Advent14 — Bounty and Blessing

A reading from the Psalms.

I can’t wait to hear what he’ll say. God’s about to pronounce his people well, The holy people he loves so much, so they’ll never again live like fools. See how close his salvation is to those who fear him? Our country is home base for Glory!

Love and Truth meet in the street, Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss! Truth sprouts green from the ground, Right Living pours down from the skies! Oh yes! God gives Goodness and Beauty; our land responds with Bounty and Blessing. Right Living strides out before him, and clears a path for his passage.

Psalm 85:8-13 (MSG)

This is the Word of the Lord.

How we live matters. Living a life that is built on the principles of the Kingdom will be a life that proclaims the Kingdom. It will be a life that shines light into darkness. It will be a life that spreads life and the desire to live similarly to others.

In the New Testament, we call that discipleship. Teaching–by example–how to live Kingdom life. Teaching–by example–even those who are not yet citizens of the Kingdom.

When we live based on the principles of the Kingdom, we change the world around us. People will see and choose to live differently. They will ask questions. They will wonder what makes you different.

Living based on Kingdom principles will even impact the environment–the physical world around us. We will be concerned with the beauty of a place. Not to make it into a show, but to make open the throat of the the environment to proclaim the goodness of God. Because God's goodness is not intended to only impact you and me. It is intended to impact every element of creation.

Advent isn't a time of waiting for just us Followers of the Messiah. It is for a time where all the world waits in breathless anticipation of something better than. Something other than. For a lot of the world, advent–this season of waiting–isn't just a month long. For parts of the world, it is a season that has gone on for millennia. Waiting for the other than. Waiting for the better than.

Let's be honest. The world isn't in the greatest of shape. Wars. Rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Famines. Over utilized farm and ranch land. Sickness. Disease. Floods. It's a mess.

And it's into this mess that God desires to proclaim goodness and beauty, and the land responds with bounty and blessing.

Remember the other day when I said that eschatology matters. Here's why. If our eschatology is one that says, “it's all gonna burn up anyway,” then our lifestyle will walk out with that belief as our foundation. We will work to keep people from burning up, but we won't work to keep the planet from burning up. We're only walking out half of the story. We will live as if Heaven will be only a place for those who die, and not a place to be walked out today.

God's intention is that people should life full lives. Lives where all they need is provided. Where life is full of joy and peace and goodness. Yet, He also intends for the land to be full of bounty and blessing.

I met a rancher in Nebraska a few months ago that understands this. He understands the importance of caring for the land. The importance of proclaiming the beauty and goodness of God. And, the land has responded with bounty and blessing. He has a ranch that has won awards for it's ability to produce strong and healthy cattle, but not at the expense of creation. He conserves the land. Plants trees. Manages the water consumption. And, in the lean years, his ranch continues to produce. After spending time with this friend, the phrase, “the Kingdom of God is like” rang through my ears. And, the land has responded. Beauty and goodness. Bounty and blessing.

As citizens of this new Kingdom that was ushered in from a manger in Bethlehem so long ago, we should live out a life that proclaims God's goodness and beauty. And in so doing, the people will be blessed, the culture will change, and the land will respond with bounty and blessing.

Yet, first, we must embrace the Kingdom Life. The “with God now” life as Dallas Willard calls it. We live life with God now. Waiting, yes, for the Kingdom to be completed in it's fullness. Yet, knowing that when the Christ child came, He brought with Him the Kingdom. Because, when the King comes, so does the Kingdom.

Here.

Now.

But also, not yet.

And, in between, we wait. In between, we live out our lives as Kingdom citizens first. Kingdom citizens above any other citizenship.

And we proclaim the goodness and beauty of our God. And, even the land responds with bounty and blessing.

 

Advent14 — Prepare The Way!

A reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of forced labor is over, her iniquity has been pardoned, and she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

A voice of one crying out:

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth and the rough places, a plain. And the glory of the Lord will appear, and all humanity together will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A voice was saying, “Cry out!”

Another said, “What should I cry out?”

“All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever.”

Zion, herald of good news, go up on a high mountain. Jerusalem, herald of good news, raise your voice loudly. Raise it, do not be afraid! Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with strength, and His power establishes His rule. His reward is with Him, and His gifts accompany Him. He protects His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them in the fold of His garment. He gently leads those that are nursing.

— Isaiah 40:1-11 (HCSB)

This is the Word of the Lord.

