Monday, December 21, 2009

Advent Reflections on the Magi: A Perfectly Good Waste of Time

After Jesus was born . . . Magi from the east came to Jerusalem (Matt. 2:1).

On the way into work this morning I was honked at twice. The first time I deserved it. I’ll not go into details, but the honker was within their honking rights. The second time was unnecessary. I was a little slow moving at a green light. The person behind me quickly concluded that I needed some encouragement. That one bothered me.

In addition to being honked at twice I’m very much aware of the fact that I nearly honked at other less competent drivers at least twice on my commute this morning - maybe three times. Again, details aren’t important. I’m also aware that the persons at whom my honks would have been directed were doing what I apparently did to someone else. They were impeding my progress, slowing me down, getting in the way.

I was reminded this morning that we’re all in such a hurry. To be deterred in the least is a terrible injustice in Atlanta. We’ve got to keep moving. I saw it in others around me. And most importantly I saw it in myself.

Yesterday a friend told me that she and her husband would be reading the scripture and lighting the advent candle in their church worship service this weekend. She shared this with obvious delight and just a touch of disbelief.

A few years ago she went to church here and there but her husband rarely went at all. About two years ago they tried a church that I had told her about not far from their home. Her husband started going with her. A few months ago he was baptized. And this Sunday they’ll play a role in leading worship.

“That’s called conversion,” I said when she told me what they were doing. She agreed with me that it didn’t happen quickly. What she and her husband will do this weekend was years in the making.

For all our hurrying, there are some things that simply will not be rushed. The journey to Jesus is one of those things.


The story of the Magi is in many ways a mirror of what happens every Christmas. The details have changed. Gone are the camels that we assume bore the three kings and their gifts. We know what gold is, but frankincense and myrrh rarely show up under our trees or in our celebrations.

The piece of the story that gets played out over and over is that somewhere, somehow people are slowly making their way toward Jesus. Even in a place like Atlanta, this is a journey that can’t be rushed.

Some have been en route for years. Others take a first step by reluctantly showing up at church. Whatever the journey looks like, the Spirit of God is working. Powerful Herod could not derail the Magi. He couldn’t lay claim to their trip and use it for his own advancement. The long journey to Jesus would not be stopped or hindered or thwarted.

Maybe you know someone who is making their way toward Jesus this Christmas. Maybe that someone is you. Take your time. This is God’s work, and God works in ways that we may not understand. Ask your questions – just as the Magi did. But keep following the star that prompted you to begin moving in the first place.

This is sometimes a long slow journey. But what seems so slow to us is the Spirit’s way of leading to Jesus – and that’s a perfectly good waste of time.

Draw us to yourself this Christmas, O Christ. Keep us moving, even if slowly. Guard us from being impatient with you and your Spirit. Forgive our tendency to set your schedule and dictate plans. Cause us to become humble followers, we pray. Amen.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Advent Reflections on the Magi: It Takes a While to Get There

Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2).

Wise men came from the east.

That’s vague. The same could be said of three professors who show up at Peachtree church from UGA, making their way from Athens to Buckhead. What is east? Who are these visitors to Bethlehem and where have they come from?

Few scholars have examined those questions as thoroughly as Raymond Brown in his monumental work The Birth of the Messiah. Hint: Don’t take this one to the beach. Brown explores possible answers to these questions and the most reasonable arguments for each. A quick summary might be as follows: Matthew’s Greek word “magoi” can mean “magician” or “astrologer” Given the prominence of a star in Matthew’s story “astrologer” seems like the best answer.

“The east” can be Persia, Babylon, or Arabia. Again, the best option is Persia. To know why, consult Brown.

Wherever these star-gazing scholars came from, this much is clear. Getting from where they were to where they wanted to be was a very long journey. By the time they arrived in Judea the infant Jesus is no longer an infant. Our manger scenes, featuring a post-partum Mary surrounded by the shepherds and magi from the east isn’t quite right. The magi were late to the party. Late but not left out.

Eventually they made it. They came to the place where Jesus was, they fell before the child and worshiped him and presented gifts. What they sought, they found – it just took a while to get there.

