Monday, December 12, 2011

Simple Things: A Devotion for Advent

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.”  Luke 2:4-7

            The storming of the Bastille was the seminal event that unleashed the tumultuous French revolution; Europe would never be the same.  And yet, astonishingly, King Louis XVI’s diary entry for that day was “14/7 1789: Nothing”.
            Sometimes the greatest historical events are missed by contemporary observers, and that was certainly the case with the birth of Jesus. A relatively poor husband, a soon-to-be mother, and an unborn child stood poised to change the course not just of history, but of eternity, yet there was nothing to mark the grand occasion--no parades, no banners, no reporters, not even the most basic comforts.
            Martin Luther writes, “Behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven. On earth it occurs in this wise: Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth, not highly esteemed, but of the humblest citizens of the village.  No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears, she is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town….  Imagine how she was despised at the inns and stopping places on the way, although worthy to ride in state in a chariot of gold.”
            If you were writing People magazine during the first century, there would be thousands of couples you’d include before you would mention this one.  Mary was from the segment of the population that would never be featured in People magazine.  Luther goes on, “There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time, who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in mid-winter under most trying circumstances.”
            How much we miss when our eyes follow glamour instead of substance, and romance instead of love!  “They were the most insignificant and despised, so that they had to make way for others until they were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle, lodging, table, bedchamber and bed, while many a wicked man sat at the head in the hotels and was honored as lord.  No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable… See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and does.”
            This Christmas season, let’s remind ourselves that the values of God’s Kingdom bear little resemblance to this world’s.  This ignored baby would one day teach His disciples, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  But even at His birth He demonstrated, as Luther writes, “the world’s greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong and her greatest treasures are misfortunes.” 
            As followers of this humble baby, we are called to notice those whom a world lusting after glamor often ignores. We are to prize character over immodesty, generosity over affluence, and humility over power.  We are not to value people because they have fine clothes, expensive cars, or famous faces—God’s greatest heroes are often nondescript, anonymous, and less than pleasing to the eye.
            Luther reminds us, “Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised of men…  The angels [couldn’t] find princes or valiant men to whom to communicate the good news; but only unlearned laymen, the most humble people upon earth… See how utterly God overthrows that which is lofty!  And yet we rage and rant for nothing but this empty honor, as if we had no honor to seek in heaven.”
            This advent, what do you find yourself seeking--approval from the world, success in society’s eyes, or obedience to the King of Kings? 
            If God has placed you in a high place, good for you—be faithful where you are.  If God has called you to an entry level position, or one of utter anonymity, concern yourself with the applause of heaven, not being mentioned in The Huffington Post, The New York Times, or USA Today.  What I love about worshipping at Second Baptist in Houston is that a CEO sits next to the receptionist; a business owner passes the communion plate to a customer; the banker studies Scripture with the mortgage holder. 
            What binds us isn’t our status in the world, but our union in Christ.  Those who seek glamor and fame would have missed Jesus while panting at the feet of Herod.  May we not make such a foolish mistake.

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