In case you missed the December devotions Pastor Bill and Pastor Thomas posted daily on Facebook and Instagram, we have collected them here for you. We hope they bring the joy of Advent and Christmas alive for you.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. Luke 1:13
When God responds to our prayers we can experience something like overwhelming awe, even fear. Wisdom has been associated with fear (of the Lord) but Zechariah is told not to fear. When he has trouble believing he loses his voice and experiences something that looks like punishment for his doubt. It is hard to take commands like “Don’t be afraid” strictly at face value, but nonetheless God still answers the prayer and accomplishes the blessing.
I will pray for what I want… I will realize that listening to God may not provide clarity enough to avoid mis-steps but that God will fulfill God’s plans, still. I will try to believe, expecting God to help my unbelief.
Lord Jesus, Help me to rightly attend to my own experiences, hurts, and hopes without coming to see my will as above yours. Amen
December 2, 2021
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2).
This Word, spoken by the prophet Isaiah twenty-seven hundred years ago and long read in the Christian tradition as a foretelling of Christ’s coming, keeps me mindful of two things. First, that the season of Advent begins in darkness, and second, that it doesn’t end there. It can’t, because the people of God are on the move, walking in darkness, journeying through it, following a light that interrupts the darkness and refuses to let it have the last word. Though the path is not always clear, by the grace of God we find our stumbling way to the manger each year, guided by the Christmas star as it shines from its perch in the inky black sky.
O Gracious light, pure brightness of the ever-living Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed: help us to sing your praises this day. Make us conductors of your light, so that our thoughts, words, and deeds might illumine your glory, even as we walk in darkness. Amen.
December 3, 2021
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:4-5).
To whom was that star leading those who followed it then, and where is it leading those who follow it still? It leads to a child, born to us (Isaiah 9:7). To all of us, for in him is life itself, life which is the light of all people, a light that shines so brightly that the darkness did not—cannot, will not—overcome it. This child, this Jesus, invites us to journey with him this Advent season. It’s a challenging invitation because it means we must turn to face the reality of the darkness that too often surrounds us. But it also a gracious invitation because it means we no longer have to face that reality alone. We have a companion—a light source—whom the darkness cannot overcome. Thanks be to God for that.
Eternal God, in you is life itself. In you, all things find their origin, their sustenance, and, ultimately, their rest. In this Advent season, help us to embrace the abundant life you offer to all, so that we might be sustained and empowered to live according to your will. Amen.
December 4, 2021
May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed (Psalm 72:17)
The one whose name the Psalmist hopes will endure forever in this particular verse may not be who you think. It’s not God. It’s King David. Scholars call Psalm 72 and others like it “Royal Psalms” because they focus upon the Israelite monarchy and what it means to occupy the royal office. At first glance, the verse looks like something composed by David’s biggest fan, someone who hopes that the King’s reign will be affirmed and blessed by God no matter what. Look again, though. This may be a fulsome note of good wishes, but it also lays out some expectations. David’s reign isn’t meant to benefit him alone, or even the nation of Israel alone. A blessed reign, the Psalmist declares, is one that is a blessing to all.
God, whose love is reigning over us, grant us the courage and compassion to rain love and charity upon our neighbors. In this Advent season, free us from the flawed presumption that your love and grace are finite resources to be hoarded for safekeeping. We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ, who might have done just that, but instead chose to be born into the world so that it might be saved through him. Amen.
December 5, 2021
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and amen (Psalm 72:18-19).
These are the last two verses of Psalm 72. Any writer will tell you that last sentences are important because they’re often what readers are most likely to remember. If there’s a message that you really want to impress upon your audience, the last sentence is a good place in which to put it. The Psalmist knows this, and it’s no accident that, for its last bow, Psalm 72 pivots from talk of King David to talk of God. Yesterday, we saw that praise and expectation go hand in hand for David, and now we’re reminded how it is that the Psalmist finds the authority to impose expectations upon a king. There is a throne that’s higher still: the throne of God, and while David is expected to be a blessing to all nations, he can only do so by the grace of God, whose glory fills the whole earth.
