border

border

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas--Day Twelve

JESUS!

READ: Luke 2:1-7, Isaiah 9:6-7, Isaiah 53:3-11, Revelation 4:1-11  (Click here to read selections from the NIV).




Have you ever stopped to consider what really happened when the Almighty entered into the womb of a woman--when the Son of God became the Son of man--flesh and blood, bones and joints, muscle and sinew?  I love the picture Daniel Fuller paints in his book Unity of the Bible, where he describes the incarnation as a winding staircase stretching from the glory of heaven to the world of wretched misery.  

While Jesus' descent to earth to redeem humankind began long before the foundation of the world, our first glimpse is in the stable that reeked of animal dung and moldy straw, where a newborn babe lay shivering in the chill of night, vulnerable to some of the worst conditions this globe could offer.




To me, the most stunning thing about Christ's descent from glory was His choice to let go of His role in sharing equality with God.  Though he retained his deity in essence, He chose to give up His rights as God in experience, requiring Him to depend upon His heavenly Father for whatever power or wisdom or guidance He might need.  

What must it have been like for the all-sufficient Son of God to know that soon he would be at the mercy of weak and sinful human beings? Can you see Him there, standing on that staircase just before the Spirit placed Him in Mary's womb?  What kinds of thoughts went through His mind?  Surely it must have felt as if He were stepping into a swirling abyss.

From that manger in Bethlehem, Christ's descent from glory soon continued.  His parents became vagabonds, settling as strangers in a foreign land where their livelihood depended upon Egyptians who probably detested them.  Later Mary and Joseph would establish their family in Nazareth, a place of derision even among the Jews for its lack of any distinguishing mark.  As Jesus prepared for public ministry in the wilderness fast, the god of the world He'd come to save taunted Him for his fall from power, daring Him to reclaim his rights as the Almighty.  He refused, and the descent went on. 






For the next three years, the Son of Man sought to do his Father's will while sleeping in fields and hills, looking to benevolent women for financial support, seeking solace through prayer in the wee hours of His dark and lonely nights.  Scorned by heathens, rejected by the religious elite, living under constant threat of death, the drumbeat of descent pounded out its rhythm day after difficult day.


Down and down and down the winding staircase Jesus went, as His closest followers denied and abandoned Him upon His arrest.  Then, mocked, spat upon, slapped, and scourged to a bloody pulp, he was paraded through the streets like a criminal and hung to die while His earthly mother looked on in despair.  And for six hours on Calvary, the Son of Man descended to the  very depths of depravity as he took on the sins of the world, leading to the most painful predicament of all--a severing of His relationship with His Father.


The Apostle's Creed asserts that Jesus even descended into hell, alluding to a verse in 1 Peter that may indicate that this took place between His death and resurrection.  While theologians disagree on whether this happened or not, it seems to me that Jesus had already experienced the very worst that hell had to offer when he was plunged into that black agony of separation from the one He'd loved and been loved by for all of eternity past.


This is just a smattering of the descent from glory that Jesus faced when He entered our world as a tiny baby.  We will perhaps only grasp the scope of it when we see Him one day on His throne, radiant in splendor, attended by angels and worshiped by saints from every tribe and tongue.  but there could be no better time to ponder such a thing than on Christmas Day, as we celebrate our Lord's birth.


So as we read the Christmas story and exchange our gifts and share our meals, let us take time to remember what it really cost to redeem fallen humankind.  May we muse on that manger scene through the prism of the panorama in glory, where our King reigns over all, His beauty filling the temple of the heavens and splashing out across our world in whispers of wonder that we are privileged to behold.  And as we do, let us bow and worship in some way befitting to the One who began that descent to secure your salvation and mine, long before this world was formed.  Worthy is the lamb who was slain.

REFLECT

Today is one of celebration, family, sharing and fellowship.  Take some time to give thanks for all of these things as you ponder that staircase.  See Jesus going down it step by step.  Read the following passage slowly and prayerfully, asking the Spirit to give you fresh revelation of what it meant for Jesus to humble Himself and become a man.








Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)


RESPOND

Now read the rest of the passage, turning it into a prayer of praise and worship for the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose birth we celebrate today.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11).


A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY



ENJOY THE DAY! 