Once the dishes have been put away after the Thanksgiving meal, most of us set a course for Christmas. Some waste no time getting the journey started. Thanksgiving weekend is the time to buy the tree and decorate the house. Perhaps for love of the seasonal d├ęcor – or perhaps because December's merciless schedule will not allow a time to do that kind of thing.

Others of us need a little more warm-up time. Having resisted the siren call of retailers to get ready for Christmas in mid-October, we find we can’t quite work up the momentum we need to embrace December and all that comes with it.

At some point, however, we start the pilgrimage toward the Christ child. We take our first weary steps toward the little town of Bethlehem, fully intending to take our place ‘round yon virgin.

And maybe at some point we realize that the distance to that place of worship and adoration is much further than we thought. The calendar threatens us. December 25 is fast approaching and there’s nothing you can do to slow it down. It approaches at what feels like lightning speed.

But you’re just not there. Your mind is distracted; your heart is crowded with other matters; your body is tired; your schedule is relentless. We all want to arrive at the place where we kneel in glad and humble worship before this child, this King. It just takes a while to get there.

Take encouragement from three visitors from the east who would not be deterred. Stay on this journey. Go hard after God until you find your kneeling place. It’s really about the worship, not the calendar. And it’s never too late for that. You can reach the place of worship – even if it takes a little while to get there.

We would seek you, O God, with determined hearts this Christmas season. Lead us with your light to the place of true worship. Sustain us through detours of busy-ness and the burdens that stretch us thin these days. Grant us joy in this journey, we pray. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent Reflections on Joseph: The Power of "With"

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" - which means, "God with us" (Matthew 1:23).

Whether in story or song, we yearn for resolution. We don’t always get it. Some musical composers seem to delight in the discordant, regarding the unfinished sound as artistry. Some writers leave us wondering and guessing, regarding the jagged edges of the tale as closer to reality. They may be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the ear and the mind instinctively seek resolution. We want the chords to progress in such a way that we hear and feel the conclusion of the piece. We like for the varied plot-lines of the story to come together in such way that the fragments form a unified whole. “They lived happily ever after” is what we like to hear.

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth lacks resolution. As we typically read it and hear it read, the story ends nicely enough with Joseph taking Mary as his wife. But while this ending is simple, it isn’t neat. Much is left untold.

The fall-out from the marriage remains untold. Craig Keener writes that “Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation.” And then there’s the little detail about “having no union with her” until the birth of Jesus. They’re married, but not fully married. This isn’t quite happily ever after. Resolution eludes us at the end of Matthew’s story.

There is one line however that helps us make sense of what Joseph did and how he did it. When the Angel spoke the words that the prophet Isaiah had spoken long ago, the child is identified as Immanuel – “God with us.”


“God with us.” That truth is at the core of the Christmas story, and in some way it is at the core of our own stories as well - especially the messy stories, the stories that lack resolution and leave us groping about for what’s next.

The power of “with” changes everything, precisely because it is truly “with.” God present in the varied realities of this day: God with us in all places and all circumstances. God with us in offices and malls, in gyms and courtrooms, on airplanes and tennis courts. God with us in illnesses and in our sleep, in heartache and in love.

The power of “with” tells us that God is not simply “above”: Aloof, distant, watching to see how we’ll manage and whether we’ll screw up. And it also tells us that God is not “against.” The messy story you’re living right now is not punishment or revenge.

We tend to think that when God is with us, the story will always resolve. We sometimes doubt “God with us” because if it were true, life would surely look differently than it does today. Joseph wouldn’t be stuck in a celibate marriage with a pregnant wife, and we’d be getting something other than we’ve got as well.

But “God with us” means that God enters fully into the life you have right now. And if God embraces your life, maybe you can embrace it too. You can do the hard thing and accept the difficult reality – just as Joseph did. And you can do it with deep peace and bold confidence, knowing that ultimately in all things God is working for your good. All things will one day resolve, and until then we live in faith obedience. That’s the power of “with.”