Almighty and everlasting God, you created everything that is, and nothing may flourish apart from your sustaining grace. As we seek to be a blessing to ourselves and those around us, remind us that we do so only by the strength of your Spirit. We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ, in whom we find our redemption and salvation. Amen.
December 6, 2021
I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts. They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
The imagery of this verse is extraordinary, but the implications of Jeremiah’s oracle seem, at first glance, unclear. It is all well and good for God to put God’s law in our minds and write God’s law upon our hearts, but to what purpose? So that we might know how it is that God expects us to live? Yes, but there’s more to it than that. Take another look at the second half of the verse. It is God’s desire not only that we should know God’s law, but that we should know God. God is calling us into a relationship, and while the act of setting boundaries and expectations is an important part of any relationship, that’s not where the relationship begins. A marriage or friendship is more than a steady stream of office memos flying back and forth between two parties. It’s a lifelong pursuit of the desire to know someone better, and that’s what God means here, too: that we should long to know God as well as God knows each of us.
Gracious God, our loving parent, you know each and every one of us better than we know ourselves. By your Spirit, kindle in us the desire to know you better, so that we might lead lives which more perfectly embody the knowledge and love of you. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, through whom the fullness of your love has been revealed. Amen.
December 7, 2021
“Josiah did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord (Jeremiah 22:15-16).
We’re back on kings again, it seems. This time, the ruler in question is Josiah, one of a small number of Israelite Kings post-Solomon whose reign is viewed favorably by the authors of the Old Testament. Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God attributes Josiah’s success to his lived and lively faith. As verse 16 attests, Josiah knew God—in the sense that we explored yesterday—and the way that his knowledge of God was made manifest is of great importance for us today. Though Josiah may or may not have possessed a self-reflective, private piety, this passage finds ample evidence of his faithfulness in the priorities which governed his actions as King: pursuit of righteousness and justice, defense of the poor and needy. These are the actions of someone who has God’s law planted in his mind and written upon his heart, someone who understands what is at the heart of the law: love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.
God of guidance and assurance, in you we live, and move, and have our being. In this Advent season, we pray that the gift of your grace would grant us a peace and courage sufficient to live as people who know you. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners. Amen.
December 8, 2021
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man with unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 6:5).”
The “I” in this verse is the prophet Isaiah, and the larger situation in which he finds himself is this: he’s had a vision of God enthroned in glory, attended by a courtier of winged Seraphs, enrobed by a gleaming splendor that even the smoky haze that fills the room cannot obscure. Isaiah, mere mortal that he is, would rather be anywhere else, and who can blame him? The man knows his Torah, and no doubt he’s recalling with horror God’s fearful admonition to Moses on Mount Sinai: “No one shall see me and live (Exodus 33:20).” Yet Isaiah does live, and his experience reminds us that those who draw near to God’s heavenly throne will always find welcome. The glory of God’s divinity might make us keenly aware of our own humanity, but the abundance of God’s grace emboldens us to stand before God all the same, assured that no imperfection of ours can lessen the love God has for all of God’s children.
God of power and might, the universe and all that is in it came into being according to your word. We pray that we would heed your words of invitation this day, so that we might approach your throne with both awe and delight. We ask this in the name of your Son, our savior, Jesus Christ, who chose for his throne a manger. Amen.
December 9, 2021
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out (Isaiah 6:6-7).”
Today we rejoin Isaiah, our intrepid prophet of the Lord, at precisely the moment in which we left him. You remember: “I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Yesterday, we observed Isaiah’s discomfort in the presence of God. Today, we’ll follow the text in addressing the source of his discomfort: his “unclean lips,” and those of his people: the Israelites. Isaiah is standing before God, whose words bring forth only that which is just and good. Isaiah cannot say the same, and neither can the Israelites, and neither can we. Yet God’s response is not to relegate Isaiah to silence. Instead, God attends to Isaiah’s unclean lips and calls him to, of all things, a ministry of prophecy. “Go and say to this people…,” God commands this man of formerly unclean lips just a couple of verses later. Typical.
