Posted in Stories

He had a story to tell

We had no idea what to expect when Steve walked up to our truck at a gas station on our way to Texas.

We had exited I-10 somewhere around Marianna, FL to get some gas, hit the restrooms and eat some of the lunch we had packed for our drive to Dallas, TX. After filling up, I parked the truck far away from the convenience store. We dropped the tailgate and began to a little lunch before tackling the rest of that seemingly endless stretch if highway to Pensacola.

“Excuse me, sir,” he began. “I hate to bother you. I just need a little help.” I’ve had plenty of people begin a conversation with me in that way. He continued, “I just need a little more money for a place for the night.”

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Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

Bonus Christmas devotion: A heart full of treasures

A bonus “Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 25, 2020. Read Luke 2:1-20 and Psalm 148

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

After the shepherds find Mary and Joseph the the baby lying the manger, they shared just why they were there. They had a quite the story to share about the angel’s announcement and the multitude of angels’ wonderful praises that night. Once they left, Mary had plenty of things to ponder. What a night!

We all have memories that we treasure. We store away special places we’ve been and people we’ve met. Photo albums and scrapbooks are filled with treasured moments from our lives. Certain songs or smells or sights bring those moments to mind as well. The music played at your wedding. The aroma of the cookies your mom always baked. The sight of an ornament that you’ve hung on your Christmas tree every year you’ve celebrated.

A ceramic nativity my wife made during her first pregnancy brings back the memories of our firstborn son. A set of nesting Santas we received as a gift in Des Moines brings back memories of playing “hide the baby Santa” with our children and grandchildren. Christmas poems I’ve written for my wife over the years remind us of what was going on at that time in our lives. And how we love to retell the stories – so many stories – of celebrations with our family in different places and in different ways.

I don’t know how often Mary talked about that night. After all, her pregnancy would have been a bit of a scandal. Her explanation a little fantastical for the average listener. At some point, she must have shared it with Luke, or someone Luke got to know. He wanted to be sure he got the story straight when he wrote his gospel about the Christ.

She would have a lot of time to reflect upon this night and what it really meant to be a servant of the Lord. She wouldn’t get much sleep until Jesus began sleeping through the night. She would have a lot of time to ponder while feeding him, rocking him and just simply watching him sleep. She had no idea what was coming. No parent does. Each day is a new page in the story of a baby’s life.

I hope you have a little time to ponder this Christmas. Hopefully, you’ve had some fun, joy and food with family and perhaps some good friends. But if you have a moment, just listen to your heart. What memories of the past are treasured up there? What questions about the future does it ask?

Chances are you’ve heard Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth within the past twenty-four hours. How did you feel as you heard those words? Tuck them away in your heart, think about them often, marvel at this good news of great joy that will be for all the people, and hum whatever carol comes to mind.

Thank you, Lord, for the many memories we store up in our hearts that always bring us back to the good news of Christmas. Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: The shepherd’s report

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“Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 24, 2020. Read Luke 2:8-20 and Psalm 23.

And when [the shepherds] saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:17-18, 20)

Who doesn’t love to tell the Christmas story? With little nativity figures in hand we act out the story to our children. We teach them to act it out in Sunday School programs. We sing about it in choir cantatas. We make movies about it. We love to hear Linus recite the story in A Charlie Brown Christmas. It just never gets old.

After seeing and hearing the angel, and after seeing Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger, the shepherds had a story to tell. And everyone was in wonder when they talked about what happened that night in Bethlehem. I’ll bet it never got old for them, either!

Luke tells us that all who heard it wondered about the shepherd’s story. Did people believe them? Or were they amazed at such a contrived story? It does seem rather fantastical.

But on the other hand, as I mentioned in a previous devotion, Luke took great pains to compile his gospel. He wanted to get the facts straight, so that Theophilus could know for sure about the Christ (Luke 1:3-4). I wonder if he somehow he found and talked to those shepherds. Wouldn’t that have been a great interview? I’d have so many questions. What time of night was it? How bright were the angels? Exactly where did you find the manger and the baby? What were Mary and Joseph like? I could go on and on.

