Mary’s Song for her Sons

[Becky Castle Miller provides a view on Mary’s choices – bravery, obedience, mothering, teaching – and what they mean for us all at Christmas and throughout our lives.]

“Does Mary even exist for Protestants?” a Jewish friend asked me this week, when we were talking with a Catholic friend about the mother of Jesus.

I laughed and answered, “Not enough!”

Protestant Christians seem to think about Mary of Nazareth mostly at Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But I think she is worth considering far more often. Mary’s radical obedience changed the world. She cared about the poor and the oppressed (and she probably had first-hand experience being both), and she looked forward to God’s promises of freedom being fulfilled. While she was pregnant, she sang a prophetic song of victory about the baby she was carrying and the work he would do:

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.

He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” (Luke 1:46-48, 51-53.)

A nativity scene from Becky’s tree

Mary wasn’t meek; she was dangerous. Part of her song of announcement declared, “God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones.” Who were the powerful rulers? Herod and Caesar. These were fighting words. With a cry of liberation, Mary calls for the overturn of the status quo, the stopping of oppression. As she raised and taught her children, she passed on that passion to them.

Comprehending the Child

When I have rubbed my lips over the fuzzy heads of my own newborns, I have thought about Mary kissing the face of her son and trying to comprehend that he was also the son of God. Though I don’t sing very well, I often sing to my children at bed time, as mothers throughout history and across cultures have done. I imagine that Mary sang to her kids at bedtime too—silly songs to make them laugh as well as theologically rich songs that catechized them. Perhaps she even sang to them her Magnificat, this announcement song, so that Jesus grew up learning his calling.

After Mary gave birth to Jesus, she and her husband Joseph had children together (Luke 8:20). One of her other sons was James, who later led the church in Jerusalem and wrote the epistle of James in the New Testament. Luke, in his Gospel, included the birth and infancy narratives of Jesus. Luke did first person research, and he very well could have met James. I wonder if that’s where Luke got the stories, handed down from Mary to her sons. I picture James singing for Luke the bedtime songs of his mother, Mary, such as the one she first wrote when she visited Auntie Elizabeth, the one about God’s strong arm lifting up those of low status.

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight says, “If that were your mother, what would you be like?” If you grew up hearing this song, from a mother who believed these things, what would you emphasize about God when you taught?[1]

Luke recorded some of Jesus’s sayings in his Gospel. Listen for the echoes of Mary. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus gave an announcement of his own, quoting from Isaiah and publicly declaring his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In Luke 6:20-21 and 24-25, Jesus preached:

“Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.
Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied…
But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.”

James wrote in his letter:

“Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status. Those who are wealthy should find satisfaction in their low status, because they will die off like wildflowers… True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties.” (James 1:9-10, 27.)

And,

“My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5.)

Do you hear the family resemblance?

Mary was a courageous woman, and her bold declaration about the inbreaking of the kingdom of God echoes on in the teachings of her sons. Just as Jesus learned from his mother, so can we.

We can learn from her bravery

Bravery in the Everyday Life You’re Given

She must have known what it would mean for her to turn up pregnant while engaged. People would either think that the baby was Joseph’s, in which case she would be seen as guilty of fornication, or they would think the baby was not Joseph’s, in which case she would be seen as guilty of adultery. She knew Joseph would know the baby was not his and he would be within his rights to divorce her. She knew she might face becoming a single mother, cast out and destitute. But in spite of all this, she said yes.

She agreed to God’s plan.

What will our obedience cost us? We can learn from her about God’s value system. Mary was poor. She knew what it meant to be oppressed as part of an oppressed people, and she knew what it meant to be shunned personally. One indicator we have that Mary and Joseph were poor is the offering they gave at the temple—two birds, the offering of someone who cannot afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:8).

If we are poor or don’t have social capital, we don’t need to be ashamed. We can still be blessed by God and useful in God’s kingdom. If we are rich in money or power or status, we need to watch our use of those things. Are we using them to oppress others or are we using them to be generous? What opportunities or provision are we making for those of low status?

