John the Baptist had a job to do: announce the coming of the Messiah. John called people to prepare for it by urging them to change their ways and be baptized. John even baptized Jesus himself—at Jesus’ request. John was a most important prophet and yet he had the humility not to get caught up in his own importance. When Jesus’ ministry began attracting crowds, the attention he got upset John’s disciples. They were threatened. John was not. He had stated from the beginning that he himself was not the Messiah. John acknowledged his own happiness, stating that Jesus “must become more important, while I become less important.”
During this season of Advent, we are called to prepare the way for Jesus to come into our own hearts. Like John, can we be content to allow Jesus to become more important in our lives? Can we surrender our will and our agenda—even for a few moments each day—to grow silent and listen for what God’s plans for us might be?
Why not use John the Baptist’s comment as an Advent meditation? We can fill in the blank with whatever worries, holiday preparations, or other distractions create roadblocks between God and our hearts today. We don’t have to eliminate them, but let’s shift our perspective on their importance to make room for God.
Reflection: Jesus must become more important, while __________ becomes less important.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out. John 1: 5
Darkness seems to grow in December. Daylight hours dwindle as winter approaches. But as natural light diminishes, the light on our Advent wreaths grows brighter. Week after week, we add another candle as we look forward to celebrating the coming of the Light of the World.
Darkness seems to be spreading in our culture, as greed and violence take a prominent role in our daily news. But greed and violence have been around since the beginning of time. All the darkness in the world can’t snuff out the light of a single candle. In fact, candlelight shines all the more brightly in contrast against the night.
Jesus, the Light of the World, lights our way through any and all circumstances. There is no darkness too deep that His light cannot penetrate. When we turn to him, his presence helps us navigate those things that might block our way or trip us up.
Maybe instead of thinking of poinsettias at this time of year, it might be more appropriate to think of sunflowers. They turn to face the light of the sun as they grow. During the dark December days, let’s turn our faces to the Light of the Son.
Prayer: Light of the world, come shine in our darkness.
Reflection: Where do you long to see God’s light shine?
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them…and said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day…a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2: 8-11
Why did the angel announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds?
Maybe because Jesus was born in a stable, and the likes of shepherds, who spent most of their time with animals, fit right in.
Maybe because Jesus would later identify himself as “the Good Shepherd” and his own would recognize him most easily.
Or maybe because Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world, making shepherds the most appropriate welcoming committee.
It could have been any number of reasons, but I think—at least in part—it was because shepherds have a lot of time on their hands. We’re told they were out in the open fields, keeping watch. They were watching in case of danger to their sheep, but the act of watching means openness to observe anything that might happen—especially something out of the ordinary.
What if the angel’s announcement would have been observable to anyone receptive to it, but the only ones who noticed were the shepherds? Granted, they had an advantage. There probably wasn’t a lot else going on in the fields for them to see. It would have been more challenging for townspeople to notice the angel’s message—especially with the hubbub of the crowded city streets due to the census.
Like the townspeople, we may have many demands our attention during this hectic holiday season. We may not have the luxury of a work schedule that builds in plenty of down time. That’s why we owe it to ourselves to carve out some time—even if just for a few moments each day—to be still and listen to any message God might want to give our hearts. We don’t want to miss any good news.
Prayer: Lord, quiet my mind and heart and help me watch for you.
Reflection: How will you give yourself the gift of quiet during this Advent season?
Giving thanks is a mood changer! It makes us feel good. It enhances our enjoyment of life. When things are going well, it’s easy to take for granted just how good we have it.
That doesn’t mean we deny our problems or pretend everything is fine when it’s not. But it does mean that we have a choice about focusing on the negative. There are times when looking for the good things in our lives might take some effort, but we are worth the effort. Once when negativity had the best of me, a friend suggested that I take pen and paper and write out a gratitude list. As I put the good things in my life down in black and white, I was surprised by how long the list grew. As I exercised my “thankfulness muscle” it got stronger. Each time I thought I got to the end of the list, I’d ask myself if I couldn’t think of just one more thing, and the list kept growing. By the time I put the pen down, I was grinning from ear to ear. Writing the list didn’t take away my problems, but it did give me a balanced perspective.