Families accumulate so many stories about Christmas. We love to talk about trips to celebrate Christmas with family. We love to talk about traditions that have been handed down from one generation to another. We fondly remember giving and receiving certain gifts (some good, some bad!) We talk about putting toys together late at night and children waking up way too early in the morning. We recall both blizzards and balmy Christmases.

On Christmas Eve, I get to stand in the center of the congregation and read about Christ’s birth, the appearance of the angels and the reports of the shepherds. I have the honor of reading the one account everyone has come to hear and no one ever gets tired of hearing. I believe there is just as much wonder in that moment as there was when the shepherds let everyone know about their night!

Thank you, Lord, for such a compelling account of your birth! Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: A multitude of the heavenly host

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“Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 23, 2020. Read Luke 2:10-14 and Psalm 9.

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:12-14)

When Isaiah had his vision of the Lord in his throne room, there were angels flying around, praising him. When John has his visions in Revelation, there are myriads of angels around the throne, praising the Lamb (Rev. 5:11,12). After Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, angels were there to minister to him (Mark 1:12). When the mob came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he told them he could easily summon twelve legions of angels to help him (Matthew 26:53). In fact, there was one there in the garden to strengthen him through his agonizing prayers (Luke 22:43). So it makes perfect sense for angels to show up when Mary gives birth to her firstborn in Bethlehem and laid him in a manger. Of course they were there. The angels are part of Jesus’ entourage or security detail. They might not always be in sight. But that night they were, and their praise was in high gear!

I wonder what these angels thought of this event. Suddenly, they’re assigned to an infant. Their praises are not heard in a sold-out concert hall, but by a few shepherds out in the Bethlehem hills. Even in this humble setting, he is still the Lord and worthy of their praise.

The angels next big assignment would be at the tomb where the stone has been rolled away and a few friends of Jesus discover that he has been raised from the dead. That’s right, they pretty much only show up for Christmas and Easter! But they always come with big news: the Savior has come and the Savior is back!

Every once in a while, people catch a glimpse of an angel or hear their voice. Their stories are always powerful. They are ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14). The angels are never that far away. But that reminds us that our Lord is never far away, either!

We hear the Christmas angels,
The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

Thank you, Lord, for the angels, who lead us in praising you for your birth, your resurrection and your return. Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: Not your average Joe

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“Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 22, 2020. Read Matthew 1:18-25 and Psalm 116.

“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25)

I’m sure Joseph never imagined his life would take a turn in this direction. An angel in a dream? A pregnant fiancee (and it’s not your baby!)? Marry that woman and trust that God has a hand in this? Raise a child spoken of in prophecy? Suddenly, you have a part to play in God’s plan of salvation for the world. I imagine it would be a bit overwhelming.

The part of Joseph isn’t much in a typical Christmas play. He’s not much compared to angels, shepherds, or even the innkeeper (who isn’t even in the biblical account of Jesus’ birth!). He’s an innocent bystander. Collateral damage. A descendant of David, and therefore the connection with Bethlehem.

But Joseph is the one who has the dreams. He’s the one who hears from the Lord. He’s the one who shuttles the Christ around in accordance with the prophecies. He’s the “carpenter” associated with Jesus. He’s the one who will fade into the sunset by the time Jesus begins his public ministry. After he and Mary find Jesus in the temple at age twelve, we never hear from him again.

But he makes into the pages of scripture. Luke tells us that he carefully compiled his account of Jesus’ life. Do you think he talked to Joseph?

I think that would have been a great conversation. “You heard from God in a dream? What was that like?” “How did you feel when you learned that Mary was pregnant?” “What was it like being the dad of the Messiah?” It would be amazing to spend a day with Joseph!

No one plays a minor part in God’s plan. Each of us is an important brick in the temple built upon the prophets and apostles, with Christ as the cornerstone, where God dwells in His spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).

