A Donkey, a Shepherd and a Little Town Take Us to Christmas

We spent the early part of Advent reading and discussing implications from three Old Testament texts. It is a good time of year to remember what the prophets said long before anyone was thinking about Christmas. Yet, these old texts clearly stated that something was coming. Which makes them great conversation during the time of year when we celebrate Advent (something is coming).

Our texts came from Numbers 24, Ezekiel 34, and Micah 5. We read about Balaam (and his wise donkey) blessing the people of Israel with “I see Him, but not now… a star shall come forth from Jacob.” We read Ezekiel’s rebuke of Israel’s rulers and his declaration that “I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David.” We read Micah’s claim “But as for you Bethlehem, Ephrathah… from you One will go forth from me to be ruler in Israel.” So, of course we called our study “A Donkey, a Shepherd, and a Little Town Take Us to Christmas.”

In an effort to emphasize that these texts belong to a larger story, we placed each of them within two other texts. We hoped that an earlier text and a later text would help us to see the storyline take shape. We read the Numbers text in between Genesis 12 where God reveals the seriousness of blessing and cursing His people and Matthew 2 where Magi (like Balaam) enter the story of the people of God. Interestingly, Balaam nearly quotes the Genesis blessing. Equally interesting, King Balak and King Herod both attempt but fail to persuade the Magi.

We read Ezekiel’s text in between II Samuel 12 where Nathan shares a parable about a ruler who does not shepherd his people well and John 10 where Jesus talks about how the Good Shepherd does look after His sheep. Finally, we read Micah’s text in between I Samuel 16 where the first king from Bethlehem was chosen and he was “least” among others and again, Matthew 2 where Micah is quoted in the Gospel when it is revealed where the king will be born.

Although I found this to be both challenging and enjoyable (at times, even exciting), it is my hope that these times have helped us to prepare for the coming of Christ. That we can see how God has acted in human history, acts in human history, and will act in human history. That we will be reminded of our own role in God’s intervention to bless the world through His people.

A Beautiful People

Four years ago, I walked into a church building. It seemed almost accidental. They needed someone to preach that day and I was available. It was the second Sunday of Advent and I was greeted at the door by a gentleman who introduced himself as Charles (that is his name but no one calls him that). I had no idea how the next four years would play out.

These days, I am in that same building quite often. I like that I can walk out the front door and onto the Appalachian Trail. I also like that when I walk out the back door, I can see the Susquehanna River. Earlier this week I walked outside and saw snowcapped mountains. These will never be confused with the Rockies, but they were wearing a snow cap. Looking south from the front sidewalk, standing on the trail, a white cap was visible on Cove Mountain. Looking east from the back door, across the river, a white cap was visible on Peters Mountain. I tried to take pictures but they did not do it justice.

Now, four years later, we are again walking through the season of Advent together. I love that we are surrounded by some fascinating geography. But the real beauty is not the landscape, it is these people. It is privilege to gather with them to read old texts, sing old songs, light candles and explore ways to best serve this community.

A Reading for Christmas Eve

In the days of Caesar Augustus

Joseph and Mary went to the city of David

Mary gave birth to a son

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes

She laid him in a manger

An angel came with good tidings

This child was Christ the Lord!

We light the first candle for the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle for the peace of knowing God has always wanted to be with us. We light the third candle for the joy of Jesus birth. We light the fourth candle for the love God showed us at Christmas!

Tonight, we light the Christ candle and we are reminded that he is still God with us!

A Counter Politic

Our politics have little to do with whether retail stores allow employees to wish consumers a Merry Christmas or allow the Salvation Army to ring out front or whether the court house will permit a nativity scene on the premises. For the church to expect Target or the court house or the president to communicate Christmas for us is simply ridiculous. I suspect the principalities and powers are pleased when we become so dependent on them. And if our witness hinges on retailers or elected officials, we have bigger problems than we care to admit.

The politics of Christmas are much bigger than such things. The fifth verse of the Gospel of Luke starts it off. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” So it begins. On the stage of local politics, John the Baptizer is conceived and born.

Meanwhile, there is something even bigger going on. Jesus is conceived and his mother Mary begins talking about politics. She tells us that when God’s kingdom promises are complete, people will have enough food. She tells us about a kingdom where the rich and powerful will no longer exploit the weak and poor. Mary makes claims of a new kingdom before the king is even born.

And then, on the stage of world politics where Caesar Augustus ruled, Jesus is born. Luke may be implying that while John was to have a significant local impact among Jews in Judea, Jesus will have a worldwide impact for all people.

And before we think the politics are out of the way, Luke chapter three begins with a list of politicians. It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Just an observation, Augustus didn’t last long). “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… Herod was tetrarch of Galilee… Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus… Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene” and the high priesthood included “Annas and Caiaphas.” Whew!

