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The Long Road to Bethlehem

 

Practical Daily Advent Readings & Reflections on Three Events that Prefigure the Coming Christ

By John Rallison

Welcome to Advent!

First – I know we are all busy, so I have written this set of Advent scriptures and reflections with the intent that it take no more than a few minutes per day. Sundays will take a little longer because there is an introduction to each week that reviews the Bible story for the week.

The season of Advent is the beginning of the church year. The church year (in summary) goes like this:

The Time of Christmas

  • Advent – Preparing for the Savior’s birth. This time “includes” everything leading up to the birth of Christ. Daily devotions are often used during Advent as spiritual preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. Advent (and Lent) are designed as “fasting” times before the great feasts of the Christian faith.
  • Christmas – 12 Days of celebration reflecting on the birth of Christ
  • Epiphany, season of – “Epiphany” means “manifestation.” This is the time of Jesus’ life on earth. The season of Epiphany is considered one of the two periods of “ordinary time” during the church year because it is neither preparatory fast nor feast.

The Time of Easter

  • Lent – Beginning with Ash Wednesday, this 40-day season (not including Sundays in the count because Sunday is always a celebration of the Resurrection!) is the season of preparation for Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. Like Advent, it is a fast before the feast. Unlike Advent, people often including fasting as part of their Lenten observance.
  • Holy Week – Beginning with Palm Sunday, this week includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday (the Feast of the Resurrection)
  • Easter, season of – Easter is a 40-day celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. It includes is post-resurrection appearances and ends on Ascension Day, when Christ returned to the Father until his return one day in power and glory.

The Time of the Church

  • Pentecost – On this day, we begin celebrating the work of the church, Christ’s body on Earth. Pentecost is the day, 50 days after the Resurrection, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples. The formerly timid and scared disciples suddenly displayed boundless courage in the face of the very leaders who had crucified Jesus.
  • Pentecost, season of – The remainder of the church year is, like Epiphany, considered “ordinary time” because it is neither fast nor feast. Epiphany continues until the Sunday of the Fulfillment, the last Sunday in the church year. In the church year, Epiphany correlates with our own time because we live between Christ’s ascension and his second coming.

Now you know enough about the church year to understand the place of Advent within the broader scheme. During Advent we prepare for the coming King, Christ Jesus our Lord.

The birth of Christ is the culmination of a plan set in motion immediately following mankind’s fall into sin. Since our fall into sin, mankind has been through cycles of fall, pain, and redemption. During this Advent we will be reflecting on three of the major cycles of fall, pain, and redemption that lead toward the life and work of Jesus Christ:

  • Creation and mankind’s fall into sin
  • The story of the Exodus
  • The Babylonian Captivity

Each of these historical episodes present a type, or a miniature reflection, of Christ’s great work of redeeming mankind through his life, death, and resurrection. Each section will start out with a summary because, while you can sit down and read the creation and fall into sin in just three chapters of Genesis, reading the whole story of the Exodus will take much longer, and piecing together the Babylonian captivity would be quite a piece of work, indeed!

My suggestion is that you read the summary each Sunday. This will familiarize you with the story that is the basis for our readings. Then read the scripture passage and reflection for each day on the day indicated. The scriptures are taken from the story for the week.

A blessed Advent & Christmas to you!

Pastor John

 

Week 1

Creation & Fall — Introduction

Read this on Sunday before the first devotion.

 The account of the creation of the universe and the fall of mankind into sin is found in the book of Genesis, chapters 1-3.

Whether you think it is a literal account or a religious myth, I encourage you to learn the lessons that are contained within it. The lessons are there independent of the literalness of the text. A thing can be true without being literal. Most good poetry is. Fables are. If you saw a statue of Abraham Lincoln cutting a chain from the leg of a slave, you would say that is true even though it likely never happened in the literal sense.

I’m not trying to convince you of the literalness or non-literalness of the creation and fall account in Genesis. I am trying to get you to set aside that question during this week. The more important aspect of Genesis 1-3 is what it teaches us. And it teaches these things regardless of whether it is a literal, historical account of the beginning of our universe. Don’t get distracted from what it teaches. You can debate its literalness some other time. Put that question aside for the next seven days.

What does it teach us? Here’s a few of the major lessons we can draw from Genesis 1-3.

