“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.”
5 Read: Luke 1:5-22
It was not by accident that God spoke to Zechariah when he was in the temple praying. Time and Place are always important. God made His will known to Zechariah as he fulfilled his priestly responsibilities. Right in the middle of worship and prayer God moved the plan of salvation one step closer to fulfillment. He brought this old, faithful priest into his confidence. He answered his prayer. God’s will and Zechariah’s plea intersected only to take off in a direction Zechariah never dreamed of.
It is in the thoughtful routine of worship and in the practice of spiritual disciplines that the meaning of Christmas becomes clearer. It is as we pray and sing and wait in quietness that God often speaks. Worship frees us from all the hassles and the clutter and points us in the direction of the Savior.
Like Zechariah we often find God taking us in directions we never expected. The world and the forces of evil are pulling on us as well. Will we listen and obey God?
Prayer: Father help us to quiet ourselves and discipline our restlessness. We need to hear Your Word and rejoice in Your promises. If we cannot center on You we will be pulled in every direction. Teach us to know You, quietly sovereign, Lord of our life. Amen.
“Both of them were upright in the sight of God . . . But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren.”
Read: Luke 1:5-17
From a human perspective the timing looked all wrong. “In the time of Herod king of Judea” was about the worst time we could imagine. But from God’s perspective it was the fullness of time. God does not operate on worldly standard time. Nor does he use the people we might expect. There is no perfect time. There are no perfect people, but that didn’t stop God!
Life often does not turn out the way we expect it should. It certainly didn’t for Elizabeth. She had no children. If we read between the lines we sense a lot of suffering in Elizabeth’s life even though she was good and obedient. The danger faithful people face, especially older Christians, is believing that life is nothing more than a mixed bag of good and evil. We need to learn what Elizabeth did; that in one way or another God does overcome the barrenness of life when we trust Him and are faithful to Him.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, teach us to trust you in the middle of our disappointments. Sometimes we are frustrated that You do not work the way we expect you should. We keep looking for a blessing that doesn’t come. Lord enable us to accept both the strain and the promise of faithfulness. We are Your children and we look forward to Your inheritance Amen.
“Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”
Read: Matthew 1:1-17
As we read through the family history of Jesus we recognize some well known Bible characters: Abraham, Ruth, David, and Solomon. There are also quite a few names we can’t pronounce let alone remember. There are heroes of the faith listed side by side with evil characters who cared nothing for God’s plan of salvation. It’s a miracle that the line of faith and promise extends to Joseph and Mary.
Through it all God’s redemptive history prevails. If we are believers our names are added to the list. We are part of Jesus’ family. As we look at our family history we can thank God that His Salvation reaches us. God brings us through the confusion, the immoralities, the deaths and births, the sorrows and blessings, to Himself.
Prayer: We worship You, Lord God, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. We know that all things do work together for good for those who love You and are called according to your purpose. We praise you for your faithfulness and patience. Help us to persevere and stick to your purposes. Amen
Read: Micah 5:2
Time and Place are important to God and man. God’s prophecy seeks fulfillment in the territory of space and time. The Bible is not an ingenious literary invention created to give shape to the human imagination. The Bible is biographical, historical, and descriptive. It is inspired commentary on God’s interaction with mankind.
Bethlehem is just as real as Kansas City or Chicago or Des Moines. The birth of Christ took place in a relatively small and insignificant village. But it happened. It’s not a fairy tale staged in never, never land. In the fullness of time God entered our world and His creation. The Incarnate One was born in a little Palestinian village. The Savior of the world did not need the world’s power or publicity to make an impact. The angelic host was real, not ornamental. They praised God with real music heard by ordinary shepherds. The characters from Mary to Herod are not actors in a performance but people like you and me living in the real world.
Prayer: Father God, help us to appreciate what is real and what is important. We know you didn’t come to impress but to save. We accept your rule in our lives right where we live. We acknowledge that you are King of kings and Lord of lords in the place where you have put us. May the reality of Christ’s presence be felt in our community, in our homes, as it was in Bethlehem. Amen.
Read: Galatians 3:26-4:7
History is much more than a collection of random facts and a chain reaction of events. History is shaped by God. Who we are depends on a relationship with a real life historical person, Christ Jesus. Because of the salvation Christ offers, we are no longer slaves to sin. The Lord of history has made a way for our salvation. God, in Christ, entered into human life fully so that we might fully know our Heavenly Father.
Our thoughtful, Biblical celebration of Christmas helps us understand the substance of personal life. As we consider the grand scale of history we find our attention on a single subject, Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ, our ordinary lives lack purpose. If we don’t see ourselves as image-bearers of God, what defines our self worth? Without the Lord of history the confusion, frustration, and burdens of life penetrate and shape our self-understanding. Christmas is a reminder of what counts in life. It is a time of spiritual renewal when we re-examine the meaning and the practice of our faith in Christ.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son to make us your children. Thank you for freeing us from sin and slavery and bringing us into your family. With the Spirit of your Son in our hearts we call you our Father, Amen.
