Advent: Unlikely Messengers

Bethlehem isn’t far at all from Jerusalem if you measure the distance in miles.

But it was a world apart if you measure the difference in circumstance.

Like our world today, there was a huge gap between the richest of the rich (King Herod and his cronies, the religious elite) and the poorest of the poor (Mary, Joseph, shepherds and others like them).

Hearts full to overflowing with pride, self-reliance, love of power and money can’t find room for a message that suggests they might need saving.

Empty hearts, hopeless hearts, worn, weary and desperate hearts are hungry to hear that help is on the way.

Maybe that’s why God sent a most spectacular birth announcement to shepherds who were considered the lowest of the low.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Luke 2:8-18 NIV

If you do a little digging you will discover that large flocks were kept in Bethlehem to facilitate worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Since many of the faithful came from quite a distance, instead of bringing a sacrifice they would purchase a suitable animal once they made the trek.

But shepherds rarely got to mix and mingle at the Temple because they were stinky and dirty. It was tough to try to clean up without running water and washing machines. They smelled of sheep, goats and smoke. Not a welcome addition to worshiping crowds.

Yet God deemed these lowly, (probably) uneducated folks worthy of the most spectacular display of His approval and the dawn of a new age of grace. The outcasts became the “in” crowd.

The first messengers of the Good News weren’t priests or royalty, they were regular people.

I know many days I wonder if plodding along in my everyday duties makes a whit of difference in the world. I tire of routine and repeated, ordinary tasks.

But in the Kingdom there is no such thing as meaningless work or unrewarded obedience.

The shepherds were perfectly positioned to receive God’s message and to deliver it to a waiting world.

God has placed me right here right now for His purposes.

I’m not responsible for results.

I’m only responsible for waiting patiently for His direction.

QUESTIONS:

  • When you’ve heard the Christmas story over and over it’s easy to miss historical context and the significance of certain details. But Luke specifically set out to give an account of the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus that revealed His deity and God’s purposes. Have you ever thought about how odd it was that shepherds got such special attention and treatment from Almighty God?
  • The shepherds apparently discussed what they had seen and heard among themselves. Can you imagine what that sounded like? Do you think you would have second guessed the experience if you had been there? Why or why not?
  • Once they saw the Baby they could not contain themselves. Do you remember the joy of salvation when (perhaps) you were compelled to tell everyone the Good News of Jesus? Have you lost that urgency? If you have, how might you regain it?
  • People were amazed at the shepherds’ message. I imagine it was partly due to the nature of the story and partly due to the ones who were telling it. Have you ever experienced a time when you were certain the message was from God but the messenger didn’t fit your idea of what he or she should look like? Did you dismiss the message or look past your preconceived notions?

PRAYER:

Father God,

You are no respecter of persons. All are in need of your mercy and grace. You reach out and reach down and reach across divides and prejudices and preconceived notions of who should be “in” and who should be “out”.

Salvation is available to every single heart who chooses to believe in the finished work of Christ. Sometimes I can draw circles around who I think is deserving and who is not. When people don’t look like me, talk like me or think like me I can look down my nose at them and expect You to do the same.

Rescue me from the prison of prejudice!

It’s the worn out and weary who long for a Savior. It’s the breathless and broken who need fresh wind and healing hope.

Thank You for opening my eyes to the truth of the Good News. Help me hold onto the joy of my salvation. May I feel the same urgency as those shepherds long ago to run first to Jesus and then to share Him with everyone I meet.

Amen

Advent: Highly Favored

Luke tells us that his purpose in writing is to give an orderly and full account of the life of Jesus.

It’s far from a dry “news report” though. It’s full of personal encounters, emotion and delightful detail.

I love the description of a (probably slightly perplexed and perhaps frightened Mary) and her older cousin Elizabeth:

 Afterward, Mary arose and hurried off to the hill country of Judea, to the village where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. 40 Arriving at their home, Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 At the moment she heard Mary’s voice, the baby[a] within Elizabeth’s womb jumped and kicked. And suddenly, Elizabeth was filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit! 42 With a loud voice she prophesied with power:

“Mary! You are a woman given the highest favor
    and privilege above all others.
    For your child[b] is destined to bring God great delight.
43 How did I deserve such a remarkable honor
    to have the mother of my Lord[c] come and visit me?
44 The moment you came in the door and greeted me,
    my baby danced inside me with ecstatic joy!
45 Great favor is upon you, for you have believed
    every word spoken to you from the Lord.”

Luke 1: 39-45 TPT

It’s unclear from the text but it could be that Elizabeth and Mary were close before they shared the secret that they both carried sons of promise. For some reason Mary went quickly to her after the visit from Gabriel.

Was it to buy time before her belly gave her away? Was it to seek godly counsel or confirmation from an older, wiser woman? Was it simply because she had heard Elizabeth was also pregnant when it seemed unlikely it could be?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that every person in the nativity story was a real live flesh-and-blood individual who was as trapped in time as I am. They had to walk out events as they happened and didn’t know the end from the beginning even if they’d been given promises from an angel.

God provided extraordinary confirmation for them both. What a beautiful moment!

Not only did John leap in Elizabeth’s womb, the Holy Spirit came upon her and gave her a message for young Mary. Mary was “highly favored”, chosen as a vessel of honor and blessing.

Reflection on the Visitation of Mary | Society of the Holy Child Jesus

I imagine Mary held those words close to her heart over the next many months when whispers and sideways glances followed her everywhere.

I know I hold close the words the Lord has given me.