What would it look like for us in the church to be a community that fulfills Mary’s prophetic song? If we, like Jesus and James, took Mary’s outlook seriously, how would it change our practice of faith? What brave, dangerous statements would we make about the rich and powerful, and how would we work to lift up the poor and oppressed? May Mary’s song resonate in our imaginations this Christmas as we rejoice in God our savior.

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[1] You can read an article by Scot McKnight about Mary the Protestor here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/mutuality/do-you-hear-what-i-hear? And for further historical and theological information about her life, McKnight has a book called The Real Mary, which has informed my ideas about Mary.

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Becky Castle Miller is the Discipleship Director at an international church in the Netherlands and writes about emotionally healthy pastoral care at Wholehearted. She conveys her five kids around town on bikes and studies New Testament in the middle of the night at Northern Seminary. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Miracles Beyond the Manger

[From the archives.]

In the months leading up to the birth of Jesus, angels paid relatively quiet visits to Zechariah, Mary and Joseph. On the night of Jesus’ birth, though, they could not contain themselves. The shepherds in the fields got an earful:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:13-14.)

The angels must have been watching this birth with unbounded interest, waiting to see what the Lord was doing. The gospel of the New Covenant fascinates the angels and they long to know as much about it as they can. (1 Peter 1:12.)

After all, whose birth were they watching? While the people on earth might have known some of the importance of the arrival of the Messiah, the long-promised hope of Israel, the angels knew more. They knew that this baby is God himself, the Lord of all creation (including angels) now becoming part of the very creation he has made.

First-born of Creation, First-born of Death

When the angels saw their God being born a baby in Bethlehem, did they know his plan included death on the cross? And when they saw that death approaching, did they desire to step in and rescue him from such evil just as they burst forth to announce the goodness of his birth?

Birth in a humble manger, death under humiliating circumstances – each is glorious in God’s plan:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. (Colossians 1:15-17.)

Jesus was not the first baby ever born, of course, and he was not the first person ever to die. He is named first-born not because he is part of creation and subject to birth and death, but because he is God himself who is head of all creation, everything that has ever been born and everything that has ever tasted death.

He did this in order to bring creation back to the Creator, to bring all he created back to himself.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20.)

What is Christmas about, what is this good news the angels longed to know more about? It is that God did everything necessary, from a humble birth to a humiliating death, to reconcile us to himself.

And that’s what Christmas is all about.

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[This is the first post in a two-part series on the life and death meaning of Christmas, and how it is all part of God’s blessings for creation. Part two appears on Christmas Day.]

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My Wife Has a Savior and I’m not Him

In the recent Desiring God article Husbands, Get Her Ready for Jesus, a pastor writes:

It’s crystal clear: God calls husbands to be instruments of his sanctifying work in the lives of our wives.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” (Ephesians 5:25-26)

The problem is that the passage does not lead to the “crystal clear” conclusion the pastor posits.

He takes the description of the extent of Jesus’ love and makes it prescriptive for husbands in foisting a responsibility on them that is not found in the Bible. Another way to see the passage is as an explanation of how love works: Jesus loves his people even when his people don’t love him back.

In isolation, neither reading is “crystal clear.” So how to know which is most reasonable? As always, it comes down to context. This brings an understanding that truly is crystal clear because it is consistent with all the Bible teaches on love, both God’s love and our love for each other whether in marriage or in other relationships.

The Ephesian Context Is the New Covenant Context

Earlier in the letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6.)

Wives – just like husbands and single women and single men and children and widows and widowers – have one hope, and it’s not in their husbands being their personal savior. It’s in the One Savior.

Jude honed in on this when he wrote:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24-25.)

It is Christ and Christ alone who is our Lord and Savior who died for us all and presents us holy and without fault.

