Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

A sign

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 15, 2021. Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

On the heels of the amazing news that “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” the angel adds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12)

Many would expect a sign from God to be something spectacular. Something like a burning bush, a chariot of fire, the sun moving backwards through the sky, or a talking donkey. How about walking on water, turning water into wine, stilling the storm or raising the dead? Those are pretty good signs.

Babies are born and wrapped up in blankets every day. Nothing out of the ordinary. I guess laying your infant in a feeding trough is unconventional. But it’s not much of a “sign.”

On the other hand, a lot of signs aren’t spectacular. A scratchy throat could be a sign you’ve got a cold. Uneven tire tread wear is a sign that your car needs an alignment. Your dog keeps scratching? Could be a sign that he has fleas.

A baby is a sign that God is still creating life in this world. Suddenly there is a new little people with their own little fingerprints, toes and personalities. The Creator isn’t done yet.

Babies are a great reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around you. There is someone else who demands your time, depends on your care, and wants to be held.

Babies open our eyes to a whole new kind of love. They love us, no questions asked. And we love them in a different way than we ever loved before.

Babies are a sign of hope. They inspires us to think of the future. What will they grow up to be? What will they love to do? What will they accomplish? We can’t wait to find out!

It’s also a sign that he gets it. The Christ travels the road to Bethlehem. He comes into the world just like us, as a baby. He grows, he learns, he works, he sleeps, he eats and makes friends. Just like us. He’s loves, he hurts, he thirsts, he bleeds. Just like us. This baby is a sign that he knows, he understands, he cares and he can relate to anything we experience. Wrapped in cloths as he enters the world, he will be wrapped in linen when he breathes his last.

Most of all, this baby is a sign that God is with us. Bad news and tough times seem to indicate the absence of God. A baby suddenly reminds us that he is here, with us. Just when we need him the most.

Thank you, Lord, for the sign of a baby, your presence among us. Yes, you’ve taught us about a whole new kind of love. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Good news

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 14, 2021. Photo by Good Good Good on Unsplash

The angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

We certainly get enough bad news. Disease, war, storms, shootings, recalls, shark bites and car crashes fill the headlines. A little good news would be great, wouldn’t it?

This good news is unique. It’s good news for all people. It’s good news for shepherds, for Roman soldiers, for children, for criminals, for tax collectors, for slaves, for priests, for fishermen, and for jailers. It’s good news for past generations who heard the promises and for future generations who would hear the story. It’s good news for us.

Just down the road to Bethlehem, a baby was born. A birth announcement is happy news for family and friends. What about everyone else? A Savior was born. That’s good news for the future, but what if you need rescuing right now? Christ the Lord was born. Wait. Wasn’t God already around at creation?

Okay, so we’ve got a lot of questions. But the announcement is clear. God’s here. And he’s here to help.

That’s usually the headline when an angel shows up. After dreaming of angels, Jacob woke up and realized, “God is in this place!” Before the battle of Jericho, Joshua got a visit from the commander of the Lord’s army. He would have plenty of help in that campaign. An angel fed Elijah in the desert. God still had work for him to do. An angel woke Peter up in prison and walked him out the door. The Lord hadn’t abandoned him!

This is good news of great joy because we are children of God through faith. This is good news of great joy because Jesus’ life and his death do save us from sin and death. This is good news of great joy because we don’t have to go it alone. He is Immanuel, that is, “God with us.”

Thank you, Lord, for the good news! I need a headline like that every day. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Great fear

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 13. Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

In the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. (Luke 2:8-9)

The road to Bethlehem must have been dark at night. If the skies were clear, they were filled with a million stars. You might see a flickering campfire where the shepherds sat, watching over the flock. What a picture perfect backdrop for the terrifying appearance of an angel and the glory of the Lord!

That’s right – terrifying. Adam and Eve hid from God (Genesis 3). Isaiah was overwhelmed when he found himself in the throne room of God (Isaiah 6). After a miraculous catch of fish, Peter was frightened to be in the presence of the Lord (Luke 5). And these shepherds were “sore afraid” (King James Version).