Counting our blessings is worth the time and effort. If we’re having trouble getting started, we might begin with gratitude that God’s love is eternal-whether times are pleasant or uncomfortable, whether we understand it or not. Maybe the first thing on our list could be thanking God for the willingness to accept the challenge of looking for the good.
Prayer: Lord, Thank you for loving me. Open my eyes to your gifts of love.
Reflection for sharing: What unexpected places might your blessings be hiding in today?
A man who’d been disabled for 38 years laid on his mat by Bethzatha Pool. It was believed the first one who entered the Pool when the waters stirred up would be healed. Jesus saw the man and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” What a strange question to ask an invalid. Wouldn’t “Of course I do!” be anybody’s answer? Maybe not. It’s human nature to become accustomed to things as they are. The man had survived for 38 years with the status quo. When asked if he wanted to get well, he didn’t say “Of course!” He offered a reason (excuse?) why he hadn’t been healed already–he had no one to help him.
His was not the most desirable way of life, but a way of life nonetheless. Healing, wonderful as it might be, meant a brand new set of circumstances and challenges. If he was no longer sick, he would no longer receive alms. How would he earn a living? Nevertheless, something in the man’s response signaled to Jesus that he was open for healing. When Jesus instructed the man to get up, pick up his mat, and walk, the man immediately obeyed. If the man debated with himself about how healing could happen outside of the pool, his leap of faith could have been a faltering crawl that led nowhere. Fortunately, he seized the opportunity when it came. He did not debate with Jesus or himself. He gave Jesus’ instructions a try and it worked.
Reflection: What does it take for us to respond when Christ invites us to get up, leave our resting place, and move forward? Are you being called now to continued growth by moving in a new direction?
Adapted from “Fools, Liars, Cheaters, and Other Bible Heroes”
[James and John] answered, “When you sit on your throne in your glorious Kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left.” Mark 10: 37
It’s understandable that James and John asked Jesus for the privilege of being closest to him in heaven. They were likely candidates. Of the twelve apostles, James and John—along with Peter—were part of the inner circle. Those three were the only ones Jesus took with him when he raised Jairus’ daughter from death. They were the only ones who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. They had abandoned their former way of life and left everything behind the instant Jesus called them to follow him. James and John were willing to “drink the cup of suffering” that Jesus would drink—or at least they thought they were. They may well have been willing to suffer martyrdom for Jesus’ sake.
Perhaps what they didn’t realize at the time was that martyrdom (witnessing) involved more than physical death. What Jesus said is as true for us as it was for James and John. Following Him means picking up our cross daily. It means dying to self in whatever form that happens to take on any given day. It includes dying to the idea of spiritual one-upmanship based on our actions, our suffering, or any misplaced sense of entitlement.
Maybe that’s why Peter, the rock on which Jesus decided to build His church, had to undergo the mortifying experience of denying Jesus. He was the rock because of God’s will and Jesus’ choice, not Peter’s impressive faith. The church, the Body of Christ, is composed of frail human beings. We get it wrong sometimes. We let God down, we let others down, we let ourselves down. That doesn’t mean we have to beat ourselves up. We are God’s beloved children—not because we earn it or are better than any other believers. We are all God’s beloved because of His love, not our worthiness. We don’t need to worry about any spiritual pecking order. Where there is love there’s no room for status seeking and there is no room in heaven for anything that is not love.
Prayer: Lord, may I love you more than my own status.
Reflection for sharing: When are you most vulnerable to status seeking? When are you most apt to forget about status?
