Elevation…

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Luke‬ ‭2‬:‭8-12‬ NIV

The story of God’s love is for everyone. So much so, that the first announcement of the birth of the King of Kings is not to the lofty and the privileged, but to a few lowly shepherds who were working the night shift, watching their sheep.

Shepherds were outcasts. They stank. They were ritually unclean. They were poor and uneducated. They were not welcomed by society at large.

And yet, it is to these men that Heaven breaks forth with good news of great joy. You might ask why – why would God announce such an important event to such humble men? The answer is love. Love that is so steadfast, so powerful, so boundless that it reaches out and elevates the lowest.

God’s love is for everyone. For those we wish we could ignore, for those we love, for those we will never know.

This Advent, may you find your life elevated by the boundless, powerful, steadfast love of God. May you be filled to overflowing with that love, so that it reaches out and through you, elevated the lives of those around you.

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No room?

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
‭Luke‬ ‭2‬:‭6-7‬ NIV

They’d travelled far. And they must have been so very tired. But the whole town was booked. Inn after inn, and not a room to be found. In the end, they settled in the stable with the animals. It may not have been pretty, but they were just poor peasants, after all. They were inside and warm, and there was a place for the newborn, so why complain?

To the inn keeper and any one else who might have happened by, it was just another baby. The innkeeper hadn’t been visited by angels. He couldn’t have known it was Heaven’s child being born among the animals.

But it’s different for us. Isn’t it? Each year we come to this story – but we know the ending already. We know who this child is and what his birth meant. We know how he lived and what he taught. We know how he chose to lay down his life for us. Eek now how he rose again on the third day.

Each year we come to this story, we have the chance to ask ourselves again: will we make room for the child? Will we take him in? Allow his birth, his life, his teachings, his death and his resurrection to be at home within our hearts?

If we do, if we make room for him, we will be transformed. No longer able to live simply as children of this world, but adopted into the holy family, made citizens of heaven, with all its rights and privileges and duties. Made over into children of light and love whose purpose it is to spread light and love into the dark places of our world.

This Advent, may you make room for the Christ child. May you know why he came and may you find that it is your purpose to share the light and love you’ve found in him with everyone you meet.

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Love…

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke‬ ‭2‬:‭1-5‬ NIV

It is the last Sunday of Advent – the Advent Sunday of Love. Christmas is almost here. Our waiting is almost over.

Love is the thing that underpins every part of the story of Jesus’ birth. It was love that drove God to send his son to us. It was love that made Jesus choose to be born as a helpless infant. It was love that made Mary say yes to mothering Heaven’s child. It was love that kept Joseph from breaking his engagement to Mary (even quietly) and allowed him to be the earthly father of Jesus.

It was all about love. Love of God, love of family, love of humanity.

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem could not have been an easy one. For these young, soon-to-be parents, traveling by donkey over rocky roads. But love spurred them on. And they would be rewarded with love when their son, God’s Son, came into the world.

This Advent, may your journey be driven by love. May you be rewarded with love as you gather with friends and family, as you worship, as you celebrate. May you know – ultimately and without doubt – that you are personally and steadfastly loved by the creator of the universe.

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With US…

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.
Matthew‬ ‭1‬:‭22-25‬ NLT

One of the images we contemplate at Christmastime is the image of Immanuel: God with us. As the Angel tells Joseph, this was God’s promise from ages before. Isaiah wrote these words in prophecy hundreds of years before The birth of Jesus.

Often as we consider this image, we concentrate on the “with” part of it. Because it is pretty astounding that God wants to be WITH us. That God has never been content to see us from a distance. That God is closer than we think.

But I remember hearing a sermon a number of years ago that emphasized the word “us” in the phrase “God with us”. I remember being blown away by this sermon. It changed the way I understood Christian community (read: the church).

No longer could I see my brothers and sisters in Christ as simply those on their own version of the journey I am on. Instead I saw us as a cohesive unit, called by God. I saw that it was God’s intent that we be in this together. Sure, my journey is unique and valuable in and of itself. But if my journey never crosses paths with another’s, then I am not what God has called us to be.

We aren’t meant to do this on our own. We are meant to go down the road together. Even Jesus was born into a family – into an “us.” We need each other, in order to be what God has intended us to be as individuals and as a community. If we are going to be right with God, we have to be part of an us – part of a community.