For a printable version of this devotional, click here

Twelve Days of Christmas--Day Eleven

ANNA: HUNGER FOR GOD


READ: Luke 2:36-38, Matthew 5:6, John 6:35  (Click here to read selections from the NIV)


Her name was Anna and she was the talk of the town. First there was that temple insanity. Day in and day out she’d practically lived there for as long as anyone could remember. Some claimed her pretense of piety had gone on for decades, ever since her husband died leaving her a young widow. Praying and fasting, fasting and praying, ignoring priests and prophets, even well born Pharisees, who wagged their heads at her foolishness.

And now…well it was beyond belief. Just like that, they say she flew out of the temple laughing like a lunatic, cornering anyone crazy enough to listen to her babbling about some baby destined to be the Messiah. What in the world had gotten into her?
I find the story of Anna fascinating– three short verses that resonate with joy and intrigue. Luke tells us little about this woman he calls a prophetess, except that she’d been widowed at a young age and had given herself to temple prayer and fasting ever since. She was most likely well into her 60’s or 70’s at the time of her encounter with the infant Messiah. 



The question that I can’t get away from when I read of this woman’s devotion, is why? What was it that kept Anna coming back day after day, praying… fasting… trusting that what she was doing was not in vain, though it had been centuries since Malachi had uttered the final prophecy about the Christ to come? 

 Perhaps in the beginning it was a way to heal her heart over her husband’s loss, but wouldn't a year or two have been sufficient to assuage her grief? And surely any ill-placed religious zeal or efforts to earn God’s approval with her piety would have faded away long before as well.


The answer might be found in bit of this woman’s heritage. Anna’s father’s name was Phanuel, derived from the altar Jacob built after wrestling all night with an angel. The name meant I have seen God face to face and I have lived (Genesis 32:30). Because names held great significance in the Hebrew culture, family members would have known well the meaning behind that of their patriarch’s. I can just imagine Phanuel holding little Anna on his lap and telling her the story of their forefather Jacob; of how he wrestled with God all night, refusing to let go until he blessed him. Perhaps Phanuel related the tale to the entire family with great dramatic flair, unfolding the details of the interaction with Deity that was so intense it put Jacob’s hip out of joint, causing him to limp for the rest of his life.


I have seen God face to face and I have lived.  The meaning behind her father's name could well have been a seed that was planted in Anna's young heart, captivating her with the idea that God in heaven sometimes peeled back the veil and allowed mere mortals to encounter Him, and be transformed in the process.  Perhaps in her quietest moments as a child, she had pondered that thought and prayed that one day she too could experience a divine visitation.  Then, when she faced the loss of her husband at such a young age, her grief may have become like oil thrown upon the flame of desire, igniting her passion to see God like never before.



But what had caused it to continue burning so brightly those tens of years later, when Mary and Joseph arrived in the Temple that day?  I believe it was because there in the shadow of the holy of holies, Anna had tasted of God's presence, and knew from experience that nothing else would ever satisfy her soul.  Her life became a testimony of a paradox all of Christ's lovers eventually learn, which is that we can both hunger for the Bread of Life and be filled by His tender touch, all at the same time.  This is, in fact, our very destiny--to be both satisfied and yet driven by desire for more of Him, until the day we too see Jesus face to face.


So as we look at this unique moment in the Christmas narrative, let us remember the woman who wouldn't let go, the saint whose hunger for God shaped her entire life.  May her zeal inspire us with fresh faith to believe once again that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him.  And with each foretaste of glory that He imparts, let us be reminded that our hunger for Him is a promise of a greater fulfillment yet to come.

Reflect       
Jesus used the words hunger and thirst to describe the condition of our souls without Him. Why are these metaphors so powerful? Have you ever considered that when you feel a dissatisfaction with the fact that God doesn't seem as near as you’d like, that this is hunger to drive you to Him even more? That He will both fill you and leave you with hunger at the same time?

Write a note to God seeking to describe your own hunger level for Him.


Respond

Now write a prayer of affirmation based upon these words of Jesus: He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believe in me will never be thirsty.

A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY




As you snack on Christmas goodies and prepare for special meals--shopping, cooking etc.--think about the meaning of food, and what Jesus wants to use it to teach you about His relationship with you.


For a printable version of this devotional, click here

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas--Day Ten

SIMEON: THE FAITH THAT MAKES GOD SMILE

READ: Luke 2:22-34, Luke 18:1-8, Hebrews 11:6, Romans 8:24-25.
(Click here to read selections from the NIV)




Though the nation of Israel had endured God’s official silence for 400 years when Christ was born, apparently the Holy Spirit had continued to speak with a few select souls. It makes you wonder how many others God tried to communicate with over the years, but who simply weren’t listening. Simeon is one who was, which is why he showed up in the temple at the very time Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to be consecrated.

