‘From the light we heard words.’ Another shepherd repeated the angel’s announcement. ‘We heard, in the air or in our hearts, I don’t know how really. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all people.” I looked around to see if I was the only one hearing the voice.’ Another man interrupted, ‘We were all staring at the light and hearing the words.’

LUKE: I can imagine that they were terrified.

MARY: I suppose so, but the men who came to the cave were no longer frightened. They were ecstatic. The old shepherd continued the saga, ‘This messenger told us, “To you is born in the city of David a Savior, Messiah has come. You will find the child wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” It was amazing news and we stared at each other in disbelief.’ A young shepherd added, ‘Then the sky seemed to burst open and there was music everywhere. I think all the stars of heaven were singing.’ His companion nudged him and insisted, ‘It was the hosts of God. They were singing…’ When his voice trailed off, several other shepherds began to recite the angels’ song, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those God favors!’

LUKE: What did you do?

MARY: I stared at these ordinary men, transformed by the vision of angels. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered. That God would send angels to these men was confirmation that the Child I held was indeed Messiah. I did not doubt again. Joseph asked the shepherds, ‘How did you know to come here, though?’ The old shepherd chuckled at the question. ‘When the angels were gone, we sat staring at each other. I think we were speechless for several minutes. Everything looked just as it had before the visitation, but we were different. Job there was the first to say what we were all thinking.’ The man indicated shrugged, ‘All I said was that we should go to Bethlehem and see what God showed us. There was a little discussion, but we were sure that if the Child was in a manger, it would be in these caves. So we came.’ All the shepherds nodded. The spokesman added, ‘It was just as we were told. Your Baby is no ordinary child. Messiah has come.’

LUKE: Did they stay there?

MARY: Yes, the men seemed to want to linger. When dawn was lightening the sky, they finally got to their feet and bowed to me and to Joseph. ‘We must tell everyone what we have seen and heard,’ the eldest shepherd told me. Then they left. Joseph and I were alone with our Son, who was really not ours, but God’s.

“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” During this holy season, I hope you have been able to take time to sit and ponder what the coming of Christ means to you. Like the shepherds, our duty as Christians is to tell others what we have seen and heard of our Lord. They met him as a Baby in a manger, we meet him daily in prayer, in good times, and in difficult times. The story of Jesus you tell is different for each of us, because it is the story of where and when God in Christ met and meets us. What can you tell of Jesus?

Sometimes the tragedies in our lives prove the seed to greater faith. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” despite sorrows in his life and the Civil War raging across the nation (the 4th and 5th verses allude to the war and are rarely sung now). He was married twice and both wives died tragically. His second wife, Frances Appleton Longfellow, died from burns and Longfellow himself was burned trying to put out the fire. His son was badly injured in the Civil War, which he alludes to in the rarely sung 3rd and 4th stanzas of his poem:.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

However, like us, Longfellow knew that this was not the end or answer. He was able to proclaim his faith in the final stanza:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Can you affirm a faith that says “God is not dead… right [will] prevail, with Peace on earth, good will to men” despite everything? The birth of a Baby over 2000 years ago is our proof that this is true. May it be so for you this Christmas.

December 20, 2009

Advent IV--Strength for today

After her visit with Elizabeth, Mary returned to Nazareth and was a good wife to Joseph. The couple shared an amazing experience of God and an awesome secret that they couldn’t tell anyone about. Few would have believed that Messiah would be born to a carpenter and his wife from Nazareth, anyway. The cultural expectation was for a Davidic king to arise and overthrow Rome. God rarely acts in the ways we expect, but the result is always in God's will. Like the lights of the Snowman Town at the Christmas River of Lights, we only see bits of illumination instead of the entire scene.

Luke continues his interview with the events leading up to the birth of her Child.

LUKE: You must have been glad to be home in Nazareth after visiting Elizabeth.

MARY: Yes, she was so kind that I hated to leave, but I knew that Joseph and my parents waited for me. She had her own preparations to make as well.

LUKE: What happened when you got home?

MARY: Joseph had our house finished. He must have worked night and day for the three months I was gone. It was a cozy home with whitewashed walls, right next to the carpenter shop that belonged to him and used to be his father’s. Mother helped me get settled and had even finished weaving the blanket I started when I was betrothed.

LUKE: Was there any gossip about your trip so soon after your marriage?

MARY: (laughs) There certainly was! I’m afraid poor Joseph had the worst of it, though. Soon I could no longer conceal the fact that I was pregnant. Then we had to pretend to ignore the whispers and winks. Some tried to be understanding. I heard a neighbor talking to Joseph one day. ‘You aren’t the only man to have hurried the wedding along,’ he said. ‘People forget quickly, though. Very few remember that I married my Abigail only six months before Jesse was born.’

