start where you’re at

“Joseph son of David…”

Matthew 1:20

2020 has been a most challenging years on so many levels. It’s hard to know where to begin, and what has happened this year has difficult as well as maybe some hopeful implications for what’s to come.

For us in Jesus, there’s always hope. Of course the hope we have is in Jesus, the Messiah of the world, our Lord and Savior, and God’s promise of a new world beginning now, to come to completion someday at his return.

There’s hope, as I just said, even in the here and now. Joseph was an obscure, humble man. He happened to be in the family line of David, but I’ll bet no one around him would have imagined that. Joseph’s story in the gospels, and particularly in this account is wonderful to consider. Mary was the mother of our Lord, but Joseph, who accepted Jesus as his son (see NIV heading) went through quite a lot himself, and I must say, admirably.

The “holy family” as they’re called in tradition: Jesus, Mary and Joseph was certainly if not quite looked down on, at least looked at with sideways glances, people wondering to each other just what was being hidden. Although it appeared obvious to anyone that there was a coverup of what was morally wrong. But Mary and Joseph pressed on. They continued on faithful, regardless.

But back to Joseph. He was certainly just one person, and seemingly of little or no consequence. But God took him where he was at, and even with what was not understood by others, and included him in a most important work by God.

God can and wants to do the same with each of us followers of Jesus. We’re “in” the greater David, Jesus. It doesn’t matter where we’re starting, or for that matter even where we end as far as appearances, or what the world may think. The important thing is faith and obedience. Learning to humbly follow and do whatever God asks of us. Yes, in difficult times, even through the darkest of times. God will be with us to not only see us through, but make us a blessing. In and through Jesus.

the need for human resolve with the grace of God

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:3-8

Human resolve gets bad press in Christian circles for good reason. We can’t do it on our own, period. The end. We either come up with something which is more or less a coping mechanism, or we might enter into a false sense of security and well being which won’t hold up in the long haul, or we might just cave in and give up. One thing I want to add here: If we have mental health issues, that is no shame whatsoever. There is much needed wisdom from God within psychology, as well as medical help if needed.

We see in 2 Peter here, that Peter (I say) helps us see that from the grace of God in Christ, we humans can resolve and do better on any given issue. We should never think it will just be a snap of our fingers, and we’ll be relieved overnight. No, we need to think of it more as a long term work project, so that our commitment is beyond the moment or time we make it. But that this commitment, indeed resolve, as we call it, resolution is actually indeed necessary, and through God’s grace in what God gives us for life and godliness, is necessary for us help to make actual progress against whatever our struggle is. For me over the years, I think my prevailing issue has been anxiety. Whatever it is, God can and wants to help us. But we must take the bull by the horns and take hold of such help. Take what God gives us, and make the needed effort.

God’s grace given to us doesn’t mean we’re passive. We have to say enough is enough. But remember too, that whatever progress we make, while our effort is required comes only through the grace, meaning the gift and help God gives us. Through everything, whatever we’re facing each day. God will not only see us through, but help us to do better, grow, and ultimately to see substantial improvement, maybe even making that problem more or less a thing of the past. But this basic is ongoing in our lives, since we never arrive to perfection in this life. Given to us in and through Jesus.

getting needed strength

Why would you ever complain, O Jacob,
or, whine, Israel, saying,
God has lost track of me.
He doesn’t care what happens to me”?
Don’t you know anything? Haven’t you been listening?
God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.
He’s Creator of all you can see or imagine.
He doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath.
And he knows everything, inside and out.
He energizes those who get tired,
gives fresh strength to dropouts.
For even young people tire and drop out,
young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
they walk and don’t lag behind.

Isaiah 40:27-31; MSG

There are times, as they say, which try men’s souls. Well, we’re living in such times now in which there are really no clear answers to the problems society faces, the divisions sharper and stronger than ever in my lifetime. And then for many of us, we have an ongoing issue with anxieties of this life, some of the concerns unavoidable, part of living in a broken world.

Isaiah’s word was to a people, God’s people, who thought that their God had forgotten them. They faced problems, just like they always had (study Israel’s history beginning with Abraham), some of it because of their own failure to trust God, because of their own sin. God’s promise of strength here comes within the context of a people whose strength was gone probably because they were gripped with fear due to their circumstances, what they were up against, real or imagined. And strength was gone.

What are God’s people to do, caught in this fix? Simple: Wait on God. That carries with it the idea of hope and trust. We believe God has forgiven us in Christ as we look to Christ for our salvation. But not only that, we look to God in and through Christ for everything else we need, including peace of heart and mind given the understandable concerns we have.