I will claim the Angel’s words to Joseph as your promise to me, O God. You are with us. In Jesus you entered fully into the experience of life and embraced it all. Because you are with us we can do the same. Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we might live fully in you presence today. Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Advent Reflections on Joseph: Plans

Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph . . . (Matt. 1:18).

It was a simple plan, well tested and widely practiced. Everyone knew how it went. It was life-changing but it wasn’t complicated. Joseph and Mary would become husband and wife. The plan had been in place for a while, blessed by both families. The process was clear and the anticipation was high. It was a good plan. This is what a young man and a young woman were supposed to do.

This plan had a way of creating momentum for other plans. The wedding would one day be followed by children. The children would require Joseph to invest himself in his trade and create a flourishing business. So many plans and all of them good.

And then, at the height of anticipation, the plan unraveled. As one plan caved, a chain reaction was unleashed in Joseph’s soul and he saw all of his plans shredded, every dream disintegrating like a lump of sugar in hot tea.

The undreamed of and the unimaginable shoved aside the imagined future. An unplanned pregnancy and all that comes with it: questions and speculation, shame and scorn.

And so Joseph devised another plan: a quiet divorce. Damage control. It was the best he could do. He would do what God’s law required while guarding Mary’s reputation as much as he could.

But while Joseph was grieving the death of his dreams and scurrying for an alternative plan, trying to make the best out of what couldn’t have been any worse, he was told that the whole mess was actually part of a much larger plan. This pregnancy was of the Holy Spirit, and through it God was working to save his people from their sin.

Joseph’s life wasn’t being lived according to his own plan; his life was part of a plan that he never dreamed of. The plan at the center of his life was God’s plan – and God’s plan was being worked out while Joseph’s plans were falling apart.


On the day that Mary and Joseph met, Jesus was already planned and the work of salvation through him was fully formed in God’s mind.

Go back further. On the day Joseph and Mary’s grandparents met, Jesus was already planned. The story Matthew tells us goes back as far as the prophet Isaiah to show us that Jesus was a well formed plan in God’s salvation story.

There is truth in this familiar Christmas story that serves to anchor us when our plans are falling apart – and at Christmas plans are especially vulnerable to falling apart. The big meal didn’t turn out right, the family gathering was awkward, the gifts didn’t fit or missed the mark in some other way, the flight was delayed or the trip was canceled altogether.

We picture the perfect Christmas, but rarely get it. And we picture the dream life but don’t see the dream become reality. Joseph’s story is our story, and it is retold day after day.

But the anchor is this: there is a plan bigger than the one you placed on your calendar. There’s a dream larger than the one you direct while also playing the starring role. God has a plan and this plan will not unravel. It is a plan to reclaim and restore a broken, messed up world. God is always carrying out his plans and purposes – and you are invited to be a part of that story.

God’s plans are being worked out, even when your plans are falling apart. What have you got planned for today? What might God have planned for you?

Gracious God, we wake up and enter every day with plans, both large and small. We dream of our future and schedule meetings. We interview for jobs and book flights. We spend our days planning. And when our plans fall apart the true source of our faith and hope is revealed. Help us to trust you with this day’s plans, and with all that we dream about for our lives. Include us in your story, we pray, and work out your plan for us in all that we do. Amen.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Advent Reflections on Joseph: Waiting and Wrestling

Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly (Matt. 1:19).

Until I received the email from my son’s wrestling coach last week, I had no idea what I was in for. The world of middle school wrestling is uncharted territory for me. The email did us the favor of not sugar-coating what Saturday’s tournament would be like. “This will be the longest day of our season.”

I had to have my son on the team bus by 6:00 a.m. and myself in McDonough by 9:00 a.m. But the email couldn’t really prepare me for what I experienced this past Saturday. The place was loud and raucous and I knew immediately that I had been a fool for bringing a book along with me, although I wasn’t the only one (and I did see one dad with his laptop).

The tournament was double-elimination. The main gym at Union Grove High School in McDonough had six mats with matches happening simultaneously all day long; another area had two more mats for more advanced wrestlers.