LUKE: I suppose it happens in all villages.

MARY: (nods) We had our special secret to comfort us, though. Our angelic visitors were something we discussed often. ‘How will this Child be different?’ Joseph asked me often. I had no answer.

LUKE: Tell me why you went to Bethlehem before the Baby was born.

MARY: It was a strange thing. Joseph and I often talked about the prophecy that said Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. We couldn’t figure out how that would be fulfilled since we were living in Nazareth.

LUKE: What happened?

MARY: One day a group of Roman soldiers rode into Nazareth. We all ran to our homes. The leader went to the rabbi’s house and gave him a scroll. ‘See that you obey,’ was all he said. (she paused)

LUKE: And…?

MARY: It was an order, a decree, from the Emperor. Every man had to travel to his ancestral home for a census. That meant Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. His heritage traced back to David, who was born in Bethlehem, and so did mine.

LUKE: Surely wives didn’t have to go with their husbands.

MARY: Many went anyway. Joseph and I both knew that I had to go. How else would the prophecy be fulfilled? Mother was not happy with our decision. ‘You are only a few weeks from the birth of your child,’ she scolded. I tried to assure her that we would be back in time for the birth, but it didn’t help.

LUKE: So you made the trip?

MARY: Yes, I rode a donkey part of the way. I walked some and for the trek down the Jericho valley I was able to ride with another woman in a litter. My labor started before we reached Bethlehem, but I didn’t tell Joseph until we reached the edge of the town. ‘I will find us a place to stay,’ he promised and hurried off.

LUKE: Was there any room to stay?

MARY: (shakes her head) Not at first. My poor Joseph came back with his head hanging. ‘Everyone turned me away. They all say they are full,’ he told me. ‘God will provide a place,’ I encouraged him. “I will come with you.’ ‘Please, my wife is going to have a baby,’ he begged the innkeeper. This time the man suggested that we could bed down in the straw in the caves where the ewes lambed.

LUKE: That must have been frightening.

MARY: Not really. I was sure God was in control. Joseph didn’t know what to do, so I had to direct him how to get water and the swaddling clothes ready. Before dawn my Baby was born.

LUKE: How wonderful.

MARY: (smiles tenderly) Yes, He was perfect. He had such tiny hands and feet! I stroked his black curls while he nursed. Joseph made a nest of straw for me on the floor and one in the nearby manger for Jesus. It was really quite warm and surprisingly soft when he spread the blanket from the donkey over the straw.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that God is in charge of all the details. Like Mary and Joseph we might wonder how the prophecy is going to be fulfilled. Then, a ‘miracle’ happens and all the pieces come together. The way things happen is rarely the way we would have planned, though. Mary would never have chosen a stone manger for her baby's bed, but she trusted that God was in control.

The final verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness helps me remember why Jesus was born and the truth that God is still with us and is in control of all things.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

How do you encourage yourself to remember that Christ is near at all times?
Are there special songs, readings, psalms, or other aids that help you stay connected to God?
For me, the stories of the Bible are important reminders of God’s everlasting loving kindness.

On Christmas Eve, we’ll hear what Mary tells Luke about the visit of the Shepherds.

As promised, the book special this week (Dec. 20-25) is 25% off any of my books. You can only get this special by emailing me and noting Blog Special in the memo line.

December 13, 2009

Advent III-My soul magnifies the Lord

Today we look at Mary's visit to Elizabeth. Mary's song of joy, the Magnificat is probably one of the better known Bible passages.

Elizabeth was Mary’s relative, traditionally a cousin. Her husband Zechariah was a priest in the Temple and Elizabeth was “of the daughters of Aaron”. In other words, the family was members of the priesthood since the time of Moses. However, Elizabeth was barren, so the line would end with her generation. This was no doubt a source of great sadness to both Zechariah and Elizabeth. For Elizabeth it was probably worse because barrenness was an indication that you had sinned and God was angry.

Imagine their joy when the angel told Zechariah that Elizabeth would finally be pregnant and have a son. No wonder he was skeptical. He and his wife were “advanced in years”. Elizabeth “hid herself for 5 months, saying, ‘thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach…’” The joy of being pregnant and the hope that it was true kept her from sharing the news until she was certain.

Mary learns of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy when the angel informs her that “your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” She decides to visit her cousin. Both women had received unexpected and astonishing gifts from God.

We continue with our interviewer Luke as he talks to Mary about her trip to see Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). Images of the meeting are popular in art and range from medieval representations that include a priest at one end to more modern line drawings of the two women greeting each other.

LUKE: I understand you almost immediately went on a trip. Wasn’t that unusual?

MARY: The angel told me that Elizabeth, my cousin, was six months pregnant. I wanted to see her and rejoice with her. I was sure she would understand my own joy and my confusion about why I was chosen to be mother of Messiah.

