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?
He did not forget us when we were defeated; his love is eternal. Psalm 136:23
God did not forget us when we were defeated—it only felt like it. When we are down, it is easy to feel abandoned by God. If He “remembers” us when we’re in the pits, and his love is eternal, why does he allow us to remain there, or even get there in the first place?
I don’t know about anybody else, but sometimes it’s only when I am down and can’t get myself back up by my own efforts, that I am willing to listen to God’s plan. I wish I was perfectly surrendered to Him all the time, but I’m not. I know intellectually that God’s plan is good and wise, but my default setting seems to be to do things on my own steam until I get stuck. I’ve felt defeated with family relationships, career moves, and health issues. Listing all the times I’ve been brought to my knees by my own helplessness, implored God’s help, and somehow risen again would look like a life-long diary. So often I’ve kept trying to do what I thought I should be doing when, in retrospect, all God wanted me to do was trust Him and give up control.
God knows me very well. Each time my plans have been thoroughly defeated and my scenarios crumble, I become willing to let go and let God on a deeper level. The “aha” moments penetrate my heart and I accept that God has other plans. St. Paul said that all he had done on his own he thought of as so much trash. When we let go and act as God directs-well aware of our helplessness apart from Him-then we can boast in His power and glory, not our own.
Thank God that his love is eternal, because my heart needs to keep learning the lesson of surrender over and over. How about you?
Prayer: Lord, thank you for loving me at all times.
Reflection for sharing: How have you found God’s presence in the midst of your own defeat?
He leads the humble in the right way and teaches them his will. Psalm 25: 9
Why does God lead the humble? They’re probably the only ones who listen to him. Humility doesn’t mean believing disparaging things about ourselves. It simply means knowing we don’t have all the answers. When we’re “wise in our own eyes” we can’t see or hear a wisdom beyond ourselves. We don’t look for it—that is, unless we come up against some problem or situation that’s beyond our ability to deal with it. These turning points are often very painful. C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasure but shouts to us in our pain.
Whether it’s a health issue, a personal or family crisis, a career catastrophe, or any number of things, once we come to the end of our resources we have no option but to ask for help. When we do, God is there, waiting for us. When we don’t know what else to do, we become willing to listen. Our willingness gives God an opportunity to infiltrate our self-will. When we surrender to his plan, what seems like defeat turns into victory. We see that God really does know more than we do and wants better for us than we want for ourselves.
Is there any other way besides pain to acquire humility? We can start by asking God to grant us humility, which is one of the fruits of his Spirit. Since growing in his Spirit is his will for us, we can trust him to lead us in the right way.
Prayer: Lord, grant me the humility to listen to You.
Reflection for sharing: How can trusting God help you grow in humility?
At that time Jesus said, “Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned.” Matthew 11: 25
No one has to take an IQ test to get into heaven.
Scholars and theologians have written volumes analyzing the bible, and that’s good. New information about background and context provides a clearer understanding of scripture’s meaning and perspective. Nevertheless, brain power alone doesn’t enable Scripture scholars–or any of us–to act on what we know.
In fact, there are times that too much thinking can tangle us up. It’s easy to get bogged down in details, to strain out gnats and swallow camels, to debate the nuances of a scripture passage instead of applying it to our lives. Sometimes, keeping it simple helps us be “doers” of the word instead of just “hearers.” When we’re humble—and therefore teachable—it’s easier to trust God instead of our own analytical theories. Maybe that’s why Jesus spent so much time talking to crowds of every day people using down-to-earth terms. He used images like sheep and grain, images that were common to their daily lives, instead of writing treatises or having conferences with the religiously educated elders of his time. It’s tempting to allow education to pass for superiority. Jesus knew better.
God looks at our hearts. That levels the playing field for all of us. Thank you, God!
Prayer: Lord, grant me the open-mindedness that comes from humility.
Reflection for sharing: When has what you knew—or thought you knew—interfered with your understanding of the truth?
For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do. Ephesians 2: 8-10
Faith vs. Works? Paul spells it out for us in three short lines. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, not through our own efforts. It is a gift, not payment for a job well done. The fact that it is a gift protects us from the ego that tells us we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and somehow merited our salvation. If we are all saved by God’s gift, there’s no room for spiritual one-upmanship, no matter how well-hidden that attitude may be.
