Luke 2:1-20 – The Sound of Salvation

Host of Angels by Mike Moyers

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.

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. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

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

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

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.”

So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (New International Version)

Out of all the sounds of the season, the best of all is the sound of salvation.

The Sound of Activity

The Roman census brought a crowd of people to small village of Bethlehem. Because most were related to one another, it was like one big family reunion. There was lots of noise, with people talking, laughing, and sleeping.

We are a busy society and a busy people. The Christmas season only seems to exacerbate our busy-ness. Jesus can get lost in all the noise. We can miss the point of it all because of our preoccupations with all those seemingly necessary things in our lives. And it can be hard to hear and to listen to God. The sound of activity eventually needs to give way to another sound….

The Sound of Silence

Bethlehem was so busy that no one paid attention to the most cataclysmic event ever to take place. But out in the fields, all was quiet. The shepherds were there, quietly watching over their sheep. In the silence, they were able to experience the sound of good news.

Like a good pot of tea, we must allow the Word of God to seep in us, allowing the heat to do its work so that we might listen well to the divine voice. If we come at the Word with a cold heart, it will likely not do us a lot of good – we need to be hot and receive the Word with humility and respond to the Word with wisdom. As we allow God to seep in us, we become acutely aware of a beautiful sound….

The Sound of Joy

The shepherds heard good news of great joy from the angels. And then they shared their joy and went to worship the newborn Christ. It was a great celebration. After all, how often do a multitude of angels show up with an unsolicited concert of joy!?

We can imagine the sound of the shepherds’ unbounded joy at hearing the good news that the promised Savior has come! They just had to go and see Jesus, and then told everyone about it. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

There’s nothing quite like hearing good news, then sharing good news. Sadly, however, the story does not end there because not everyone was happy about Jesus being born as the King….

The Sound of Crying

King Herod saw Jesus as a potential rival, and he callously had every baby boy in Bethlehem killed when he found out the news. (Matthew 2:1-18)

We must keep in mind that not everyone is joyous at Christmas. Past grief associated with the holiday season can make it difficult to participate in the celebration. So, we need to be aware of the lamenting folks around us and hear their sad crying so that we can be agents of comfort and grace.

And let us also not forget, another sound of crying is the baby Jesus. Yes, he really cried. Jesus is truly human with all the sounds and experiences that go with being human. (Hebrews 2:10-17)

Conclusion

The sounds of activity, silence, joy, and crying are all part of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. To truly experience a full-orbed Christian spirituality, we will pay attention to the range of sounds occurring around us at this time of year.

Eternal God, who breathed this world into being, and placed stars into the heavens: You are the God who entrusted Jesus to the care of ordinary people, becoming vulnerable so that we might know the power of Love – a mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp, and so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

Circle us, Lord, with the light of your presence, bright within this dark world. Enable us to be overcomers of fear and temptation, and victors over sin and despair. Circle this world with the joy of your salvation. Where there is sickness and disease, bring healing. Where there is hunger and despair, bring hope. Where there is bondage, bring freedom. Lord of our salvation, circle this world with the light of your presence. Amen.

Micah 4:6-8 – Belonging

“In that day,” declares the Lord,

“I will gather the lame;
    I will assemble the exiles
    and those I have brought to grief.
I will make the lame my remnant,
    those driven away a strong nation.
The Lord will rule over them in Mount Zion
    from that day and forever.
As for you, watchtower of the flock,
    stronghold of Daughter Zion,
the former dominion will be restored to you;
    kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.” (New International Version)

One of the great tragedies of our world, as well as one of the worst feelings of humanity, is the sense that one does not belong.

Since people are hard-wired by God for community, belonging is essential, not optional. The image of the rugged individualist who gets things done on their own terms and marches to the beat of a different drum might be an appealing picture to many Westerners – but it falls woefully short of real lived human experience.

Since the fall of humanity, people have tended to group themselves into insiders and outsiders. In other words, discrimination is the enemy of true belonging. And, what’s more, there always seems to be people who are ready to create such division for their own purpose and profit. Indeed, it’s an age old tale, perhaps best told by Dr. Seuss in his classis book, Sneetches and Other Stories (1961).

