Monthly Archives: December 2012

Pondering the Incarnation

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak at our church’s annual Ladies’ Christmas Banquet. It was encouraging and helpful to spend most of November thinking intentionally about Christ’s birth and what it means.

Here are the thoughts that I shared that night:

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My husband and I welcomed our first child into our family this spring, a little girl named Ashley Joy. Being parents has been a delight to us; it’s amazing to see even now how this little person, who is part of each of us, reflects our traits, features, and personalities. If you’ve met her, you know that she is a carbon copy of her daddy! They even share mannerisms, even though she’s only 8 months old.

In the early days and weeks after Ashley was born, I found myself doing a lot of thinking. Those late night, middle of the night, and early morning wakings and feedings provided the perfect time to process what it meant that we had a daughter. Here she was, the little girl we had waited and prayed for, in my arms. Would I mess her up? How would I respond if something happened to her? Could I love her enough? Would she ever go to sleep? Was she still breathing? How could I teach her to be a responsible person? How could I teach her to love God?

Many nights, in between moments spent wondering if I was up to the task of raising a little girl or calculating how many minutes of sleep I might get before she woke up again, my thoughts would drift to thinking about Mary and baby Jesus, and I would pester Mark the next morning with somewhat silly questions: Do you think Jesus ever had an ear infection? Do you think he ever cried all night? Do you think Mary was ever as overwhelmed as I am? But there were the more serious thoughts too: Did Mary comprehend exactly who her little boy was? Did she understand the prophesies that explained the grief and suffering he would bear?

When the ladies asked me to share with you tonight, I returned to those nighttime thoughts. As I read about Mary’s experience in the Bible, I was reminded that I wasn’t the only mom who mulled over thoughts like these in her head and heart during those early days of a child’s life.

In fact, the Bible tells us that Mary herself spent time contemplating and pondering the birth of her son. Right after his birth, in the midst of visits from shepherds, angels singing, and a star appearing, Luke tells us that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  At the end of the chapter, recounting an experience when Jesus was about 12, Luke reminds us that “Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. “

I find it notable that Luke repeats himself twice in such a short text, telling us that Mary treasured and pondered the events of Jesus’ birth and childhood. The time that elapses between these two instances tells us that this wasn’t a one-time fleeting thought for her. Instead, it seems to me that this was an ongoing state, that Mary was reflecting often over the years on the events she experienced and what they must mean. As she watched her son grow, she must have been continually in amazement about what God was doing in her family.

Isn’t that the way it is with us too? My late night ponderings about Ashley may have shifted to more normal waking hours, but I still look at her in wonder and amazement as she grows and learns new things.

In the next few minutes, I want to invite you to consider with me what Mary pondered and why it’s important. Let’s consider the story of Jesus’ birth through her eyes and find out what was so important that she devoted years to considering.

Mary’s Son

The Bible tells us in several places about the early days of Jesus’ life. Luke wrote his account of Jesus’ life based in part on interviews with the individuals who witnessed it firsthand. It’s likely that Mary was one of those eyewitnesses, and that she is recounting what she experienced.

When we first meet Mary, she’s probably a young teenager, betrothed to be married. It’s a period similar to our engagement, but is legally binding and can only be ended with a divorce. She lives in a Jewish society and was careful to follow God’s commands.

One day, an angel appears to her and tells her some startling news: She has been favored by God, He is with her, and she is going to give birth to a baby.

If we stop right there and put ourselves in Mary’s shoes, what must be going through her mind? First, an angel is appearing to her and talking to her. He’s telling her that she is highly favored by God Almighty. Luke in fact tells us what Mary is thinking: “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”

Her reaction is a natural one: Throughout the Old Testament, we see God using angels to communicate with his people, and Mary would likely have been familiar with those stories, but this was by no means a common occurrence. If you take a moment and imagine that an angel appeared to you and said, well, anything, we might get an idea of what Mary must have been thinking and feeling. We would have been shaking, confused, perhaps scared, and most of all just wanting to understand, all of the same emotions that Mary recounts to Luke.

Having been given so much to process, is it any wonder that Mary reached out for the most practical objection, the thing that is perhaps easiest to get her mind around? She’s a virgin. Biology says that she can’t have a baby!

