An Angel at the Altar

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William Blake, The Angel Appearing to Zacharias, pen and black ink, tempera, and glue size on canvas; 1799-1800.

an angel at the altar
heaven’s glory shatters earth’s sanctity
a voice indescribable yet understandable
a promise of hope unimaginable
confusion for old Zechariah
“our age – my wife – a baby – God – now?”
his call and God’s response
no utterance or voice now
his silence itself a testimony
that speaks of the ineffable
what has happened
what is happening
the first flutter of life within Elizabeth
gestates a voice of hope for humanity

 


 

I wrote these words after reading and reflecting on Luke 1:5-25 as part of my Advent readings. Zechariah has always struck me as a figure we all could relate to from Scripture. He encounters and angel of the Lord in the Temple, the place of all places that it seems like such a thing should happen. Yet Zechariah is so overwhelmed and confused by the message the angel brings that he doubts it could be possible. Struck dumb until the birth of the child, his silence becomes a message, even as the baby that his wife, Elizabeth, carries in her womb will be “a voice of one crying out,” directing attention to the Messiah. There is so much in here about speaking and silence, hearing and responding, as part of God’s work in relationship to humanity.

Finding Joy: John the Baptist

advent 3 - joy.jpg[This is the devotional I wrote for the third week of Eastbrook Church‘s Advent 2018 devotional. Join in with the daily journey through Advent here.]

“You are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.” (Luke 1:13-14)

“And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” (Luke 2:18)

In the lead up to Jesus’ birth, John the Baptist is one of the most vital characters, promised as a forerunner to the Messiah and a source of many people’s rejoicing. As a preacher before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John preaches to the crowds outside of Jerusalem in rural spaces near the Jordan River. His outfit is eye-catching and his diet is more than a little interesting, but not in the socially acceptable ways: “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). His first recorded words at the start of a sermon were “You brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). If John is trying to live out the part of an outsider prophet, he is doing a good job. But how does that fit with the promise of rejoicing attached to him in the angel Gabriel’s prophetic message to his father, Zechariah?

Sometimes, real joy requires a wake-up call. A study of people who had breakthroughs to greater meaning and joy in their lives, sometimes called “awakening experiences,” showed that these breakthroughs were often triggered by some form of psychological turmoil, such as stress, loss, or bereavement. While the breakthrough was an overwhelmingly positive experience, the pathway to get there was intensely difficult. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Difficulty, even suffering, can serve as a wake-up call to joy.

And so, John the Baptist stands by the Jordan River’s edge, issuing a wake-up call to humanity. He refuses to mince words about what is distracting them from God’s best, whether it be specific sins or the pleasures of life. Even today, John’s words call us out of zombie-like distraction and back to attentive anticipation as we prepare for the joyful wonder of Christmas. All around us the frenzy of activity and acquisition ratchets up higher and higher in this holiday season. But do we hear the grating words of that camel-skin-wearing, locust-eating prophet cutting through the false promises of the sales pitch?

He tells us that there is another way to joy, a way that is found in Jesus the Messiah, who has come and will come again. John the Baptist reminds us that Jesus prayed we “may have the full measure of joy” (John 17:13), and that it is found in Him who is the bringer of “great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10).

Reflect:

  • Have you experienced a “wake-up call” that has led to greater joy in your life? If so, how did God turn it around into something to rejoice over?
  • How specifically has the arrival of Jesus in your life brought you joy? List as many ways as you can.

A Prayer for the third Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

God of timeless grace,
you fill us with joyful expectation.
Make us ready for the message that prepares the way,
that with uprightness of heart and holy joy
we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ,
who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Join in with the daily Advent devotional here.

Finding Hope: Elizabeth

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[This is the devotional I wrote for the second week of Eastbrook Church‘s Advent 2018 devotional. Join in with the daily journey through Advent here.]

