December 26, 2010

One who did not say Yes to God

Not everyone who heard the news of the birth of Messiah were overjoyed. In the liturgical calendar of the church, I am always brought up short by the remembrance of St. Stephen on the day after Christmas and then on Dec. 28, the Feast of Holy Innocents commemorating Herod's response to the birth of Jesus. He could have said 'yes' to God like Mary and Joseph and Zechariah did, but he did not.


Those in power felt threatened by the birth of the Christ, and none more so than Herod the Great. He was the ruler of Judea, by caveat of the Emperor, and feared anything or anyone who ruffled that status quo. Even his own family was not exempt from his deadly rages. Imagine how this mad man felt when he heard the wise men announce a ‘King is born’. (Matthew 2:1-8) He sent spies to follow them and When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’” (Matthew 2:16-18)

The quotation is from Jeremiah 31:15-17. We rarely hear the rest of the citation which contains a promise and hope. "Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country.”

This was probably small comfort to the parents in Bethlehem, mourning the loss of their toddlers, but it can remind us that God does not ignore any grief. Michael Card’s song Fellow Prisoners reminds us
“…chains can’t bind the hopefulness.
And the bars can’t block the means of grace.
And the distance that might separate,
Cannot defeat the prayers…
So fellow prisoners, remember,
That we may know captivity.
But there’s a purpose in the Calling,
For it is the Lord who sets the prisoners free.”

As with all the songs on his album Soul Anchor, Card uses citations from Hebrews. This one is based on Hebrews 10:34 and 13:3 which call us to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13:3) because we possess “something better and more lasting.” (Hebrews 10:34)

The week after Christmas can feel like a let-down, after all the build up and excitement leading up to the holiday. I suggest you find a ministry to pray for or support in some way for the coming year. It may have to do with prisoners, like the Wings Ministry or Kairos. It may be adopting a service man or family or supporting a local food pantry. It could be something personally near your heart. We tend to remember the less fortunate around Christmas, but then they are safely tucked away for a year. The needs don’t end. We can fight evil, like Herod’s, by living out God’s love. As Card says, “bars can’t block the means of grace and the distance that might separate, cannot defeat the prayers.” Jeremiah tells us "there is a reward for your work, says the LORD." Nothing done in response to the love of God is unfruitful.


Next week we’ll look at one last group of people who followed the call of God on their lives—the Magi.

December 25, 2010

Christmas Day 2010

Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord! 
I hope your Christmas Day is filled with blessings of family and friends. Our family had the special joy this year of having our newest grandchild be 'Jesus' in the Pageant at church. Her brother had the part 4 years ago when he was the correct age, so it's rather a family tradition. This year he was an angel. in this photo from the rehearsal, he's on the left, beside the donkey and his sister (the star of the show) is in Mary's lap.


Michael Card’s song Celebrate the Child reminds me of Who this Babe in a manger is.


Celebrate the Child who is the Light
Now the darkness is over
No more wandering in the night
Celebrate the Child who is the Light

You know this is no fable
Godhead and manhood became one
We see He's more than able
And so we live to God the Son

First born of creation
Lamb and Lion, God and Man
The Author of Salvation
Almighty rapped in swaddling bands

Enjoy this version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus-one of the youtube versions filmed in Macy’s. I think it reminds us of the presence of God’s glory everywhere!

For a smile, check out this digital rendition of the Nativity Story (what might have happened if the Magi and Joseph had computers).


December 19, 2010

Saying Yes to God with the Shepherds

Christmas is almost here. The commercials for the product you ‘have to’ get are increasing. Those in church work are feeling a bit stressed with the last minute production of bulletins and pageants and sermon preparation. We are all busily wrapping gifts and hoping we got what everyone wanted. Where in all the rushing around is the ‘reason for the season’? Where is the ‘desire of nations,’ spoken of by the prophet Haggai?


The prophet is called to speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the high priest, and to the ‘remnant of the people’ exiled in Babylon under Darius (ca 500BC) He says, “Be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the LORD, and work: for I am with you, saith the LORD of hosts: According to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so my spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not. For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.” (Haggai 2:4-7)

Georg Fredric Handel uses this citation in his well known work Messiah. It is one of the more thrilling parts of the oratorio, I think. Nearly everyone knows the Hallelujah Chorus, but not everyone has had a chance to hear other parts of the massive work which uses Bible citations set to music to tell the entire salvation story.

Haggai is reminding the Jews in exile that God is with them and will come among them with power. In the midst of our Christmas preparations, it is easy to forget that the Lord does indeed come, but not necessarily as we expect. Unlike the vision Haggai creates of the shaking of earth and nations, God is in a manger, visited by some of the lowest members of society-the shepherds.