The Scripture tells us that Simeon was both righteous before God and devout in the eyes of men. The context implies as well, that he was an elderly man, one who had walked with God for many years. When I read the story of his encounter with Christ, I am struck by the truth that Simeon was a man of faith, the kind of faith that doesn’t give up in the face of seemingly impossible odds, the kind of faith that keeps on believing the reward will come, and thus brings a smile to the face of God.


In fact, Simeon’s life reminds me of my favorite parable on faith, the one about the importunate widow who kept coming back, asking for help until she got it. Jesus begins the parable by telling us its purpose – to keep us from losing heart and giving up. He ends the story with a powerful promise, which is that because God hears the cries of His children, He will make what is wrong, right; and He’ll do so speedily. (Of course that begs the question – what does speedily mean to the everlasting God who dwells outside of time?). Then Jesus asks this poignant question: When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on earth?

It is a sobering thought that the one thing Jesus will be looking for in His followers when He returns is faith. Faith, as it turns out, is a precious commodity in God’s economy. His Word says there is no other way to please Him, and anything we do in His name that lacks faith is actually sin. Day in and day out, the God of the Universe searches the earth, looking for even the smallest remnant of faith, so that He can reward those who bear it.




Where did Simeon get the kind of faith that kept him looking for the consolation of Israel, even into his old age? Interestingly enough, the name Simeon comes from a root word that means to hear, which is highly appropriate because Simeon was a man who listened for God’s voice and walked intimately with Him. Since faith comes by hearing God speak, it is clear that Simeon had learned to listen long.


It is an amazing thing that God speaks to His children, if we are willing to listen. He speaks first and foremost by revealing His heart through the holy Scriptures. Simeon knew the Word well, and as a result, He understood things even Jesus’ own disciples struggled to accept – that Christ came to save Jews and Gentiles alike, and that the long promised Messiah, would be one who suffered greatly. God also speaks directly to His children through His Spirit – guiding, nurturing, and nudging us with gentle impressions upon our hearts. Clearly Simeon had learned to listen carefully to that still, small voice and as a result, ended up in the right place at the right time for God to fulfill His long awaited promise.


The thing is, we don’t know, really, how many days Simeon had listened and heard nothing or how many nights he lay in bed wondering if God would ever come through. Still, he kept himself in that tender place, ever ready to hear, should the Almighty grant him a word. This, it seems to me, is at the very heart of the kind of faith that makes God smile – ears that are ever tuned to hear His voice. Whether God requires us to cling to His promises for days or weeks or months or years; faith is as simple as communing intimately with Him, waiting patiently and listening expectantly for Him to speak, even if it might seem the silence has gone on far too long.




So in these final moments before Christmas, let us remember a man named Simeon who showed us how to live, by hanging on to God’s promises, listening to His voice and never letting go of the hope of reward. Like a night guard who wouldn’t quit until his shift had ended, he stayed at the ready, and when his watch was over, knew at last that he could depart this world in peace. Let us honor the memory of this great saint by listening ourselves for the gentle whispers of our Lord, so that we too may be granted the gift of persevering faith.


For a printable version of this devotional, click here

REFLECT

So often we see faith as something hard to acquire, or we feel guilty because we struggle with doubt, and at times want to give up. How does Simeon’s story speak to you? Have you seen faith as directly connected to your intimate journey with God? Come before the Lord today, offering yourself afresh, asking Him to speak so that your faith will increase for whatever unfulfilled promises or difficult situations you might face.

RESPOND

Ponder the reality that faith brings God pleasure, so much so that He waits to reward those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). Read the following promises and write prayers of thanksgiving to Him in light of them:



Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. Romans 4:20-21

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God. 2 Corinthians 1:20

For this is contained in Scripture: "BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNER stone, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED." 1 Peter 2:6
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY

Make today a day to practice listening to the Lord. In your moments of greatest busyness, plan a timeout where you simply stop, acknowledge God’s presence, ask Him to speak to whatever situation you face at that time, and then listen for Him to speak. You might be surprised at all He has to say!


