Advent, week 2: Peace.

“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.'” (Luke 1:31)

Pregnancy is a scary time even in the modern world and under the best of circumstances. Imagine what it must have been like for Mary. For Mary there would be no epidural. There would be no emergency C-section if complications occurred. There would be no doctor, no nurses, no hospital bed. After delivery there would still be no doctor, no medical supplies, no lactation consultant, no What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  On top of all of this, remember that Mary was probably a 14 year old kid who was a virgin and had quite possibly never traveled more than a few miles from her home. When they arrive in Bethlehem (a journey on which 9-month-pregnant Mary rode bareback on a donkey) there is no room for them. Scholars debate whether the original Greek words of the gospels indicate that Jesus was born in a stable, a cave, or a family living room – regardless of which is correct, this was not going to be the delivery that Mary was expecting.

On a broader scale, Mary was a Jew living in the first century. This meant that she was a member of a people group who had been colonized by and were currently occupied by a world superpower (Rome). Herod, the “king” in Jerusalem, was not the rightful king – not even a real Jew – but had curried favor with the Roman powers-that-be. When he hears that a child has been born who is called “King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1-2) he is afraid, and he later orders that every child in Bethlehem who is two years old or younger is to be killed (Matt. 2:16). Can you imagine being a parent of a one-year-old in Bethlehem when Herod gave this horrific order? Can you imagine being Mary? Mary was forced to flee to Egypt, another world superpower, to avoid the violence.

We hear these stories every year, and so it’s hard for us to read this story with fresh eyes. (I will never be able to read Luke 2 with any internal voice other than that of Linus from Peanuts). Let me frame this story in a modern context for us: Mary is a pregnant fourteen-year-old girl from Honduras seeking asylum in the United States to avoid violence in her hometown. When she finally arrives, there will likely be “no room” for her or her newborn baby. In all likelihood her family has disowned her, and so she and her baby will depend fully on the kindness of strangers and the grace of God along the way in her journey. There is no higher justice to turn to in her own land – under the best of circumstances she will be ignored, and under the worst she will be further abused.

It is into this context of fear, turmoil, anxiety, and pain that “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God'” (Luke 1:30). “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14) Peace even to Mary, the new-mom refugee fleeing from violence in her unstable homeland, and seeking asylum in a foreign nation.

In what situation in your life do you need to hear this Advent message: “Do not be afraid”? The message of “peace on earth” as the Advent hymn declares. Our world is full of violence and pain and hatred and injustice and uncertainty and loss and fear. But the King has come. And the King is coming. Even when peace seems impossible, the Advent message reminds us that it has already begun.

“The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Advent, week 1: Hope.


“This is the genealogy of Jesus: the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1).
 
There is a common trope in action movies in which a main character has been seriously injured and appears to have died. The character lies motionless on the ground, while friends around him plead for him to open his eyes. After a few silent seconds that feel like an eternity, the character gasps for breath – his eyes fly open – and he reaches for a friend – alive.
 
That’s the effect that Matthew wanted this opening verse of the New Testament to have on his readers. God promised Abraham (in Genesis 12) that he would make a great nation out of him and that the entire world would be blessed through him. He promised David (in 2 Samuel 7) that one of his descendants would always be on the throne over the people of God. As Israel and Judah were terrorized and kidnapped
en masse by world powers Assyria and Babylon, God promised his people that a Messiah was coming who would set things right and restore life to the people of God. And yet,
centuries had passed with no Messiah in sight. To put things in perspective: the number of years between the return from exile and the birth of Jesus was twice the number of years between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and today. To say that the people of God had “waited” for the Messiah is an understatement.
 
And then, after centuries of silence, the New Testament opens: “This is the genealogy of Jesus: the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” This at last is the one we have waited for. Our hope was not in vain. God has kept his promises, and they will all be fulfilled in this person Jesus. It is a remarkable opening to the Christmas story.
 
As we enter this season of Advent, I invite you to reflect on this theme of waiting and hope. What is it that you are waiting for – longing for? Maybe you’re waiting for a wrong to be made right. Maybe you’re waiting for physical healing or for some other suffering to end. Maybe you’re waiting for a relationship to be restored. Maybe you’re waiting for a new season of life to begin. Maybe you’re waiting for God to put an end to the tremendous evil that we see in our world.
 
How has God in Jesus addressed this longing? In Christ, God has begun the new era of the history of the universe. Death has been defeated. Sin has lost its power. Evil does not have the last word. In his birth, Jesus became one of us – Immanuel, “God with us,” committed eternally to us. In his life, Jesus modeled and taught the way for us to live truly human. In his death, Jesus broke the power of Sin. In his resurrection, Jesus broke the power of death.
 
Our waiting is not in vain. Our hope is not empty.
 

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Lydia

saint-lydia

“A God-fearing woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, was listening. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying. After she and her household were baptized, she urged us, ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” (Acts 16:14-15)


My wife Amanda and I anticipate the birth of our first child any day now. Lydia is her name. Over the past several weeks we have shared her name with dozens of people, and the reaction is almost always the same. “That’s such a pretty name! How did you choose that name?” It’s a fairly uncommon name. Neither of us have close family members named Lydia. To the best of our recollection we have only known one Lydia in our entire lives, and she was not the namesake. So why “Lydia”?