Even though they served a necessary and important function, shepherds were considered uncouth and smelly and not fit for ‘polite society’. However, it is these men on the fringe who receive the message from God. Like Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph they were greeted by an angel,Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-20)


Like Mary, the shepherds were receptive to the news of the Savior’s birth. “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” Because they were willing to hear and believe, the shepherds were witness to the miracle of God who stoops to enter the lowest of homes and hearts.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Paul reminds his fellow Jews that “Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also ‘was faithful in all God’s house.’…Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.” (Hebrews 3:1-6)

Like the Shepherds, we are called to ‘hold firm’ the confidence, pride and hope of our calling as children of God. Michael Card calls this our Soul Anchor:
“So hold fast, draw near
It’s a soul anchor
Hold onto the hope…
Hold onto your courage
Before we call he answers us with hope”

"Before we call, he answers us with hope" says Card. The humble shepherds knew that hope. They were minding their flocks, when the most glorious hope of all interrupted their lives with the opportunity to say Yes. They abandoned their livelihood and after seeing the Child, they "they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them." All were amazed, says scripture, but not all returned with the shepherds who came back to the stable, "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Now, 2000 years later, we sometimes lose sight of the One who made the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

What can we do to rediscover the surprise and joy that the Shepherds must have experienced when angels filled the sky and proclaimed that Messiah was born? There are a few days left in the season of Advent, perhaps one thing we can do is return to our Advent box. Look at the images of God we put in along with the fears, scars and changed dreams you put in the box. This week add your hopes and prayers—hopes for yourself, your family, your friends, the world, etc.


Behold, the Desire of Nations has come. He is our Soul Anchor and all things are possible in Him. We have “a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” (Hebrews 6:19) How does that change our life? How will that change your life? I hope you will find time in these last few days before Christmas to take time to consider the Desire of Nations and how that His coming offers amazing hope.
 
On Sunday, we'll look at someone who said 'NO' to God's call.

December 12, 2010

Saying Yes to God with Joseph

Today’s the Third Sunday of Advent. It doesn’t seem possible that we are more than half way through Advent. On the Third Sunday many people light the pink candle in their Advent wreath in honor of Rose Sunday. It is also called Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word for Rejoice used at the beginning of the service.


The Third Sunday reminds us that we are moving closer to the joyful birth we are anticipating. It is a good day to look at a central, yet often forgotten figure in the Nativity story. Joseph of Nazareth is an important and integral part of the whole saga. Without his acceptance of God’s call, the story would have been very different.


His story is found in Matthew 1:18-25. Joseph and Mary are betrothed, which by Jewish law was the same as being married, except the couple did not live together. If either party died, the remaining partner would be considered a widow or widower with the rights of a surviving spouse. Likewise, if the man or woman was unfaithful, the punishment was the same as if they were living as man and wife. This could mean stoning for adultery.

Joseph is confronted with a choice when Mary tells him she is pregnant. “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly,” says  scripture. In my book Mary, My Love, Joseph struggles mightily with the decision* before being reassured by the “angel of the Lord [who] appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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.’”

Joseph wakes up and “he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Matthew says that the prophecy from Isaiah 7:13-14 was fulfilled: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’”

It took faith for Joseph to accept Mary’s announcement and take her as his wife. He would have to bear the snickers of the neighbors and the knowing glances from his friends. Even though he had the assurance of the angel and his love of Mary, he also learned to lean on God who promised (Hebrews 13:5):

Never will I leave you, That’s something I’ll never do
Forever remember that it’s true…
And when you fear, the scars and tears
Remember what I have sworn
I’ll be with you through the storm… (Michael Card, Never Will I Leave You)

Joseph’s life was turned upside down by Mary’s pregnancy. Everything he carefully planned as husband was changed when God called him to be father of Emmanuel. Zechariah had God carefully ‘boxed’ and found it initially impossible to believe God could act in his life. Mary believed that nothing was impossible with God. Joseph’s compassion and love won over his doubt and fear so that he could respond with faith and take Mary as his wife.

Michael Card has a Christmas song that explores Joseph’s thoughts after Jesus’ birth. Even holding the baby, he wonders "how could it be?"

Joseph's Song
How could it be this baby in my arms
Sleeping now, so peacefully
The Son of God, the angel said
How could it be...
Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours
How can a man be father to the Son of God...
How could it be

Joseph asks "How could it be?" When things don’t go as I plan, I tend to rant and rave. After a while I calm down and then I can see that there are opportunities in the new direction of my life. Usually, it is only in looking back that I recognize how much better God’s plan was than mine. Joseph, too sought to find "where I fit into this plan of yours, How can a man be father to the Son of God."

What sorts of scars and fears did you identify and put in your Advent box last week? Did you hear the voice of your inner 'censor'? A spiritual director once told me that the first step to healing is to identify and become aware of the scars.

This week, identify some of the plans or dreams that you had to let go of. Think how the end result was different than you thought it would be, and where God was in the process. Can you, with Michael Card, know that God’s word is true that says, “Never will I leave you…Forever remember that it’s true, never will I leave you”? Sometimes it takes the passing of time for me to see the good that came out of a vanished dream or plan.

Next week as we draw near to Bethlehem, we’ll look at how the Shepherds, the first visitors to the Newborn, responded to God’s call.

*Excerpt from Mary My Love by Cynthia Davis (see the Books tab above or my website for more info)

Blindly I headed for the hills beyond Nazareth. If anyone greeted me, I did not hear. Mary’s words repeated their terrible litany in my head.


“Bear a son…God chose...no man…I do not lie.”


