Reflections for Advent

Reflections for Advent

Day 1               The Calling of Abraham

The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;  I will  make your name great, and you will be a blessing… ’ So Abram left, as the Lord had told him;…Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran…to the land of Canaan…    (from Genesis 12. 1-5)

We assume that Abram, as he was originally called, already worshipped the Lord as the one true God although most of his neighbours would worship other gods.  Maybe he had heard God speaking to him before.  But this was something different:  Go…leave behind your old life…I will make you into a great nation… Now Abram had no children to make him into a great nation.  And he was now an old man and his wife Sarai was well past child-bearing age. He reminded God of this.

…Then the word of the Lord came to him, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them…So shall your offspring be.’  Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.   (Genesis 15. 5-6)

Lord God, may I, like Abram, believe… When those around me close their minds to you, live without you, even deny you  – may I believe. May I live and love according to your will for me and cling to you when things appear to be hopeless. ‘Lord, I believe… help me overcome my unbelief.’

Day 2               Abraham – wavering

Now Sarai, Abraham’s wife, had borne him no children.  But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar;  so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children.  Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’  Abram agreed to what Sarai said.  So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai, his wife, took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.  He slept with Hagar and she conceived… (Genesis 16.1-4a)

Sarai had waited long enough.  After ten years of hoping to become pregnant she felt that God was not keeping his promise. (Actually, who can blame her?)  It was an accepted custom at that time for a wife who had not borne children to give a maid servant to her husband in order to continue the family line. So Sarai decided to take matters into her own hands to solve the problem.  Abram must have agreed thinking that maybe this was God’s plan after all.

 ‘When Hagar knew she was pregnant she began to despise her mistress.  Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘ You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering…May the Lord judge between you and me.  ‘Your servant is in your hands,’ Abram said.’ Do with her whatever you think best.’  Then Sarai ill-treated Hagar; so she fled from her.     (Gen.16. 4b-6)

Hagar was persuaded by an angel of the Lord to go back to Sarai and Abram and all seemed well for the time being… Lord, we, too, are sometimes jealous of those who are able to do or have what we long for. Help us to let go of these hateful thoughts and find your compassion in our grieving.

Day 3               Abraham.  The Covenant.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless…’  Abram fell face down and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you:  You will be father of many nations.  No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham…I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you … The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’ (Genesis 17. 1,3-5a,7-8)

The Lord God Almighty is preparing to create a people for his own, with their own land.  Abram, as the founder, or father, is given a new name to mark him as a true servant of God.  As far as God is concerned the promise, or covenant is everlasting – but it depends on the people acknowledging him as the one true God and living in the way he wants them to live.

God also said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai, your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai;  her name will be Sarah.  I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her.(Gen.15-16)

So Abraham now has a new name, is living in a new country which God promises will be his and will finally bear a son by his wife.  God continues with his plan after Sarai has tried to do it her way…

Almighty God, thank you for your patience with us. Your timing is different to our timing; your ways and your thoughts are higher than ours. But –‘Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Day 4               Abraham and Ishmael

…And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael (his son by Hagar) might live under your blessing.’  Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac.  I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.  And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will surely bless him… He will be the father of twelve rulers and I will make him into a great nation.  But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.’ (Genesis 17. 18-21)

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah.and did what he had promised.  Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age…Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.  (Genesis 21. 1-3)

Interestingly, Muslims believe that Ishmael was a prophet and a patriarch of Islam and that Mohammed was a descendant of Ishmael who would establish a great nation…

On the day Isaac was weaned Abraham gave a great feast.  But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, ‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son for he will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’  (from Genesis 21.8-10)

So once again the jealousy of Sarah reared its ugly head.  It had never been God’s plan for her to give Hagar to Abraham.  They had all suffered for it.  But God blessed Ishmael as well as keeping to his original plan.

Lord God Almighty, gracious and compassionate to us in our mistakes, ever seeking to redeem them; we thank you that you carry out your purposes in your time and in your way – but still love us.