Doug Webster is my friend and mentor and in the late 1980’s I had the privilege of serving as Administrative Pastor at Evangelical Community Church (ECC) in Bloomington, Indiana during his tenure as Senior Pastor. These devotionals were originally prepared for ECC and Doug has graciously allowed me to revise and post them. Doug is now Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
Read: Luke 2:39-40
God’s great work is hidden within the normal routine of life. If this was true of Jesus it is certainly true of us. There are ancient fairy-tale-like stories of what Jesus was like as a boy. In make-believe fashion they describe a precocious character who resorted to magic whenever it struck his fancy. Those who wrote and believed such stories are like Christians today who fantasize, sensationalize and spiritualize every aspect of life. They live in a spiritual disney-land of their own making. God lives and works in the real world. We should not forget that Jesus grew up in Nazareth.
Christian service makes sense. Real faith in God does not need promotional gimmicks or publicity. Authentic Christianity understands humble service, inner strength, quiet resolve, disciplined growth and the sacrifice of praise. Joy characterizes the life of the Christian who does not live from hype to hype but from grace to grace. It is in the routine of life with all of its tensions and tedium that we witness to the glorious grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, give us patience and endurance to serve You faithfully in our Nazareth. Help us to grow and become strong in You and in Your love. We want to be filled with Your wisdom. May Your grace be upon us. Amen.
Read: Matthew 2:13-18
The Bible reports an atrocity. The Bethlehem massacre of innocent children burdens the Christmas story with pain. The good news of great joy becomes a loud wail from young mothers in Bethlehem. Historians estimate the number of actual victims to be around twenty-five. Bethlehem was a small town of perhaps two thousand inhabitants. There may have been fifty children under two years old only half of whom were boys. But who can estimate the pain and sorrow of one mother whose son was ripped from her arms and murdered?
Joseph and Mary were forewarned. They fled for Egypt. Other families were unaware of the pending doom. Suddenly a pounding on the door in the predawn hours and screams in the village meant terror and horror. This Bible reading does not encourage a devotional feeling and does not answer all of our questions. If we are at all sensitive we are left in pain. We cry out “Why! Why did you have to let this happen God!” And the only answer we are given is Jesus. He is already heading toward the cross. Evil must be overcome.
Prayer: Save us, Lord, from thinking that the Christian faith is anything but a life and death struggle. The power of evil threatens to overwhelm us. We know that ultimate victory is secure. You have conquered sin and death through the sacrifice of the cross and the power of the resurrection. But we struggle amidst atrocities of all kinds waiting for Your redemption. Amen.
Read: Matthew 2:1-12
Who would have thought that on the night that shepherds were startled by an angelic host, a group of sages, probably from Babylonia, were excitedly sighting a star. With their Ph.D’s in astrology and a keen sense of Jewish culture (Numbers 24:17) they examined the skies nightly in search of heaven and earth’s mysteries. Indeed, God’s grace connects with people in unusual ways.
This entourage of Eastern sages made their way to Jerusalem in the hope that they could link their astrological find with an historical person. They came prepared to pay homage to the new king of Israel. The masses of people in Jerusalem were apathetic, or as in the case of Herod, hostile to such a search for meaning.
From beginning to end the whole account of the magi and their homage to Jesus is extraordinary. Their insight and openness puts to shame those who should have known. They are a sign to us, as they were to Matthew, that Jesus is more than a Jewish King. He is the Savior of the world.
Prayer: O Father, You are sovereign over all the world. In You there is no East or West; no third world or first world; no closed country or open country. Your grace knows no limitations. We worship You, Lord of the Universe, Hope of the world. How Your creation cries out for release! Amen.
Read: Luke 2:36-38
God’s timing through-out the biblical account of Christ’s birth is exceptional. From Zechariah to Anna the human drama is conducted by the Holy Spirit. Worship and wonder, understanding and assurance, comfort and confirmation pulsate through the human soul in rhythm with the will of God. Simeon’s downbeat is answered in Anna’s joyful note of praise and gratitude. It’s as if Annas whole life, her eighty-four years of life, has been waiting for this moment. The reward for years of spiritual discipline, worshiping night and day, fasting and praying, has been fulfilled.
Life cannot be measured primarily by getting things done. The value of Anna’s life is not calculated by totaling up the number of her grandchildren or the value of her estate. Efficiency was not a priority for Anna. She was not worn down by years of rushing here and there, putting in appearances, meeting everyone’s demands. At eighty-four she could still praise God and witness “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Prayer: Father, make us sensitive to the rhythm and pattern of holy living. Give us the discipline to center on Christ and the wisdom to measure our value by our devotion to You. Thank you for the example of Anna and the testimony of enduring praise. Amen.
Read: Luke 2:21-35
The words of Simeon to Mary and Joseph reveal an important truth about the Christian life. Simeon suffers no illusion about the pain involved in following Christ. His words are far from polite or perfunctory. The silent night of peace and tranquility will be followed by the dark night of the soul. The path of this child leads to the cross. If you center your life in Jesus it will not be easy; “A sword will pierce your own soul.”
Simeon prepares us for the inevitable conflict between Christ and the world. Christ will be spoken against. Pharisees will curse him. Herod and Pilate will condemn him. People will turn away in mocking unbelief. Judas will betray him and a common criminal will scorn him. What was said to Mary and Joseph is true for us as well. Jesus continues to be a rock of offense even to those who call themselves Christians. There is no gospel of health and wealth in Jesus. Simeon would have no patience with the “take life easy, eat, drink and be merry” kind of Christian.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for Simeon’s up-front spiritual direction. Prepare us for the heartache involved in following You when those we love continue to reject You. May our devotion to You be honest and open enough that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Amen.