My son lost his first match. At least one more to go. His next match was placed on the schedule and we had about an hour long wait. He won that time. The next match was placed on the schedule. More waiting. Then he won again. His next match was placed on the schedule followed by still more waiting. And then he won yet again. After more waiting he had his fifth match of the day – and that’s when it ended for him. But by that time it was almost 5:00 pm.

I learned plenty about wrestling on Saturday. I learned that a wrestling match can be over in a hurry. This is nothing like watching your kid play baseball. Even a match that lasts a good while is over in a matter of minutes. And I also learned that there are long stretches of waiting.

In a wrestling tournament, good wrestling and long waiting are a package deal.


The story of Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy is a wrestling story. Matthew gives it to us in spare language. Mary is pledged to Joseph, the marital commitment in place without the full benefits and living arrangements of the marital relationship. This is when Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. And this is when the wrestling begins, unseen and yet strenuous. Joseph grappling with God, grappling with his own heart and mind.

Again, Matthew shows us none of this except to say that Joseph “considered” how he could divorce Mary quietly and thus protect her from public disgrace. But can such “considering” be anything less than anguish and pain? How long did he “consider?” How many sleepless nights, how many bitter questions hurled at heaven? How many tense conversations with his beloved? How many fake smiles at neighbors as if all was well?

And even once the Angel has appeared and Joseph has taken Mary as is wife, the difficulties are hardly over. Craig Keener notes that Joseph’s decision to go ahead with his marriage was a decision to sacrifice his own reputation. The wrestling surely didn’t stop. Wrestling mingled with waiting until the birth in the Bethlehem stable.

Many of us come to Advent wrestling and waiting; life has us in a head-lock and we’re trying desperately to find the right move that will loosen its grip. With the Psalmist we ask “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” (Ps. 13:2). Christmas doesn’t change the fact that we’re wrestling with decisions that need to be made, decisions we wish could make over again, afflicted bodies, conflicted relationships and competing expectations. We wrestle through one challenge only to face another.

But in the midst of the wrestling, Joseph’s and ours, there is this assurance: the Holy Spirit is at work. To see it may require waiting, long waiting and still more wrestling. But God is active in your wrestling story.

What opponent will you wrestle today?

Grant to us, O God, the patience to trust you in all things and the strength to wrestle long until we see your hand at work: show your hand in the difficult situations, the perplexing questions, the stubborn circumstances that refuse to budge. Be present with us in the struggles of this day, making us confident as we wrestle and wait in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Advent Reflections on Simeon: Cradling Salvation

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God . . . (Luke 2:28)

In the churches that introduced me to Jesus and nurtured my faith, Baptism was a sloppy affair. You had to change your clothes, put on a white robe, hold your nose and allow the pastor to lower you backwards all the way under, at least until the water completely covered your face. That kind of baptism demonstrated real faith – not only in Jesus as Lord and Savior, but in the person who held you and lowered you into the “watery grave.”

I love immersion baptism – the kind where the water doesn’t go on you; you go in the water. When I met with the Presbytery’s committee on ministry in order to become a card-carrying Presby Pastor, they questioned me about some of my reservations about leaving the tradition that had shaped my faith and educated me for ministry. I only had one: “You people don’t use enough water,” I said. They laughed. “How much does it take,” one of them replied.

Let me hasten to add that I love infant baptism too. I’ll confess that I’m probably not able to articulate the most cogent and compelling argument for why we baptize babies. Focus on the word “baptism” in infant baptism and you can end up mired in some thorny theological and biblical questions.

What draws me to infant baptism isn’t the word “baptism.” Rather, it’s the word “infant.” Sure, the act or “sacrament” of infant baptism says something profound about the nature of God’s grace. But on a far more practical level, there’s something very special about holding someone else’s baby and speaking blessing over that child.

Some babies don’t like to be held by the pastor. Some parents bring young ones for baptism who are well beyond infancy and can actually run from you (I’ve had that happen). But some sleep in your arms and still others look at you like they understand clearly every word you’re saying as you name Father, Son and Holy Spirit over them.

