The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Christmas

Christmas: God Up to Something?

Maybe God was up to something.  You decide . . .

An angel appeared to an old priest serving in the silence of the temple sanctuary.  The angel told Zechariah his barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, and that son would prepare the people for Messiah’s coming.  The priest was shocked by the angel’s appearance and his message.  He wanted a sign.  Instead, the angel struck him dumb for disbelief (Luke 1:5-23).

Soon, barren Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:24,25).

In her sixth month, another angel-visit.  This one to a young virgin in Nazareth, Galilee, who was pledged to  marry a descendant of King David, Joseph.  “The Holy Spirit will conceive the Messiah in you.”

After a while, Mary went south to Judea to visit her relative Elizabeth.  Nothing unusual about that.  Except when Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby jumped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me” (Luke 1:26-45).  Important note:  this being before phones, e-mail and social media, Elizabeth knew nothing about the angel’s visit to Mary.

Suddenly, Mary magnified the Lord, with a beautiful poem of praise by which she affirmed her belief that the Lord had looked on her with favor, would upset the world’s power structures with her child, and would help Abraham’s descendant as he’d promised (Luke 1:39-56).

Elizabeth gave birth. A son.  Eight days later neighbors gathered for the circumcision and naming.  “John,” she said.  (Apparently, Zechariah had written to Elizabeth the name the angel wanted.)  Neighbors protested.  “Name him after his father!”  Then “dumb” dad wrote it again with an exclamation point:  “His name is John!”  The note loosed the old priest’s tongue to tell the whole story.  The neighborhood buzzed with a question:  “What will this child become?”

Suddenly, Zechariah answered.  “The Lord God of Israel is remembering his holy covenant with Abraham.  John will become a prophet of the Most High.  He’ll go before the Lord to prepare his ways so his people will know the way of salvation.”

Things settled down after that. The child grew.  Years wound by.  Until John was a young man.  Then he went off to live in the wilderness (Luke 1:57-80).

Then, in far-off Rome, Caesar Augustus issued a decree.  The emperor’s whole world had to travel to ancestral homes to register.  (More taxes were coming.)  For Joseph in Nazareth, that meant an arduous hundred-mile journey to Bethlehem with pregnant Mary.

Finally arriving in the little town, Mary atop a donkey groaned, “Joseph, it’s time!”  But they had no shelter—no room in the inn crowded with travelers.  Joseph frantically rushed to find a cave.  A haven for farm animals became a temporary home for the baby’s birth, and a straw-strewn animal trough became his bed (Luke 2:1-7).

Outside town, shepherds were tending their flocks at night.  Time and place for another angel-visit.  This one momentous.  “Don’t be afraid, the angel told the afraid shepherds.  I’ve got good news of great joy for everyone.  Today in David’s town a Savior has been born—the Messiah.  You’ll find him wrapped in cloth-bands lying in a manger.”  At that, a majestic choir of angels appeared, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

When the heavenly display ended and shepherds closed their hanging jaws, they found their tongues.  “Let’s go see.  Whaddaya say?”  So they did and saw.  There was the child in the manger and mom and dad hovering nearby.

On the eighth day, he was circumcised and named:  “Jesus.”  That was the angel’s idea (Luke 2:8-20).

* * *

Now:  was all this God up to something?  Or maybe Zechariah got caught up in spiritual ecstasy about an angel at the incense altar and Mary was just daydreaming as young girls are wont to do.  Maybe Elizabeth wasn’t really barren after all, and she and Zechariah just “got it right.”  Maybe Joseph and Mary were just, you know, “fooling around” and things got out of hand and well, you know.  Perhaps those shepherds had just spent too many nights out in the field tending dumb sheep and a group hallucination struck them.

Or maybe the whole thing is just a fairy tale that’s persisted over the centuries–part of the Christmas tradition as unreal as Santa Claus.

Or maybe God was behind the whole thing.

If you decide that it was God, you can have a really Merry Christmas.  That’s what Lois and I wish for you.

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Christmas: The Hiding Woman

A disgrace, and a sadness:  Elizabeth was barren.  No son to carry on Zechariah’s name. No tiny squeals of delight to fill their home.  No baby to suck her life-giving breasts. Breasts, like the rest of her old body, that could no longer give life.

But . . . Elizabeth conceived.  At first, she dared not believe it.  “ . . . for five months she remained in seclusion” (Luke 1:24).  But her body began to prove it.  Still she hid.  Did she fear her body would yet cruelly disappoint her?  Did she have to ponder her husband’s words about that fearful day in the temple?  Simple words he crudely scribbled after being struck dumb for disbelieving an angel’s words.

Zechariah the priest.  That day he, from among so many, had been chosen by lot to serve in the sanctuary.  He had been humbled—and grateful.  At his age it was likely his last opportunity.

He’d stepped solemnly into the sanctuary to offer incense.  Suddenly, to the right of the altar (he wrote to her), an angel had appeared.  Even if his words were abbreviated, they were enough to make her gasp.  The angel had announced Zechariah’s wife would give birth to a son who would be great before the Lord and be filled with the Spirit even before birth.  Was he now, she wondered, as he grew inside her womb?