This is one of my favorite prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. Israel has been in exile. They are in a land not their own. Living in captivity. Hoping and praying for rescue. And, the message comes. Your time in captivity is over.

But, the message goes on. And, gets even better.

Not only is your time in captivity over, but things are about to get a whole lot better! Rescue is coming. Renewal is on it's way!

That doesn't mean that it's time to just sit back and relax. No! It's time to get up and make things ready! Prepare the road through the wilderness! The King is coming!

I've come to see these verses as more than just a prophecy that later is used to describe John the Baptist. I'm coming to see these verses as the message for each of us. It is what we as Kingdom citizens do. We prepare the way for the King.

When we feed the hungry, the way is prepared. When we shelter the homeless, the way is prepared. When we drill a water well in a village and stop water-borne illnesses in their tracks, the way is prepared. When we sit with the one who is grieving, the ay is prepared. When we love the unloveable, the way is prepared. When we lay down tools of destruction and pick up tools of construction, the way is prepared.

Prepare the way!

And, the King comes. The mountains are brought low. The hills are flattened. The rough terrain is smoothed. The uneven ground is made level. The Kingdom comes.

When the King comes, the mountains of depression are turned to fields of joy. When the King comes, the hills of bitterness are turned to strips of love. When the King comes, the rough terrain of grief is turned to joy in resurrection. When the King comes, the unevenness of fear becomes the foundation of faith.

When the King comes.

So, climb high up onto the mountain and shout. Shimmy down into the pit and proclaim. Stand tall on the hillside and let it ring out.

Shout it from every street corner in Ferguson. Proclaim it in every refugee camp in Turkey and Iraq and Jordan and Lebanon. Yell it out from every tall hill in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Let it ring out loudly from every corner of the globe!

Prepare the way! Feed the hungry. Comfort the widows. Speak peace to the conflicts. Shelter the homeless. Father the orphan. Prepare the way!

Prepare the way for the King!

 

Advent14 — The Eschatology of Advent

A reading from the Gospel of Mark.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Mark 13:28-31 (ESV)

The Word of the Lord.

I've often struggled to understand why during the first week of Advent we read scriptures that have been interpreted in modern times to relate to the end times. It has always seemed odd to me that we enter into this season of waiting for the birth of a baby–The Baby–and this week of hope with Scriptures about the end of it all.

I read a tweet from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove the other day that gave me a new perspective on the selection of eschatological scriptures for this first week of Advent.

And, there it began to make more sense for me. Our eschatology matters not just for the now and later, but for the past as well.

On this blog on Tuesday, I mentioned how Advent is like this epic novel that we're reading for the second or third or fourth or twelfth time. We know the ending. We know the beginning. But, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle. Somewhere between the beginning and the ending. Straining to remember how the story will resolve, yet waiting patiently to find out.

Advent is a lot like that. We know that Messiah will come. Yet, we force ourselves to stand between the knowledge of that coming and the actuality of that coming.

And into that mix, we add a further and deeper knowledge. The knowledge that Messiah doesn't just show up once in the story. Yet, He returns.

And, we remember that our eschatology really does matter. It matters not just for the future, but also for today.

And, so in this season of hoping for the Messiah, we hope for the Messiah to return again. To bring to its fullness the Kingdom that was introduced in a manager in Bethlehem. A Kingdom that seeks not to destroy planets and people, but rather it is a Kingdom that seeks to renew people to their original God-given intentions. It is a Kingdom that restores relationships.

As citizens of that Kingdom, we work now to bring that restoration and renewal to the people and places around us. We seek to restore broken relationships. We seek to feed those who are hungry. We seek to bring health and healing to the sick. We seek to bring peace to the war-torn and war-weary. We seek to bring life.

Our eschatology matters. Someday, King Jesus will return. And when He does the Kingdom will no longer be a place where we sit in tension between the now and the not yet. When He returns, it will all be made right. It will be renewed. It will be restored. It will be resurrected.

So, here in this first week of Advent, we long for the Messiah to come. And, we long for the Messiah to come again.

We wait.

And, in our waiting, we bring the Kingdom to every place go and to every person we meet. Every interaction brings a little more light. The darkness gets a tiny bit less dark.

Until…

 

 

Advent14 – Hoping for the Finale

A reading from Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

Every time I think of you—and I think of you often!—I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There’s no end to what has happened in you—it’s beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives.

Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.

— 1 Corinthians 1:4-7 (The Message)

This is the Word of the Lord.

