Look Up! (Advent Devotion for December 21)

By now you no doubt have heard about it:  if you look to the southwest night skies this evening just after sunset, you’ll see a heavenly display that no one on earth has viewed since 1226. Scientists call it the Great Conjunction and it reminds us just how relative everything really is.  For though Jupiter and Saturn will still be roughly 460 million miles apart, to observers here on the third rock from the sun it will look like they have snuggled up, separated by only inches, or just one fifth of the moon’s angular diameter.

To be sure, by our way of reckoning eight hundred years itself is a pretty long time.  For in 1226 Genghis Khan was still ruling Mongolia, Francis of Assisi died, and in Paris, workers had just started building a brand-new cathedral known as Notre Dame.  But on the other hand, though the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn line up about every twenty years, the two planets won’t look this close again until 2080.  And if you want to see the conjunction on a Christmas Day itself, you’ll need to figure out how to hang around another eight centuries to 2874.

For many, of course, this Great Conjunction would seem to be an explanation for the Christmas Star referenced in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  The former book, for instance, tells us the Star of Bethlehem appeared unto the shepherds nearby the little town on the night when Jesus was born.  And in turn, Matthew records that some six hundred miles to the east Persian astronomers known as Magi saw the same conjunction and traveled to Israel to find out what it meant.

If that is so, however, scholars have some ‘splaining to do about just exactly when the birth of Jesus took place.  For using the death of Herod the Great as a chronological clue puts the Nativity somewhere between 7 and 3 BC, though many now question when Herod died as well.  And though there were three different times when Saturn and Jupiter got closer in 7 B.C., none of them would have been all that remarkable, and certainly not nearly as dramatic as what will appear overhead tonight.

When you project the night skies backwards, though, astronomers believe that in 2 B.C. there was indeed a conjunction where the planets were so close to one another that they may have looked to those on the earth like a single spot of light.  Yet even that would not be quite the dramatic imagery that much of Christian artwork over the years has depicted, with a divine spotlight shining down on a wooden barn which, given the lack of wood in the area, was probably a cave instead.

In the end, thus, we are left with as many questions as answers.  But if the celestial performance this week causes us to at least wonder a bit about the Bethlehem skies that night, then I say it’s worth it to go out and at least look up a little.  For it’s not the stars that really matter; it’s the One who made them that ought to captivate us.  

The psalmist said it best perhaps: “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” (Psalm 19.1) So should it really surprise anyone that when God put His rescue mission for all of us into effect, landing at Ground Zero in Bethlehem, those same heavens would not explode a little in both anticipation and joy?

Maybe we should do the same.

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Still Standing After All These Years (Advent Devotion for December 18)

It’s the oldest place of Christian worship in the world still in daily use.  Its preservation over the centuries, however, clearly has the Lord’s fingerprints all over it.  For even before a church was erected over the particular cave in Bethlehem where Christians believed Jesus was born, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a pagan temple dedicated to the Greek god Adonis constructed there in 135 AD, hoping to wipe out any lingering association with the memory of Jesus among those who lived in the region.

The irony, though, is that what Hadrian actually did was simply to mark the spot until two centuries later when Helena, the eighty-year old mother of another Roman emperor, Constantine, was able to tear down Hadrian’s shrine and build the first Christian church there while on her spiritual pilgrimage to Palestine.  Enlarging the cave to accommodate more pilgrims, she surrounded it with a church in the shape of an octagon, installing a silver manger and dedicating it on May 31, 339 AD.

Unfortunately, that building was largely destroyed by fire during the Samaritan revolts of the sixth century, and so a new and larger basilica was built over its foundations by yet another emperor, Justinian, in 539.  But when Persians invaded Palestine seventy-five years later, conquering nearby Jerusalem, it looked as though the Church of the Nativity might suffer the same fate as other Christian buildings across the land.

