The Bethlehem Candle of Love (Luke 2:1-7)

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (New International Version)

The Christian season of Advent is a time of preparation and expectant waiting for the promised Savior. Each Sunday this month, we will focus on the theme of the Advent candle for that day. Today, we look at the Bethlehem candle, love. Next week, we consider joy, then peace, and on Christmas Day, light.

Advent Love

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and placed in a humble manger, a feeding trough, because of love. The Lord was quite literally conceived in love – a love which originated within the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and mediated through a virgin, Mary, whose own love for God enabled her to raise the Messiah in love. The world revolves on the axis of love. Without love, we do not exist. With love, there is deliverance, there is a Savior. It’s all about love, my friends, and always has been from the beginning….

God’s Love

God’s loving plan for us started, not with the incarnation, but with the very first act of creation. Out of nothing, and out of sheer love, humanity was created in God’s own image. Since God is Love, we were made to receive love and give love. (Genesis 1:26-30)

However, the first humans, Adam and Eve, began to doubt the truth of God’s goodness and love for them. And so, they disobeyed their Creator, believing that God was withholding love from them.

Yet, despite humanity’s fall into sin, God’s loving mercy did not abandon them altogether. God did not destroy Eve and Adam. Even as they began to experience the serious consequences of their sin, God made a promise of future redemption: that Eve’s own offspring would one day crush the head of the serpent who tempted them. (Genesis 3:15)

God’s Loving Plan

The Lord had no intention of simply leaving people in their wretched state of separation and rebellion. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessed people who, in turn, would bless the world. (Genesis 12:2-3)

God foretold of the One, born of a virgin, who would free the captives, bear our transgressions, suffer in our place, redeem people, and usher in a peace unlike anything ever known.

Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10, NIV)

The Bible is a long, extended, and unfolding drama of redemption spanning several centuries. Even though the plan of redemption takes time, God lovingly walks with people through their suffering, temptation, loss, grief, and trials.

The Nativity by Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996)

When the Lord heard the cries of the ancient Israelites under their cruel yoke of slavery, God led them out of Egypt (Exodus 3:18). When the Jews were exiled from their land, God reminded them of the ongoing plan of redemption:

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you. (Isaiah 43:1-3, NRSV)

For generations, God has remained faithful to people even when they doubt and have weak faith; and even though they question God’s motives and power and turned away from the Lord. The plan of God is simply an extension of the character of God:

They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their necks and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9:17, NRSV)

Love Is with Us

Revisiting the big picture of God’s love for people during Advent helps us understand the significance of the first advent, the coming of a Savior. The incarnation of Christ is the hinge of a larger story of God’s good love and redemption for us. Love, incarnated in the form of a vulnerable baby, came to fulfill a promise God made centuries before.

Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain
    equal with God.
Instead he gave up everything
    and became a slave,
when he became
    like one of us.

Christ was humble.
He obeyed God and even died
    on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, CEV)

The motivation for the first advent of Jesus, the incarnation of Christ, was because of love:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16, NKJV)

True love is God’s love for us, not our love for God. He sent his Son as the way to take away our sins. (1 John 4:10, ERV)

Advent Love Is Our Calling

In remembering that first advent, we know that a new era of God’s restoration has been ushered in. And we await a second advent when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Now, living in between these two advents, God’s people are called to love others as Christ has loved us and gave himself for us.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, GNT)

This Advent season, let us ask how we can love God and love our neighbor more fully, so that we might fulfill the call of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray with the encouragement of Scripture (adapted from 1 John 4:7-12):

Loving God, help us to love each other since love comes from You. We understand that everyone who loves is born again and experiences a relationship with You. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about You, because You, God, are Love itself—no one can know You if they don’t know love.

Merciful God, we give you unending thanks that You showed Your love for us by sending Your only Son into the world so that we might live through him. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us; and that is the kind of love You are all about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that You loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with You.

Gracious God, since You loved us like this, we pray that You will enable us to love each other. No one has seen You, ever. But if we love one another, You will dwell deeply within us, and love becomes complete in us. May it be so, to the glory of Jesus Christ in whose Name we pray. Amen.

Preparing the Way (John 1:19-28)

John the Baptist by Ivan Filichev, 1992

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (New International Version)

John was not the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. John’s life was devoted to preparing people and pointing them to Jesus. You and I are not the Messiah; Jesus is. You and I are to devote are lives to preparing people and pointing them to Jesus.

John the Baptist had a way of communicating that didn’t exactly win friends; but he sure influenced a lot of people. (Matthew 3:1-12) 

Considering that John lived in seclusion, dressed weird, and ate different food, it’s not a stretch to see how people might dismiss him as a kook and move on. Yet, there’s no evidence that people viewed John that way. 

Instead, John the Baptist had an effective ministry. I suggest that’s because John didn’t seek his own gain, wasn’t trying to build a big following, but understood that he was to point to the coming Christ. 

