December 8 – John (the Baptist)

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“You shall call his name John” (Luke 1:13).

John is a miracle baby. His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth had resigned themselves to growing old together with no children. But God had other plans. Well, actually, he had just one plan, and their son John was a part of it. He would make ready a people prepared the for the Lord.

Even before he was born, John was excited about the arrival of the Messiah. As soon as his mom Elizabeth heard Mary say, “Hi!” he leapt for joy in her womb! John’s popularity would soar when he began preaching in the wilderness. “Just wait,” he explained. “Someone much greater than me is coming.”

In what must have seemed like a split-second, John’s ratings plummeted. He was thrown in prison until his head was served up on a platter. But he knew. John knew his life would fade as the Lamb of God was glorified.

He was like the rabbit in a mile race. The rabbit goes out fast to make sure the field runs at a record pace. The rabbit won’t win the race. In fact, he doesn’t even finish. A lap or two in, he steps off the track and a much better runner will break the tape at the finish line.

John knew that. In fact, every time someone spoke to him, he would be reminded of that. The name John means “Yahweh is gracious.” His whole identity was tied up in pointing people to the Lord.

When I remember that Jesus came into this world for me, lived a perfect life for me, died on a cross for me and rose from the dead for me, I remember that I really find my identity in who he is. When I proclaim who he is, I know exactly who I am. I’m a child of God because he is the Son of God.

Thank you, Lord, for reminding me of who I am – your dearly loved child. To you be the glory! Amen. 

December 7 – Gabriel

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“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19). 

Zechariah is incredulous. There is an angel standing by the altar in the temple telling him that he will soon have a son. 

The angel Gabriel is incredulous, too. Zechariah isn’t buying it. He wants more assurance that he isn’t seeing and hearing things. 

I think it’s fascinating to consider what we believe and what we don’t believe. Way too many people fall for the lies of scam artists and phishing emails, willingly giving up sensitive information like social security and credit card numbers. But when God says something, we’re dubious. God’s Word quickly raises questions like, “Are you sure? How do I know I can trust you?” 

The argument quickly comes to an end when Gabriel calls an audible. Or more accurately, an “inaudible.” Gabriel must have had the authority to take the message one step further when he says to Zechariah, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). 

Jesus was right when he warned us about those who come to kill, steal and destroy. We should be very cautious when someone promises us wonderful things. Unless that someone is the Lord, who comes that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

How would your day go differently if you simply took Jesus at his word without reservation?

Thank you, Lord, for your messengers and your message which gives me life. Amen. 

December 6 – All the people outside

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“The whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense” (Luke 1:10). 

While Zechariah is in the temple, burning incense and having his angelic encounter, Luke tells us that lots of people were outside praying. And praying. And praying. And praying. And finally someone wonders, “What’s taking him so long?” Someone else asks, “What’s he doing in there?” Maybe another said, “I hope nothing happened to him!”

So what could have happened? What might go wrong when a priest enters the holy place of the temple to burn incense on the altar? 

  • Did he pass out, overcome by the smoke?
  • Was he having trouble getting the incense to catch fire? 
  • Was this his first time, so it took a little longer? 
  • Did he drop it and have to get some more incense to burn? 

Any number of things can happen when you are serving at the altar of God. It’s good to have a multitude of people praying for you! A priest – or a pastor – never does his thing apart from the people. It’s not a thing until we are together! The gathered, praying, faithful people of God are always a part of the advent of our Lord. 

I always thank God for those who come to listen to me preach. Without you, I wouldn’t have much to do, would I? 

Thank you, Lord, for our pastors who shepherd us. But thank you too, Lord, for all your people who gather to pray, praise and give you thanks. Amen. 

December 5 – Aaron

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“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5). 

How about that? Elizabeth was a PK – a “pastor’s kid.” At least that’s what we call them now. She was a descendant of Aaron, Moses’ brother, the first priest of Israel serving in the tabernacle. Depending on your experience, you might consider that a privilege or you might bear it as a burden. I sure hope my kids experienced the former. 

I think it’s interesting that Luke records this detail. Life can be so different when it is intimately tied to the life of a church or the spiritual life of a nation. People expect a lot of you. People treat you differently. They don’t tell you the good jokes and they often apologize for their language. As if you never said anything like that. They’re always a little intimidated by you, since you’ve got an “in” with God. 

Being childless, I don’t think Elizabeth believed she had an “in” with God. Instead she wondered why God had left her and her husband high and dry when it came to children and a future. What good did it do to grow up in a family of priests and marry a priest if you couldn’t have what you most desired, a family?

Because she was from the “daughters of Aaron,” her son would be in line to be a priest, too. I’m sure many envied her for that. Until John grew up and became a radical preacher on the banks of the Jordan, far from the temple. No one ever said it was easy to be a part of the arrival or “advent” of Christ. 

Thank you Lord that I have an “in” with you by grace. Amen. 

December 4 – Abijah

The altar at St. Mark’s in Ridley Park where I first served

You are probably not familiar with the name Abijah, but he shows up in Luke chapter one as we are introduced to the priest Zechariah.

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest name Zechariah, of the division of Abijah” (Luke 1:5).

A long time before this, King David had organized the Levites, musicians, gatekeepers, treasurers and priests for service in the temple. The priests, who were of course all descended from Aaron, were organized into twenty-four divisions. Each division would serve for a week two times a year. Zechariah was part of the division of Abijah. Abijah didn’t know it at the time, but he was a part of the story of the advent of Christ!

A priest might only get to enter the temple and burn the incense once or twice in a lifetime, so this was a very important moment for Zechariah. It was made even more memorable when the angel Gabriel suddenly appears at the altar!