When I read Scripture, the Holy Spirit often quickens my spirit to take note and take hold of a verse or two. He whispers, “This one is for YOU”, to my heart.

I underline it, write it down, meditate on it, come back to it and rest in the truth that if God says it, it’s true.

Mary was highly favored because she believed “every word spoken to her by the Lord”.

Jesus was born a single time-no other woman will ever again carry God’s Son in her womb. But we can each carry God’s word in our hearts.

When we do, we too are vessels of honor and blessing.

QUESTIONS:

  • Have you ever stopped a moment and thought about how the people in Bible stories were, in fact, real people? If not, do it now. How does that impact your understanding of the text?
  • Mary was an unmarried virgin who became pregnant. No matter that Gabriel assured her it was by the Holy Spirit, I imagine others thought something very different. Why do you think she went to see Elizabeth?
  • Which of Elizabeth’s words to Mary mean the most to you?
  • Has the Holy Spirit ever quickened verses that you read? How do you make a note of them? Have you ever come back to them later and realized God used them in a special way to encourage your heart?

PRAYER:

Lord,

Sometimes trusting the promises is a struggle. I want to believe, I try to believe but no amount of willful conjuring on my part can make me believe.

But for this, I have Jesus and your Holy Spirit. Like Elizabeth and Mary, You quicken your life, hope and power within me.

You have given me your word. Your word is truth. I can rest assured in the promises that have been fulfilled and know the others will come to fruition when the time is right.

Help me believe every single word You have spoken. Help me be a vessel of honor-to hold close and hold dear what you plant in my heart.

Amen

Advent: A Willing Heart

It’s easy to read the stories of Zechariah and Mary, both visited by the angel Gabriel with unlikely and hard-to-believe messages, and wonder why Zechariah was struck dumb when he asked a question but Mary was commended.

The difference is heart attitude.

26-28 Then, six months after Zacharias’ vision, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a Galilean town, Nazareth by name, to a young woman who was engaged to a man called Joseph. The girl’s name was Mary. The angel entered her room and said, “Greetings to you, Mary. O favoured one!—the Lord be with you!”

29-33 Mary was deeply perturbed at these words and wondered what such a greeting could possibly mean. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; God loves you dearly. You are going to be the mother of a son, and you will call him Jesus. He will be great and will be known as the Son of the most high. The Lord God will give him the throne of his forefather, David, and he will be king over the people of Jacob for ever. His reign shall never end.”

34 Then Mary spoke to the angel, “How can this be,” she said, “I am not married!”

35-37 But the angel made this reply to her—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will overshadow you. Your child will therefore be called holy—the Son of God. Your cousin Elisabeth has also conceived a son, old as she is. Indeed, this is the sixth month for her, a woman who was called barren. For no promise of God can fail to be fulfilled.”

38 “I belong to the Lord, body and soul,” replied Mary, “let it happen as you say.” And at this the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38 PHILLIPS

Zechariah was a priest who had studied the Torah and should have understood the sovereignty of God. He didn’t ask a question about how Gabriel’s prophecy would come true, he asked for proof that it WOULD come true.

He questioned God’s character and faithfulness.

Mary was a poor young woman who was (most likely) unfamiliar with Scripture except what she had heard in the synagogue.

She knew how babies were made and asked a very practical question.

She wasn’t suggesting God COULDN’T do it, she simply wondered HOW He would do it.

It is portrayed so sweetly in Christmas plays and Christmas movies:

Mary bowing her head in response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she has been chosen to bear the Savior.

I don’t know what went through her mind before she answered.  I’m not sure she had a clue what submission to God’s will would look like as it played out across the months and years.

I only know that she was willing.

And God honored her willingness to bend her knee and her heart regardless of the unknown cost.

I’m not as noble as Mary.  I didn’t answer quickly when God allowed my life to be turned upside down. I kicked and screamed and resisted as long as I could.

But who can fight Almighty God?

How can I carry on if I resist the Only One Who can carry me?

My heart still balks.

It. Is. Still. So. Very. Hard.

But I bow my head and heart each morning and ask for the grace to make it true:

“Behold, I am the servant of the LORD; let it be to me according to your word.” ~Luke 1:38

hand-coffee-roosevelt

QUESTIONS:

  • I know most of the people reading this are bereaved parents. While Mary was indeed “highly favored” the role for which she was chosen was one of heartache as well as honor. If you knew then what you know now, would you have still chosen to bear and love your child?
  • It is absolutely OK to bring our questions, doubts and fears to God. Do you see the difference between Zechariah’s and Mary’s questions? Or do you think there was a difference? Why or why not?
  • Have you reached a point of submission regarding the loss of your child? If you have, how did you get there? If you haven’t, what lament do you need to offer up to God so His grace and strength can fill your heart?
  • It’s easy to read Bible stories like make-believe fairy tales and discount the flesh and blood humans who lived them in real time. Does it help your heart hold onto hope to realize that none of them could see the end from the beginning? Does it encourage you that they were able to rest in the Lord’s faithful and unfailing love? Why or why not?

PRAYER:

Father God,

Oh, how I long for Mary’s faith! How my heart yearns to be always willing, always wanting to let You do whatever You deem good and right. But I balk at giving up control-even as I admit I have no control-to You or anyone else.

I am often dismayed and even angry at the things You allow. I am distraught that You don’t intervene when You most certainly can and I think You most definitely should.

Help me submit willingly to Your plan. Help me wait patiently for the fruit of obedience. Give me strength to endure even when the road is long and the path inky darkness.

You are Faithful and True. You are Light and Life. Help me hold onto that truth and rest in Your goodness and love.

Amen