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Pastor Paul's Blog

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 19, 2018

December 19, 2018

Matthew 2:1-2

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

Are you familiar with the term anachronism? It is defined as something out of place, out of its historical context. An example would be an Egyptian pharaoh with a wristwatch! Another type of anachronism that we often see this time of year: the Magi from the East arriving at the manger as Jesus is born. It is likely that it would have been as much as two years after the birth of Jesus before the Magi arrive! The songs we sing, like “We Three Kings”, are a bit out of place when we put them on the day of Jesus’s birth!

If you want to read exhaustively about the Magi/Wise Men/Kings, just “Google” Magi and watch what happens. Lots of articles have been written about these mysterious visitors from the East that Matthew mentions in his birth narrative. The term Magi is from a Persian term that connotes one who studies the stars and looks for omens. The idea is that these learned, wise men would have noticed a “sign” in the stars and interpreted the meaning based on traditions and histories. They recognize a King is born and they want to see him!

There is Biblical precedent for “Eastern” royalty to come to the land of Israel seeking a King of great wisdom. The Queen of Sheba during her visit (recorded in I Kings 10), found that the depth of Solomon’s wisdom took her breath away: “In wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard” (1 Kings 10:7). Laying her gifts of gold, spice, and precious stones before him, she blessed the Lord for making Solomon king. (from Christianity Today, December 16, 2016).

One thing is clear from this story: Jesus’s birth is truly an event of global significance. As Matthew tells the story, the Magi come to King Herod in Jerusalem and ask him an intriguing question: where is the King of the Jews who has been born? We want to worship him! It is still true today, wise people still worship Jesus and lay what we value at Jesus’s feet.

As we will see in tomorrow’s devotion, the Herods of this world sees this as a threat, and react violently.

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 18, 2018

December 18, 2018

Luke 2:19-20 (CEB)

19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

I love the Christmas song, “Mary, Did You Know?”, written by Mark Lowry, with music written by Buddy Greene. I not only like the tune, but greatly appreciate the lyrics and the questions they raise. What did Mary know? According to the scriptures, Mary knew a lot.

Mary would have been steeped in the traditions of her Jewish heritage. She would have been taught from a young girl about the expectations of the Messiah coming, about the connection to the Jewish story of Passover, and how Elijah must first come to set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. She would have struggled with the expectation of the Messiah, that not only would the Messiah be a political figure that would restore Israel’s political fortunes, but also bring the people back to God in a spiritual sense. She would have grown weary of the oppression of the Roman Empire and their tax demands and their fear and intimidation. She, too, would have longed for a Savior to deliver the people from their oppressors and to set them free.

But when Mary was told that it was her son that she was carrying that would be the person that would carry the expectations of the Messiah, how conflicted she must have felt!

“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

The child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

Mary did you know?

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again

The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the Lamb

Mary did you know?”

Mary must have been a very special person to be chosen for such a role as to bring the Savior into the world. But, how hard it must have been to watch as that Son died on the cross to fulfill that work of the Messiah. Staying faithful to the end, Mary loved Jesus and was there to watch him die, and there to see him rise! Mary did know!

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 17, 2018

December 17, 2018

Luke 2:15-18 (CEB)

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.

Happy Holidays. Season’s greetings. Celebration of Winter concerts. Holiday gifts. So, this is what we have come to? In our “politically correct” world, we aren’t to mention “Jesus” or “Christmas”, the meaning behind the celebrations? I understand that we live in a country that has embraced the concept of separation of church and state, that government won’t “endorse” any particular religion, but what does that say to us as people of faith today?

When you encounter something as life-changing as the shepherds did, how can you not talk about it? How can we not acknowledge the singular most important event in the history of humankind, the person of Jesus, God incarnate? While I don’t want to ever offend anyone by being rude or insensitive, how can we fail to talk about THE thing that defines our lives?

The shepherds simply told people about what they had seen and heard, the experience of encountering the Lord Jesus Christ. This good news changes lives. It did then. It does now. It doesn’t have to be shoved down people’s throats, doesn’t have to be obnoxious. But, it does have to be talked about, shared, celebrated. It’s too good of news not to.