Resourceful God, in you we find the capacity to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. By your grace, equip us to live your truth in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom your holy Word has been revealed. Amen.
December 10, 2021
Who is like the Lord our God, who has his dwelling so high, and yet humbles himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth (Psalm 113:5, Coverdale)?
Who is like the Lord our God? No one, that’s who, as this verse from Psalm 113 makes clear. There’s a detail in this text that’s easy to pass over at first but becomes captivating once it makes itself known. You see, it’s one thing to proclaim that God’s dwelling place lies far above the earth; for faiths of the Abrahamic tradition, the “other-ness” of God in this respect is a given. The Psalmist goes further here, however, and declares that for God it is an act of humility even to look down upon heaven. There truly is no one like God; even the angel-filled realms of glory have no comparable residents. How much more remarkable it is, then, that we find ourselves in a season which anticipates God’s coming into the world as one who also looked up, wondering, into the heavens.
Creator God, all creation wonders at your all-encompassing presence, power, and love. In this Advent season of anticipation and more than a little anxiety, may we find hope in the knowledge that there is no power in heaven or on earth which can separate us from you. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, whose coming heralded our deliverance from captivity to sin and death. Amen.
December 11, 2021
He [God] takes up the lowly out of the dust, and lifts the poor out of the ashes, that he might set them with the princes, even with the princes of his people (Psalm 113:6-7, Coverdale).
In this, the next verse of the Psalm that we began to explore yesterday, the object of God’s movement from a high dwelling place to heaven and earth below comes into view, and not a moment too soon. Although it’s certainly a good thing to wonder at God’s blessed possession of both omnipotence and humility, such theological shoptalk could easily be allowed to drift into the realm of the abstract and the ethereal—a realm in which God’s purposes have no implications for our own. The Psalmist knows this perfectly well, which is why yesterday’s verse is followed by today’s. God, the Psalmist assures us, isn’t coming to earth simply to take in the sights. God has designs—to lift the poor out of the dust so that they might sit alongside the wealthy and the powerful—and the implication is that we, as God’s faithful people, should adjust our own designs to match.
God of the forsaken and the downtrodden, you come into the world not only to show us your glory, but to glorify those whom the world has cast aside. By your grace, grant us the courage and generosity to join you in this work. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, whom your Spirit sent to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind. Amen.
December 12, 2021
He gives the barren woman a home to dwell in, and makes her to be a joyful mother of children. Praise the Lord (Psalm 113:8, Coverdale)!
With verse eight, this section of Psalm 113 comes full circle. What began as a description of God’s lofty and unknowable dwelling place ends with the proclamation that in God, no one should be left without a home of their own. There’s more to it even then that, though: the woman mentioned herein receives not only a place to live, but company—in the form of children—with whom to share it. This imagery is partly informed by the social norms of the Psalmist’s context, which looked upon unwed and childless women with intense disfavor. There’s a more universal witness here as well, however. As the almighty creator of the universe, God requires neither a dwelling place nor companionship. Humans, however, require both—in their physical and spiritual manifestations—to flourish. God’s ultimate purpose in beholding heaven and earth is to provide us with both, so that we, in turn, might make provision for others.
Gracious and loving God, you call each of us to make our home in you, so that we may never again be without a home or companionship. In this Advent season, which is so often associated with generosity of spirit, help us to be mindful of the generous gifts with which your Holy Spirit has furnished us, so that we might not hoard your provision for ourselves, but lavish it upon others. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, whose gift of salvation is offered to us without price. Amen.
