Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

The decree

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 5, 2021. Photo by Raychan on Unsplash.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 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 2:1-4).

O boy. I have a feeling a lot of people aren’t going to like this. A decree. A government mandate. You’re going to be counted, in your hometown, from the place where you find your ancestry. Any questions? Too bad. You better not have any questions. Get going.

From the time we can understand that someone is telling us what to do, we don’t want to do it. Somewhere around two years old we begin to rebel. “No.” “I’m not going to do what you tell me.” “You can’t tell me what to do.” We cross our arms, we walk off in the opposite direction, we assert our independence, and we claim the right to make our own decisions.

From the time we can understand that someone is telling us what to do, someone is telling us what to do. Sit here. Sit still. Eat your peas. Pick up your toys. Do your homework. Clean your room. Do your job. Don’t drive your car so fast. Get this vaccine. Don’t eat this food. Drink more water. Feel free to add your own instructions to this list here:

IKEA assembly pictures. Grandma’s favorite recipes. Directions for filing your taxes. When and how to take your medications. Shampoo and conditioner. Everything has instructions for us to follow!

Pharaoh said, “You’re not leaving.” On Mt. Sinai, God said, “Thou shall not…” Nebuchadnezzar said, “You’re going to Babylon.” Cyrus said, “You’re all moving to Jerusalem.” Jesus said, “If you love me, you’ll obey my commands.” It’s the story of God’s people. It’s the story of our faith.

The ruler of God’s people has to come from Bethlehem. That’s what the prophecy says (Micah 5:2). How are you going to get Mary, the mother of our Lord, from Nazareth to the city of David at just the right time, the moment when she goes into labor? The same God who commands the tides and waves of the oceans, who puts all the stars in their place in the sky, and has a handle on the weather can also work through the leaders of powerful nations. After all, all governing authorities get their governing authority from him (Romans 13).

Think about that for a moment. It wasn’t just coincidence or fate that made Augustus Caesar. It was no accident that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. David hailed from Bethlehem for a reason. God’s plan, from before the foundations of the world, included all these little details.

What’s God up to when our government, our laws and and our leaders tell us what we must do?

Thank you Lord, for the authorities who govern us and the laws that command us. Open our eyes to see your grace in those who rule over us. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Welcome to the family

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 4, 2021. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. (Ruth 1:1-4)

Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.” So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. (Ruth 4:11-13)

The road to Bethlehem should have been a road closed to Ruth. Previous experiences with Moab left a bad taste in Israel’s mouth. The king of Moab tried to hire Balaam to put a curse on Moses and the people when they were in the wilderness. Failing to do that, the people of Moab seduced Israel to worship their pagan gods. Moses was very clear in Deuteronomy that people from Moab – people like Ruth – were not welcome in Israel.

That did not deter Ruth. She was committed to going with, living with and worshiping with her mother-in-law. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was abuzz. It took a lot of courage for Ruth to go and glean grain. And by grace, it was the field of Boaz, who not only welcomed her but offered her protection.

In the end, Boaz redeems the land previously owned by Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband, marries Ruth, and she is grafted into the family tree of David, making her an ancestor of Jesus. The road to Bethlehem not only brought Ruth to a foreign land, but also to the Lord. (If you have a chance, read the whole book of Ruth. It’s only four chapters, and an amazing story of faithfulness, mercy and grace.)

I’ll bet you’ve been in Ruth’s shoes and felt like you weren’t welcome. Like when you were hired to manage a group of employees who were all passed over for the promotion. Maybe you were completely over or under dressed for an occasion. Has a mistake or failure ever cast a shadow over you that makes you feel like an outsider among members of your own family?

Jesus was so good at welcoming outsiders and misfits. Tax collectors, Roman soldiers, blind beggars, clandestine Pharisees and timid disciples. By the end of Jesus’ ministry, you wonder, “Is there anyone Jesus doesn’t love?”

Actually, when you think about it, Jesus himself is from out of town. He’s the stranger. He’s the outsider. And that means he’s one of us! How about that? His whole kingdom consists of outsiders and misfits like us.