Day 5               Abraham and Isaac

Some time later God tested Abraham… ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’  Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey…Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac and he himself carried the fire and the knife.  As the two of them went on together Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, my son,’ Abraham replied.  ‘The fire and the wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’    (Genesis 22. 1-2a, 6-8)

The story is hardly bearable to read. Abraham got as far as binding Isaac and laying him on the altar.  And just as he had lifted his knife to slay his son a voice from heaven came, ‘Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’  (Genesis 22.12) Then Abraham saw a ram, caught by his horns in a thicket.  And he sacrificed the ram instead.

It is hard to believe that God would ask this of anyone. I can only hope that it was a one-off, specifically for Abraham. Perhaps Abraham trusted that God would raise Isaac from the dead since he had promised that he would be the descendant through whom a nation of God’s people would be formed.  And actually, God himself gave his only Son, Jesus, to be a sacrifice – for us.

Almighty God, we can never understand you fully but we do believe that you love each one of us deeply and want only the best for us. Help us to trust you, love you and obey you – with the joy of Jesus in us.

Day 6               Isaac and Jacob

Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren.  The Lord answered his prayer and his wife, Rebekah became pregnant…When the time came for her to give birth there were twin boys in her womb.  The first to come out was red and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this his brother came out with his hand grasping Esau’s heel;  so he was named Jacob… The boys grew up and Esau became a skilful hunter, a man of the open country while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.  Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25. 21, 24-28)

The parents’ favouritism led to the deceit of Jacob in receiving the blessing of his father, Isaac, which was due to the eldest son, Esau.  Once given, it could not be taken back.  This blessing gave Jacob lordship over his older brother and all the household.

Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you:  Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats so that I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it.  Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.’ (from Genesis 27. 6 -10)

So Jacob deceived his father, who was by now blind into giving him the blessing that should have been Esau’s. When Esau heard about this he threatened to kill Jacob; so Jacob fled and journeyed to Rebekah’s brother, Laban, in Haran.

Lord God, you work through us just as we are with all our faults, weaknesses and deceptive ways. Give us grace to be open to you, aware of our sins, and to turn to Jesus always for forgiveness.

Day 7               Jacob

As he was journeying to his uncle’s, Jacob had a dream…

He saw a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching to heaven and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord and he said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.  I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying…I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go…’  When Jacob awoke from his sleep he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it…’  (from Genesis 28. 12-16)

So God continued his covenant through Jacob who had hardly proved a trustworthy character. But after this he was filled with awe and believed in God as perhaps Esau never would. Jacob married both Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel and had twelve sons, who became heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

God appeared to him again and blessed him.  God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob;  your name will be Israel.’  So he named him Israel.  ’…Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. (Genesis 35. 9-10, 37.1)

The descendants of Jacob, sometimes called the children of Israel, left Canaan in a time of drought and famine and went to Egypt to be provided for by their brother Joseph. (Read Genesis 37 -) They were  eventually led back to the land of Canaan by Moses. There they fought God’s cause as inheritors of the land.

Lord God, we thank you for the Patriarchs, the fathers of the Jewish and Christian peoples. And we thank you that we are now your children and you are our Father through Jesus Christ.

Day 8               Isaiah.  God’s calling

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet and with two they were flying.  And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’  At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.  ‘Woe to me,’ I cried, ‘I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’  Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?’

And I said, ‘Here am I.  Send me.’ He said, ‘Go and tell this people…’   (Isaiah 6. 1-9a)

Isaiah actually saw the Lord God in all his greatness, glory and holiness. No one was expected to see the Lord and live. He was filled with an unbearable sense of his own sin – and was ready to die. His sin was not denied; rather it was acknowledged, attended to and burned away. Isaiah was now ready to live for the Lord. He did not know what the Lord wanted of him.  But he was ready to be his voice to the people.

Lord God Almighty, All Holiness, Glory and Love, you take our sin away through your beloved Son; you give us a share of your Holy Spirit; I worship you…  Here am I, Lord.  I am yours.

Day 9               Isaiah.  Message of comfort

But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel:  ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name;  you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned…  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour… you are precious and honoured in my sight and I love you..  Do not be afraid for I am with you;      (from Isaiah 43.)