In the story, Sneetches with stars on their bellies discriminate against and shun those without. A slick entrepreneur, Sylvester McMonkey McBean, offers the Sneetches without stars on their bellies the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars, of course.

The application of stars upon thars is instantly and wildly popular. However, this abjectly upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches. They are in danger of losing their special status! So, McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, of course, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily pay the money to have them removed.

Since McBean only cares about profit, he allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine, as well. Ultimately, the entire affair escalates, with all the Sneetches running from one machine to the next…

“…until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew

whether this one was that one… or that one was this one…

or which one was what one… or what one was who.”

The Sneetches end up penniless. McBean leaves a rich man. The Sneetches learn from the experience that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior. They finally become friends. Dr. Suess intended his story to be a satire of discrimination between races and cultures.

The kingdom of God is an egalitarian realm. There are no walls and barriers dividing people into opposing groups. And there isn’t such a thing as marginal, excluded, insignificant, forbidden, or discounted people.

Micah’s prophecy tells not of the privileged and powerful coming together for renewal but the lame. God’s care in maintaining a remnant and gathering them for restoration will be made up of the wounded, the ones who have no ability to bring themselves to the center.

The upside-down kingdom of God makes the last first, and the first, last. The Lord’s rule and reign champions the disabled and the misfits – those without an ability to come. They may be forgotten by others but never by God.

Like Santa coming to the island of misfit toys, rescuing and airlifting forgotten toys so that they can become treasured gifts for boys and girls – so God creates belonging where there seems none to be had. And leading the effort is a tossed aside reindeer named Rudolph, using his unique “deformity” to cut through the tough winter storm.

Perhaps you feel a bit, or maybe a lot, like the square peg trying to fit into a round hole. It could be that you wonder whether there is a place for you. You have experienced life as something of an oddity, as if the normal world around you is not aware of your very personhood.

The good news is that a prominent place is given to the humble, for those attempting to make a difference in the world that gives them no place to belong. God sees. God hears. God knows. God cares.

The Lord sends a Savior, a Deliverer, who will himself be a peculiar individual on this earth. It will seem as if he is from another place… which he is. But, then again, aren’t we all? Each of us was crafted with divine care and attention.

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
    you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
    Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
    when I was being put together in a secret place,
    when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
    and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
    before any one of them had yet happened. (Psalm 139:13-16, CEB)

The Lord has good plans for you and me. It might seem as if there are times God is placing a heavy hand upon us, even punishing. Yet, restoration is in the future. In this season of the year, we celebrate that Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

May Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one, things earthly and heavenly, fill you with joy and peace. Amen.

Luke 1:46b-55 – Mary’s Magnificat

Mary’s Magnificat by Br. Mickey McGrath

Mary responded,

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
    How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
    and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
    and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
    to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
    He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
    and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
    and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and his children forever.” (New Living Translation)

Mary’s great song of praise grasps the reality of being pregnant with the Messiah. Mary affirmed that the all-powerful God “has done great things for me.” Indeed, the Lord shows mercy to everyone who worships and adores such mighty acts.

It strikes me that Mary, instead of being full of worry and afraid of the future, and as an unmarried teen with child, is full of the Spirit and faith. Mary neither complained nor fretted for the nine months of her pregnancy; she praised God and was clear-headed about the grace shown to her.

Mary’s canticle gives us insight into the mystery of the incarnation: God chooses the weak, those of low esteem, and the powerless.

Mary was rather ordinary. She had no wealth. She possessed nothing which would cause anyone to pick her out of a crowd. Yet, she is the one chosen by God. And her wonderful response to grace demonstrated that there is so much more to any person than what we can see with our eyes and perceive through our earthly glasses of high positions and strength of personalities.

