Happy Holiday

I’ve been taking a holiday.

December is a good month to sit quietly, sip something warm, and reflect.

I like to look back at the lessons and gifts of the passing year.

I like to think about what to pray and hope for in the coming year.

But mostly I like to listen.

To the quiet.

This Advent season, I feel a holy shushing.

So I’m taking a happy holiday from my words to hear the Word.

There has been the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.

Will I be prepared?

There will soon be the voice of one crying out in the manger.

Will I hear it?

Shhh…

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People Get Ready

“And he will go on before the Lord….to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  Luke 1:17

I can just imagine what Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, thought when he returned home from the temple with big news.

“But Elizabeth, honey, an angel told me.  We have to try again.”

No immaculate conception for this couple.

They had to have a baby the old fashioned way.

“Zechariah, dear, are you sure you didn’t sniff too much incense?”

This child would have a single purpose — get the people ready.  Elizabeth’s baby would grow up to be the opening act, warming up the crowd for the coming of Mary’s baby, the headliner: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

John had a one-sentence sermon to prepare people for the Savior:

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

So that’s how we get ready for Christmas.

That’s how we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord.

Repent.  Christmas is at hand.  People, get your hearts ready.

I’ve still got cookies to bake, cards to send, presents to wrap and floors to mop.

But there’s a voice calling in the midst of all that.

“Prepare the way for the Lord!  Make straight paths for him!  Fill in the valleys! Level off the mountains!  Straighten out the curves!  Smooth out the bumps!  Savior is coming!”

Inconceivable

Privates shouldn’t question a general’s command.

Errand boys shouldn’t challenge a CEO’s decision.

And evidently, humans shouldn’t doubt an angel’s words.

After appearing to Zechariah in the temple, the angel Gabriel delivered a lengthy message to the elderly priest.  The detailed description of what was about to happen even included the name heaven picked out for the coming baby — John.  A plain name for an extraordinary infant.  According to the angel, the baby would be

great in the sight of the Lord“,

filled with the Holy Spirit“,

and “in the spirit and power of Elijah“.

This child would do great things.

He will go before the Lord“,

turn the hearts of the fathers to their children“,

and “make ready a people prepared for the Lord“.

Since Malachi prophesied the final words of the Old Testament, there had been silence from God for 400 years.  No “thus sayeth the Lord“, no angel visitations, no visions.  Gabe’s big moment had finally arrived and it was met by questioning unbelief.  In Zech’s mind, this idea (and baby) was inconceivable.

“How will I know this is going to happen?”  CEV

“By what shall I know and be sure of this?”  AMP

“How can I know that what you say is true?” Exp

“How shall I know if this is so?”  GN

“Do you expect me to believe this?” Message

Unfortunately, Zechariah didn’t stop there, but felt he needed to explain to the heavenly being the facts of the situation.  “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  What did he expect the angel to say?  “Oh, I didn’t know all that.  Well then, never mind”?  Actually, Gabriel got a little irritated with the human being and put him on mute for the next nine months.  Very effective.  “Zechariah paid a price for his unbelief. His unbelief did not make God take his promise back; it just kept Zechariah from enjoying it.  When we do not believe God’s promise for our lives, we do not necessarily destroy the promise; but we do destroy our ability to enjoy the promise. What made this such a severe punishment was that Zechariah had such great news to tell.”  David Guzik

Mary also got a visit from Gabriel with equally startling news.  Mary also asked a “how” question — “How will this be?”  But she received a straight-forward answer and no reprimand because her question was not laced with doubt.  “Mary’s question is logical. She asks basically the same question Zechariah asked but his question was asked in skeptical unbelief, her question was asked in wonder-filled faith.”  David Guzik

Lord, may my questions be free from skeptical unbelief

and filled with awe-inspired faith.

And go ahead and shut me up when You need to.

Expired Prayers

The thing about prayer is — there is no expiration date.

So, sometimes I have to go back and undo foolish requests.

“Oh God, You know that thing I said I wanted?  I changed my mind.  I don’t want it anymore, so please don’t give it to me.”

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah in the holy place,

Gabriel’s words might have thrown the elderly priest off a bit.

“Your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:13)  

Ummm….which prayer is that, exactly?

Evidently, one that he had prayed a long time ago.

