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.

Christmas Day

Ethiopian Orthodox Church icon of the Nativity

Merry Christmas! Christ is born! Joy to the world!

On this glorious day for Christians everywhere, the following are the lectionary readings for today. I suggest reading them aloud – with flavor – alongside your family and friends. May you find in the Christ child newfound hope and enduring encouragement.

Old Testament lesson: Isaiah 62:6-12

Upon your walls, Jerusalem,
    I have appointed sentinels.
Continually, all day and all night,
    they won’t keep silent.
You who call on the Lord, don’t rest,
    and don’t allow God to rest
    until he establishes Jerusalem,
    and makes it the praise of the earth.
The Lord has promised
    with raised hand and strong arm:
    I will never again give your grain
    as food for your enemies.
    Foreigners won’t drink your wine
    for which you labored.
Those who harvest will eat it
    and will praise the Lord;
    those who gather will drink it
    in my holy courtyards.

Pass through, pass through the gates;
    prepare the way for the people!
Build, build the road;
    clear away the stones!
    Raise up a signal for the peoples.
This is what the Lord announced
    to the earth’s distant regions:
Say to Daughter Zion, “Look! Your deliverer arrives,
    bringing reward and payment!”
They will be called The Holy People,
    Redeemed By the Lord.
And you will be called Sought After—
    A City That Is Not Abandoned. (Common English Bible)

Psalm lesson: Psalm 97

The Lord rules! Let the earth rejoice!
    Let all the islands celebrate!
Clouds and thick darkness surround God.
    His throne is built on righteousness and justice.
Fire proceeds before him,
    burning up his enemies on every side.
His lightning lights up the world;
    the earth sees it and trembles!
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of the whole world!

Heaven has proclaimed God’s righteousness,
    and all nations have seen his glory.
All those who worship images,
    those who are proud of idols,
    are put to shame.
    All gods bow down to the Lord!
Zion has heard and celebrates,
    the towns of Judah rejoice,
    because of your acts of justice, Lord,
    because you, Lord, are the Most High
        over all the earth,
    because you are so superior to all other gods.

Those of you who love the Lord, hate evil!
    God guards the lives of his faithful ones,
    delivering them from the power of the wicked.
Light is planted like seed for the righteous person;
    joy too for those whose heart is right.
Rejoice in the Lord, righteous ones!
    Give thanks to his holy name! (Common English Bible)

Nativity by Chinese artist He Qi, 1998

New Testament lesson: Titus 3:4-7

God our Savior showed us
    how good and kind he is.
He saved us because
    of his mercy,
and not because
of any good things
    that we have done.

God washed us by the power
    of the Holy Spirit.
He gave us new birth
    and a fresh beginning.
God sent Jesus Christ
our Savior
    to give us his Spirit.

Jesus treated us much better
    than we deserve.
He made us acceptable to God
and gave us the hope
    of eternal life. (Contemporary English Version)

Gospel lesson: Luke 2:8-20

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (New King James Version)

May the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise, the obedience of Joseph and Mary, and the peace of the Christ child be yours this Christmas. And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

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.

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.