“Advent brings Christmas, judgment runs out into mercy. For the God who saves us and the God who judges us is one God. We are not, even, condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God. What is it that will break our hearts on judgment day? Is it not the vision, suddenly unrolled, of how he has loved the friends we have neglected, of how he has loved us, and we have not loved him in return; how, when we came (as now) before his altar, he gave us himself, and we gave him half—penitences, or resolutions too weak to commit our wills? But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems us by effecting what it does. Love shares flesh and blood with us in this present world, that the eyes which look us through at last may find in us a better substance than our vanity.”
Austin Farrer, The Crown of the Year: Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament
Once in Royal David’s City
Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed
where a mother laid here baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall:
with the poor, the mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.
For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us he grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see him,
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
God of flood and fire, you blaze a path for us in the wilderness and lead us through the depths in safety. Pour out the consuming power of your Spirit. Wash over us with truth and righteousness and fan the flames of justice as we wait for the coming of Jesus Christ our Savior, living water and light of the world.
Living God, with Elizabeth we cry out in wonder: How can this be, that the Lord has come to us? Fill us with the life of the Holy Spirit so that we may greet your gracious promise with hearts that leap for joy; through Jesus Christ, your word fulfilled.
Most high God, for you nothing is impossible. Through a poor young woman in a small town you gave birth to your realm of endless glory. By your Holy Spirit, fill us with new life and hope and overshadow us with your power and grace so that we, like Mary, might be your servants, bearing witness to the promise of your word; through Jesus Christ, who is coming to reign.
The miracle of the virgin birth (really virgin conception) is delivered in scripture not in the form of a theological argument, but in a moving narrative about an adolescent young woman’s extraordinary bravery. Mary’s story is one of a litany of surprises that not only changed her life forever, but the entire history of humankind. Troubled though she was by the surprise visit of the angel Gabriel, the far greater surprise was what she learned from him. She would give birth to a son named Jesus (“the Lord saves”), who would become king and who’s kingdom would never end. The biggest surprise of all must have been that her conception would be miraculous. The final surprise of Mary’s story is the humble courage she displayed in her response to such a traumatic revelation: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” Ask the Lord to give you the same kind of humble and courageous faith. Pray, “Lord, I, too, am your servant. May your word to me be fulfilled in my life as it was in hers.”
What a happy meeting between Mary and Elizabeth! They were relatives, but we don’t know if Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin or maybe her aunt. Have you ever gotten together with friends or family and celebrated something wonderful? Singer-songwriter, Sara Groves, captures the moment of this scene in her song Twice As Good - “with every burden I have carried, with every joy it's understood, life with you is half as hard, and twice as good. With my good news your dancing on the table, babies born to celebration, the joy of life, oh what a sweet communion, shared with you.” When Mary and Elizabeth got together to celebrate the good news that Jesus was coming, even little baby John the Baptist got excited! Christmas is a miracle of great joy. Are you getting excited about Christmas? Tell the Lord about your joy. Did you know that he is excited about you and loves you more than you will ever know? Rejoice in his love – you can even leap if you want!
Have you ever been so excited that you couldn’t hold it in? Have you ever just had to laugh, or run, or sing, or shout? That is what happened to Mary. The “Magnificat,” as it is called, refers to the first Latin word of the song in the old Latin translations. It is translated as “glorifies” or “magnifies.” Do you ever magnify or glorify anything? That’s what we do when we really enjoy or are interested in something and want to see it up closer. If we enjoy a really good movie, we love to talk about the funny parts over and over – we magnify it and glory in it. If we have a favorite kind of ice cream or candy, we enjoy eating it and thinking and talking about it - food, glorious food! Mary was that way about God’s plan to send Jesus. She thought about it and rejoiced. She was especially excited that God was going to end all the evil in the world someday - evil kings and politicians, the suffering of the poor, hunger – all tears will someday be wiped away. Take a few minutes to “magnify” the Lord. Praise Jesus for all the wonderful things he has done (e.g. forgiving our sins, giving us eternal life, his Spirit to comfort us), and all the wonderful things that will happen when he comes again.
There is an intriguing sub plot within the main plot of Luke’s birth narrative, which is actually the story of two births. Luke oscillates back and forth between the birth of John the Baptist, who came to prepare the way for Jesus, and the the birth of Jesus himself. Tucked within this major plot line is the secondary story of Zechariah, whose lack of faith is juxtaposed with Mary’s faith, vis-a-vis separate visits from the angel, Gabriel, to both. In response to Gabriel’s announcement that he and his wife would have a child that they were to name, John, Zechariah had his doubts, asking the angel, “how can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” Gabriel silenced him in response, literally. He returned home unable to speak. And perhaps Elizabeth was thankful for this turn of events! In today’s passage, we read the story of the “lifting of this curse,” as Zechariah writes on a tablet, following the birth of his son, “his name is John.” At this precise moment, his tongue is miraculously loosened and he begins to speak, praising God. All his neighbors are in awe of this event. Ask the Lord to loosen your tongue to proclaim his praise, not because you have to, but because you, like Zechariah, “get it”, and you, like the neighbors in the story, are filled with awe at what the Lord has done.
Have you ever desperately wanted something but weren’t sure if you would get it? Have you ever waited on someone for a long time but felt tempted to give up? Have you ever felt stuck in a situation and weren’t sure how you would get out of it? This is what Israel was experiencing before Jesus was born. God made a special relationship (a covenant) with Israel by this promise to Abraham: “I will bless you… and you will be a blessing.” God also promised Israel that he would send a new king like David to rule his people. However, after years and years of being trampled underfoot by foreign empires and evil kings, and after century upon century of pain and sorrow, agony and oppression, darkness and death, Israel wondered if God would come through for them. But Zechariah sang a new song, praising God for “coming” to redeem Israel, to bring salvation – mercy, forgiveness and rescue from death itself. How exactly will the creator God rescue his people? First, God will announce his coming through John the Baptist. Second, God will send Jesus to bless Israel and be her king. Praise God that he never forgets his promises and that he sent Jesus. Praise God that “he has come to his people and redeemed them.” Ask Jesus “to enable us to serve God without fear” and “to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
“Once upon a time…” What was your favorite childhood story growing up? John begins his story this way, “In the beginning…” Does this remind you of another story in the Bible? The creator God is acting in a new way in his much-loved creation. The long story that began in Genesis is reaching the climax that the creator had always intended. In Genesis 1, the climax is the creation of humans, made in God’s image. In John 1, the climax is the arrival of the only fully human, human being - the Word become flesh - who came to rescue, redeem and restore the broken image of all humanity. This word is bringing into being the new creation, in which God says once more, “Let there be light and life!” And the word is bringing about a new human family – adopted children of God – that is spreading throughout the world. Thank God that you have been born again as a child of God; ask God to fill the dark world with his light, life, grace, truth and glory.
Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 in The Message - “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” A wise old man once told me, “when you first become a Christian, it feels like you take a step toward God and then God takes a step toward you, but after you walk with God for a little while, you realize there was a step before your step and he took it, not you.” Praise the Lord that he came from heaven to earth to rescue, redeem and restore you, to bring beauty in your personal brokenness and the brokenness of the world. Pray that he would give you grace to mimic Jesus, “to move into the neighborhood” of other people’s lives bringing with you the hope that his light would shine through you, and that you would have the privilege of being part of the continuing story of redemption in their lives.