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.

He Has Done Great Things For Me (Luke 1:46-55)

Madonna of the Magnificat by Sr. Mary Grace Thul

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (New Revised Standard Version)

Mary’s great song of praise, her “Magnificat” came from having grasped the reality of being pregnant with the Messiah. She 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, the mother of Jesus, neither complained nor fretted for the nine months of her pregnancy; she praised God and had clear-headed faith about the grace shown to her. Mary’s canticle gives us insight into the mystery of the Christ’s incarnation: God chooses the weak, those of low esteem, and the powerless.

Mary was quite ordinary for her day. She had no wealth. There was nothing which caused anyone to pick her out of a crowd. Yet, she is the one chosen by God.

Her wonderful response to God’s 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.

What’s more, Mary had the wisdom to discern that her situation typified the Lord’s egalitarian work of leveling the field so that all persons have what they need.

Her son, the Messiah, would carry this 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.

Statue of Mary, Stella Maris Chapel, St. Joseph, Minnesota

God is full of grace, mercy, and strength to those who are powerless and in need of help. The Lord has our back. Perhaps if we all, both individually and corporately, continually used our words to identify and declare the great things God has done, then we would realize and have awareness of the Lord’s abiding blessing. 

One good way of gaining a greater awareness and appreciation of God’s gravity of grace is by journaling.

I encourage you to take some time today and write out some of the ways God has been good to you in the past days, weeks, or months.

Perhaps you might even craft your own song of praise, like Mary, and poetically and/or musically express your gratitude. Or maybe, instead of using words, a sketch or a painting may better communicate the great things God has done for you.

However you choose to do it, like Mary, offer praise for each act of mercy which comes to your memory. 

An outsider, looking in, might judge Mary to be helpless and weak, not the sort of a person who could carry a Messiah. Yet, we get a view from the inside, a glimpse into Mary’s heart. All along, she had her heart calibrated to detect the grace of God when it was present.

May we all follow her example of faith and confidence.

My Soul Magnifies The Lord ~ Chris Tomlin 

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Humanity: Make me worthy to understand the profound mystery of your holy incarnation, which has happened for our sake and for our salvation.

Truly there is nothing so great and wonderful that you, my God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, should become a creature, so that we might become children of God.

You have humbled yourself and made yourself small that we might be made mighty.

You have taken the form of a servant, so that you might confer upon us a royal and divine beauty.

You, who are beyond our understanding, have made yourself understandable to us in Jesus Christ.

You, who are the uncreated God, have made yourself a creature for us.

You, who are the untouchable One, have made yourself touchable to us.

You, who are Most High, make us capable of understanding your amazing love and the wonderful things you have done for us.

Make us able to understand the mystery of your incarnation, the mystery of your life, example, and doctrine, the mystery of your cross and passion, the mystery of your resurrection and ascension. Blessed are you, O Lord, for coming to earth as a man.

You have done great things for me!

Amen, and amen.

John 1:14-18 – This Is the One

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.

John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.”

We all live off his generous abundance,
    gift after gift after gift.
We got the basics from Moses,
    and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
This endless knowing and understanding—
    all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
No one has ever seen God,
    not so much as a glimpse.
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
    who exists at the very heart of the Father,
    has made him plain as day. (The Message)

This is an astounding passage of Holy Scripture! These are verses to savor and not quickly read through. The Apostle John’s opening comments to his Gospel are theologically rich, lovingly beautiful, and missionally sensitive. 

The high and holy God has chosen to come and show himself to us in the person of Jesus. We know God through Christ. We learn about what God is like through Jesus. God has condescended to us, bent down and communicated to us through means we can understand and discern, through the Lord Jesus. 

In the biggest cities of the world, like Mexico City, Mexico and Manilla, Philippines, there are huge garbage dumps that cover several square miles. On top of these heaps of waste there live thousands of families who have made this their home. 

Each day they send their kids out to forage for scraps so they can have something to eat and survive. Few others tread where these families are. Yet, there are believers who make the journey and try to bring the love of God to such a place.

As incredible and sad a situation this is, the journey from heaven to earth that Jesus made has no comparison.  Christ came to the sin-soaked dump of this world, to us who were living on a heap of garbage and entered into our lives to save us from our wretched condition.

“The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension – above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”

St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Jesus did not just appear to be human. He actually became one of us. Christ, the rightful King of the universe, chose to live with all the same things we face from day to day.  He “tabernacled” with us, using the imagery of God’s presence with the ancient Israelites through their desert journey.

John and the other Gospel writers were evangelists; they wrote so that people might believe in Jesus and clearly see what God is doing for them amidst the grinding spiritual and physical poverty of this fallen world.

The Apostle John saw and experienced first-hand Jesus interacting with families in the dump. John knew what was happening; God was coming to save the people. 

The way to reach people, who are so concerned for scurrying about their business and trying to survive apart from God, is through the incarnation. Christ’s descent to this earth – his earthly ministry, his crucifixion, death, resurrection and subsequent ascension back to heaven – demonstrated how we, as his followers, are to live our lives.

Believers in Jesus testify to what God has done in Christ. They do so through being little incarnations, entering fully into people’s lives with the grace and compassion given them by their Lord. Christians are to be like the moon, not we ourselves producing light, but in the middle of darkness, reflecting the light of the sun (Son) so that the earth may know that Jesus cares and can deliver them.

The sort of God that Christians worship and serve is an over-the-top gracious and generous God who has gone to the most incredible lengths possible to restore lost humanity. 

Since God has bridged the great chasm between heaven and earth, the very least we can do is walk across the street, or across the room, and develop a new relationship with someone who needs the sort of deliverance Jesus can expertly provide. 

This is the One, Jesus, who shows us the glory of God.