But it was this prophecy that most astonished her.  “With the Spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him . . . “ (Luke 1:17). Zechariah had been quite clear about those words.  And about how the angel had struck him dumb, because he hadn’t believed any of them.

Her son . . . her son . . . would go before him–Messiah!

So Elizabeth hid herself.  At least until her tummy proved the prophecy.  Secretly she rejoiced in the removal of her disgrace.  Quietly she pondered if her son’s mission were true and  how her boy–her boy– would announce the Messiah.

A month after Elizabeth’s seclusion, her young relative Mary visited.  “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’” (Luke 1:41-43).

Two mothers-to-be.  One impossibly un-barren.  One pregnant without a man.  Both caught up in the wonder of miraculous births of miraculous sons.  Two women rejoicing at what the Lord had done.

Neither knew the suffering that lay ahead.  Mary’s son, the Messiah,  would be rejected and put to death by Israel’s religious leaders and Rome’s self-centered king.  Elizabeth’s son would call Israel to get ready for the Messiah by a baptism of repentance.  And would publicly condemn a king for adulterous sex.  In the end, the woman of that affair would shrewdly take his head.

* * *

How foreign such words sound at Christmas!  Christmas is about good-news angels, worshiping wise men, a cuddly baby in a manger, peace on earth.  We barely notice the holy family escaping to Egypt from Herod’s rage that slaughtered Bethlehem’s young boys.  We sing happy songs that welcome the king.  But we forget powerful men didn’t.

Our country celebrates while disconnecting the child from the man the world crucified.  And John?  John the miracle born to an old barren woman.  We last see him led from prison to satisfy the spiteful wish of an immoral woman–a wish by  a sex-and liquor-drunken king afraid to look small before other small men.  John’s good story ends with his head presented on a platter.

Would Elizabeth, if still alive these many years later, have crept into seclusion?  Would she have feared for her own life?  Would she have doubted God and condemned Zechariah for bringing such outlandish “angel talk” to her home?  Or would she have  stood as tall as her old bent frame allowed to cry “Amen” to John’s now-silent words?

And what of us?  We’ve domesticated the message of Christmas.  Separated it from the violence it brought.  Allowed the world to make it a sweet fairy tale or a religious bedtime story.  Might it be that the church in America has largely gone into seclusion, like Elizabeth?  Have we hidden the angel’s prophecy to Zechariah within the four walls of our sanctuary?  Maybe we need to find ways to come out.  To trust the Holy Spirit to fill us.  And to endure whatever opposition we must to tell the whole Christmas story.

Maybe we need more John the Baptists this Christmas.  And more Elizabeths, who come out of hiding.

 

 

 

 

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Christmas: The King

The new king settled into his palace.   Peace reigned in Israel.  David and his devoted armies had defeated the Philistines.  “ . . .the LORD  had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him” (2 Samuel 7:1).  So, the king wanted to build a house for his LORD, a place to enshrine the ark of God.

But the prophet Nathan received a word that night.  The next day he told the king.  “The LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.  When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you . . . and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:11b,12).

David  humbly accepted the prophet’s word and gratefully praised the LORD for his greatness and goodness  to Israel.

The promise stirred David’s heart.  His son would build a house for the Lord.  And a dynasty was born.  Israel would always have a son of David on the throne.  But might “I will establish the throne of kingdom forever” mean more?

After Solomon, civil war split Israel.  The twin nations repeatedly broke God’s covenant.  A Davidic king reigned in Jerusalem.  But the kingdom was crumbling under the weight of sin and God’s judgment.

Three hundreds years after David, amidst the sin-ravaged kingdom, prophets told of a coming Davidic king:  “See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice” (Isaiah 32:1) . . .“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. ” (Zechariah 9:9,10) . . . “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).

Words of hope gleaming in the darkness.  Mysterious words:  “He will proclaim peace to the nations” . . . His rule will extend to the ends of the earth”.  Israel watched and waited.  For the king who would build God’s “house”, the son to once again rule from David’s throne with righteousness and peace.  And maybe his rule would extend to the earth’s ends!

* * *

Only one thing frightened King Herod—an enemy usurping his throne.  So when he heard news that wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for “ . . . the child who has been born king of the Jews”, his fears were fueled.  “Where is the Messiah to be born?” he asked his priests.  “Bethlehem, according to Micah 5:2.”  “Tell me when you find him, so I may go worship him too,” he told the wise men.

That evening, the star that had led the magi from the East, reappeared over the place where the child was. When “ . . . the wise men saw the child with Mary his mother . . . they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). 

They didn’t return to Herod. When he realized he’d been tricked, he was enraged.  If he couldn’t kill the one child, he’d kill every child under two in Bethlehem.

“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 2:17).

Was this horrific violence just the ravings of a mad king?  Or did Herod’s murderous tirade portent how the world would receive this child-king?  For now, he was safe.  The Lord’s angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream,  “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you . . . ” (Matthew 2:13).