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 16, 2018

December 16, 2018

Luke 2:13-14

13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

Can you love something that you are afraid of? I ask that question of you because it has been a struggle for me in my faith journey and I wonder if there are others who feel the same way. Over and over in the scriptures we hear the phrase, “Do not be afraid!” It is usually as God appears in some form, as an angel or whatever, to a person giving them some news or asking something of them. Moses hid his face, afraid to look at the burning bush when God spoke to him. Isaiah is “full of woe” when the vision of God’s presence in the Temple comes to him, sending him to go speak for God to God’s people. Joseph is told, “don’t be afraid”, as is Mary, when they learn of their role in bringing the Messiah into the world. Fear, it seems, is a pretty normal response to the presence of God.

Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . .” But I wonder if you can love something that you are afraid of? How might we move from fear to trust to love? Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Mark 12:30 NRSV)

I remember being afraid of God when I first began to understand the presence of God. I took from the preaching and teaching I grew up with that God was watching, judging, waiting to pounce when we make our mistakes, when we sinned. It has been a long and sometimes difficult journey to learn that while I should deeply respect, revere and even fear the power of God, and indeed fear the absence of the presence of God, I need not fear God. God is love. God favors us! His word to the shepherds, who most certainly would not have appeared to be in God’s favor, are a word of favor for us all. The birth of Jesus is good news for all the world because Jesus is the human presence of God on earth, and through Jesus ALL are extended the favor of God. Our response then is to receive this good news and allow this presence of God to move us to love, as God loves us, and learn to love one another.

I John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (NRSV) Can you love something that you are afraid of? Well, we need not be AFRAID of God, as his favor is with us, and this favor is good news. God loves us!

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 15, 2018

December 15, 2018

Luke 2:8-12 (CEB)

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

A cherished memory for me occurred in 2014. I was blessed to travel to Israel with a group of clergy colleagues through a Reynolds Ministry program. We saw places and things that I had read about in the scriptures, and I was surprised at how differently things were in person versus how they had been in my mind.

One of those places was in Bethlehem, at the site of the birth of Jesus. Now, the scriptures say, “Nearby” there were shepherds living in the fields, but that part never registered with me. The traditional site of the birth of Jesus (now the Church of the Nativity) has fields a short distance from where Jesus was born. Literally, it is as if Joseph could have leaned out of the barn and shouted really loudly, and the shepherds would have been able to hear him! It would not have been much of a trek for them to find the newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in the manger.

Maybe you have read about the shepherds, how in that day and age they were not well respected. It is said that the testimony of a shepherd could not be accepted because it could not be trusted. Once again, we see irony in the story of Jesus’s birth in that the first to hear of the good news of the Savior’s birth are the perceived dregs of society. My mind imagines, in today’s context, who would those people be today? Maybe it would be the folks who drive the truck that cleans the Walmart parking lot at night? Maybe the neighborhood drug dealer, hanging out on the corner at night? Maybe it would be a third shift employee down at the chicken processing plant?

What are we to make of all this? What might it mean that in this beautiful story we consistently find this thread of the least likely people in the least likely of places accomplishing the work of God?

Well, that just might be good news for us! Maybe we feel insignificant and among the least likely people God might ever use for his work. But, that is so often how God chooses to work! God takes unlikely people, in unlikely places, and accomplishes what God desires. Somehow, I find that encouraging and it makes me hopeful. How about you?

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 14, 2018

December 14, 2018

Luke 2:6-7 (CEB)

While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

When our first child, Caroline, was born, it was such a nervous time. We were equal parts excited and scared to death! She was born a couple of weeks after her due date, so the nervousness and excitement seemed to build even further. We were as prepared as we could possibly be, but it didn’t lessen the height of the emotions we were experiencing. Caroline was born in Grace Hospital in Morganton. She was surrounded by wonderful, professional care, the best we had to offer. She was even brought home in a limousine, provided by our friends, the Causbys, another expression of the extent we would go to provide for her.

I imagine Mary wanted the best for her son, too. But, there was no hospital, no professional care, no comfortable room, not even a sterile cradle to place her son in. Instead, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, God in human flesh was born in a barn where the animals were kept. His first bed was a feeding trough for the animals.

