Advent Week 4: Joy as a Choice

Mary had a choice to make when her life drastically changed the night the the Angel Gabriel visited her. Would she remain in a state of fear or choose joy? According the Gospel writer Luke, Mary’s first response to the angel was fear in the moment, makes sense. But, Mary did not remain in a state of fear. Verse 38 says “the angel left her.” Being there in the room alone with the news of having a child out of wedlock, rehearsing the speech to tell Joseph that she hadn’t slept with another man, trying to figure out what to tell her parents…that reality sounds very scary to me.

After the visit from the angel, Mary soon leaves to be with her cousin Elizabeth because Gabriel told her that Elizabeth was pregnant. It seems that Mary wants to be with someone who might understand what she is going through. The two pregnant women see one another in Elizabeth’s home and the response is joy. The first words out of Mary’s mouth are, “My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord, my soul is full of joy in God my Saviour.”(v46) Had Mary chosen to remain in a state of fear her response could have been much different. She could have focused on how her life would never be the same again, how she was going to have a baby that she didn’t know how to care for. She could have also obsessed about the possibility of being stoned to death when she went back home pregnant. She could have started the conversation with Elizabeth stressed about where they would live, how Joseph would earn money, or any of the other fearful things that come with having a kid. Instead Mary chose joy.

Some might say, of course she chose joy, she was going to give birth to Jesus. The Messiah was inside her. Isn’t that what has happened to us as well? “that sacred mystery which up to now has been hidden in every age and every generation, but which is now as clear as daylight to those who love God. They are those to whom God has planned to give a vision of the full wonder and splendour of his secret plan for the sons of men. And the secret is simply this: Christ in you! Yes, Christ in you bringing with him the hope of all glorious things to come.” (Col 1:25-27) 

Choosing to believe this mystery that Christ is in us could be the way for us to join Mary this Christmas and chose joy over fear, no matter what we are going through.

Advent Week 3: Digging In, Holding On

I read this great article about shepherds.

“You need to be tough as old boots. Imagine working for weeks on end in the rain, and then snow, and lambs dying of hypothermia, with the difference between life and death being you and your knowledge. Even if you do your best they still die, and you will need to keep going. The romance wears off after a few weeks, believe me, and you will be left standing cold and lonely on a mountain. It is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.”

Reading about what is required as a shepherd is giving me a little more insight into why the first group of people to get a visit from the angels were shepherds. According to Luke there were four visits from angels, possibly the same angel. Zacharias, then Mary, then Joseph, then shepherds. So a devout old priest, the mother of Jesus, the father of Jesus and shepherds. (One of these things is not like the other…) That song from Sesame Street just came played in my head.

Back to the shepherds. I love that line from the article, “It’s all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.” I can’t read that enough or say it enough to myself this morning. It’s true. The shepherds knew that. Zacharias knew that from his long life as a priest. Mary and Joseph had a glimpse of this truth through having a child out of wedlock and making the journey to Bethlehem. They would learn this truth more and more as they raised Jesus and his siblings. It is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.

Shepherds knew this truth all too well. They were at the bottom of the social rung, outcasts, you might even say homeless since they primarily slept outside with their flock. There was a strong prejudice against them, especially from rabbi’s and religion leaders. They would have not only felt the pain of their occupation, but also the internal pain of their position in society. If anyone near the birthplace of Jesus needed saving it was the shepherds. Into that context Luke writes:

“There were some shepherds living in the same part of the country, keeping guard throughout the night over their flocks in the open fields. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood by their side, the splendour of the Lord blazed around them, and they were terror-stricken. But the angel said to them,

“Do not be afraid! Listen, I bring you glorious news of great joy which is for all the people. This very day, in David’s town, a Savior has been born for you. He is Christ, the Lord. Let this prove it to you: you will find a baby, wrapped up and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

Three statements stand out to me:

all people; Savior; has been born for you

Some might say these shepherds were the most human, the most real of all those living around Bethlehem. They knew pain, joy, loss, sacrifice, friendship, wonder. They were not only the ones to first hear the news of the baby being born, but they were the first ones to tell others. Their message was about a Savior being born just down the road from where they were tending their sheep. These men who brought this message of hope understood, it is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.