The words which the Lord God gave to Isaiah for the people were mainly words of judgment and salvation.  Judgment that their sin would result in captivity at the hands of Babylon;  salvation that the Lord would restore them in time and bring them home. In the meantime, he would never leave them. He would always protect them. These words of comfort to the weary captives in Babylon are as relevant to us today as they were then.

When you are troubled, hear God calling you by name. You belong to him. You are precious to him and he loves you. Don’t be afraid that you won’t be able to cope.  Jesus promises to be with us always, through all dangers and difficulties, supporting us, strengthening us, surrounding us with his comfort and love.  He will find a way through for you.  ‘Do not be afraid for I am with you.’

‘Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ Lord, help me to turn to you whenever I am afraid.  Help me to find you and put all my trust in you. 

Day 10             Isaiah. Foretelling the Messiah

He grew up before him like a tender shoot… He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering… Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.   (from Isaiah 53)

Of all the prophets who foretold the coming of a Messiah, or Anointed One, Isaiah had the truest picture of the kind of Messiah that Jesus would be.  The suffering people longed for a glorious king-Messiah who would free them from oppression and make them into a nation that others could see as God’s nation.  But there is no way Isaiah’s prophecy could be interpreted in that way. This was no popular, successful, earthly king-figure. This was one who suffered and was persecuted – for us. We know that we have gone wrong, that he  bore our sin – and has redeemed us in God’s eyes. This is a new way of deliverance from oppression.  A God way.

Dear Lord Jesus, you came from the glory of heaven, from your beloved Father, to suffer and die for us.   The Son of God became a seemingly ordinary man:  A sinless man with divine love and healing power; God-with-us on earth. Our hearts are full of praise.

Day 11             Jeremiah.  A message of warning

Hear the word of the Lord…Reform your ways and your actions and I will let you live in this place…in the land I gave to your forefathers for ever and ever…Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known and then come and stand before me in this temple, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’ – safe to do all these detestable things? The Lord Almighty, who planted you has decreed disaster for you because the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done evil and provoked me to anger by burning incense to Baal. (from Jeremiah 7)

 Jeremiah is renowned for his prophecies of judgment – which fell mainly on deaf ears. The kings and priests were on the whole an idolatrous, corrupt lot and Jeremiah warned them that God would not save them from invasion by the threatening neighbouring powers if they continued to worship other gods and persist in their immoral ways.  He also condemned the false prophets who foretold what the people wanted to hear rather than the truth – which was not what they wanted to hear.  He was met with contempt, ridicule and anger. In order to shut him up – or try to – the authorities persecuted him relentlessly, imprisoned him and even threw him into a deep cistern. But he persisted, drawing courage from his love for God, his love of his country and a deep sense of righteousness.

Lord, we thank you for your warnings when we are being deceitful, unloving, selfish, or influenced by the ‘wrong’ kind of people. Help us never to be so far away from you that we ignore those feelings of unease within or the rebukes of wiser people who care for us. Give us ears to hear and hearts that are open to you.

Day 12             Jeremiah.  More warnings

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘I am the Lord.  I am about to hand this city over to the Babylonians and to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon who will capture it.  The Babylonians who are attacking this city will come in and set it on fire…The people of Israel and Judah have provoked me by all the evil they have done – their kings and officials, their priests and prophets (from Jeremiah 32)

Still the people did not listen because they did not want to hear. Jeremiah suffered terribly.   ‘My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and his holy words.’ (from Jeremiah 23)

The prophecies were fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and took many of the people into exile in Babylon. However, Jeremiah’s prophecies were not all gloom and doom. He actually ‘saw’ far beyond the immediate future to a time of restoration and renewal – of a different kind.

‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God and they will be my people.’

And: ‘The days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch…This is the name by which he will be called,  The Lord Our Righteousness.’ (from Jeremiah 31 and 23)

Lord, give us the courage to speak out against those who do evil yet are admired by many and followed.  Help us to bear unpopularity by focussing on you, your love, your Fatherhood, your righteousness.  Give us the words to say and the way to say them.  Thank you, Jesus, that you are with us and in us.

