First Sunday after Christmas

Hey Everyone,

Merry Christmas! I hope you’re all still basking in the blessedness of Christmastide. Remember, Christmas lasts 12 days. Some of you need to step up your partying. 🙂 This weekend you’ll get the chance as we welcome in 2023 this Sunday.

Not only is this Sunday, New Year’s day, it’s also the special holy day when we remember the naming of Jesus (8 days after the birth). In that light, I’ll be touching on all three of the lectionary passages this week, as each contributes to our understanding of “naming.” If you’re interested in reading the passages beforehand, you can find them at the end of the online Order of Worship bulletin.

Here are your Announcements for the week ahead:

 Potluck Noodle Party
Next week’s potluck is themed around noodles. You can make any kind of noodles you want. Join us on Saturday, January 7th from 1:00 to 3:00 in Darley Hall kitchen. 

Communion next week
Don’t forget that we’ll be celebrating communion next Sunday, January 8th. If you’re joining us online, remember to bring your communion elements to the broadcast.

First Sunday of the Year Potluck
Join us for our first-Sunday-of-the-year-potluck on Sunday, January 8th, directly after the service. This month’s theme is noodles. Be creative and make any noodle dish you want.

Intergenerational Study of the Bible for Youth
Our intergenerational study of the Bible will return next Sunday, January 8th from 4:00pm to 5:30pm in the Annex.

Annual Congregational Meeting
On Sunday, January 15th directly after the morning worship service, we’ll be holding our annual congregational meeting. At the meeting we’ll be approving the 2022 budget, Jason’s Terms of Call, and voting on a slate for two new ruling elders. All are welcome, but only members may vote. The meeting will be available via Zoom and those members outside of Lake City are encouraged to join us online to attend and vote.

Here is your link for worship this week and your order of worship:

Sunday Worship Service:

Jesse Tree Devotionals: December 24

John 1:1-16
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it. 

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

There are passages in the Scriptures, that no matter how many times I read them, they still strike a chord deep within my soul. This selection from the first chapter of John is one of them. The Gospel of John differentiates itself from the other Gospels; we refer to Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the synoptic gospels because they share a certain chronology and structure. The Gospel of John, however, offers the reader/hearer a chance to engage in a more theological portrayal of the story of Jesus Christ. While John still includes many narratives about Jesus Christ, his concern is that the storyline supports the central concepts behind them. Consequently, sometimes John likes to wax theologically. Our text for today is a perfect example. 

While the Gospels of Matthew and Luke collectively offer much in terms of the literal story of Christ’s incarnation, John takes us beyond the actual events that happened. John looks at the whole storyline from an abstract, beyond the boundaries of our senses sort of way. John calls Jesus “the Word.” In Greek the word is logos, and it literally means, “word,” “reason,” or “plan.” So when John says that the Word was there in the beginning, and that it was with God, and that it was God, he is making one of the most powerful claims of any New Testament book. In this way, Christ as the “Word” or the essence of “reason” stands in the background of all things in the universe. God’s “plan” is found in our understanding of Jesus as the logos. 

Put differently, the other Gospels give us a storybook narrative through which to comprehend the miracle of God becoming human in the form of a babe. John, on the other hand, makes a much stronger assertion about who Jesus is in this world and in the realm beyond ours. Jesus wasn’t just the earthly Messiah to lead Israel back to a place of power and prosperity. Nor was Jesus only the natural outcome of the ultimate Divine being becoming part of the creation. 

As John asserts, Jesus was and is the essence through whom all things were created. He has no beginning or end; he just is. John holds that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father (as in the same substance). Moreover, Jesus is God, without separation. Jesus may be distinct from the Father but still the same substance and without division. John makes all these powerful claims about who Christ is, in just the first sentence. John conceptualizes the whole birth narrative in a different realm. 