What encouraging words that Paul writes to the believers at Corinth! He reminds them of who they are now that they are citizens of the Kingdom. All things that they need, they have access to through Jesus. And, they wait expectantly.

Hope–confident and joyful expectation in the goodness of God.

Knowing that God is good and because He is good, He will act good. He will do good things. He will meet the needs of His children. And, we expect Him to do this. We expect it with confidence and joy.

That doesn't mean that life will be nothing but roses and sunshine. There will be hard times. There will be pain. There will be suffering.

But!

We wait expectantly with confidence and joy for the Finale. For that moment that the Kingdom comes in fullness and all that was once wrong is made right.

And, until then, God walks alongside us. Not airlifting us out of problems and struggles, but parachuting in to walk alongside. He understands suffering. He understands pain. And, He knows the process. So, pain, suffering, hurt, death will happen. And, in the midst of it, the Kingdom comes, and will come, and is coming, and has come.

As we walk the path that leads us from here to a manger in Bethlehem, we yearn for that moment when all pain and suffering stops. When death is no more. When lions and lamb play together. When all swords (or drones and tanks and bombers and nuclear devices) are beat into plowshares. We yearn for that Baby King to immediately make things right. Instead, He enters the world quiet and unassuming. He grows up and then commands us to be Light and Salt and to bring the Kingdom with us as we go.

Until that day.

That day for which we hope.

 

Advent14 — Identity

A reading from the Psalms.

Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.

Strengthen the man you love, the son of your choice. Then we will never abandon you again. Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.

Psalm 80:7, 17-19 (NLT)

This is the Word of the Lord.

I love the imagery in the Scripture of God's face shining down on someone. The idea is that God gazes at a person as if that person is the only one on the planet. God gazing deeply at you. His eyes locked onto yours.

It is a way in which God marks us as His child. It's a mark of identity. Like a good father would do for his son or daughter. Look them eye-to-eye and say, “You are my child.”

There's something about the affirmation of a father to his children. It's an means whereby the son or daughter learn clearly and eternally who they are. Without a doubt, I am the son of…

It's also something missing in the world today. Throughout the world, we are faced with an epidemic of fatherlessness. We are finding that father are either entirely absent from the lives of their children or they are mentally absent–wrapping themselves up in technology or television or career or sports or pornography.

It's a situation that we as the church must address. We must begin to speak life into these circumstances. We need both natural fathers to step into the role they have been given by God, and spiritual fathers to help fill the gaps where the natural fathers won't take their role seriously.

Into a fatherless society, we, as Kingdom citizens, are called to speak hope. We are called to proclaim to the orphan that there is a Father who loves them. And, our proclamation is to be backed with action. Action that speaks value and identity to the orphan.

When John baptized Jesus, we find identity being spoken in that moment. There comes a voice from heaven that proclaims Jesus as a Son who is well-loved. In that moment, Jesus is affirmed in His sonship. A sonship that He clearly recognizes even as a young boy in the Temple. Yet, even though He knew He was a Son, the Father still felt it important to affirm Him again at His baptism. You are My Son.

As we travel from country to country, we find that there is great need for the affirmation of a father to their son or daughter. We see young people who have been wounded by the absence of their father–some of the fathers have been absent doing the work of the ministry even. These young people need us–all of us in the Kingdom–to step into a role of affirming and blessing and calling them out as sons and daughters who are well loved.

As we find ourselves reflecting on this Advent season, we will be faced with Joseph. A man who stepped into his calling as a father to one who wasn't his child. He nurtured. He trained. He discipled. We know little about Joseph after the birth of Christ. Yet, we know that he chose to accept this Son of God as his own son. The ultimate example of one fathering a child that wasn't his own.

Who will we father this Advent. What young person will we speak life and blessing and make our face shine upon?

My son

My son

 

 

Advent14 — The Epic Novel

A Reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

If only You would rip open the heavens and come down to earth–its heights and depths would quake the moment You appear, like kindling when it just begins to catch fire, or like water that's about to boil.

If only You would come like that so that all who deny or hate You would know who You are and be terrified of your grandeur.

We remember that long ago You did amazing things for us that we had never dreamed You'd do. You came down, and the mountains shook at Your presence. Nothing like that had ever happened before–no eye had ever seen and no ear had ever heard such wonders, but You did them then for the sake of Your people, for those who trusted in You. You meet whoever tries with sincerity of purpose to do what You want–to do justice and follow in Your ways.