  • The universe is not an accident.
  • The universe was created in an orderly fashion.
  • The universe is good and beautiful.
  • The universe is designed to grow.
  • Mankind is created in God’s image.
  • Mankind is a beautiful creation (including you!)
  • One of the duties of mankind is to be stewards of the Earth. (A steward is one who cares for the possessions of another. Mankind’s dominion over the earth is a stewarding dominion, not a dominating, abusing, and self-indulgent dominion.)
  • We have an enemy who wants to subvert the good work of God.
  • We have an enemy who wants to entice us away from the good life to which God calls us.
  • The enemy is crafty.
  • Distraction and deceit are the enemy’s primary weapons.
  • The enemy will use and twist the very words of God to lure mankind away from God’s good purposes for us.
  • God loves us even after we betray him.
  • God will get his beloved creation back.

That’s quite a list, eh?

During this week, we will read and briefly reflect on a few passages from Genesis 1-3 that highlight some of these lessons.

December 3, 2017

Creation & Fall

 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. — Genesis 1:1–2 (ESV)

God’s process is to bring order to chaos, to bring organization and beauty to formlessness, darkness and void. God’s Spirit was hovering over the face of the waters. This is the same word used in Deuteronomy 21:11 to describe an eagle fluttering over her young. She cares for them. She expects them to grow from a tiny hatchling to into a beautiful eagle.

As we begin our Advent journey, begin with a sense of expectation. Hover over the face of this Advent. Often, we see what we expect to see. Do you expect to simply go through the motions of Advent and Christmas? Do you expect to have a wonderful Christmas season? Or do you expect to be profoundly impacted by contemplating and reliving the birth of Jesus Christ?

December 4, 2017

Creation & Fall          

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. — Genesis 1:3–4 (ESV)

Words create worlds. Your words can create (or destroy) worlds in other people. Think back for a moment about some words that have impacted your life. A word from a parent? Teacher? Friend? Everyone can recall a few times when just a handful of words lifted us up or broke us down. What kind of world do you want to create with your words? A harsh and judgmental world? An impatient and hurried world? Or a peace-filled and kind world? A joyful and forgiving world?

Take this verse with you today:

  • Kind words are good medicine…  — Proverbs 15:4 (CEV)

Let this verse guide your conversation with others and with yourself.

December 5, 2017

Creation & Fall

 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:26–27 (ESV)

Holy moly! Did you read that?? Seriously?? You are made in the image of God! Do you feel like that? Do you think that about yourself? King David wrote in one of his psalms about how wonderfully made we are:

  • You are the one who put me together inside my mother’s body, and I praise you because of the wonderful way you created me. Everything you do is marvelous! Of this I have no doubt. — Psalm 139:13–14 (CEV)

Shakespeare’s Hamlet says the same thing:

  • What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God! Think of yourself that way and treat yourself that way.

But also remember that everyone else is created in the image of God. Every person you encounter is fearfully and wonderfully made. As you go through the hustle and bustle of this Advent/Christmas season, make an effort to see every person from the boss to the cashier as God’s beloved creation, made in his image.

December 6, 2017

Creation & Fall

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” — Genesis 3:1–3 (ESV)

And so it begins. The Christmas story starts here. The serpent, who is Satan, the adversary and deceiver, makes his play for God’s beloved mankind. How does he do it? Words. Words can create and words can destroy.

Satan asked Eve a blindingly obvious question. Eve enters into the conversation with the manipulator. That may be her first real mistake. She thinks they are having an open conversation. The serpent has an entirely different idea of what’s going on.

Think about how you use words. Do you use words to build up or tear down? Are your words more like an open hand inviting dialog or more like a hammer designed to beat down your opposition? Do you use words to communicate or manipulate?

Since Advent is a season of preparation, do you need to repent of how you use words sometimes?

The next time you have a disagreement with someone or need to negotiate two different opinions (e.g. with your spouse or your sibling), try talking without driving the conversation toward what you want. Try speaking with the goal of a great outcome for both of you instead of just getting your way. This will open up creative avenues of problem-solving and compromise that you would not have otherwise seen.

December 7, 2017

Creation & Fall

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. — Genesis 3:4–7 (ESV)  

Satan spoke with a mixture of truth, lie, and withheld information.

