The real, not so glamorous, Christmas story

 

On a night (or maybe it was day), in Roman occupied ancient Israel, a young, Jewish woman writhed, and cried as the excruciating pains of labor gripped her body and tore her flesh.  And there, where animals in the ancient world feed, a vernix and blood covered baby boy, swaddled in clothes to keep him from dying of exposure, lay while young Mary’s uterus bled.

There, the comfort of God came to Israel.

There, light came to the people’s of the nations. The coastlands.

There, in one small square of the world, while people in Israel lay in beds complaining about having to submit to a Roman census, the King of kings lay in a feeding trough, utterly dependent upon the zeal of God to accomplish, against all odds, the salvation of his people.

There, Mary completed the last stage of labor and expelled the placenta which fed the One who knits the human form together in the womb.  All the while native tribes in the coastlands of the Americas, Africa, China and the islands prayed to the gods they made.  There the God of gods began to make himself known to humanity as like no other.

This God, who would be pleased to work on behalf of those who wait for him, came as a poor infant born in a place for animals.

Today is Christmas Eve.  While my friends gathered at church to hear the real message of Christmas and others shopped for last minute presents I was helping a 100 year old patient get off a bedpan.  Not the least bit glamorous. “It’s not good to live this long,” my patient moaned, writhing from the pain of a fractured hip as I slipped out the urine-filled pan.

We long for something glorious, something bright and beautiful like lights shining in December darkness.  But our lives are full of perverted glory, broken by sin and death.  We ruin the beauty of life with our evils.  And when we live as long as my patient has, we know we weren’t made to live like this.

Earlier this year my sister said something that caught my attention, “We weren’t made to die!  We were made to live!”  It’s the truth.  My patient was expressing what we all feel, sooner or later, death is in our days.  And to live long here means tasting more and more of what we weren’t made for. We rehabilitate 100 year old people with broken hips instead of putting them down like horses as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death in this life, pushing back what we know we weren’t made for.  And that is why the real story of Christmas is so much better than artistic renderings.

The God of the Bible who comes to dwell among us and save us from death’s sting, comes not as a pretty, noble, rich child of royalty.  No he comes poor, rejected, despised, hunted and hated from his humble birth.  He comes in our mess.  He comes to walk through the dark shadow of this living death’s valley.  He comes to absorb death and God’s condemnation of sin in his flesh so that we can have real hope while we sojourn here.

So, while we rip open pretty packages tomorrow, somewhere in the world, maybe in your own life, death is raising it’s stench- babies starve, women are abused, men are enslaved, the poor are oppressed, the rich grow more proud, bitterness destroys marriages, selfishness destroys children, and the old suffer alone.

Jesus came for these.  He came like these.  There is no god like Him!

Listen to me, O coastlands,and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb,from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword;in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow;in his quiver he hid me away.

And now the Lord says,he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has become my strength he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel;I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”

 

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;yet we esteemed him stricken,smitten by God, and afflicted.But he was pierced for our transgressions;he was crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,and with his wounds we are healed.All we like sheep have gone astray;we have turned—every one—to his own way;and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,so he opened not his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief;his soul makes an offering for guilt,he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,make many to be accounted righteous,and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors;yet he bore the sin of many,and makes intercession for the transgressors.

From Isaiah 49, 52, and 53

Isaiah, I believe your report

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(image credit)

Isaiah, I Believe Your Report

by Sheila Dougal

O God of Isaiah!

I believe your report!

You cut me from the Rock.

You planted in me the Word.

You made me your child because you became the Servant.

My transgressions pierced You.

My sins crushed You.

One of your smallest stones yet you laid me.

One of your least fruitful trees yet you planted me.

One minuscule cell of your body yet you formed me.

One of your most-lost sheep yet you sought me.

One of your shameful women yet you call me daughter.

One of your children far off yet you adopted me.

One of your sick from head to toe yet you healed me.

One of your proud and obstinate yet you humbled me.

One of your sold in chains of lust yet you redeemed me.

One of your blind yet you opened my eyes.

One of your deaf yet your voice you made me hear.

One of your dead yet you made me alive.

Your pierced feet are beautiful!

Your scarred hands bear my name!

See and be satisfied!

Your child believes!

Good news! Scandalous, glorious news!

No one has ever published so good a report!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some good things in a hard few days

fullsizeoutput_f4eThe last couple days have been not my better ones.  Probably the best part of them was the hour I spent on the floor smiling and making funny noises with 1 year olds in the church nursery.  It’s the most smiling I’ve done in the last 48 hours.

Some days are hard.  And I get discouraged too easily.

I was thinking today about how I’ve probably read just about every Christian-marriage book on the shelf.  And how one common theme bothers me: they all seem to say if you do what they’re suggesting, your marriage will be great!  I’ve yet to find a book that says, “Even if you do these things for your marriage it may not get better.  But Jesus is worth it.”  Maybe I should write one.

