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Sunday: Lying in a Feeding Trough

Today’s Reading: Luke 2:8–20

The fullness of time had come. For thousands upon thousands of years, God’s people waited for the coming of the greater son of David, the Messiah-King of Israel. The promised Prince of Peace. And now, their prophets’ wildest, God-wrought dreams finally materialized as angel choirs announced, The King is here! Born this very day.

In the Messiah’s arrival, we marvel at—but expect—an angel of the Lord to proclaim it. We gape at—but expect—a whole army of angels to burst into praise. We might even expect this proclamation to ring through royal halls or in the temple—anywhere other than some obscure field near Bethlehem ... to shepherds.

Their garments’ animal stench, their ignoble social position, and the dirt lodged beneath their fingernails didn’t disqualify these shepherds from receiving the word of the Lord. After all, this good news of great joy was for “all the people” (Luke 2:10) and, we read later, especially for “the poor” (4:18).

And what did the angel say would be the sign of this exceedingly good news? Look for Messiah’s poverty: He’ll be lying in a manger. A feeding trough. He’ll smell like you, blessed shepherds. In humble circumstances. Pushed to the margins. Indeed, “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20).

And blessed are we too when, like the shepherds, we receive this good news and hurry to meet Jesus for ourselves. Isn’t that how we began with Christ? We didn’t understand all he is, all he’s done, and how all of that is meant to radically transform us. We just knew we needed to see him, to meet him. And when we did, how could we keep from proclaiming the good news, “glorifying and praising God,” for all we had heard and seen (v. 20)?

This rhythm—hear the gospel, hurry to meet with Jesus, then proclaim the gospel and praise God—isn’t this also how we continue in the faith? Isn’t this the recipe for worship that fuels our endurance? Isn’t this the soil where hope blooms?

The kingdom of God is filled with stories like these: lowly shepherds become esteemed heralds of salvation; tax collectors and prostitutes become friends of God; the foolish and weak shame the wise and strong. Even our Hope himself—“the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11)—once laid in a feeding trough.

—Quina Aragon

Monday: Joy of Our Desires

Today’s Reading: Luke 2:22–38

It was in the twilight of Simeon’s and Anna’s lives, when most others might have thought the ship of their hopes and dreams had long ago set sail, that God made his most spectacular appearance. It was in that sort of moment, when from a human standpoint all hope seemed lost, that Mary and Joseph gently placed newborn baby Jesus—the Messiah, their hopes and dreams made manifest—into their arms. God is like that. Over and over again, God shows up in history and in our lives, when all bets are off.

Maybe, like Simeon, we’ve joyfully served and adored God our entire lives. And perhaps, too, we’ve sensed God saying that what we are experiencing now is not the end—that there is something more.

It could be that, like the prophet Anna, we’ve spent our whole lives on God’s heels and as close to his people as possible. We’ve been where God is—sacrificing for and loving people—yet we’ve had our share of pain and suffering along the way. Maybe each morning we wake with great expectations, only to be continually disappointed. Perhaps days pass by and nothing changes. Life may even feel like a disappointment. We may question whether or not we really did hear from God.

For Simeon and Anna, on an ordinary day that started off like all others, suddenly everything changed. Mary and Joseph went to the temple to fulfill the Mosaic Law by offering their firstborn son, Jesus, up to God. In that ripe kairos moment, the Holy Spirit nudged Simeon and then Anna in the holy family’s direction. Though each of them was on the brink of death—their sagging skin brandishing age spots, their bodies stooped, their movement slower and more measured—God showed up fresh-faced, as alive as could be, with twinkling eyes and ever-so-soft skin, as a newborn baby. Unpredictable and unexpected indeed.

The witness of Simeon and Anna speaks to us, reminding us that God keeps showing up in our lives, often unexpectedly. He breaks in, bringing unimaginable joy to our ordinary days.

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And not just in this life but also in the life to come—when our hopes and dreams will be ultimately realized in God himself.

So with Simeon and Anna, may we exclaim the sentiment of the great hymn, “Jesu, joy of our desiring!” Our hope and dreams are—and will continually be—made manifest in Christ, now and forevermore.

