All I Want for Christmas Is Faith

Annunciation to Mary by Salvador Dali, 1965

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered.  “May it be to me as you have said.”  Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, NIV)

Most of life is lived in the mundane, even in a time of pandemic. For the most part our everyday lives involve going about our business and dealing with the daily grind. That is because we are common ordinary people. So, we can especially relate to Mary because she is quite plain. 

To put Mary’s life in our contemporary vernacular, at the time of this encounter with the angel, she is of junior high age but has never attended school. She wears mostly clothes from Goodwill, and occasionally can get some from Wal-Mart. She cannot read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We do not know if she even liked him. She lives in a small town that most people cannot point to on a map. 

One night, into the bedroom of this young girl comes the brightly beaming divine messenger Gabriel whose name means, “God has shown himself mighty.” Mary stands there in her ratty old flannel nightgown, her life very quickly moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The juxtaposition could not be more pronounced:  a mighty angel and a plain teen-ager; a messenger of the Most High God and a girl barely past puberty; a holy angelic light which beams in a simple candlelit bedroom; an awesome power encountering complete vulnerability.

Annunciation by Mexican painter Angel Zárraga (1886-1946)

Mary, compared to Gabriel, is defenseless, fragile, and overwhelmed. She is in way over her head. That is why we can relate to her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She is like us. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life and altered it forever. She is the Matron Saint of the Ordinary. We can totally understand why Mary responds the way she does.

Mary’s initial reaction was to be “greatly troubled.”  She was disturbed and shaking in her hand-me-down slippers. The angel confidently told Mary that she had found favor with God. In other words, Mary was literally “graced” by God. The situation was not that Mary had some extreme spirituality, but that God simply chose her to be the mother of Jesus. And Mary needed to come to grips with what was happening to her.  This was well beyond anything she could have expected.  Becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world was not even remotely on her radar. 

Mary immediately sensed the crazy disconnect between what was being told to her and who she was. After all, she was a plain ordinary girl from the hick town of Nazareth and was being told that she would raise a king.  Maybe somebody in heaven screwed up. Maybe Gabriel got the wrong girl. Maybe his Google map sent Gabriel on a wild goose chase. Relating to Mary, we can totally understand that she would question how in the world all this was going to happen.  Not only is Mary ordinary and far from royalty, but she is also very much a virgin.  Nothing about any of this made any sense.

But the angel let Mary know that God specializes in the impossible. English translators chose to phrase the original rendering of Gabriel’s words as “for nothing is impossible with God.” I rather prefer the more literal translation which is “for there is nothing outside of God’s power.” To me, that is beautiful. There is nowhere we can go, no place on earth, no situation whatsoever that is beyond God’s ability and reach to affect divine power.

We do not always get straightforward answers to our questions about God, but Mary asked a question and got a straight answer: She really can be pregnant with Jesus because the Holy Spirit will come upon her, will overshadow her with power. If the story were to end there it would be a great story. But to me the most astonishing part of the narrative is Mary’s response to what was happening to her.

Mary believed the message and submitted herself completely to God’s will. I think we would completely understand if Mary simply said in her ordinary way that she was not prepared for this. We would totally “get it” if Mary pushed back on what the angel said to her. We could relate if Mary just dismissed the angel’s presence, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, as if Gabriel were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Yet, Mary not only believed; she also humbly submitted herself to what was happening. And this is what I believe we need to relate to most about Mary – not her being just a plain ordinary person in a non-descript village but stepping up to the calling she received. We, too, have received a calling in our lives. We, too, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, too, are ordinary people who have been given a very extraordinary task. 

Our response today can be the same as Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.” The Church is pregnant with possibilities because of the Holy Spirit. We know the end of Mary’s story. She gave birth to Jesus. She raised him in her plain ordinary way. She watched him grow up. She saw him embark on his ministry to proclaim the kingdom of God has become near. Mary did not always understand what Jesus said or what he was doing. And she experienced every mother’s nightmare in seeing her beloved son killed in a terribly gruesome manner right in front of her eyes. 

Yet, just as the Holy Spirit was with the birth of Jesus, so the Spirit was with Jesus at his resurrection from the dead. Jesus lived an ordinary life in a very extraordinary way. Furthermore, today Jesus invites us to do the same. Because Christ accomplished his mission of saving people from their sins and establishing a kingdom that will never end, he has given us the same Holy Spirit to follow him forever and call other people to follow him, too. 

To trust and obey is God’s only way to live into the life of Jesus. The Christian life may often be difficult, but it is not complicated. It is rather simple, just like Mary. Mary responded to God’s revelation with faith, choosing to fully participate in what God was doing. “I am the Lord’s servant” is our confession, as well. Along with Mary we declare, “May it be to me as you have said.”