Imagine how differently we might see Christ’s birth narrative without John’s imagery. God sent himself to our world and took on the metaphysical nature of a created human being, chose to be born into this world, and had to face the knowledge of certain death. Despite his sinlessness, the anxiety of earthly death was still cast upon him. In part, the majesty of God’s incarnation is realized in our understanding of who “the Word” is in relationship to the Divine. God sent himself to save us. For me, that makes his “dwelling among us” all the more meaningful, especially during this holy season of Christmas. 

Jesse Tree Devotional: December 23

Matthew 2:1-15
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

You’ve probably heard me say it before, but I think Epiphany is one of the most important holy days of the year. I’ve also called it one of the most under celebrated days in the mainline church. I’m not saying it’s never celebrated–churches across the country will observe it in their worship every year. But simply observing Epiphany as the liturgical Sunday in which we acknowledge the arrival of the Magi misses the point. 

As the passage notes above, the Magi had an important role to fill in a couple of ways. First, the Magi are significant because they are a reminder of the Gentiles’ acknowledgement of Jesus’ Kingship. From locations as far as Persia, India, and Asia these wise scholars came because they saw an aberration in the sky. A bright shining star in the west appeared that hadn’t been there before. We don’t know how familiar these astrologers were with Jewish prophetic literature, but we do believe they knew the constellations. And, when something changed that significantly, they set out to investigate. 

When they had reached King Herod’s region, they began asking where the child had been born. They didn’t have GPS coordinates, so they were likely eyeballing the location. When word got back to Herod that there were wise men from the East searching for a king that had been born, he hatched a plan. King Herod met with the Magi, to both gather information and to tell them to return with the child’s location so that he too might “worship” the child.

The Magi finally completed their task. They found the child and paid homage to Christ as a king. Their presence and presents were God’s way of marking Christ as king of the world, extending Christ’s reign beyond the house of Israel, ultimately including us in God’s salvation plan. 

Second, God also used them to protect the infant Jesus. As the story goes, God warned them in a dream to return home through a different route so as to avoid Herod. They never went back to report anything to the king. Because Herod didn’t know where Jesus was, he was unable to target him. Then God also warned Joseph in his dream that he should take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt where they would find safety. Once again God spoke to humans in their dreams to accomplish his will. The Magi’s willingness to heed the message revealed to them in their dreams shouldn’t be overlooked. Because they were obedient, the child was saved from death. God’s provision and protection were realized through the Magi. In these two ways, we can see how critical the Magi were in the story of Christ’s birth. 

Jesse Tree Devotional: December 22

Luke 2:8-14
Now in that same 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 the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel 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 in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It’s Christmas and because I’m still a couple days behind on these Jesse Tree devotionals, our passage for today lines up quite well. In it we find the story of the angel and the heavenly hosts who join the celebration. All the other characters and settings in the story are part of our material world–the people, animals, the town, the stable, and even the star. Even God himself had materialized into this world through the babe in the manger. 

Then there’s the angel and the heavenly hosts, who are not part of our material world. They are celestial beings that do not possess the same metaphysical make up as us ground dwellers. They are phenomenal being that exists in multiple realms–our world and in whatever is beyond. They don’t seem to be governed by time, yet step into time at various points in Israel’s history. Our passage today represents one of those times. 

Keep in mind, the shepherds didn’t know this all was going to happen, so you can only imagine their surprise when an angel suddenly stood before them. The Angel of the Lord offers the standard angelic greeting, “Do not be afraid.”  He’s got some good news: the promised Messiah was born and the shepherds weren’t too far from where he was. The angel offers them a “sign.” Signs were very much a part of Judaism and the culture as a whole, so the mention of the babe wrapped in bands of cloth (or swaddling cloth, as some prefer) would have been significant to their understanding of the event that just transpired. 