A long time before this, God’s people had trembled at the foot of Mount Sinai when the glory of the Lord covered the mountain with a devouring fire (Exodus 24:17). Priests couldn’t enter the tabernacle or later, the temple, when the glory of the Lord filled those places. And now, shepherds trembled with fear as the glory of the Lord descended to a different kind of temple, a baby boy in Bethlehem. For the shepherds, the road to Bethlehem began with fear.

Is there any fear left in Christmas? Perhaps. You just need to know where to look. You won’t see it in the manmade lights and decorations of the season, no matter how big or bright. You won’t see it in the food and the gifts, no matter how extravagant. You won’t find it in the cost of shipping your gifts or traveling to see family.

You’ll find it in God’s word as it grips your heart and soul with both his awesome holiness and his unlimited grace. You’ll find it in a moment of prayer when you realize he’s listening and responding as you cast your cares on him and let him know your requests. In that moment, the Almighty, the Creator and your Father is completely focused on you. You experience it in the sacrament, the most expensive and extravagant meal ever.

As Jesus prepared himself and his disciples for the cross, he prayed, ““Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son” (John 17:1). The glory of God is seen in his innocent suffering and death for us. That’s why he was born. That’s why there is Christmas. And that is why the shepherds were so afraid. They knew, in that moment, just how much God love them.

I hope you do too.

Lord, let me experience some fear as well as joy this Christmas. Let me be overwhelmed with your love as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

The night shift

In the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8) Photo by HAN Mengqi on Unsplash

For some, the road to Bethlehem begins at work. It’s night time, the third shift, and shepherds are keeping an eye on the sheep who are grazing in a place too far away to be brought into the fold each night. The watchful eye of the shepherds protect the sheep from wolves, jackals and maybe even mountain lions and bears. While a shepherd, David became quite good using a staff and a sling to keep the predators away from the flock. These guys were very good at their jobs.

How many times had the shepherds taken the road to Bethlehem? For work, to see friends, to kiss their wives, to hug their kids, and to collect their wages. I’ll bet they knew the road to Bethlehem like the back of their hands.

What roads, routes or paths are so familiar to you that you don’t even think about them? The commute to work? A close friend’s home? A favorite restaurant? The grocery store? Your doctor’s office? Hopefully your church! You don’t need the GPS. Your car seems to know how to get to all these places all by itself. You just step on the gas.

Most of the time, we commute to work, we do our jobs, we pick up the kids and shop for groceries without much thought. It just comes naturally. Just like the shepherds. But soon they will take the road to Bethlehem and gain a part in every Christmas program in every church. Those who play the part of the shepherds will have simple costumes, few lines, and younger siblings playing the part of their sheep. It’s hard to imagine Christmas with out them.

While many have a couple of weeks off around Christmas, many have to work this holiday. You’ve missed the worship, the programs, the candles and the carols because you had to serve food, care for a sick child, put out a fire or close up the store. Or keep an eye on the sheep.

But don’t worry. You’ve got a part in Christmas. Jesus was born for you.

Thank you, Lord, for my part in the story of Christ’s birth. Help me remember my lines. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

An ancient garrison

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 11, 2021. Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

David was then in the stronghold, and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. (2 Samuel 23:14)

This verse caught me off guard. In my mind, the sleepy little town of Bethlehem is the sacred ground where the Christ will be born. It’s hard to imagine it occupied by Israel’s age-old enemy, the Philistines.

On our recent trip to Israel, we did get to visit Bethlehem, but that was a very different part of our tour. You see, Bethlehem is in a Palestinian-controlled part of of the west bank of the Jordan. As our tour bus approached the entry checkpoint our Jewish tour guide and our Jewish bus driver stepped out. They were not permitted entry under an agreement worked out in the Oslo peace accords of 1993 and 1995. Two Arab residents took their place and escorted us into the city.

While the number of Christian tourists in the city swells during the Christmas season, less than 3% of the residents are Christian. While many shops cater to those seeking Christian souvenirs, Muslim influence predominates. Jesus, who was born to save both Jew and Gentile alike, is not welcome in the place of his birth.

