Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cast of Characters - Us

So many characters involved in the story of Advent, the story of the Incarnation. There are the prophets who told of it long before the events ever took place. There are the Jews, God's chosen people, both the ones who embraced the new thing God was doing and those who continued to wait in darkness for God to do what they expected him to do. There is John, sent to prepare the way. There are Simeon and Anna, waiting in the temple, drawing close to God. And no doubt others, unmentioned, witnesses to God's unfolding plan.

And then there is us. Each one of us; all the tide of humanity that has ebbed and flowed across this planet for the past several thousand years. Because of us, God became flesh. Our pains, our sorrows, our tears, our longing for something more; because of all this God stepped out of heaven to walk among us as one of us.

He came because he loves us.

He came because he longs for us.

He came because without him we are lost.

I had a much more wordy post fermenting in my mind; a post about where I was last year at this point and where I am now. A post filled with sweet images of Christmas pageants and little children. But as I began writing I realized that none of that was what I wanted to say. In the end, it all comes down to that last line:

He came because without him we are lost.

Silence. The cast is assembled. The curtain waits to rise. Incarnation. God with us. Come; be part of the story as it unfolds.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cast of characters - The wise men


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi  from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”


When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:


 ” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,


are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;


for out of you will come a ruler


who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ ”


 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”


After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.



Every Christmas pageant has them. The three wise men (or three kings) kneeling before the baby Jesus to present their gifts. A lovely picture, and what a shock when we grow up and find out that it isn't historically accurate. But, they are part of the story and so I am exercising dramatic license and including them, even though they probably didn't show up until Jesus was between the ages of one and two.


So, just who were the magi? I was just going to call them a bunch of really smart guys, but as Shel pointed out in his comment on my previous post, they were most likely Iranian Zoroastrian magi or priests. John MacArthur has a fascinating article about who the Magi were, I'd really encourage you to check it out. Anything I could say about them and their importance pales in the face of the history he delves into and the comparisons he draws. These weren't just random smart guys searching for Jesus, they were quite literally king-makers.


In my last post we had the shepherds. The most ordinary of the ordinary. And in stark contrast to them arrive the Magi. The intellectuals. The ones who put store in studying and amassing knowledge. The poor followed by the powerful. The insignificant and the mighty. Herders of animals and advisors to kings. And both bowed down and worshiped one whom they recognized as King.


Throughout the ages various movements have tried to co-opt God, to make him the God of the rich, or the God of the poor. They've done so to the extremes of almost saying God is ONLY the God of the rich (Poor? You don't have enough faith) or ONLY the God of the poor (Rich? Well, there's that whole 'easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for you to get into heaven' thing). But here at the inception, when God became flesh, it didn't matter who was rich and who was poor. It didn't matter what the social standing was or how much power they had. Shepherds and Magi alike bowed their knees and worshiped.


It gives me hope, as I look at our world today. I look at the poor and I look at the powerful and in each of us there is that potential to come to the defining moment where we stand within the presence of one greater than ourselves, and poor and powerful alike we all have the choice to kneel in reverence and worship. Political power plays pale when one realizes that eventually every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cast of characters - The shepherds


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 of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ [fn1] 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, and on earth peace to men 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.”


16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.  Luke 2: 8-20 (NIV)



Why shepherds? Have you ever wondered that? Was it just so we could stand out under starry skies at Christmastime and picture ourselves as shepherds on hills far, far away? I suppose it could have been because it had to be an outdoor event in order to accomodate a 'great company of the heavenly host'. But really, given God's ingenuity, I'm certain an indoor event with the same impact could have been arranged. Why shepherds? So that we, years later, could draw meaningful parallels between the shepherds coming to worship the one who is the Good Shepherd?

Or maybe it is because the were the most ordinary of the ordinary. They weren't doing anything special. They weren't studying scripture, they weren't worshipping at the temple, they were just doing their job. And in the midst of their ordinary night, surrounded by ordinary sheep, as they talked their ordinary guy talk...God interrupted.