Lydia is named after a purple cloth dealer from Thyatira who lived and died in the first century. Strange, right? Lydia’s story is found in the Bible in Acts 16:11-15. She only appears in verses 14, 15, and 40, but we learn so much about her in these few verses. We can think of at least seven things we learn about Lydia from these verses, and these are exactly the reason we chose to name our daughter after her. We hope and pray that our Lydia will embody the same virtues we see in Lydia of Thyatira.

1. We pray Lydia loves Jesus Christ.

The first thing we learn about Lydia (Acts 16:14) is that she is “a God-fearing woman.” The same verse tells us that God opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying. And the joy is immediately evident. She and her household are baptized, and she invites everyone back to her place to celebrate. Lydia heard about and met the risen Jesus Christ, and the Lord opened her heart to love him. We pray the same will be true of our Lydia.

2. We pray Lydia is courageous.

Luke unfortunately gives us no back story for Lydia, but we can fill out some back story from what he does give us. What do we know about Lydia? We know she was from Thyatira but is now living in Philippi. We know she sells purple cloth. We know she was attending (and possibly leading) a prayer meeting of women by the river. It seems she was the head of her household (since her entire household follows suit in baptism, and since she invites the travelers to her home). The picture that we have of Lydia, then, is of an entrepreneurial woman (quite uncommon in her world) who was living what appears to be a fairly wealthy lifestyle (purple cloth was a lucrative business, and she appears to have had a large home) without a husband and in a foreign city, as the head of her household (which at the time would include servants in addition to family), and who takes the initiative to attend or lead a prayer gathering of God-worshiping women in this foreign city. Lydia was no damsel in distress. She was courageous. We pray the same will be true of our Lydia.

3. We pray Lydia knows her worth as a woman created by God.

Lydia’s story would be uncommon but not exceptional if she were a man. But as a woman her story is remarkable. At every point of the story we find Lydia in a role we would expect to be filled by a man. To start with, Paul and Silas find her at a prayer gathering by the river. To the careful reader of Acts, this is actually an alarming detail. Paul has visited several cities up to this point, and his first stop is always the synagogue, the Jewish place of worship. But in Philippi there apparently is no synagogue. The reason for this would have been that Philippi did not have ten Jewish men as required by Jewish custom in order to form a synagogue. But it seems Philippi may have had ten at least ten God-worshiping women. And these women, including Lydia, faithfully meet by the river to pray. Lydia is also an entrepreneur, and a seemingly wealthy one in a lucrative industry. It was not unheard of for women to hold such roles, but it certainly would have been noteworthy. Lydia also seems to function as the head of her household. This was definitely a man’s job. In Roman custom the paterfamilias (“family father”) served as the master of the estate, overseeing the operations of his home. This would include farming, finances, daily operations like food preparation and water gathering, and possibly even overseeing small businesses run out of unused rooms. A large home at the time could look more like a modern office building than a modern house. And Lydia appears to serve as the paterfamilias of her home, where there likely is no authoritative male figure to hold the role. Lydia extends the invitation to her guests to stay in her estate. Again this would have been extremely common from a man, but highly unusual from a woman. And at the end of the story (Acts 16:40) we learn that the church is apparently meeting in Lydia’s home. At every point in her story, we find Lydia in situations where we would expect to find a strong male presence (Jewish religion, business, the paterfamilias, the church) but where there apparently is no such presence. But instead of a confused void, we find Lydia serving faithfully. In a society that believed women to be inferior to men, Lydia courageously steps up to fill the roles left vacant by the men around her. We pray the same will be true of our Lydia.

4. We pray Lydia will lead when no one else will.

Not everyone is a natural-born leader. But this does not mean that only certain people are capable of leading. Lydia appears to have had something of an entrepreneurial spirit, but most of her leadership was forced on her. She was likely only involved in the business world because she had been widowed and left with no other option. This industry took her across the sea to another city. There were no men leading a synagogue service in this city, so she found or formed a group for the women. She had no husband to act as paterfamilias, so she did so herself. Maybe Lydia was a born leader. Maybe leadership was the last thing she ever wanted. Either way, when people around her when in need of a leader, Lydia was willing to lead. We pray the same will be true of our Lydia.

5. We pray Lydia will be generous.

Lydia of Thyatira was a wealthy and successful woman. But neither of these are reasons we chose her as the namesake for our daughter. Her generosity is one of the reasons. After coming to faith in Jesus, Lydia urges Paul and his traveling companions to stay in her home. This is more than an invitation for a visit. This is an invitation for them to make her home their “headquarters” as they seek to preach the gospel in Philippi. In Acts 16:40 we learn that Lydia’s home has become the meeting place of the newly formed church. Lydia is extremely generous with the way she uses her resources to care for others. We pray the same will be true of our Lydia.