“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”

Ahhhh….that prayer.

I suppose Zechariah and his wife had prayed for children during the early years of their marriage, probably into their 20’s and 30’s.  Perhaps the fervency picked up in their 40’s, but surely now that they were well along in years, those prayers were abandoned.

The thing about prayer is — God knows better than we do what’s good for us and when we’re ready for it.

Sometimes we need time to grow into our prayers.

Still, I wonder if any 30 year old prayers of mine might be answered today.

Dark Shadows

When our kids were teenagers, they used to watch scary movies with their friends in the basement of our church.  It was one of the many perks of being a PK (preacher’s kid).  One night, PB decided to enhance the experience so he stealthily sneaked into the sanctuary and tip-toed up to the pipe organ.  As the kids were glued to a frightening dramatic scene, directly above them came ominous discordant sounds.  Somebody pushed pause on the TV remote.  PB gave the organ full throttle and the lower register notes rattled the windows.  He was fully prepared to hide in the crawl space under the altar if the kids came upstairs to check out the mysterious music.  But that wasn’t necessary.  They were gone — running down the street toward home.

I’ve been alone in a church at night and to be honest — I don’t like it.  Not one bit.  I know it’s God’s house and all, but there are lots of dark shadows and creepy noises and reflections in windows.  There’s a reason we are told to be “children of the light”.  Dark places are spooky.  So I can empathize with Zechariah.  I just bet that the hair on the back of his neck was standing up.  He was alone in the inner court, illumined only by flickering candlelight.  This was his one and only chance to enter into the holy place, so close to the very presence of God.  It was one of those “goose-bump” moments.

“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.”         Luke 1:11-12

Anyone suddenly showing up in that chamber would have been unsettling.  But an angel of the Lord?  “Startled” might be putting it mildly.  “Gripped with fear” sounds a little more like it.  Zechariah was just doing his duty — lighting the incense and saying some prayers.  Just like every other priest had done in the days, months and years before.  The angel Gabriel showed up at just the right time — in the midst of a blameless servant’s offering of worship.

Lord, when I go into my room in the dark, shadowy hours of morning,

startle me with Your presence.

Grip me with awe.

Backstory

Luke 2 is the go-to scripture for Christmas sermons.  The complete nativity cast is there — Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels.  The words of the familiar narrative practically roll off the tongue.  But Luke begins his gospel with eighty verses of backstory that is full of really good stuff that I almost missed.  Thankfully, PB preached on Luke 1 last Sunday, opening my eyes to the fact that there is a prequel to the birth of the baby in Bethlehem.  I’m going to linger in Luke’s first chapter awhile and see what led up to the good news of great joy.

God didn’t just jump into the world unannounced.  He provided the whole backstory starting with creation.  And then, as time was drawing close for the big arrival, He sent an opening act to get the world ready. Luke’s account begins with an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth.   Zech was a priest who spent his life serving God with dedication and excellence; Elizabeth was not able to have children.  That was their story, which tells me some things about them.

1) Just because Zechariah committed himself to a life of ministry didn’t mean all his prayers were answered.

2) When his prayers didn’t get answered, Zech didn’t quit his devoted service to God.

3) Zechariah and Elizabeth had a love strong enough to withstand disappointment and heartache.

4) Zechariah knew how to wait.  He was an old man before he was finally picked to enter the holy place for the burning of incense, but that didn’t make him jealous or bitter.

5) This lovely couple thought they were obscure and insignificant, however, they didn’t know what was about to happen.

We all have a backstory.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t know much about each other’s journey.  We jump into people’s lives without the benefit of knowing what has led up to that moment in time.  Having some background would help explain some things.  For instance, that person sitting next to you in the pew wiping away silent tears?  She’s afraid her marriage is crumbling.  The guy who seems kind of grumpy?  He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in a week.  The irritating kid in your class who seems so arrogant?  Things at home are out of control and he’s feeling insecure.  The reason you can’t seem to break through the walls around your friend?  She’s learned to protect herself from potential pain.

The thing is — our backstories may explain us, but they don’t define us.

And by the grace of God…..

there’s also a forward-story.