Then, the story gets really good. Upon announcing the gospel of Christ’s birth, there was a heavenly flash mob of sorts, filled with a multitude of heavenly host. Admittedly, I’m no angelologist, nor do we know exactly what is meant by “heavenly hosts.” What I am certain of is that it must have been a sight to behold. I imagine it was so much more than an ordinary choir of angels all standing up in the heavens in nice, neat rows. It must have filled the heavens with countless beings all engaging in worship and praise, glorifying God and singing his praises. Talk about an epic party. Finally, God sent a savior. The Light had entered the world and our Creator assembled a welcoming party like no other.

Jesse Tree Devotional: December 21

Luke 2:15-21
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them. When the eighth day came, it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

This past week, my family and I were playing a new western themed board game called Western Legends. It’s a “sandbox” game, which means you can move your character around the board at your own leisure in order to do western type things a certain locations. For example, you can wrangle cattle, prospect for gold, play poker at the saloon, or rob the bank (if you’re so inclined). While we were playing, I was reading some of the text on the back of the card, which is meant to add a story element to the gaming experience. I casually noted that these little western themed paragraphs were “flavor text” for the game. 

Shannon looked at me with a furrowed brow and asked what I meant. It was term that she hadn’t heard before that afternoon. I proceeded to explain that in the tabletops gaming world, when game designers and publishers include a narrative facet to a game that doesn’t actually have any bearing on the competitive or strategic aspects of the game, it’s often referred to as “flavor text.” In other words, text is added as “flavor” to the game. They make the gaming experience more interesting or flavorful for the players, but in the end, they don’t add anything mechanically substantial to the game itself. 

Over the years, I’ve come to the perspective that when people read our passage today that they see it as flavor text. When you read the whole story of Jesus’ birth, we have strong main characters like Jesus and Mary. The center of the action is around their dilemma. Joseph and the inn keeper are the supporting cast, as you need both of them for the story to progress. The wise men or Magi (who shouldn’t be at the birth in the first place, due to the distance they would have travelled to get to Bethlehem) are kind of cameo characters who serve their role at the end of the story to validate it for a wider audience. They are important to the story line, but have an auxiliary role that when removed doesn’t distract from the main point. 

Then there are the shepherds and their sheep. Aren’t they cute? We put them in the background of our nativity scenes with their sheep. They are often leaning on a staff and look like teenage boys. We lean our wobbly sheep figurines next to them for support, and that’s pretty much what they become–flavor text to support the larger scene of Jesus’ birth. 

But they are so much more than that in this story. When we consider the humble nature of Christ’s birth and how it’s meant to represent the larger “upside-down” kingdom that Jesus brings into the world, the shepherds’ role in the story takes on a new meaning. They were the locals, who symbolize the common everyday folk that Jesus came to seek out. The shepherds weren’t important. They were laborers who worked for the flock owner and got stuck with the night shift. They didn’t have money, fame, or power. Both the shepherds and their flocks are symbols for the very people Jesus would minister to in about thirty years. In many ways, they are “us” in that story and their presence on the first night of Jesus’ earthly life is significant, because it means that “we” were represented in the story. We didn’t provide safe passage, housing, or honor the new born babe with gifts, but were not just flavor text. We were the ones who marveled, and continue to marvel to this day, at the miracle of God’s birth that night. And, just like the shepherds who, after seeing the Christ-child, went out and shared the news of his birth. In this holy season, how much more are we called to share of Christ’s birth to all those whom we encounter.

Christmas is Finally Here!

Hey Everyone,

Merry Christmas Eve! I trust you are all doing well as we approach the end of the holy season of Advent and enter into the bliss of Christmastide. We get twelve days of Christmas to be reminded of the joy of our salvation in Christ Jesus. In order to help you celebrate, we’ve got two services this weekend that we want you to know about.

First, join us tomorrow night, Saturday, December 24th for our ecumenical Christmas Eve Service in the yard of CPC. With a liturgy of Scripture and song, we’ll join together with the Lake City community to usher in Christmastide by lifting our voices and candles to welcome in the new born King. The service will begin at 5:30pm and last around 30 minutes. This service will be available via Zoom, and the downloadable worship bulletin can be found below.