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 – Being Confident

Our Lord, I will sing
    of your love forever.
Everyone yet to be born
    will hear me praise
    your faithfulness.
I will tell them,
“God’s love
    can always be trusted,
    and his faithfulness lasts
    as long as the heavens.”

You said, “David, my servant,
    is my chosen one,
    and this is the agreement
    I made with him:
David, one of your descendants
    will always be king….”

In a vision, you once said
    to your faithful followers:
“I have helped a mighty hero.
    I chose him from my people
    and made him famous.
David, my servant, is the one
    I chose to be king,
    and I will always be there
    to help and strengthen him.

No enemy will outsmart David,
    and he won’t be defeated
    by any hateful people.
I will strike down and crush
    his troublesome enemies.
He will always be able
    to depend on my love,
    and I will make him strong
    with my own power.
I will let him rule the lands
    across the rivers and seas.
He will say to me,
‘You are my Father
    and my God,
    as well as the mighty rock
    where I am safe.’” (CEV)

I wonder where the world places its confidence. I also sometimes wonder where the church places her confidence. Poverty, injustice, starvation, human rights violations, and war have existed throughout time. We all recognize these and the awful problems they are for so many people. It is, however, quite another thing when it comes to our confidence in addressing them and how they will ever be eradicated.

If we view these great humanitarian issues as a matter of ignorance, we will pursue education as the means of tackling them. If we discern them as political issues, we will seek to elect officials who will take them on, and we will lobby to make things different. If we understand them as moral issues, we will agitate for change and speak prophetically into what we believe to be the sources of the problems. In truth, each of these approaches have merit and are necessary components to a full orbed attention of their multifaceted and complicated nature.

For the pious and devout, the ultimate confidence comes in basic faith and trust of the Divine. God’s faithfulness and steadfast love are the solid foundation from which the believer constructs her hope and confidence.

The psalmist is not one bit bashful in reminding God of divine promises. God swore to King David that his descendants would rule forever. At the time the psalmist crafted these words, it was not looking much like those promises were having any attention from the Lord.

The David spoken of in the psalm is interpreted in the Christian tradition as Jesus. King David of old was certainly no perfect man, and the psalmist presents an idealized version, looking ahead to messianic qualities of a coming Ruler. Those qualities include a concern for the common good of all persons without striving for personal power or being aloof; and an ability to be victorious over foes.

Advent, much like today’s Psalm, calls on people to rely upon and have confidence in divine promises – even when those promises seem far from being realized. It is the trust and hope of the faithful which perseveres in prayer for a coming redemption and a day when wars shall cease, the rights of people are thoroughly met, starvation eradicated, injustice turned to justice, and poverty done away with once for all. In other words, a sinless world free from the machinations of evil.

It is no small thing holding on to our confidence as believers when circumstances all around us are askew and askance. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews had this to say to a struggling church who had a hard time seeing future promises fulfilled:

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (Hebrews 10:32-39, NIV)

We keep going by remembering God’s faithfulness and steadfast love, and our past joy of committed faith. Then, like psalmist, we allow a song to bubble up and be sung about divine goodness. Never underestimate the power of memory and music to keep us on track toward living each day in faith and confidence.

May you be able to sing of God’s love forever.

May you give voice to God’s faithfulness.

May you express daily affirmations of faith in God.

May you bank on the promises of God.

May your faith be strengthened for the rigors of this life.

May your hope overflow.

May the love of God work in and through you to the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen.

I Could Sing of Your Love Forever by Encounter Worship Band.

Psalm 27 – Waiting Patiently

The Waiting Room by South African artist Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993)

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
    so why should I be afraid?
The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger,
    so why should I tremble?
When evil people come to devour me,
    when my enemies and foes attack me,
    they will stumble and fall.
Though a mighty army surrounds me,
    my heart will not be afraid.
Even if I am attacked,
    I will remain confident.

 The one thing I ask of the Lord—
    the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
    delighting in the Lord’s perfections
    and meditating in his Temple.
For he will conceal me there when troubles come;
    he will hide me in his sanctuary.
    He will place me out of reach on a high rock.
Then I will hold my head high
    above my enemies who surround me.
At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
    singing and praising the Lord with music.

 Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
    Be merciful and answer me!
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
    And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”
Do not turn your back on me.
    Do not reject your servant in anger.
    You have always been my helper.
Don’t leave me now; don’t abandon me,
    O God of my salvation!
Even if my father and mother abandon me,
    the Lord will hold me close.

 Teach me how to live, O Lord.
    Lead me along the right path,
    for my enemies are waiting for me.
Do not let me fall into their hands.
    For they accuse me of things I’ve never done;
    with every breath they threaten me with violence.
Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness
    while I am here in the land of the living.