In the Sunday School opening for our smallest students, the preschool bunch, everyone wants a turn “serving at the altar,” that is, lighting and putting out the two candles on our small altar. One day, they will all probably get to take a turn serving as acolytes. I loved the moments when it was my turn to serve at the big altar, lighting and extinguishing fourteen candles plus two more on communion Sundays. And even thought I’ve consecrated the elements many times at the altar, I still treasure that moment when God comes to meet with us and feed us with his grace.

Thank you, Lord, for those who serve at the altar and the part they play in the advent of Christ. Amen. 

3 – Elizabeth

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[Zechariah] had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.

When Mary came to visit, Elizabeth said, “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 

When the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:5, 24-25, 43-44, 57-58).

Elizabeth is a wonderful character in the cast of Advent. Her whole life had revolved around the worship of God. Not only did Elizabeth grow up in a priestly family, but she had married a priest, Zechariah. But God had always seemed so far away. Until this moment. Not only had the Lord taken notice of her childless situation, but He had come to her home! As soon as Mary said, “Hi!” both Elizabeth and her unborn child knew it was Him, the Savior, who would soon be born in Bethlehem. 

God never just speaks a word from afar. He never simply sends a nice gift or fruit basket. God shows up. He shows up in our worship. He shows up in our homes. He shows up in our communities. God’s mercy was the headline of the day when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, giving her whole community, her family and friends the chance to celebrate! 

Thank you, Lord, for the sometimes unexpected ways you show up in our lives, giving us and many others a reason to rejoice. Amen. 

Hold onto your hat, it's sixth commandment night!

In confirmation class, I teach half of Luther’s Small Catechism each year. This means its been two years since I taught the Ten Commandments, and specifically tonight, the sixth comandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”

I was made very aware of how much has changed in this world in just those last two years when I asked the class, “Do you believe that marriage is held in high regard today?” Across the board they answered, “No.” One answered, “It’s so easy to get a divorce that people don’t expect their marriage to last very long.” Another twelve-year old explained, “Marriage is a social construct from a time when women couldn’t work and support themselves. That is no longer true, and marriage is no longer a necessary part of life.” I know. Wow.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to remind them that things like gender, sexuality, marriage and family are divine constructs, not a social invention. Though everyone of them have been present and active in church their whole lives, the sacred story of life takes a back seat to the scientific explanation of their world.

This year’s class consists largely of STEM nerds who love musical theater, will sing Evening Prayer and Vespers with me, and planned a whole Christmas party for our class. They see the world through memes, love Jesus, and can eat for days. They are one of the best groups I’ve had for a long, long time.

December 2 – Zechariah

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Today’s devotion is a little longer since I’ve included the entire account of Zechariah’s experience. Don’t worry – it’s worth it.

Sometimes God shuts you up. Other times God opens your mouth. Today’s Advent personality, Zechariah, had both of those experiences. Zechariah couldn’t tell anyone about his encounter with an angel in the temple of God. Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel’s announcement that he was going to be a father, so he would be silent and unable to speak until it happened. But when it happened, Zechariah spoke powerfully about his son, his God, and the dawn of a new day filled with forgiveness, life and salvation. Solomon was right, there is both “a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). 

Listen to the whole story as Luke tells it:

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.   Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”   And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. (Luke 1:5-22)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. (Luke 1:57-64)

Filled with the Holy Spirit [Zechariah] prophesied, saying,

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on highto give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:67-79)

There are times when all of us need to just shut up and listen! When we open our mouths too soon, fear, doubt and disbelief spill out. “How can that be?” “How do you know?” “How can I be sure?” If we prematurely speak, we dishonor God, His Word and His messengers. For nine silent months, Zechariah saw the life-giving power of God in his wife’s baby bump. Though he could not speak them, the words of the prophets jumped off dusty scrolls and came to life in his own home. In the silence, the cries of his newborn son John would take away any doubt that the Lord had indeed stopped by for a visit!

Once in a while, just listen. Don’t say a word. Like Zechariah, it might just be the best thing you could do for your faith!

“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise!” (Psalm 51:15) Amen.

December 1 – Herod

This is the first in this year’s Advent devotions “The Cast of Advent.” Each day we’ll take a few minutes to think about the characters who play supporting roles in the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth.

Remains of Herod’s port at Caesarea

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea…” (Luke 1:5)

I suspect many of us are more familiar with the words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Those words transport our minds and imaginations into the fantasy world and the entertainment franchise of Star Wars.

In contrast, Luke’s words, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5) transport our hearts and spirits to a specific time and place. Christ’s advent, that is, his arrival, occurs in the pages of history in places you can still visit today.

During a recent trip to Israel, I stood among the remains of King Herod’s magnificent building projects. Herod is well known for expansion of the second temple in Jerusalem, the coastal harbor at Caesarea and the desert fortress of Masada. Herod is also well known for securing his throne with violence. Yes, this is the same Herod who commanded the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem when the wise men were seeking the newborn king of the Jews.

In contrast, Jesus establishes his throne in a completely different way. Our Lord is remembered for his humility rather than impressive monuments. Whereas Herod had bodyguards and secret police to watch his back, the Son of God never had to call upon legions of angels to defend him. The King of kings secures his throne by dying instead of killing others.

When you go to church this Advent, you’ll be standing in the middle of Jesus’ only construction project. It’s not a pile of rubble, is it? It is instead the living, breathing, spirit-filled “stones” of the church, the people of God. Rather than being a long time ago or in a place far away, it’s right here and right now.

Lord, thank you for coming into my world and my life to be my king. This Advent, make me more aware of what it means to walk among the living stones of your church. Amen.