Women Priests, Men Priests, All God’s People Are Jesus’ Priests 

As Paul wrote his friend Timothy, the pastor of that church in Ephesus:

For there is one God and one mediator between God and people, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (1 Timothy 2:5-6.)

Which means that reading verses 25-26 as putting this responsibility for a married woman’s spiritual readiness for heaven on the husband is nonsense, especially in light of Peter’s declaration:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9.)

It is God who brings women and men alike from the darkness into the light, that is, salvation. And all God’s people, women and men, girls and boys, are royal priests qualified by God to declare that salvation. But to take Ephesians 5:25-26 as the pastor who wrote that article sees it would mean husbands are more priestly than wives. That would require reading something into Peter’s letter that just isn’t there.

So looking at the Ephesians passage in light of Scripture, what’s clear is not that husbands are somehow responsible for preparing their wives for heaven but that women and men both have the same status in Christ and each rely completely on Jesus for sanctification.

That’s the clear gospel truth.

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Echtes Licht: the True Light of Christmas

[From the archives.]

My friend Claudia Dahinden sings beautifully and writes powerfully in both German and English. In her 2016 Christmas music video she sings of the True Light everyone longs for. It’s a musical exploration of John’s introduction of Jesus to his readers:

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5.)

I asked Claudia for the opportunity to share it here with an English translation, and she obliged by sending me the translated words below. I hope you watch the video and read the words and are as blessed by them as I.

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More about Claudia Dahinden: Claudia wrote an excellent post on her German language blog and translated it into English for my blog back in January (Choosing Words for 2016).  You can read more of Claudia’s writing and listen to her songs by checking out her English language blog and following her on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s a little insight from Claudia herself:

Claudia Dahinden.jpgI’m a freelance writer, singer and songwriter, having published my debut, the CD/Book-Production “A Place to Dwell (Hier will ich bleiben)” in May 2014. I’m currently working part-time as a research assistant in a scientific historical book project.

I was born and raised in the northwestern part of Switzerland and have studied contemporary history. Ten years in administration functions have equipped me with the necessary organizational skills to embark on an independent book and CD publication. I’ve recently returned to my home town where I live with my husband. When I’m not writing, singing or reading, I try to keep our grounds from growing wild.

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True Light (Echtes Licht)

VERSE 1

Harsh are the lights in this world
They’re blinding me and burning me
Everything’s full, but something lacks
I’m feeling void, asking myself
There has to be something more
Am I really the only one
Who’s realizing this?

VERSE 2

Then a new light is attracting me
Mysterious, almost intimate
Its glow is magically alluring me
I’m setting out, following it
Flying like a moth into its glow
Searching the light, not finding it
But I’m not giving up

CHORUS

I’m searching
The real, true light
Give me sight
Make me whole, make me free

VERSE 3

The path of light, it never ends
I’m struggling, I’m getting wise
Follow the light up the ladder
Then it’s gone, was just a fraud
A fen fire that deceives the pilgrim
Inebriates itself by his yearning
And then lets him rot.

VERSE 4

I’m giving up, I’m standing still,
Then I can see it, silent, clear
How could I oversee it,
The light, it’s always been here
But can it be so easy
I’ll follow its clear glow,
And shall be saved?

CHORUS

Is this the
Real, true light
Does it give sight
Does it make whole, and make free?

BRIDGE

What has no prize has no worth
What everyone can have is just trash
But this light is attracting me
Until I want to believe it

I believe it can be this simple
I’ll follow this clear light
And be saved…finally the

CHORUS

Real, true light
Giving me sight
Making me whole
Making me free

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No One Gets Crossed off This Christmas List

We were looking over the address list for sending out Christmas cards and found some that needed updating, some that needed to be deleted, and decided to add a couple people to the list. Christmas comes every year, so you’d think updating the address list is an annual event.

Not for us.

We are not known for sending out cards every year. We used to, but now just don’t. If this time of year is too stressful or jammed with too much going on, we decided years ago that adding on the task of getting out cards was something we would take a pass on. So we do. Pass on it, that is.

