December 15, 2016 And the Angel Said… Luke 1:30-33, Luke 1:19, Hebrews 13:2

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The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:30-33 (NRSV)

When angels are mentioned in the Bible, the reference is usually to the angel of the Lord, or to a “heavenly host.”  Angels can take on the form of a man (such as the angels who gave Lot the warning about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – Genesis 19:1-16) or they can manifest as a voice from a burning bush, (Exodus 3:2) a pillar of cloud (Exodus 14:19), or as mighty warriors (Psalm 78:49.)

Angels as portrayed in the Bible show very little resemblance to greeting card cherubs or sweet little collectible figurines.

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The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. Luke 1:19 (NRSV)

The angel Gabriel, who approached Mary, would have been a formidable and terrifying presence, rather than a sweet little cartoon character. The fact that we are given Gabriel’s name implies that he had an even more important mission than other times that angels of the Lord appeared in the Bible but were not named.  Gabriel would have been a rather majestic and imposing figure.  He probably looked more like this than a Precious Moments figurine:

angel-of-the-lord

 

I think I would have been afraid, very afraid, if an angel of God- especially Gabriel- appeared in front of me.

So what’s the big deal about angels?

When angels speak to people, the voice of God is speaking through them, which is a very big deal indeed.  God spoke through His angels to the prophets.

Angels brought incredible, supernatural news-news that required an awe-inspiring messenger- to the people in the Bible.

Do angels still speak to us today?

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2 (NRSV)

If we were to encounter an angel, would our minds and hearts be open not only to give and show hospitality, but also to receive the blessings they come to announce?

December 14, 2016- That Thing About Shepherds-Ezekiel 34:12, Ezekiel 34:23, Luke 2:8-20

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As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. Ezekiel 34:12 (NRSV)

I don’t say this from experience, as I have never lived on a farm, and have spent most of my life living and working in the city, but I have been told that sheep are stupid.  They wander off.  They get confused easily.  If left to their own devices they will follow anyone or go anywhere without regard for their own safety.

It seems ironic that God refers to us as His sheep then, and to Jesus as the good Shepherd. The sad part of that is that apart from God we can behave just like sheep- wandering off, getting confused, and following anything and everything. If we are following the wrong shepherd, or none at all, we are asking for trouble.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.   But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”   So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.   But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.   The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  –Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)

In Biblical times shepherds were considered low level manual laborers.  Being a shepherd was not a job that commanded respect.  It’s easy to see why.  Sheep are dirty and stupid, and it takes a lot of work to keep them healthy and staying together. A shepherd would end up smelling like sheep.   Shepherding is a thankless and dirty job that commands long hours of staying up and watching.

But God considered the shepherds- before the kings and rulers and “important” people.  God sent His angel to the shepherds early on to announce the coming of the Good Shepherd to encourage them, to lift them up, to let them know that His Kingdom was at hand.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. Ezekiel 34:23 (NRSV)

That thing about shepherds. God doesn’t have a problem with getting into the not so nice and the dirty, mundane parts of life on this earth. How does God look at who and what are important to Him?  Are our priorities the same as His?

December 12, 2016- Not Enough Room for the Lord of Life? Luke 2:7, Isaiah 45:18

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“And she (Mary) 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

One of the hallmarks of modern life is what we see as the lack of time or space or resources.  How often do we say, “if only I had…more room, more time…more money…more energy,” and so on?

It’s telling that at Jesus’ birth there was “no room” for the arrival of the Lord of Life. The birth of the King of Kings was relegated to a corner of an animal barn.

It’s sad but we miss little advents of Jesus coming into our lives when we find ourselves too busy, too distracted, and too caught up in all the urgency of the moment to see Him shining through.  We think there is no room for Jesus in all of our busyness – but the reality is that we don’t always want to see Him in the room.

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the Lord, and there is no other. Isaiah 45:18 (NRSV)

Whether we recognize God’s presence or not, He is constantly in and with and through everything.  Even so, He invites us to engage Him, to seek Him, to see Him in His handiwork.

It’s easy to miss those moments where Jesus wants to come more fully into our lives.   Sometimes we are so busy looking after others or doing the things we need to do for physical survival, such as working and chores, that we need to take a moment to ourselves to just invite the Holy Spirit to wash over us and bring us the rest and refreshing that we need to keep on going.