Day 13             Daniel

Daniel was among those carried away to captivity in Babylon.  Along with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego he was chosen to serve King Nebuchadnezzar who was looking for ‘young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning…and qualified to serve in the king’s palace… To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.’ (from Daniel 1)

It was by interpreting a particularly difficult dream for King Nebuchadnezzar that Daniel gained favour in the king’s eyes and was made ruler over the entire province of Babylon. He never seemed to put a foot wrong and continued to interpret dreams that no one else could interpret, as well as the mysterious ‘writing on the wall,’ always explaining that it was his God who gave him the interpretation. The other administrators became so jealous that they laid a plot against him: They went to the king, now Darius, the Mede, and said, ‘We have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or man during the next thirty days, except to you, O King shall be thrown into the lion’s den…. (Dan. 6.6-8)

Daniel continued to pray faithfully to God, where he could be seen through his window – and was duly thrown into the hungry lions’ den. The next morning, on finding Daniel completely unharmed, the king issued a decree that everyone in the kingdom must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

Lord God, we thank for the inspiration of those who put their whole lives in your hands, who are not afraid of what might happen to them and who are completely open to you. Lord, help us to be more like that…

Day 14             Daniel.  Vision of the Judgment

As I looked, thrones were set in place and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him…  The court was seated and the books were opened… In my vision at night I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days, and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations of every language worshipped him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion … and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.  (from Daniel 7)

This vision of God is as awesome as Isaiah’s first vision.  Daniel had many more dreams and visions of the end of this present age with weird terrifying symbols, far beyond our comprehension. But this one is of the Ascended Christ, coming into his kingdom. Jesus had told the chief priests, after his arrest, ‘You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ (Mark 14.62)   In this vision Daniel sees Christ receiving the authority and sovereign power to become ruler over the whole earth, which has previously been misruled by men.

Jesus, we cannot understand your plan for the world  you created which we have so badly abused. But we are eternally grateful for the personal redemption you have granted us through your Son and we trust you for the redemption of your world.

Day 15             John the Baptist

In the time of Herod, king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah…and his wife Elizabeth.  They had no children… and they were both well on in years.  Once, when Zechariah was serving as priest before God…an angel of the Lord appeared to him…and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah.  Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord…He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth and he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ When Zechariah’s time of service was completed he returned home.  After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant… (from Luke 1.5-24)

John the Baptist had an important place in the advent of the Messiah. He was to get the people ready to receive him, to prepare them for his teaching. Like Sarah, Elizabeth had been unable to have children, which, in those days was seen as a social disgrace and even by some as a mark of God’s disfavour.  How these women must have suffered all through their potential child-bearing years. Far from being disfavoured however, we learn that God has a special plan for Elizabeth, as he had for Sarah.  He intervenes when they are past child-bearing age and enables them to become pregnant – naturally, through their husbands, unlike Mary.  Elizabeth and Zechariah have the joyful task of bringing up a special child of God.

Almighty God, bless all who long to have children but never conceive. May they be fulfilled in other ways that you create specially for them. May all parents see their children as a gift, much loved by you and precious in your sight.

Day 16             Zechariah’s Song – or Prophecy

When John was born his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour born of the house of his servant David… You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’  (Luke 1. 67-69, 76-79)

Many parents will look on their new-born baby as a miracle and will be filled with wonder and a new love as from God.  But to Zechariah, this baby was even more and words came pouring out of his mouth as he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus had not yet been born; that was to happen a few months later. But Zechariah ‘knew’ that he was on his way and furthermore he ‘knew’ that the salvation he would bring was through the forgiveness of the people’s sin, bringing them to a new relationship with God and a new way of living. And his son, John, was born to prepare the people for his coming – the coming of the long-expected Messiah…

Praise to the Lord indeed for giving us a Saviour who lifts us up in the darkness of sin and conflict into the light of his love, forgiveness and peace – and  the joy of his presence with us, eternally.