Does that give us a passport to inertia? Of course not. A gift does us no good unless we open the gift and use it. Before I started college my parents gave me a typewriter. (There were no computers back in those days.) My parents knew a typewriter would make college life easier for me and even though we weren’t rolling in money at the time, they wanted me to have one. They didn’t expect me to pay them back. It was a gift. The best thank you I could give them would be to use that typewriter. What if I never unwrapped, opened, or used the gift? It would still have been a gift, but what a waste of my parent’s generosity and how much harder my life as a student would have been.
God’s gift of grace has made us what we are, each unique, with talents and abilities like no one else; to do those good things he has in mind for us to do. We can feel good about ourselves and our talents, while remaining grateful to the Giver. We do good deeds-not to earn salvation, we already have it-but to fully live out the gift of who we are.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for your gift of grace in my life. May I use it to do what you created me to do.
Reflection for sharing: How has God’s grace been active in your life? How are you being called to use God’s gifts today?
Some wandered in the trackless desert and could not find their way to a city to live in. Then in their trouble they called to the Lord, and he saved them from their distress. He led them by a straight road to a city where they could live. Psalm 107: 4; 6-7
Did you ever have computer problems? For several days last week, I wandered around “in the trackless desert” of cyber-space, unable to find my way to a solution. Finally, I called the help desk. A kind and knowledgeable technician asked me if I would give him permission to work on my account remotely. I gladly gave my permission, entered a few codes on my end, and watched as the expert took over my computer, moving the cursor here and making adjustments there. Every now and then he asked me a question or instructed me to do something on my end. The process was definitely interactive, but it was quite clear who was taking the lead. After he had led me back to safe and effective computer usage, he ended the session and removed himself from my account.
God is always available to intercede in my life, but, just as the technician doesn’t take over my computer any time he wants, God waits for me to call on him and give him permission to intercede. It’s a question of how long I want to wander before I call on him and become willing—eager, in fact—to allow him to lead. I then cooperate by doing what is asked of me instead of stumbling around on my own. God leads us out of our difficulties, but we have to be willing to follow. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that willingness even before we reached the point of distress?
Prayer: Lead me, Lord.
Reflection for sharing: Where in your life do you most need God’s direction today? Are you willing to follow where he leads? If not, what’s holding you back? Can you allow God to lead you out of your own resistance?
Then they rejected the pleasant land, because they did not believe God’s promise. Psalm 106:24
I read a story about a sixteen-year-old who wanted tickets to a concert for his birthday. He hinted strongly to his grandmother about it. On his birthday, he opened the present his grandmother gave him. Inside the box was a red shirt, which he politely thanked her for. Disappointed, he put the shirt in the closet without even taking it out of the box. Two years later, when he was packing for college, he came across the box. He took the shirt out and inside the front pocket; he found two tickets to the concert he had long since missed out on. I didn’t like that story when I read it. I identified with the boy. He got gypped. But the truth is, he really gypped himself. His grandmother gave him what he wanted and more, but not the way he expected it to come.
How often have we overlooked gifts because they came in unlikely wrappings? The car accident that left me bed ridden for months was painful but became an opportunity to re-evaluate my priorities. Although not welcome at the time, the gift forced me to trust my life and that of my loved ones to God’s care, not my own strength. Months of unemployment, devastating as it was, allowed me time to pursue my long-held desire to become a writer. God doesn’t zap us with misfortune, but he works through the most unlikely circumstances to gift us with opportunities to grow, change, and reach a better place. Maybe you’ve had experiences that you would never have chosen, but, in hindsight, can see the gifts that came wrapped in them. When we don’t believe that God can bring good out of anything, it is we who are rejecting the “pleasant land” that may be hidden in unexpected circumstances.
Prayer: Lord, open my heart to see your gifts, no matter how they come wrapped.
Reflection for sharing: When have I denied myself a “pleasant” state of mind because I didn’t believe God was working a particular situation?