Wait For It

adventAdvent starts today.  Advent is a season in the church year that leads up to Christmas.  It has nothing to do with eggnog or decking the halls or shopping, although I wonder how long it will be before some retailer starts promoting an “Advent Sale”.  I can hear it now — “Biggest Sale of the Year — a great Advent-ure!”  Ugh.

According to Wikipedia, “Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.”  The word “advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus” which means arrival.  So we are waiting for the arrival of Jesus.  And for the past two thousand years, he’s never stood us up.  He always comes.

Waiting has never been my strong point.  God, however, is big on waiting.  Since there is so much written in the Bible about waiting, I thought I’d take a look at waiting during this season of waiting.

I just used the word “waiting” three times in one sentence.  Please forgive me.  I promise never to do that again.

Come, wait with me.

Haste, Haste to Bring Him Laud

Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

Yes, I did. 

I went to Wal-Mart yesterday and I’ll probably go again today.  I never lived in a town with a Wal-Mart until we moved here seven years ago.  Going to the big store used to be a once- or twice-a-month family expedition.  The list on the refrigerator would get longer and longer.  Then we’d hitch up the horses, take the wagon into town and buy all the kids a penny stick of candy.  Whoa – slipping into “Little House on the Prairie” mode.  I do that at Christmastime.

Anyway, when we first moved to the big city, we went to Wal-Mart every day for the first two weeks.  The novelty has worn off; I only go two or three times a week now.  But there’s nothing like going to the super-store the day before Christmas.  So many people…so much hustle and bustle…so much plastic (toys and credit cards alike).  It’s hard not to get caught up in the hurry and scurry.

When William Dix wrote the words to “What Child Is This?” in 1865, he hit on something profound.  Where should we be hurrying off to?  To the mall?  Ah,no.  To paraphrase, “Hurry, hurry, to bring Him praise!  Hustle to worship and applaud His glory!  Get on over to church tonight and see if you can’t think of some way to lift Him up!  Hurry!”

On that first Christmas, some people might have been asking, “What child is this, that angels would greet him with sweet songs?”

We know the answer: “This, this, is Christ the Lord!”  So come, faithful people, to worship the Messiah.  Get a move on!

We Three Kings

We three Kings of Orient are bearing gifts, we traverse afar;

Field and fountain, moor and mountain following yonder star.

 

In this year’s Sunday school Christmas program, the preschool wise-people brought gifts to baby Jesus.  One came with a stack of presents that were quickly dropped on the X taped on the floor.  Then the mini-Magi hurried back to her place on the risers.  The second king brought a burlap bag of feed for the animals in the barn, but plopped it in Joseph’s lap obstructing his face for the rest of the scene.  The third wise-person presented a birthday cake – a two-layer shiny plastic confection with one candle that kept tipping over. 

It made me wonder: what would be an appropriate gift for such an occasion?  Money is always good (gold); expensive perfume is thoughtful (frankincense); oil for embalming (myrrh), well, that’s a little creepy.

In our preschool version of the Christmas story, the three wise-people walked all around the stage, following the girl holding a big star on a long stick.  They went around in circles and up and down hills until the star finally stopped over the manger. 

It made me wonder: how far am I willing to traverse to worship the Savior?  Would I ride a camel across the desert on a hunch that a star was pointing the way to royalty?  Would I get a passport and leave my country to worship a baby? 

In the big kids performance, King Herod told the Wisemen to let him know when they found the baby because he had a present for the new king.  Then the boy playing mean King Herod pulled out a sword, pretended to cut his thumb on the sharp edge, winced and put his thumb in his mouth.  It was comical moment.

But it made me wonder: why didn’t anybody in Israel get what was going on?  When Herod asked the religious leaders what the ancient scrolls said about a king, they knew exactly where to look.  Micah the prophet made it clear: “Out of you, Bethlehem…will come one who will be ruler over Israel.” (Micah 5:2)  So they knew the answer, but never went to see for themselves.  A bright light was shining over Bethlehem, but they didn’t seem to notice.  Angels filled the sky, but they missed it.  God became flesh, but they didn’t recognize Him. 

The costumes are put away for another year; the gold, frankincense and myrrh are back in the storage boxes.  The manger is up on the shelf; the star is in the back of the closet.  Oh, but kids sure can preach some good sermons.  I hope everyone was paying attention.

Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright;

Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect Light.