For a printable version of this devotional, click here

Monday, December 22, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas--Day Nine

THE WISE MEN: MAGI AND MYSTERIES

READ: Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11, Malachi 2:3-4, Psalm 141:2, revelation 5:8, John 19:38-40  (Click here to read selections from the NIV)

My love language is gifts, which means, according to author Gary Smalley, that while some people need encouraging words or acts of service, and others need quality time or physical touch in order to feel loved, all I need for you to do is give me a present.  (When you add that to the fact that it has to be a surprise, you can see the kind of pressure my poor husband lives under!)  This probably explains why my favorite part of the Christmas story is when the magi from the East brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child, the act which  most likely spawned the centuries old tradition of giving gifts in celebration of His birth.




As it turns out, the fact that they brought gifts might be the only detail we come close to getting right when we include those wise men in our plays or carols or creches.  Even a cursory read of Matthew's account of their journey reveals that they were never at the manger, and had to have arrived much later.   (I think of that every year when I set out my mother of pearl nativity set, and solve the problem by setting them slightly apart just to prove that I am not Biblically illiterate).  There are, however, a few other fallacies about the Magi that seem to have become embedded in the Christmas story.


For example, the Bible never calls the wise men kings, nor does it tell us where they came from, other than the East, or that they arrived on camels.  In fact, nothing indicates that they actually followed a star, although they definitely saw one before they started on their journey, and were filled with great joy when they saw it again as they approached Bethlehem.  Though Scripture mentions three gifts, it doesn't tell us that there were only three Magi--there could have been a dozen of them.  All of this then begs the question, how did we end up with these notions about the wise mens' role in the drama of Christ's birth?

An in-depth Internet search on the subject set my head spinning.  What I discovered is that scholars differ on the source of every one of these things, although many "experts" assert their opinions with a great deal of authority.  After a few frustrating hours of trying to assimilate the plethora of information out there, I threw up my hands and asked for wisdom from above.  When things didn't get any clearer, it occurred to me that perhaps God never intended for us to try to ferret out the intricate details of these men's role in the story...that all along He has left us in the dark for good reason.  Why?  For one thing, because He is a God of wonder and mystery, and loves the way we end up wrestling through His Word.

But beyond that, perhaps the secrecy in this slice of the story is meant to point us to the one thing that is beyond dispute, which is that the Magi from the east brought gifts to the Christ child. What would God want us to glean from this reality? Perhaps it is as simple as getting a glimpse of God’s appreciation for giving, or coming to understand that the inclination to bless others is at the very heart of His character. These alone are awesome truths. 

But then, what about the actual gifts? Are there some deep spiritual truths inherent in the symbolism of gold, frankincense and myrrh? Well, if you like your packages neatly wrapped (no pun intended); even this might be a bit disappointing. Once again, scholars offer a host of ideas about these things, many of which are fascinating to consider and have some basis in Scripture, but in the end, they are all still, simply ideas. 






So as we wrap our gifts and tie our bows and enter into the joy of giving this week, let us give thanks for the mystery of three men who traveled far from home bearing treasures fit for a King. With each present we offer – to those we love or to strangers in need – let us remember that giving has always been God’s idea, that He does indeed love to give good and perfect gifts to all of His children. And in the rush of final preparations for Christmas, may we each find at least one quiet moment to kneel before our King as the Magi did so long ago, and offer Him that which will bring Him the greatest pleasure, the one thing no one else can give – the love we each have for Him in our hearts.

REFLECT
      

While Scripture is not definitive on the symbolism of the gifts the Magi brought, it makes a great study, and there are incredible insights to glean. I have included a few references in the Scripture readings for today. Go back and read them again (click here). Spend some time pondering these three things, asking God to speak to you personally about their meaning for your life today. Ask Him these two questions about each of them:

Lord, is there a truth about yourself that You want to captivate my heart with today in regards to this?

Lord, is there something about my own life You want to reveal in regards to this?




RESPOND

Take a few minutes right now to physically kneel before the Lord, imagining what it must have felt like for the Magi when they met the Messiah. What was it like the first time you met Him? Offer Him yourself afresh, and worship the King.

A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY


It’s time to get creative! Consider the three gifts of the Magi and try to come up with a way to tell the Gospel story using these. You could do so through teaching, or even coming up with a fictional story about the three gifts. Share what you come up with over dinner with your family or some friends.