What Satan purposely did not tell Adam and Eve is that God did not create them to know evil. But, Adam and Eve took the bait. Their eyes were opened. For the first time, they knew evil. Along with evil came that emotion we all know: shame.

There are things that cannot be undone. Adam and Eve cannot unbite the fruit. They cannot close their eyes to evil once they are opened.

They cannot be undone, but they can be redeemed. This is an Advent thought. We confess our sin and trust in the reconciliation God has provided through the Savior whose birth we will celebrate in a few short weeks.

This is our thought for today. Don’t play with evil. Movies, magazines, and other media cannot be unseen. Most everyone reading this will have seen things they wish they could unsee.

Proverbs talks about being careful with what you put in your mind:

  • Carefully guard your thoughts because they are the source of true life. — Proverbs 4:23 (CEV)

Do you take care to avoid things that shouldn’t go into your mind? Do you take the time and effort to put good things into your mind?

December 8, 2017

Creation & Fall

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” — Genesis 3:8–13 (ESV)

 Did Adam & Eve take responsibility for their own decisions? No. Each may have been influenced by others, but nobody made anybody do anything.

Responsibility is today’s word. Here’s a little poem for you:

Whatever you say
Whatever you do
It’s not someone’s fault
It depends on you.

 

How do you spell blame? B-lame!

When you act as though someone else made you say or do something, you give up your personal agency. That’s a fancy way of saying you give up your power to be you. You give up your power to be the actor in your life story instead of the person acted upon.

You are made in the image of God. You have personal agency. You are made to be the one who acts, not just the one who reacts. Your life will feel better and more powerful if you take responsibility for and own every word that comes out of your mouth and every action you take.

Are you heading into each day wondering who is going to make you do what today? Or are you moving with purpose into each day, looking for ways to be God’s light in this world?

December 9, 2017

Creation & Fall

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” — Genesis 3:14–15 (ESV)

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. — Genesis 3:22–24 (ESV)

On December 6, I wrote that the Christmas story began. It did. But here begins God’s plan of redemption. The offspring will bruise the head of Satan. This is considered by many to be the first announcement of the Gospel — the good news that God will one day undo the work of Satan.

Then God does what, on first glance, appears to be a punishment. However, it is actually a protection. Every parent has done things for their child’s own good that the child perceives as some sort of punishment. God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden so that they would not live forever with their shame.

And God prepares his plan of ultimate deliverance, ending shame and gifting eternal life.

In Christ, death becomes a release from the sin and brokenness of this world:

  • Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:24–25a (ESV)

Think for a moment what it might mean for you that Jesus has defeated Satan. Jesus has undone the sin-based rift between God and mankind. God does not count our sins against us. That’s why Christmas is such a big deal.

  • For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. — 2 Corinthians 5:19 (NLT)

How does that change the way you face challenges in life? How does that change the way you face temptation?

Week 2

The Exodus — Introduction

Read this on Sunday before the first devotion.

The story of the Exodus is a very familiar story. It is also the ultimate type or picture of the coming deliverance of all mankind through the savior, messiah. Let’s take a moment to briefly remember it.

The Israelites ended up in Egypt after Joseph became Prime Minister and saved his family from famine. You can relive the story of Joseph by reading Genesis chapters 37-50, watching Disney’s “The Prince of Egypt,” or watching “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

There was a dynasty change and the memory of Joseph was left behind. The new Pharaoh began to fear the Israelites because they were becoming so numerous. They might turn against the Egyptians if war arose. His solution was to put them to slave labor. They continued to grow so Pharaoh decided to have all the male babies killed. Moses’ mother and sister put baby Moses in a basket where the Pharaoh’s daughter bathed. She found the baby and decided to keep it. Then Moses’ sister ran and told the princess that she knew of a Hebrew woman who could nurse the baby. She conveniently forgot to mention that it was Moses’ mother. So Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace as a prince.

One day when he was a grown man, Moses encountered an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slaved. He intervened and ended up killing the Egyptian. He thought his deed was secret. Turns out it wasn’t. So, Moses fled for his life. He was 40 years old, according to Exodus 7:7.

He ended up living in the desert and marrying a woman he defended from ruffians. Her name was Zipporah and she was the daughter of Jethro, priest of Midian. There he dwelt, tending flocks in the desert for 40 year.