John believed judgment was imminent, so he put all his efforts into getting people to realize the wrath of God was real and coming soon.

The kingdom of God cannot be entered by forcefully pushing the door in; we enter God’s kingdom through the humility of confession and repentance. The way to the Nativity goes through John the Baptist and his message of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3)

We are, like John, to make a straight and level way for folks to come to Jesus. That’s going to require some change on our part. But if we’re stuck in our ways, that makes it really hard to make a level path to Jesus.

There’s all sorts of ways we get stuck. We might be mired in a destructive habit because we think we need it to keep going; we may get cemented into rehearsing all the past dumb decisions we made, and so, cannot move forward; or we might become fastened in an unhealthy relationship and see no way to move. 

If we are stuck long enough, we blandly accept this as a new normal, then go about our daily lives with a “meh” kind of attitude; not too low, not too high, but just “meh.”

All this sticky stuff – the patterns, behaviors, activities and habits which trap us – keep us in an immovable bondage. And we might become so used to “meh” that we are cut off from the source that would get us un-stuck.

The reason people didn’t dismiss John as some creepy clown is that he offered them something better than their sticky situations. 

Awareness of our real selves and our true condition brings hope – because God will not leave us stuck. The Lord will turn us into free people, delivered from the stickiness, to live fully for the coming King. God doesn’t give up on us, so we do not need to settle for a “meh” existence.

It can be scary, looking squarely at our sins, habits, memories, and emotions because they might keep us on the flypaper of death. We may feel overwhelmed and think there is hope for other people, but not me. Or, conversely, we might think that everyone else has a problem except me. 

Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Christ will shake things up. He’ll unstick people and free them from narrow thinking and a lack of self-awareness.

The season of Advent means that the time of the Lord’s coming is near. Therefore, preparation for the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas, is of primary importance. And the best way of preparing for Christmas Day is to repent and believe that the kingdom of God is near (as opposed to far away). 

God has come near to us in the person of Jesus; and that makes all the difference. 

It’s hard to admit we’re stuck. Yet, if many are honest, their relationship with God and/or the Church is nothing more than a shoulder shrugging “meh.”

There are two ways to deal with being stuck in guilt and shame: either justify it or confess it. 

Denying, minimizing, or excusing sin leads to separation from God – whereas confession leads to connecting with God. 

John the Baptist’s message is this: Get ready because Jesus is coming! Through the grace of repentance and faith there is hope – the hope of stopping all the petty games we play to hide our sin and hide the fact we are really super-glued to our idols. Our hope is in being cleansed from our impurities and ready for God to be with us in the person of Jesus.

God unsticks us so we can bear good fruit that is in keeping with repentance. Our lives need to be congruent between what we profess and how we live. Outward religious observance, although important, is not the way into the kingdom. And confession without genuine change is not repentance – it’s just confession. 

The God who came to his people in Jesus will one day unveil his kingdom in all its glory. We need to get ready for that day. There are roads that need straightening; fires that need to be lit in order to burn away the rubbish and brush in the path; dead trees that need to be cut down; there are people who need to repent because the kingdom of God is near.

We must clear the road so that Jesus has a way into our hearts. 

Just as law enforcement and the secret service are serious about making presidential motorcades free of obstacles and having a clear road to the destination, so we need to ensure that we are doing all we can to pave the way for Christ’s coming. 

This is no time for a spiritually milquetoast deadpan “meh” kind of life; this is the day to clear the way for Jesus. Now is the time to prepare for Christ’s coming. 

And the proper preparation for the Lord’s return is with admitting our stickiness and asking God to unstick us from the sin that so easily entraps us on the devil’s flypaper. 

The kingdom of God belongs to those who prepare the way and produce good fruit in keeping with repentance. 

Maranatha. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Spiritual Renewal (Isaiah 30:19-26)

People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, “Away with you!”

He will also send you rain for the seed you sow in the ground, and the food that comes from the land will be rich and plentiful. In that day your cattle will graze in broad meadows. The oxen and donkeys that work the soil will eat fodder and mash, spread out with fork and shovel. In the day of great slaughter, when the towers fall, streams of water will flow on every high mountain and every lofty hill. The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted. (New International Version)

Better days are ahead.

In this time of year, there are many people who simply don’t have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas. They have blessings, both material and spiritual. And they can always identify other persons who are in much more need than them. Some of them may even believe that those in need are in that position because of unwise individual choices. 

But we must maintain a focus on our own lives. We need to recognize the maladies of our hearts. The state of our lives is as important, and is just as real and needy, as someone else’s life who is in more humble circumstances. 

There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 

Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs. And having a good steady income doesn’t inoculate one from need or privation.

We must not suppress those realities and needs, but instead, name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us – such things as the love of possessions and money; broken relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; hatred; and much more. 

Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs; the gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom.