Was this child to reign on David’s throne over a whole-earth kingdom?

Would violent rejection plague him wherever he went?

Did the prophet Nathan (or the Lord) mean this son of David would reign forever?

Were the wise men’s gifts just rich presents or did they mean more than even they understood?  Did gold represent the child’s kingship.  Did frankincense symbolize his priesthood of intercession for his sinful people.  Did myrrh prefigure his terrible atoning death?

Were the magi’s words prophetic beyond their understanding.

And did these foreigners, these men from the East, symbolize the day when all of heaven will sing to this child, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.  You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9,10)?

 

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Christmas: God Himself Will Provide the Lamb

The mountain loomed above the horizon:  Moriah.  Yet a day away.  Its sight signaled the end of Abraham’s journey.  He heaved a sigh of relief, welcoming the day because he dreaded the end.

The old man shuffled down the dirt path, leading his donkey bearing wood for a sacrifice.  Behind the animal, two servants followed.  Isaac, the son he loved, the son of God’s promise, walked stride by stride at his father’s side.  Isaac, the sacrifice.

Two days earlier, Abraham had heard the Voice—the One he’d heard occasionally for decades, the One that promised a son from old Sarah, the son to be the first of descendants as many as the sands of the sea.

But, this time the Voice spoke dreadful words:  “Abraham take your only son Isaac who you love.  Go to Moriah.  Sacrifice him there—a burnt offering on the mountain I will show you.”

The sun burned.  A hot breeze breathed on the land.  But Abraham’s blood ran cold.  He thrust a wrinkled hand through wispy hair.  How could the Lord God demand Isaac’s sacrifice?  His death would break the promise.  Worse, it might kill the old man and woman.

Even so, before the next day’s sun broke the horizon, Abraham had gathered wood, saddled his donkey and set out for Mount Moriah, his son by his side.

On the third day, the ground grew steep.  Moriah looked desolate now.  “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants.  “I will take my boy a little farther.  We will worship and then come back.”

The words escaped the old man’s mouth.  “We will worship and then come back.” Were they words of faith?  Of insight deeper than knowledge?  Or a hope that  sacrifice would somehow not end in death?

Isaac shouldered the wood.  Abraham held the fire and knife—the knife with which he’d slaughter his son.  “Father,” bewildered Isaac asked as they trudged up the hill,  “We have wood and fire.  But where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

Silence.  Abraham’s breathing was labored. Then he spoke.  Resolutely in hope.  Firmly in faith.  More than he knew. “My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.”

They reached the summit.  The place of sacrifice.  Isaac still held the wood, while Abraham stooped to gather stones.  He built an altar.  Took the wood from Isaac.  Laid it on the altar.  Led Isaac to it and lay the boy on the wood.  Isaac looked up fearfully, questioning, at his father.  “God will provide a lamb.”  Father and son remembered the words.  But when?  Where? The words mocked Abraham now as his shaking hand took the knife.  With feet firmly planted, but tottering with desperation, he raised the knife high toward the heavens.  One thrust to kill his boy.

He tightened his grip and tensed his muscles.  Now!  A shout came from heaven:  “Abraham, lay down the knife.  Do not hurt the boy.  For now I know you truly fear God.  You have not withheld even your beloved son from me.”

Abraham looked up.  Movement in a nearby bush drew his eye.  A trapped ram.  A sacrifice would be made that day.  But not a seemingly senseless one of the promised son.  Rather an offering of thanksgiving.  As his sacrifice burned toward heaven, Abraham breathed a name for that holy ground—“The Lord will provide.”

* * *

As years passed, Abraham’s descendants multiplied.  But so did their sin.  They lived estranged from their Lord. As did all mankind.  Prophets made it plain their sin was a snare and God’s wrath must fall.  Yet through the centuries, Abraham’s words echoed:  “God himself will provide the lamb”.

* * *

The cave sheltered animals.  But this night it would give sanctuary to a frightened teenager about to give birth and to her anxious husband.  Moments passed unnoticed as birth pains increased.  The girl moaned, screamed, pushed.  And “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

“God himself will provide the lamb.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Christmas Prayer

Lord Jesus,  thank you for coming to us and for us.  My mind can’t conceive of you emptying yourself and taking the form of a servant.  You who were God the Son from eternity, glorified by the heavenly beings, humbled yourself.  Not just to be born of a woman and laid in a feeding trough.  But throughout your life on earth you humbled yourself by serving the sick, the demonized, the lost.  You allowed the authorities to demean you and, in the end, to kill you.  For us.  You were forsaken by your Father to bear our sins away.

Now every good gift we enjoy–everything from our families to chocolate (!)–comes from you and through you.  The love that we share around the Christmas tree is your gift too.  The presents that we give are tokens of our love for each other, but also tiny expressions of your love to us.

We realize that not everyone enjoys a Christmas of peace.  In the Middle East Christians are homeless, wounded, facing death.  In America, as well as around the world, many of your people suffer critical or chronic illnesses.  Many are lonely, without their beloved.  However close you may be to them, nothing today replaces the love they’ve lost.