Wait patiently for the Lord.
    Be brave and courageous.
    Yes, wait patiently for the Lord. (NLT)

The message of the Advent season is perfectly and succinctly encapsulated in this heartfelt psalm to wait patiently for the Lord. Oh, how impatient we can be as people!  Not only do we anticipate the celebration of Christmas with the coming Christ child, but we long for deliverance, courage, help, strength, and, of course, patience.

The way to wait patiently is through hope. And hope is one of those things which needs to be continually be fortified. Whatever it is that we desire to see realized – the return of a wayward son or daughter; revitalization and revival within the church; courage to face the high wall of adversity; protection and deliverance from mean-spirited people; an end to pandemic; freedom from racism and injustice – whatever the situation we long for, patience is to be our breakfast every morning to help us through each day, living one day at a time, putting one foot forward.

Apart from patience and faith in God, we will lose our spiritual zeal and settle for a mediocre existence with tepid relationships and lukewarm engagement of the world. God desires more for us than simply having a marriage in which two people only exist under the same roof; for church to be more than buildings, budgets, and butts in the pews; for our work to be more than a necessary evil to make a living; for our lives to be more than fear, worry, and anxiety; more than broken dreams, messed up relationships, and situations gone sideways.

The confident expectation of hope neither eliminates trouble from our lives nor magically makes everything better. Deep faith, like the psalmist expressed, does not change reality – but it does change us. The way in which we view and handle our troubles is understood differently through the filter of faith and the lens of hope. The mammoth adversity in our lives is no longer feared because of settled trust in God; the danger which lurks about has no teeth to hold us when we are secure in the Lord.

The actions we ourselves take toward God amidst the fallen nature of this world are to wait and hope, be strong and take courage. It is precisely when we are totally discombobulated that these actions are to take effect. “I believe…” and “I have confidence…” become the beginning pronoun and verbs to every sentence we utter. So, let us flesh out those words:

I believe the Lord is the Light which keeps me safe and illumines my path.

I believe the Lord is my Fortress, a castle to protect me.

I believe the Lord is an Army surrounding me, defending my life.

I believe the Lord is the Rock of my salvation, keeping me secure.

I believe the Lord is a Parent who holds me close and does not let go.

I believe the Lord is the righteous, just, and good Judge, always extending grace and mercy to me.

Therefore, I have confidence and courage to engage the world, knowing God has my back.

I have confidence God will handle malevolent persons, systemic evil, and sinister forces on my behalf.

I have confidence I can approach God, since God’s character is always gracious and loving.

I have confidence to pray with authority, understanding God is the Sovereign of the universe.

I have confidence better days are ahead, that the Christ is soon coming.

I have confidence God bends to attentively listen to me praying.

I have confidence God is neither angry at me nor hidden from me.

I have confidence God shall lead me, guide me, and teach me in the way I ought to go.

Rather than losing heart, we can be strengthened with solid theology. Making daily affirmations of faith, persevering in hope, and performing small acts of love are our daily tasks while we wait and watch….

Almighty and everlasting God, the One who sees, knows, and protects, by the power of your Holy Spirit, you are refining us, purifying our discipleship, pulling us into following Jesus in this scary new world of uncertainty. Grant us mercy and grace to trust you more deeply, for the only secure place is with you, our light and our salvation, the stronghold of our life. We pray in the name of Jesus, the first-born of your new creation, and our hope, our life. Amen.

Psalm 27 by British songwriter and producer Jonathan Ogden

John 6:25-35 – The Bread of Life

The Breaking of the Bread by Sr. Mary Stephen

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So, they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NIV)

Christians everywhere hold to Jesus as the Son of God, Lord of the universe, and Savior of all. However, for most people who were following Jesus around in the first century, this was not their understanding of Christ.  In his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke in ways that introduced people to who he really was and sought to bring them to a point of following him based on his identity. 

Jesus wanted the crowds to him for who he really is – themselves for what they really needed – and follow him based on the deepest needs of their lives. I believe Jesus is the hope of all nations and all people, and in him humanity’s most basic and profound needs are met for forgiveness, love, and purpose in life. To address this, I ask three basic philosophical and theological questions of life:

What should human beings seek the most and work the hardest for in life?

The responses in history are legion. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought a proper appreciation for an ethical and virtuous life found in practical wisdom was where people’s most concerted efforts should be.  Karl Marx, the father of communism and socialism believed the proletariat should use their heads and their hands to rise above their economic conditions and oppression. In the late 1960’s, Bobby Kennedy said we ought to be working the hardest to achieve justice and not advance ourselves on the misfortunes of others. In more recent times, the Harvard Business Review is continually on the lookout for the best ways of being efficient, productive, and making the most of time because work itself is paramount.

Jesus said people are not to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.