LUKE: Were Joseph and your parents concerned?

MARY: (nods) They were. Mother tried to talk me out of it. ‘You should not travel in your condition,’ she cautioned. ‘This is God’s child,’ I reminded her, ‘nothing can happen.’ Joseph seemed to understand, although I know he was sad to see me leave so soon after our marriage.

LUKE: How did you get from Nazareth to Elizabeth?

MARY: There was a caravan from Sepphoris. Joseph knew one of the traders and entrusted me to his care. I walked most of the way. Sometimes I rode on a donkey the trader owned. It took nearly two weeks to make the trip. The traders stopped at several cities along the way. I was amazed by the different clothing and hair styles in some of the places, like Sebaste. I knew I shouldn’t, but I stared at the women of Samaria. They didn’t look debauched like people claimed because they don’t worship God like the Jews. They were friendly and kind to me.

LUKE: Was Elizabeth surprised to see you?

MARY: There was no way to let her know I was coming. When we arrived at Zechariah’s house, a servant ran to find his mistress. She came hurrying out of the house and I saw immediately that the angel had not lied. My cousin was heavy with child. I was a little ashamed of how relieved I was. Even though my own body was changing, I sometimes wondered if I dreamed the conversation with the angel.

LUKE: Then what happened?

MARY: (smiles at the memory) Elizabeth came toward me with her hands outstretched to welcome me. ‘Mary, how sweet of you…’ Then she stopped, stared at me, and crossed her hands over her belly. I thought something was wrong and ran toward her. A smile burst across her face and she caught my hands,

‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why has the mother of my Lord come to me?’ It was my turn to stare at her. She continued to exalt, ‘As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

LUKE: You must have been relieved that she knew your news.

MARY: It was more than that. I felt almost as if God was drawing me close again. My own song broke out. The words just came flowing from my heart.

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

LUKE: That is beautiful.

MARY: Elizabeth and I had so much to talk about. She told me how an angel came to Zechariah when he was burning incense before the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. ‘He isn’t able to talk because he couldn’t believe I would have a child,’ she explained. ‘The angel told him, ‘you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things come to pass because you did not believe my words.’ I am glad you are here because I haven’t had anyone to discuss the miracle with.’

LUKE: How long did you stay with Elizabeth?

MARY: I remained about 3 months. When it was almost time for her to be delivered, she sent me home. ‘You should not be present at the birth,’ she told me. ‘You must return to your husband and family and prepare for your own baby.’ Zechariah arranged for me to travel with some fellow priests who were returning to Galilee after their service at the Temple was done. We returned by a different route because they would not go through Samaria and the Roman escort preferred to stop at the Roman outposts. I was surprised that the priests were willing to travel with the conquerors, but then I realized they wanted to be safe.

LUKE: I can understand that traveling with Roman troops would have been safer than traveling alone.

MARY: The soldiers were kind to me. I was never afraid of them. Most of them were just young men. Joseph was glad to see me. He had finished our home while I was gone. Of course he built it adjacent to his father’s house. It was nice to return to my family.

Elizabeth and Mary are both women of great faith. Like Sarah in the Old Testament, Elizabeth was blessed with a child when she was ‘too old’. Jesus tells his disciples, “…all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) When faced with something that seems impossible or improbable, it might be good to stop and remember the many times throughout history that God has accomplished the “impossible”. Often it is the women who are beneficiaries of this grace. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah are just a few of the women who, like Elizabeth, conceived when it seemed impossible. Hebrews 11 lists a summary of the acts of grace that patriarchs and matriarchs received by faith. Their example can teach us to live our faith vibrantly.

Does the song of Mary resonate with you as a glorious revelation of the ways God acts to ‘lift up the lowly’?
Are there ways you can be part of God’s plan to show love by ‘filling the hungry’ or otherwise making a difference in your corner of the world?

The second verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” summarizes some of the ways we know, through nature, that God is with us. The miraculous birth of Elizabeth’s son, John (the Baptist), was the confirmation Mary needed to reassure her heart that God was indeed with her.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love

As promised, the book special this week (Dec. 13-19) is free shipping on any of my books. You can only get this special by emailing me and noting Blog Special in the memo line.

See you next week for the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

December 6, 2009

Advent II-I will not forsake you

Last week we looked at the Annunciation to Mary. An angel, a heavenly messenger, comes to this young girl of Nazareth with the amazing news that she will be mother of Messiah. Her courage was tested when she had to tell her husband-to-be, Joseph, that she was going to have a child. Joseph was likely 10-20 years older than Mary. Men were expected to be established in life before they married. Some traditions say he was much older than Mary, perhaps in his 50’s or 60’s. His age doesn’t matter as much as his faith and courage in accepting Mary and her Child.