For a printable version of this devotional, click here.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas--Day Eight

HEROD: THE WORST KIND OF BONDAGE
 
READ: Matthew 2:1-8, 16-18, Luke 4:16-21  (Click here to read selections from the NIV)

Herod the Great was nearing the end of a twisted and tormented life on that momentous day when magi from the east came looking for the Messiah.  At age 68, his body was wracked with a horrible disease that left him barely able to function.  With grim determination, the troubled king of Judea fought to retain his hold on the throne, having no use for anyone who might seek to usurp it.  Though clearly he'd be dead long before this prophesied One would become a threat, the deranged king had all baby boys under the age of two in the region slaughtered anyway.  It was one more atrocity in a lengthy span of evil, the likes of which this world has rarely seen.



Herod's meteoric rise to fame began when his father made him the tetrarch of Galilee as a teenager.  By the time he was 30 he had paid his way into the highest levels of Roman government, and as a reward was made king of Judea.  Because of his excessive cruelty and questionable adherence to Judaism (his mother was of Arab descent), he was never accepted or viewed with regard by the Jews under his reign.  When the Sanhedrin began to take a stand against his pagan practices, he abolished their rule and replaced the centuries old inheritance system with one of buying and selling, so that he could ensure every priest's loyalty to Rome.  In the process, he had many of them killed, including one who had become like a spiritual father to him.


Later, in an effort to garner favor with the Jews, he rebuilt Solomon's Temple, a beautiful edifice of white, blue and yellow marble.  However, when he placed a pagan golden eagle at the entrance, some young Hebrew men tore it down and smashed it to pieces, a stand that cost them their lives.  Needless to say, as lovely as the Temple was, it did not serve to increase Herod's popularity with the vast majority of his Jewish subjects.


Though Herod had several wives, his greatest love was a beautiful Hasmonean princess named Miramne.  For no apparent reason, he began to suspect her of having an affair, and being riddled with jealousy, brought charges against her.  Miriamne was executed after he bribed his own sister to testify against her.  Many suspected the real problem was that Miriamne had greater favor with the Jews than he did, something he could not bear.  History suggests that shortly after this event, Herod lost his mind and never fully recovered.


Time will not allow the stories of all those whom Herod had brutally murdered because he perceived them to be a threat.  Throughout the 37 years of his monarchy, his cruelty cast a long dark shadow over his accomplishments, one that remains to this day.  When he realized that he was facing his final hours, he demanded that all Jews be rounded up and executed, so that the nation would have reason to mourn upon his death.  In the end, his sister Salome released the thousands of Jews from the Hippodrome, preventing a massacre of immeasurable proportion.




Herod lived in a prison of soul, a dungeon of depravity from which no amount of fame or fortune or political power could free him.  What brought him to such a fate?  Perhaps it began with his mixed race heritage that prevented him from ever being accepted in either culture.  Maybe it was the hurt he felt when his father gave him the region of Galilee, while his brother got the coveted one of Jerusalem.  Or maybe it was the outcome of being born under the banner of Rome, a tyrant government that showed no mercy for weakness and little use for anyone who didn't serve their purposes.  We can only guess at the reasons for Herod's brutality, but the truth is that the king who tried to have the baby Jesus killed lived in bondage all his life, shut up in the worst kind of prison--that of the mind.


So as Christmas carols fill the air and warm fires burn in our decorated living rooms, let us not forget this dark page in the story of Christ's birth.  Yes, the plan to kill the babe was thwarted by a Sovereign God, but there is a greater lesson to glean from Herod's life than that.  Let us remember that the seeds of such evil dwell in the sinful souls of every one of us, and that the bondage Herod knew is one many people awake to this very day.  May our hearts soar with wonder that though we too were once shut up in a prison with no means of escape, we follow a King who came to bring God's favor--a favor that saves and heals, that sets captives free and leads the oppressed to liberty.  And as we remember, let us give thanks for the babe who grew up to crush the bars and rescue you and me, and now stands ready to bind our broken hearts, heal our hidden hurts, and restore our souls to wholeness, once again.

REFLECT

Read the following words of Jesus slowly and meditatively (meditation implies turning something over and over in your mind again and again, like looking at all the facets and prisms in a beautiful diamond):

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Luke 4:17-21


RESPOND

Spend a few minutes pondering what your life would have been like, had Jesus not set you free.  Don't rush past this...what kind of mental prison might you be living in now, if He hadn't?

Are there any areas you still feel bound up in?  Offer this to the Lord, and ask Him to free you and heal you.  Read the above passage one more time and affirm that it is true for your personally, as you wait in His presence.  Then worship the King of grace.

