“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
And he will be our peace
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The good news we celebrate this Christmas, and long to see completely fulfilled during Advent is God’s great salvation and kingdom come in Jesus. And it’s never just about God and I, and me getting right, and getting on okay in the world. Such a gospel doesn’t exist. It’s either for the entire world, including us, or it’s something man made up.
The gospel is as big as all the world since it’s for the world, for each and every part, the whole and all the parts. And Jesus longs for each person for whom he died, and that includes everyone. And it leaves no part of the world out. Period.
Too many Christian books and even churches give you the impression that the Bible is geared to you and your personal relationship with God through Christ. And over and over we’re inundated with that kind of teaching. So that by and by that’s how we see the gospel. It’s for everyone in a personal, individualistic way, and has little to do with anything else, except to touch, maybe even transform other matters in an indirect way through conversion. While there’s truth in that, it really is a distortion of what we find in scripture. God’s word is meant to bless us that we might be a blessing to others. Starting with Abraham (Genesis 12) and completed in Jesus. And it is no less than the new creation displacing the old.
No passion for the world, and for something other than one’s own salvation means no passion for the gospel. Yes, for you and I, but for everyone, for the world, and to be completely fulfilled someday, in and through Jesus.
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.
Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.
An interesting experience I had a few years back, I quit reading from the psalms at lunch and sat at a table with co-workers that were friends, but whom I could hardly understand or altogether identify with. It became actually like a born again experience. I developed a bond with that group. They graciously included me, and I learned much from that, although I think it was more than that. It was an actual transforming kind of experience. There is nothing that replaces a face to face encounter and ongoing time with people.
And I’m not just talking about infrequent visits, though if that’s the best we can do because of circumstances, it certainly does not lack in value. There needs to be commitment to get together and just be together. Nothing spectacular, just be together. And with friends, warts and all.
John wrote to the church, and that certainly has extraordinary value in that it’s now a part of scripture. Pastors teaching the counsel of God from scripture continues to have transformative power on listeners who are intent to follow through since after all, it is the written word of God. But there’s nothing like being face to face, maybe over coffee. And practicing that over time.
What we remember this Advent, and celebrate at Christmas, the Incarnation, Emmanuel: God-with-us in the Christ child. Truly amazing. But sets the pattern for what needs to be priority to us as Christians. Yes, we share in words. But with each other, in a true sense sharing ourselves. Simply being present; Christ present with us. God with us in all of this, in and through Jesus.
It’s interesting how people think that if they repent and say they’re sorry, and maybe even ask for forgiveness, that then they’ve changed. The point of repentance actually is more than confession and reparation. It is indeed change. And the needed change doesn’t come overnight, even though in initial repentance one is turned from wrong to right. Thorough change of heart and life ordinarily if not always takes time, and even in a true sense, a lifetime.
Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm expressed woeful sorrow to God for offending God over the sin done, and asks for changed heart out of which can come a changed life. A good question is simply: What are we becoming? And another: What factors are involved in that, or behind it. Often there can be a mix of things in the works, even contradictory. We can be pulled this way and that. But we can’t go two directions at the same time. Whatever form the flesh takes is the flesh still. It’s either the flesh or the Spirit, serving God or serving Mammon/money, or whatever. Which in part is why we’re told in Proverbs:
Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
It is a scary thought actually, the idea that we can be becoming something other than what God would want, and actually therefore, what we would want as well. Just something small can get hold of the heart, take over, and eventually change us through and through. Or the good thought and hope, that as by grace we pick up just something of the goodness of God, what can help us in the way in Christ, that too can permeate us, and put us on the road to Christ-likeness and the restoration of our true humanity in the new creation.