At least according to tradition, however, Justinian’s basilica in Bethlehem avoided destruction because of a singular piece of artwork which had been painted just above the doorway, a depiction of the three Magi wearing the garb of Persian Zoroastrian priests.  For the invading commander is said to have been so moved by that imagery of his own countrymen that he ordered the building be spared.

Other challenges emerged in the years after that, of course.  The entrance to the church was lowered around 1500 to stop looters from simply riding in to conduct their raids, making visitors even today have to stoop to go inside the four-foot “Door of Humility,” perhaps appropriately so.  And the rafters in the roof were damaged by both water leaks and earthquakes, leading an English king, Edward IV, to send English oak and tons of lead in 1482 to rebuild it, until the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets two centuries later, that is.

Likewise, most of the original mosaics, including that of the Magi, have been lost to the ages.  And there have frequently been actual fistfights over which Christians—the church is divided between Armenian, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox believers—have the rights to what parts of the building.  There’s an unwritten system known as the Status Quo, in fact, which stipulates that things must be done as they were always done, including who can even clean what.

But since becoming a World Heritage Site in 2012, restorations agreed upon by all have uncovered not only some of the artwork on the walls, but even the original mosaic floors of Helena’s basilica, visible through trapdoors in the current flooring several feet above.  In short, one way or the other this special place has survived everything for almost eighteen hundred years.

And so too has the Christian story that was born in that cave long ago.  Indeed, neither the friends nor foes of our faith can defeat it, and all the efforts to do so only serve to remind us of that fact.  For as St. John expressed it, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”  

Just ask those Magi who made the trek to find the newborn king of the Jews.  For I rather suspect that they never could have dreamed that a painting showing their garments would protect the church built over the site of His birth centuries later. 

(Special note:  if you’d like to know more about the Church of the Nativity, join us on Sunday, December 20, at five p.m. CST, for a special video visit there led by Bible geographer and scholar, Dr. Jack Beck.  You can log onto the session via our website, christchurchsl.org, or on the Christ Church Sugar Land YouTube channel.) 

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Those Three Little Words (Advent Devotion for December 17)

You have to be at least over thirty to remember him, I suspect.  In many ways, however, he was the undisputed first voice of online life for an entire generation.  Some twenty-seven million times a day, in fact, his buoyant words greeted others every time they logged on, and for a while, I was one of them.  

What I didn’t discover until later on, though, was who that voice actually belonged to, a man from the Midwest whose name was Elwood Edwards.  I also learned that Elwood actually met his wife over the worldwide web in a Christian chat room.  It was as a favor to her, in fact, that he recorded his famous line on a cassette deck in his living room, for which he ended up being paid just two hundred bucks.  And after finding all that out, I felt a more personal connection to him indeed, kind of like knowing your mail carrier, before they stopped coming to your house, that is, and left your letters in a community cubby instead.

When that otherwise disembodied voice on my computer said, “Welcome,” thus, I would generally reply, “Good morning, Elwood.”  And then I would wait for him to tell me what I actually dialed in to find out.  For what I really liked to hear Elwood say, even if it was grammatically incorrect, were those three special words, “You’ve Got Mail!”

And as quirky as it may sound, I’m reminded of that phrase all during this season of the year.  For when the angel of the Lord told the shepherds of Beth Sahour long ago “today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you, and He is Christ the Lord,” that angel was actually just repeating the same basic message which the prophet Isaiah had centuries beforehand proclaimed, “For unto us a child is born, a son is given.”  Or to put it another way, “Welcome—You’ve Got Male!”

It’s a bad play on words, of course.  But I wonder what might happen if some folks had the same level of anticipation and even excitement about receiving that gift of God’s Son as they do about opening their electronic messages each morning.  Oh, I understand that out of the 304.6 billion emails which are sent and received each day around the world it may be easy to overlook the significance of any one of them.  But that particular Word from on High that came two millennia ago was meant to change the world forever, for that Son who was born unto us was no one less than a Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, and even the Prince of Peace.