December 13, 2021
But Ruth said, “do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:17). “
It’s easy to forget, even in advent, that Mary and Joseph aren’t the only pair of Scriptural figures who were once compelled to pull up stakes and strike off for Bethlehem. Ruth and Naomi also found it necessary to make the trip back to the City of David, though it wasn’t called that yet (we’ll come back to that). Though their reason for traveling to Bethlehem was different than Mary and Joseph’s—the Holy Family-to-be was responding to a census, while Ruth and Naomi were in search of fertile farmland and support from family—there is one other detail that these two stores share. In both cases, only one of the pair has ties to Bethlehem itself: Joseph is a member of the House of David, and Naomi has family there. For Mary and Ruth both, however, Bethlehem is uncharted territory. Yet both make the choice to journey into this brave new world, reassured by their traveling companions, both human and divine.
God who is our companion upon the way, you challenge us to follow you, yet you do not leave us to take up that challenge alone. In this Advent season, help us to respond to your call as Mary, Joseph, Naomi, and Ruth did: as people assured of your presence, whatever lies ahead. Amen.
December 14, 2021
Naomi said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me (Ruth 1:20-21)?”
Naomi’s bitterness toward God in this passage—“Mara,” the new name she chooses for herself, literally means “bitter” in Hebrew—might lead the reader to an extreme response: rushing to God’s defense and dismissing her anger outright, or else giving in entirely to the witness of her experience and affirming her vision of a dark and vengeful God. Yet the text itself suggests a third response. Naomi doesn’t offer this account of God’s work in her life unprompted. Her words come as a retort after a group of Bethlehem locals see her and ask, “is that Naomi?” It’s not hard to read some condescension into that question: “is that Elimelech’s wife, who left town all those years ago for Moab? A whole lot of good that did her.” It’s much easier to be angry with God when God’s people single out and belittle you instead of coming to your aid.
God of love and community, in your blessed triune nature—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we behold relational perfection. By your grace, give us the courage to more perfectly reflect your love in our own relationship and interactions with others. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who saved his most stinging rebukes for those with no regard for the welfare of others. Amen.
December 15, 2021
“All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge (Ruth 2:11-13)!”
Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband, says this to Ruth to explain why he has given her free reign to harvest grain from his fields—grain with which she can feed herself and Naomi. It’s a gracious gesture by any measure, but the norm-shattering enormity of Boaz’s regard for Ruth can be easy to miss. Boaz offers Ruth more than just grain: he also offers her a blessing, exhorting God to reward her “fully” for her show of grace and grit. This is an extraordinary thing for Boaz to do because Ruth is a Moabite, not an Israelite, which means that she shouldn’t be entitled to the “full” anything from God. Under the circumstances, even a faithfulness as great as Ruth’s ought to have gone unrecognized, yet God gives Boaz eyes to see.
Welcoming God, each and every created thing is a recipient of your formative love. By your grace, help us to recognize you at work in others, especially those who we don’t instinctively expect to be participants in your healing and redemptive work. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who came into the world and presided over our redemption in a way that can only be described as unexpected. Amen.
December 16, 2021
Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” […] Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you (Ruth 2:20, 3:1).”
One of the chief delights of the book of Ruth is that it tells several interlocking stories, tied together by its compact cast of characters. One story that doesn’t get quite as much attention, despite being a consistent feature of the book from beginning to end, is the one that I like to call “the story of how Naomi got her groove back.” Bit by bit, the embattled and embittered figure of chapter one softens in response to the kindness that others show her. Ruth’s refusal to abandon her, Boaz’s generous provision of grain; these sources of relational support slowly bring Naomi back to life, and the opening of chapter three sees the once-passive figure roaring to the forefront of the action. Naturally, it’s to help Ruth, the one who has been such a help to her.
Gracious and ever-living God, in calling us to yourself, you are also calling us to life, for all that lives does so through the gift of your sustaining love. Call us to life again this Advent season, so that we, in turn, may carry your life-giving Spirit within our hearts and pass it along to others wherever we go. Amen.
December 17, 2021
Boaz said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin (Ruth 3:9).”