Joseph got to teach Jesus how to work with wood. I loved learning a craft from my father. I loved teaching my children, too. I’ll bet he loved every minute he got to spend with his son! And I’ll bet his son loved every minute he got to spend with his dad. Parents: never forget how much your kids love spending time with you!

Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your son to spend time with me. Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: Simeon sees the Christ!

“Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 21, 2020. Read Luke 2:22-33 and Psalm 24.

“And [Simeon] came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God.” (Luke 2:27-28)

Simeon is one of those fascinating people in the bible that we know little about. We never hear of him before this and never hear about him again. But he was definitely an Advent kind of guy, watching and waiting for the Christ. Simeon had the unique promise from God that he wouldn’t die until he had seen his Savior. So this day must have been bittersweet. Imagine the joy of seeing the Christ, live and in person! And imagine how it felt to know you can now plan your funeral.

Each year on All Saints Day, I talk about all the members of our church who have died over the last year. That’s a bittersweet moment. Each one had been sitting in the congregation, worshiping with us just months before. I had officiated at their funerals. And now they see their Lord face to face, live and in person. So we both mourn and rejoice, comforted by the truth that our Lord always takes his lambs in his arms and brings them home.

Whenever we gather for worship, there is always the possibility that someone there will get to know Jesus for the very first time. That’s why we never fail to proclaim the gospel which brings us face to face with Jesus the Christ. There is also the possibility that it will be someone’s last time in church, for it will be their time to encounter Jesus face to face. That’s why we never fail to proclaim the gospel, because it affirms that amazing truth.

I guess we all come to church because we want to catch a glimpse of Jesus. We want to see him through the eyewitness accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. We want to see him in the sacrament. We long to see his body, the church. And yes, we even long for that day when he takes us from this valley of sorrows to himself in heaven.

Jesus’ death had been planned a long time ago, before the creation of the world. He would breathe his last on the cross and others would take him in their arms, eyes filled with tears. In just a few days, though, they would see him again, live and in person, the resurrected Christ. From that moment on, the reality of their death would not be something to fear, but something to look forward to. That day when they would see him again, face to face, live and in person.

Thank you, Lord, for holding my life in your hands. What a day that will be, when I get to see you face to face! Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: The shepherds went to see

“Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 20, 2020. Read Luke 2:15-16 and Psalm 90.

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:15-16).

The shepherds have heard the announcement that a Savior has been born. They’ve gotten directions on where to find him. And they have heard the praises of the armies of God. Now what? “Let’s go and see.” If the Savior has come, let’s go see him – live and in person.

In a pre-CoVid-19 world, I wouldn’t miss the chance to go and visit a mom, dad and newborn in the hospital. Don’t drag your feet, though! Mother and child might only stay a couple of days for a normal birth and perhaps one day more after a C-section. So when I heard the news of a birth, I’d hustle over to see this miracle of new life. I jump at the chance to hold the newborn, never tiring of being one of the first to welcome a new little person into the world.

I guess when you’re a shepherd, not much exciting happens on a typical night watching the sheep. Unless you’ve got a wolf to fight off or a lamb that gets lost, I imagine it to be a boring job. Not this night, though! But what a contrast. They’ve witnessed both the glory of the Lord and the humility of the Christ. Theirs was a unique view of the glory that Jesus gave up and the human form he took on. It was a visual of the journey he has just taken, from heaven to earth.

They didn’t doubt for a moment what the Lord had made known to them. Remember Zechariah? He had a tough time believing that he and Elizabeth would have a son. Mary wondered, “How will this be?” when Gabriel came to her. The shepherds jumped at the chance to be one of the first to welcome this new little person into the world.

If you grew up in the church like I did, chances are you got to play the part of a shepherd at least once in the Sunday School Christmas program. The lines are pretty simple: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the angels just told us about.” It’s a story we can easily insert ourselves into. We so much want to see the baby! Just remember: because he came here, died here and came back to life here, one day you will!

Thank you, Lord, for the shepherds of the Christmas story, who just like me can’t wait to see you face to face. Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: She gave birth

“Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 19, 2020. Read Luke 2:7 and Psalm 84.