Boy, did he ever interrupt! Can you imagine? One moment you are sitting at your desk working on your computer, or stocking shelves at Walmart, or picking up toys after your child, or working on the assembly line and all of a sudden, "HEY! DON'T BE AFRAID! I MEAN, YEAH, I KNOW I'M BIG AND GLOWING AND I APPEARED OUT OF NOWHERE BUT SERIOUSLY, DON'T BE AFRAID! GUESS WHAT? YOU THOUGHT THIS WAS JUST ANOTHER ORDINARY DAY? HAVE I GOT A SURPRISE FOR YOU! YOU'VE GOT A SAVIOR!"

No, we don't get angels and heavenly choirs interrupting our days anymore. But God wants us to know that even in the midst of the most ordinary day, the most ordinary task, he has the capability to interrupt us and turn our world upside down with joy. That's the message of the shepherds. They went from sitting on a hill watching over their flocks to returning glorifying and praising God.

How is God going to interrupt your world today, and how are you going to glorify and praise him to others?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Intermission

OK, it's intermission time in our Advent play. Time to stand up, stretch, take a break, read the playbill. If I had sponsors, this is where you'd read about them and laugh at amusing juxtapostions of sponsor ads. Instead of a list of sponsors, I'd like you to take a look at this video. It gets to part of what I am trying to do this Advent season in a very powerful way. I first saw this video at Elizabeth's blog Finding Him Bigger. Enough said, I'll let the video speak for itself. 







Get involved. Be part of the conspiracy to really celebrate Advent, to celebrate hope by giving hope to others. There are so many ways to do this either locally or on a larger scale that I couldn't possibly list them all. Here are just a few ideas.

Give the gift of clean water as mentioned in the video through Advent Conspiracy.

Give the gift of geese through Heifer International.

Help indigenous people in Bolivia plant crops to develop sustainable agriculture through Mennonite Central Committee.

Give hope for sexually exploited girls around the world through World Vision.

Provide sterile supplies and midwife training in Africa through Alternative Gifts International.

(Of course, all of the above links have other giving options as well; get your children involved in choosing between several gifts so that they can take part in it also.)

And then give your family the gift of your time.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The cast of characters - Joseph

For earlier posts in my Advent series see:

Two for the price of one?

The stage is set

The cast of characters - Mary

Magnificat

 

Joseph. Poor Joseph. Sometimes it seems almost as if he is an afterthought in the advent story. Joseph, the husband of Mary. It's almost easy to feel sorry for him, tagging along with his wife, the mother of the Messiah. What does Joseph do? In most Advent plays, Joseph gets to lead the donkey, and then stand around silently in the background while Mary holds the blessed infant and gazes adoringly at him, displaying him to those who come to worship and wonder. No doubt in reality Joseph played a vital part in raising and instructing Jesus, in providing for the family, and in keeping them safe. No doubt Jesus was delivered into his hands at birth. Did Joseph hold him and marvel at how human he looked?

Joseph gets a little more mention in Matthew's version of the story than in Luke's retelling, but do we really understand what he was pondering, and what he was being asked to do?

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and 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, 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 be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” –which means, “God with us.”


24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.  Matthew 1: 19-25 (NIV)



By law, if a woman was found to have committed adultery she was to be taken out and stoned. Joseph would have been fully within his rights to allow that to happen. But Joseph had a quality about him even before the angel spoke to him; he had a quality of mercy. Because they were already contracted to be married he could quietly ask for a certificate of divorce and put her away. She would still have suffered humiliation and rejection, but she would have lived. Joseph was willing to set aside his right under the law to extend mercy.


But God wanted something more from Joseph. He could have given mercy and then gone on his way and forgotten all about Mary. He could have found another wife, one without the taint of adultery about her. He could have lived a peaceful life. God wanted more than mercy, he wanted Joseph to humble himself in obedience. And so the angel appeared, and told him not to divorce Mary, but to actually take her home as his wife.


What must that have required of Joseph? When Mary's pregnancy became obvious and the gossips started counting weeks, it either made him look as guilty as her or a fool for taking her as wife in spite of the child she carried. It required him to suspend all that he thought he knew about the world and just obey. Mary had the benefit here. She KNEW she hadn't been with another man. Joseph didn't know; he could only go on faith, on obedience.


And so he took her as his wife. He humbled himself in obedience.


