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Daily Devotional

The Visitation

Today let’s take a moment to engage our imagination as we approach God. We’ve been pondering the themes from Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth this week - blessing, mentoring, encouragement. Today, read over the text and then spend some time reflecting on the image below. It’s from a church in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Don’t rush, but let your mind sink into it, allowing your heart to notice things you might not have before about the interaction between the four people present in this story (Mary, Elizabeth; Jesus and John in utero). What’s striking you most? What can you take encouragement from? How are you motivated to respond? How might you give thanks?

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 leaped 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 favored, 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 leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
- Luke 1:39-45

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Iron Sharpening Iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
- Proverbs 27:17

This week we’ve been reflecting on how Mary went to Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45. Besides Elizabeth blessing Mary, as we’ve seen this week, in many ways Elizabeth essentially served as a mentor to Mary. There’s no question that Mary was encouraged and uplifted by her time with Elizabeth - and, given her challenging circumstances, there’s no doubt Mary needed the encouragement.

The scripture reminds us regularly that we need other people to become better ourselves. We need others to help us grow, even though sometimes that means there are some sparks when our rough edges come out.

This Advent season, as you await the One who is coming again, how might you be a better friend? Perhaps that means allowing someone else to speak a word to you and receiving it without defensiveness. Perhaps it means reaching out to a friend who is struggling. Perhaps it means one of a thousand ways God might shape you or use you to shape others. Are you willing, like Mary and Elizabeth, to go on that journey together?

Who is God speaking to you about today? Pause and pray about that and commit to taking a next step based on what you are discerning.

Aaron's Blessing

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

‘“The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.”’

So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
- Numbers 6:22-27

This is the blessing that is said over City Church at the end of most of our Sunday gatherings. It’s wild to think that it’s 3500 years old!

There’s something about a blessing that is sticky. The Lord says that as they bless others that “they will put my name on the Israelites.” God’s name gets stuck to us as people bless us. It’s like glue. As we bless people, they experience God’s goodness and it stays with them.

Is there someone you could bless with Aaron’s blessing this week? Stop and think about it.

Great Mentor

On Sunday in service we learned about Mary seeking out Elizabeth as a mentor. In our scripture today, we see Moses learning from his father-in-law, Jethro, about how to be a better leader. As you reflect on this passage today, ask yourself if you are open to being mentored by others and if you are willing to allow them to speak into your life to give you healthy and godly direction. What might God be saying to you?

Exodus 18:12-26

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”

Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”

Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.

Do You Have Mentors?

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 leaped 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 favored, 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 leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
- Luke 1:39-45

The scripture does not record God telling Mary that she should go visit Elizabeth. As best as we can tell, Mary just sensed the need to do so. Perhaps part of that was to see the miraculous thing God had done in Elizabeth’s life; perhaps it was for Mary to get a break from the social pressure in her home town; no doubt part of it was to gain some perspective on her own tricky situation (unmarried, pregnant teenager!) from a wise and gracious older woman.

Besides the emotional weight of her situation, Mary, while pregnant, faced the challenge of walking probably twenty miles to see Elizabeth. That’s a lot of effort to seek out someone older and wiser. Often, it seems to take a fair amount of effort to find a mentor. But it was worth it for Mary. Elizabeth deeply blessed her, spoke God’s word over her, and was a safe haven in her challenging life.

Who are the mentors you have in your life? Think of teachers, older family members, neighbors, friends from church - even think of those whose books you’ve read that you’ve never met. Thank God for these people. Search your own heart and at the same time ask God if there’s a need in your life for more mentoring. Talk with God about these things, asking for what you need.

Pondering Mary

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” 
- Luke 1:38

Today as you reflect on this humble, simple response by Mary to God’s crazy, wonderful, dangerous, costly plan, use these two tools to help you think about your response to God this season. The first is a painting by the Haitian artist Ismael Saincilus to ponder (What surprises you in it? What comforts you? What is it saying to you about Mary?); the second is a poem/prayer by an Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann (Pray it quietly to yourself).