David must have been dismayed to find his hometown occupied by the enemy he had been fighting his whole life. He’s famous for defeating the Philistine champion Goliath. His fans sang songs about the ten thousands he killed in battle. Now his enemies seemed to have the upper hand.

We know how that feels. Whether you call the enemy sin, death or the devil himself, the opposition occupies our world. Those of us who believe in Jesus aren’t welcome in the public square or sometimes even in our own homes. Yet just as Jesus was born into such a city and such a world, so we have been “born again” into enemy territory. When you feel outnumbered or overwhelmed, take to heart his word that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation always have the final word in this world and in our lives.

Thank you, Lord, for invading this world with your gifts of grace. I’ll trust your promise to be more than a conqueror! Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Road trip

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 10, 2021. Photo by Connor Wilkins on Unsplash

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (Luke 2:4-5)

Joseph’s betrothed, Mary, joins him on the road to Bethlehem in response to Caesar’s decree for an empire-wide census. Maybe they were glad to get out of town. They had a lot of explaining to do. Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s decision not to divorce her was unheard of. Yes, they had both heard from angels that the baby was the Christ, the Son of God. That explanation was out there, too. A road trip to Bethlehem may have been a break they needed.

We’ve all been there. You get in trouble, and have to show up at school the next day. Or explain the dent in the car to your parents. Or go home to an furious spouse. Or tell your boss you lost the contract. Sometimes you just want to get away from it all. Sometimes you just want to take the road to Bethlehem.

Moses ditched his friends and got a job as a shepherd in the mountains. Jonah booked a cruise to Tarshish. Jacob ran away from home and an angry older brother. Elijah quits and walks off into the desert. Peter hears the rooster and walks away to weep. Puzzled women walked away from an empty tomb.

You can walk away from a fight. You can walk out of a deal. You can walk off the job. You can walk away angry. You can walk away in tears.

But you can’t walk away from yourself. No matter where you go, you still have to deal with hurt, your fear, or your anger. You still have to deal with those voices in your head, the feeling in your gut, and the ache in your heart.

Those in scripture who walked away found themselves on the road to Bethlehem. They found themselves on a path that led them to the Lord. A burning bush. A gigantic fish. A ladder to heaven. An angel with lunch. A compassionate Savior. The risen Christ!

Since we describe God as omnipresent, we shouldn’t be surprised when he shows up somewhere down the road. Maybe that’s the lesson we’re supposed to learn. Just like David who marveled at how God got around to the highest, deepest and farthest-away places he could imagine (Psalm 139:7-10).

Thanks, Lord, for being a step ahead of me when I just want to walk away. Remind me to always walk towards you. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

They’re out to get me!

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 9, 2021. Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

David said to Jonathan, “Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit at table with the king. But let me go, that I may hide myself in the field till the third day at evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city, for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the clan.’ (1 Samuel 20:6)

So Jonathan, King Saul’s son, will tell his father that David is on the road to Bethlehem. King Saul does not like being in the shadow of David’s successful campaigns against the Philistines. He has thrown his spear at David at least three times to pin him to the wall. David knows he’ll be missed at Saul’s table, but he’s got a bull’s eye on his back. He’s got no choice. He’s got to run and hide.

Jesus had a similar experience. His birth in Bethlehem caught the attention of King Herod, who set out to get rid of any contenders to his throne. While all the young boys in Bethlehem were killed, Jesus runs and hides in Egypt with his family until the threat has passed.

Every believer will experience this at some moment. Even though we are the dearly loved children of God there is always someone out to get us. The devil prowls like a lion, looking for an opportunity to pounce on us and fill us with guilt, shame, fear and despair. We want to run and hide like Adam and Eve in the garden.

God always comes looking for us. Like Adam and Eve in the bushes. Or a wandering, lost sheep. Or Peter the guilt-ridden fisherman and would-be disciple. Or Elijah, the exhausted and exasperated prophet.

When he finds us, he takes away our guilt, shame, fear and despair and replaces all that with forgiveness, love and hope. He replaces the lies of the enemy with the truths of Jesus. He turns us around so that we no longer run away, but towards him.