Like many, of course, I moved on from Elwood years ago, not long after the $164 billion merger of his company, America On-Line, with Time-Warner ended up sending AOL into a tailspin.  But even after breaking off the relationship with Elwood long ago I have to confess that sometimes I still miss his cheery little greeting. 

Elwood also moved on in life and is driving for Uber in Cleveland these days.  But every once in a while, he will surprise his passengers by delivering his trademark line.  Which makes me kind of wonder: what do you suppose might happen if every time someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” we simply replied, “And You’ve Got Male!”  

For in fact, we all do. 

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Up on the Housetop, Ick! Ick! Ick! (Advent Devotion for December 16)

Like a bad remake of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, they showed up suddenly, an ominous line of nine or ten of them just sitting on our fence in the back yard before moving to the ridge of our house.  As menacing as they looked, however, the birds are actually some of the most graceful and harmless of any you will find in this part of the world.

They can sail along on air currents and thermal updrafts as high as 5,000 feet, for instance, folding and opening their flight feathers with aerodynamic precision, slightly swerving from side to side as they unfurl their cambered six-foot wingspans.  And their uncanny sense of smell can lead them to their next lunch or dinner even while soaring high above whatever may be on the roadside or woodlands menu far below.

Likewise, they have neither the interest nor the physical attributes to pose any threat to people, never mind all those old misleading Western movies that portrayed them just waiting for a hapless fellow in the desert to die of thirst before they swooped in.  For they wouldn’t even eat a household pet if it comes to it, much less you or me.  

Indeed, the only real defensive mechanism which they possess is the ability to throw up on you.  Oddly enough, however, it’s their lack of a voice box, limiting them to low hisses and grunts, which makes them seem more creepy, I think.  For if they would just say something, we might not assume the worst of them.  

But then we’ve also assumed that they are buzzards.  The big black birds that bounce from rooftop to rooftop in our area are not buzzards, however, but actually vultures, more akin to storks than hawks. Whether you call them buzzards or vultures, though, the one thing you probably won’t call them is beautiful.  For with their funeral-black feathers and bare-skinned grey heads, the birds that sat on my rooftop are still not exactly heart-warming symbols of the Christmas season.

On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason why two of those black vultures, whom we’ve named Boris and Natasha, seem to come to Christ Church every year to have their offspring in our courtyard.  For they’ve figured out that we’re just as harmless to them as they are to us.  

Perhaps we should rename them Joseph and Mary, thus.  For the parents of Jesus too had to find a safe haven for his birth, in a culture that looked down on them as well.  Likewise, their “migration” from Nazareth to Bethlehem could not have been an easy trip, especially given Mary’s pregnancy.  But just as a sparrow can’t fall to the ground outside the care of God (Matthew 10.29), He took care of that cast-off couple too, leading them to exactly where the prophets of old had said that the Christ would be born.  

Just a FYI, however.  If you happen to hear a rustling on your rooftop in the next few days, you might want to check it out.  It may not actually be St. Nick quite yet.

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Con Carne Christmas (Advent Devotion for December 15)

I have a feeling that they really just didn’t know what to do with the thing after Halloween.  For where do you store a twelve-foot skeleton with menacing eyes that glow at night, crouching like an ancient T-rex just ready to pounce on its next prey?  

Fortunately, with a looming holiday just around the corner, the owners of that lawn attraction had another idea.  So they stuck a Santa cap on the skull, put a stocking in its bony hands, and added a Christmas tree beside it.  Voila!  Happy Holidays!

As creepy as it sounds, however, that still rather stark lawn decoration may indeed remind us of an essential truth about Christmas.  For our seasonal celebrations are not really about Santa, of course, or those winter wonderlands full of sleigh rides and snowfalls, but about the Incarnation, a word that comes from a Latin term quit literally meaning “flesh.” (Think chili con carne, or chili “with meat.”)  