In our secret yearnings we wait for your coming, And in our grinding despair we doubt that you will. And in this privileged place we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we and by those who despair more deeply than do we. Look upon your church and its pastors in this season of hope which runs so quickly to fatigue and in this season of yearning which becomes so easily quarrelsome. Give us the grace and the patience to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes, To the edges of our fingertips... Come in your power and come in your weakness in any case come and make all things new. Amen.   - Walter Brueggemann

In our secret yearnings we wait for your coming,
And in our grinding despair we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the patience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
To the edges of our fingertips...
Come in your power and come in your weakness
in any case come and make all things new.
Amen.


-Walter Brueggemann

Outlandish

The angel answered Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
- Luke 1:35-38

The angelic proclamation must have been a lot to take in for Mary. After all, she was probably a teenager, was definitely poor, and was not married. Even to a devout young woman like Mary, this plan must have sounded outlandish. And yet she was open to it. She somehow had come to be able to discern when something really was from God. And she was all in.

What’s the most outlandish thing God has called you to do? How certain were you that it was God calling you to do it? How enthusiastically did you jump into it? What can you learn from Mary’s response?

Big Plans

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, 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 favored! 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 favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
- Luke 1:26-38

God has big plans for Mary.  She is going to conceive and give birth to Jesus, to a king whose reign would never end, a holy one called the Son of God.  All she has to do is allow God to take over her life.

Because it won’t just be the 9 months that her body swells and her belly bumps while the promised one kicks - it will be years and years of  taking care of the child Jesus, cleaning up messes, kissing hurts and teaching him to pray - it will be more confusion, incredible joy, unbelievable grief as she watches and wonders over his adulthood, as he becomes a healer and a teacher and finally heads toward his death.  She can’t know all of that from the beginning. But she must sense, as all parents-to-be do, that life is about to change forever.

Still she says yes to God -  yes to his plans to do something new in her for the sake of the world.  And she invites “the Spirit of God to come upon her - the power of the Most High to overshadow her.”

Where is God trying to do something new in your life this day?  What excites you about that? What gives you pause? What would it take for you to say yes, God, may your plans for me be fulfilled?



God Can Handle Your Emotions

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, 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 favored! 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 favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
Luke 1:26-33

Sometimes the fullness of our emotional lives can disturb us.  Some emotions may seem better or safer to admit than others, even or especially when we’re talking with God.  We may be sure God wants our gratitude, for instance; we may be less willing to share our anger.

Yet Mary’s reaction to Gabriel is full of emotion of all different kinds: she’s greatly troubled, full of wonder, full of questions.  It shows on her face, in her physical responses, and it comes out in her words. And the divine response to Mary is nothing but gentle: “Fear not, Mary - remember who you are - God’s favor rests on you - you are loved.”

What is your emotional landscape this morning, as you think about the different pieces of your life?  What emotions fill you? Could you be courageous like Mary to express them? Would you give God a chance to meet you in the midst of your emotions with gentle love and a comforting “fear not”?



God Choosing Mary, Choosing Us

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, 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 favored! The Lord is with you.” - Luke 1:26-28

Scripture is full of God doing unusual things and plucking unlikely heroes from surprising situations.  In our reading this morning, God sends a messenger, the angel Gabriel, to an insignificant farming village full of simple, unimpressive people to talk to a woman so young, she hasn’t even been married yet.  “Greetings, Mary, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Or as one traditional prayer puts it: “Hail, Mary, full of grace - The Lord is with thee.”

Why is Mary singled out this way?  What makes her so special? Nothing at all, according to the story, except that God says she is. She’s young and inexperienced, not male, probably neither rich nor educated... And God looks at her, in all her ordinariness and social invisibility, and he calls her loved - full of grace.

Writer Anne Lamott confesses, “I do not understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”  What would it mean for God to see you and meet you this morning? Take the next few minutes to imagine, with as much detail as you can, God entering one of the ordinary moments of your day - maybe taking out the trash, filling out paperwork, or changing a diaper - imagine God entering your ordinary life, looking at you, really seeing you, and naming you precious, full of grace.  How would you respond?