The whole story Luke tells us of the birth of the Messiah is dripping with irony. The long awaited, eagerly anticipated Christ child is born into the humblest of circumstances, the desperation of lack of resources. What do we think God was trying to say to us as we consider this ironic beginning to the story of Jesus?

Society teaches us to gauge our success by the quality and comfort of our surroundings. The nicer the house, the greater our creature comforts, the better off we are, according to the world’s ways. As we struggle with the four tenets of our Advent Conspiracy sermon series (worship fully, spend less, give more, love all), maybe this ironic tale can remind us that life does not consist of the abundance of our possessions, not in the ease of our circumstances, but in the abundant life found in the person of Jesus the Christ.

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 13, 2018

December 13, 2018

Luke 2:1-5 (CEB)

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.

As the saying goes, two things in life are certain: death and taxes. Well, we may argue about them being the only two certainties, but death and taxes were and are a commonality for us all. The occasion for this registration/enrollment is during the reign of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. He ruled over the Roman Empire for some 40 years before and after the birth of Jesus. His rule is sometimes referred to as “pax Augustus”, or “the peace of Augustus”, because during his rule he ruled with an iron hand and did quell many uprisings. He did extend the reach of Roman rule, but the peace he fostered came with a high cost and required heavy taxation.

Joseph is from the lineage of King David, and David was from Judah (Judea). Therefore, he must travel to his ancestral home to be registered, in order to be properly taxed. Mary, his betrothed, is traveling with him. As we have seen, betrothal was legally binding, so it was that even pregnant Mary travels with Joseph, not a peaceful last few weeks of her pregnancy.

Later, in the 19th chapter of Luke, when Jesus enters Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life, the crowds greet him with “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” (NLT) What a contrast between the peace of the ruler Augustus and the Messiah, Jesus! One “peace” comes with the high cost of taxation, violence, and military might. The peace that Jesus brings is provided at no cost to us, is the gracious gift of God, and calls us to reject all forms of violence and intimidation. Indeed, in the certainties of death and taxes, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render to God the things that are God’s.”

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 12, 2018

December 12, 2018

Luke 1:68-79

“Bless the Lord God of Israel
    because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
70     just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
71 He has brought salvation from our enemies
    and from the power of all those who hate us.
72 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and remembered his holy covenant,
73         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted 74 that we would be rescued
        from the power of our enemies
    so that we could serve him without fear,
75         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
            for as long as we live.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved
    through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
    the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”

Today’s passage is alternately referred to as “the Canticle of Zechariah”, or “Benedictus” (from the Latin for “Blessed be the Lord God”). Zechariah, on the occasion of the circumcision of his son (John), is filled with the Holy Spirit and utters this prophecy. It can be broken down into two sections, the first praising God and showing how God’s saving work is fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah. In this first section, Zechariah sees the work God is doing in sending the Messiah as a fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, a part of God’s plan and purpose from the beginning of the covenantal relationship with Israel. The second part of the prophecy centers around the work that this baby, John, will do, in preparing the people to receive the Messiah. John will announce to the people how they will find salvation “through forgiveness of their sins.”

I remember the first time I appeared before the “Board of Ordained Ministry” to be examined as a person seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church. One of the examiners asked me to “describe my theology.” I answered, “it is a simple theology: Jesus died to save us from our sins.” Well, that answer was a bit too simple for the Board, and needed some fleshing out, but is still at the core of the Gospel today. John was set to prepare the way for Jesus to be recognized as the sacrificial Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world.

I don’t imagine Zechariah understood how that forgiveness was going to be realized. To imagine that the Messiah was going to lay down his life as the atonement for sins would have been unfathomable to Zechariah, as it was to so many who grappled with what Jesus did some thirty years later. And yet, the life, death and then resurrection of Jesus is the light for those who sit in the darkness and guides us to the path of peace. As we discover, peace is not absence of conflict, not “rainbows and unicorns”, but wholeness and completeness in the midst of the storms of life. Jesus will, and does, bring peace, but it is a peace unlike what the world gives. It is a peace that says forgiveness was given in Jesus Christ, and by trusting in him, you are both forgiven and able to forgive others. Simply, Jesus is our peace.  