Welcome to our world, Lord. I think you’ll fit right in. Oh, and there’s a few people I want you to meet. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Mighty men

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 3, 2021. Photo by Kasun Asanka on Unsplash

“David was then in the stronghold, and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. And David said longingly, ‘Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!’ Then the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate and carried and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it. He poured it out to the Lord and said, ‘Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?’ Therefore he would not drink it. These things the three mighty men did” (2 Samuel 23:14-17).

The road to Bethlehem was a treacherous one for David’s three mighty men who slipped into the city to get some water for David. But they were up to the task. The three included Josheb-basshebeth who had killed eight hundred enemies in one skirmish with his spear. The other two were Eleazar and Shammah, both of whom had stood their ground in battles with the Philistines. These three were the best of the best, the elite special forces of David’s army.

When David says, “Boy, I wish I had some of the water from that well in Bethlehem,” they sprung into action. Before you know it, they’ve returned from the Philistine-occupied city with the water. But David wouldn’t even drink it! How could he sit back and enjoy when they were wiling to risk their lives for him. That’s the kind of stuff these mighty men did.

There were at least thirty other skilled warriors supporting David, armed with spears and clubs. Tales of their exploits include killing a lion in a pit on a snowy day and disarming and killing an Egyptian (2 Samuel 23:20-21).

This image of David’s mightiest men reminds me of Jesus’ comment to a disciple who wants to fight for him when the mob arrives in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). Jesus had his own mighty men, the heavenly host. Yes, the same heavenly host who accompanied him to Bethlehem at his birth and had voiced the first Christmas praises, “Glory to God in the highest!” This was not just a choir, but the special forces of heaven.

Jesus does not summon the angels that night. The mission was not to put up a fight but offer up a sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The writer of Hebrews will descibe the angels as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). In other words, our Lord has sent them out to be with us who, wearing the full armor of God, take our stand against the devil’s schemes. We never fight alone, but are part of the church militant, accompanied by the best there is, the heavenly host.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of your elite, your angels. Teach me more about their presence and protection as I fight the good fight of faith. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Priest for hire

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 2, 2021. Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

“Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there. And the man departed from the town of Bethlehem in Judah to sojourn where he could find a place. And as he journeyed, he came to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah. And Micah said to him, “Where do you come from?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to sojourn where I may find a place.” And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year and a suit of clothes and your living.” And the Levite went in.” (Judges 17:7-10)

This is certainly an strange chapter in the history of God’s people “In those days there was no king in Israel [and] everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Previous to this, Micah had made his own little household shrine, complete with a little silver idol. When a Levite comes on the road from Bethlehem, Micah hires him to be his own private priest. He figures that if he has a Levite for a priest, he’s got it made. God will certainly bless him.

Both Micah and the Levites break so many of God’s laws about idols, priests and Levites. This road to Bethlehem is paved with ignorance, disobedience, and superstition. Their do-it-yourself religion leads them away from God, not closer to him.

The road to Bethlehem is filled with folks who think they have God figured out. If I just tweak some part of my life, if I say the right prayer, if I have the right person pray for me, or if I show up at church one week, then God will certainly bless me.

The whole problem started when someone did what was right in her own eyes. Eve ate from the tree forbidden to her and Adam when she saw that it looked good. Lots of things look like the right thing to us. We are easily deceived. Our desires are powerful. We think we’ve got it all figured out. Unfortunately, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

By the grace of God, we have a king, Jesus. No one could quite figure him out. He looked like a man, and yet he could do the things of God. He loved the unloveable. He wouldn’t defend himself at his trial. He came to seek and save the lost, and gave his life as a ransom for many. Who does that? Why would he do that?

He did all that so we wouldn’t end up inventing our own religion and ending up lost. He did that to be the way, the truth and the life. We don’t have to engineer a way to receive God’s blessing. Jesus comes to give us his gifts of grace. He comes to be the ultimate prophet, priest and king.

Thank you, Lord, for coming to us with your gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation. I’ll never figure out why you love me so much. But I am very thankful for your blessing. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Here comes the judge

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for December 1, 2021. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

“After him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he gave in marriage outside his clan, and thirty daughters he brought in from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried at Bethlehem.” (Judges 12:8-10)

A small town no one’s ever heard of gets noticed when it’s the birthplace of a U.S. president. Like West Branch, Iowa, the birthplace of Herbert Hoover. Warren Harding hailed from Blooming Grove, Ohio. Chester A. Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont.