When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, he initiated contact with a triple threat to propriety: a Samaritan, an unescorted woman, and apparently the town tramp. She came to the well to get water at noon to avoid the other townspeople, who would have come in the cool of the morning. The woman was probably surprised that anybody–especially a Jew–would talk to her.
When Jesus asked her to get her husband she said she had no husband. I wonder if she was flirting with Jesus. As Jesus then responded, she had had five husbands. She probably wasn’t shy about talking to men. Maybe the only way she had ever been able to get attention was by using her feminine wiles. After Jesus saw through her deceptive response, the woman realized Jesus was relating to her on a much deeper level. He touched something deep inside her, something her heart craved. Nevertheless, it must have threatened her to have someone probe so close to her heart. She turned the conversation to theological debate about sects and places of worship. Jesus did not take sides but spoke about true worship for all people through God’s Spirit.
Unlike many self-righteous religious and community leaders, this outcast did not miss the Messiah when he revealed himself to her. She trusted the evidence of her own experience. Jesus had approached her without looking down on her. He ws not thrown off track by her manipulations. He spoke with insight and genuine concern for who she really was, apart from her affectations and the community’s assessment of her. He cut to the heart of her being and her heart responded.
This woman knew the truth when she heard it and the news was too good to keep to herself. She hurried to share it with the townspeople she previously avoided. Jesus met her in her isolation and shame. What she had been wasn’t as important as what she had the opportunity to become–Christ’s ambassador. She acted on that and the people responded.
It’s easy to think we have to cover up our shortcomings in order to be effective or set a good example. Maybe the best example we can set is to be honest about our weaknesses and struggles. As we come to know Christ and experience unconditional love, we will enjoy the freedom of being authentic without fear of rejection. Like the Samaritan woman, we will lose the need to protect ourselves from shame by isolating or clinging to false fronts. We don’t have to broadcast our secrets, but when guided by the Holy Spirit, we can prudently risk sharing our faults to ask for help or when it might help others. Trusting God to meet us exactly where we are and bring us forward is truly good news worth sharing.
Reflection: When Jesus brought the interaction closer to her heart, the woman retreated to theological debate. How can dwelling on religious dogmas obscure authentic spiritual development?
Adapted from “Fools, Liars, Cheaters, and Other Bible Heroes”
…I have defeated all your enemies as you advanced… 1 Chronicles 17: 8
David didn’t wait for God to make it safe before he advanced. Instead, God empowered David to continue his forward movement by conquering his opposition as David advanced. And so it is with us.
When I was little, I loved going to the beach, but I couldn’t go very far out. The shoreline breakers always knocked me down. My big sister wanted to bring me out beyond the breakers where the waves were calmer. I resisted, thinking, if the waves are this rough close to dry land, they’ll only be bigger and worse the farther out I go. I’ll be in over my head and completely dependent on her. That’s too risky. But finally, I agreed to try. My sister was right. The water was much calmer once we advanced beyond the breaking waves.
I wish I could say I learned this life lesson at that tender age, but I didn’t. Time and again I avoided confrontation. When people seemed rough to me, I clung to safety by not going up against them. I gave others what they seemed to want or expect of me until I felt like I was losing myself. At some point, the grace of God showed me that going along with what others wanted wasn’t being Christian or even “nice.” It was being fearful and abdicating my responsibility to use my God-given free will. Putting other people’s opinions first was just as wrong as putting mine first. God belongs in first place.
It was scary to begin resisting my opponents. I didn’t want to make waves. I’d felt knocked down and beaten back by them before—just as those breakers drove me back when I was a child. But by trusting God—like I had trusted my sister—to lead me through the turmoil, I began making my way past the disapproval of others. It was much calmer on the other side. Some people came to accept me and related to me on a different footing; some relationships dissolved. Either way, I wasn’t annihilated by their displeasure. In fact, their displeasure often lessened over time as others came to accept my new approach to disagreements. God didn’t silence my opponents so I could make progress in my journey toward healthier relationships. I had to be willing to move forward trusting that He was with me. He defeated the enemy of fear as I advanced.