Though it isn’t immediately clear, Ruth’s words to Boaz here amount to a proposal. She’s asking him to marry her. Like everything Ruth says and does in the book named for her, this is remarkable, and not just because she’s tweaking the rigidly patriarchal society in which she lives by doing the proposing—though that is magnificent. By marrying Boaz in particular, Ruth is securing Naomi’s future as well as her own: Boaz is a relative of Naomi’s late husband, so his marriage to Ruth will revive the family line, which in turn will give Naomi a household to be a part of and descendants to nurture (we’ll come back to that). As Boaz himself goes on to point out, Ruth could’ve married anybody and made provision for herself; instead, she marries the one person who’s also able to make provision for Naomi. It’s an act of remarkable cleverness—and remarkable love.
Glad and generous God, with you, all things are possible. In this Advent season, equip us to search for the inbreaking of your grace and provision, even in circumstances which, from our perspective, seem all but impossible to overcome. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who by entering into the messiness and complexities of the world has allowed the world to be saved through him. Amen.
December 18, 2021
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel (Ruth 4:13-14)!”
With these two verses, Naomi’s story comes to an end, and a very happy one at that. The woman whose character arc began with the loss of her family finishes out the tale with a new “next-of-kin,” a phrase that might also be translated from the original Hebrew as “redeemer.” In Ruth and Boaz’s son, Obed, Naomi has found redemption in its most literal sense: the reclamation of her identity, purpose, and legacy (this is the part I promised that we’d come back to yesterday). Even the chorus of townspeople who previously could only ask “is that Naomi?” join in celebrating her changing fortune. Fair weather friends are an unfortunate fact of life, but in Ruth and Boaz, Naomi has found a family which, like God, will stick with her in sunny and stormy seasons alike. May it be so for all of us.
God of power and might, every good thing comes from you, and no evil thing is powerful enough to prevent you from dwelling among us. May your constant companionship be a source of both assurance and guidance, so that, trusting in your unfailing company, we may accompany others upon their journeys through life, whatever turns those journeys may take. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who walked with us even unto death. Amen.
December 19, 2021
They [Ruth and Boaz] named him [their son] Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David (Ruth 4:17b).
With this penultimate verse, the book of Ruth—an intimate study of two women banning together to secure a future for themselves in a highly specific time and place—acquires a timeless, even cosmic significance. By marrying Boaz and having a son, Ruth revives an ancestral lineage that will, in short order, produce David, the future King of Israel. As a result, Bethlehem will come to be known as “the city of David,” and it is here that Mary and Joseph come to be registered in Tiberius’s census (this is the other part that I promised we’d come back to). What’s more, the child to whom Mary gives birth while there is himself a descendant of that same family line, which is why, in a fitting tribute to Ruth’s defiance of her era’s social norms, she is one of three women named in the genealogy of Jesus presented in the Gospel of Matthew. In this way, Scripture invites us to remember two pairs of travelers who journeyed to Bethlehem and, through what transpired there, found God to be with them.
Ever living God, your purposes transcend our experience of time and place, yet you graciously call us to participate in bringing your purposes to fruition. In this Advent season, we give you thanks for the witness of Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, Mary, and Joseph, who by your grace facilitated the coming of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ into the world. Amen.
December 20, 2021
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26-27).
In less than a week, we’ll be celebrating the birth of the Christ child. It seems only fitting, then, that we use this week to take a deeper dive into the events leading up to the big day. In the spirit of last week’s daily devotions, we’ll be approaching the run-up to Jesus’s birth with an eye toward its narrative lineage. Our focus will be upon Mary, and how her experience of—and contribution to—the advent of Christ’s coming both resembles and differs from the way Scripture tends to signal that God is laying the groundwork for something big. With the angel Gabriel’s visit, Mary is receiving a calling from God in the tradition of the leaders and prophets of the Old Testament. The double question before us is this: what does it mean to be called by God, and what can we learn from the call experiences of Mary and her Scriptural forebearers?