The message of the shepherds was that a baby had come into the world. This baby would  learn that it’s all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on. Not only would baby Jesus learn this as he grew, but he would eventually embody this message as a man, showing all who dare to follow him that it is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.

Maybe that is why Jesus calls himself the good shepherd.

Advent Week 2: Suffering as a Teacher

As followers of Jesus, we don’t really like to talk about suffering. We tend to like to praise God when good things happen, when we land the big deal, our kids succeed at something they worked hard for, or when God provides in some overt way. But if things like perseverance, character and hope are desirable traits, then why are we so surprised when suffering comes?

Jesus’ parents knew suffering. There is one very understated line of Jesus’ birth story in Luke that hints of the suffering of his parents, especially his mom. “…Mary, now in the later stages of her pregnancy. So it happened that it was while they were there in Bethlehem that she came to the end of her time. She gave birth to her first child, a son.” (Luke 2: 5-6) As a man, I know nothing about the suffering of being in the later stages of pregnancy. I have, however, been a witness to the suffering. Any husband who pays attention can see that there is a lot of suffering, especially in the last few weeks before the child comes. I can try to picture being Joseph, traveling 90 miles with Mary by foot or donkey through rough terrain just days before my son’s birth. But, think about the suffering of this teenage girl Mary is almost unimaginable.

Our family has experienced quite a bit of suffering the past three years as we continue to walk through this journey with Anna’s cancer. Similar to when our kids were born, I know nothing of the day-to-day suffering that Anna experiences in her body, but I am a witness to the suffering. I am also experiencing my own suffering as her husband, and as a parent who is raising our three young kids with Anna in this reality.

Paul writes, “…suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint” (Rms 5:3-4) After years of suffering, our family is slowly seeing perseverance, character and hope building in us, especially our children. We also see these traits in our extended family and community of friends who love Jesus and love us. They are suffering through this cancer journey with us, and we are learning together how suffering is a teacher.

“Suffering is not so much about pain as it is about giving up and losing control.”           -Dan Bruner

Advent Week 1: What is Your Desire?

I noticed something about Jesus’ dad Joseph this morning when I dusted off Matthew’s birth of Jesus story for this season of Advent. It appears from the story that Joseph’s desire was to “put her (Mary) away secretly” (Matt 1:19). Mary was pregnant, the child clearly wasn’t his, so Joseph’s desire was to secretly end the betrothal. We are told from Matthew the reason for Joseph’s desire was because he didn’t want to disgrace Mary. Sounds like love to me. I’m guessing the other reason is that he was “a righteous man” and didn’t want to be disgraced himself. But maybe I am reading my own humanity into the story too much.
As Joseph is considering his desire, an angel comes to him in the night and offers clarity to the situation. Matthew’s comment after the angel encounter gives even more insight to the reader of this incredible story. “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “BEHOLDTHE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SONAND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.”(v. 22-23)
 Joseph wakes up from his dream and still has a decision to make, follow his desire or trust the angel, trust God. If he chooses to trust, the promise is Immanuel, God with us. Now for him, that is literal. I can’t imagine actually having God in the flesh with me as a little baby. Being the earthly dad of God in the flesh! That’s the offer. What’s interesting is that God is going to come in the flesh through Mary either way. Joseph can either follow his original desire or trust this crazy promise of the angel and help raise God in the flesh. If he does that he has to believe Immanuel, God is with us, that God is with him.
What if we have a similar decision to make regarding desire and trust? Ours is not as dramatic. No betrothal hanging in the balance, no angel in the night for us (most likely), but still an invitation to trust. This Advent will we trust that God is With Us no matter what is going on in our lives, we will believe the promise of Immanuel?