But You became so angry when we rebelled and committed all sorts of wrongs; we have continued in our sins for a long time. So how can we be saved? We are all messed up like a person compromised with impurity; even all our right efforts are like soiled rags. We're drying up like a leaf in autumn and are blown away by wrongdoing.

And it's so sad because no one calls out to You or even bothers to approach You anymore. You've been absent from us too long; You left us to dissolve away in the acrid power of our sins.

Still, Eternal One, You are our Father. We are just clay, and You are the potter. We are the product of Your creative action, shaped and formed into something of worth. Don't be so angry anymore, O Eternal; don't always remember our wrongs.

Please, look around and see that we are all Your people.

Isaiah 64:1-9 (The Voice)

This is the Word of the Lord.

Advent.

The waiting game begins.

It begins in a yearning for help. A yearning for rescue. A yearning for something new and better. A yearning for something other than.

Yet, it also begins with a memory. The memory of Advent past. The memory of a King and a Kingdom and a promise to set all things right.

Between the two we now stand. Remembering the times past where the mountains trembled. Yet, longing for them to tremble again.

It's all a bit like an epic novel that you've read before. You know how it will end. You know the story. You know in the end all the loose threads of the story will merge into one beautiful tapestry. Yet, you begin the novel again.

“Once upon a time…”

And, as you near the middle of the book, you are caught between knowing the promise of hope will be fulfilled and the actual fulfillment of the promise.

A good novel will draw you in. It will make you feel and think and believe that you are the main character. You are Shasta riding into battle at Anvard. You are Bilbo discovering the secret of the ring. You are Harry running toward a wall in Kings Cross Station.

Here we find ourselves. Along with Isaiah, we are in the middle of an epic story. Somewhere between. Not quite at the end, yet knowing the end. Not quite at the beginning, but remembering the beginning.

Longing.

Hoping.

Waiting.

Remembering.

And, the story is not yet finished. The Author continues to add pages. And, we continue to live the plot and the twists and the turns. Like clay in the hands of the Potter, we yield to the Author. And, we walk out the story longing for the fulfillment of the promise.

So, now, we begin our walk to Christmas. In our walk, we yearn for a fulfilled Kingdom. Yet, we know that the King has come. And, somewhere in between we find ourselves. Confused by the hurts and pains and death and illnesses of this place. And, from somewhere off the page, we hear the Author whispering, “Trust me.”

This isn't to say that the Author writes into the story all the pain and suffering and hurt and confusion and murder and suicide and hurricanes and floods–becuase He doesn't. But, it is to say that while these things happen, they don't catch the Author by surprise.

The Author wields the pen, and from within the midst of all the mess of the world, He writes a story of life–life to the fullest. He writes a story of missing things found and broken things fixed. He writes a story of Kingdom come.

And Kingdom that has come.

And Kingdom that is yet to come.

So, here we stand on the precipice of Christmas. Not yet there, but not so far away. From that precipice, we can see the Kingdom. We can see the joy and the peace and the life and the fulfilled promise.

And, that is what gives us the ability to hope.

 

Advent14 — The Waiting Begins

Yesterday, in churches and homes all over the globe, a candle was lit. The first of four. The beginning of a new year in the church calendar. The beginning of Advent.

Advent. A word that simply means coming. A word that is packed full of meaning and is wrapped up in hope, joy, peace, and love. A word that brings us to that place between knowing that the Messiah has come and waiting for the Messiah to come.

It is that brief period of the church calendar where we position ourselves with an oppressed people longing for rescue. We–purposely–find ourselves between Malachi and Matthew. Wondering if things will ever be better. Knowing that for centuries “better” has been prophectically pronounced.

The King is coming!

Prophets of old have told us. Our parents have passed it on to us. The King. He is indeed coming.

At any moment now.

And, yet.

We’re a captive people. Captive in our own land. Captive in our own homes. Captive in a world that couldn’t care less that we stand in anticipation of rescue. In fact, we are captive in a world that mocks our anticipation.

And, we wait.

The Prophets once told us that this King would be called Immanuel.

Immanuel. God with us.

And, yet, we wonder if God could ever be with us. How, into this mess of a world, could God come?

Death. Some of it to disease or accident. Some at the hands of another.

Illness. Some curable. Some not.

War. Some in the name of money or resource. Some in the name of the very God we hope will come near. Some of it even considered just and right.

