The Psalms – Songs for the journey
Starting Monday 4th January, we begin a new series in the psalms. To paraphrase a well-known ad: ‘A psalm a day helps you work, rest and pray.’ Let’s be nourished in this new year with the humility, the honesty, and the heartfelt faith of the psalmists, and may we find a voice to draw near to God each day.
Wednesday 27th January – Psalm 104:19-35 ‘All creatures look to you’
Very few of us like wasps. In fact, most people hate them – and certainly fear them. Wasps like are like the evil twins of bees – where bees create and bring life (through pollination), wasps just cause pain and destruction.
Or do they?
Watching a nature programme recently, I was amazed to hear Chris Packham extolling the virtues of wasps. In particular he showed us the nest of a certain African wasp. This wasp looked even scarier than the ones we have here – about twice the size of our native wasps, with a long red tail It also eats (and feeds its young) by dissolving caterpillar larvae with a particularly foul chemical which it injects into its prey. Just be glad we don’t have them here.
But, as Packham described, we have only recently come to understand their value. These wasps eat caterpillar larvae, which mean that the savannah is not overrun with hungry caterpillar grubs in the rainy season, which means that the foliage is not all eaten by these insects, which allows other animals to graze and to live. In other words, as Packham looked out on herds of wildebeest, and magnificent giraffes, zebras, deer and antelopes – these in part owe their existence to the wasps that eat the caterpillars who in turn don’t eat all the food they need to live on. And that also means that the great predators – lion, leopards, hyenas – can likewise survive because their prey do. So the iconic East African habitat works, in part, thanks to those horrible red-tailed wasps.
Our world is amazingly finely tuned. Every creature plays its part in creating a balanced ecosystem. Even wasps – which also pollinate by the way, it’s not all bees and butterflies. (Wasps get a rough deal, I think.)
Who do we thank for this extraordinary abundance? Modern science has done wonders in showing us how our world works. Species are interdependent, and the more we understand, the more we marvel. But sometimes science forgets that it is not a closed system – there is One who set it up in the first place, and continues to watch over it. The psalmists knew this, and time and again we are invited to marvel at the wonders of the natural world, and to praise their Creator.
The second half of Psalm 104 is a fabulous hymn of praise to God our Creator: ‘How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.’ And all creatures are invited to praise the Creator. It is God who sustains them: ‘All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time’ (v27) – whether it’s the birds (v17), the goats (v18) or the predators (v21-22). God’s Spirit is at work in all of Creation: ‘When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.’ (v30)
So today, let’s offer our thanks and praise too to our Creator. We also look to Him – and may this great and glorious God meet all of our needs today. Amen.
Tuesday 26th January – Psalm 104:10-18 ‘The land is satisfied’
I hope some of you were able to enjoy the snow! In many ways we had just the right amount in MK – enough to make everything look beautiful, but not so much to cause serious disruption. Other areas were less fortunate in that regard. But our land is certainly well-watered again – as it seems to have been for much of the last few weeks.
After the deluge of water referred to in yesterday’s verses, today’s verses show the benefits of water in our world: springs which ‘flow between the mountains’ (v10), watering the fields (v11), quenching the thirst of the animals (v11), and cultivating crops for animals and people (v14).
I’m conscious as I write this that flooding has recently affected a number of areas, and sadly, several hundred homes in various parts of the country. For these people today, it would be very hard to read such verses extolling the benefits of rainfall. Certainly we should hold all those affected in our thoughts and prayers.
Yet it’s worth reminding ourselves that much of Israel faced a yearly battle to get enough water – as indeed do many parts of our world. There is a wonderful African song which is called: ‘Rain, rain, beautiful rain.’ It’s hard for many of us Brits to understand why anyone would write such a song. But it’s in this context that the psalmist is so excited about God’s provision of enough water. Without water, we simply cannot live.