Day 17             Preparing the way

It is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way – a voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’

And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt round his waist and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ (Mark 1. 2-8)

John must have looked and behaved like the prophet Elijah, with a powerful presence and powerful preaching. So many people flocked to him (though the ‘whole’ countryside and ‘all’ Jerusalem may be a hyperbole) to confess their sins, which is amazing because the children of Abraham – the Jews – would normally consider that only Gentiles needed to confess their sins. But they would know the prophecy of Isaiah too. John’s preaching brought it all together: His baptism was with water for cleansing and repentance while Jesus followed this up with the gift of the Holy Spirit to all those who believed in him.

Father, we thank you for John the Baptist, for his complete dedication and selflessness in preparing people for the ministry of your Son and by making them aware of their sins. Give us that same awareness, that we may know our need of Christ and welcome him into our hearts.

Day 18             John Baptises Jesus

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. But John tried to deter him saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you – and do you come to me?’  Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now;  it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’  Then John consented.  As soon as Jesus was baptised he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ (Matthew 3.13-17)

As John was baptising one after another for cleansing from their sins he was clearly taken aback to be confronted by Jesus, the sinless Son of God, humbly coming to be baptised.  John couldn’t do it at first until Jesus convinced him that it was right. It was his way of being the Messiah, to identify with ordinary people in their sin. Minutes later however he appeared to be anything but ordinary as he was visibly filled with the Holy Spirit. One wonders if only John and Jesus heard the voice. What wonderful, unexpected reassurance for them both.  What a blessing for Jesus from his beloved Father.  Now he was ready to begin his public ministry.  Now John’s work had achieved its climax.

Jesus, we thank you with all our hearts that you did not come into the world just to teach us but to be one with us, to suffer with us, and for us, to bear our sins, to be beside us and within us. As the Father’s love is to you so is your love to us. Jesus, help us to open up to your love, live in it and let it flow out – to those near and far, – especially to those whom we find it hard to like.

Day 19             John’s testimony about Jesus

An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew…They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – well, he is baptising and everyone is going to him.’ To this John replied, ‘A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.  That joy is mine and it is now complete. He must become greater;  I must become less.’   ( John 3.25-30)

John is completely focussed on his vocation, which is to point to Christ. He seeks no glory for himself, no reward save that of knowing that he is carrying out the Lord’s will.  But such a powerful man of God was bound to attract followers who were not so altruistic. In fact, some were jealous of all Jesus’ followers, some of whom would have left John and gone over to Jesus.  But John corrects them.  They have not got his message. He compares himself to the best man at a wedding who is happy when the bridegroom arrives and his job is complete. Now John and his followers must fade from the limelight.  The one to whom John pointed has come and has begun his ministry.

Lord Jesus, we thank you that John wanted only to do your will and to give glory to Jesus, even though he would be left without a mission. Help us to be ready to work in the background, supporting others and living to your glory, not ours.

Day 20             John the Baptist – wavering

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind recover sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’ As John’s disciples were leaving Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: What did you go out to see?… A man dressed in fine clothes?… A prophet? Yes, I tell you and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘ I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’  (from Matthew 11.2-10)

This is surely the saddest part of John the Baptist’s life.  The fiery preacher who had brought hundreds of people to their knees was now languishing in prison.  His mission was over, and deprived of the freedom of his outdoor way of life, cooped up with only his own thoughts for company he seemed to have felt drained of the Holy Spirit and filled with doubts.  Had his mission been in vain?  Was Jesus the actual Messiah?  He certainly was not the judge-like character that John had imagined he would be… Interestingly, Jesus did not go to see John. Instead, he sent the words of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah – into which Jesus fit perfectly.

Jesus, you did not sympathise with John but rather helped him realise the truth about himself and to know that his mission had not been in vain.  Your words would surely heal John from his doubts and depression and help him to regain his faith.

Day 21             The Death of John the Baptist

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Herod wanted to kill John but he was afraid of the people because they considered him a prophet. On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’  The king was distressed but…had John beheaded in the prison….John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it.  Then they went and told Jesus. (from Matthew 14)

John was uncompromising in his ministry The people had to be  cleansed from sin if they were to receive Christ whether they were humble shepherds or powerful kings. Herod had persuaded his brother’s wife to leave her husband and marry himself. This was not only illegal, it was plain wrong and John had no hesitation in telling him so. Perhaps he over-stepped the mark with this unrepentant arrogant king. Herod had not actually planned to kill John.  He was probably a bit drunk, carried away by the girl’s dancing, and did not want to look weak in front of his guests after making such a wild promise on oath. It is a horrible story reflecting human weakness and wickedness in the face of outspoken righteousness and truth.  John was truly a prophet as of the Old Testament pointing to the Saviour of the New Testament.