A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY

Many of the neediest people in the world are those who live in mental prisons.  Reach out to one of them today.  You'll find them in mental wards and on the streets--people who have lost touch with reality, and know no way out.  Pray for God's direction, and do an act of practical kindness.  Bring a stocking to someone in a mental hospital or ward, or offer a cup of coffee or some Christmas goodies to a troubled homeless person.  Pray for them when you do!

For a printable version of this devotional, click here

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas--Day Seven

ANGELS: LONGING TO LOOK

READ: Luke 2:9-15, Mark 1:13, Matthew 26:52-53, Luke 22:42, Ephesians 3:10, 1 Peter 1:10-12 (Click here to read selections from the NIV).



If there is one group that dominates the drama of Christ's birth, it is that of the angels.  What would the Christmas story be without Gabriel and friends stunning Zachariah in the temple, or announcing the call to Mary, or appearing to Joseph in a dream to explain the situation, or proclaiming the Messiah's birth to the shepherds and enveloping them in glorious song?  For that matter, what would Christmas be without a rousing chorus of Hark the Herald Angels Sing?



Of course, angelic participation in Jesus' life extends far beyond the holy family's humble beginnings.  Whether warning Joseph of impending danger or telling him it was time to move back home, or ministering to Jesus as a young man during His 40-day wrestling match with Satan, or strengthening Him in the garden of Gethsemane, angels were always showing up.  You almost get the sense that the hosts of heaven hung around the Son of God all the time, just waiting for a chance to do something, hoping to be of service to Him in some way.



As it turns out, that is exactly what they were doing.  When Peter sliced off a temple guard's ear as they arrested Jesus, he informed the disciples that He could call twelve legions--one for each of them--which meant that over ten thousand angels hovered at His beck and call in the unseen realm.  Peter later wrote to the new believers that God's plan to save the world was something angels yearned to understand.  The word he used implied an insatiable curiosity and depicted them stooping down and examining all the parts, hoping somehow to finally grasp the big picture.  Angels, it seems, were privy only to the snippets of the story that God chose to bring them into.



Can you imagine Gabriel heading back to heaven with the details he'd discovered about the Almighty planning to enter a woman's womb?  Can you hear that heavenly chorus jabbering all at once, trying to figure out what the song they were given to sing over a band of peasants on a hillside could mean?  How would the morning stars who once sang for joy over creation have described that troubling scene where the One who spoke the world into existence now lay in a heap with blood oozing from his pores?  Could the story of their Master sacrificing His life to save those who scorned His glory and rejected His love, ever make sense to the angels who existed to do Christ's bidding?


At first glance, the answer would seem to be no, that the angels will never have the blessing of understanding redemption's story.  After all, the Gospel is a mystery that even those of us who are made in God's image must grapple with, gaining understanding only when God opens the eyes of our hearts by His grace. But Paul wrote of a profound reality, one that boggles the mind, which is that those who've been purchased with the blood of Christ actually have the privilege of making this mystery known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places.  How in the world is that supposed to happen? 

Paul doesn't go on to explain, but it seems to me that it must be through the way our lives are transformed once the Spirit of God comes to live within us.  Isn't it true that the Gospel story is being retold every time we choose to take up our cross and die to our flesh so that the light of Christ shines more brightly through us?  This is amazing, when you think about it.  With each work God does in your heart and mine to make us more like Him, heavenly hosts are stooping down to eagerly watch, insatiably curious to see why he sent His Son to earth on that first Christmas 2000 years ago.

So as we rejoice in our own salvation this Christmas season, let us take delight that not only has God redeemed us, but He's enabled us to see the beauty of His plan formed before the foundation of the world.  And as we go about our holiday busyness, let us remember that we are being looked upon with wonder--that our lives are on display before myriads of angels who long to understand the glorious mystery of the Gospel.  May we pray that as they watch us this day, their wish will indeed be granted.

REFLECT

Consider that your life is the story of redemption, that the transforming power of Christ within you is one of the ways God makes His manifold wisdom known to the angels.  Ponder this reality for a few minutes.  Reflect on the truth that as a participant in the Gospel, you have privileges that the angels who live in God's very presence yearn to get a glimpse of.  What might these be?

RESPOND





The glory of God refers to all that He is--His character, attributes and ways.  What would you want your life to say to the angels about God's glory, which perhaps they don't know on their own? (Remember that they have no personal experience of salvation).  Make a list of these things and give God thanks, worshipping Him for the wonder of being human, and being His child.