I imagine there are people who look over their own lists and see us on there, considering whether to drop us since they haven’t heard from us for a couple of years. Then, just as they start to hit the delete button, WHAM! – a card drops into their mailbox with our return address on it.

Just when you thought it was safe to strike off the Fall family, we insert ourselves into peoples’ lives once again with a Christmas card.

Christmas Card Lists and the Book of Life

Saint John on Patmos, Hieronymus Bosch ca. 1450–1516
(Wikipedia)

Coinciding with our list review, I am re-reading Revelation where John repeatedly refers to the Book of Life and how those whose names are written in it are with God for eternity. Paul had earlier written about this book as well:

Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:3.)

Paul recognized that everyone who serves in God’s kingdom – which is another way of saying everyone who is in the Body of Christ, or everyone who belongs to Jesus – all these people’s names are written in the Book of Life. To get back to John, he earlier wrote that Jesus promised that those belonging to him are forever his.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:27-30)

What authority did Jesus possess to make such a promise? It’s there in the last sentence. God the Son and God the Father are one. On top of that, your relationship with God is sealed by God himself, the Holy Spirit.

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14.)

Your inheritance in Jesus is guaranteed. That means that having your name written in the Book of Life is forever. No one gets stricken from the list.

The Gift of Righteousness

Traditions around Christmas include gifts as well as cards. In Revelation, John wrote of a gift given to those who by virtue of belonging to Jesus are also known as the Bride of Christ.

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

The Lamb is Jesus and the bride is his church, comprised of everyone the Father has given to Jesus and holds onto for eternity. Notice how in one sentence the multitude sings that the bride has made herself ready, then in the next says she received her wedding clothes as a gift. Then John adds a parenthetical explanation following the anthem – the fine clothes given the bride stand for righteousness.

Your Unearned Place on the List

To trace back from that explanation, it means there are righteous acts of God’s people which are given to them so they can wear them in Christ’s presence. The righteous acts are not their gift to God but rather God’s gift to them.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632)
(Wikipedia)

John isn’t the only one to record this truth about your righteousness. When it came to his own efforts at righteousness, Paul wrote:

I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:8-9.)

It is this righteousness – righteousness given by God through faith in Jesus rather than works for him – that counts in God’s kingdom. This is the worthiness Jesus speaks of in his message to his people in Sardis:

They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. (Revelation 3:4-5.)

This ability to walk with him, worthy and victorious, is all because of Jesus’ own righteousness given you by God’s grace, not because of your works but because of God’s choice to bless you with the work of Jesus who is himself forever righteous.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5.)

God’s grace. That is how you make it onto the eternal Christmas list, receiving the gift of Jesus himself. It’s a list worth considering not just annually but constantly, as reminder of God’s gracious gift to you at this time of year and always.

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End Times Punch Lines

The End of the Argument:

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The Irony of Jesus’ Birth

[Archived post.]

The visit of the Magi occurred after Jesus’ birth, but it points to the significance of God’s promise centuries before that he would one day dwell among his people and be Immanuel, God with us.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14.)

Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli ca. 1474-74 (Wikipedia)

These Magi in search of the promised Son were likely royal counselors or other government officials, possibly from the region of ancient Babylon. Yet they left their lives of privilege and those royal courts they served in and enjoyed. They left the royalty they knew and traveled far in search of a different kind of King, a King who stepped down from his own throne and himself traveled far in order to search for his people.

The Irony of Jesus’ Birth

Centuries before, soon after Isaiah prophesied about the birth of the Messiah Immanuel, Jerusalem was conquered and its people carried off. The conquering king, Nebuchadnezzar, brought the defeated Israelites to Babylon, his capital city.