Ibzan, one of the judges of Israel, claimed Bethlehem as his hometown, putting it on the map long before Jesus was born. His name might not be as familiar as Gideon or Samson, but he was part of Israel’s history between Joshua and the first king, Saul. While Gideon was known for his fleece and Samson for his strength, we only know that Ibzan was prolific. Thirty sons and thirty daughters adds up to a large family!

The only other information we have about Ibzan is that all those sons and daughters married outside the clan. Why is this significant? It portrays him as someone who took care of his family, setting the stage for strong future generations. Some say all these marriages indicate substantial wealth, as anyone who has daughters will acknowledge!

So what do you think? What do you think of Ibzan? Would you like a faithful family man to lead your nation? Sounds like a win to me. Paul told Timothy to pick pastors who were good husbands and fathers. Jesus had his mother on his mind in his dying moments on the cross. Plus, Jesus thought of those who trusted him as brothers and sisters, not just followers. Family was important to him. He prayed, “Father…” and taught us to pray, “Our Father…”

Someone who knows the value of family has the potential to be a great leader. That person knows how important their love, example, discipline and forgiveness are to the next generation. They’ve experienced it in their own lives, and they can pass it along to those who have been entrusted to them. I’m thankful for the example and love of my own father that has shaped me into the father and now grandfather I am today.

Isn’t it great to know God as our Father? He’s not just a statue or a legend or some mysterious deity. He adopts us by grace, calls us his children, and teaches us to approach him as a father who is there to protect, provide and love us. His own son comes to give up his life, to show us how much our father loves us.

Thank you, Father, for revealing your love for me in your Son Jesus. I pray that good, faithful family men would indeed rule our nation and care for our people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

A new king

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for November 30, 2021. Photo by Hassan Pasha on Unsplash

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.'” (1 Samuel 16:1)

King Saul turned out to be a big disappointment. Rather than following God’s instructions, he made up his own rules. God decided to start over, selecting the next king from another family. It’s time for Samuel to take the road to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse.

Saul knows what’s going on. He knows he’s blown it. If Saul found out what Samuel was up to, he would definitely stop him (1 Samuel 16:2-3). It’s trachery! So Samuel has to make it look like he’s going to Bethlehem to offer up a sacrifice. Once there he’ll be able to meet with Jesse and select the next king.

Yes, we are talking about religion and politics. Succession from one ruler to the next in the bible is often messy and violent. Politicians were making back room deals 1,500 years before Jesus was born. And then when Jesus was born, Herod sent soldiers down the road to Bethlehem to kill the children, among whom he hoped would be the king of the Jews.

Imagine being Jesse. You’ve been invited to a clandestine occasion with the prophet Samuel. He wants you to bring your sons, too. Suddenly you’re part of a plot against the throne! Samuel anoints your youngest son, David, as the next king. If Saul finds out, you’re going to be on the hit list, too.

Years later Jesus would tell his disciples that they would be brought before kings and governors because of their allegiance to Jesus (Luke 21:12). Their own families would turn them in (Luke 21:16). They would find themselves between a rock and a hard place, wedged between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God.

Isn’t that exactly where Joseph and Mary found themselves? Her child would inherit the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32). But they would be on their way to Bethlehem because of a decree from Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1).

It’s a tension that always has and always will tug at the loyalties of God’s people. We know that the governing authorities are God’s gift to us to keep the peace and protect us. We also know that we must obey God rather than men. A life of faith often walks a tightrope between the two. Just like Jesus, who paid his taxes and stood trial before the Roman governor. Just like Jesus who submitted to the will of his father and fulfilled the law for us. Just like the apostles who were imprisoned for talking about Jesus. Just like the apostles who were compelled to speak about what they had seen and heard about Jesus.