God doesn't give the starring role to everyone. But he does require obedience of all of us. Obedience sometimes means being willing to be called a fool. Obedience sometimes means entering the unknown. Joseph, the husband of Mary could teach us a lot about obedience.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Magnificat

I don't know if Mary sailed blissfully through her pregnancy, never doubting, never fearing. I suppose like most of us she had moments when she was certain of God's call, and moments where she wondered and doubted. But in the midst of all of her human emotions she glorified God. She grew up hearing the Psalms sung in the synagogue, hearing the deeds of God told over and over again. And in a moment of joy she poured back to God all of the praise that was in her. The Magnificat. Inspiring composers over the centuries. Often sung with soaring instruments, associated with lofty cathedrals and vast choirs. But Mary, young Mary, spoke or sang it alone. And so I think this version of the Magnificat is my favorite because it captures the youthful enthusiasm of a flesh and blood woman filled with joy.






46 Mary said,
   "My soul gives glory to the Lord.


    47 My spirit delights in God my Savior.
 48 He has taken note of me
      even though I am not important.
   From now on all people will call me blessed.
    49 The Mighty One has done great things for me.
      His name is holy.
 50 He shows his mercy to those who have respect for him,
      from parent to child down through the years.
 51 He has done mighty things with his arm.
      He has scattered those who are proud in their deepest thoughts.
 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones.
      But he has lifted up people who are not important.
 53 He has filled those who are hungry with good things.
      But he has sent those who are rich away empty.
 54 He has helped the people of Israel, who serve him.
      He has always remembered to be kind
 55 to Abraham and his children down through the years.
      He has done it just as he said to our people of long ago."  Luke 1: 46-55 (NIrV)

Friday, December 5, 2008

The cast of characters - Mary

Consider Mary for a moment. How much do we know about her? What made God choose HER to bear his son? Was she the most perfect woman on earth, walking around trailing glitter dust of holiness in her wake? She can't have been that close to sainthood, otherwise fewer people would have doubted her word; Joseph certainly wouldn't have. No, I think she was ordinary. An ordinary girl on the brink of womanhood, carrying out her normal duties. No doubt waiting in anticipation for her marriage to Joseph, dreaming of the family they would have together, dreaming of the wife that she would be to him.

But she was willing. Willing to give up her dreams, willing to risk certain scorn and punishment all on the word of an angel. And in the willingness the waiting began.

Waiting. How would she tell Joseph? Her parents? What would they say and do?

Waiting. Nine months of waiting. Nine months of watching her belly grow rounder. Nine months of feeling little kicks and hiccups, of having baby feet jammed up into her diaphragm. Did she have morning sickness? Did she wonder when it would end? And then, oh joy, she must go on a long journey. Did she ever question God? Did she say, "Look, I agreed to this whole Son of God thing, but honestly, couldn't you have timed it better so that I wouldn't be on this stinking donkey with your son playing punching bag with my bladder?" Did she start analyzing every little twinge thinking, "Is this it? Is it time? Am I ready? What happens now?" I am pretty sure pregnancy for her was no less an exercise in waiting than it is for the rest of us.

Waiting. Watching the sideways glances from the other women, knowing they were mentally measuring her belly and calculating in their minds. Knowing that when the baby came everyone would do the math and make assumptions. Waiting for scorn and contempt to show in their faces.

Waiting. Wondering what the baby would look like. What does the Son of God look like? How can he be dependant on me and still be my Messiah?

Waiting. Trusting. Sometimes in the waiting all we can do is trust in what we don't yet see. All we can do is trust that God is true to what he promises.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”  Luke 1: 39-45 (NIV)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The stage is set

Silence.

Can you hear it?

2000 years ago a people were crying out for freedom. Freedom from their oppressors, freedom from exploitation by their own religious parties. They were desperate. They knew the prophesies; they knew that one day a Savior would come to them to deliver them. But when? How long would they suffer? The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the outcasts had no hope at all. Where is the Messiah? When will he come? They went up to the temple, they offered sacrifices, they prayed. And still no deliverer came. Herod desecrated their temple. Surely God would see and come to deliver them. And still they waited. Mass slaughter of all baby boys born around a certain time. And through their tears the people cried out for their Messiah, cried out for salvation. From the outcast lepers outside the city gates, to the scorned tax collectors shunned for being collaborators, each heart was crying out, every heart was waiting.