A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY

Look around for angel decorations--on the tree, on wreaths, in stores etc.  Each time you see one, ponder the amazing truth that God has chosen you to display His glories to the angels who fill the unseen realm.

For a printable version of this devotional, click here

Friday, December 19, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas-Day Six

THE SHEPHERDS: FOOTLOOSE AND FREE-SPIRITED

READ: Luke 2:8-20 (Click here to read selections from the NIV)

Do you ever find yourself saying a word or phrase, and wondering where it came from?  As I was pondering the lives of the shepherds in the Christmas story, the word 'footloose' came to mind, I suppose because of the way they dropped everything and went to Bethlehem to see the newborn King.  

Apparently the term, which originated a couple of centuries ago, was used to describe sails on certain ships that were allowed to hang loose along the foot because there was nothing to attach them to.  Calling these sails footloose, those particular ships gained a reputation of having a mind of their own, often sailing away in some completely different direction than planned.  Today the term is used to refer to someone who seems to be a free spirit, charting their own path, with nothing to tie them down.



I don't know if you can really describe those shepherds as footloose.  After all, they were poor peasants, trying to make a living in one of the most difficult occupations of that time.  Day by day they wandered the hillsides outside of Bethlehem, moving their small flock around, making sure they got their fill of healthy foliage.  At night they drew together--perhaps for camaraderie or comfort or for the safety found in numbers.  

Sleeping under the stars, they had to protect their lambs from predators, like wolves or other savage beasts, making sure they didn't wander off.  The livelihood of a shepherd's family, which may have included his parents or widowed sisters, rested on his shoulders.  Even if he was a free spirit at heart or footloose in his yearnings, a shepherd didn't have the luxury of doing whatever suited his fancy at any given time.




That's what makes that group's reaction so intriguing.  There they were, resting after a long, tedious day, perhaps sharing some bread and swapping stories, having no idea that they were about to be brought into the drama for which all of history had been preparing.  Out of nowhere, some strange and ethereal light splattered the night sky and an angel materialized at their feet, telling them of a savior born in a stable.  If that wasn't enough to make them want to run for their lives, the deafening sound of an angel choir singing something like the Hallelujah chorus, came crashing in on every side.  What in the world were they to think?


But that's just it--they didn't think.  They didn't stop to talk about what they had seen, or to plan a course of action.  They didn't debate what to do with their sheep, or how they'd convince anyone of what they had seen, or where they would go once they got to Bethlehem, a city bulging with a million pilgrims.  One of them must have said, "Let's go," and they all took off as if they hadn't a care in the world.






I'd like to think I would have done the same thing, but to be honest, I'm not so sure.  Though I've never witnessed the glory of the Lord filling the sky above me, or had an angel set my heart pounding, or heard a heavenly host singing arias to the most High God, there have been times when God broke into my life, when his presence was real and His voice strong, and nothing should have kept me from running to Him with all my might.  I look back with wonder at the times I did--those pinpricks of glory that dot the landscape of my years.  But I wonder how many moments of splendor, how many opportunities to be a part of God's eternal plan that I missed, simply because I couldn't break away from the tyranny of urgent activities.



So join me as we embrace these days of Christmas, and let us open our hearts and minds and ears by seeking to be the kind of free spirits those shepherds were.  May we learn to be footloose--open to dropping everything, if only for a minute or an hour or even an entire day, just to go wherever our Lord might choose to lead us.  Who knows what glories might be ours for the taking if we do?

REFLECT


As you look back at your life, can you recall a time or times when God revealed Himself to you in some way, and you dropped everything just to be with Him, or to follow His call?  Spend a few minutes reminiscing with a grateful heart.  Do you live with openness to God's interruptions?  In light of what you might be missing, ask Him to show you what might hinder you from being at His beck and call, ready to change your course or alter your plans at the sound of His voice.  Spend some time in repentance, offering yourself anew for the adventure of being footloose with the Living God.


RESPOND

Worship the Lord as you imagine what it would have been like to hear the choir of angels singing, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men on whom His favor rests.

Offer your own song of praise, personalizing the Psalm below:

Send forth your light and your truth,
let them guide me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
Then will I go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.
(Psalm 43:3-4)


A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY

Ask God to enable you to do something completely out of the ordinary today.  Listen for His voice throughout the day, and when you hear the gentle whisper, drop everything as best you can, and go do it.