The second best thing that happened in the past 48 hours is my visit at my grandmother’s this afternoon.  Having the recent diagnosis of lung cancer metastasis to her brain and spinal cord, many family members that I haven’t seen since I was a little girl have been coming to visit.  Today I got to see two of my great Aunts: Velma and Sandra, both from Arkansas.  The last time I saw them I was 10.  I remember being at my great grandma’s rock house in Arkansas and the sound of their voices as well as the chocolate gravy with homemade buiscuits great-grandma Emma made us.  Seeing the 33 year older version of them today was a blessing.  Connor and Ryland also got to meet them.  We exchanged mini-life updates and laughs about our families tenacious tendency to be competitive, exaggerate and be loud.  There were four generations in that small apartment and it was good.

Driving home I thought about how the goodness of that family time was just a redeemed taste of what my Creator has always meant for me.  He made me for a family.  His family.  With laugher and roles and helping one another and love.

This verse really struck me in my #IsaiahChristmas reading today:

‘In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made… ‘ Isaiah 17:7-8

One day I will look on the One who made me literally.  But something wonderful has happened in me in that I believe on the One I have never seen. And I find I “look” to him more and more and recognize how stupid I have been when I catch myself looking to the things I’ve made.  As though they could save me.  As though they could help me.  As though they could make me to know love.

Only my Maker can do that.

The difference between submitting to authority and leaning on authority

assyrian-blinding-prisoners
“In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. -Isaiah 10:20.”

I’ve been reading through Isaiah with the #IsaiahChristmas community the past few days.  One thing is really sticking with me: there’s a big difference between submitting to authority and leaning on authority.

In Isaiah 10 God through Isaiah announces his judgements on Assyria, a government and people he used to purify his people.  But now he’s telling his people not to be afraid of them because he’s going to come down on the Assyrians for being so arrogant.  They may have been the tool God used to chastise them, but they weren’t God.  They were a tool in God’s hand.  That is all.  The tool wasn’t going to get away with boasting over the One who designed it.

“Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!” -Isaiah 10:15

The Assyrians were used by God to deal with his people and their idolatrous ways.  He let his people have who they were leaning on: the Assyrians.  They apparently wanted to be like them.  They feared these guys Rezin and Remaliah, because they were powerful.  They seemed to have desired to be like these guys who would put hooks in their captives noses.  They saw all that oppressive power, feared it, and wanted to be like it.  Israel wasn’t satisfied with God’s good, gentle authoritative rule over them.  They wanted the imposing power of the nations they feared.

“Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory. And it will rise over all its channels and go over all its banks…” – Isaiah 8:6-7

God had gentle, good waters for them, but they wanted the powerful, influential rivers of Assyria. So he let them have it.  He let them have what they were leaning on, what they feared, what they trusted to hold them up.  There, propped up under the abusive hand of Assyria they felt the distinct difference between the gentle ways of God with his people and the abusive was of world rulers.  There, God tore down what Israel was leaning on.

And there, weak and few, Israel again began to lean on their good God and no longer on their lust for influence of power.

“In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.” Isaiah 10:20

I so identify with this whole story.  Isaiah testifies to me of my love of men’s praise and desire to be influential with influential people. I lean on men.  This is me naturally.  Sinfully.  But Jesus is in me.  In Isaiah I see how he has dealt with me these 24 years, letting the man I leaned on fall time and time again, so that I would see where my trust was lying and how unreliable man is.

In my case, it’s my marriage.  But it could be the government.  Or a boss.  Or a teacher.  Or anyone or thing that I trust, lean on, to support me and fulfill me. In every case, God will not let his people continue with such a false hope and betraying trust.  He will use the very thing we trust against us to cause us to see how much we’re trusting in it.  And then, if that person, or government of situation abuses it’s position as a tool in God’s hand, God will deal with them.  He is not letting our “functional saviors” fail for our failure.  He’s letting them fail for our good.

In any case, whether it be a marriage, or a political party or government or employer…  God has instructed us to submit to people in positions of leadership- husbands, police officers, governors, presidents, teachers, etc.  But submitting to those people or institutions is not the same as leaning on them.  In fact, submitting to them means they’re leaning on us.  And if we’re leaning on Christ as being God’s own children, then we can endure whatever comes our way through their opposition or difficult personalities or injustices.  We can endure, even resist while we serve and do good, leaning on our good God who will deal with the people in authority.

The coming hope of Israel in Isaiah is our hope also.  Christ is our hope.  And his yoke is light.  We can come under it and suffer and come out risen and perfected and made new. We can rest in God’s good ways.  But if we rest on those in authority, we will be stricken by their failure to be what only God can be.

Just keep reading

1896PaulGauguinTeTamariNoAtuaNativity

(Image credit: Paul Gauguin, Te Tamari No Atua (Nativity),1896)

*Before I begin, you should really go to that image credit link and read about this painting of the Nativity.*

I’m not a Bible scholar. I really enjoy reading and studying the Bible, but I don’t have any formal education in the Bible.  I have had some really good pastors and Bible teachers teach me how to read the Bible for myself and without fail that still small voice of God speaks to me through the words on paper and pixel.