This Advent, may you not only belong to a community, but seek ways to invite others in. May you not only enjoy those who are easy to get along with, but seek to make peace with those who are tough to get along with. May you not only know that God is WITH us, but also that God is with US.

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Best laid plans…

As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew‬ ‭1‬:‭20-21‬ NLT

As Joseph is figuring out how best to deal with the fact that his fiancée is pregnant (and not by him), God breaks into his story. An Angel appears to tell him that the child is no ordinary baby, that Joseph must name him Jesus because he will save his people. And this news blows apart Joseph’s recently constructed plan to break the engagement quietly.

That’s what happens when God breaks into your story. Whatever you’d figured out, whatever you’d planned, whatever you thought you knew would happen, flies out the window.

But as surprising and paradigm-shaking as this news must have been, I don’t think Joseph grieved the loss of his plans. Because the reality has always been that God’s plans are always so much better than ours.

Joseph’s plan was to quietly release the woman he loved…to abandon her and the child that was not his. To do so as gently as he could, but to leave them nonetheless.

God’s plan was that Joseph would father the child of eternity who would grow up to save the world.

Joseph chose wisely. He chose God’s plan – bewildering as it must have been to him.

This Advent, may you know that God’s plans really are the best laid plans – no matter how they may surprise us when they are revealed – and that choosing His plans is choosing wisely.

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Being human…

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
Matthew‬ ‭1‬:‭18-19‬ NLT

The shocking thing about the story of Jesus birth is that it is both extremely holy and extremely human. In one sentence we have the statement that Mary became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit (supernatural!), and in the next the statement that Joseph doesn’t want her to face the difficulty of a broken engagement, so he decides to break it quietly (mundane!).

The juxtaposition of these two statements should make our heads spin as we read them. One is talking about the power of God: to create life where there’s been no mechanism for life to be created. The other is talking about how to avoid giving the neighbors something to talk about (actually, the censure Mary would have faced would have been more serious than that…but you KNOW people would have talked. It’s what people do when something scandalous happens.).

But this is the thing about God’s story: it is a both/and kind of story, rather than an either/or kind of story. The holy and the human are not separate in God’s story. They mingle. Because God is holy, but God loves people. God loves us enough to refuse to remain separate from us. Even before the birth of Jesus – who was the embodiment of God’s desire to be-with us – God always chose to walk with and to work with humanity.

He walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day in the Garden of Eden; he lead his people to freedom as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; he spoke words of comfort and of reckoning through his prophets.

Far too often we want to make the story over into an either/or scenario. Either we are speaking of holy things or we are speaking of human things. But that’s not how God’s story goes. We need to remember that and to embrace it, because otherwise we run the risk of pushing God away, of making him that “wholly other” (100% not human) – which is, of course PART of his character, but not the full scope of his character.

God IS “wholly other” but God CHOOSES to set that aside, to not only walk with humanity and work with humanity, but to actually become HUMAN.

That is mind-blowing stuff.

That the all-knowing, all-powerful, creator of everything would choose to limit himself, to subject himself, to become human. For us.

This Christmas, may you find joy in the thought that God cares THAT much about YOU.

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So much…

Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail. ” Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.
‭Luke‬ ‭1‬:‭34-38‬ NLT

This is just four verses of the story. Such a small part of the volume known as the Bible. And yet, such an important part. There is so much packed in here. So many details that are worth time and contemplation. So much joy hovering beneath the surface.

Mary is confused – of course she is – but the Angel’s response tells her that she is going to be part of something unique and miraculous. I wonder what it means – what it feels like and how it happens – to have the “power of the Most High overshadow you.” It’s beautiful, poetic language. But it is also deeply mysterious.

Whatever the mechanics of it, the baby born from this event will be holy. Sacred. Dedicated to God. Consecrated. Not your average little bundle of joy. A bundle of joy on a whole other level.

And then the Angel says that Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who has lived her life under the pall of barrenness, is pregnant in her old age. Elizabeth’s life is redeemed by this miracle. She is no longer one whom God does not favor. Instead, she is part of God’s plan of salvation.

And why is all of this taking place? Because the word of God will never fail. Because God’s promises are true. Because God loves people and does not want us to be separate from him.

Then there’s Mary’s humble response. Her willingness to participate in God’s plan. Her willingness to see this through, though she could not possibly have known all that it would cost her.

There is so much to celebrate, so much to remember, so much to learn from here.