—Marlena Graves

Tuesday: A Disruptive Joy

Today’s Reading: Matthew 2:1–12

God’s great story of redemption is filled with irony. Even as Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is the promised Messiah by virtue of his Scripture-fulfilling birthplace, he also introduces his Jewish audience to a mysterious group of foreigners: Magi from the East. Look at the Christ child already causing the nations to “rally to him” (Isa. 11:10; 60:1–6)!

This migrant caravan of Gentiles enters the Holy City—the center of Jewish religious life and the residence of Herod, the so-called “king of the Jews”—intending to find and worship the true “king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). The irony here almost provokes laughter, until we notice the chief priests and scribes’ seeming indifference to Christ’s birth. And until we see Herod’s faux worship result in the slaughter of infants.

More than entertaining, the irony is convicting. The Magi’s ambition contrasts starkly with Herod’s. Though both were informed by the Scriptures and both inquired of Christ’s whereabouts, Herod resorted to closed-door schemes to try to eliminate this threat while the Magi simply followed the star to their exceeding joy.

We also see a critical contrast between the Magi’s response of worship and the apparent inaction of the chief priests and scribes. Clearly, proximity to the truth is not enough. Was it embarrassing for these Messiah specialists not to recognize his advent before these pagans did? Why didn’t their theological expertise rouse a readiness in them like we see in the watchful Magi? Was their spiritual responsiveness dulled by a hunger for power and thirst for privilege as they allied themselves with a tyrannical king?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” Scripture tells us (5:6). This is the reality we see embodied by the Gentile Magi. Their joy overflowed into worship when they saw that shining sign of hope rest over the home of Hope himself (see Num. 24:17). They traveled from afar to gladly bend the knee to the “king of the Jews” who, it turns out, is also the “King of the nations” (Rev. 15:2–4).

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The love of God is a scandal—too full to contain, too shocking to predict. It makes Christ-worshipers out of pagans, faith heroes out of foreigners. Are we willing to learn from these unlikely leaders and their generous, humble worship? If we are, perhaps we too will embody a beautiful irony—a disruptive joy, a bright hope, piercing through the darkness of our times.

—Quina Aragon

Wednesday: Christmas Warfare

Today’s Reading: Matthew 2:1–18; 1 John 3:8

Up until this point in the birth narrative of Jesus, it has been all singing and rejoicing. It has been angelic choirs, hurrying shepherds, and wise men seeking to worship him. But here, in Matthew 2:16–18, we have the brutal and blunt reminder of why Jesus came into the world in the first place. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (v. 16).

In this passage, we are faced with a disturbing and stark reality: There are evil and wickedness in this world. There is the terror of sin that rules and reigns in the hearts of men and women. Left to our own devices and under the influence of the Evil One, humans can be given over to murderous lies and to deceit. We see it clearly in Herod’s actions; it couldn’t get any more evil. Right here, in the Nativity story, while we’re still listening to the angels singing, Satan and his minions kill countless numbers of babies.

The frustration of Herod gives way to fury, and he unleashes this unholy rage. We can only imagine the horror that gripped Bethlehem as Herod sent his death squads through, killing baby boys. This is the brutal, monstrous act of a sadistic ruler under the influence of Satan. This atrocity in the Christmas story is a stark and sober reminder to us, in the midst of our singing, that the reason Jesus came is to do battle. There’s a war, and Jesus came to conquer our sin.

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Christmas is not about ribbons and tags. It’s not about packages or boxes or bags. It is about spiritual warfare. First John 3:8 tells us that it is about the Son of God being born to conquer our sin and to destroy the works of the devil.

May we celebrate the peace and beauty of Christmas. May we celebrate as we sing, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come.” But let us also remember this dark event in the Christmas story, because the slaughter of Bethlehem’s babies reminds us of why Jesus was born. Christ came into the world to conquer our sin and to destroy the works of the Evil One.

—Anthony Carter

This article is adapted from a sermon Anthony Carter preached on December 24, 2017. Used by permission.

Thursday: Advent Anew

Today’s Reading: John 1:1–18

The Word—the source of Creation, the true light—entered humanity as a helpless babe born in humble circumstances. From a human perspective, Jesus’ birth is quite shocking. Why didn’t he, the God-man, first appear as a strapping young man flexing his divine muscles with spectacular feats for all to see? Angels could have trumpeted his coming throughout the whole world! But they didn’t; an angel choir lit the night sky for only a few isolated shepherds.