I, the Lord your God, brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves. I broke the power that held you down and I let you walk with your head held high. Leviticus 26: 13
The new year brings a sense of new beginnings. This is an opportunity, not a burden. Our spiritual journey is always a journey of ever-increasing freedom. Some of us have been brought out of slavery from addictions, unhealthy relationships, or negative thought patterns. God made us in His image and gave us free will. It may be a gradual process, but this God-given freedom can be usurped by power, material things, or popularity, or anything we think will make us happy and ends up owning us.
I once worked with a woman who parked her expensive foreign sports car in the outskirts of the parking lot every day. Rain or shine, she walked farther to the office than any other employee, to protect her sweet ride from dings. My enslavement took another form. I always prided myself on my super-efficiency until the day it dawned on me that all my multi-tasking wasn’t getting me anywhere. The goal of efficiency is to make things easier, but all I was doing was wearing myself out! I was a slave to my own prideful ideal of productivity! But I felt guilty and lazy if I didn’t drive myself to work until the point of exhaustion. It took a long time and some spiritual growth before I could balance work and rest and still hang on to a reasonable amount of self-esteem.
We can even be slaves to apparently noble, but mistaken concepts. Peace sounds like a worthy goal, but peace at any price can mask not having the courage to stand up for what we believe in. Sometimes we’re held captive by our own thought patterns—mistaken notions acquired somewhere along the line and held on to for so long that other, healthier possibilities aren’t even on our radar. We can’t be in charge of our own growth because we can never see beyond what we can see. We need a power beyond ourselves to enable us to reclaim our God-given freedom.
Prayer: Praise God, who leads us to freedom.
Reflection for sharing: What habit, thought pattern, etc. do you feel enslaved to? If you trusted God’s power to lead you to freedom, what would you do differently today?
And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!”
The art of listening is the “North Star of parenting” according to an article by Marlo Thomas. I was reading the piece over breakfast one morning. I wanted to read about how her father’s ability to listen impacted her life, but my husband kept interrupting my reading. He asked me something—I can’t remember what—and I mumbled a quick “Uh-huh.” He asked me something else and I gave another non-committal response. The third time he asked me something, I finally got it. My husband wanted to have a conversation.
Instead of reading about listening, I put the magazine down and listened. We ended up chatting about when we first met as we finished breakfast. The pleasant stroll down memory lane started our day on a warm and happy note. Even though the article I’d been reading was about listening, it took me three tries to get the message. If I’d been reading about anything else, I might have missed a golden opportunity. I wonder how many other opportunities I’ve missed and never even noticed because I wasn’t listening?
Prayer: Lord, help me listen to what You want me to hear today.
Reflection for sharing: How can you open yourself to new opportunities in your day by listening more?
Peter and John were still speaking to the people when some priests, the officer in charge of the Temple guards, and some Sadducees arrived. They were annoyed because the two apostles were teaching the people that Jesus had risen from death, which proved that the dead will rise to life. Acts 4:1-2
Isn’t it annoying to be confronted with something that goes against your mind-set? No wonder the Sadducees—who didn’t believe in life after death—were annoyed. Who isn’t irritated when their convictions are challenged? It’s even worse when there is supporting evidence for the other side!
Of course we think our own world-view is right. Why hold on to an opinion you think is wrong? It makes sense to express and defend our position, but if that position truly is correct, won’t it hold up to challenges? If—after thoughtful consideration of all the information—it doesn’t, it doesn’t—what’s wrong with changing our position?
Why is it so threatening to change our minds in light of new information? Part of it might be ego. “I was wrong” is not the easiest thing to admit to ourselves—let alone acknowledge to others. But I think it’s more than that. When a component of our operating system is shown to be faulty, our foundation can feel pulled out from under us. We might be afraid to trust our judgment about other things. As a result of the new mindset, we might be required to make changes in our lives.
When Paul, zealous persecutor of Christians, was confronted with the Truth, it turned his world upside down. He ended up doing a complete 180 and launching an equally zealous crusade to spread Christianity throughout the known world. While we might not be called to make changes of that magnitude, we all need attitude adjustments from time to time.
Prayer: Lord, teach my heart to be open to the truth.
Reflection for sharing: What assumptions might be worth a second look?