"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hungry Shepherds


Shepherds must be dear in God’s heart. They certainly have a special place in his book. Jesus described himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Secure in the crook of his arm, he declares that no man can snatch them away. Many of us are used to the beautiful paintings of Jesus, strong and tender, watching the flocks or carrying a lost lamb back to the fold.

The realities of being a shepherd were far from lovely. They lived apart from the cities, those who did not fit in. No doubt about it, they smelled like the sheep they cared for. Uneducated, not considered the portals of God’s news by anyone around them, yet they were the ones God chose to receive the great news.  Of all people—shepherds were the first to hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Another in a series of paradoxes, the good news of great joy came to those at the bottom of the social structure of their time.

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. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Luke 2:8-15 New International Version (NIV)

Born to uneducated teenage parents in an out of the way town they did not live in, a birth of questionable circumstances, in a stable, a manger for a bed. Then came this announcement to social misfits in the middle of nowhere. Today, the births of princes are photographed, bathed in beautiful light, everyone scrubbed clean and airbrushed, so easy to love. But when God came close to us, he did so in a particularly unattractive place and in the most unexpected way.

Mary hinted at God’s surprising ways in her response to the angel who told her she would give birth to the Son of God: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away hungry”( Luke 1:53).

Not far away, priests lay in their warm soft beds, satisfied with their own piety and proud of their knowledge and positions. They were full of themselves. Too full, perhaps, to hear the word of the Lord. The shepherds, hungry and cold in the night, eyes searching the heavens as they had so many times before, looking and listening for God knows what, were filled that night. We know they received the word because of their response—“Let’s go see!”

When the baby became a man, he taught the principles of an inverted kingdom–blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled. There are many ways of being full of ourselves these days. Educated, affluent, comfortable in our soft beds, distracted by a million shiny objects, we risk missing what God wants to say to us. Our lives are not about these comforts or accomplishments but, are meant to be about a relationship with the Prince of Peace. Are you hungry for him? He longs to fill you.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Being Light

The recent release of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was heralded by trailers, actor interviews, airport events and press releases. Unless you were living off the grid, you knew the movie was coming. When any major event is about to take place, publicity agents make sure it will not go unnoticed. Several months in advance they begin sounding the trumpet to herald the arrival of their “baby,” their project.  Their job is to make sure we know the event is coming. Whether or not we attend is entirely up to us.

The arrival of baby Jesus was not unannounced or unexpected. The prophets of the Old Testament had long predicted his coming…he who would offer salvation and eternal peace to the nation of Israel and the whole world. John the Baptist, as a contemporary of Jesus, was the last prophet to announce his coming, and even John was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:2-3).   John knew his place relative to the Messiah he announced, saying that he would not be worthy to untie his sandals.  Whether people accepted the message or not was not about John.  Rather, it was about Jesus, whom he foretold. To reject the announcement was to reject Jesus, not John the messenger.

The presence and purpose of Jesus is hardly a secret in the world today. He is not unannounced or unexpected. We have many witnesses to him—the record of his life and ministry found in scripture, the sacrificial lives of the apostles and martyrs who knew him personally and were willing to die for the truth of his message, millions of lives changed by the work of his Spirit in and through ordinary broken people—yet not all accept him. We who believe in him and trust him for our now and future redemption are also called to be his witnesses. While we are not all given the gift of evangelist, we are all given the charge to evangelize.

Jesus taught his followers to be light in a dark world where it is easy to get lost. The witness of most believers is not preaching to those around us rather, it is the way we do life. The work of the Holy Spirit enables us to love in ways that we could not otherwise (persevering, forgiving, hoping, believing the best, never giving up…). These are often stronger witnesses than dramatic gifts or eloquent words.  He spoke to the inevitability of our witness in his usual clear and simple language—no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, the purpose of the lamp is to spread light to the entire room. As his followers, we are the lamp intended to light the rooms of life we inhabit.

Please accept this reminder that there is never a time when we are not to be that light for others. There is no encounter—even a non-verbal one—that does not count for the Kingdom.  The woman who holds up the line in the department store, the man who cuts you off in traffic, the difficult person in the workplace, all are in need of his light—an unexpected response from us that stops them in their tracks. It is not us people accept or reject—the gospel is not about us—but  Jesus, the one we are witnesses to.

 “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” John 1:4

Monday, December 9, 2013

God With Us

There are many things we take for granted in the United States. We can go to a market and choose from an abundance of foods and products. The biggest challenge for most Americans at Christmas is finding a gift another person can use, not because of limited products rather, because most people already have far more stuff than they need.

Spiritually, those of us in the church take a lot for granted as well. Under the Old Testament covenants, a lot was conditional (e.g.,God's covenant with Israel to stay in the Land). God was, more often than not, hidden behind a thick veil, interceded with only by the Levitical priests under specific conditions at preordained times of the year. This was what people were used to. Certainly they could pray to God, but he was, it was assumed, distant.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy, outlining the 14 generations between Abraham and David, the 14 generations between David and the Exile, and the 14 generations between the Exile and the birth of Christ. Matthew seems to be pointing to the divine hand that set the stage for the unlikely story that follows:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”).
Matthew 1:18-23

It is the last phrase we are likely to take for granted these days: "God with us." No longer hidden by a mist at the top of a mountain or behind a veil, thick and tall, in the holiest part of a tabernacle, God came near in the form of an infant, born to unlikely teenagers under scandalous circumstances, and was laid in a filthy stable. You have heard it so many times that its impact probably escapes you.

Think of it this way: Where would you be if this now "old news" event had not taken place? What if God had chosen (he had every right) to remain remote and distant, relationship unobtainable for all but a very few  Spirit filled  patriarchs, prophets and, kings? Where would you be if God had not come near in the babe in the stable?

Once in a while, I step from a steamy shower and grab a freshly laundered towel and I say, "Thank you God, for this blessing." I am not entitled to comforts or blessings or a relationship with the King of the Universe. But these blessings are mine. Some will pass away, but one blessing will remain forever:  God with us.