Unfortunately, We Meet God in Our Need

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
- Luke 5:31

Unfortunately, we meet God in our need. It would be so much more pleasant if God met us in our successes more than in our failures, but that’s simply not the case. It would be so much easier if God met us more when we’re healthy than when we were sick, but again, that’s simply not the case.

So will you get in touch with your need? Will you get in touch with your sin? Will you get in touch with your sickness? If not, it’s going to be awfully hard to find God today.

“I have come to see legalism,” says Philip Yancey, “in its purist of false purity as an elaborate scheme of grace avoidance. You can know the law by heart without knowing the heart of it.”

Let’s not avoid grace any longer - the Lord is waiting to show it to all who acknowledge their need of it.

Why He Came

Then Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
    he came and set his people free.”
- Luke 1:67-68

Theologians have often remarked on God’s preferential treatment of the poor. That’s because Jesus unambiguously declared the poor blessed and disproportionately spent time with those who were oppressed. Throughout the scriptures, like the one above which we read in service on Sunday, we run into God the Rescuer, God the Redeemer, God the Savior. And as Zechariah’s prayer unfolds, it’s clear he’s not just talking about a personal salvation or being rescued from personal sin. He’s talking about an oppressed nation being delivered from an oppressive nation (reread Luke 1:66-80). And that theme resonates with the rest of scripture from the beginning to the end.

So what do we do that in America in the 21st century, where so many of us have so much privilege? How do we move past denial of these realities and then past the immediate guilt that can fall on us and find a way to join in with what Jesus is doing in the world of the oppressed today? What does it look like to leverage our privilege - whether it’s economic, social, educational, political, racial, etc. - for the sake of those who have been left out? If we don’t start to lean into these questions, Christmas won’t have much meaning besides consuming. “He came to set his people free” is what the prophecy says. So maybe it’s time to use our freedom to do the same.

Pray about these things.

Sunrise Will Break In Upon Us

Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
    God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
    those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
    down the path of peace.
- Luke 1:68-69, The Message

These verses finish out Zechariah’s prayer that we looked at on Sunday morning. This prayer was prayed just months before Jesus was born - the One who was called ‘the Light of the world’.

Read over these verses out loud a couple of times, keeping your mind and heart open to the people God brings to mind for you who may be struggling in darkness, who may be living in the shadow of death, or who may be in need of some guidance towards the path of peace.

As names come to mind, pray God’s favor over them. It’s fine if your name comes to mind as well!



Remembering

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.
- Deuteronomy 15:15

In the passage we looked at Sunday about Zechariah’s prayer (Luke 1:66-80), the first half of it he spent looking backwards. After his extended season of silence - 9 months! - he seemed to come alive to the reality that God had indeed been at work in the world, and in remarkable ways that Zechariah had not noticed before.

Zechariah models for us the sacred art of remembering - of looking back over our lives again with an eye to see what God has done. A dozen times in the book of Deuteronomy (and literally hundreds of times throughout the whole bible) we are commanded to remember. God reminds us because one of the most common problems we have is that we forget. We forget the ways God has come through for us before, we forget to focus on God’s goodness, we forget how much we have to be thankful for, and we forget the things of real value (like love, joy, time with people, worshipping in community, etc.). So the command for us today is to REMEMBER!

Take some time and reflect on the ways God has rescued you, remembering what it was like to feel lost and what it was like to be found. Remember the good times. Remember how you made it through the bad times. And give God thanks and praise today for all God has done for you.

The Wilderness

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.
- Luke 1:80

Just before this passage we read about Zechariah spending 9 months in silence, being unable to speak. By the words of this prayer (Luke 1:66-79) you can tell that Zechariah made the most of his time in quiet - he really heard from the Lord.

Just after his big prayer, the above verse shows up, letting us know that John the Baptist was well acquainted with solitude. He spent a lot of time out in the wilderness, by himself. And soon enough we’ll be reading of his exploits - and all the ways he got close to God while he was alone.

Research has shown that the average person touches their cell phone 2,617 times per day. The average adult in the US watches 5 hours and 4 minutes of TV a day. And that’s not to mention the time we spend on computers or listening to music. None of this technology is inherently bad. But it is loud - it demands our attention, invades our solitude, and breaks our silence.