God’s loving initiative can become our own motivation. Sit and soak with this wonderful passage of the New Testament today. Let it seep deep into your soul. Allow it to shape how you live your life.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Luke 2:41-52 – We Lost God

The Boy Jesus in the Temple by He Qi

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (New International Version)

It’s a terrible sinking feeling to lose a kid. Unfortunately, I’ve done it with all three of mine – and multiple times with the youngest. I’ve even lost other people’s kids. Oy. Yet, I can say that I’ve never had the dubious distinction of losing God.

We have come through the season of Advent and anticipated the birth of Christ. We have celebrated Jesus on Christmas Day. Now, we’re looking to perhaps settle back into a more normal routine of life. Joseph and Mary were trying to do the same, too.

One year, when Jesus was young, they were traveling back to Nazareth – only to discover Jesus was not with them! They lost God.

They aren’t the only ones to search for Jesus. A lot of other people are searching for him, too. They’ve traveled throughout their lives thinking Jesus was with them – only to find he isn’t with them. They lost God. 

Too many people go about their daily lives without realizing Jesus is even missing. They simply assume he’s here. But he isn’t. So, let’s search for him. And in finding him, may we see Jesus as we have never saw him before, so that our faith in God might be strengthened and we do not end up losing him yet again.

Joseph and his family traveled in a large caravan, which was common for that day. They were on their camels an entire day before they discovered Jesus was missing. Mary likely assumed Jesus was riding on the other camel with Uncle Zechariah. 

But he was neither with him nor with cousin John or Aunt Elizabeth. So, the second day Joseph and Mary traveled back, hoping and praying they wouldn’t find Jesus in the ditch, like in the story of the Good Samaritan. Having not found him along the road, they spent the third day scouring Jerusalem in search of Jesus. 

Young Jesus in the Temple by Haitian artist Jean-Baptiste Bottex

Turns out, this whole time, Jesus was at the temple. A parent myself, I’m not a bit surprised that a twelve-year-old stayed behind and thought nothing of it. 

Jesus was curious and inquisitive with the rabbis at the temple. Those ancient teachers taught in a different way than we do today. They gave instruction more like a modern day counselor or therapist. The rabbis didn’t just impart information; they asked questions to help people discover truth for themselves. And the rabbis were amazed at Jesus’ ability to discover truth.

Keep in mind that Jesus was not a thirty-year-old adult in a twelve-year-old body. Christ was sinless but still immature. The human experience involves growth and maturation. Jesus shared fully in our humanity, not partially. When Christ was born, he was not a fully aware adult looking through baby eyes.

Because Jesus is fully human, he had to grow up just like us and learn in every way, just like us. Staying in Jerusalem was not a rebellious act by Jesus. It was typical. Twelve-year-old’s do all kinds of things without saying anything to their parents. There’s a world of difference between being rebellious and plain old garden variety immaturity. It’s unwise for adults to expect adult behavior from adolescent kids.

Jesus felt a deep need to stay and talk with the rabbis. As a human boy, he had to go through the process of self-discovery… of discovering he was the Son of God… of reading the scriptures for himself and learning… and finding he was reading about himself! 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
and became truly human.

Nicene Creed, 325 C.E.

To say that Jesus simply knew everything because he was God is to fall into a heresy the early church condemned at the Council of Nicaea called Docetism. It is the belief that Jesus is fully God and only appeared to be human. No, the Council said, Jesus was really a human being and didn’t just appear to be one. He is like us, in every way, except sin.

Well, of course, Joseph and Mary finally found Jesus. It seems Jesus got the third degree from his mother: “What do you mean putting your father and I through this? I gave you birth, and you treat us like this?  What were you thinking?  What part of meeting at the two-humped camel at 9:00 don’t you understand?”

Since Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and others, how much more do we need to put ourselves in a position to grow and learn and develop and mature? 

There is no spiritual zap machine in which God miraculously imparts into our brains all the wisdom and knowledge we need. Rather, emulating our Lord, we must learn, grow, read, pray, ask questions, struggle, and dialogue about the good news of Jesus Christ with each other. In short, we must discover the truth of God.

Perhaps Jesus is asking us, as he did to Mary and Joseph, “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” 

One person tells the following story: 

“Back when my wife and I were dating, she worked as a temp at a bank. In the first two weeks of that job, she noticed some very unprofessional behavior among the team and their supervisor. The supervisor took long coffee breaks with the employees, sitting and gossiping with them.”

“A new employee, a woman in her thirties who came on staff a week before my wife, was shunned. If she walked up and tried to join the conversation during a coffee break, the conversation ended. The group, including the supervisor, made jokes about her behind her back and laughed at the way she dressed. They rolled their eyes and winked at each other when she was present. It was obvious this newbie worker was perceived as an unnecessary intrusion.”

“Two weeks into the temp job, my wife walked into the office on a Monday morning and was surprised to find a much different scenario. No gossiping, no kidding around, no long coffee breaks. All the employees were diligently working. The previous supervisor had been replaced. The cliquish team addressed the new supervisor with formal, businesslike respect. The new supervisor was not a stranger. It was the 30-something woman who had been shunned and mocked.”

“It turned out the bank had hired her to be the new supervisor from the first day she came on the job three weeks before, but the bank had concealed her true identity so she could observe the work style of the team.”

In some ways, this resembles the coming of Christ to earth. In his first coming, Jesus Christ revealed his true identity and glory to his true followers, but to those who did not believe, his glory was largely hidden by his humanity. Following his resurrection, Christ ascended to the right hand of God, where he rules all things. One day he is coming again to the earth to establish his glorious kingdom over everything. At that time there will be no mistaking who is in charge. 

Let us not lose our way and lose God in our every-day life.  Let us be with Jesus and with him grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and others.