It’s no surprise, then, that water is presented as one of the greatest of God’s gifts, one which blesses all of his creation. It is through water that ‘the land is satisfied’ and teems with life. Through it, humans are blessed with other essentials, too: bread, oil and (dare I say it) wine which ‘gladdens our hearts’ (v15).
So today, let’s focus on water – and perhaps allow it to inform our prayers in various ways: first, to renew our thankfulness for the ease of access we have to it – much of the world would love to live somewhere with the amount of rainfall we have throughout the year; second to pray for those negatively affected by too much water or too little, especially those victims of flooding and drought; third, to pray for health and renewal of all creation which relies on water. This psalm describes so many glories of the natural world, and we humans remain those primarily tasked by God with looking after it.
And as we do this, may the Lord also fill our hearts with his living water, ‘a spring welling up to eternal life.’
Monday 25th January – Psalm 104:1-9 ‘Clothed with splendour’
Lockdown, for all its challenges, has also birthed plenty of new gifts. Many of us have used the confines of the season to learn a new skill. For my daughter Amelie, that has meant making her own clothes. She began with simple tops; then progressed to creating her own school shirts, stitching together two different fabrics – and pleased to reuse some of my old work shirts which no longer see the light of day!; now she is making a dress. She is also discovering her own style, which I think is admirable. When spring comes she will certainly be splendidly clothed!
The first part of today’s psalm takes the clothing analogy and applies it to God. How do we describe the greatness of the Lord? Often words fail us, and therefore very often the writers of the psalms – as we have noted before – use human images to help us picture the awesome majesty of the Almighty. So, here in verse 1: ‘Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty.’
Whilst God has glory within himself, it can be helpful to picture God’s attributes as things we can see or touch. Verses 2-9 describe two types of clothing, two facets of the glory of God. First, light: ‘The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment.’ (v2)
As I write, the snow is falling, which means the sky is bathed in this beautiful light, as the thick white clouds reflect the white surface of the world, and vice-versa. Whilst it’s unlikely that the psalmist saw much snow, they let a similar idea – that of heavenly light – point them back to God. The heavens are stretched out like a tent (v2), as God makes the clouds his chariot (v3). The glorious light of the sky points us towards an even more glorious God.
Similarly, water is the other form of clothing we see in this psalm, only this time it is a garment for God’s world. ‘You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment.’ (v6) Whilst the image is perhaps more unsettling, it reminds us that the powerful fundamental forces of nature are in God’s hands. To imagine God wrapped in light, as the earth is wrapped in water, is a picture of majesty and magnificence. We gaze in awe at the power and greatness of God.
The current crisis makes many of us feel small. But sometimes it’s not a bad thing to feel small if we know where to look for One who is huge. That would be God. The world faces some big things at present. But we worship an even bigger God – a great, big God, in the words of the famous children’s song. A God wrapped in light: light enough for the darkness of the world, even the darkness within our own lives.
Lord my God, you are very great. Help me to find comfort in your greatness. I feel small in the face of all that life throws at me at present. But you are glorious, and I pray for your light to shine into my life again today. Amen.
Saturday 23rd January – Psalm 103 (iii) ‘Not as we deserve’
On Wednesday morning, one of outgoing President Trump’s last acts was to grant presidential pardons to 143 people. The list makes interesting reading. Whilst some are clearly politically motivated, others take into account evidence of life-change or subsequent good works. A number have raised significant amounts for charity, or re-trained in prison.
Whatever we think of the outgoing president, there is still something powerful about the act of forgiveness enacted through a pardon. All these individuals had received, or were about to receive, the punishment their sins deserved – and then were shown mercy.
This goes to the heart of our text for today, and reminds us of a deep but glorious biblical truth about our relationship with God. All of us have fallen short of the life we were designed to have. All of us deserve the consequences for that. But God, in his great love and mercy, ‘does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities’ (v10).
In fact, the psalmist goes farther – declaring in one of the great texts of the Old Testament: ‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ (v11-12)
It is as if, the psalmist says, God has picked up our sins, flown across the Atlantic and buried the whole lot of them in the Nevada Desert. That’s how far God has taken our sin away.