But her objection doesn’t have it’s intended effect. The angel repeats his announcement, that she will have a child, and addressing her objection. He tells her that the Holy Spirit will cause her to conceive and she will be the mother. Again, if this happened to you or me, we would scoff, discredit what being said, perhaps argue, or even go see a doctor! Luke tells us that Mary does none of these things though.

In a great act of faith, based on her understanding of who God is, Mary accepts what the angel says to her! Luke tells us that she replied to the angel: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

This is an amazing response! Firstly, in the culture of the time, adultery was a serious offense. To have a baby before she and Joseph were married put her marriage at risk, as well as her reputation. In fact, we read elsewhere in the Gospels that “her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Who would believe her if she told them what had happened?

God in his kindness, though, doesn’t leave her in disgrace. Instead, an angel appeared to Joseph as well and told him that what Mary had said was true. Think of what this means for us. Does God ever ask us to do something and not provide the means for us to do that? Mary’s faith in God’s word and her obedience to his commands is a model that we should imitate. I imagine that God’s care for her was also a source of great comfort to her in the trials we know she experienced later in her life. Without a doubt, this love that God showed her must have been part of her ponderings and treasures as the years went on.

God’s son

Mary’s acceptance of the angel’s news in faith is remarkable for one more reason: The angel tells Mary that, not only is she going to have a son, that baby will be named Jesus; he will be great; he will inherit King David’s throne; and his kingdom will never end. He will be a Savior for his people. He will in fact be the Son of God, the Son of the Most High!

Mary’s mind must have gone to the Scriptures that she knew, of the prophesies of a Messiah that had been made hundreds of years before. For years, God had promised his people a deliverer, a Messiah, a forever king. He promised that he would provide a way to deal with their sin, to restore them to a right relationship with God. As Mary thought about these promises, I wonder if the pronouncement in Isaiah suddenly made more sense to her:  “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,and will call him Immanuel.”

Mary would have known that the name Immanuel means: God with us. She would have understood, at least in part that her son would be the fulfillment of all the promises that God had made.

As she thought about those promises, I wonder if she was amazed and in awe of the length to which God was going to keep his promises. We read elsewhere in the Bible that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, —all things were created through him and for him…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

Mary knew that God told the patriarch Moses that no one could see God and live…and here was an angel telling her that she would raise a baby who was the image of God, in whom all of God’s fullness dwelled. Her son, Jesus, would take on flesh, would become a man so that she and the whole world could know God.

How does Mary respond to this news? Again, you or I might be tempted to pull out all sorts of reasons that this wasn’t possible. We would keep the angel for hours trying to understand every last detail. But, Mary doesn’t so this. She accepts it, putting her trust in God that he can bring all things about.

As the news has time to sink in, she sings a song of praise to God, reflecting her joy and amazement at what God is doing in and through her. She sings:

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

What rich truths for her to consider in the days and years to come: The fullness of God, dwelling in her son. God with us. Immanuel. God, taking on the body and characteristics of a man in order to fulfill his promises. Centuries of anticipation and eagerness about to be brought to completion through her son.

Mary’s Savior

If you’re here tonight and you’re not a Christian, I wonder how this all sounds to you. Is the idea of a baby being both human and God a foreign idea to you? Something that sounds like it’s out of a fantasy novel or Greek mythology? Why would God empty himself to take on the lowliest of human forms–a baby, incapable of speech, of walking, of caring for himself?

Why did God even need to become a man? Because we desperately needed him to.

We can’t understand Jesus birth, Christmas, apart from understanding the whole storyline of the Bible, really the whole story of mankind.  The Christmas story, Jesus birth, is a high point, a turning point, in all of history.

You see, the Bible tells us that God is a holy and perfect God. There is nothing higher, better, or more perfect than him. He has created all things and rules over all things.

The Bible tells us about ourselves too: Men and women are created in the image of God and are made to worship him, to have a relationship with him. Left on our own, though, we’re not interested in God…we would rather worship and serve ourselves. From Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to you and me today, we rebel against God. Even if we are “good people,” we still fall short of the perfect standard that God has.

Not sure about this? Consider with me my little girl Ashley or any other little child you know: Have I set out, as her mother, to teach her how to disobey, to throw a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get her way, to say NO? Of course not! But if you’ve spent time with any child, you know that these things happen. It’s almost like children learn to do these things naturally…and in a way, they do!