Prayer: Thank you God for defeating the voices of negativity that threaten me.
Reflection for sharing: What feels threatening to you today? How can you find reassurance that God is with you as you move forward?
After taking the intiative to follow Jesus, Andrew didn’t keep it to himself. He found his brother Simon Peter and introduced him to Jesus–only to have Jesus pick Peter to be the ‘rock” on which He would build his Church. Imagine how Andrew might have reacted. “But I saw Him first!” or “That’s the thanks I get for introducing my brother to Jesus–Peter gets the limelight and I’m stuck in the shadows.” But the Gospels never tell us that Andrew had any resentment or illusions of grandeur. It was James and John, not Andrew, who asked Jesus for special places in the coming kingdom. Andrew seemed content to be close to Jesus, serving as he could without needing the limelight. Maybe Andrew preferred not having the spotlight on him. That’s a gift many of us have. And it is a gift.
Some of us are comfortable–and even crave–being in highly visible positions. That’s good, too. We need leaders. But not all of us are called to positions of prominence. Among those of us who work behind the scenes, some may prefer it that way. Others may accept it with the grace of humility. Before feeding the five thousand, Andrew offered a constructive, albeit insufficent, solution, directing Jesus’ attention to a boy with a few loaves of bread and fish. Andrew humbly acknowledged the limitations of what he could offer, but offered it nonetheless. Jesus accepted and worked with Andrew’s suggestion, so that it was not only sufficient, but more than enough.
Another time Andrew is mentioned again helping Philip. When some Greeks asked Philip to see Jesus, Philip brought them to Andrew. Perhaps Andrew’s willingness to provide useful service while remaining in the background made him more approachable. Like Andrew, we may never get much recognition for faithfully answering God’s call. That’s good news. Jesus warned the Pharisees who did their good deeds for show that that recognition was the only reward of such deeds. Andrew apparently had his heart set on a deeper reward. May our hope be strengthened toward that same vision.
Reflection: Andrew seemed content to serve in a supporting role. When have you felt content to be in the background? Were you able to see the importance of your role at the time? How about now, as you look back?
Adapted from “Fools, Liars, Cheaters, and Other Bible Heroes”
Do all your work in love. 1 Corinthians 16: 14
What a challenge! It puts a whole new slant on accomplishment, doesn’t it? Paul isn’t telling us not to do something if we can’t do it lovingly, is he? That depends.
We all have responsibilities. When we’re tired or pre-occupied, rising to the occasion to feed a hungry child or correct one who’s acting out; doing our best on an important report at work even though we know the boss will find something to criticize; these can be loving acts of service. In other words, doing a thankless job that we need to do when we don’t feel like doing it can be an act of love.
Slaving over elaborate meals that no one needs or wants? Going the extra mile to “help” someone by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves? Those probably aren’t the best ways to express love. Maybe that’s why, when Martha resentfully bustled around the house to show hospitality and criticized her sister to Jesus, he pointed out that Mary had chosen correctly. When we do so much for others that we resent it, or ignore the ones we think we’re serving, we may not be doing it out of love. We may be doing it for ourselves, to satisfy something within us—perhaps a need for perfection. Maybe we want to feel competent or needed or we want others to appreciate or owe us. It might have more to do with our own needs than theirs.
When we start our day with a few minutes of quiet time with God we’ll better discern what He has in mind for us to do. As we drink in God’s love, we may find that sometimes the most loving thing we can do for others is take care of ourselves. When we are depleted or over-extended, it’s hard to act lovingly. It’s easy to get peevish and snap at those we love. When we take even small steps to meet our own needs, we won’t drive ourselves into burnout in the name of service. Then we’ll be better able to serve others with love.
Prayer: Lord, may my service to others be a channel of Your love.
Reflection for sharing: What is the most loving thing you can do for yourself and those around you today?