One day he saw what looked like a bush that was burning but not being consumed. This was the famous “burning bush” in which God appeared to Moses. God told Moses that he was sending him to get the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses tried several dodges and finally said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” (Ex 4:13, ESV). God did not let him off the hook. But God did send Aaron with him because Aaron could speak well.

Moses appeared before Pharaoh, bringing the word that Yahweh wants Pharaoh to let his people go so they can hold a feast in the wilderness. Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey his voice?” Pharaoh not only did not let the people go, he intensified their slave labor.

The Israelites weren’t too happy have the increased quota of bricks that Moses’ conversation with Pharaoh had brought on. But Moses convinced them.

There was power struggle during which Pharaoh resisted Yahweh’s call to let his people go. You know this power struggle as the ten plagues. The final plague was the death of the firstborn of every Egyptian family, from the Pharaoh to the slave girl, and the firstborn of the cattle.

The night this happened is called, “Passover,” because Yahweh struck down the firstborn of all Egypt but passed over the homes of the Israelites. The Israelites were to kill a lamb and paint its blood on the frame of the front door of their homes. The death of the lamb and the marking of the family’s homes by the blood of the lamb caused death to pass over their homes.

This is where the Passover reflects the death of Jesus the Messiah. By his death, he destroyed death and delivers humanity from the ultimate slavery: fear of death.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. — Hebrews 2:14–15 (ESV)

The Egyptians pleaded with the Israelites to leave immediately, which Moses had prepared them to do. The Egyptians even sent them out with lavish gifts. They wanted no more tangling with the God of the Israelites.

After they left, Pharaoh’s ego rose up again and distorted his judgment. He mustered his army and went after the Israelites. God parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could cross on dry land. But when Pharoah’s army followed the Israelites, God let the sea return to its usual position and drowned Pharaoh’s army.

Moses led the Israelites to Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments.

s we read through passages from the Exodus this week, imagine the slavery and pain of the Israelites. The joy of their freedom. The terror of Pharaoh’s army pursuing them to the coast of the Red Sea. Then the ultimate victory over Pharaoh’s army when the Red Sea closed in on them. Remember that they could not read ahead in the story. They were living it as it unfolded.

The freeing of the slaves in Egypt foreshadows the ultimate freeing of all humanity from enslavement to death. We are now living the story of the redemption of humanity as it unfolds. While our redemption is sealed with certainty in the death and resurrection of Christ, we still have to live our lives linearly, from day to day. Let the story of the Exodus bolster your faith. Remember their ups and downs that lead to ultimate victory. In like manner, the ups and downs of your life are but the road to ultimate victory in Jesus.

This week’s devotions are longer than the Creation & Fall devotions. I did this because I wanted you to be able to reflect on a scene instead of just a Bible verse.

December 10, 2017

Exodus

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. — Exodus 1:1–7 (ESV)         

You may recall the story of Joseph, how his brothers sold him into slavery and he ended up prime minister of Egypt. Joseph appeared to be blessed because he was his father’s favorite. He looked to be in line to take charge when his father passed away. That’s what the coat of many colors was about.

Here’s the story in bullet points. I have italicized the events that seem bad on the surface:

  • His brothers sold him into slavery.
  • He rose to be the manager of his master’s entire household.
  • He was falsely accused of rape and thrown in prison.
  • In prison, he rose to be entrusted by the warden as manager of the prisoners.
  • While there, he interpreted a dream for one of the prisoners, Pharoah’s cup-bearer.
  • Joseph asked that, when the man was released, he would plead Joseph’s case to Pharaoh.
  • The cup-bearer forgot about Joseph for two years until Pharaoh had a troubling dream that nobody could interpret.
  • The cup-bearer remembered the guy in prison who could interpret dreams.
  • Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of basically everything.
  • There was a famine.
  • Joseph’s brothers came from Canaan to get grain from Egypt.
  • Joseph, now Prime Minister, recognized them.
  • They did not recognize him.
  • He tested them and, finding their hearts repentant, revealed himself.
  • He brought his whole family to Egypt, including his father.
  • The Israelites settled in fertile land and “multiplied and grew exceedingly strong.”

The point I’m making is this. You cannot discern God’s movement in your life by the pleasantness of any given moment. Joseph’s life seemed to go up and down and up and down. In the Exodus story, the Israelites life seems to go up and down and up and down.