God compassion is rooted in both our status as his children (v13) and our fragility as mortal beings (v14-16). God forgives because he is our perfect, eternal Father. We don’t need to earn it: we just have to receive it.
So today, as God’s beloved children, let’s remember what we have been forgiven. Let’s receive the gift of God’s new life, slowly transforming us from the inside out. And may these glorious truths cause praise to rise on our lips, as it does for psalmist at the end of this psalm:
Praise the Lord, all his works, everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul!
Friday 22nd January – Psalm 103 (ii) ‘Crowns you with love’
‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ This quote (or rather slight misquote!) from Shakespeare’s Henry IV is a great observation about the challenges of leadership and responsibility. Such things weigh upon us. Indeed, a literal crown for most monarchs is usually a heavy object: the King Edward Crown of Queen Elizabeth II weighs nearly 5lbs! Try wearing that for a long ceremonial occasion. The Queen might well have neck muscles like those on a Formula 1 racing driver.
On Wednesday, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the USA; and – notwithstanding that fact that his nation is a republic – now wears a heavy crown. No doubt there will be sleepless nights and many highs and lows ahead. He needs our prayers, as indeed all leaders do.
But there is a crown which does not weigh heavy. It is the crown mentioned here in verse 4: the crown of God’s love and compassion. What a beautiful phrase this is! God does not just offer us, or give us, these things: he crowns us with them.
The image suggests that these things are of great value – both to the giver but also to the wearer. To wear a crown is be bestowed with great worth. And so we are to God: the Lord thinks the world of us. He made no-one else like us. We bear his image. We are of infinite worth to him. So yes, we can rightly describe God’s love and compassion as a crown – just let that thought sink in for a moment, and warm your heart.
But let us also remember that to give us this crown, God also wore one while on earth. The only crown God ever wore was one of thorns: the ultimate act of self-giving love. A crown which weighed little in grams but weighed everything in cost. When God crowns us, let us never forget what crown God kept for himself.
We may never get to wear a physical crown. But today, let us rejoice that we wear a spiritual one. One given to us at such a cost: the crown of God’s love and compassion. And may that crown be worn not just in our heads, but also in our hearts.
Gracious God, thank you that I am worth everything to you. I gladly receive your crown of love. Fill me with your compassion, too, that I might also pass that on to others. Bless the Lord, my soul. Amen.
Thursday 21st January – Psalm 103 ‘All my inmost being’
‘Bless the Lord, my soul!’ This joyful beginning to one of the most famous psalms is both much loved and also sometimes causes a little head scratching: surely God blesses us, and not the other way round? The fact that most modern translations render the word as ‘praise’ is a sure sign that this idea troubles people. So let’s begin with a short explanation as to why we can bless God as well as rejoice that God blesses us: ‘When the Lord blesses us, he reviews our needs and responds to them; when we bless the Lord, we review his excellencies and respond to them.’ (J.A. Motyer)
In other words, it is not an equivalent action: to bless is to bestow God’s goodness on someone or something: so when we do that to God, we are not bestowing anything he doesn’t already have! So in that sense it is fair to translate it as ‘praise’: however, it’s worth keeping the original meaning as it reminds us that we are to be people of blessing. This goes to the heart of God’s promise to Abraham way back in Genesis 12: whenever we ‘bless’ God (and others) we fulfil that wonderful promise.
So let’s bless! And let’s also observe today the true source of this blessing on our part: ‘all my inmost being’ (v1). This throwaway phrase takes on profound importance as the bible develops, culminating in Jesus’ own teaching. In essence: to praise God with our lips and our lives requires us to start with our hearts and minds. It is the inner life which fuels the outward action.
So here King David feeds his mind by reminding himself in verses 3-5 of all the reasons he has to praise God: a God who forgives and heals, of love and compassion, who satisfies and renews.