It is a great privilege, a sacred moment, when parents place their child in your arms for a word of blessing.

This is the moment of the Simeon story that holds my attention today. Luke narrates the scene in a terse sentence or two. Mary and Joseph arrive at the Temple to present their son, and the next thing we know Simeon has the child in his arms, praising God with prayerful song.

The story of Simeon is always told at or near the Christmas season. It is numbered among the biblical texts that we associate with the birth of Jesus. But among these nativity stories, Simeon is the only one who actually takes the infant into his arms. His song gives thanks to God that “my eyes have seen your salvation.” But Simeon doesn’t merely see salvation. He cradles it, holds it close, pulls it to himself in an intimate act of worship.

The Shepherds rushed to the stable to “see this thing that has happened.” As best we can tell, their encounter with Jesus was one of seeing and beholding. The magi also journeyed to find the child. Their worship was expressed in the bringing of gifts. There are angels who sing and animals who witness the event. Even in the temple that day the elderly Anna gave thanks to God and spoke of the child (the first woman preacher). But Simeon takes the baby into his arms.

In these days of Advent Simeon’s example invites us to ponder our own response to the birth of Jesus and the salvation accomplished through him. Specifically, we are invited to be more than spectators and observers. We are challenged to do more than give gifts. We are reminded that Christmas can mean more than speaking about Jesus’ birth.

God’s saving work through Jesus is meant to be embraced. As Simeon’s words make clear, this salvation is being prepared in the sight of all people – but many people at Christmas are simply too busy too embrace it. Some find it too familiar. They talk about it, they watch the story from their pew, but have yet to take the Christ into their arms and cradle the God’s work of salvation as their own.

How will you encounter the Christ child this year? Have you embraced God’s saving work as your own?

We give you thanks, O God, for your saving work in Jesus Christ. We marvel that this work is for all nations, prepared in the sight of all people. Knowing that we cannot share what we do not possess ourselves, we will embrace this salvation and hold it close. Change us and save us – and empower us to share the good news of salvation with the world. Amen.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Advent Reflections on Simeon: The Spirit of Obedience

Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to he Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every first born male is to be consecrated to the Lord.”). (Luke 2:22-23).

She was wide awake long before she needed to be. She hadn’t slept much and what sleep she managed was light, easily interrupted by every sound that came from her baby boy. Even when the baby slept soundly she would lie awake and listen to his breathing. Sometimes she stared into the dark just waiting for the arrival of morning’s first light and the moment when she could nudge Joseph and tell him it was time to get ready. She had been waiting for this day for weeks.

Today they would take their month old son and present him at the temple.

Since the day of his birth they had known they would make this trip to Jerusalem. They knew this because the practice was established by God in the days of Moses. For centuries this is what the faithful had done in keeping with God’s law.

The presentation of their baby at the temple wasn’t their idea. It wasn’t something they discussed as a nice opportunity to make a family memory. It was never regarded as something they chose to do. They were commanded to do it. Even the timing of the trip was set forth in the Law. The time for Mary’s purification following childbirth had to be completed (Lev. 12:1-5). So it now was, and so they would go.

The temple presentation was an act of obedience.

As Mary and Joseph made their way to the temple that day another man was doing the same thing. This man was not presenting a child. Those days were long gone for him. He was, like the young couple, a man who cared about the Law of God. He was righteous and devout. He knew what God had said and he lived his life according to what God had spoken.

But the defining characteristic of Simeon’s life was his intimate fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit. Yes, Simeon knew the Law, but he was one upon whom the Spirit of God rested. The Spirit had conveyed to Simeon a very significant promise. And when Simeon made his way to the temple that day he did so led by the Spirit.

Simeon arrived at the temple because he knew within himself that the Spirit was prompting him to go there.

And so they met. An encounter orchestrated by God, a confluence of obedience to the Law and sensitive response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. An obedient life and a Spirit-led life came together around the person of Jesus. So it is even now, this day. So it is for you.