What God did in the Incarnation which we especially remember this time of the year: becoming one of us, fully human, in the Son uniting his deity with our humanity (Gregory of Nazianzen). God changing so that we might change, humanity forever elevated through new creation to fulfill the goal of creation through the Incarnation and the salvation which came through the death and resurrection of the God-Man, the Human One. Amazingly God became human so that we might share in God’s nature. In and through Jesus.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, most certainly has a political vision not only in line with the kingdom of God, but of and from, as well as in anticipation of that kingdom. In church tradition, it is not like that part has been ignored, but it seems to have been largely displaced in many circles as simply a religious ritual to help the worshiper. While there can indeed be value in that, the reality of what Mary is saying is evident in this song, reflecting her own scripture: the law, the psalms, and the prophets. We might say particularly the prophets, because they had to address the mess in Israel, as well sharing God’s promise for the world even through Israel, ultimately through Jesus.
The church through the gospel is the beginning of this kingdom under King Jesus, a kingdom in which needs are met through God’s provision given. It is a spiritual kingdom, but that doesn’t mean it’s not down to earth where people live, to help them in their material need. A thorough reading of the New Testament will plainly bear that out.
So Mary’s song is political. And remember, with Joseph, but probably especially she herself had a formative influence in the upbringing of Jesus. To think that this song is an aberration that was corrected along the way maybe even by her own Son, would be a failure to understand just how rooted in scripture that song is. And it would also fail to see how Jesus’s own ministry in his teaching, life, and acts were in harmony with it. In this same book, Luke 6 makes that evident. As well as throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament.
This song is political in part, because the gospel is also political in part. It is about all of creation in the new creation, including all of humankind’s interactions with others. It is not just about a lot of individuals being blessed. But a community for each other and for the world. Through the good news of this little Baby who would be the King in the tradition of shepherd. God’s grace and kingdom present in and through him.
Mary (Luke 1:26-38) especially, but also Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25) faced a predicament over Jesus’s miraculous conception as a full human in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. The church has called this the virgin birth. And it would have been as much a nose wrinkler and eye brow raiser then as it is today. No matter what Mary said, as noble a person as Joseph may have known her to be, Joseph was set to abide by the law of Moses, but to do so mercifully, avoiding the awful sentence of stoning, instead putting Mary away quietly and as privately as possible.
But then the angel appears to Joseph, and he finds out that something extraordinary has indeed happened. And that he is to be the step father of no less than the Son of God, the Messiah. How far along Joseph’s Christology was at this point, I don’t know, but we do know one thing for sure: Joseph was in a walk of faith over something he knew would be challenging in days to come, something he would have just as soon closed now. But with this new word from God, he did what for in all intent and purposes his wife, certainly his wife under the law already, what she had done. He obeyed God, even when in ordinary circumstances what he was doing made no sense, and even seemed to contradict his devotion to God.
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Mary, of course was in the same dilemma, only her trouble was heightened. She was to be the bearer of the child when she had yet to be joined to her husband for this to be possible. Of course this was all revealed to her at once by an angel, so that she had the full understanding of what was to happen right away, whereas Joseph did not have that advantage, but had to wrestle or work through it before an angel appeared to him.
Mary’s wonder along with her response are simply beautiful, and something for us to emulate, when we’re faced with God’s word, but would do something different if left to ourselves, something that may make all the sense in the world and seem right to us. It seems that Mary was not one who would come up with all sorts of objections and contrary thoughts. She was humble and open to whatever God would tell her, with a heart to serve the Lord in doing so, and considering what she faced, no matter what.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
And so the ones to raise the Christ child would themselves faced something of the same trouble their son would face in the scandal of God becoming flesh and being the good news that all of us need. And we might face, in a different category for sure, but still just the same, testings of our own as to whether or not we’ll listen and obey God’s word, or not. And the results, while again not in terms of salvation for the world, will still have the same sort of impact on our own family, or friends.
Are we prepared to listen and hear God’s word to us, or not? What are we doing, so that might be the case? What practices have we adopted so that like Mary and Joseph, Christ might be known even in and through us?
May the Lord make this Christmas to be a time when Jesus is more fully made known, even in that manger, and beyond that through us as well. Through God’s word in and through Jesus.