Your life has, no doubt, gone up and down and up and down. (though perhaps not as dramatically as prisoner to prime minister!) God takes us through ups and downs. Psalm 23 reminds us that even if we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.

As we continue the long road to Bethlehem, take a few minutes just to think through the story of your life with all its ups and downs. If you are in a time of plenty and ease, like the Israelites in today’s passage, thank God for this time. If you are in a time of difficult and challenge, take courage from the story of Joseph. God is with you and will never forsake you.

December 11, 2017

Exodus

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens… But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service… — Exodus 1:8–14 (ESV)  

Life happens. Things happen over which you have no control. In the Israelite’s case, they were oppressed into slavery.

We know the story the Israelites are in, but they don’t. All they know is that life under the new Pharaoh has become very difficult and there is no apparent way out.

Do you ever feel like life has become difficult and there is no apparent way out? Maybe you feel that way right now? Remember that you are in the middle of your story. You are the character experiencing the story. The Israelites could not read the book of Exodus to find out what was happening to them. You cannot open the entire book of your life to find out what will happen to you.

What you can do is read the story of the Israelites and let it guide your faith. In the story of the Exodus, we see God at work in the lives of the Israelites. He liberated the oppressed.

He has done the same thing for you in Jesus Christ, only on a cosmic, eternal scale. Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae and to us:

  • He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. — Colossians 1:13–14 (ESV)

This does not mean that things will always appear to be going well. What it means is that even though you don’t know what the subsequent chapters of your life will hold, you know that God will be with you as you walk through them and bring you to ultimate victory

December 12, 2017

Exodus

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives… “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” — Exodus 1:15–22 (ESV)

Yesterday we talked about how life happens. Today we will think about what we do when life happens.

In this passage we see some very brave women doing a very brave thing. They do not stand up to Pharaoh directly. That would not save any babies. Pharaoh would simply execute them. However, they do not throw up their hands and relinquish responsibility. They do the good they can in the situation in which they find themselves.

The point of today’s reflection is this: you always have agency. You may not be able to change much about a difficult situation any more than the midwives could change Pharaoh’s mind. But that doesn’t mean you have no power in a difficult situation.

Where do you feel like you have no power? Think creatively right now. How can you exercise your personal agency within that situation? It could be something as simple as choosing a hopeful attitude or a cheerful demeanor. It could be reading a book or taking a course after work to move your career in a different direction. It could be forgiving your spouse. If you can’t forgive your spouse, it could be beginning the process of learning how to forgive your spouse.

These Hebrew midwives teach us to be creative. There is always something you can do.

December 13, 2017

Exodus

Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer…She put the child in [a basket] and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him.

 Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river… She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” — Exodus 2:1–10 (ESV)

Today’s reflection is about God at work. Pharaoh is trying to kill all the male babies. The baby is born who is going to lead the Israelites to freedom. Is he raised in secret? No! He is raised in Pharaoh’s palace! And Pharaoh’s daughter pays Moses’ own mother to nurse him!

When I see the Exodus story beginning in this way, the word I think of is “elegant.” God’s work in this situation is subtle and delicate. God is a chess player, deftly moving pieces in wisdom, forethought and sometimes irony. Even the ten plagues, which seem like a blunt and heavy hammer, are jabs directed at the various gods of Egypt.

God is working elegantly in your life. Like Moses’ mother and sister, you have your part to play. But Jesus said that God is always at work:

  • But Jesus replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” — John 5:17 (NLT)

What is your part? At its root it is faith. Your part is to trust in God’s love, which is on full display in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Your job is to trust in God enough that you take direction from God in every aspect of your life. Your job is to trust God enough that even when it goes against your instincts, you “love your neighbor as yourself.”

God is at work right now. You join God by trusting him and letting him guide you.

December 14, 2017

Exodus

One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well. — Exodus 2:11–15 (ESV)

Moses looked around and thought nobody was watching. He thought he could do something in secret and nobody would ever find out.

It turned out he was wrong. Others had seen it and talked about it. Moses’ true allegiance to the Hebrew people caused Pharaoh to seek his life.

Let this incident with Moses remind us that we are not getting away with anything. As we move through Advent, preparing for the birth of Jesus, let us remember that God knows all. Jesus tells us:

  • For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light. — Luke 8:17 (ESV)

I am not suggesting that all private things must be made public. The private parts of our relationships are tender and special. The privacy of our inner life is often too tender and sacred for words. Most of us need inner time and space for contemplation and growth before what’s inside is ready for the outer world.