For a printable version of this devotional, click here.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Twelve Days of Christmas--Day Five

MARY: TENDER AND TOUGH

READ: Luke 1:26-38, 46-55, 2:5-7, 21-24, 33-35, 41-51, John 19:25-27 (Click here to read selections from the NIV)

One sunny March morning, Abdel-Quader, a government employee in southern Iraq, discovered that his 17 year old daughter Rand had been seen in public, chatting with a British soldier.  Enraged, he waited for her to come home, at which time he stomped on, suffocated and then stabbed the young girl to death.  Though he was arrested, he was released two hours later after having been congratulated by the police for acting to restore his family's honor in the face of the girl's immorality.  The murder was fully sanctioned by Sharia law, although Rand had done nothing more than engage in conversation with the soldier during her breaks at work.



Though there were no such laws in first century Judea, the culture in which the teenage Mary had grown up would have had some similar values.  People, for example, were not viewed as individuals, but rather as members of their group or clan, and therefore, whatever one person did reflected on all of them.  Nazareth was a small, conservative village with only about 400 inhabitants, which meant that everyone would most likely have been drawn into her pregnancy in some way.  The fact that Mary claimed it was an act of God surely only made matters worse.



Yet, when the angel appeared announcing God's call to Mary, her response was nothing short of miraculous.  Though deeply troubled at first, she answered with humble acquiescence and then broke out with the Magnificat, one of the most glorious psalms of worship ever written.  Truly this was a girl with a tender heart toward the God of her childhood.



You have to think, though, that as she stood before her father sharing her news, that a measure of fear robbed her of the joy she'd experienced earlier.  Even Joseph's plan to marry her could not have assuaged the rage and shame and sadness the teenager's dad must have felt, and probably expressed.  Mary's baptism by fire had begun.  As if months of rejection and scorn weren't enough, the very pregnant girl had to travel 80 miles in six days through the desert on a donkey, only to encounter a maelstrom of frustrated pilgrims fighting for lodging, and finally give birth in a grotto that sheltered sheep, with no sister or aunt or mother or midwife to hold her hand.  Mary was mired in a crucible of God's making, toughening her up for even greater heartache to come.



By the time she'd raised Jesus, Mary had become a strong, confident, even headstrong woman.  At the wedding in Cana, she quickly dismissed her son's objection to doing miracles before his time, telling the servants to follow his orders.  She traveled with him off and on after that until the day Jesus discharged her by declaring that it was the ones who did His Father's will, who were now his mother and brothers and sisters.

 

 That is the last we hear of Mary until those hours when Jesus hung in a bloodied heap from the cross of Calvary.  While most of His disciples fled in fear, the woman whose womb had carried Him looked bravely on, as her first-born took his final breaths.  What memories  flashed across her mind in those painful hours?  Did the roar of the mocking crowd bring back the ridicule she had faced so long ago?  When the soldiers bartered for his ragged robe, did she see herself in that stable, swaddling her infant against the chill of night?  When water and blood shot from the stab wound in her Son's side, did she hear a distant echo of Simeon in the temple, warning her of a sword that would pierce her soul?  In that moment, did she weep and wail and wonder how in the world she would ever recover?

And yet, recover, she did, at least in part, for the book of Acts tells us that Mary was there after Christ's ascension, praying with Peter and James and John and all the others as they waited for power from on high in the upper room.  Only eternity will reveal the role she played in those days of the early church and the spread of the gospel throughout the land, and beyond.

So, as Christmas comes, let us consider this woman who pondered things in her heart, and loved the glory of Almighty God.  Let us remember the way her trials shaped her, and the strength she gleaned from the sacrifices she made.  And as we see her pressing on, pushing through, and persevering in the face of a kind of pain we cannot even begin to comprehend, let us give thanks; for we all are, to this day, in that woman's debt.



REFLECT

Pain is inevitable for those who would follow Christ, but as we see in Mary's life, there is always purpose in it.  As you think of her story, ask God to show you how He has used your own struggles to make you into his chosen vessel.  Offer Him your heart and life to do with as He wills, once again.  Speak the simple words that Mary prayed aloud: Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; Let it be to me according to Your word."

RESPOND

Worship the Lord by personalizing the Magnificat, the prayer of Mary, upon learning of God's call:

Psalm 104:1-2, 31-34

"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."



A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY


Write Mary's words of submission on a card and carry it with you throughout the day, offering it up as often as possible, as your own prayer.  Share it with someone else: Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; Let it be to me according to Your word.

For a printable version of this devotional, click here