What would it look like for you to find a bit more solitude and silence in your daily routine? Is there a way you could plan for that each day this week? Ponder that and make a plan as you think about this insight:

We have to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gently healing presence of our Lord.
- Henri Nouwen


Gratitude

Sing to the Lord with grateful praise.
- Psalm 147:7

Today is perhaps the largest shopping day of the year. Of course there’s plenty of good in shopping - buying food to cook, gifts to share, etc. are all necessary and helpful. But many times we shop because we lack contentment, and we look around for something to fill the need in our hearts.

One way to help keep our shopping healthy is to keep in mind gratitude. As the old saint, Thomas Merton writes in his book Thoughts in Solitude:

Gratitude takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder, and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.

Today, spend time giving thanks for God’s goodness, for what you have, for what you don’t have, and for the people in your life.

Give Thanks

I will not die but live,
    and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
The Lord has chastened me severely,
    but he has not given me over to death.
Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord
    through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.
- Psalm 118:17-21

Today is a great day to practice gratitude. What has God done in your life? What has God done in the world? What has God done in the lives of others? Consider some of these ways to be grateful.

  1. Write down a list of ten things you are grateful to God for this week.

  2. Take a walk and concentrate on noticing every bird, every tree, every cloud, thanking God for each of them.

  3. Share with others around the table today what you are grateful for.

  4. Tell three people what you are grateful for about them.

  5. Listen to a song of thanks like Kirk Franklin’s Thank You, Hillsong’s Thank You, or even Kehlani’s Thank You.

Speaking Up

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Proverbs 31:8

In the wake of Zechariah’s silence, Elizabeth found her voice. For those of us accustomed to having a voice, what might it look like for us to work towards a work in which all people had a voice?

Jesus did a lot of speaking up for those who did not have a voice. He blessed the poor, he protected the adulterous woman, he defended the Samaritans when his own disciples wanted to call down lightweight against them.

This Thanksgiving there are inevitably going to be some opportunities to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves. It might be as simple as speaking up for a family member who is not present when someone speaks poorly of them. Or it might be as intense as speaking up when a racist joke is told.

As God today to give you the grace to use your voice to support and protect and bless and speak up for those who are on the margins, those who may not otherwise be heard. And then look for the opportunities that he will no doubt bring you.

Agreeing

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”
- Luke 1:59-62

Elizabeth, as a woman in the first century, had virtually no rights. There is first century documentation that she could literally be divorced for burning Zechariah’s toast. She could not inherit property. Again, as a woman, she was not permitted to be educated. In the relationship, Zechariah had all the privilege.

But even though he had the privilege, Zechariah comes late to the naming party. Sure, he’s probably present - but God had given Zechariah the strange gift of losing his voice for the past 9 months, which enabled Elizabeth to speak first. So for one of the first times, no doubt, Zechariah follows her lead.

And yet, it’s Elizabeth who named her son, and it’s Zechariah who ends up pushing against public pressing in order to agree with her. Elizabeth herself is simple speaking the name that God had said to give to the baby (see Luke 1:12) - so in that sense, Zechariah is simply agreeing with God’s word spoken through Elizabeth.

Often it is very hard for those of us with more privilege, like Zechariah, to agree with those with less privilege, like Elizabeth, even when they are speaking what God had told them to.

How good are you at listening to the story of others, especially those who are different than you or who have less privilege than you? How good are you at hearing the truth spoke by those on the margin?

Is there someone you could take to coffee or beer this week and listen to them? (Or is there a person from your family that you’ll see this week due to Thanksgiving - perhaps seek them out to listen well to them).

She Spoke Up

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and 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 1:57-60

In a world where women didn’t have much of a voice, Elizabeth spoke up. Part of the reason she could find her voice is because God had silenced her husband Zechariah. Notice how there’s more space for people on the margins to speak when those of us accustomed to privilege are quiet.

Today, ponder these two things:

  1. Ask Jesus to help you find your voice and to create enough space for you to start to use it.

  2. Who around you doesn’t seem to have much voice. Is there a way you could become quieter to create more space for them to speak?