Arise! Shine! For your light has come. – Isaiah 60:1

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Thanks to Jerry Klumpp for this photo. | December 5, 2017

Diane and I hosted the photo club Christmas party again this year. Once again, I provided a prayer/poem for the evening and meal. For your enjoyment…

 

2017 Northwest Houston Photo Club Christmas Party Prayer
by David Bahn

It’s time again for our Christmas party
We’re glad you’re here all hale and hardy!
So, welcome to our home tonight,
We’ve got seats for all – though it may be tight.

Our photo club is – as some would say –
A gourmet dining club with a certain way
Of seeing the world through camera and lens;
Though there’s often debate as to which one wins.

Is it Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Sony?
Is it Nik software? Or is it Adobe?
No matter what, or even who,
The shots are great; the are winners too!

We celebrate Christmas in this house
As a reminder of God’s love for family and spouse
And no matter the badge or gear we may love
I’m here to point to God’s gift from above.

Alan’s slideshow will be a highlight for sure
Though we may also tonight shed a tear
As we remember Annie Laurie and Delores’ husband Joe
We do miss them; we’re sad to have seen them go.

But let us not forget to send our thanks
To the One who thought up this idea that ranks
On the top of anyone’s list of blessings and joy:
The Lord God almighty who sent us his Boy.

The Baby Jesus is the reason for this season.
And though some will opt for a different reason,
I invite those who will to join me in praying
To God up above, and in thanksgiving saying:

We thank you, dear God for your love and good favor,
And ask that you bless us and help us to savor
Not only food and drink we enjoy once again,
But your greater gifts of life, hope, and joy; in Jesus’ name…Amen.

Read Luke 1:26-38

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:30-33

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Nativity Christmas Ornament | December 2017

I am a very intuitive person. That’s not bragging; it’s a reality that has some very good implications, but does not always serve me well. Extremely intuitive persons too easily jump to the wrong conclusions. We like to go to MSU. MSU does not stand for Michigan State University, Mississippi State University, or any other state university. MSU stands for “Making Stuff Up.” We intuitive folks can all too easily and quickly go there.

Sometimes, however, being an intuitive person serves us well: we catch things, put together sometimes disparate and seemingly-unrelated facts and get it right. That seems to have been what Mary did when the angel visited her. Not only was she troubled at the greeting of the angel; she also realized that the message of the angel had some far-reaching implications. Intuitive people do that. But I progress…too far and too quickly run ahead. Mary waits for the angel to tell her what is to be; she hears him out.

There is much to consider in the angel’s message: Mary will have a child. He will be great in the style and manner of King David. Mary’s Son will reign over God’s people forever. His rule and reign will be for all time and eternity. Mary will wait to take all this in. She will ask her question, and express her willingness to be the Lord’s servant.

We will see what this means throughout the gospel of Luke, into the book of Acts, in the life of the early believers, and even today where people proclaim that Jesus is Lord. For this moment, however, it is enough for us to live in the confidence of God’s love and grace, to recognize that Jesus is the One who rules and reigns for all time.

No need to make stuff up – no matter how intuitive we may or may not be. We simply embrace the truth that has been revealed to us in the life, death, resurrection and second coming of our Lord Jesus, and rejoice in his rule and reign of grace in our hearts by faith.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. Luke 1:26-29

A view of the floor of the French Cathedral tower from about 1/3 of the way up

“True North” A view of the floor of the French Cathedral tower from about 1/3 of the way up | Berlin, Germany | August 2017

Childlike faith takes things at face value. What God says, childlike faith embraces with little question. We see this regularly in our grandchildren as well as in the children of our Early Childhood Center at St. John. These children always know the correct answer: “Jesus.” They know that they are sinners and that Jesus saved them from their sins. They know that they should pray, and share, and do good. Those things please God; this they know.

As we grow older we must hold to childlike faith while acknowledging the deeper nuances of life, God, and faith itself. An easy-answer superficial belief will not sustain us in the face of some of life’s harsh realities. Pushed to its extreme such an attitude becomes gullibility and opens us to being taken advantage of. As we grow older, furthermore, we realize that there are grave implications to the fact that we are sinners. We more deeply appreciate that prayer is more than merely rehearsing our needs to God. We gain insight into some of the nuances of what it means to do good, share, and trust God.