He said this coming off one of his most famous miracles of all, the feeding of the five thousand.  Afterward, Jesus withdrew overnight to a place of solitude and prayer. He did another miraculous event by walking on water out to his disciples in a boat. In the morning, he and they were on the other side of the lake. The crowd did not know where he was and went looking for him.

Jesus knew the crowd of people wanted more. What they got was perhaps unexpected. Jesus told them to put their efforts into getting the bread that keeps on feeding. Jesus wanted the people to pursue and follow him not only for the things he could do for them, but to seek him for who he is. 

Jesus had further aspirations for the people beyond providing a supper – he desired the people to feast on himself – to ingest him, to take him into their lives in a deep and profound way as the fulfillment of all the hope and promises of the Old Testament. 

Jesus Feeds the Crowd by American artist Eric Feather

Jesus is the bread, the basic staple of life, that meets the cravings and needs of all people everywhere. Starving people, both in body and spirit, find in Jesus a meal which keeps on giving, a feast of grace that is both delectable and unending.

The answer to my own question is that, for me, one’s highest pursuit and greatest quest is Jesus. Apart from Christ, I will starve. Furthermore, Jesus is not some cheap fast food off a value menu; he is real soul food to be ingested and enjoyed with others.

I believe people need Jesus. A passionate seeking of Jesus, to follow him, live for him, center life around him, is my most ardent desire. I do not simply desire Jesus for what he can do for me; I vigorously chase after him because if I do not have Jesus, I will die, I will starve to death. 

For me, Jesus is so much more than a nice addition to my life, like a new puppy; Jesus is Lord and Savior. I must consume him, or I will be completely undone, and I will not survive! Jesus is my bread, my food, my life!  I cannot survive on a daily crumb, but I feast on every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus because in Christ there is the life that is truly life.

What should human beings be doing to do the works of God?

The short answer: believe. To have and keep faith in the One God has sent, Jesus, is the primary “work” that pleases God. Jesus communicated to the crowd that they can do so much more than follow him for another earthly meal – they can place their faith and hope in him for food that will last, food that will transcend the three-dimensional world.

Faith is more than an intellectual recognition to some facts about Christianity. And belief is not about always having clarity and certainty to every facet and loci of Christian doctrine. No, Christian faith is complete trust in Jesus as our hope and our life. Education, economic uplift, political stability, and institutional peace and justice are important activities for this world. For the Christian, the accomplishment of these and so much more comes from the grace of God in Christ. As people come to the end of themselves with their homebrewed and half-baked attempts at being satisfied, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, the Living Bread who offers himself for humanity’s deepest needs.

Giving kudos to Jesus might be nice, yet Christ himself cares about folks placing their trust in him for grace, forgiveness, and hope in their world. Jesus longs to reconnect people with God through giving himself as the means of making that happen. All the works we do in this life, every good deed we accomplish, and each positive action we do are all helpful and necessary… and they all pale in comparison to the greatest work of all, to believe in Jesus Christ as the hope of this world, the hope of your family, the hope of the church, and the hope of your life and mine. And it is all accessed by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Who really does the will of God?

Answer: Those who come to God through Christ. The person who comes to Jesus will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Christ will never be thirsty. Such persons do the will of God. They do not settle for signs of Jesus but desire him and find their ultimate satisfaction in him.

Yet far too many people settle for signs of Jesus rather than Jesus himself. It would be silly if I drove to a sign on Interstate 94 that said, “Milwaukee” and sat there under it, believing I was really in the city of Milwaukee. And it would be weird if I looked around for the art museum or other places underneath the sign.

Church buildings and furniture, stained-glass windows, pews, and even the Bible are not Jesus – they are simply and hopefully signs which point to him. They are all designed to lead us to Christ so that we may come to him. And coming to Christ is what the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and any other description you want to give about ingesting Jesus is about. The elements of bread and cup bring us to Christ so that we can experience Jesus and be joined to him by faith in a mystical union of human and divine in the unseen heaven.

Conclusion

Where will you find true satisfaction and hope? Probably not in the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. Likely not in conforming to cultural Christianity or embracing generic forms of Jesus as merely good teacher and moral example. Furthermore, life’s ultimate satisfaction and hope are not to be found in a spotless house and perfect kids; in working more hours and making more money. Nor will we find contentment and peace in the radical independence of doing things my way.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. Through ingesting him, passionately pursuing him, believing in him, and coming to him in everything, we find the life that is truly life. Do not settle for any substitutes to Jesus. Come to the real person.

Lord God, you said that when we seek you with all our hearts, you will be found.  As the deer pants for streams of water, so we, your people, long for you in a dry and weary land.  We hunger and thirst for your righteousness.  We deeply desire your presence in all things. So, we die to ourselves and surrender to your will and way for us, by faith trusting you will come into our lives and completely take over. May your blessing rest upon us as we seek Jesus. Amen.

By Forever Be Sure