This Advent, may you know the joy of God’s word never failing. May you draw close to the power of the Most High. May you serve with a willing and joyful heart.

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Perfect?

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Luke‬ ‭1‬:‭29-33‬ NIV

Most of the time, the news of a pregnancy is joyful. There are, of course, exceptions. When the pregnancy was not wanted or planned, if it was the result of violence, or if it puts the mother and baby’s lives at risk. These things do happen.

In Mary’s case the pregnancy would have been a scandal. She was not yet married. In her day, a pregnancy out of wedlock would have been one of the worst things that could happen to a woman.

I think what I love most about the story of Jesus’ birth is that it was also messy. Even the news of the pregnancy was tinged with the possibility of scandal, of real danger to Mary’s life (women were disowned or even stoned in those days for being unfaithful). The reason I like the messiness of this story is that it is so real. Life IS messy. Things aren’t often black-and-white. We live in shades of grey. Even good news is often tinged with uncertainty or risk or other difficult emotions in our world.

Jesus wasn’t born into a perfect world. He was born into ours. And so like all the stories God is writing all over the world, this story is a little messy. A little imperfect. Touched with tragedy and uncertainty.

But even in the midst of the mess, there is joy. Sometimes we think in order to experience joy, everything must be perfect. When it comes to Christmas, that’s what ruins a lot of celebrations: the unfair, impossible, unreasonable pressure we put on everything to be PERFECT.

Jesus’ story tells us that perfection isn’t necessary for joy to exist. Even as Mary hears the greatly troubling news of her pregnancy, the exultant words of the angel speak to the greatness of the child she will bear. There is both joy and trouble here.

This Advent, may you find joy in the midst of your troubles. And may you know that things don’t have to be perfect to be good.

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Joy…

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (‭Luke‬ ‭1‬:‭26-28‬ NIV)

Today is the Advent Sunday of Joy. This marks a turing point in our Advent journey. We turn from solemn waiting and begin to celebrate in joy.

It is quite appropriate that at St. Andrew’s, Brampton we were lead in worship by the children of our church this morning. Their pageant is always full of sweet and unexpected moments. Joy was a living, breathing, thriving thing as we worshipped.

In terms of my Advent blog journey, I will now turn from the prophecies foretelling the birth of Jesus and instead walk through the birth narrative. The passage above is by no means the start of the story, but it is where I have chosen to begin.

There is something marvelous about this scene – the Angel appearing in a lowly bedroom in the little village of Nazareth. The ordinary girl, Mary, chosen to carry the Christ child.

She couldn’t have known the joy that the Angel’s words would bring into this world. The joy of salvation.

She also couldn’t have known how complicated that joy would be. How it would be tinged with pain and sacrifice. How death would seem to have won. What would happen on the third day.

But we do know, and so we celebrate this beautiful, complicated, marvelous joy as we await the birth of Jesus.

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The offer of peace…

Jesus said:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
John‬ ‭14‬:‭27‬ NIV

Now you might wonder why I’d choose to use a quote from a very grown up Jesus when we are in the season of awaiting his birth. Isn’t this jumping ahead of the game? Isn’t this messing with the story?

Maybe. But all week I’ve been thinking about peace – about what it means and where we find it and how we might share it with others. About how the world longs for it, and how we are so much better at breaking it than keeping it.

And when I think of all of this, these words from Jesus are what come back to me, time and again.

There is something different about the peace that Jesus gives. It is not the simple lack of conflict that the world might put forth under the name “peace.” It is bigger, wider, deeper than that.

It has to do with wholeness and health and beauty on all levels – emotional, physical, spiritual, social, economical, ecological…literally on every facet of life.

And Jesus gives this peace to us because he has walked in our shoes. He has felt the limitations and also the incredible depth of what it means to be human. He has known hunger and thirst, friendship and betrayal, doubt and faith. If it is human – he has experienced it.

His offer of peace isn’t some placating gesture from a God who has never known suffering. His offer of peace is the healing work of one whose wounds are deep, whose scars are real, who knows exactly why we need his peace so desperately.

And he is only able to give peace to us in this way because he took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood.

So yes – maybe it is jumping ahead a bit, to quote his words in this season of preparing for his birth. By it is his birth as a helpless human baby that makes those words possible. So you see – it circles around again.

May you know the peace that passes understanding as we await the baby born in Bethlehem. May you know a peace that is different from what the world offers. May you find that your heart is far from troubled as we journey ever closer to the manger.

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