I don’t think I’ve ever read through Isaiah.  Today I read Isaiah 7-9.  Honestly, I had to read it several times and listen to it read to me on my YouVersion app on my phone.  I get stuck on spots like:

In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it… – Isaiah 7:1

Who’s Ahaz?  Who’s Jotham? Who’s Uzziah and Rezin and Pekah and Remaliah?  I want to go investigate (and I probably should) but I can’t let these foreign names stop me from reading.  I need to just keep reading.  And reading.  And reading.  And listening.  And then when something sticks out to me, dwell on it.  So that’s what I did today.  Although I would like to know about Ahaz and all those people with strange names in the first sentence to help me get my brain around what was going on when Isaiah wrote this, I don’t need to know them to hear what God would say to me about himself and his ways in these chapters.

In a little gathering of believers who called themselves Pathway Bible Church I had a pastor who did such a great job of teaching me to stop devotionalizing every scripture to see what I could squeeze out of it for myself, but rather to ask what the passage was teaching me about God and the people in the passage and about his ways in the world.  I’m so thankful for that.  And him.

Seeing God, especially Christ in the scriptures has much greater impact on my life than trying to see myself in the Bible.  The Bible is not about me. It’s about Jesus. Isaiah is not about me.  It’s about Jesus.  Israel is not about America or me, but about God’s people everywhere.  And how God relates to his people, everywhere, is shown in how he relates to Israel.  Now I know there are theological trains of thought about Israel and God and times and such, but what I mean here is, Israel is at least in part a picture of God’s people universal.

In Isaiah, Israel was being told of “God with us” (Immanuel) coming to be the ruler they desperately needed.  The Creator of the Universe says to his sin-laden, man-fearing people, “Stop fearing rulers.  Fear me.  I will come.  And you will stumble and break on my humility. The rule of power is on my shoulders.”

When I read today’s section for the #IsaiahChristmas reading in chapters 7-9, I was struck by a couple things about God and his people both then and now:

  • God’s people need to be told not to fear.  The phrase, “Do not fear,” appears fifty-one times in my ESV Bible.  God tells his people not to fear because they do.  We’re afraid.  And we’re afraid of things that seem reasonable.  This guy Ahaz was afraid of the, “fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.” But despite these guys’ power and anger, God calls his people to trust him.  He tells us his perspective on the fierce anger of those we fear: their just irritating smoke.  And He declares our problem:

If you will not be firm in faith, you will not be firm at all. -Isaiah 7:9b

  • God’s ways are not our ways.  His sign to Israel that he will deal with oppression:  a son born to a virgin who’s name will be Immanuel- God with us.  God won’t simply deal with angry rulers who threaten his people.  He deals with the fear of man that oppresses his people.  Instead of fearing God, they fear people.  And so do we.  God won’t come to be with us the way we want, making us oppressors of the people we fear.  He comes to be a sanctuary for those who trust in him and a stumbling stone to those who don’t.  He breaks apart the chains of the fear of man by his humble coming as a child.  A child who bears the government on his shoulders.  He will make things right.  But he won’t sanctify the oppressive fear of man that keeps his people trapped in sinful cycles of loving men’s praise rather than God’s. He comes not to give us what we want, but to give us a new want, new eyes.  He comes to us in our darkness, shining brilliantly so we can see our real state where our real hope lies. 

And it won’t be Israel’s zeal to pull herself together again to begin another cycle of obedience, idolatry, suffering, crying out, rescue, repeat that will accomplish this freedom and seeing.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. -Isaiah 9:7

 

Waiting on God

Lorenzo Monaco - The Prophet Isaiah - WGA13590

I’ve decided to join the online #IsaiahChristmas community on Twitter, headed up by Tony Reinke, in an Advent reading through the book of Isaiah this year.  Today: Chapter 1 and 2.

Maybe it’s the 24 years of praying.  Maybe it’s the reading of God’s righteous expose of his peoples crooked condition.  Maybe it’s the constant announcement of corruption and evil among leaders and Christians who make excuses for them. Maybe it’s the Case For Christ movie I just watched with my boys.  Maybe it’s spending the day with my grandmother who’s cancer is spreading through her brain. Maybe its the walk down the isle at Walmart for milk past piles and piles of things- sweaters with little Santas and elves on them, gingerbread houses, discounted T.V.’s in even bigger sizes than last year, and every kind of candy bar turned cereal you can imagine. Whatever it is, I feel a particularly weighty sense of longing for Jesus to show up.  Not like in my living room right now, but in my marriage, in my family, in my race of faith.  I’m longing.  Waiting.  Hoping.  Praying for God to visit us.  For his will to be done on earth, even on 183rd avenue in Surprise, Arizona, as it is in heaven.

We’re sick from head to toe, inside and out.  We can’t escape our wickedness.  We are terrible judges.  And even worse saviors.  We love fickle-man’s praise.  We’re blind to our rottenness.  God doesn’t want our prescribed penance or hip, western churchianity.  Our songs mean nothing when our hearts love bribes and gifts from people.  Our prayers come against His rejecting hand when act like we’re all cleaned up when really the blood of our children are on our hands, the price paid for our gain of more things from Walmart.  And in this damnable state Isaiah announces our hope:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.” Isaiah 1:18

Only God can do that.