But we dare not keep a secret life. Nothing is hidden that will not be made known.

Here are some questions to consider today:

  • Does your private life reflect or contradict your public life?
  • Do you have secrets that you would just die if anyone found out?
  • Are you living two (or more) lives that are disconnected from each other?

Nobody can live an internally divided life and experience what Jesus promises: abundant life. If today’s devotion has touched a part of your life, I offer you two suggestions. First, don’t judge yourself. You are a human on a journey. Second, don’t give up. Work toward a more integrated life through prayer, reading (The Bible, other books, podcasts, etc.), contemplation, and conversation with trusted people that you know are in your corner.

December 15, 2017

Exodus

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey… And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” — Exodus 3:1–12 (ESV)

In this passage, God tells Moses that he has seen the affliction of the Israelites and intends to do something about it. He is going to deliver his people from their oppression. He is the God who sees and responds.

This is the mini-version of the Christmas story that we are approaching via the long road. God has seen the oppression of all humanity by sin and done something about it. Our sin separates us from God our Father, the source of all goodness and light. God dealt with sin by sending Jesus Christ.

Isaiah wrote about Jesus’ crucifixion long before it happened:

  • 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. — Isaiah 53:4–6 (ESV)

In what way do you need to be re-assured today that God is the God who sees and rescues? Is there a situation giving you worry or grief? Say to yourself, “I know that God sees ____________.” Remind yourself of this… several times a day if necessary. Write it on an index card and stick it in your purse or pocket.

December 16, 2017

Exodus

At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!” The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. — Exodus 12:29–36 (ESV)

This is not just liberation. It is total victory. The Egyptians are defeated in every way. Pharaoh asks for Moses’ blessing. The Egyptians were urgent for the Israelites to leave. They even gave the Israelites presents as they left. This is the great moment!

But you don’t get to the great moment without going through the other moments.

We are told of Jesus:

  • Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. — Philippians 2:6–8 (NLT)

Jesus coming to earth is the beginning of what theologians call Jesus’ “humiliation.” This is not saying that it is humiliating to be a human being. But, for Jesus, it is a voluntary adopting of a state of humility far below his rightful place. It is one of the things he had to go through on the way to victory.

Jesus knows that there are ups and downs and ups and downs in the story of our lives. But the final chapter of history is the utterly complete victory of Christ over sin, death, and the devil.

Jesus willingly took a humble position for the sake of love. The Apostle Paul tells us that we should imitate Christ in our in not letting pride keep us from serving others:

  • You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. — Philippians 2:5 (NLT)

As you prepare to receive the gift of the Christ-child, reflect on all that his coming to earth means. Let that reflection be a point of personal spiritual checkup for you.

Where in your life does mind of Christ come through and show itself? Where do you not have the same attitude as Christ Jesus? Confess that. Know that God forgives. And ask God to make you more like Jesus.

Week 3

The Babylonian Captivity — Introduction

Read this on Sunday before the first devotion.

The Babylonian captivity and subsequent return to the promised land is another prefiguring of the coming of Jesus. Though less well-known as an event in Israelite history, some very famous Bible stories took place during the Israelites time in Babylon, namely “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” and “Three Men in a Fiery Furnace.”

It’s all quite complicated, but here is what happened in a nutshell:

Beginning in 506 BCE, Judah began paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon. When Egypt defeated Babylon in 601 BCE, Judah revolted against Babylon. In 597 BCE Nebuchadnezzar recaptured Jerusalem, pillaged the city and the temple, and took many prominent citizens (including the prophet Ezekiel) back to Babylon.

The Israelites revolted against Nebuchadnezzar again despite being warned by prophets. In 587 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar returned and destroyed the city walls, the temple, and the houses of the important citizens. He left a new Jewish governor over the area. Once all the fighting was over, many Jews who had fled returned. But they did not rebuild the city’s walls or the temple.

In 539C BCE, Cyrus the Great (a Persian) conquered Babylon. A year later he let the exiles return home under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua. They began to reconstruct the temple. Many years later (about 444 BCE), Nehemiah left his position as cup-bearer to the king in order to guide the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem.