We continue with our fictitious interview between the Evangelist Luke and Mary (based on Matt. 1:18-25). This image of Joseph entitled the Anxiety of Jesus is by James Tissot.

LUKE: How did you tell your family about your visit from the angel?

MARY: It wasn’t easy. Mother started to cry and threw her veil over her head. My father just looked stern and disappointed. I know they thought I was lying.

LUKE: What about Joseph?

MARY: (closes her eyes for a moment) I was almost afraid to tell him after my parents’ reaction. He had to be told, though. I hoped that God had prepared him.

LUKE: What happened?

MARY: I walked to his carpenter shop. He was busy and I watched him work from the doorway for a little while. He smiled when he saw me. When he asked, ‘Mary, why are you here?’, I knew that he had not been visited by an angel.

LUKE: Were you afraid?

MARY: For a moment I wanted to run away, but then I remembered that God was with me. ‘I have something to tell you,” I told the man. I think he expected me to say I couldn’t marry him because I saw a sadness come into his eyes.

LUKE: What did he say?

MARY: Nothing, he just stared at me with that sad expression. ‘Don’t be afraid, it is good news,’ I tried to reassure him. ‘I have seen an angel.’ (pauses and stares away, remembering the scene)

LUKE: Then?

MARY: Joseph still didn’t say anything, so I told him what the angel said to me. I watched his expression change from worry to disbelief to anger. ‘How can you blaspheme?’ he snarled when I finished my story. ‘It is true,’ I insisted. When he turned away, I felt like crying. Inside I said a quick prayer. ‘God, please, I can’t do this alone.’

LUKE: It must have been hard for Joseph to understand what happened to you.

MARY: Yes, he didn’t say anything more to me even when I said, ‘I have not betrayed our betrothal. God has acted. I hoped you would rejoice with me.’ Joseph just stood there with his head bowed. I felt like my heart was breaking. Instead of going home, I walked out to the hills when I left the carpenter shop.

LUKE: I know he did come to believe you.

MARY: (smiles) He came to our house the next day. It was barely dawn, but he roused Father by pounding on the door. Mother and I stood in the shadows while the two men talked. ‘I want to wed Mary,’ Joseph stated. My father nodded. ‘Now, today!’ our visitor insisted. ‘Her child is mine.’ When I heard him claim the child, I was sure God had visited Joseph and softened his heart.

LUKE: Did he ever explain his change of mind?

MARY: (laughs softly) He told me when we walked to his home after our hasty wedding. I barely noticed the stares and whispers of the neighbors as he explained how he struggled to decide what to do. ‘I could have had you stoned,’ he reminded me. ‘You would not do that,’ I answered. He sighed and agreed, ‘I thought I would send you away until the child was born or divorce you. The mental struggle was exhausting and I finally fell into a troubled sleep. In my dream I felt warmth and heard a comforting voice saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ When I woke up, I had to see you and marry you right away.’

LUKE: It takes a brave man to do what he did.

MARY: Few men would accept another man’s child as their own, much less a Child so miraculously conceived. God chose Joseph just like he chose me. I was blessed by his love and support. The gossip did not last long when everyone in Nazareth saw how happy we were together.

The law of Israel considered a betrothal as binding as the actual marriage. A ketubot, a parchment outlining the contract and the duties of husband and wife was signed at the betrothal. If the woman was unfaithful during that time, the punishment was the same as for adultery after marriage. She could be stoned. It was up to the man to decide what to do. When Joseph agreed to wed Mary, he announced to the world that child was his. He was admitting, tacitly, that he and Mary had engaged in premarital relations. Only a few people knew the real truth of the conception of the Child. Joseph’s faith in saying ‘yes’ to God’s call is often overlooked.

Mary’s courage in going to Joseph, her fiancĂ© and telling him she was pregnant, shows us how God can empower us to do things that are hard. Mary and Joseph may have been reminded of Moses’ words of blessing to Joshua and the people of Israel, before they entered the Promised Land. “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6 & 8) The Hebrew word “forsake” (azab) in this case means relinquish. Moses promises God will not relinquish (surrender, abandon, let go) the people. Mary and Joseph found this to be true as well.

Can you relate to the faith of Mary who trusts in God, even in the face of doubt by her parents and Joseph?
God promises that he will not forsake you or me. Does that give you comfort?

The first verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” captures the essence of God who does not forsake us, no matter how the circumstances look. Meditate on the words this week as you take time with God.

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.

Next week Mary will tell us of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth.

As promised, the book special this week (Dec. 6-12) is buy one get one of any of my books. You can only get this special by emailing me and noting Blog Special in the memo line. Check back next week for another special offer.