One of the safety instructions that flight attendants give before a plane takes off is that should the plane cabin depressurize and the oxygen masks drop, adults should put on their masks before seeing that children have theirs on.  The logic behind this is that we cannot care for others if we neglect to care for ourselves.  This is true in the practice of our faith as well.  We need to make room for Jesus and invite Him to refresh and renew us in prayer, study and service before we can be of much use in the community and live purposeful, effective lives.

A very wise Pastor once taught that God is not interested in some abstraction called a “spiritual life,” but that He cares about your life.  All of it.  The “sacred,” the “secular,” the holy and the mundane.  Life is a gift of God.   He was willing to make His first fleshly appearance in a dirty animal barn, and die an ignominious and horrific death on a cross to prove His infinite love for us.  He became God with us so we could see that He is the Life.

It’s not so much a question of making room for Jesus, but making the effort to see and recognize Him in the room.

Mary prayed in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) : My soul magnifies the Lord. She made room for Him, figuratively and literally.  We can share her prayer again today- so others may see that Jesus is already in the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 9, 2016- The Reality of the Presence of God-Luke 1:39-45

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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.” Luke 1:39-45 (NRSV)

It’s hard to imagine the joy both of these women are celebrating.  Elizabeth had endured years of infertility and had despaired of ever having a child.  Mary had been given the impossible news that not only would she- a virgin- give birth to a child, but also that her child was the very Son of God.

This passage tells us much about Who God is and how He works.

The children- Jesus and John the Baptist- were still in their mothers’ wombs.  They were at the most innocent and vulnerable stage of life, yet the life and the presence of God was made obvious even at this stage of development.  Elizabeth immediately was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the child, John, jumped for joy even though he had not yet been born.  The Presence of God was very much with Jesus even though He, too had not yet been born.  It seems that God comes to us even in the most lowly, helpless and vulnerable among us.

Elizabeth also points out that there is blessing in believing.  Elizabeth had been believing for a very long time.  She probably had plenty of doubts and despair to go along with that belief, but her belief in the reality of God’s promise of a child was made real to her in that moment.  She knew for some time before Mary’s visit that she was going to have a child, but there is a certain reality in that child’s presence, as mothers know, when that child makes him or herself known by kicking and jumping.

How does God make His presence known to us today?  Yes, He is in the fanfare and the majesty and the bigness of this world, but some of His biggest miracles can be found among the least of us and in the smallest places.

So what do we do when we keep believing and we still don’t see what God promises? How do we believe some more?

Two peasant women.  Two unborn babies.  Unimaginable blessings, and yet more evidence of God with us.

 

December 7, 2016 – A Day That Will Live in Infamy?, My Soul Magnifies the Lord- Isaiah 59:6-8, Luke 1:46-55

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Their webs cannot serve as clothing;
    they cannot cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
    and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
    and they rush to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity,
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
    no one who walks in them knows peace. – Isaiah 59:6-8 (NRSV)

Not to confuse American history with Biblical prophecy, (and I am not in any way implying that Isaiah foretold the invasion of December 7th, 1941) but in this text Isaiah is also describing the enemy of a people who have been invaded and plundered.

75 years ago today Imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It may be hard for us to understand the feelings of anger, helplessness, shock and disbelief that our grandparents or great-grandparents must have felt upon hearing the news.  Probably the closest that we can relate to the experience of Pearl Harbor today would be 9-11.  As a nation we felt violated, helpless and broken. We were angry, we were bewildered. We wondered if we would ever be whole again.  We wanted retribution and revenge.

Enemies like the ones Isaiah speaks of, as well as enemies like the Japanese Empire, and enemies like those who would perpetrate terror in the name of a false religion, are nothing new.  If there is anything constant in human history it is that humans like to engage in conflict, cause hurt to other humans, and to make war.  A lot.

The other constant in human history is that God is stubborn.   As much as we try to have our own way, and as devastated as we can be due to the actions of others, God is with us.  In and through the devastation God constantly finds ways to redeem His creation, to restore and bring life.

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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.”-  Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)

The above verses are often referred to as the Magnificat, or Mary’s response to the news that she is to be Jesus’ earthly mother.  Her choice was to magnify the Lord rather than to magnify her obstacles or the challenges she would face.

Catastrophes will continue to happen as we live in this world of “not yet.”  Jesus Himself told us that there will be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6) which are part of life on this “not yet” earth.

But will we claim the promise that was offered to Mary?  Even in adversity and desolation, and in the days that live in infamy, God is with us.  Can we allow our souls to magnify the Lord?