Faster and faster I walked, until I was running up the mountainside. The same grove of trees that saw my decision to wed Mary received me. Like a mad man I smashed my hands against one trunk and then another until my rage was spent. In despair I fell to my knees.


“God, why do you mock me? I believed you gave me Mary’s love. Now she admits that she carries a child which is not mine!” Renewed anger set me to pacing. Suspicion fueled the fire. “Joachim was eager to accept my offer. Did he know that his daughter was no virgin, even then? Was I the dupe all along?”


I heard the animal growl that came from my throat. If the man had been near I would have choked an answer from him. My head began to pound from my emotions and unanswerable questions. Sinking down with my back against a tree, I buried my face in my hands.


“God, the girl blasphemed to cover her lie. How can you not strike her down?”


A memory of her radiant face gave me pause. The innocence and beauty of her announcement came back to me. I dared not believe it true.


“God, is Mary a victim of some hoax? God, did you steal my bride?”


Throughout the day I alternately paced and sat, prayed and cursed, raged and wept. The evening shadows started to darken the grove when a horrifying thought occurred to me. I crashed to my knees, gripping a sapling for support.


“I do not accept Mary and her child, she will be stoned!”


The pain that grabbed me by the heart radiated throughout my body until I could almost feel stones striking me. I slid to the ground in agony. My father’s recital of what happened to his mother flashed into my mind. Groaning, I covered my head. With my eyes closed I saw the rarely used pit outside of Nazareth. Only once had I seen anyone stoned there. A man convicted of blasphemy had been dragged to the place. Every man in town had taken turns throwing rocks until the body was an unrecognizable bloody pulp.


“No!”


I sprang up, eyes wide with the remembered horror. I could not condemn any woman to such a death. Sanity slipped me a lifeline.


“There is another option,” I whispered. “I can send her away until the child is born. No one need know.”


I tried to ignore the insistent voice that hissed ‘you would always remember’. The shadows grew as I resumed my pacing. My pride shied away from naming the child as mine. True, the gossip could be stared down. Many men sampled the marriage bed during the betrothal. No one would condemn me. I would be the only one to know the infant was not of my seed.


“God…”


Worn out from the day’s passion, I sank to my knees. The Name of the Most High was all I could say. Over and over I repeated the word…

December 5, 2010

Saying Yes to God with Mary

This week we’ll look at someone’s whose response to God’s call was different from Zechariah’s. The record of this meeting is in Luke 1:26-38. Six months after his visit to Zechariah, the angel Gabriel visits another resident of Israel: “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” She is, understandably “perplexed”.
 

 Gabriel announces astonishing news to this teenage girl. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

This is the fulfillment of Messiah prophesied by many prophets including Jeremiah (23:5-6) “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’”

Mary is astonished and wonders, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Unlike Zechariah she doesn’t argue and accepts Gabriel’s explanation. He tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”


Perhaps in Gabriel’s answer Mary hears an echo of Isaiah’s words, “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

A young girl in Nazareth when confronted with the astonishing and life changing news, responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Zechariah argued that logically he and his wife were too old. Mary could have refused to believe and complained that she didn’t want to be shamed by an unexpected pregnancy. Instead, Mary was able to ‘Say Yes’ because she didn’t stop to contemplate the ramifications and practicalities of Gabriel’s announcement.

We can miss seeing and hearing God by being too mature. An open, child-like heart that trusts that “nothing is impossible with God” easily accepts God’s call. How often do we try to second guess God and map out the way forward when we would be better off just stepping out in faith like Mary? Mary lived her simple faith because she knew what Michael Card meant in his song By Faith. Card recites some of the deeds of our spiritual ancestors from Hebrews 11 and than sings,

Faith understands and offers
It assures and calms our fears
It can shut the mouths of lions
And make sense of scars and tears
We persevere in hope
And with conscience clean and clear
We walk this fallen wilderness
With Salvation’s Pioneers…

Looking to God for guidance and enfolding ourselves in the “Faith that understands and offers…and makes sense of scars and tears” means we can say ‘Yes’ like our spiritual ancestors listed by Paul in Hebrews Chapter 11 (and by Card in his song). Paul reminds the Hebrew Christians, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely…looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

It is when we look to Jesus “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” we can be like Mary in our response to God’s call on our life even if it means facing lions or fire. We become, as Card sings, “sure of what we hope for, seeing what is yet unseen…new life where none had been” we find “hope for the comfortless [by] the faith that [we] possess.”

Did you start an Advent Box? I was a little surprised by some of the things that came to mind when thinking about God and my response to God last week. The exercise did get me thinking about some of the messages I consciously or subconsciously give myself about God.

This week, if you are doing the box, add some things that keep you from “looking to Jesus.” Put in some of the fears, scars, and tears, things which prevent you from seeing the cloud of witnesses so you can, as Card says,

“fix your eyes on the Champion….
Understanding that He cheers you on…
So hold on and do not grow weary of the faith that you profess…”

If you need a time of quiet meditation as you prepare to think about what to put in the box, listen to Michael Card’s rendition of the song Immanuel.
Next week we will see what Joseph's response was when God asked him to 'say Yes' to the incredible events unfolding. See you then.