But with the drawing of the Magi to his cradle, God brought Babylon to Jerusalem. The reversals are striking:

  • Babylon’s conquest of Jerusalem came at the tip of a sword, an act of God’s righteous judgment on his faithless people; the Son of God’s birth came in a manger in Bethlehem, an act of loving faithfulness fulfilling the promise God had made to his people.
  • The Jews were exiled to the east and forced to serve a pagan king; the Magi made their way west in search of a King they willingly worshiped and adored.
  • Nebuchadnezzar looted Jerusalem’s temple and royal palace, bringing their treasures to Babylon; the Magi brought treasures with them from the east to lay at the feet of the new-born King.

God’s graciously gave us himself. He chose to leave his heavenly throne to be with us: you, me, and every single one of his people in all times and for all eternity. Now that’s a King worth worshiping.

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Anticipation in Advent – learning from those who waited first

[For Advent: updated from the archives.]

Before the birth of Jesus there were those who lived in the anticipation of his coming, people who knew prophecies such as this:

“I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,” says the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:7.)*

Here are a few of those people who lived under that prophecy: one not yet aware that she will be giving birth, one not yet born, and a pair of people whose years had been dedicated to nothing less than looking forward to the fulfillment of their hearts’ desires.

Mary

The angel tells Mary, who’s under contract to marry Joseph, that she’s going to have a baby. Not just any baby, but the Messiah who will fulfill all prophecies, the “Son of the Most High” who will “sit on the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:32.) Mary explains that she’s never had sex (as if God didn’t know!). The angel announces that God will take care of it. Mary responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38.)

Did you catch that? Mary says she now desires the fulfillment of God’s word, even if it means being pregnant, a pregnancy that could very well lead to divorce, shame, becoming an outcast among her people. She looked forward to God’s fulfillment of his promise, the Messiah, despite these possibilities. She knows that God will take care of everything, even though she may not understand how, and she looks forward to the fulfillment of his promise to her and to his people. She anticipates his goodness being fulfilled.

I want to live in constant anticipation of God’s goodness being fulfilled.

John

Mary hurried to her older cousin, Elizabeth, to tell her the news. The interesting thing is that before Mary had a chance to explain anything, Elizabeth already knew something was up.

The Visitation, Philippe de Champaigne 1602-1674 (Wikipedia)

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:41-45.)

John (the Baptizer, not the Apostle) leaped for joy. In the womb! Now that’s anticipation.

I wonder sometimes why I do not have that same sense of urgent anticipation about Jesus.

Simeon

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. (Luke 2:25-26.)

Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple and God brings Simeon to the young family. Simeon is almost overcome with the fulfillment of his heart’s desire:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32.)

This is serious anticipation: “waiting for the consolation of Israel”, “would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”, “you may now dismiss your servant in peace”.

I want to know that type of satisfaction that comes from faithfully waiting for my Savior.

Anna

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38.)

Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus, Rembrandt ca. 1627 (Wikipedia)

Anna had been waiting a long time, wanting nothing more than to be in God’s temple as she waited for the Messiah. Do you see what she did? She gave thanks to God, which is something we could have guessed would happen. But Anna knew there were others like her, other people who had been waiting and wanting, and she let them in on the good news, speaking “about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She was eighty-four years old and still active in her ministry as God’s prophet.

Will I spend the rest of my days, even if they are long and I live to eighty-four or beyond, telling people that God’s redemption is at hand? That is anticipation worth living out.

Song of Anticipation

Here’s a song worth singing in the weeks approaching Christmas:

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

Most people sing it as a Christmas carol of Jesus’ birth, but I sing it as a reminder that we also still await our Savior, that we are living in advent of the second coming of Jesus. After all, this song was written not about the Messiah’s birth but about his return as prophesied in Psalm 98. I like to sing it at Christmas because it reminds me as we celebrate our Savior’s birth – the miracle of incarnation, God with us in the flesh – that we still wait and want, that we still anticipate his return, and when he does return all heaven and nature will “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” (Psalm 98:1.)

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*That passage from Haggai is one of the bases for Charles Wesley’s hymn Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Release from our fears and sins, finding our rest in him, dear desire, and the joy of longing hearts. What does Advent mean to you?