Our call here is to wait. Not something we’re necessarily good at doing in this day and age when almost anything we want or need we can have in a day, unless we’re short on resources. But for all, for everyone in Christ, all we need to do is wait, wait on God. God can give us the intestinal fortitude we need so that no matter what concerns we have, what we face, we somehow will have fresh, needed strength to carry on in whatever way is needed. We can be assured of that. Waiting in prayer, looking to God, simply waiting. In and through Jesus.

we are in process

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:3-6

Over and over again, I’m reminded that we are people in process. The good and most important thing to remember is that it is God at work in our lives. We likely wish we were further along than we are, I know I do.

We really need to hold on to this truth that we as followers of Jesus. And that it is God doing the work, not we ourselves. God who began this good work in us will indeed carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus, when Jesus returns.

This helps me as I consider my own life as well as the lives of others. We need to take our hands off. It’s God’s work, not our own. The change in our lives comes only because of that. Maybe this means we need to be more in prayer.

There are things I’m not sure about. It does seem clear to me that we can get in the way of God’s working, and impede it. But God works around and even through those ways that we can get in the way, I suppose. I often wish I could just do what I know I ought to do. Like rest in God’s peace instead of being anxious about this or that. It’s a maturing, growth process, and all of Scripture in one way or another is meant to help us in that.

The one thing we can take away from Paul’s words here for sure: God who began the good work in us in Christ will finish it. We can mark that down in stone, but more importantly God has written that change into our hearts to unfold in our lives toward the goal of making us the people we’re supposed to be, through Jesus fully human and unique in our person as God intended. All of us together in this, Paul addressing not just individuals here, but the entire church. In and through Jesus.

Christmas reading: Luke 2:21-40

When the eighth day arrived, the day of circumcision, the child was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.

Then when the days stipulated by Moses for purification were complete, they took him up to Jerusalem to offer him to God as commanded in God’s Law: “Every male who opens the womb shall be a holy offering to God,” and also to sacrifice the “pair of doves or two young pigeons” prescribed in God’s Law.

In Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died. Led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple. As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God:

God, you can now release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;
it’s now out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,
and of glory for your people Israel.

Jesus’ father and mother were speechless with surprise at these words. Simeon went on to bless them, and said to Mary his mother,

This child marks both the failure and
the recovery of many in Israel,
A figure misunderstood and contradicted—
the pain of a sword-thrust through you—
But the rejection will force honesty,
as God reveals who they really are.

Anna the prophetess was also there, a daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was by now a very old woman. She had been married seven years and a widow for eighty-four. She never left the Temple area, worshiping night and day with her fastings and prayers. At the very time Simeon was praying, she showed up, broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem.

When they finished everything required by God in the Law, they returned to Galilee and their own town, Nazareth. There the child grew strong in body and wise in spirit. And the grace of God was on him.

Luke 2:21-40; MSG

in the hard, harsh world

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”

Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 2:1-23; MSG

Christmas Day as we celebrate it with all its festivities, opening of presents, and especially remembering the birth of Jesus, is a downright magical day. Good Friday and Easter might be the most important holy days and week in the Christian calendar, but without Christmas, and the Incarnation, there would be no Holy Week. But Christmas does have a unique charm all its own. We marvel at the mystery of God becoming flesh, and the wondrous story of a teenage girl who is told by an angel that she would become pregnant apart from a man. All the wonderful words and events which surround that. There’s nothing like it.

But in our world, and in that world at that time, after the shepherds came from the wonderful angelic visitation and announcement they had witnessed, it wasn’t long until harsh reality set in. More than a year had likely passed, so that evidently we might conjecture that Joseph was willing to settle down in that area, at least for the time being, but an unsettling would soon come. King Herod could brook no rivals, and any would be Messiah would not last in his kingdom. But Herod was not reckoning with what he was used to. Instead he was up against God and God’s kingdom.

We read in the above Scripture all that happened. The wise men, astrologers, astronomers, scholars, whatever they were called (even “kings” in Christian tradition) travel a long way guided by some astrological phenomena along with a cursory knowledge of Hebrew Scripture or the story of a coming ruler in them, and you have the unfolding of another part of what has become the Christmas Story. But there’s a quick and sudden descent into the darkness of that time as King Herod catches wind of what’s happening. An angel ends up warning Joseph who takes the “holy family” to Egypt for a time, before being led back to Nazareth, away from Bethlehem.