Christmas is one day out of the year’s 365.  You bless us; we rejoice.  But the joy of our ordinary days is always mixed with sorrow.  Joy is fleeting; the pains of life in a fallen world crowd in.  “Peace on earth”,  internationally and individually, slips through our fingers like sand.

We need you to come back, Jesus.  We believe the good news, not only of your birth, but of your resurrection and your promise to return.  Only then can all the promises, all the hopes and dreams that you have kindled in our hearts, be realized.  Even so, come Lord Jesus!

And on this Christmas, around the tree, among the presents, in the midst of family gatherings, come and be our unseen guest.  Sanctify our celebration with your presence.  Imprint our minds, so easily diverted to the “stuff” of the holiday, with your good news.  We–the best of us—are depraved sinners.  In ourselves we are without hope and without God in this world.  Forgive us, please.  We embrace the terrible shadow of the cross that hung over your manger.  Enable us to celebrate today in ways that honor you.  And to live all our tomorrows in ways that make much of you.

You, the baby in the manger, the criminal on the cross, are today the risen King.  We recall the wonderful story of your birth.  And we wait for you to come back for us in glory.

“Thank you” sounds so small.  So do the finest orchestras and choirs that sing your praise.  And so do our lives by which we try to do your good will and engage in what the Scripture calls “spiritual worship”.

But for now, it’s all we have.  Our “treasures” are tiny.  But like the wise men, we offer them to you.  You are worthy of so much more.  But we give what we have.  And from as much as we are able, we reach to the bottom of our hearts, and say “Thank you.”  Until that day when all the heavenly beings, all the redeemed, and all the new creation  sing your praise with music more wonderful than we dare to imagine.  Thank you, Jesus.

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Christmas: Atmosphere of Wonder

We feel it, right?  The feeling of wonder “in the air”.  (Of course, also in the air is that agitated feeling of too much to do and too little time to do it.  Still, the music, the lights, the gifts, the goodwill make it a unique time of year.  One, as some Christmas songs say, we wish could last year round

What fuels this feeling?  Something more than music, lights, gifts and goodwill.  I believe it’s this:  the heart of Luke’s Christmas Story.  That’s what makes us all feel like kids again in the magical land of Narnia.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town (Luke 2:1-3).

As he’s done before (Luke 1:1-4), Luke grounds his full-of-wonder story in eyewitness history.  The birth (the heart of the story) happened at the time the Roman Caesar Augustus issued a census decree (for taxes, what else?).  Everyone had to return to his ancestral town to register.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child (Luke 2:4,5).

It’s about a three-day walking journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem.  Mary accompanied Joseph because she was pledged to be married to him.  And Mary was expecting a child.

Luke thus shows us a couple “under the thumb” of the Roman emperor, making an arduous journey much like we see refugees or immigrants making today.

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:6,7).

Little wonder so far, no?  The census-decree is just more government-speak.  The journey to Bethlehem, though movies make much of it, Luke doesn’t.  Here’s just another poor couple dominated by a dictator forced to comply.  This scene climaxes most Christian Christmas movies.  Luke tells it like a just-the-facts reporter.

What he’s showing us, of course, is the humble poverty of the parents.  Mary laid her firstborn in an animal feeding trough, because Bethlehem’s inn had no room for them.  That’s what poor people, trapped in a crisis, do:  they do what they can with what they have.

But the mood of the story is about to change . . .

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:8-15).

Shepherds happen to be nearby watching over their flock through the night.  This is where the story becomes Narnia-like, where wonder breaks out.  The Lord’s angel suddenly appears to them.  And the Lord’s glory shone in the night surrounding them.  These simple working men, unesteemed among their fellow Jews, were shocked afraid.  Never had they seen such a sight.

The angel tries to calm their fear.  He brings “good news of great joy that will be for all the people”.    

He’s making a birth announcement.  This very day in nearby Bethlehem, a Savior has been born.  He is Messiah the Lord.  Jewish shepherds must have been electrified.  Messiah!  He will save us from all oppression! He will rule over us and bring us peace!  Can it be true?

The angel expects them to see the child for themselves.  So he gives them a sign by which to identify him—swaddling cloth-wrapped with a feed trough for a bed.  That will be him!

Suddenly a great heavenly choir appears praising God.  Whether their words are spoken or sung they must move the shepherds’ souls: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

After the choir disappears and the shepherds can breathe again, they decide to go over to Bethlehem “and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  Jewish shepherds.  What do they know?  Maybe it was mass hallucination.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was real . . .

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Luke 2:16-20).

The excited shepherds hurry their search. When they find him, they tell the parents what the angels had said. And apparently afterward they told whomever would listen.  “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”  The Greek word translated “wondered” is thaumazo.  It means whomever the shepherds told marveled; they were astonished at what they heard.  Finally, the shepherds get back to their sheep.  There, when all that has happened “sinks in”, they glorify and praise God.