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An Advent of Falling Apart

[Today’s archived guest post is one of two on the blog this week prompted by a  Twitter exchange between Lisa Deam and Gwen Jorgensen about how life is hard, and at this time of year it can feel even harder. (Click here for Gwen’s post.) Lisa has lived through some truly trying Advent seasons; yet – as she shows in this post – she still hopes, and her hope encourages me. I hope it does you as well.]

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Every year, my world falls apart during Advent. I’m not referring to a busy schedule or the general craziness of the holiday season. I mean that my world really falls apart. My family has had a lot of financial ups and downs, and the downs always seem to come in December. Last year at this time, my husband was between contracts. No job. No money. And no prospects on the horizon, since companies were waiting until the turn of the year to begin hiring.

This year is little better. Already struggling, we recently found out about a hefty spike in our insurance rates. I’m now looking into getting a “real” job, and I fear that my dream of writing will come to an end. As will other cherished activities, such as picking my children up from school each afternoon and volunteering in their classrooms.

I was driving down the highway last week, thinking about our financial distress and my shattered dreams, when another car cut me off. That was it. I lost it. That car became a symbol of my future coming to run me off the road. It awakened the deep-seated fear of failure I’ve been harboring for a long time.

I know in part why December days are often so dark. It’s the end of the fiscal year. For people experiencing financial insecurity (and many other people besides), it can be a hard time.

But I think there’s a bigger reason. I have a feeling it’s to remind me why Jesus came. My Twitter friend Gwen Jorgensen put it this way:

Jesus came because times are dark; he came into a world full of financial struggles and relationship problems and fear and hurt and pride. He doesn’t wave a wand and make these problems magically disappear. But he gives us hope where there was none before. He shines his light into our dark world. (John 1:4)

Saint Joseph charpentier, George de la Tour ca. 1640 (Wikipedia)

I wish I didn’t need such a big reminder about why Jesus came, but I’m pretty forgetful. Over and over, I’m seduced into believing I can shine my own light. Dark days teach me that I can’t even emit the faint gleam of a candle. I need the wattage of a savior!

My yearly practice of falling apart has led me to rethink a season often associated with good feelings. Maybe a “good” Advent doesn’t mean tingly anticipation or holiday cheer. Maybe it means being plunged into darkness. Maybe it means acknowledging that times are bad; that I can’t do it all; that I am, in fact, desperate. My crises have prevented me from getting ready for Christmas. But I bet I’ll be ready for Jesus.

Good Advents are not necessarily pleasant ones. I’d rather be filled with a warm glow as I walk the road to Bethlehem. Instead, I’m walking this road in the dark.

Night sky.

No stars.

Pitch black.

The conditions are perfect for a great light to shine.

***

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com. Below is one of my favorite quotes from Lisa:

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The Dark Storm of Advent, a Humble Light of Christmas

[Gwen Jorgensen’s archived guest post today is a companion Advent piece to An Advent of Falling Apart, Lisa Deam’s post coming up on Friday.]

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It Happens Every Year

It happens every year. I’m no longer surprised by it, but brace myself against the rush of the dark storm at me.

Sometimes, the storm has stolen the ‘living in the moment’ from me. I cruise control and unplug till January, and find … I haven’t lived the Immanuel life, the very life we celebrate the coming of, at this time of year. I’ve usually gotten through Thanksgiving, but not always. Inevitably, though, it comes rushing at me, the storm that shouts and swirls about me, saying “This world is dark, and sad, and hurried, and desperate, and evil! You cannot carry candles here! Not allowed!”

And the message of the little Messiah in the manger? My candle flickers, falters. It’s covered up by Black Friday arguments, and competitions to lure you in best; selling is more hurry, and more worry. Then, ah, then, the lure of togetherness, of being with people you love, and celebrating the things most worth celebrating. Only trouble is, the people you dearly love, well, they’re not all in agreement about what the best way, or the most beloved things to celebrate are.  It’s covered by political ranting on all sides, by heart rending stories added to the ways your heart is already rented.