Lord Jesus Christ, you did not save your followers from death but you gave them courage through the Holy Spirit to be fearless in their preaching. May we so believe in the power of your resurrection that we are not afraid of death, but trust in you.

Day 22             Mary

…God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured.  The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…’ ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’  The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…’ (Luke 1.26-32a, 34-35)

Mary – the young girl chosen by God to be the mother of his Son, holds a special place in the hearts of most Christians.  But what was it about her that God chose her above others?  I would think that God had always intended it from the time of her birth, or even before.  I think what made her so special was that she listened to God, she loved him and gave her life to him.  And she must have had a kind of toughness of character that enabled her to cope with surprises and difficult situations.  After the initial shock of meeting the angel she knew he was from her God.  And from her knowledge of the scriptures she also knew that she was being asked to become the human mother of the long expected Messiah.  If the Lord wanted this of her she wanted it too.  Mary was chosen for her pure love for God and her unwavering obedience to him.

My Lord and my God, I want to love and obey you as Mary did. Forgive me for wanting to control all my life, for fearing the unknown, for being so anxious. May I love you and give my life to you – like Mary.

Day 23             Mary and Elizabeth

The continuation of the angel Gabriel’s message: ‘Even Elizabeth, your relative is going to have a child in her old age and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month…’ ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said.’

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting the baby leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears the baby in my womb leapt for joy.  Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.’ (Luke1.36-45)

We can only assume that life became difficult for Mary after the angel’s visit. Who would believe in an immaculate conception?  Joseph? Her parents? The community? She needed to go away…  The angel had mentioned Elizabeth… The meeting between the two women is so beautiful.  The young girl and the older woman, both miraculously pregnant in different ways, both bearing God’s gifts to the world.  Elizabeth’s joyful affirmation would be wonderful for Mary to hear.  She was believed!  And we mustn’t forget the child in Elizabeth’s womb.  He was so excited that he leapt for joy.  God’s plan to save the world from its sin was on its way…

Lord God, your plan was fraught with difficulties but it seemed that Mary held fast to her faith. Help us to hold on to you when we are troubled and know that you will provide a way through which we may not have thought of ourselves.

Day 24             Mary’s Song – the Magnificat

‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name. He has mercy on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting 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 servant Israel to remember his promises of mercy. The promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children for ever.  (Luke 1. 46-55)

Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, burst out into this song of praise for God.  I imagine her dancing around in her joy and Elizabeth looking on, smiling.  Mary is filled with gratitude and wonder that God has chosen her, an ordinary lowborn girl to be the mother of his Son.  And through this Son, God would overthrow the power structures of this world and exalt those who were humble and knew their need of God.  The words of the prophets would be fulfilled and all nations would be blessed through Abraham and his family as written in the scriptures.

Lord God, you are great indeed and our Father, blessing us with a love too wonderful for words, forgiving us always through your Son, Mary’s child, bringing us to our true selves through your Spirit. Help us to remember that you love everyone whom you created and that we must love them too. Help us to rejoice in you, as Mary did so beautifully.

Day 25             Mary – Anxious Mother

Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.  When he was twelve years old they went up to the Feast according to the custom.  After the Feast was over, while the parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.  Thinking he was in their company they travelled for a day.  Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends.  When they did not find him they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.  After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.  When his parents saw him, they were astonished.  His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this?  Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’  ‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’… (Luke 2.41-50)

As a young child Jesus would be like any other child and Mary may have almost forgotten at times who he was.  But now he was growing up and he was behaving differently…In fact Jesus had felt very much at home in the temple and very close to God.  He knew God as his Father…Suddenly there were so many questions he needed to ask…and time stopped…    Meanwhile – everyone else had set off home and Mary and Joseph realised that he was not with the crowd from Nazareth.  Mary began to panic.  Had she lost him? Had she failed?  The fear and panic all boiled over when there at last they found him, sitting with all the important teachers as if there was no tomorrow.  He even corrected her about who was his father..