Now what about this Narnia-like, full-of-wonder feeling that envelops us at Christmas?  Does it arise from the music, the lights, the gifts, the goodwill?  In part.  But the spring of it all (I believe)) is this story.

Sure, most don’t believe it really happened.  Many vaguely do, but they don’t believe it has anything to do with their lives in the “real” world now.  But remember, the angel said this news is “of great joy that will be for all the people”.  Maybe only a few believe it.  Only a few understand it.  But this story hangs in the air at Christmas.  Consciously or not, we all breathe it in. It makes us wish, even subconsciously, that it were true.  It makes us long for a Savior, a Messiah, who will free the oppressed and usher in lasting peace.  It makes us want to believe in the unbelievable.  That’s the atmosphere of Christmas.

Please, let’s not be too calloused to believe it.  Let’s dare to be like children!  What’s “in the air” is true!  Read the rest of the Gospel to learn the whole story!

 Merry Christmas!

 

Baby Jesus resting on a manger with light from the star filters through window Stock Photo - 63774215

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Christmas: Getting Ready

Prince Caspian grew up in a great castle in Narnia with his uncle and aunt, the king and queen.  His parents were dead.  So was “Old Narnia”.  That was when animals could talk and Aslan the great lion came to help his people.  The “New Narnia” was under the king’s control, so he wanted it to remain.  But young Caspian was destined to restore what once had been (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 2, C.S. Lewis). 

Luke’s Christmas story reminds me of Narnia and Prince Caspian . . .

The Birth of Elizabeth’s Boy

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him (Luke 1:57-66).

“What is this child going to be?”  People throughout the Judean hill country were wondering about the old priest Zechariah’s boy, “For it was plain that the Lord’s power was upon him.”

How that was plain is part of the wonder of Luke’s Christmas story.  We remember an angel had promised Zechariah his old barren wife would bear a son who was to be named John.  When Zechariah doubted, the angel struck the priest dumb.

Now IT’S TIME, Zechariah!  Elizabeth gives birth to a boy.  Neighbors rejoice.  Then comes circumcision and the naming.  Neighbors assume he’ll be called Zech, Jr.  But Elizabeth says, “His name is to be John.”  Nonsense, think neighbors.  Nobody in the family is John.  They appeal to Zechariah.  (Why they “made signs” isn’t clear.  Had the old priest been struck deaf too?)  Speechless Zechariah wrote: “His name is John.”  An act of obedient faith.  That’s what the angel named the promised boy.  Instantly Zechariah started praising God.  (Don’t you wonder what he said?)

Just an unusual circumcision, right? An old barren women gave birth.  Who knows how nature’s trick allowed that?  Parents insist on giving him a non-family name.  A little tradition-breaking.  After nine months, Zechariah suddenly speaks.  A coincidence that it happened just after he wrote “John.”

Neighbors, though, “were all filled with fear” and asked, “What is this child going to be?”  They knew they were witnessing an unusual event.  It was plain to them “that the Lord’s power was upon [John]”.

But that’s not all.  The Holy Spirit who had filled Elizabeth three months earlier when Mary visited, now filled Zechariah . . .

 Zechariah’s Prophecy

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (Luke 1:67-75).

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel (Luke 1:76-80).

The prophetic claim is stunning:  God has come and redeemed his people. Messiah has been raised up to save them from their enemies.  It’s a show of mercy that fulfills the covenant made to Abraham 2000 years earlier. Abraham’s descendants will be enabled “to serve [God] without fear in holiness and righteousness . . . all [their] days.”

Zechariah continues his prophecy, now over his son.  John isn’t Messiah, but a prophet to “prepare the way” for Messiah.  He will preach about Israel’s sins and how she can be forgiven, how God’s tender mercy is about to shine upon a nation living in death’s shadow.

The Preparation

That circumcision may have been a big “celebration” in that Judean hill town.  But it was a small town, one house and one family.  Just an eight-day old infant.  Yet he was destined to spearhead the Messiah’s restoration of, not only Israel, but of the whole creation.  “For . . . the Lord’s power was upon him.”  This, too, is part of Luke’s wonder-full Christmas story.

However, we’re not simply meant to marvel.  As we await Messiah’s second coming, we must prepare his way (as grown-up John the Baptist exhorted crowds who came to him at the wilderness edge).  That means humbly confessing our sin and bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8). Repentance fruit:  sharing clothing and food with the needy, not abusing people in your power, being content with what you have (Luke 3:9-14).  In other words, live the way you want Messiah to find you when he comes.

Doesn’t sound so wonder-full, does it!  But, you see, this is how we’ve been made to live.  And Messiah’s mercy makes such behavior possible!  So, the question at the end of this part of the Christmas story isn’t “Do we see the wonder?”, but, “Are we preparing for Messiah’s coming again?”

If we are, then we’re not just hearing the wonder-full Christmas story.  We are playing a living part in it and the glorious restoration it brings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas: A Taste in “Little Lives”

If you’re “anti-Santa” songs, ignore this one.  If you’re not put off by them, listen at blog’s end.  I’m not celebrating Santa, just Christmas.)