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 11, 2018

December 11, 2018

Luke 1:46-56 (NRSV)

46 And Mary said,

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

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

This passage is called the “Magnificat.” The term comes from the line in verse 46, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This poem/song is Mary’s response to being told that she will give birth to the Messiah. It is an interesting response, isn’t it? First, she praises God for choosing her and extols God’s holiness. Then, she lifts up this powerful word of the reversal of fortunes the world will experience. The proud and arrogant are going to be humbled, the rich are going to go hungry, while the poor and destitute are going to dine exquisitely. And then she concludes by relating that this was part of God’s plan all the way back to Abraham!

I think there is an interesting dynamic at play here. A word that we hear often in today’s world is a call for “social justice.” With racism, struggles with immigration, and a growing gap between the rich and the poor, we have many “social justice” issues. Yet, there exists a gap in the church between those who believe the church is called to speak to social justice issues, versus those who focus more on personal holiness. Some want to talk about racial divides, economic fairness, and geo-political structures, while others focus on issues of human sexuality, reproductive rights, and religious rights. Interesting dynamic, don’t you think?

Maybe if Mary could be understood in the modern context, we would find that both are important? Maybe it’s not either/or, but both/and? Maybe God is calling us to be concerned with how we treat ALL people, lifting up the least, the last and the lost. And, maybe God is calling us to consider our personal actions and how they influence the world. If we do, then maybe like Mary we are “magnifying the Lord” and the fullness of his nature!

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 10, 2018

December 10, 2018

Luke 1:39-45

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.

When you get “big news” who do you call? Who is the first person you want to talk to when the unexpected occurs? Mary has just received the message from the angel that she is going to bring the Messiah into the world. She must have been feeling excited, overwhelmed, afraid, among many emotions. She “hurries” to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. As she does, Elizabeth receives her with joy and excitement, is filled with the Holy Spirit, and her baby, John, leaps in her womb. And she celebrates that happiness, or blessedness, peace, comes from believing that God fulfills the promises made to us.

In this season of Advent, we as a church are trying to live into the tenets of “Advent Conspiracy.” The four tenets are: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All.

God’s promises to us, when believed and applied, bring blessedness, happiness, peace. To worship him with heart, mind and soul, brings life. To recognize that “things” we buy won’t bring lasting joy and peace. To realize it is “more blessed to give than to receive.” To trust that the fulfillment of all God’s will for us is summarized in the simple statement, “Love me, love each other.” We will find happiness, blessing and peace in trusting God’s promises.

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 9, 2018

December 9, 2018

Isaiah 7:14 (CEB)

“14 Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.

The context of this passage is a moment in the life of Judah. After Israel had split into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) circa 922 B.C., they were often at odds. In this passage, the King of Israel had aligned with the King of Syria against Judah and was plotting an attack. Isaiah goes to King Ahaz, the King of Judah, and says to him, “Don’t worry, God has got this. They won’t succeed.” If you want, ask for a sign. God will give it. Ahaz refuses, saying “I wouldn’t dare do that.” Isaiah insists and says God is going to do it anyway. The sign is a child, born to a virgin, who will be named “Immanuel”, which means “God is with us.”

Christians, of course, have understood this passage to be a prophetic word about Jesus. In a time of great turmoil for the descendants of Israel and Judah, with Roman rule and oppression and turmoil all around, we understand Jesus to be the fulfillment of that promise that God will send a sign of his abiding presence, born to the virgin Mary, and he is literally, “God is with us.”

It matters not what turmoil we face, we have the assurance of God’s presence in Jesus Christ. Whether your turmoil is job-related, health-related, relationship related, or emotionally-related, God has given us the sign and fulfillment of his promise, “Immanuel”, God is with us. Trusting that promise of his love and presence is a timeless peace.