The Babylonian Captivity and the events surrounding it comprise several books of the Old Testament. The story spanning several books, along with the constantly shifting political situation, can make it a little hard to follow the large-scale narrative. But there are many great lessons to be found tucked into the lives of the Jewish people from ~600 BCE to ~ 400 BCE.

Most of this week’s readings are taken from the book of Jeremiah. You should know that Jeremiah’s nickname is “the weeping prophet,” because he tries to turn the Israelites’ hearts toward God and fails. He even wrote a book of the Bible called “Lamentations.” We will hear his call to the Israelites and consider how this same call might go out to us today.

I hope you find this week’s readings and reflections a valuable use of your time.

December 17, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” — Jeremiah 1:4–8 (ESV)

Jeremiah was one of the prophets who was active during the whole Babylonian captivity mess.

Today I would like to focus your attention on three words that Jeremiah said and the Lord’s six-word response.

Jeremiah: “I am only…”

Jeremiah thinks that he is not enough. In this case, he thinks he is not old enough. So many people deal with feelings of “not enough.” Not smart enough. Not rich enough. Not pretty enough. Not young enough. Not educated enough. Not, not, not enough!

You are enough just as you are. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone. You can have goals and growth plans. You should have them! But, you are what you need to be for the work to which God has called you.

Listen to the Lord’s words to Jeremiah:

“Do not say, ‘I am only…’”

I think those words apply to you. Think for a moment about the way in which you sometimes think you “are only…” Then hear God’s words to you: “Do not say, ‘I am only…’”

December 18, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. — Jeremiah 2:1–2 (ESV)

The call of Jeremiah is a call to remember. Jeremiah calls the people of God to remember their early days together. Remember how joyful you were to be brought out of slavery and into the promised land.

The Israelites have lost their way. They have lost their faith. Jeremiah wants to rekindle their faith by calling to mind all they have been through with the Lord.

If relationships in your life have been feeling a little dull or out-of-sorts, one way to bring them back to life to remember. Don’t just recollect. Let your whole mind and emotions be drawn back into that time. Use your memory to re-experience the good times. Let your consciousness dwell in those joyful memories.

If your marriage has grown dull, remember the love and excitement of your courtship.

If your parenting seems a drudgery, remember the overwhelming feeling of bringing that child home from the hospital the first time. Or call to mind some other wonderful memories.

And if your faith has grown drab and dreary, sit quietly and remember the exciting times. Remember the discovery of deeper truths that moved your soul. Remember when you really felt like God was moving in your life.

December 19, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? — Jeremiah 2:4–5 (ESV)

Today’s passage speaks of drift. Jeremiah asks the Israelites what God has done that has driven them away. The answer is nothing. The Israelites drifted. They wandered from God by not keeping their focus on Him.

Not only do people have to decide what’s important, they have to decide to keep it important. Whether its values, relationships, or faith, your life will drift without attention and correction. Rockets and airplanes are constantly correcting their course to make sure they arrive at their destination. An airplane that didn’t account for the speed and direction of the air in which it was flying could end up hundreds of miles from its intended destination.

The scriptures remind us where to keep our attention focused. Consider the following passage today and think about if you are choosing what to make important and how you are choosing to keep it important instead of drifting:

  • So we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially the sin that just won’t let go. And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us. 2 We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete. He endured the shame of being nailed to a cross, because he knew that later on he would be glad he did. Now he is seated at the right side of God’s throne! 3 So keep your mind on Jesus, who put up with many insults from sinners. Then you won’t get discouraged and give up. Hebrews 12:1–3 (CEV)

December 20, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. — Jeremiah 7:1–7 (ESV)

Today’s passage is a call to repentance. To repent is to change your mind, to change the way you look at things. The best modern equivalent is to have a “paradigm shift.”

“Repent” seems like such a harsh word. We hear “repent” and think of something like, “Straighten up, knucklehead!”

But “repent” isn’t like that. It is certainly a call to turn way from thoughts, words, and actions that are not of God. But that is a call to joy and peace!

In this passage we h, ar that God wants his people to have the land that he gave to their forefathers. He wants good for his people.

The same is true for you. When your heart hears a call to repent that pricks your conscience, it may hurt for a moment. But it is the hurt of a healer. It is the hurt of setting a broken bone or cutting out cancer that will kill.