This, I believe, is what Mary displays here: a deeper understanding coupled with an innocent faith – but not a dangerous gullibility. I see this in Mary’s response to the angel. She seems not to be troubled by the appearance of the angel, but by his greeting. The words are simple and good: she is “greatly favored; the Lord is with her.” On the surface these words are pure and good. But Mary is perceptive; she realizes that there is more to these words than the simple meanings…or at least she suspects so.

God delights when we receive his word and trust him, believing his promises and setting our moral compass on the truth he reveals to us. Mary will do just that. But she will not believe these words without probing the depth of their meaning. God’s favor is a good thing. His presence is a great blessing. But to whom much is given, much is required.

Perhaps this truth will shape our faith as we examine our own hearts, motives and prayers. We do well to ask for God’s blessings. We do better to discern as best we can how we are to steward those blessings for which we ask. Is a new job simply a source of more income and greater respect? It may be also a greater burden of responsibility, and an opportunity to do good for others.

What promise is God laying on your heart, and how might you most fully embrace the deeper gifts of his grace?

And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” – Luke 1:18-25

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Christmas Ornament | November 2017

Diane and I used to watch the BBC comedy Keeping Up Appearances. For many years it was our Sunday night staple. The show featured an overbearing leading woman, Hyacinth Bucket who sought – at all costs, and always unsuccessfully – to appear to be quite important, sophisticated, respected. She would answer the phone in a lilting tone, “The Bucket (pronouncing it, “bouquet”) residence, the lady of the house speaking on her slimline princess phone.” I began to feel sorry for her after a while: she never got the respect and honor she so deeply longed for.

Elizabeth, seems to have lived a long while under the reproach of others. There is no indication that she tried to make something of herself by pointing out that her husband was a priest. There is no indication that she put on airs. In fact it seems most likely that she was humble and unpretentious. After all her son would grow up to be a prophet who railed against any sort of arrogance or boastful pride.

It is interesting to me that Elizabeth’s comment when she had conceived her son expresses a relief of sorts: God had taken away her reproach among people. Furthermore she goes into hiding when she becomes pregnant. This is someone who does care about what others think. It seems, however, to be born of humility and not a need to be the ancient near eastern equivalent of a rock star.

Meanwhile Zechariah is speechless. He’s writing notes, making hand motions, and probably feeling a bit frustrated at his lot during these days. He and Elizabeth are the parents of the one who will prepare the way for the Lord.

We don’t live under the weight of such a heavy, direct, and explicit promise. Most of us choose to be silent rather than having it forced on us – at least when it comes to speaking about God. But we all do fight an inner urge to be thought highly of by others. We all want either to shrink into the background and not be known (so as not to be embarrassed or not to be called on to do anything requiring significant effort).

Jesus teaches his followers to practice their faith before God and not before men. He warns against receiving our reward on the basis of the praise of men: we will have received our reward in full. But once in a while it is good to be vindicated in our faith and faithfulness. We may not live for the honors, or need to tell everyone about our standing in society. But when God does show his people to be right it feels good. When truth, justice, and godliness is vindicated we can thank God. And if it’s so in our lives in any specific manner we can know how Elizabeth must have felt during this time.

The greatest vindication will be at the end of all time when those who have trusted Jesus – in the face of ridicule or in the fellowship of the faithful – will be vindicated. I strongly suspect that it won’t be a moment to brag and boast (cf. Ephesians 2:9), but to recognize what a blessing is ours when we hold to Jesus’ righteousness and recognize that his justification is the one that matters the most.

And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. – Luke 1:18-23

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I love the expression on this Joseph figure in this German nativity scene. It’s as though he’s saying, “Hey! What can I do?” Photo taken 11/28/17 | Cypress, Texas

Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to ask why or how. That’s how Zechariah must have felt when he asked the angel how he would know that what the angel had told him would come to pass. There could have been a more gentle answer: When Elizabeth becomes pregnant. You’ll know then. But that’s not good enough; Zechariah will have to be mute for many months – at least 9 of them; 39 weeks; 270 days; 394,200 minutes – give or take. But who’s counting? I wonder if Zechariah got up morning after morning and checked his voice. No. No vocalizing just yet. Maybe tomorrow. 

More important, I wonder if Zechariah reflected on Gabriel’s answer. I wonder if he thought about the name: the angel has a name! Gabriel. That’s the angel that shows up in Daniel 9. He is not Michael (who shows up in Daniel 10 – a harrowing figure to be sure). Gabriel shows up only in Daniel … and now he’s here talking with me! 