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 6, 2018

December 6, 2018

Luke 1:26-38 (CEV)

26 One month later God sent the angel Gabriel to the town of Nazareth in Galilee 27 with a message for a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to Joseph from the family of King David. 28 The angel greeted Mary and said, “You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was confused by the angel’s words and wondered what they meant. 30 Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, 31 and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. 33 He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this happen? I am not married!”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come down to you, and God’s power will come over you. So your child will be called the holy Son of God. 36 Your relative Elizabeth is also going to have a son, even though she is old. No one thought she could ever have a baby, but in three months she will have a son. 37 Nothing is impossible for God!”

38 Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.” And the angel left her.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the difference was. Zechariah questioned and was muted until the baby arrived. Mary seems to have asked a similar question, “How can this happen? I am not married?!”, and she gets an explanation and a reminder. The reminder is that nothing is impossible for God.

But look at the condition and willingness of Mary’s spirit. She gushes, “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.” Maybe, just maybe, Zechariah wasn’t as gushing and as willing in his spirit. Who knows? God does!

How available are you to God? I am confident that God is looking to use each and every one of us for his good work. Each and every one of us has gifts and, like Mary, are called to “bear Christ to the world.” In this manic season of parties and dinners, celebrations and activities, could you make yourself available to deliver the good news of Jesus Christ? Remember, with God, nothing is impossible, not even us making ourselves more fully available to bless the world in the name of Jesus.

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 8, 2018

December 8, 2018

(Today's thoughts brought to you by Jacquelyn Roberts)

Matthew 1:22-25 (CEB)

22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

Noun: a person, place or thing

Verb: a word of action

Is love a noun or a verb?

Love requires action. Words alone are not sufficient. Joseph heard the word from the angel. So as soon as he woke up, he put love into action.

John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave. . .” This is love in action.

To say, “I love my family but they get on my nerves, so I just go do other things as often as I can.” “I love my parents but I just don’t have much time to give them.” “I love my church but I just don’t have time nor the money to spend supporting the church.”

Love without action is dead. Christmas is a reminder to us of God’s greatest gift to us and a reminder of what love requires of us.

John 3:17, “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved.” Thanks be to God!

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 5, 2018

December 5

Luke 1:18-25 (CEV)

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know this is going to happen? My wife and I are both very old.”

19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel, God’s servant, and I was sent to tell you this good news. 20 You have not believed what I have said. So you will not be able to say a thing until all this happens. But everything will take place when it is supposed to.”

21 The crowd was waiting for Zechariah and kept wondering why he was staying so long in the temple. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak, and they knew he had seen a vision. He motioned to them with his hands, but did not say a thing.

23 When Zechariah’s time of service in the temple was over, he went home. 24 Soon after that, his wife was expecting a baby, and for five months she did not leave the house. She said to herself, 25 “What the Lord has done for me will keep people from looking down on me.”

Continuing the story of John the Baptist, the one who was to come and pave the way for the Messiah, we continue with this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. From yesterday, we remember they were “barren.” Advanced in age, they had no children. As Zechariah does his priestly duty in the Temple, offering incense on behalf of the people to the Lord, he sees the angel of the Lord. The angel tells him “his prayers are answered” and that he and Elizabeth would have a child, a special child. I think Zechariah does what I would have done, what most of us would have done. He questions. How can this be? How will I know? We are old!

I have always believed and preached that there is nothing wrong with doubt. To me, doubt is a pathway to belief. Yet, Zechariah is “muted” for his questioning, and unable to speak until the boy, John, is born.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems to express no doubt when she receives the news. In that culture, to be barren was considered a curse, something to be ashamed of, in which women were often considered less than if they couldn’t conceive. Elizabeth closes the curtains, stays inside the house, but must feel somehow vindicated, to keep “people from looking down on me.”

This interplay between doubt and belief is an interesting one. I preach and teach and live the life of the Pastor/Priest. I have witnessed and experienced many wonders God has done. But, each time it amazes me. Why should it amaze? God is faithful and does amazing things. Yet, I face doubts and fears about the next one. Is that your experience? You know God can. But will he this time? Maybe just shutting up and patiently waiting is a faithful response, in spite of our doubts and fears. Whatever you are looking for from God right now, be patient, wait, your answer is coming. And the answer will likely surprise you.