Only then can we pass on the good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick. There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help. Yet, we will not have eyes to see them, or have hearts to help, if we are stuffing our own burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

Far too many Christians, especially the church-going kind, have become expert emotional stuffers and deniers of need. 

We may believe “those other people” need ministries of justice and help. But the truth is: Many of us are one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, or one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want next door to us.

We may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation; and so, we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty. 

What to do? Turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and hope in the Lord’s restorative grace. God takes all sorts of seemingly impossible situations of destruction and death, creating fresh new growth in the form of a little green sprout. 

God will rebuild our ruined souls; restore the places of our lives that have been devastated; and renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 

It begins with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us, not just others. 

If we want comfort, we need to mourn. If we desire joy, then there needs to be some lamenting of a dire situation. If we hope for an oak of righteousness, there must be a confession of despair. For there to be a resurrection, there has to be a death.

What is your real situation and the true realities of your life that need to be named? 

Where will you go to address those needs and truths? 

Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs? 

How might you be vulnerable enough to allow others to minister grace to your needy soul?

Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty. 

Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling. 

Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God. 

Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.

Soli Deo Gloria

Prayer Is the Heartbeat of the Church (Acts 1:12-17, 21-26)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Italian painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry….”

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (New International Version)

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? And what do you do when you have a problem or challenge?

Good old American ingenuity, the Protestant work ethic, and fixing things is the reflexive response of many people. In the belief that we can solve anything, what typically gets left out of the equation is seeking God’s presence and power in order to rightly discern next steps.

But that wasn’t the response of the earliest church. When faced with their small numbers and a large mission to accomplish, they prayed. They more than prayed. They continually got together, just to pray. Prayer was the air they breathed. The believers understood they needed God (not simply to rubber stamp their plans) for moving forward in mission and ministry.

Christians need the vision and imagination that can only come through consistent daily prayer. Otherwise, they will not choose wisely and find themselves in a quandary of their own making.

Imagine not having to purchase what you need the most today.

Maybe you’re in a real pinch. Your financial budget isn’t budging. Perhaps you’re wondering what items you need to do without for a while. It could be that the bills aren’t all getting paid. Or maybe you’re concerned with how in the world you’re going to buy Christmas presents for the family.

Imagine having all the love you need today without working to earn it.

Maybe you have a strained relationship. It might be that you’re hurt from a marriage or a love that has gone sour. Perhaps a friendship is on the rocks, or a family member won’t talk to you. You’re wondering if it will ever be better, wondering if love will find you again.

Imagine continually having a church experience of being full of the grace of Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe your church has a legalistic bent. Perhaps the church is withdrawn into cliques and special interest groups. It could be that the Spirit hasn’t shown up since 1959. You’re tired, weary of the chronic sameness and status quo of a stagnant place.

For all these things, and so many more of life’s problems and situations, there is good news… really good news!

Prayer is the currency to what you need most, the means of receiving and giving love, and the path to a gracious and powerful Christian and Church life.

Prayer is the heartbeat of the church. The promise of prayer still stands. God gives. We receive. But we must ask!

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you. I have appointed you to go, to produce fruit that will last, and to ask the Father in my name to give you whatever you ask for. (John 15:16, GW)

Sometimes God just gives without us asking. That’s great. Yet, God wants so much more for you and me and our faith communities. God longs for us to be vitally connected to Christ, and that connection happens through prayer. We can bank on the answers to our prayers when we:

  • Stay joined to Jesus (John 15:4)
  • Let Christ’s teachings become part of you (John 15:7)
  • Remain faithful to Christ’s love for you (John 15:9)
  • Obey Jesus (John 15:10)

Imagine having your will align with the perfect will of God.

Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. (John 15:7, CEV)

Perhaps you are skeptical. You’ve prayed a long time with nothing happening. You’re discouraged and feel like prayer doesn’t work, or that something is wrong with you. 

There is a mysterious and mystical aspect to prayer that we will never quite understand. However, I do know that Jesus didn’t put a timetable on the answers – they will come when they come. And they will come. 

Maybe we’ll discover that what we want and need the most is to let God’s will and way be done in us, no matter what it is. Perhaps the point is to change us, and not always to change our circumstances.

We have an incredible privilege; we get to ask, without having to buy answers to prayer.

We don’t have to do backflips to get God’s attention. We simply ask. 

We don’t have to try and work to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to draw up detailed plans like some sort of architectural design to see a fruitful, loving, and powerful church. We just ask and remain closely connected to Jesus. 

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming of this day in peace. 

Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. 

In every hour of the day, reveal your good and holy will to me. 

Bless my dealings with all who surround me. 

Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that your will governs all. 

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. 

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all situations, no matter what, are sent by you. 

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. 

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of this day with all that it shall bring. 

Direct my will; teach me to pray; pray you yourself in me. Amen.

 –A Prayer from St. Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867)