A “wonder” is “a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar” (Oxford Living Dictionaries).  If you’re a Christian, you know God does some pretty wonderful works!

Sometimes God’s wonders are like visiting Narnia—C.S. Lewis’ magical land in The Chronicles of Narnia.  (If you haven’t read them, check out  https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_2_15?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=the+chronicals+of+narnia+books&sprefix=The+Chronicals+%2Caps%2C447&crid=31866FBVFXH1X.)

Nothing Narnia-like about Mary visiting Aunt Elizabeth. Mary has   been promised a virgin birth, the promise backed up by the news that old barren Elizabeth was six months pregnant.  So we expect Mary to see for herself.

Of course, the message-bearer was an angel.   So, as Mary makes her visit, we’re not far from a Narnia-like Christmas story.  And, as we read about it, we realize we’re back “through the wardrobe” . . .

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:39-56, NRSV)

When young Mary enters Zechariah’s house, she greets Elizabeth.  What happens next is wonder-full.   Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, her baby moves in her womb, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and answers her guest . . .

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

We expect Mary to respond something like, “Elizabeth, how did you know?”  Well, how did Elizabeth know?  Apparently nobody called on her cell phone with the news.  As far as Luke tells us, nobody but Mary knew about the angel’s visit. Elizabeth didn’t know.  She spontaneously and wonderfully spoke words the Spirit gave her.

Mary’s response, too, is wonder-full.  Author Luke doesn’t claim Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps she was.  Or maybe she was filled with God’s Word, because what has been called “The Magnificat” (a Latin word meaning “it magnifies”) echoes words childless Hannah prayed when she bore a son named Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10).

 Look what Mary spontaneously praises the Lord for . . .

His mercy toward her in her humble condition.  “ . . .for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  Mary thus takes Elizabeth’s pregnancy and words to confirm the angel’s message to her.  And she affirms that God the Mighty One whose name is holy looks with favor on the lowly who fear him. “ . . . . the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”  Consequently future generations will call her blessed. “ . . .  from now on all generations will call me blessed”. 

Mary spontaneously praises the Lord for his faithfulness to his promises revealed to Abraham and his descendants.  “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  This young Jewish girl, with no outward sign of being pregnant, believes the angel’s message that she will give birth to the Messiah.  And the Messiah will finally fulfill all God’s promises and purposes spoken to old Abraham.  So certain she is of “the great reversal” her son will bring about, she speaks of them in the past tense!

Now we might attribute Mary’s words to emotional women caught up in the moment.  Just like we unemotional people “know” there’s no Narnia-like new eternal creation waiting just “through the wardrobe” of this world.  But Luke testifies this is actual history, (Luke 1:1-4).  And, when we read the rest of the Gospel, we discover the words of these two women are true.  Mary does give birth to the Messiah.

This wonder-full meeting of these women lays before us a choice. Either to dismiss this as two emotional females chattering about their unexpected pregnancies.  (Unexpected pregnancies do happen, even to old barren women and young teenagers!)  Or to believe that these women, one old and one young secluded in a little house in the hill country of Judea 2000 years ago, are speaking Holy Spirit words about the most wonder-full work God was about to do—a “great reversal” of world order that would dethrone evil and exalt his people forever.

Well, I choose to believe the latter.  Even now, God is working toward that “great reversal”.  But you know what else?  Along the way, in Jesus’ name, God still does wonder-full works for us hidden in our little homes or church buildings.  We’re not suffering emotionalism.  God still works wonders for little people.

The video song’s chorus starts with these words . . .

“I wish it could be Christmas every day,
When the kids start singing and the band begins to play“

 One day, when Jesus comes again, it will be.

Until then, God may turn an ordinary day into a taste of Christmas by working a wonder in our little lives!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas: Let It Happen

During World War 2, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are sent from London to an old professor’s large country house.  A rainy day leads to an inside game of hide-and-seek.  Lucy hides in a large wardrobe.  Pushing through winter coats, she finds herself in winter outside the wardrobes’ missing back wall.  A talking faun tells her wonderful tales about this strange land of Narnia.  Finally, realizing she’s been gone a long while, she retraces her steps to the wardrobe and tells her older brothers and sister about her adventure.  They don’t believe her (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis).

Luke’s Christmas Story reminds me of Lewis’ Narnia. Both open to me a world of wonder and call me to be a trusting child again (quite desirable for a disabled 73-year-old!).  Here’s part two of Luke’s story.  (You can find the first at http://theoldpreacher.com/christmas-old-empty/.)

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. He had a message for a young woman promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. Her name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, “Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you!”  Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message, and she wondered what his words meant. The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was and he will be the king of the descendants of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end!” Mary said to the angel, “I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and God’s power will rest upon you. For this reason the holy child will be called the Son of God.  Remember your relative Elizabeth. It is said that she cannot have children, but she herself is now six months pregnant, even though she is very old. For there is nothing that God cannot do.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said.” And the angel left her (Luke 1:26-38, GNT).