For centuries theologians have used that phrase to refer to the embodiment of God in the person of Christ.  There’s a simpler way to think of it, however.  For it’s said that a little boy, frightened one night by a thunderstorm, called out to his father and asked him to come to his bedroom because he was scared. His father, already nicely settled into his own bed, called back, “It’s okay, buddy.  God is with you in that room right now.  Go back to sleep.”  And after a moment of silence, the boy called out once more, saying simply, “Dad, right now I need someone with skin on!”

And I suspect that most of us could relate to what that boy was saying.  For when we too are frightened or hurt or anxious, we don’t really need a theological concept to comfort us as much as we want someone in person to sit beside us, kiss our boo-boos, and remind us we are not alone in this sometimes-scary world.

Perhaps that’s why when he wished to sum up the Christmas story, the apostle John proclaimed that “the Word became flesh,” and, as Eugene Peterson has so wonderfully expressed it, “moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1.14) For in Jesus we find a God who was both physically real and even touchable, not just a skeletal framework but a fully embodied savior who stands ready to stand with you and me.

What’s more, our calling as Christians is to continue the mission of Christ to show love to those around us, as well, to any and all who may need to see God with some skin on.  For what else could it mean to be the Body of Christ, as the Church is called, but to be the embodiment of all He came to do?  

Forget the turkey, thus.  Chili con carne may be the perfect Christmas food.  I still wonder, however, just what those homeowners are going to do with that twelve-foot statue in their yard when it gets to be Valentine’s Day and even Easter.

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A Shot In the Arm (Advent Devotion for December 14)

He would tell you that it all started when he was five and his parents took him to see Saturn’s rings through a telescope in a local church yard.  For when he got to middle school, he built his own telescope and entered it in a city-wide science fair, winning second place.  His interest in science continued in high school, and then when he went to college, he got his bachelor’s degree in Mathematical Sciences.

That was followed by medical school and residency in Houston and then eventually by a career in pediatric infectious diseases at a medical school in Tennessee—taking care of patients, engaging in research, and teaching.  But God had still another purpose for him which somewhat surprisingly surfaced in an invitation to leave the academy in order to join a pharmaceutical company halfway across the country.  And in that setting, Bill focused his inquisitive mind on how to prevent diseases which particularly affected the most vulnerable among us, children and older adults.

Building on an earlier quest to develop a vaccine to treat respiratory ailments causing wheezing and worse in kids, the good doctor then turned to the thornier question of stopping the spread of numerous health-care institution related infections, and later to preventing an often-deadly form of pneumonia that quite literally impacted millions around the world.

So when the present pandemic began, it was not surprising that Bill and his equally talented team tried to figure out some way to use all that they had already learned in developing a Covid-19 vaccine as well.  And with the recent approval of the vaccine, the two-stage treatment they produced will hopefully begin today to be used not just here in America, but around the world as well.

One could say that it was only a matter of time until science made the breakthrough, of course.  But I suspect that the Creator of all things was involved as well.  For when the Bible says that we are wonderfully and fearfully made, and that God knew us before we were even born, it suggests to me at least that His hand is in all of our lives, gently guiding us into the pathways He may have for us. 

God can not only use the curiosity of a five-year old to inaugurate a lifetime of discovery, for instance, but He can also maneuver a mid-life job change that can put a person in just the right place to be ready for a special task some twenty years after that change.  What’s more, if you really want to be amazed, go figure the odds that half a century later Bill’s college roommate Barney would end up likewise performing a parallel role in developing a coronavirus vaccine at another pharmaceutical company, unbeknownst to either one of them.

On the day that the vaccine was announced, Bill told his team that before that moment they had been inspired by hope but that now they were inspired by reality.  And isn’t that just what Advent is all about as well?  Turning hope into reality?  The promises of the prophets into the miracle in the manger?  For indeed, as Phillips Brooks long ago expressed it in speaking of that little town of Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

This year has been filled with a lot of fears, to be sure.  But thanks to the work of my friend Bill and others who have used the gifts God gave them, there would appear to be some light indeed at the end of the dark tunnel we’ve been in for eight months.  For despite whatever twists and turns our lives may take, there is one thing that we can know for certain even in days like these:  Hope always wins in the end.  