The mother of Jesus had the wisdom to discern that her situation typified the Lord’s egalitarian work of leveling the field. Mary’s pregnancy normalized the needs of all people. Her son, the Deliverer, would carry this understanding into his own life and ministry – declaring good news to the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for captives, telling those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

God is full of grace, mercy, and power to the powerless and the needy. The Lord has our backs. Perhaps if we all, both individually and corporately, continually used our words to identify and declare the great things God has done we would realize the consistent blessing of the Lord. 

As we near the night of our Lord’s birth, take some time to reflect on the ways God has been good to you in this Advent season, and like Mary, offer praise for each act of mercy. Mary exhibited no helplessness but had her heart calibrated to detect the grace of God when it was present.

Great and mighty God, I will praise you with all my heart.  You care for me and always show mercy to those who worship you.  Fulfill all your good promises in me, and in all your people, for the sake of your Son, the Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Romans 8:18-30 – Anticipating Hope

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope, we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (New Revised Standard Version)

Christians everywhere are presently anticipating the Nativity of the Lord, the birth of the Christ child. Not only Christians, but all people anticipate better days, hoping that during this season of goodwill that basic human kindness will be prolific and extend into the new year.

The brokenness of the world is dominated by disease and dissent. As of this writing, well over five million people have died worldwide due to COVID-19. I myself have attended dozens of those deaths. The grief, not only of losing a loved one, but many of them dying alone, is palpable.

If that weren’t bad enough, disease has become a political game. While there are currently two-hundred fifty million people infected with some strain of the coronavirus, far too many without the disease are using it to posture and position for their shortsighted rights.

And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of other world and national problems, beset with such a cacophony of dissenting voices bickering at one another, that innocent lives get ruined or lost. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Thanks be to God. There is an intervention. Hope is imminent. A star rises in the east. A leader is to be born – one who is deeply concerned for the common good of all people – one who will rule with equity and justice.

The believer’s salvation, in a gestation period of anticipation, is nearly full term. Expectation, patience, joy, and pain are part of the experience while we wait. Meanwhile, we must remain encouraged and healthy, keeping our future hope always in front of us so that we will not lose heart.

When injustice runs amok, and we are limited in what we can do about it, we pray. And then, there are times when we are flat on our backs, overwhelmed with our circumstances, not even able to utter any words in prayer.

Christians are awaiting their redemption. So, perseverance is needed. While waiting, it does no good to be like Eeyore and feel sorry for ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, it also does no good to always be smiling, positive, and upbeat as if nothing is worth grieving over. 

Grief and lament, hope and joy, must all be held together at the same time. Without the simultaneous embrace, we will live in abject denial – tightly gripping one hand while ignoring the other, as if we don’t have two of them.

Indeed, we live in an awkward time. Nothing is as it was, and nothing is as it should be… yet. This time of spiritual pregnancy, in which we possess salvation but do not yet possess it in all its fullness, is a weird liminal space in which we often don’t quite know what to do.

There is so much groaning going on because we realize there is such a large gap between where we are and where we want to be. If women could have babies without nine months of struggle, limitation, and pain I think they would opt for that instead of the way it is now. There is a time coming when every tear will be wiped away and unending joy will rule. No more disease. No more dissent. No more death.

All of creation groans because where it is now and where it will be seems like such a long time in coming.  Every creature and every living thing will experience decay and death. The world is not yet redeemed from its cursed bondage. So, the earth vomits disasters and diseases because we live in this fallen world that is not yet redeemed.

Humanity groans because we fall victim to circumstances beyond our control. We also groan because of our own poor choices that give us grief. Although we have been delivered from sin, death, and hell and experience spiritual power… we still must wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies.

Yes, we are keenly aware of the terrible disconnect between where we are as people and where we want to be. It is something of feeling like Pinocchio, not yet a real boy who has to deal with strings and other puppeteers who do not care about him; and, who feels the need to lie because of his situation and pays the consequence of his nose growing.

Yet, a deeper thing is happening under the surface: Our frustrations, longings, lusts, jealousies, and escapist daydreams, things we might be ashamed of to take to prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways than we ever do consciously.

Take courage. The time is at hand.

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11, NRSV)

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward humanity.