“She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

This is it. It’s the big moment. After a stunning annunciation, nine months of pregnancy and a trip to Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to the Spirit-filled Son of God, who is destined to assume the throne of David, reigning over a kingdom that will no end. Mary has contractions, her water breaks, the head appears, a baby cries, the cord is cut, the infant is cleaned up and swaddled. Just like so many other babies, Christ the Savior is born.

There are so many things that can go wrong throughout pregnancy and birth. In our world, it involves prenatal vitamins, doctor appointments, ultrasounds, blood tests and heart-rate monitoring. High-risk pregnancy? There’s even more.

A lot of things go right, too. A tiny heart begins to beat. Internal organs develop. Tiny fingers and toes grow, including unique fingerprints and footprints. Hair grows. The unborn child moves and stretches, impatiently awaiting a birthday! Knit together in a mother’s womb, each child is fearfully and wonderfully made!

That tiny voice once spoke the universe into existence. Those tiny hands once formed the man from the dust. Those tiny feet would soon leave footprints everywhere from Galilee to Calvary. Those little fingers would one day open eyes to see, ears to hear and mouths to speak. So many lives will be changed because Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, Jesus the Christ.

This year, Christmas seems to be the destination. Liturgically, we reach the end of four weeks of Advent. Commercially, we’re wrapping up a longer-than-ever two-months of decorating and shopping. Physically we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of a long year of distancing and quarantine.

Don’t forget that Christmas is actually the beginning. Soon, people would begin to hear Jesus teach with authority. They would begin to see his power as he commanded the demons, the wind and the waves. They would begin to witness his compassion for the harassed and hurting. They would begin to understand that he came to die and rise again. Christmas would indeed be the beginning of a new creation for all who embraced Jesus as the Christ.

There were no baby showers. No gender reveal celebrations. No cute nursery decorations. No car seat to install. No maternity (or paternity) leave.

Just a birth. Just a son. But what a gift! And what a Savior!

Lord, don’t ever let me forget the miracle and wonder of birth and especially your birth. Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: A special visitor

“Live and in person” Advent devotion for December 18, 2020. Read Luke 1:39-45 and Psalm 95.

“When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And 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.'” (Luke 1:41-44)

Sometimes while working in my study at church, someone will slip past the office manager, poke their head in the door and start speaking to me. I’ll literally jump out of my seat, startled by a presence I didn’t expect!

The unborn John, who would later be called “the baptist,” jumps at the sound of Mary’s voice. Elizabeth shrieks, too, startled by the unexpected appearance of the mother of the Lord in her home. Mary wasn’t anyone special until the angel’s announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God. Elizabeth didn’t think she was anyone special either, until the mother of the Lord honors her with a visit.

How did Elizabeth know? All Mary said was, “Hi, Elizabeth!” That’s when John started jumping for joy in utero like someone who has just won the big prize on The Price is Right. Elizabeth knew something was up. Suddenly she was in the presence of the Lord, just like Moses at the burning bush, Joshua before the big battle, or Jacob when he wrestled all night. Yes, it’s exciting when the Lord shows up live and in person!

Everyone has questions for Jesus. But wouldn’t it be delightful to have Mary stop by and visit? You’d be so excited and honored to have Jesus’ mother in your home! What would you ask her? “So what was it like? Tell me about Gabriel. What did he look like? How long were you in labor? What was Jesus like as a little boy? Were you surprised when the shepherds showed up? How strange were the wise men?” Would you ask her about the wine at Cana? Life in Nazareth? Or the crucifixion at Calvary?

For a while – about nine months – Mary was the temple, that place where the Lord lived among his people. Perhaps not as impressive as Solomon’s or Herod’s temple. But an incredible woman, mother and servant of the Lord, full of faith and hope, believing God’s words to her.

Thank you, Lord, for Mary and Elizabeth and so many mothers who have amazing stories to tell about you, your presence and your grace. Amen.