We can be certain that both local and worldwide politics provide settings for what follows. It also becomes obvious that wherever one turns they are faced with the politics of the world. Everyone in the story is surrounded by the world’s power. That is when “the word of God came to John.” And among the verbal clutter of all those political voices, came “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Its on. Luke wants to make sure we know early in the gospel story that our politics are counter to the politics of the world. So, we are told that one of those listed politicians, Herod, had enough of John’s counter political preaching and locked him in prison. If nothing else, this reminds us there is much more at stake than we may first suspect.

A Reading for Advent Four

In the Beginning was the Word

The Word was With God

The Word was God

All Things were Made by Him

Including a World that He so Loved

He was a Light in that World

And He so Loved the World

He Became Flesh and Made His Dwelling with Us

We light the first candle for the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle for the peace of knowing God has always wanted to be with us. We light the third candle for the joy of this Good News. Today we light the fourth candle for the love God showed us at Christmas!

A Reading for Advent Three

In a season when we talk of songs and angels and miracles, we are also reminded of struggles and challenges. But during Advent we are reminded that nothing is impossible with God. As we walk through this season, we hear the joy that comes with good tidings. We are reminded that the world changed at Christmas.

We light the first candle as a reminder of the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle as a reminder of the peace that comes with knowing that God has always desired to be with us. Today, we light the third candle with joy as we receive the good news about Jesus.

A Reading for Advent Two

Behold! The virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel. And we will know that God s with us. The God of Abraham is with us! The God of David is with us! A child shall be born and we will know that God is with us! The Good News tells us that more than anything – God desires to be with us!

We light the first candle to remind us to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Today we will light the second candle and are reminded that from the beginning, God has always desired to be with us.

A Reading for Advent One

Reader 1 – Behold!

Reader 2 – Prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – I am sending my messenger!

Reader 2 – Prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – There is a voice crying in the wilderness!

Reader 2 – It is saying, prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – Make your paths Straight!

Reader 2 – and Prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – Get Ready!

Reader 2 – And straighten up!

Both readers – Prepare for the Lord

We light the first candle of Advent and remember that the Old Testament prophet told us about the importance of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord. We remember that the New Testament messenger tells us about the importance of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Today we are reminded again to be ready for the coming of the Lord.

History Matters

Christmas is coming. Advent begins in just eighteen days. We are entering the season and Luke 1 is a good text to help us prepare. Perhaps any reading of Luke at all should pay attention to 1.1-4. It certainly helps us to understand the reason for details we find later. Luke tells us that many have told the story before. Servants of the word, ministers of the gospel, and other eyewitnesses have told the story of Jesus. Yet, Luke wants to tell it again. Luke wants to investigate details carefully. Luke wants us to understand what we’ve been told.

Immediately, Luke starts in with the details. In 1.5-7 things feel so historical, just the way Luke wants it. We discover right away the name of the king of Judea. We learn the name of one of the priests and the priestly division he belonged to. We learn the name of his wife and something about her family tree. We are told that they were of good character “righteous and obedient and blameless.” We are told they are old. And we are told the woman, Elizabeth, was barren.

That is a lot of historical information in only three verses. Perhaps we should state the obvious. No one comes to church to find out the name of a first century king, the name of a first century priest, or the birthing status of a first century woman. Yet, Luke tells these details because they belong to a story so important, they must be told.

We may not go to church to learn history, but Luke is on to something. If our faith is not rooted in history, our faith is broken and we should find something more credible to hang our hat on. That God acted in history gives us faith that God is acting in the present and will act in the future.

So, we listen to historical details in the text. We listen because Luke wants us to listen but also that we might feel it in our bones. God works in real places and among real people. There is good news to be found here and we do go to church in order to hear good news. This story and its details prepare us for a birth that will be announced in the next chapter as “good tidings of great joy” or “good news that will bring great joy.” That is to say, Luke is preparing us for gospel.

Christmas and You and I

We approach Christmas with good intentions. We quote the prophets. We place angels and shepherds and wise men carefully in the nativity scene. Yet, we wonder, would we have believed a story about a carpenter and a virgin and a baby born from God? Would we have believed he was born in Bethlehem in order to affirm his connection with King David? It is likely that many saw the star but did not follow. It is likely that people heard the shepherd’s story but did not believe them. The scholars in Herod ‘s palace knew exactly where to find the child but did not make the attempt.

Still, we approach Christmas as if we would have believed from the start. As if we would have stood with the prophet against the king. As if we would have joined the angelic choir in song. As if we would have run to Bethlehem with the shepherds. As if we would have worshipped with the wise men. We would have been there, the shepherds and wise men and us. Yeah right.