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Deflated Dreams (Advent Devotion for December 11)

The only thing missing is a chalk outline around the figure.  For when daylight comes and the air pumps are turned off, those inflatable Christmas yard decorations rather rapidly look more than just a little sad indeed, almost eliciting a “man down!” response by those who see them.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I have a certain sympathy with those deflated Santas.  For life does have a way of knocking the wind out of you sometimes, and particularly at this point in the year, it’s easy to find our expectations for the season deflated as well.

It’s fairly clear, for instance, that the odds of having a white Christmas in South Texas are unfavorable at best, no matter what any of us may dream.  And it’s pretty rare that anyone gets everything they may have wanted at Christmas.  Likewise, whether grandmother lives “over the river and through the woods,” in another state, or just on the next block over, because of the pandemic, family gatherings may not quite take place this year as they have in times past either.

What’s more, if you’re someone who simply loves to shop, you may have found that more challenging in these days, too.  Even online, in fact, it’s been reported that automatic robot programs have bought up all of the available Play Station Five systems–this year’s hottest gift–doubling the price if you really want to get one.

Then again, the original Christmas may not have been what most folks expected either.  For who could have dreamed that when life was at its darkest the light of God would come to such an insignificant corner of the world, to a people whose hopes had long been almost hopelessly dashed?  And while many may have been looking for the appearance of a mighty messiah who could set all things right, who would have thought He would show up as a baby?

In the end, however, Christmas is not about any of us having things just the way we want or expect them perhaps, but about discovering that the One who knows us best knows exactly what we actually need—the way, the truth, and the life– and is more than ready to give it to us.  

And if, by chance, you’ve been feeling like a deflated Santa these days, maybe that can put the wind back in your sails.

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Hershey Bar Heroes

It was not exactly the kind of “white Christmas” about which crooners like to sing or children like to dream.  For the bitter wind and cold whipped cruelly through the cracks in the walls as the harsh winter weather pushed inside the barracks where a young man sat silently shivering.

For weeks it seemed that he and his companions had been alternately starving and freezing to death in that P.O.W. camp.  What a wonderful surprise it must have been thus when on Christmas Eve the first glimmer of encouragement in a long while for those survivors finally came.  For in recognition of the holiday, their captors allowed them at last to receive the Red Cross boxes which had been sent from home.  And in those boxes there was, among other things, a special treasure—a bar of chocolate candy for each man in the camp.  Only somehow a mistake had been made and in one man’s box, the chocolate bar was not to be found.

Quietly disappointed, the young man went onto sleep.  But later that Christmas Eve, he awoke to find that one of his fellow prisoners had taken his own candy bar and put it upon his friend’s pillow.  Who had done it?  The young man had an idea, but his presumed benefactor would not awaken to any of his fellow prisoner’s whispers.  And when morning came, the giver likewise denied any knowledge of the gift, saying it must have come from St. Nicholas instead.

And indeed, perhaps it did.  For if there truly is a spirit of Christmas it surely is summed up in the message of selfless and anonymous giving to others, a feat at which the legendary ancient bishop Nicholas clearly excelled.  But had you asked him, the good bishop would likewise have told you that he was, in turn, simply following the example of the Wise Men, who left their gifts but not their names when they visited the Christ Child in Bethlehem so long ago.

It’s not too surprising thus that up until he died, the man who had received the gift of a Hershey Bar that night tried to do the same, sending unexpected checks to others in the mail, donating legal services to those who could not afford them, and even sending a candy bar across the country from time to time to his fellow former prisoner who had pretended to know nothing of that Christmas Eve gift long before.

But how do I know all this, some might wonder?  Only by the rarest of God’s grace.  For the particular gift to me from that man in the P.O.W. camp three decades after that winter in captivity was that of an even greater treasure, his youngest daughter who consented to become my wife.