“God sent the angel . . . to a town in Galilee named Nazareth” should spike our curiosity.  Galilee in Nazareth are real places.  This isn’t a “once upon a time in a land far away” story.  But “God sent the angel”—that’s, well, fairy-tale-like.  Don’t doze because God sending angels happens in the Bible.  Luke is telling us God sent an angel to a real town and at a particular time (“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy . . . “).  A strange mix of the historical (see Luke 1:1-4) and the wonder-ful!

The angel had a message for a young woman named Mary.  What surprises me is how she responds to the angel’s greeting.  I think angels appeared as men, unless Scripture describes them otherwise.  No wings.  No holy glow.  Maybe that led to Mary’s response.  She’s not afraid of the angel, just “deeply troubled by the angel’s message”— “The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you.”

The angel tells her (a talking angel, like the talking faun) she’ll become pregnant and birth a son whom she’ll name “Jesus”.  A common name.  But his next words must get Mary tingling.  Her son will be great, will be called “the Son of the Most High God” and God will make him king of Jacob’s descendants like his ancestor David and his kingdom will last forever.

It’s been said that every pregnant Jewish woman wondered if the child in her womb was a son, and if he might be the Messiah.  Mary must have thought the same at the angel’s words.  She must have known prophecies like these . . .

At the time of those rulers the God of heaven will establish a kingdom that will never end. It will never be conquered, but will completely destroy all those empires and then last forever. (Daniel 2:44)

 During this vision in the night, I saw what looked like a human being. He was approaching me, surrounded by clouds, and he went to the one who had been living forever and was presented to him. He was given authority, honor, and royal power, so that the people of all nations, races, and languages would serve him. His authority would last forever, and his kingdom would never end (Daniel 7:13,14).

 The angel practically quoted them of her son!  So it’s understandable that she didn’t ask the angel for some identification.  This was every Israelite woman’s dream!  Ah, but, she’s got a problem.  She’s a virgin!

 Turns out the angel’s ready with the solution:  The Holy Spirit will come upon her and conceive the holy child in her.  Did Mary’s face show a twinge of doubt?  In any case, the angel told her that her barren relative Elizabeth is now six month’s pregnant.  See:  God can do anything!

Mary’s final response stuns me still.  “I am the Lord’s servant; may it happen to me as you have said.”  She just accepts it.  She submits to it.  No more questions.  No arguments.  No thought of personal cost.  (A promised-to-be-married pregnant woman!)  Just, “I serve the Lord.  Let’s go for it.”

Mary is one special young lady because the Lord has specially favored her.  The Greek word, chariotoo, means “kindness with the implication of grace on the part of the one showing kindness.”   That grace, I think, was not merely in the Lord’s choosing her, but in enabling her trusting response. 

So the scene ends.  If we’re child-like enough to believe it really happened, we might ask, “So what?  So 2000 years ago in northern Israel an angel appeared and told a virgin she’ll give birth to Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.  What’s that to me?  Mary’s son, according to the angel, will be king of Jacob’s descendants.  Far as I know, I’m not on Jacob’s family tree.  And that he’ll be king forever,  well, there’s a lot of such talk in the Old Testament and it could be a metaphor for a long time, or it could mean he’ll reign “forever” in his descendants; you know, a Jesus-dynasty.”

 We could explore the rest of the New Testament to learn what this wonder-ful message from angel to young woman means to us.  But let’s check out just one place.  The angel said Mary’s Son would be king of Jacob’s descendants forever, right?  Well, here’s what the apostle Paul wrote of him later . . .

“[Christ Jesus] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11, NIV).

There it is: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord . . . “  Turns out he’s not just Israel’s Messiah; he’s the world’s Lord.  Every knee will bow.  Every tongue will acknowledge him as King.

See Mary bowing before the angel?  Every one will take Mary’s place.  Either compelled on Judgment Day.  Or willingly now.  How much better to become like a child today and step into the wonder-ful Christmas Story forever!

Image result for picture of mary and angel gabriel 

 

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Christmas: Old and Empty

Today we celebrate the second Sunday in Advent.  I missed the first.  Maybe because we never put it on our church calendar when I was growing up.  (Too Roman Catholic-like for the Assemblies of God.)  Or maybe I missed the first Advent Sunday just because Christmas snuck up on this old guy without breaking a sweat!

All that to say, I’ve got some Christmas posts to write along with a lot else during December.  Luke 1 and 2 fascinate me.  They’re so “Narnia-like.”  You know, C. S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”.  London children get magically transported to the land of Narnia where animals talk and “the deep magic” overcomes dark evil and Aslan the Lion appears just in time to rescue his people.  It calls me to be a child again.  Luke’s Christmas Story is like that.

Luke, however, wrote like a historian, not a fairy-tale-teller.  His Christmas Story happened . . .

Dear Theophilus: Many people have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who proclaimed the message. And so, Your Excellency, because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you. I do this so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4, GNT).