Hunger. Some due to famine. Some due to stinginess of those who have more than enough. Some due to neglect.

And, into this world, we wonder how God could come. And, yet, He does.

We learned over the weekend that a group of gunmen stormed a residence in Central Asian nation and opened fire on three South Africans who were there to help provide education to the children of the nation. A father and two teenaged children gunned down, and then the house burned. The mother, a doctor, was at the hospital bringing healing to the hurting–some of whom may even have been in support of the gunmen. For Warner, Jean-Pierre, and Rode, they rest tonight in the arms of loving–and near–God. For Hannelle, questions and fear and no rest. Yet, still in the arms of a loving–and near–God.

Three lives given–given so that others–strangers–might have an opportunity to a life of fullness.

One life remaining–longing for God to come near.

It is there in the tension that we long for the Messiah. We yearn for the Kingdom where lion and lamb will lie side-by-side. We hope for the place where weapons of death–guns, and knives, and drones, and tanks, and missles, and planes–are beaten into things that bring life–plows, and shovels, and hoes, and rakes.

And, we wait for God to come near.

We’re hearing confirmation of the rumors that the World Food Progamme lacks the $60+million dollars necessary to continue to provide aid for refugees who have fled the conflict in Iraq and Syria. And, so, more than one-and-a-half million people are forced to wonder from where they will receive bread and milk. Hundreds of thousands of children sit on the brink of starvation. Rumor has it that it’s not just this United Nations program that is lacking funding, but it is also many Non-Governmental Agencies–some even faith-based–that lack funding.

We are also aware that some of the food, coal, blankets, tents, clothes that should have found it’s way to these displaced peoples didn’t. Whether stolen, sold, or otherwise, the situation is dire.

And, we wait for God to come near.

And, God does indeed come near.

He comes near in the birth of a baby. In the unlikliest of places. To the unlikliest of parents. Immanuel. God with us.

And, God does indeed come near.

At the hands of everyone who has answered the call to give more than they keep. The call to go where no one else will. The call to love the unloved–and the unloveable. The call to feed the hungry. The call to clothe the naked. In every answered call, God comes near.

And, God calls us to come near, and to be near. To be near the wife and mother who mourn. And, also, to be near the gunmen and their families. To be near the millions who are without a home or a country or a meal. And, also, to be near to those who have driven them from their homes and countries and meals.

Advent.

So, yesterday, we lit a candle. A flicker of light in the darkness. A candle that will be joined by another and another and another. And, then, by the candle of the Christ-child. And, then, by your candle–and mine.

Until, the room grows bright, and we are pushed out into the world to proclaim that the King has come. And, when the King comes, so does the Kingdom.

Book Review: Joy To The World by Scott Hahn

In Joy To The World, the newest book from author Scott Hahn, we are introduced to each of the major characters in the Christmas story. Scott provides contexts to the story of Jesus’ birth that brings new life to a timeless story.

I was especially touched by the approach that Scott takes with the family aspects of the Christmas story. He points out that in Matthew’s narrative the “history of salvation” is traced “not by way of epic battles and conquests–and certainly not by way of influential ideas–but by the way of family.” The idea of the Kingdom of God being a family entity has been one of the most important ideas in my own Spiritual Formation over the past couple of years. I have come (am coming) to understand the importance of seeing one another as brother and sister and understanding our place as Sons and Daughters of God.

And that’s how Christmas changed everything. By establishing the conditions for our adoption as children of God–by bringing about a certain identification between man and God in Jesus Christ. — Scott Hahn in Joy To The World

Additional to the Holy Family, Scott looks at the Shepherds and the Magi. Shepherds weren’t normally the recipients of good news in ancient Palestine. And the Magi weren’t even Jews. Yet, both of these groups recieve the message of the good news before anyone else. God proclaiming to the “least of these” that salvation has come to the planet. These unlikely groups are given the news that the Kingdom of God is at hand, even before John the Baptist has a chance to proclaim it!

We’re also presented with the horrors of King Herod. We learn a bit of his background. We learn how he was ruthless, and dictatorial, and paranoid. We learn how his paranoria leads to the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

As we prepare to move into the Advent season, and all the joy and hope and life it brings, we must come to understand that these were real events and real people and real stories. Scott takes us to the places. He introduces us to the people. He brings the story to life.