“But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old…Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.’” (Luke 1:7, 24-25)

At the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we encounter Zechariah and Elizabeth, an older Jewish couple living during Herod’s reign in Judea. Of the few things we are told about them, Luke mentions that they live righteous lives before God but also that they have no children. Why does Luke tell us this? Certainly, it is at least to help us understand, in the midst of Zechariah fulfilling his priestly duties in the Jerusalem Temple, the significance of the angel Gabriel’s message of an unexpected miracle baby given to them in their later years. Perhaps it is also serves to remind us that righteous people do not always get what they desire. That theme lingers throughout the Bible from the book of Job through the Psalms and into the New Testament. Along with that, it is likely that Luke wants to emphasize how God often reveals Himself in a special way to those who have something missing from their lives. In fact, that is a special theme in the Gospel of Luke: God is close to those who seem on the outside, who carry a wound, or who only have the smallest thread of hope to which they cling.

In the midst of all the grand things God does in Scripture, and in the midst of the story God is writing in the human history, sometimes we may wonder if as human beings we remain too insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Even if we believe in God, we may wonder if we are simply hidden, unnoticed beings before the Divine Majesty.

The story of Elizabeth interrupts that strain of thinking like a hurricane. An angelic messenger blows in from the presence of God to say that hidden prayers have been heard and that God will indeed bring about their fiercest hopes for a child. Not only that, but the wild winds of the message will blow through human history as this miracle baby, John the Baptist, will come in the same untamable power of Elijah the prophet. He will speak words of hope to all people as a forerunner of the promised Messiah. You cannot cage that wind and, as it blows, Elizabeth sees the sails of her life refilled with the billowing winds of hope.

During Advent, Elizabeth’s story reminds us that the coming of Jesus brings hope to us. Jesus brings a “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3) that serves as “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19). As we take the journey of Advent, reminded that God sees us and God enters into our world through Jesus Christ, may the sails of our lives be refilled again with the wild winds of living hope through Christ Jesus.

Reflect:

  • What is an area of your life where you are “clinging to a thread of hope” about what God can do?
  • How do you think you can “feed” the hope God has brought to you to increase your experience of it?

A Prayer for the second Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

God of hope, you call us home from the exile of selfish oppression
to the freedom of justice, the balm of healing, and the joy of sharing.
Make us strong to join you in your holy work,
as friends of strangers and victims,
companions of those whom others shun,
and as the happiness of those whose hearts are broken.
We make our prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Join in with the daily Advent devotional here.

Prophet

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We returned to our “Beginnings” series this weekend at Eastbrook Church after a one-week pause with one of our good friends from the Middle East, Brother Victor. This series takes us through the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel and sets the stage for Jesus’ public appearing and ministry. This message, “Prophet,” looks at Luke 1:57-80 and builds upon the first message of the series, “Promise,” by looking at the birth and calling of John the Baptist.

You can also follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

Also, let me invite you to join in with the weekday reading plan for this series here.

“But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.’” (Luke 1:13)

 

The Miraculous Name of the Prophet (Luke 1:57-63)

They were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” (Luke 1:59-60)

 

The Infectious Joy Surrounding the Prophet (Luke 1:64-66)

All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. (Luke 1:65)

 

 

Fulfilled Promises and the Prophet (Luke 1:67-75)

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
     the oath he swore to our father Abraham. (Luke 1:68-73)

 

The Coming Messiah and the Prophet (Luke 1:76-80)

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him. (Luke 1:76)

Visitation

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I continued the “Beginnings” series this weekend at Eastbrook Church by looking at the moving story of Mary found in Luke 1:26-56. My biggest challenges were addressing a passage that we all know so well while also covering a lot of important passages at once, from the annunciation to the Magnificat.

You can view the message below or follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast. Also, join in with the weekday reading plan for this entire journey through Luke here.

 

An Angel, a Young Woman, and a Child: The King on the Horizon (Luke 1:26-38)

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

 

 

Two Unexpected Mothers and a Bouncing Baby Boy: Blessing on the Horizon (Luke 1:39-45)

 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

 

 

Mary’s Song of Joy to God: Salvation on the Horizon (Luke 1:46-56)

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”