Responsiveness to the leading of the Spirit and obedience to the written word of God are never two separate ways of living the life of faith. Think long and hard about any kind of spiritual talk that speaks of “fresh winds” of the Spirit that blow in a direction counter to the plainly written words of God in scripture. When Jesus is held at the center of a life of faith, obedience to the law of God and sensitivity to the Spirit of God will meet, congruent and inseparable.

This has implications for how we live our days. Obedience is never mere obedience, gritting our teeth with determined resolve to do what’s right even if we hate it and even if it kills us. And sensitivity to the Spirit is never vague impulse or a wave of sincere feeling. True God-honoring obedience is made possible by the Spirit, and sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading is shaped by the word.

Following the Spirit, obeying the Law: which of these comes easiest to you? Answer this truthfully, and then pray earnestly for the other.

Lead me this day, O God, in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary: Attentive and obedient to what your word says. Lead me also in the footsteps of Simeon: Sensitive and responsive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Help me to live this day in the Spirit of obedience, to the glory of your name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Advent Reflections on Simeon: Moment of Recognition

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ . . . (Luke 2:27-28).

How did he know? How did he know that they were the ones? How did he know that this was the child?

All he had been given was a promise. At some point in his life, at a time unknown to us, Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. He had been told this would happen, but didn’t have clue as to when it would happen or who he was looking for. No details, no dates, no descriptions. Just a promise.

At first there was an excitement to all of this, an eager readiness to see what the Spirit had said he would see. Every day felt like the day. Every morning brimmed with possibility. Every occasion of temple worship was charged with the presence of the Holy. Something of enormous significance was about to happen. God was going to do a work which generations of faithful men and women had yearned to see. And Simeon would see it.

But years passed. The mornings became increasingly difficult for Simeon. He didn’t charge into the day with the same energy he once had. It took a while to get moving, and when he moved he moved slowly. The brimming possibility of each day had gradually become a wistful perhaps. He still went to the temple. He still said his prayers. After all, he was a righteous and devout man.

The years brought questions. There were moments when he wondered if he had misunderstood what the Spirit had conveyed to him years ago, but the nagging doubts never lingered long. With the passing of time Simeon had lost some energy, he had lost his wife. He had even lost most of his hair. But he never lost his conviction that God would one day bring salvation to Israel – and to the nations of the world as well. Simeon had been given a promise.

And the promise was enough. It was enough to get him out of bed each day, enough to strengthen his soul when his body was weak and tired, enough to comfort his heart when he felt alone, enough to keep him alert and attentive.

What we imagine to be true of Simeon’s life we know to be true for a fact of our own. Most of us know all too well how the life of faith soars and slumps. We live some of our days in eager pursuit of what God has for us, even if we’re not exactly sure what that is. God is at work in the world and we’re involved. And then there are days when we live as if by muscle memory, saying the right things, doing the right things, but we do so because that’s what we’ve always done.

The enemy of our faith rarely attacks us at the point of our deepest held beliefs. That is heavily defended territory for most of us, and Satan is smart enough to know it. Rather than a frontal attack on our beliefs, the enemy of our faith simply lulls us into inattention. We stop noticing the divine presence. We stop looking for God’s activity in our world. Today will be like yesterday, this year like last year. Our expectations flat-line.

What Simeon never stopped doing was paying attention. That’s how he knew. That’s how he spotted that particular couple and sensed something different about their baby. The long awaited moment of recognition came to a man who held fast to a promise and lived his days believing. That’s not easy to do.

This day is another opportunity to rub the crust from the eyes of your soul and pay attention. Advent is a deep yearning to see God at work in the world. The baby Simeon blessed in the temple that day would one day explain that the Spirit moves like wind. You can’t see where it comes from or where it is going, but you can notice where it is moving (John 3:8). And the moment of recognition belongs to those who pay attention.

Gracious God, I want to live my days like Simeon – grounded in the conviction that you are at work in this world. I confess that there are days when it’s hard to believe this, hard to see what you’re doing. Your absence seems obvious, your presence illusory. Help me to pay attention today and keep me alert for signs of your grace. I will hold to your promises confident that you are holding me as I wait and watch. Amen.