He stands in the presence of God! Whew! That’s powerful. Sobering. It brings me up sharp. Gabriel was sent from God to Zechariah and is delivering good news…only to be questioned: How will I know that this is true? What was I thinking? Why did I have to ask. He stands in the presence of God. Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh Boy!

Why didn’t I just believe him? I wonder if the words of Gabriel echoed in his mind: because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Gabriel is a messenger of God who brings infinitely good news. It is dangerous not to believe him.

One thing all this proves is that God is serious about what is unfolding in these events…even these precursors to the main act of Jesus’ birth. I wonder if I too quickly dismiss God’s good news; if I too slowly believe God’s promises; if my attention to God’s messengers is too quickly distracted.

Dear God, please let me continue to speak. Let me speak your word of grace, truth, love, hope, and warning. Give me your Holy Spirit so that I believe your word and courageously share it with others!

Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.Luke 1:8-17

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There are those moments…in fact I’m enjoying one right now. I’m listening to some beautiful Christmas music. Performed by the Piano Guys, it’s a beautiful blend of harmonies, melodies, instruments, sentiments, and Christmas truth and grace. It washes my soul. Makes me smile.

I’m not certain Zechariah felt this way as he reflected on the message of the angel, and later when John was born. The message of the angel – expressing the destiny of their soon-to-be-born son – would make most parents bask in their present experience of God’s goodness. Think of it: many will rejoice at John’s birth, he will be great before the Lord, be filled with the Holy Spirit, turning many people to the Lord their God, going in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. No wonder the angel tells Zechariah: you will have joy and gladness!

A closer look at John’s life, however, might make you wonder. John lives a reclusive and extremist life in the desert. He does not enjoy wine and has a rather strange diet. He does announce, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” He leaps in his mother’s womb even before he is born at the sound of the Mary’s voice and in recognition of the presence of the Son of God. His end, however, is not so glorious. Imprisoned. Doubt-plagued. Beheaded.

When the lines fall for us in good and pleasant places we do well to thank God. When the lines cross into dark valleys of distress, pain, disappointment, and trouble, we must remember the Giver not just the gifts he gives. God is good. He is doing something new in Zechariah’s life. But that is part of a greater thing he is doing in all of our lives.

God is breaking into history, coming to be with us. To redeem us. To save us. To die for us. To rise from the dead for us. To come again on the Last Day for us. On that Great Day the lines will fall in eternally blessed and good places for those who look to Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Makes me smile to think of it. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying,25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” – Luke 1:5-25

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Luther’s room where he had his famous Table Talks. Some of them are earthy. Some of them were challenging. All of them are engaging. Wittenberg, Germany | August 2017

Perhaps it’s been your prayers for your granddaughter who has gone so far away from you, your whole family, the church and God. You have prayed for years that she would return. There seems to be no answer. It might be relentless prayers for healing from a chronic illness you have had to endure. The tests results continue to come back positive – which is not good news; the disease lingers. It might be prayers for reconciliation, for a renewed marriage, for relief from constant criticism. The prayers continue but seem never to be heard.

Elizabeth knows such times of prayer. So does Zechariah. But God is seldom in a hurry, and never late. In this moment of Zechariah’s service of the temple, God sows up and announces that Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayers have been heard. Furthermore the prayers have not only been heard, but they are being answered…in the affirmative. This old couple would have a son.

Two things seem important to me in this story:

  1. God’s answers to our prayers are seldom as simple and simplistic as we imagine. We think we just want the job, the child to respect us, the disease to go away. Those prayers impact others as well as ourselves: fellow employees, other family influences that need to be tested, doctors who need to discover just how graciously God answers prayer.
  2. There is always a bigger story playing out in the affairs of women and men. We might not recognize the ripples that undulate through the fabric of eternity as life unfolds all around us.

There is a bigger story playing out here. John’s birth is to be a signal for the world that the Christ was coming. God is unfolding a new chapter in the history of the universe. I wonder if Zechariah realized that as he listened to the angel Gabriel. I wonder how often we fail to see beyond the good fortune God brings into our lives. If we care only about the moments between the time our prayers are uttered and the time God actually seems to show up, we are very likely missing the whole point of his work in our lives.

I’m wondering just now about what God is unfolding around me as I wait for his answers to my prayers.