And, we being our march to the manager. That rough hewn place in a cave in Bethlehem. It’s where Scott begins his book. With a story from Bethlehem. In the modern day. Yet, with names and faces and children born into the most dire of circumstances. Surrounded by walls and wars and a young girl who delights in rocking these babies whose parents are displaced or imprisoned or dead.

And it is into situations just like that where we see Messiah. We see a young girl swaddling a newborn baby. We see shepherds worshipping in awe and reverance. We see Magi from the east bringing gifts. We see an adopted father who sees himself as more than just an adopted father. We see salvation.

Surely Jesus’ name, given by heaven, tells us something about His purpose. He came to “save His people”–more specifically, to save them “from their sins.” To do this is a pur act of merciful love, becuase sins are by definition offenses against Almighty God. Yet it is God Himself who has taken flesh for the sake of our salvation. He came, moreover, not just to save the wayward members of His chosen people but to save even the gravest sinners of Babylon and Egypt. — Scott Hahn in Joy To The World

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FTC (16 CFR, Part 255) Disclaimer: I received my copy of Scott Hahn’s book Joy To The World from Blogging For Books for this review.

#Advent13: What’s in a Name? — Mark Foster

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings. We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom. Thank you for being a part of this journey with us. Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

Rev. Mark Foster

Rev. Mark Foster

Today, we are excited to once again have a special guest post from Rev. Mark Foster. Pastor Mark is the Founding Pastor of Acts 2 United Methodist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma. He married his wife Chantelle in August 1991. They have two sons, John Mark and Noah. Pastor Mark is led by the Spirit and is passionate about seeing people come to know Jesus. We met Pastor Mark in October of last year when we began to attend Acts 2 UMC. We are blessed to call him our Pastor, and are honored that he has written today’s guest post.

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son; They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.

— Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)

The Word of God for the people of God.

​Sometimes what you see or experience is so great, beyond description, beyond expectation, that one name simply won’t do. The baby gets two names. The first is “Jesus” – the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua which means “Jehova is salvation.” Another way of putting it is that Jesus means “The Lord saves.” Or you might even say that the angel commands Joseph to name the baby “Savior” because “He will save!” The New Revised Standard Version puts it, that Joseph being a “righteous man” which can also be translated as a “just” man had planned to dismiss her (Mary) quietly. “But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (emphasis mine).

The angel is direct. One, do not be afraid. This is the normal conversation starter between heavenly beings and mortals. We need this instruction daily. Joseph had reason to be afraid. While the Law of Moses required capital punishment in cases like these (Deuteronomy 22:23-27), by this time in Jewish history, the penalty was rarely death. Rather, it would be a severe, humiliating, public penalty. In Joseph’s circles, to be described as “righteous” meant that one did the right thing at the right time and was a follower of every detail of God’s law. Yet, the Spirit is at work with “just” Joseph so that he is already going beyond the letter of the law and acting out of love and mercy on Mary’s behalf.

​The second command from the heavenly messenger is that it is Joseph’s responsibility to name the baby. “You shall name the child, accepting him as your own and adopting him into the Davidic line as an authentic ‘son of David.’” Joseph names him Jesus. This places Jesus in line with the prophecy. Remember that this is not something that by law Joseph would have to do. The voice of God through the angel leads Joseph to name the baby Jesus. This naming reflects the great story line of Moses and Joshua where they save God’s people from Egypt and guided them into the promised land through the Red Sea and the Jordan River.

Jesus too will save HIS people from their sins. But who are Jesus’ people? One might think that it is the Jewish people, but as the plot develops in the gospels, Jesus’ people are ALL people. “For God so love the world (kosmos)” moving beyond any border, culture, race, or time! This turns out to be a point of great conflict that will ultimately lead to Jesus’ death. Jesus’ life was one of inclusion with the poor, with a Samaritan woman, with prostitutes, with tax-collectors, with lepers, and with as many other categories as the religious leaders of the time decided were “on the outs with God.” Simply put, they would say, “he eats with sinners.” When the rest of the religious leaders of the time were running from the hurting and broken of the world so as not be made unclean, Jesus was running to them. He washed them and made them clean.

Ironically, the mother of our Lord and Savior certainly would have been thought of in the category of “sinner” by the religious folks of her time. Mary was an unwed pregnant teenager who in her culture would also be an adulterer due to her status as betrothed. Interestingly, Matthew describes Joseph becoming aware of Mary’s pregnancy, yet not knowing of its divine source. This “in between time” of seeing trouble, but not yet seeing divine action, presence, or proclamation represents the hardest times of life.