Father God, you gave Mary a huge responsibility… She had to learn the painful way how to be the mother of your Son.  Help us to look on our children as your children too, precious, valued, loved by you.

Day 26             Mary and Jesus’ miracle

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee,  Jesus’ mother was there and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine was gone Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’  ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’  Jesus replied.  ‘My time has not yet come,’  His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’…Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’  So they filled them to the brim.  Then he told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.’  They did so and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine…This, the first of his miraculous signs Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee.  He thus revealed his glory and his disciples put their faith in him.  (from John 2.1-11)

It would be very embarrassing and even humiliating for the hosts to have run out of wine and Mary must have felt for them.  Her immediate response was to turn to her son.  One wonders if Jesus had done any miracles at home.  He and Mary must have discussed together his true identity and Mary had complete confidence that he would do something to save the situation.  Jesus seemed reluctant at first.  It was hardly a matter of life and death and it was not yet the time to reveal himself as the Messiah.  Mary seemed to ignore this and Jesus showed the compassion that he always showed when people in trouble turned to him.  He did perform an astonishing miracle which no one knew about except the servants and the disciples.  And it served to convince the disciples that he was someone very special with supernatural powers.

Jesus, you must have thought very carefully about the right way – your Father’s way – of using your power as the Son of God, the Messiah. Mary’s faith in you was caught by the disciples now. Jesus, give us your living, sparkling water of life that we may live in the light of the Holy Spirit.

Day 27             Mary at her Son’s crucifixion  

‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2. 35b) Such were the prophetic words of the old man Simeon as he took the Baby Jesus in his arms at his presentation in the temple and looked straight into his mother’s eyes…

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother there and the disciple whom he loved standing near by he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’  From that time on this disciple took her into his home.  (John 19. 25-27)

Could any mother ever be prepared to stand close to the cruel, slow, tortuous killing of her child?  Such was the loving, committing parenting that God must have known Mary was capable of. Presumably Jesus had told her, as he told his disciples, that he would be put to death – and rise again on the third day.  The disciples had not been able to accept it – But Mary – had Jesus been able to convince her that it was all in God’s plan?  And that he would be resurrected?  My gut feeling is – yes – that she would not understand but would accept what Jesus told her and would be determined to support him to the last. And Jesus, in his agony on the cross, saw her and spoke the tender words that would provide for her care.  Such love, from both Jesus and Mary, surely permeates the sword that pierced her heart.

Mary, mother of Jesus, I hesitate to pray to you, rather than to the Father and the Son, but you allowed the Holy Spirit to conceive God’s Son in your womb and you gave birth to him, brought him up amid bewilderment and faith; You gave him your all. Mary, we thank you for being the mother of Christ, for sharing him with God, for giving him – to us.

Day 28             Christmas

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world… And everyone went to his own town to register.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2. 1-7)

Long ago the prophet Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea, the home town of King David, his ancestor.  And so it happened. It was at least three days’ journey by donkey and walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with Mary nine months pregnant.  Did she panic when she went into labour and could not find anywhere to stay?  Did she wonder if God had forgotten to provide for the birth of his Son?  The story gives no hint of that;  just that she had the baby in some kind of animal outhouse and wrapped him up in cloths that she had either brought with her or that someone gave her.  God had not forgotten.  It was a sign that the world did not welcome its Saviour.  But the angels from heaven rejoiced and sang of the glory of God.  At last God, the Creator of all, would have a people of his own through his Son, Jesus Christ.  His birth was foretold by the prophets, his way prepared by John the Baptist – and he was born and brought up by the young, faithful – tough – virgin Mary.

Father God, we thank you and praise you for Mary, for her obedience, her stamina in rearing your Son who gave her surprises,  joy – and deep suffering. May we, like her, love you so much that we can say ‘May it be to me as you have said.’  Amen.

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