The Bible tells us that our very nature is corrupt; that the minute we’re born, we have a sinful heart, a sinful disposition. We are incapable of pleasing God. Because he is pure and holy, he has to condemn sin in order to be true to himself.

So, is that it? Are we condemned to a life of sin, evil, and pursuing ourselves? Are we to be forever separated from God because we can’t meet his standard? Is a relationship with God forever out of our grasp.

Thanks be to God- NO! The Bible tells us “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. “

This is the very crux of what Mary pondered: God sent a child- His son- HER son- to take the punishment that Mary and you and I and baby Ashley deserve.  The Bible tells us that while we were still God’s enemies, while we were still rejecting his laws and his truth, God made a way for us to be restored to himself. That way came to earth in the form of a tiny baby, the very image of God, the savior of the world.

Jesus was born and lived a perfect, sinless life. Unlike you or I, Ashley, or your children, Jesus never lied, disobeyed his parents, or broke any of God’s other laws. And yet, one dark day, Jesus went to the cross in order to take the punishment that you and I deserved. Three days later, he rose from the dead, conquering death and sin. Because of his death, burial, and resurrection, God’s wrath against sin has been satisfied; our sins can be forgiven; there is now a mediator between God and man to restore us to the relationship for which we were created. Even more, God adopts us into his family, calls us his sons and daughters, and gives us an inheritance of eternal life.

The hymnwriter writes: “Because the sinless Savior” –Jesus Christ, who was born fully God and fully man– because He died, “my sinful soul is counted free! For God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me.”

This, this is the story of Christmas. Amidst stories of mangers, shepherds, wise men, and angels, or Santa Claus and reindeer, this is what we need to know about Christmas: Jesus Christ, God’s son, came to the earth to take my punishment and yours, to make us God’s children.

Is it any wonder that Mary spent years thinking about these things?  And yet, we know that Mary did more than think;  She realized that she had a decision to make: She needed to turn from her sins and put her trust in God. She responded in faith to the invitation that her Son offered…that she could be reconciled to God, that her sins could be forgiven. Out of all of her precious memories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, this was her treasure: the Son to whom she gave physical life was her path to eternal life.

Jesus offers an amazing gift–forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation with God– to all who turn from their sins and put their faith in Him.  The Bible tells us that if you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord and confess with your mouth that God raised him from the dead, you too will find the treasure that Mary found.

Will you remain separated from God by your sin for yet another Christmas season? Or will you accept this gift and be adopted as God’s daughter?  I encourage you to talk to the friend who brought you tonight or another Christian to find out more about this great gift.

If you’re here and you are a Christian, have you thought recently of what God has done for you? In the midst of a busy Christmas season, have you let your heart be encouraged by all that is ours in Christ Jesus? Take time in the next days and weeks to turn the Christmas story over in your mind and take new joy in all that this season means for us.

Conclusion

Mary had a great many things to think about: a few minutes with an angel had changed her life forever. She pondered all of these things and treasured them in her heart. This Christmas season, may our hearts and minds be filled with the wonder of what God has done for us. May we understand this great gift that God has to offer for us. And let us respond to his love and make this baby Jesus our Lord and Savior.

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Daunted

Do you ever have something you want to do that makes you feel so overwhelmed you can’t breath and it feels like your chest will collapse?

I do.

I told Mark I would make a treat for his office this week, and in a moment of “raspberry fields,” I thought homemade cinnamon rolls would be fun. How hard could it be? I would make some Artisan bread in 5 minutes then throw them together.

Wrong. Do you know how complicated making dough for cinnamon rolls can be? No? Let me tell you. First, most normal recipes want you to scald milk, use whole milk, use a ton of butter/eggs, etc. Then there’s the frosting. Maple, orange, coffee? What happened to just melted butter!?!

My next thought was, how about using the (sorely neglected) bread machine? Those recipes wants funky ingredients (no I don’t keep powdered milk on hand!)

Now, I’ve wasted 2 hours trying to find a recipe to make these things. And have triggered a panic reaction in my body. all so I can make adequate cinnamon rolls.

ok, final attempt: I’m going to make the artisan bread challah bread and hope for the best (and stop reading 3 page recipes for things like this!!). But first I’m going to try to finish something on my to-do list before the little one wakes up.

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8 months!

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