​Perhaps this is why Jesus also receives a symbolic name, “Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Never again do we need to wonder, “Where is God in this?” The answer is in every place, in every time of trouble, even when we can’t see it, even when we don’t feel it, and even when we forget it; the truth of Jesus remains that he is “Emmanuel – God with us!” In our feast days of celebration, at the weddings where water turns to wine, at the graves of those we love like Lazarus, in the wilderness, in the garden, when we are on trial, betrayed, denied, beaten, whipped, bruised, alone; we find that we are never alone because everywhere, beyond the end of time, we have received the gift of Emmanuel – God with us that neither life nor death nor anything on the earth, above the earth, or beneath the earth can take away. I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is what the church claims this Christmas Eve. Tonight, light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not and cannot overcome it. Tonight, God is with us. Let the angels sing, the saints rejoice, the demons shudder, for the Lord of Life is alive and well. Jesus “God saves” is with us!

#Advent13: Guest Post – Nathan Kilbourne

As we have done in years past, we are again blogging our way through the Advent Lectionary readings. We love this season as it allows us to take time to slow ourselves down and walk between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is time for us to live in full knowledge of the “Now” of the Kingdom without rushing the “Not Yet” of the Kingdom. Thank you for being a part of this journey with us. Our prayer is that these posts will serve as devotional meditations to focus your heart and mind on the imminent coming of our King!

We are thrilled that our friend, Reverend Nathan Kilbourne, has agreed once again to write for us. Pastor Nathan and his wife Pastor Lynn are incredible pastors, people, and friends. In addition to serving on the Advisory Board of Led By The Word, Rev. Kilbourne serves as the Senior Pastor at Vilonia United Methodist Church in Vilonia, Arkansas. He is a graduate of the Duke Divinity School.

Reverends Nathan and Lynn Kilbourne

Reverends Nathan and Lynn Kilbourne

A reading from the Prophet Isaiah.

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

— Isaiah 7:10-16

The Word of God for the people of God.

Disappointed. I’m certain that is what Ahaz felt when he received the word from Isaiah regarding a child being born named Emmanuel. Ahaz was looking for a little bit more reassurance. He feared the Assyrian kingdom at his doorstep and the power it may be able wield over the Davidic Kingdom. This kingdom had already been compared to a stump by the prophet Isaiah, not a flourishing tree. Even then, a shoot growing from the stump is only assurance that the kingdom has a chance at survival. Who wants survival? Isn’t it best to be powerful? Isn’t it better to have large armies to be able to fend off enemies? A stump and shoot? A child named Emmanuel? What good is this? How does this calm fears and alleviate anxiety?

It is easy for us to overlook the significance of the promised presence of God when facing the giants in our lives. We look for miraculous signs in the midst of overshadowing pressures and problems. We seek calmed storms and straight paths; yet, the winds continue to blow and the paths are rocky. However, during this season, we are reminded that sometimes, what we need is reassurance that God is still looking out for us. Yes, though the powers of Assyrians, Herods, and the like seem to be winning a child will be born named Emmanuel, God with us.

Though we do not get exactly what we want, God is still Emmanuel, who reveals himself in ways we might not expect, for example, in a child. In looking for the miraculous, outstanding, world altering movements of God, we may miss that God just might show up in the vulnerability of a child and in the promise of that life will continue. Sometimes God simply gives us enough to sustain us in the storms and Ahaz missed the message of Isaiah. Though it seemed insignificant compared to the insurmountable evils surrounding him, Isaiah was providing a message of hope, a message that God will continue to be with his people. Isaiah provided a glimmer of light, but Ahaz missed it.

At times, just a glimmering of hope can help us weather the storms of life. As preacher Peter Gomes once remarked, “We are able to bear this present darkness because we believe in the coming dawn…a dawn in which the shadows and shades of night are seen for what they are and are not.” Even when it is only a glimmer of hope, such can be enough to bear the present darkness.

During this Christmas season, as we await again the coming of Jesus the Messiah, let us not forget that often God shows up in seemingly insignificant ways that we might easily overlook. God shows up in Bethlehem, an insignificant place, to Mary and Joseph, insignificant people, placed in a manger, an insignificant place, and brings hope. God may show up in your life in a seemingly insignificant way. Yet, God can take what is insignificant and make it significant. Pay close attention, even the crumbs which fall from the table of God are enough.