Next, don’t forget that we’re still having Sunday morning worship this Sunday, December 25th at our usual time- 10:00am. On Christmas, we’ll celebrate Jesus’ incarnation as we light the Christ candle and sing our favorite Christmas hymns. The lectionary texts are included in the downloadable online Order of Worship below.

Here are your announcements for the week:

Intergenerational Study of the Bible for Youth
No Intergenerational Study of the Bible for the next two weeks. We’ll return on Epiphany Sunday, January 8, 2023.

Games Up Here
No Monday night games for the next two weeks. We’ll return on Monday, January 15, 2023. 

Wednesday Bible Study
No Wednesday Bible Study for the next two weeks. We’ll return on Wednesday, January 11, 2023.

Men’s Prayer Breakfast
No Men’s Prayer Breakfast until 2023.

Communion and Monthly Potluck
Don’t forget, on Sunday, January 8, 2023, we’ll celebrate the Eucharist and have our first-of-the-month potluck directly after the service. Our theme will be noodles, a symbol of life and health for they year ahead. 

Here are your links for the weekend services:

Saturday Christmas Eve Service (5:30pm):

Sunday Christmas Service (10:00am):

Jesse Tree Devotional: December 20

Matthew 1
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, who bore Jesus, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.

I’m willing to bet that most people just jump to the beginning of the story in the first chapter of Matthew. They may skim over the names listed in Jesus’ genealogy, just to see if they recognize any of the people. But in less time it takes for a sports car to accelerate to 60mph, they are reading the words “Now the birth of Jesus…” And why wouldn’t they? The names of who begat whom isn’t very exciting, at least not at first glance. 

If we take a closer look, however, I think we’ll discover that there is a rich treasure trove of stories and figures found in that genealogy. Some of these stories we’re familiar with, while others, not so much. The lineage begins with Abraham and carries through to Isaac and Jacob. Of Joseph’s brothers, Judah’s tribe would give rise to the earthly King David. His son, the wise King Solomon would build a dwelling place for the Living God. These are stories we’ve read this season, all about great heroes of our faith. But this genealogy also holds some lesser known figures that had an incredible impact on Jesus’ lineage.

Consider the role the prostitute Rahab had on Israel’s history. Not only did she dramatically save the Jewish spies, she ended up mothering Boaz, the righteous man who married Ruth, the Moabite. Two women who were both foreigners to the Israelites, whom God used as part of Christ’s ancestry. They both bear witness to God’s plan for the salvation of all humanity. While not all of those names in Jesus’ linage have stories around them, the list tells the larger story of God’s redemptive plan for Israel. God’s faithfulness is seen in this seemingly boring list of names. Each figure having a small role. If you’re inclined, scroll back up and see for yourself. 

Jesse Tree Devotional: December 19

Luke 1:17-20, 57-80
With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know that this will happen? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

(After some time)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his child David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in his presence all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. Because of the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

One of the hidden gems in the narrative of Christ’s birth can be found in these two passages, both from chapter one of Luke’s gospel. In the first section, our story picks up where the December 17th devotional left off. The Angel of the Lord continued to engage with Zechariah about the promised prophet that Elizabeth would carry soon. 

We’re told that the child will have the spirit and power of Elijah (which is no small measure). We also learn that the prophet will turn the hearts of parents to their children. This little phrase is often overlooked when considering the larger narrative of Christ’s birth–which is a travesty. From the 50,000 foot perspective, we understand that things are going to change when Christ comes on the scene, but the text tells us that parents would turn to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. 

This parental turning becomes more important in the text when one understands the history of Israel’s calling to train up their children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). From the time God made his covenant with Abraham, the covenant was always made with all of the current generations and all of the future generations yet to come. In this way, the Israelites were given a divinely ordained task to raise their children in their faith. The festivals were developed to help pass on faith to the younger generations. Understanding the journey of the Israelites was essential to their identity as God’s chosen people. 