Underline these words:  “the things that have taken place among us” . . . “what we have been told by those who saw these things” . . . “I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning” . . . “I . . . write an orderly account . . . so that you will know the full truth . . . “  Brush this story off as childhood fantasy if you will, but you’ve got to admit Luke wrote it as reality.

So there was this Jewish priest . . .

During the time when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife’s name was Elizabeth; she also belonged to a priestly family. They both lived good lives in God’s sight and obeyed fully all the Lord’s laws and commands. They had no children because Elizabeth could not have any, and she and Zechariah were both very old (Luke 1:5-7, GNT).

Zechariah, as far as we know, though he and his wife “lived good lives in God’s sight and obeyed fully all the Lord’s laws and commands”, was just another priest.  Ordinary.  Stand him with all other Jewish priests, and he’d be lost in the crowd.

Childlessness humiliated his wife, Elizabeth. (Children being a sign of the Lord’s approval.)  Plus “both were very old.”  No chance now of having a child.  No chance of achieving importance.  Just an ordinary old couple.

One day Zechariah was doing his work as a priest in the Temple, taking his turn in the daily service. According to the custom followed by the priests, he was chosen by lot to burn incense on the altar. So he went into the Temple of the Lord, while the crowd of people outside prayed during the hour when the incense was burned (Luke 1:8-10, GNT).

It was an honor to burn incense on the Temple altar.  Also a stroke of God’s blessing, because there were more priests than opportunity.  The priests were chosen by lot.  Zechariah must have thanked God when the lot fell to him.  But he also must have feared.  To enter the Lord’s Temple was risky.  To misstep could mean death in the Lord’s holy presence.  So, probably with mixed emotions, when the day came he entered the Temple while a crowd gathered outside to pray for God to fulfill his messianic promises to Israel (and perhaps for Zechariah’s service to be acceptable).

 An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar where the incense was burned. When Zechariah saw him, he was alarmed and felt afraid. But the angel said to him, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. You are to name him John. How glad and happy you will be, and how happy many others will be when he is born! John will be great in the Lord’s sight. He must not drink any wine or strong drink. From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord, strong and mighty like the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; he will turn disobedient people back to the way of thinking of the righteous; he will get the Lord’s people ready for him” (Luke 1:11-17, GNT).

Well, of course the old priest was “alarmed and felt afraid”.  The Holy Place was semi-dark.  Zechariah’s carefully following the ritual.  And suddenly “an angel of the Lord” appears!  He tries to calm the priest.  Then, of all things, tells him “God has heard your prayer.”  His wife will bear a son!  And not just any boy.  One who will be great in the Lord’s sight.  One from birth filled with the Holy Spirit.  One to return many Israelites to the Lord.  One “strong and mighty like the prophet Elijah” who will go ahead of the Lord to “get the Lord’s people ready for him.”

Did you hear?  It was almost laughable.  (Remember how old Sarah had laughed when the Lord told her she’d bear old Abraham a son?)  But Zechariahs’ and Elizabeth’s son would be more than a child of their old age.  He would get the people ready to receive Messiah!  “Messiah’s about to come, old priest!  And your son will be his prophet!”

Now it’s one thing to read about Abraham and Sarah.  Quite another when an angel comes to you.

Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know if this is so? I am an old man, and my wife is old also.” “I am Gabriel,” the angel answered. “I stand in the presence of God, who sent me to speak to you and tell you this good news. But you have not believed my message, which will come true at the right time. Because you have not believed, you will be unable to speak; you will remain silent until the day my promise to you comes true.” In the meantime the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he was spending such a long time in the Temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them, and so they knew that he had seen a vision in the Temple. Unable to say a word, he made signs to them with his hands. When his period of service in the Temple was over, Zechariah went back home (Luke 1:18-23, GNT).

Gabriel expected Zechariah to believe.  When the priest asked for evidence, he got instead a broken tongue—silence until the boy’s birth.  Why not blind his eyes or cripple his legs?  Perhaps so unbelieving Zechariah wouldn’t convey unbelief when he blessed the crowd once he finished in the Temple.  Or perhaps the Lord was making for a greater miracle when he freed the priest’s tongue.  In the end, we don’t know.  But that’s how it is with the wonder of God’s ways:  sometimes we just don’t understand.  And that’s part of the fear of being caught up in his wonders.

Some time later his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and did not leave the house for five months. “Now at last the Lord has helped me,” she said. “He has taken away my public disgrace!” (Luke 1:24,25, GNT).

Messiah stands on the threshold.  But Luke tells us the story of Elizabeth’s joy.  For a moment, his story is all about a priest’s old barren wife’s fat tummy.  She knows it’s the Lord’s help (at last).  She rejoices that her public disgrace is removed.

But, you see, this is how the Christmas Story works.  It’s all about Messiah.  But little ordinary people aren’t overlooked.  In fact, for no reason other than mercy (God could have had John born ordinarily to young parents) the Lord catches up little ordinary people (like you and me) in Messiah’s story.  And he blesses usHe gives us joy.  Out of hopelessness, he brings brighter light than we can imagine.

Even if, at times, our faith needs a sign.

 

 

 

 

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