The next time you read or hear a passage where Jesus talks about repenting of our sin, see if you can hear it as, “I love you. I want the best for you. Please turn away from things that cause pain and death.”

December 21, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

Hear the word that the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” — Jeremiah 10:1–5 (ESV)

Humans can be so foolish. We make something and then we worship it. Ancient people worshiped statues. We worship dollar bills. Or power. Or reputation. Or youth. Whatever we seek after thinking it can give us identity, security, purpose, and meaning is what we worship.

So, what do you worship?

Isaiah wrote about our tendency to think we will find sustenance for our souls in that which cannot truly satisfy:

  • Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. — Isaiah 55:2, 6 (ESV)

Jesus echoed the words of Isaiah when he reminded us:

  • But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. — Matthew 6:33 (ESV)

Since we are in a season of preparation, take a few minutes to think about your life. What are you seeking? Where are you looking for identity, security, purpose, and meaning?

December 22, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

Then I said: “Ah, Lord God, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’” And the Lord said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. — Jeremiah 14:13–14 (ESV)

Today’s lesson is to be careful who you listen to. Not everyone who teaches in the name of Jesus is teaching what Jesus teaches.

How can you evaluate the teaching of someone who claims to be teaching the ways of Jesus?

First, search the scriptures. Luke tells us that the Christians in Berea were more noble because didn’t simply take his word for it, but searched the scriptures to see if what he said was true. (Acts 17:11) You’ve got to check up on your teachers. And if someone says you only need their books and not the Bible, steer clear!

Second, examine their fruit. Jesus said:

  • “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. — Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV)

Look for the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Here’s another list of what to look for:

  • Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. — 1 Timothy 3:2–7 (ESV)

We need teachers and leaders. But you must take responsibility to evaluate those you look to as teachers and leaders.

December 23, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me. — Nehemiah 2:1–8 (ESV)

This reading (and tomorrow’s) teach us a simple and important lesson about living in faith: pray and act.

In this lesson, Nehemiah doesn’t just pray. Nor does he just ask the King for permission to go rebuild the wall. He prays and asks.

Think of conversations in your life. Sometimes you need to ask for something. Sometimes you need to talk about something that might be uncomfortable or difficult. How do you approach those conversations?

Nehemiah teaches us how: pray and ask.

Keep this in mind as you go through your day. When you need to talk to somebody about something, take a brief moment to pray. Pause to bring your conversation to God. Then enter into the conversation with the confidence and peace of one who knows that God is with you.

December 24, 2017

Babylonian Captivity

So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work. But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. — Nehemiah 4:6–9 (ESV)

Today we see Nehemiah at work building the walls. There are nearby peoples who are against what he is doing and trying to thwart it. What does Nehemiah do? Just like we read yesterday: pray and act.

This time Nehemiah prays and puts wise plans into place. He doesn’t just pray and hope. He posts the guard. He doesn’t just post a guard because he knows that ultimately the success of this venture depends on God.

So he prays and posts a guard.

Jesus did the same thing. The scriptures tell us he often went away by himself to pray. And he acted. He did what the Father sent him for. He taught. He healed. He died. He rose again.

This is a model for our life. It is fitting that it is the last devotion in this booklet. It’s a good way to send you into the world as a follower of the Christ child, whose birth we celebrate tomorrow.

As a disciple of Jesus, you can do no better than pray and act.

 

 

Epilogue

Dear friends,

Thank you for the privilege of participating in your Advent observance. I will be greatly pleased if this little book has been in some way a service to you. My great desire is to see people’s faith be the living basis for their hope and life. I believe that God’s love is the creative and sustaining force in the universe, even though it’s not always apparent. I believe that God has made God’s character most clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ, whom I follow as a disciple. If you don’t follow Jesus because of what you’ve seen and heard people do in Jesus’ name, I encourage you to check out Jesus directly.

Grace and peace to you,


John Rallison is the pastor of Journey of Life Lutheran Church in Orlando, Florida. (www.journeyoflife.org).

He blogs at www.johnrallison.com in general.

He blogs at www.godsgifttotheworld.com to remind people who special they are. He wants to encourage and equip people to be the gift to the world that God created them to be.


“The Long Road to Bethlehem” is copyright (c) 2017 by John C. Rallison. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.