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 7, 2018

December 7, 2018

Matthew 1:18-21 (CEV)

18 This is how Jesus Christ was born. A young woman named Mary was engaged to Joseph from King David’s family. But before they were married, she learned that she was going to have a baby by God’s Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph was a good man and did not want to embarrass Mary in front of everyone. So he decided to quietly call off the wedding.

20 While Joseph was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord came to him in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit. Go ahead and marry her. 21 Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, the birth narrative focuses on Joseph. He is called a “good” man, or in other translations, a “righteous” man. My working definition of “righteous” is being in the right relationship with God, and that right relationship is simply trusting in God’s presence and believing that presence will lead us to love God and one another. Joseph, a good or righteous man, discovers that his betrothed/engaged wife, Mary, is pregnant, and he is not the responsible Father. As I read and understand it, betrothal was legally binding, like marriage is today, so he not only had moral and legal grounds to consider. Legally, he could have had Mary stoned to death! Joseph is deciding to not embarrass Mary by publicly disclosing this situation, choosing to privately end the betrothal, already choosing mercy over judgment.

It is then that the angel appears in a dream with the news that this baby is from the Holy Spirit. Name him Jesus, or Yeshua, a form of the name we know as Joshua, which literally means, “God saves.” Jesus will save people from their sins, saving us from the ill effects of sin.

Maybe, just maybe, we can learn a bit about the nature of God in this story. Joseph is already showing mercy, and grace, to Mary in this situation. He is quick not to condemn, quick not to judge and show his superior morality in this situation. He is “righteous” or “good” and not going to punish Mary for her perceived transgression. Isn’t it a bit ironic then that when the angel appears in the dream, and tells Joseph the rest of the story, the name of the child will be Jesus, God saves? Joseph saves Mary and her baby from being stoned to death by showing the character and nature of God, trusting in God’s presence and believing that presence will lead us to love God and one another.

What might that say to us today? Are we good and righteous people? Are we revealing the character and nature of God by choosing mercy and grace over condemnation and judgment in our daily lives? Can we remember that the name of the Son is “God saves”?

Advent Conspiracy Daily Devotionals - December 4, 2018

December 4

Luke 1:11-17 (CEV)

11 All at once an angel from the Lord appeared to Zechariah at the right side of the altar. 12 Zechariah was confused and afraid when he saw the angel. 13 But the angel told him:

Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayers. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you must name him John. 14 His birth will make you very happy, and many people will be glad. 15 Your son will be a great servant of the Lord. He must never drink wine or beer, and the power of the Holy Spirit will be with him from the time he is born.

16 John will lead many people in Israel to turn back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord.

This is a fascinating passage to me. Here we have a seasoned, veteran priest named Zechariah. He is from the priestly order, and his wife was from the line of Levites, a descendant of Aaron (Moses’s brother). They are both steeped in this heritage of serving God, interceding on behalf of the people with God, offering sacrifices and leading the people in worship. But when the angel of the Lord appeared, Zechariah was scared to death! Maybe we serve so much in these roles we are surprised and scared when God’s presence is revealed?!

The angel tells Zechariah he is going to have a son, an answer to his prayers, but this is no ordinary son. This will be the prophet who comes to make way for the Messiah to be born. His name will be John, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from even before his actual birth.

But did you catch what John’s preaching and proclamation will deliver? The proclamation is that “parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to.” What an interesting thing, as the NRSV translation states it “to turn the hearts of the parents to their children.” The reference comes from the last words of the Old Testament, from Malachi 4:6, “He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” The idea is that God will send another “Elijah” (greatest of the Old Testament prophets), before he sends the Messiah. The Elijah (John) will lead the people to repentance, envisioned to involve all generations within families, ending the division caused by sin in earlier eras that existed from generation to generation.

The last phrase from this translation above says it well, “And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to.” The first step in changing wrong behavior is to recognize that it is wrong, and realize there is a better way. I am hoping that through this Advent Conspiracy series we will see how wrong our observance of Christmas has become, and how important it is to change it. Are you willing to hear the prophetic word that over-spending and over-indulgence in stuff is never going to bring us the presence of God?