6. We pray Lydia will be hospitable.

The Greek word that the Bible uses for “hospitality” is a compound word that literally means “love of the stranger” (philoxenia – “philo” means “love” and “xenia” means “stranger”). Hospitality in the ancient world wasn’t about Super Bowl parties with friends but about taking care of the stranger, the traveler, the “other” who was in need. God is the ultimate example of hospitable in his love for humans – an “other” to God. Jesus is hospitable in that he extends himself to “tax collectors and sinners,” to a Samaritan woman, to people with leprosy, to the demon-possessed. Lydia of Thyatira was hospitable. Paul, Silas, and Luke are traveling from region to region preaching the gospel, and they are without room and board in Philippi. But Lydia extends herself to make her home their home in Philippi, and later to make her home the church meeting place in Philippi. Lydia shows true hospitality to these people in need. We pray the same will be true of our Lydia.

7. We pray Lydia will love the church.

Lydia of Thyatira values community. Without a synagogue to visit, she joins/forms a prayer group. When she comes to faith in Christ, she tells her entire household and they also are baptized. She invites Paul, Silas, and Luke to stay in her home. She opens up her home as the place where the new church gathers. Lydia values community. Lydia loves the church. We pray the same will be true of our Lydia.

The Devil’s in the Details

devil_in_details

When we consistently use passive, impersonal phrases — like “I got saved” or “prayer works” — to describe God’s interactions in our lives, we start to forget that the actor is in fact Yahweh God and not some generic, impersonal force.


The Problem

Have you ever heard someone say “prayer works” or seen the bumper stickers that say “try prayer, it works”? Every time I hear someone say that, it makes me cringe. I certainly don’t have a problem with people praying — in fact, I believe it to be a tragedy that the church prays so little. My problem, as petty as it may seem, is with the actual wording of the phrase. Prayer doesn’t “work.” God works. Saying that prayer works is like saying that calling 911 gets intruders out of your home. The police get intruders out of your home. Calling 911 is just a good way to get the police to come to your house.

Prayer doesn’t “work.” God works.

So a better bumper sticker might read, to borrow a line from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, “Ask Dad, He Knows.”

The Impact

This is more than just wording. When we use these phrases — and only these phrases — over and over again, it does two things. First, it confuses children and non-Christians as to what we really believe. When someone who is not a Christian has a crisis, they may turn to prayer on the advice of a Christian friend. And their experience may likely be, “I prayed and it didn’t work; God must not exist.” To which I would respond, “Or maybe you just don’t have a relationship with the Father yet.” If I were to ask the president of the United States to take a day off work and spend the entire day with me, he would refuse. But it would be absurd for me to conclude that this means he would refuse his wife as well if she were to ask him the same favor. I don’t have a relationship with the president; she does. In the same way, non-Christians should not expect for their prayers to be answered in the same way as believers’ prayers, because they are not His children (John 1:12). Although there is certainly a place for prayer from non-believers, and God certainly has and does answer prayers from anyone as he chooses, we should not confuse the world by telling them that “prayer works” as if prayer-answers were as guaranteed as taking aspirin for a headache.

Second, it confuses us as to what we really believe. When we consistently use passive, impersonal phrases — like “I got saved” or “prayer works” — to describe God’s interactions in our lives, we start to forget that the actor is in fact Yahweh God and not some generic, impersonal force. What do we do when prayer doesn’t seem to work? Do we assume that our prayer tank must need to be refilled? It’s not magic; but so often we treat it as is it were. And yet, the awesome truth is that prayer as a conversation with God is indescribably greater than prayer as magic, in the same way that the love between a father and his child is greater than the gravitational pull between the Earth and the Moon. Magic implies impersonal force. Conversation implies relationship.

we start to forget that the actor is in fact Yahweh God and not some generic, impersonal force

The same problem applies to saying “I got saved.” Don’t believe me? Start telling people how old you were “when Jesus saved” you, e.g. “I was 9 years old when Jesus saved me.” If you’re not accustomed to using that phrase, it will probably feel awkward and uncomfortable to you; I know it does for me. That’s a problem. How did you “get saved?” Did you just work really hard? Did you step in a puddle of magic Saving Potion on your way to lunch one day? If you are saved, it is because Jesus saved you. We would do well to constantly remind ourselves of that, and to make it clear to others.

If you are saved, it’s because Jesus saved you.

The world offers an infinite number of false saviors: success, family, wealth, moral character, self-actualization, retirement, respect, relationships, appearance, fame, etc, etc. “I got saved” suggests (rightly) to the world that they can be saved too; but it doesn’t give the slightest clue as to how that happens. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him. Don’t ever forget it, and don’t let them miss it.

The Next Step

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” Proverbs 18:21.

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29.

I’m not saying that the phrases “prayer works” or “I got saved” fall under the category of “corrupting talk.” But if your words confuse the lost about God’s active role in the world, and His power to save them, then they could hardly be said to be “good for building up” or to “give grace to those who hear.”

Think about what you’re telling people with your words.

Sometimes the Devil truly is in the details.