Contrast Jesus’ advent with first-century Roman generals arriving in town with fanfare and flourish after a military victory. They wanted to see and be seen, aiming to impress as they displayed power and demanded homage. Jesus came quietly and unobtrusively, demanding nothing.

Jesus’ mode of arrival, his life among Jewish peasants, and his eventual execution as a criminal certainly seem like a counterintuitive plan for persuading the world that he’s the Messiah. Yet John asserts: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14).

The glory John testifies to doesn’t comport with our human conceptions of glory and power. While the disciples witnessed many miraculous examples of Christ’s power, in John’s gospel the greatest demonstration of Jesus’ glory is the Cross. Jesus himself makes this plain: “‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. ... And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (12:23, 32–33).

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The shocking humility of the manger points us toward the humiliation of the Cross. This is our strange and otherworldly hope: The Word who was born as a helpless infant is the Savior who came to die a criminal’s death—for us. When we receive him, John says, we enter into his light and life.

Sometimes I find myself among Jesus’ followers who still wrestle with questions (e.g., Matt. 28:17; Mark 9:24; John 20:24–29). When I do, I turn back to John 1:14. The disciples had seen and been with Jesus. They’d eaten with him, traveled with him, fished with him, laughed with him, grieved with him—with God, face to face. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus so profoundly transformed them that they were willing to abandon everything to suffer and even die for Jesus. That reality quells my doubts.

I also think about the miracle we celebrate this Christmas Eve: Jesus, the babe in the manger who was “in very nature God” yet “made himself nothing” for us (Phil. 2:6–7). I think of the Christ child who grew up to die and rise again for my sins, offer me true hope, and make all things new. In those moments, Jesus, Faithful and True, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, appears to me afresh (Rev. 19:11; John 14:6). Advent anew.

—Marlena Graves

Friday: The Last Christmas

Today’s Reading: Isaiah 9:6–7; Luke 2:4–7; 1 Peter 1:3–5, 13

Herod and the Devil tried to keep Christmas from coming—because the coming of he who is King of Kings is a frightful thought. But Christmas came anyway. Satan couldn’t stop God’s plans, which have been established forever. He couldn’t stop Christ from being born. He couldn’t stop Jesus from dying on the cross. He couldn’t stop Christ from rising from the dead. He couldn’t stop Christ from building his church. He couldn’t stop Christ from saving you. And Satan can’t stop Christ from getting you home. You place your trust in the King who not only came but will one day come again.

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This Christmas Day, as we celebrate Christ’s birth, we focus on why he came. And we also remember that there is another Christmas coming. The Lord our God is not finished yet.

Despite what the naysayers say, Jesus is coming again. Despite what the doubters doubt, Jesus is coming again. Despite what the skeptics say, Christ will come again. As Scripture tells us, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7, ESV).

Beloved, let us remember: Every Christmas is one Christmas closer to that last Christmas when the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout and with the voices of the angels and the trumpets of God (1 Thess. 4:16). If you think it was loud and glorious when the angels announced his birth to the shepherds, just wait until his Second Advent comes!

For those who do not believe, the coming of Christ will be frightful. But for those who trust in Christ, the Lord’s coming is delightful. We say, “Come, Lord!” Maranatha! (1 Cor. 16:22). Even though we don’t know when or how he will come, we pray, Come Lord Jesus, come.We, your people, are waiting for you. We want to be found faithful. We want to persevere. Come, Lord Jesus.

This Christmas Day, we celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation. We join the shepherds who hurried to see the babe in the manger, glorifying and praising God. We worship with the wise men who knelt before the Christ child. We rejoice in the Good News of grace for which Jesus came, died, and rose again. We live in hope. And we remember that this Christmas is just one more Christmas closer to that glorious last Christmas we await. With everything we’ve got, we sing, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

—Anthony Carter

This article is adapted from a sermon Anthony Carter preached on December 24, 2017. Used by permission.

Image: Photos courtesy of contributors; Quina Aragon photo by Savannah Lauren.

Quina Aragon is an author and spoken word artist. Her children’s books include Love Madeand, forthcoming, Love Gave (February 2021).

Anthony Carter is lead pastor of East Point Church in East Point, Georgia. His books include Running from Mercyand Black and Reformed.

Marlena Graves is a writer and adjunct professor. She is the author of The Way Up Is Downand A Beautiful Disaster.

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