Source

Empty chairs at an empty table (Image source)

Loved ones have left, gone on. The empty chairs gaze at you from the table. It’s often covered by my battle of fatigue and pain and chronic illness of the last 27 years. The humble, simple story is dumped on by sheer busy-ness. Whether as a young mother, or mother of teens, or now an empty nester, or teacher of music students – the darkness has made it’s annual appearance. Depression, like mold, can grow in this petri dish. I know more now. I will not say it has made the battle go away, but it has made me aware of so much more.

Why the darkness, at this time of lights?

I think the dark storm rightly reflects the longing.  The longing to have it right.  The longing to know that war, hunger, despair, injustice, and poverty do not always have to be. The longing for evil to be over; the longing of restoration of a reeling, violent and angry world.

Increasingly, I know that I do not have to let the dark storm have the last word. Darkness just wants me to think it does, that’s all. The storm sharply juxtaposes itself near the flashing lights, and decking the halls, of which I am always behind.

I think it reflects, truly, the longing that Advent is.

The Humble Light of Christmas

Advent is more than lighting quiet candles.  Advent begins a fierceness of faith, that will be tried and tested, and put to walking out openness, grace and love.

It is Immanuel at work.

What’s  more, I’m learning that Immanuel goes deeper and further, and truer than I ever imagined. The storm shows the words of Christ to be not just platitudes, but a challenge to be his hands and feet.

A lifetime challenge.

If He chose to come in the most vulnerable form, to parents fleeing for their, and his very lives, in a world of politics that wanted him and everyone like him dead, wiped off the face of the earth; if Christ could walk through this dangerous, sick, angsty world, healing, touching lives, talking to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to … well, I think the light of Christmas is more humble than we could even imagine, and more powerful, if we are knowing that Immanuel is with us.

It has made the word ‘Immanuel” come alive with comfort and, yes, even a joy, though not always an earthly joy, even this time of year … when it should be rampant. I long for Advent now, in a way that grows more each year, yet, slowly, with more peace. The more I think about, and watch this, the more I see, Christ would not have told us to be a city on hill, or a light in the darkness, if he had not known he was leaving us in a dark world.  It is interior light he promised.

And what of the people who do not have Immanuel? Who do not rely on a Holy Spirit? Or worse, there are people who are suspicious or antagonistic towards my faith, or have had bad experiences with Christians.  Also, the thought comes to me of “the whole creation, longing/groaning to be restored.” (Romans 8:22.)

The storm is in need of ‘stealth grace.’ Yeah, I think that can be a thing. Christ will put the finishing touches on that, but, he left his candles here. Humble lights, if we choose. He left us walking around in our own skin, with our own fear, emotions, joys, despairs … all of it. We all walk around with different trials, joys, griefs, trials, yet the promise, is to be with us.

light-in-darknessWhen I think of who it is that is with us … when I stop my clamor and racing to keep up with the things that I must, and some I should just let go; I remember Immanuel, the one who walks beside us, when we are carrying heavy loads. Every. Single. Person. All who you see, may be carrying a very heavy load.

I’ve decided that if Christmas is ever how my idealist self wants it, it will be a total surprise.What better time, to cut some slack, give grace, be the hands and feet of Christ, even if it’s just opening a door, or giving a listening ear. “He comes to make his mercies known, far as the curse is found.” We get to be a part of that, even and especially when it’s dark.

So, may Immanuel be with you, a light to your path, and mercy to your neighbor.

Breathe Immanuel prayers to them.

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Gwen Jorgensen describes herself as “Christ follower, living in more grace than I deserve, wife, mother, musician, music teacher. Watching the world, praying for the world; enjoying God’s gifts.” She can be found on Twitter and Facebook, and apparently hiding behind trees.

gwen-jorgensen***

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