Silence.

Can you hear it?

A people crying out for freedom. People crying out from captivity to corrupt governments, children ravaged by the scars of conflict, children standing on stick-thin legs, one day away from starvation. Where is their Savior? A mother grieves as she folds and packs away the baby clothes that will never be worn. A family lives in their car, forced onto the streets because the factory shut down. A frightened teen wraps herself in blankets in an abandoned building, afraid of being alone, afraid to go home to the hurt that fills the walls with her cries. Longing, waiting for someone to come save them. Close your ears to the sound of the Christmas music pounding through the speakers in the mall. Let time slow and look into the faces of the ones who pass by. Despair, hopelessness, emptiness, bitterness, exhaustion. Hidden behind the careful masks, the colorful packages, look closely. When will someone come, someone who will hear their silent cries in the night, someone who will lift the burden of guilt, someone who will fill the loneliness?

Silence.

Listen.

2000 years ago. Today. The people wait for hope, wait for a Savior.


10 Pass through, pass through the gates!


Prepare the way for the people.


Build up, build up the highway!


Remove the stones.


Raise a banner for the nations.


 11 The Lord has made proclamation


to the ends of the earth:


“Say to the Daughter of Zion,


‘See, your Savior comes!


See, his reward is with him,


and his recompense accompanies him.’ ”


12 They will be called the Holy People,


the Redeemed of the Lord;


and you will be called Sought After,


the City No Longer Deserted.


(Isaiah 62: 10-12  NIV)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Two for the price of one?

We've been sold on a package deal. All the major winter holidays rolled into one enormous snowball ready to knock us flat. The ball starts rolling on Halloween, not because it is a major holiday, but more because the marketers believe it is the start of 'the holiday season'. It gathers speed as it heads towards Thanksgiving, then it takes flight off our bloated bellies and hurtles us towards Christmas without touching down. And so we land, exhausted, frazzled, and bloated from holiday cheer, smack in the middle of Christmas and wonder how we got here. And then, before we know it the presents are opened, the eggnog carton is empty and we are left with nothing but scattered paper and ten extra pounds to remind us that the holiday even existed.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Christmas decorations were never meant to deck the halls on November 1st, as soon as the artificial pumpkins came down. Some day I fully expect to see Santa arriving in a Cinderella-style pumpkin coach pulled by twelve fat turkeys rather than the traditional reindeer and sleigh. You laugh, but haven't we been sold on this idea that the holidays are a package deal? Thanksgiving is the precursor to Black Friday, day of the Christmas deals, instead of a time to pause and reflect on the bounty of the harvest and give thanks to God for all our blessings as we prepare for the bleakness of winter.

Still, Thanksgiving gets at least part of its due, as school children dutifully re-enact its history and families gather to give thanks. But then there is the forgotten season. Advent. The season overshadowed with the frenzy of Christmas. Advent. A time of waiting, a time of hoping for things yet unseen. A time to take note of the brokenness around us and to echo the ancient cries for Messiah to come and save us. We know the end of the story; we know Messiah has come, but do we lose something when we wait for Messiah in the midst of the clamor of Christmas rather than the silence of Advent? The silence of Advent is shepherds under a silent sky, quietly going about their business, dreaming of the day they will be free from their oppressors, never realizing how close salvation was drawing. The silence of Advent is wise men, with their books and stars, searching for a sign that there is some meaning in this life. The silence of Advent is a weary Mary, nine months pregnant and making her way to Bethlehem, sleeping by the side of the road, bearing the double burden of pregnancy and a mystery she cannot fathom. The silence of Advent is Joseph, wondering what to say to a wife who is about to give birth to the son of God. Silence. Feel the hush as the world waits in anticipation for fulfillment.

This year I want to spend more time focusing on Advent. Oh, I still love the carols and my tree is already up, I'm counting my pennies and doing my shopping. But I want to resist the lure of making every day exciting, every day an anticipation of Christmas. I want to focus on silence, on the broken world that was forever changed on Christmas day. I want to keep Advent in my heart.