O God, who spoke creation itself into being, your “power of speech” is beyond our wildest imagining. Yet in your mercy you have called people of all ages, nations, and races to proclaim your Word, and to act in accordance with it. Clothe us in your Spirit this day and always so that, guided by your grace and the example of your faithful witnesses past and present, we may receive the call you’ve placed upon our lives and respond with eagerness and delight. Amen.
December 21, 2021
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be (Luke 1:28-29).
God can call somebody in any way God likes, of course, but there tends to be a method to God’s madness. When God calls people, the story tends to follow a standard pattern made up of six elements. The first is the “divine confrontation,” the moment in which God or a messenger from God makes their presence known to the person about to be called. Moses saw an angel of the Lord appear out of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Gideon was approached while covertly threshing wheat (Judges 6:11-12). Mary, of course, comes home one day to find the angel Gabriel waiting for her. In each case, the person concerned is first assured that God is with them—affirming the identity of the divine presence and providing necessary fortification for the task that lies ahead.
Present and compassionate God, you assure us of your presence in our lives even as you call us to live in accordance with your will. By your grace, continue to make your presence known, so that we might be freed from the presumption that we must face the world and its challenges alone. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who first dwelt among us, then promised to be with us, always. Amen.
December 22, 2021
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God (Luke 1:30).”
We now come to the second element of Scripture’s call stories: the “introductory word.” The scholar who came up with this six-part schema, Norm Habel, defines the introductory word as “a personal communication which prefaces the Commission (more on that tomorrow).” “Personal communication” is a useful but dry phrase which gives no voice to Mary’s probable response to Gabriel’s appearance: abject terror. Whenever God or a messenger of God appears, the phrase “do not be afraid” is sure to follow, which suggests that God and God’s messengers are a scary sight—a far cry from the placid, beatific angels portrayed in most religious imagery. It must be unsettling to encounter someone so other-worldly, but that seems to be a necessary step. What better way could there be, after all, to open the human recipient’s mind and heart to the scope of divine possibility?
Indescribable, uncontainable God, when you make yourself known, all our presumptions about what is and isn’t possible fall away. You call us to live into the new creation which you have prepared for us, which is both an exciting reality and a fearful one. By your grace, help us to let go of the fears that hold us back, trusting in your provision and in the provision of our siblings in faith. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom we are joined together as his body, the Church. Amen.
December 23, 2021
“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:31-33).”
At last, Gabriel gets down to brass tacks. This is the “Commission,” the task to which God has called Mary. She will give birth to a child of remarkable lineage: an heir to the throne of David, but no mere “man after God’s own heart” this time (1 Samuel 13:14). This man will be the actual son of God, the Word made flesh, God with us. It’s a remarkable commission, and a clever twist on what God has called others to do in the past. Moses and Gideon were both called to deliver the people of Israel, and Mary is called to the same, but in her case, the delivery is a literal one: she will deliver as son named Jesus, and in so doing bring God’s deliverer into the world.
God of deliverance, through the ages you have called upon your faithful servants to aid your people. Whatever the scale of the calling you’ve placed upon each of our hearts, we pray that you would give us courage enough to accept the commission. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom we find our deliverance. Amen.
December 24, 2021
Mary said to the angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin (Luke 1:34)?”
Mary has received her commission, but she has some concerns. How, exactly, can a virgin be expected to conceive and bear a child? When God calls us to do something that goes against our understanding of what can and cannot be, even the reality-shattering event of the divine presence isn’t enough to overcome our common sense. Yet it’s worth noting that Mary’s “objection”—that’s the name of this step in the call process—is one of the more faithful examples of the form. Moses tried to turn down God’s commission to deliver the Israelites from Egypt over concerns about his public speaking skills (Exodus 4:10). Gideon didn’t think that he came from a good enough family to lead Israel against the Midianites (Judges 6:15). Mary, by contrast, doesn’t offer excuses, only a wondering question.