We’re reminded of our own time. Many of us were able to enjoy Christmas as the special day it has become. But now we have to face the real world where we live, the pandemic that is bursting from the seams once again before hopefully the vaccines can kick in and give the world something of an immunity against this virus. And all the turmoil surrounding it.

How to live during such times is another subject entirely, but the point here is that there’s no escape from the world in which we live, a world with a system that is opposed to the kingdom God brings in Jesus. But a world also that is redeemed in and through our blessed and wonderful King Jesus. Amen.

Christmas reading: Luke 2:1-20

About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.

While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.

There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:

Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.

As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!

Luke 2:1-20; MSG

against perfection

About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.

While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.

Luke 2:1-7; MSG

When we think of Christmas, our visions might be a bit idyllic. And there’s no doubt that no greater gift was given, and this is cause for celebration, even extravagant celebration. But what we need to not lose sight of in the backdrop and throughout is that this happened in the real world. God became flesh, fully human, yes, one of us, in this sad, weary, broken world. And the event itself was marked by just one conundrum after another. A fiancée near the end of her pregnancy having to go on a long trip, around seventy miles, over a three day journey on a donkey. When they get there, “no guest room available” (NIV). They ended up putting the newborn Jesus in a manger, a feeding trough for animals (see NET footnote in above link).

One of the greatest enemies of faith is the desire and thought that life in God in the here and now is marked with perfection. If we can get rid of that thought, we’ll begin to experience the real joy and blessing. God-with-us in this broken world, in our own brokenness. We need to settle into that. Not imagining everything should be perfect now if God is really with us in Jesus. But that God-is-with-us in Jesus, Emanuel in the midst of the imperfection in everything, the real world in which we live. As we look forward to the change the one Perfection will bring, that little baby Boy to us, yes, and to the world.

waking up Christian love in each other

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

A little bit can go a long way. We may think what we can do isn’t much. But when it’s done as an expression of love, it can indeed be a lot. People can be moved from near despair to being lifted in needed encouragement, with a feeling and sense of being loved and belonging. Love and good deeds beget love and good deeds, at least having the potential to do so.

We in Christ are all in this together. It’s not each person all out for themselves. We need to watch out for each other, regularly meeting together, keeping track of one another, particularly during hard times. And really just ongoing love expressed is surely underrated and a largely missing element in our church lives nowadays.

Some of us will need more encouragement than others. But we all need it, each and everyone of us. None of us are excluded. And we need to express genuine appreciation for others, for God’s gift in them, and for their gift to us. And in practical, down to earth ways, thoughts and prayers certainly not excluded. In and through Jesus.

Jesus is with us. are we with him?

“I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

“I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.

“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

“You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

“But remember the root command: Love one another.”

John 15:1-17; MSG

Christ’s words to his disciples echo to us today. We often want to do much for our Lord, even out of love, so we give it our best effort and inevitably fall short. It seems here that Jesus is telling us that a first priority is to be at home in organic, intimate relationship with him. I really like how Eugene Peterson puts it. And this is both an individual and communal endeavor. Jesus talks about individual branches which bear no fruit, but is talking to his disciples as branches on the same plant, who are to love each other.

I think oftentimes God lets us have success, but then the well dries up because we have something more to learn, at least better. This is a lesson from our Lord he gave his disciples in the Upper Room Discourse the night before his crucifixion. It was and we can say is something close to our Lord’s heart, something he practiced in relation with the Father, and wants us to practice in relation with him.

Too often we tend to downplay relationships in our emphasis for doing, getting the job done. I know that all too well in my many years it turned out to be, in factory work. At this late time for me, I’m learning more the importance of relationships, working with people whose ethnic practice is much more relational and communal, even though they work quite hard as well.

It’s not like what we do doesn’t matter, and won’t help in God’s good grace. But it’s more like a little bit from our communion with Christ will go much farther, and be much more potent than all our efforts all day.

So it seems like first things first, we need to focus on our union and communion, indeed on our relationship with Christ. Of course it’s only in and through him that we have that relationship at all, through his life, death and resurrection, and by the Spirit through his ascension.

If we’re at an impasse, maybe we just need to stop dead in our tracks. And seek to draw near to God. Jesus already makes his home in us. We’re to make our home in him. So maybe for us for a time it won’t be a matter of doing, but just trying to settle into our friendship with him, loving each other, as he taught us. Knowing that the fruit, good things will inevitably come out of that. But learning to settle in and be settled in that.