Are you struggling to navigate a path between religions and politics? You’re in good company with the faithful of old and of today.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of governing authorities. Thank you for being my Lord. Guide me through the tension between these two kingdoms until that day when every knee bows to you. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Rachel’s resting place

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for November 29, 2021. Photo by Martin Isaksson on Unsplash

“So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb.” (Genesis 35:19,20)

The first time we find ourselves on the road to Bethlehem in scripture is for Rachel’s burial. Rachel was the love of Jacob’s life, but was actually his second wife after a wedding night mixup in Haran. (You can read all about it in Genesis 29.) Even though Jacob had to work seven years for her, he loved her so much it only seemed like a few days.

For a long time, Rachel couldn’t have children. She could only look on as her sister Leah, her servant Bilhah, and Leah’s servant Zilpah gave birth to ten sons for Jacob. Finally God remembered Rachel, listened to her prayer, and she had a son named Joseph. She died giving birth to Jacob’s last son, Benjamin. The families of these twelve sons would grow to be the twelve tribes of Israel, the great nation that God promised to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.

Just about everyone traveling to Bethlehem would pass by the place where Jacob had set up a pillar of remembrance. The tomb was still there when Saul was anointed king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:2). Was it still there when David was going back and forth to feed his father’s sheep (1 Samuel 17:15)? Or when some were trying to escape the Babylonians (Jeremiah 41)? Did Joseph and Mary see it on their way to Bethlehem for the census?

If so, each might have remembered stories their parents had told them about Abraham who had obeyed God and moved to a new land. Or the moment on the mountain when God provided a ram for a sacrifice instead of Abraham’s son Isaac. Or how Jacob cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing. And how Jacob ended up with two wives, the sisters Leah and Rachel. Or how Rachel’s son Joseph, who became a prince in Egypt, saved the lives of his father and brothers during a time of famine.

I may have passed by Rachel’s tomb on a bus entering Bethlehem. Our tour guide didn’t mention anything, but I remember all the Sunday School stories. God had his hands full trying to keep that family and nation intact and on the right track to bring a Savior into the world. But he did it. He did it for them and he did it for us. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love!

Thank you, Lord, for those who taught us the faith and those whom we can teach. Remind me often of the stories, the names and the places along the road to Bethlehem. Amen.

Posted in 2021 Advent devotions

Too little

“The Road to Bethlehem” Advent devotion for November 28, 2021

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
   who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is going to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
   from ancient days. (Micah 2:5)

The 2010 census reported Monowi, Nebraska was home to just one person, giving it the distinction of being the smallest town in the United States. The only person who lives there, Elsie Eiler. As mayor, she issued herself a liquor license for her bar, the Monowi Tavern. Monowi is on the map because it’s so small!

The little town of Bethlehem was even smaller, too little to be mentioned in the list of the clans of Judah who settled in the promised land of Canaan (Joshua 15:20-63). Bethlehem is on the map, though, for it would be the hometown of a ruler for God’s people.

What a ruler this would be! He was promised long ago to the man and the woman exiled from the garden of Eden. He would be known for justice, righteousness and peace. His reign would have no end. This ruler would be the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth would bow to his name, the name of Jesus.

We’ve all felt insignificant. Too short to ride the amusement park rides. Not talented enough to make the team. That handsome young man or gorgeous woman doesn’t even know we’re alive. Passover over for a promotion. Again.

But to God you are important. He knows your name. He hears and answers your prayers. He’s prepared a place for you in eternity. He gave gave up his one and only son for you. You are significant because of who he is and what he has done for you.

Bethlehem Ephrathah is a great reminder of how God likes to use small, unnoticed, humble places and people to do his greatest work in this world. Like he did with Mary, a young woman from Nazareth. Or David, too small to fit in a uniform. How about Paul, who knew he was the least of all God’s saints. And the widow whose offering of two mites was worth so much to Jesus.

We all feel a little “too little” from time to time. And yet from us comes a reason for hope, an effective prayer, a song of praise, and a sacrificial love.

Lord, thank you for the little places and the small ways that you bring your gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation into the world and into my life. Remind me to always base my self worth on you and your love. Amen.

Posted in advent, Advent devotions, Devotions

2020 Advent devotion: The shepherd’s report

photo by falco on pixabay.com

“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.