Patient God, you call us to participate in your redeeming work, though we often respond only with our objections and concerns. We give you thanks for the witness of those you called upon in Scripture—who show us that we object in good company—and pray that by your grace we might grow in the conviction that with you, all things are possible. Amen.
December 25, 2021
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God (Luke 1:35).”
To Mary’s reasonable objection, Gabriel offers a reassuring explanation. “Reassurance” is the next step in Habel’s call story schema, and though Mary’s call story follows this pattern well enough (up to a point; we’ll come back to that), the nature of Gabriel’s reassuring word here is as unique as Mary’s objection. As we saw yesterday, other folks who received a similar call from God in Scripture objected with concerns about their personal deficiencies, and God responded by finding some way to mitigate them. God answered Moses’s fear of public speaking by sending his more charismatic brother, Aaron, along to do the talking (Exodus 4:11), and quelled Gideon’s fears about his unimpressive family ties by assuring him that with God at his side, he could do anything (Judges 6:16). Mary, though, only wants to know how the commission that she has been given could possibly be fulfilled, and Gabriel is only too happy to explain.
Reassuring God, in your mercy you respond to our fears and questions with grace and assurance—mostly assurance that we won’t have to carry out the commissions to which you have called us alone. By your grace, make us ever more sensible to your presence, even in the midst of trial and challenge. Amen.
December 26, 2021
“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God (Luke 1:36-37).”
Gabriel’s explanation for how it is that Mary will conceive and give birth to the Son of God is thorough, but indicative, perhaps, of someone who has dwelt comfortably in the “realms of glory” for too long. “The Spirit of God will come over you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” What, exactly, does that mean? To augment Gabriel’s theological speechifying, God also offers a “sign,” a separate act of sufficient wonder to make the impossible seem within reach. In Mary’s case, the sign that God offers is personal: another miracle pregnancy whose recipient, Elizabeth, is one of Mary’s relations. Mary knows Elizabeth, and until this moment, she thought she knew what was and wasn’t possible for her. Now, Elizabeth’s future has been enlivened by a new possibility, giving substance to Gabriel’s assurance that Mary’s will be, too.
God of possibilities, it is you, not us, who sets the parameters of what is and isn’t possible. We pray that you would continue to remind us of this by making us sensible to the signs and wonders you are ever performing in the world. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom we find the definitive sign of your presence and love. Amen.
December 27, 2021
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:38).”
At the beginning of this series, I wrote that there were six elements in the standard Biblical call story, and if you’ve been keeping track, you’re probably wondering why yesterday’s devotion wasn’t our grand finale. We’ve been through all six—divine confrontation, introductory word, commission, objection, reassurance, sign—so what gives? This: a couple of days ago I wrote that Mary’s call story follows this pattern, but only up to a point. We’ve reached that point. Unlike her predecessors, Mary doesn’t simply take the affirmation found in the sign God offers her and run. She responds. She proclaims her readiness, her willingness, her faithful acceptance of the commission that God has given her. It’s an extraordinary addition, one that Luke makes with a specific intention: to show that while Mary’s calling is in line with the calls that God has been making upon people since time immemorial, it’s also something special, something new, something that will change the world.
God who is making all things new, we give you thanks for your servant, Mary, and for all who say “let it be with me according to your word.” By your grace, embolden us to respond to the calls that you make upon us as Mary did: with boldness, assurance, and faithfulness. We pray this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose faith we find our salvation. Amen.
December 28, 2021
“Master, you are now dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word (Luke 2:29)”
With these words, a man named Simeon begins his beautiful and astonishing song of praise, directed at the infant Jesus. The dismissal of which he speaks is his own—his dismissal from this life—yet he accepts it with joy because that can only mean one thing: the Messiah has come. You see, a couple of verses back we’re told that God’s Holy Spirit and Simeon have a deal going. Simeon will not “see death” until he has also “seen the Messiah (Luke 2:26).” Anybody who’d been at the temple in Jerusalem that day might have observed the carpenter from Nazareth and his wife bringing their new baby to be presented before the Lord, but only Simeon (and later, the Prophet Anna) saw. Beholding the tiny child, he saw that God’s promise—to him and to all Israel—had finally been fulfilled. That fulfillment may not have come in the form that Simeon had expected or even hoped for, but he saw, nevertheless.