Like many aspects of Jewish life in the 400 years of silence, the parental efforts toward teaching and training their children in the ways and practices of Judaism had faltered. The loss of Jewish identity began in the home. The angel’s proclamation shouldn’t be taken lightly, as it came with a clear indictment of the failure of parents. When I read this passage, I can’t wonder what God thinks of our efforts to pass on faith to our children. 

Jesse Tree Devotional: December 18

Luke 1:26-56
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

One of the most remarkable calling stories in the Scriptures, Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel stands out as one of the most important passages in Scripture. The Annunciation (as it’s called in many circles) is one of the first signs Israel received that their Messiah was coming into this world. Perhaps, not surprisingly, God chose to use one of the most unexpected vessels to accomplish his will–a teenage girl. Then, this passage ends with the Magnificat–Mary’s song of praise. She responds to God after learning that she would bear the Christ-child. Both parts of this passage (beginning and end) offer two-sides of an important narrative that illuminates God’s majestic plan for the redemption of the world. 

In the middle of this passage, however, we find another important text that communicates so much about the nature of our world and the Holy Spirit’s presence in it. Aptly called the Visitation, the text shares a tender moment between Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, and her cousin Mary, who  is now carrying the Messiah in her womb. When Mary entered the room and greeted her cousin, the baby inside of Elizabeth responded in an unusual way. The baby didn’t just move as would be typical for his gestation, but the little baptist leapt! (I like to imagine him like one of those Irish dancers that only kick their feet around, while the torso remains still). The baby sensed the presence of God incarnate. 

And if that wasn’t enough, the passage continues to tell us that in John the Baptist’s leap,  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. That means that something in the intensity of the joy that the baby felt transferred and spread the presence of the Spirit from John to his mother. Though I would never claim to understand how the Spirit moves, my imagination is piqued  knowing that the joy of the Spirit in John was powerful enough to spread to Elizabeth. How much more might the Spirit spread through us, if we embrace the joy of our salvation?

Jesse Tree Devotional: December 17

Luke 1:1-16
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I, too, decided, as one having a grasp of everything from the start, to write a well-ordered account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may have a firm grasp of the words in which you have been instructed.

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God during his section’s turn of duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is a well known biblical story, yet sometimes it’s overlooked for its theological significance. After Luke’s preamble about why he’s writing these things down, he begins his Gospel with the story of Christ’s birth. Luke, however, doesn’t start with Jesus’ genealogy or a detailed historical depiction of the event of Christ’s birth. Rather, he starts with Zechariah and Elizabeth and their miraculous pregnancy. Not only was Elizabeth past the typical childbearing years of her life, she was also unable to have children, as the text duly notes. Once again we see God using the most unassuming folks to accomplish his will. Just like Abraham and Sarah, a pregnancy seemed impossible. 

Zechariah, a priest from the line of Aaron, Israel’s first priest, was performing his regular duties in the sanctuary, when the Angel of the Lord came with this exciting news. The angel offers the standard greeting “do not be afraid,” and proceeds to proclaim the good news of the birth of Israel’s next prophet who we know as John the Baptist. For those who might have forgotten, these pregnancies–both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s–come at the end of over 400 years of silence, without any prophets, kings, or leaders in the nation of Israel acting as the voice of God. The priests and scribes were the only figures guiding the Jews and many of them had fallen prey to the corruption of the times. 

God was not only preparing to send his Son into the world, but also a prophet to prepare the way for him, and Yahweh had a few operating instructions for Zechariah. He was to name his baby boy, John. As the child grew, he was instructed to keep him from wine and strong drink. Great joy and gladness would come from his birth and he would turn many Jews back to the Lord. Then, something phenomenal happens, Zechariah was told that his baby would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. Let’s pause for a moment and consider the significance of this pronouncement. The baby, who hadn’t been conceived yet, was already promised the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In a period of our history where the Holy Spirit was not given yet to all of humanity, this baby was set apart for a specific purpose. God’s master plan of redemption and love for his people is seen once again in this miracle.