David had to run for a little while. Eventually, as God promised, he assumed the throne. Jesus ran for a little while. Eventually they caught him and crucified him. After his resurrection, he too assumed the throne. We never have to run and hide from our king. His love endures forever!

Sometimes, Lord, I feel like they’re out to get me. But you are the one who has me, and nothing can snatch me from your hand. Thank you for your power, protection and love. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Nazareth

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 8, 2021. Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. (Luke 2:4)

Joseph’s road to Bethlehem begins in Nazareth, where he was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), a “just man” (Matthew 1:19), and betrothed to Mary (Luke 2:5). An angel of the Lord had come to him in a dream to let him know that it was OK to marry her since her child was of the Holy Spirit and would be the Savior.

Nazareth must not have had a good reputation. As Jesus began his ministry, he met Philip, who immediately told Nathanael, “We have found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth” (John 1:45)! Nathanael reacted, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

So Joseph is a blue collar worker from the projects with a pregnant girl friend. The other side of the tracks. The dark side. With one of “those” girls. He sets out with her on the road to Bethlehem because of a government mandated census. With a baby. From Nazareth.

Even though it is a prominent city in the northern district of Israel, with a population close to 80,000, it may have been a settlement of only 400-500 people when Joseph and Mary set out for Bethlehem. In a town that size, smaller than the size of my high school class, everyone probably knew everyone else. Someone’s expecting? Someone got engaged? Someone’s going on a trip? Someone just got back home? Forget about privacy. Everyone knew everyone’s business.

Today, tourists can walk the 100 mile Nativity Trail from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The trail’s description is rugged: steep hillsides, dessert valleys, and olive groves through a number of small villages along the way. The hike takes four to seven days, so you get to stay in homes, monasteries, tents and bed and breakfasts along the way.

Wouldn’t that be an amazing trek? We’ve heard and told the story so many times, both narrated and sung. You could be walking in some of the same dust and dirt as Joseph and Mary on their trip to Bethlehem and back. You would have a lot of time to think about the promises, the faithfulness and love of God that paved the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. You would definitely get your 10,000 steps in each day.

The Lord knows all about you, both good and bad. Through his word we know a lot about him, too. Just like we were neighbors in Nazareth!

I am amazed, Lord, that you know all about me and still love me. I thank you that I know a lot about Jesus of Nazareth, too. Let my steps today remind me of that ancient road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Hometown

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 7, 2021. Photo by Derek Liang on Unsplash

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. (Luke 2:1, 3-4)

I chuckle when someone says, “Back home we always used to…” or let’s me know, “We’re going to travel this Christmas; it will be good to be home.” Many times, these are folks who have lived around here for twenty years or more. Or like me who left home when I started college, over forty years ago. Yet when someone asks, “Where are you from” I answer, “Philadelphia.” No matter now long you’ve been gone, your hometown is always your hometown.

Once the census was decreed, Joseph traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, a town south of Jerusalem. That was the place he considered his hometown, tracing his ancestry back to David.

I wonder if Joseph ever went back to Bethlehem. We know that after their flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s killing of the babies in Bethlehem, he took his family back to Nazareth, far from the power center of Jerusalem. Jesus would be known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” and maybe that’s what felt like his hometown, but his official birthplace was Bethlehem.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), to remind us that our true home is with the Lord, who we know also came from heaven. I guess you can say it’s our hometown. So when you feel like you don’t fit in or you don’t understand some of the local customs or you even get a little homesick for somewhere different, it’s because our true hometown is his kingdom.

If you’ve been away for a while, you might be surprised at how much things change when you go back to your hometown. The house you grew up in was remodeled. A shopping center replaced the park where you used to play. There many more stoplights and many more lanes of traffic. It feels familiar, but it’s different.

Will heaven feel like a trip to a far away place, or will it seem like home? That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, we’ll be far away from a world filled with sadness and suffering. But on the other hand, we’ll be with the Lord, who has been with us all along. I’m convinced it will seem different, but it will definitely feel like home!

Lord, thank you for the memories of my hometown, both here on earth and in heaven. I can’t wait for the chance to go back home. Amen.