Almighty and everlasting God, there is nothing in all creation which is hidden from your sight. By your grace, give us eyes to see ourselves and the world as you see it, so that we might see your Holy Spirit at work, even—or especially—when it comes to rest upon people and situations that defy our expectations. We ask this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, through whom we are bold to claim that we, like Simeon, might see you. Amen.
December 29, 2021
“For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples (Luke 2:30).”
When I first became familiar with this text, I was struck by Simeon’s choice of pronouns in the first phrase of this verse. “My eyes,” he says, referring to himself, “have seen your salvation,” referring to God. This puzzled me at first. God’s salvation? What need does God have for salvation? Surely Simeon ought to have said, “my eyes have seen my salvation, which you have prepared…” Yet he doesn’t, and rightly, too. Simeon, who saw so much that day which escaped the notice of others, also understood what I, at first, did not. It’s not that God requires salvation; it’s that the act of salvation is one which belongs to God. When we proclaim salvation as a part of the good news of the Gospel, we’re not talking about something of ours. We’re talking about something of God’s offered to us in Christ. Simeon certainly carries with him a sense of personal assurance (“the Holy Spirit rested on him (Luke 2:25)”), but his chief joy in beholding the Messiah comes from his understanding that God has something bigger than him in mind. How much bigger? Stay tuned.
Loving God, to you belong the springs of salvation, yet in your mercy you invite us to draw upon their life-giving water. By your grace, help us to do so with joy, and to pour it out freely upon all whom we encounter rather than storing it up for ourselves. Amen.
December 30, 2021
“A light for revelation to the gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:31).”
That much bigger. Here, for the first time in Luke’s telling of the Gospel story, the coming of Christ is understood to be good and important news for those who don’t belong to the nation and people of Israel. One ought to remember, however, that the wall separating God’s chosen people from everybody else was never quite so impermeable as all that. God’s covenant with Abraham promised to make the latter the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5). The book of Isaiah, meanwhile, proclaims that in the fullness of time, “nations [plural]” shall stream to the light of God’s glory—revealed through Israel for the benefit of others (Isaiah 60:4). There was always an understanding that God’s love extended beyond the auspices of a single people. In the songs of praise which precede this one in Luke’s telling, however—Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus Dominus Deus—the emphasis is very much on Israel’s forthcoming redemption. Simeon exults this, too, but also makes explicit his perception that this little child’s saving embrace reaches further still.
God of all nations and all peoples, your love is not confined by the divisions that we, your children, seem all too eager to make between ourselves. Forgive us, we pray, and deliver us from our inclination to see love not as something to be stored up, but something which, in being given, abounds all the more. Amen.
December 31, 2021
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher…at that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:36, 38).
Simeon wasn’t the only one who saw that day. When the prophet Anna laid eyes upon the infant Jesus, she, too, perceived that God’s redemption had, in some sense, arrived. Prophesy is often taken to mean a supernatural awareness of future events. Biblical prophets, however, had more subtle gifts and purposes. Anna and those like her aren’t valued for their ability to “see into the future,” but for their God-given talents for (1) comprehending the present with clarity and frankness and (2) speaking God’s word into the present reality. Both talents urge listeners to perceive truth: the truth about the state of their lived commitment to God and the truth about the form that God’s living commitment to them shall take. More often than not, the first truth isn’t what we’d like it to be and the second isn’t what we expect it to be. It’s the job of the prophet to embrace and proclaim both all the same, and that day, Anna did.
Redeeming God, you are the source of all that is true. By your grace, help us to grasp your truth in its fullness, so that we may clearly see both the necessity of redemption and the unexpected ways in which you go about your redeeming work. Amen.