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Near-Sighted Faith (Advent Devotion for December 9)

Growing up, it was easily my favorite out of the myriad of versions of Charles Dicken’s classic novella.  For the 1962 television program was not only the first animated Christmas special ever crafted for that medium, but it featured the perfect cartoon character, an elderly, short-statured retiree with extreme near-sightedness, as the legendary Ebenezer Scrooge.

What really set Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol apart, however, was that it was a musical cartoon with Broadway caliber songs by Julie Styne and Bob Merrill.  And produced before the advent of political correctness and de-Christianization in our culture, there was even unabashed faith in this version, with the Cratchit family singing “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” at their meager holiday table.

The song that always got me the most, however, was one sung by a young Ebenezer Scrooge while a lonely and forgotten schoolboy, as seen during the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past.  For like that ghost, the words were haunting ones indeed:  

“A hand for each hand was planned for the world, why don’t my fingers reach?

Millions of grains of sand in the world, why such a lonely beach?

Where is a voice to answer mine back?  Where are two shoes to click to my clack?

I’m all alone in the world.”

And almost six decades later, I suspect there are a lot of folks today who may feel the same.  For especially in this era of enforced solitude and isolation, it’s easy to feel overlooked by others, made all the worse because the culture keeps telling you that this is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” indeed, the “hap, happiest season of all.”

The message of faith, however, is summed up in the understanding that if there had been no one else in the entire world but you or me that God would still have sent His Son Jesus to come here on our behalf, or to quote the literal words of John 3.16, “to pitch His tent and live among us.”   For though it is immense, God’s love is also intense, and no matter who we may be, it’s meant to be intensely personal.  

The Christmas errand entrusted to all of us who believe therefore is a simple one.  For you don’t have to be a converted miserly money lender to make a difference.  Just find someone feeling left out of all the holiday joy and let them know that no one is ever all alone in this world.  Indeed, it’s doing that, as the Cratchits so cheerfully sang, that can make Christmas “far more glorious than grand.”  

Even if your faith is not exactly blind but just a little near-sighted.

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A Rangifer at Chick Fil-A

They’re not exactly native to this area, preferring the far more frosty mountainous areas that circumscribe the Artic.  So when a full-fledged rangifer tarandus showed up for a promotion at a local fast-food restaurant yesterday, it was worth going out to see, especially since he was joined by none other than a certain red-clad Mr. and Mrs. Claus sitting on a sled on the parking lot.

His handler told me that his name was Prancer and that, just as you might expect, he was one of eight such animals back at the corral which he likewise insisted was at the North Pole, despite the cattle trailer parked nearby.  He similarly said that what we call reindeer are known as caribou elsewhere in the world.  Whatever name they go by, however, they are generally very docile animals, he reassured me, though the antlers would seem capable of more than just ornamentation or even self-defense.

The largest wild herd anyone knows of is halfway around the world from us here in Texas, found in Siberia and numbering somewhere between 400,000 and a million.  That may also help explain why reindeer in Fort Bend County seem a bit out of place.  But then lots of elements of the Christmas story seem a bit out of place as well, don’t they?

Far away from their home in Galilee, for instance, Joseph and Mary ended up ninety miles to the south where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a storage area intended for animals. (Despite the presence of a clearly unbiblical Christmas llama found in many Nativity pageants these days, we can be pretty sure at least that no reindeer were in the manger that night.)

Similarly when the shepherds showed up, they were probably not exactly who the Holy Family expected to see after the birth of their son before they even opened up their guest room for visitors.  And as far as those wise men from the East, well, those guys were at least 500 miles away from where they belonged, unwittingly getting their last set of directions from an often-erratic ruler whom everybody else knew enough to try to avoid.

In short, God seems to have a way of moving folks to unplanned places to meet His eternal purposes, sometimes in the most unexpected manner imaginable.  And as we get closer to Christmas itself, it may well be worth remembering that idea.  For even if you’re not where you thought you might be this year, is it possible that you’re exactly where the Lord would have you?  After all, if reindeer can show up in Fort Bend, what else do you suppose the Lord might do?

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