This list is both uplifting and unsettling. Many will ask: why does David say that God heals all of our diseases when he patently does not? There is much debate over how to explain this: some try and change the meaning of ‘all’ to ‘all kinds of’ or to spiritualise the word ‘disease’ so that it might mean something other than its plain meaning. Both explanations are inadequate.
Instead, let’s observe first that these psalms are poems and songs written in a culture which likes to emphasise things through hyperbole. When Katrina sings that she’s walking on sunshine, we don’t assume that she has literally levitated on a warm day. It’s a powerful phrase which conveys an inner truth.
That’s a good place to start; but then, let’s go further and rely on the vital principle that we let scripture interpret itself. So when we see a set of declarations here, what else does the bible about these things? In this case, Scripture consistently affirms that in Christ God forgives every sin; that God does satisfy every godly desire, though not always as we expect; and certainly that God is love in the core of his being. So we can accept these wonderful phrases of David literally. Healing is more complicated: but what we can affirm is that in the new creation everything (and everyone) will be healed. So this phrase is equally true, but its meaning is only realised at a later point.
On this day when our sister church of St. Mary’s remembers a dearly loved brother at his funeral, let’s take comfort and hope that this word is gloriously true for him: that now he is fully healed and with our Lord in glory. And may God stir our hearts, that with ‘all our inmost being’ we too can bless God’s holy name. Amen.
Wednesday 20th January – Psalm 102 (ii) ‘The Lord will rebuild’
How will we recover from this current season? Our papers are full of this question most days: the progress of the vaccine; the relaxation of restrictions; the financial safeguards to alleviate poverty; the stimulus packages to create jobs and promote growth. And that’s all very well: it is the job of the secular government to do these things.
But it’s only part of the answer. There are deeper questions to ask: about wellbeing, about pain, about loss, about the disruption to relationships; and also (positively) about the increased hunger for God for community, for meaning. Who will rebuild these?
This Psalm is worth a second look, for all kinds of reasons. Its honest lament is probably one we could offer most days at present, and that would be enough in itself, although you might feel a bit short-changed if my reflection for today was: ‘read yesterday’s!’
Instead, let’s direct our attention to this important question which the psalm addresses: who will rebuild our spiritual and emotional wellbeing? Who will bind up our wounds? Who will bless the growth of the kingdom and community? The answer is clear: ‘the Lord will rebuild’ (v16).
Zion is biblical shorthand for the visible kingdom of God on earth. When everything seems hopeless or broken, God is still at work: God rebuilds; God responds (v17); God releases (v20); God remains (v27). God, and only God, can do this deeper work of rebuilding.
The journey of secular recovery is long and uncertain. There will be failures and frustrations. Kingdom work, too, is costly. But the difference is the architect. Our confidence is that the Lord will rebuild. And our Lord calls us to partner with him in this work – in prayer, and, in time, through action. Governments come and go: but the Lord remains the same. (v27)
Today, let’s call on our eternal God to do this work of rebuilding: in our lives; our churches; our communities; our nation; our world. It will be challenging: but we worship a great big God.
Lord of all the earth, life is hard. But you are good. Do your work of rebuilding, I pray: in me… in those around me… and in my community…. Appear in your glory in our fractured world, that, in time, all might assemble to worship you. Amen.
Tuesday 19th January – Psalm 102 ‘But you, Lord…’
This is a season of lament. Everywhere I go (which isn’t far at the moment, obviously), everyone I talk to, the sense is the same: a profound sadness and weariness. For some, it’s the acute grief of loss of someone close to them. For others, it’s other forms of loss: loss of contact, of pleasurable activities, of variety in life, of hope that things will get better anytime soon. But, with rare exceptions, for pretty much all of us: it is a season of loss. And therefore a season of lament.
In good times, we avoid psalms like today’s one. Too gloomy, too melodramatic: ‘my bones burn… reduced to skin and bones… like an owl among the ruins… thrown aside.’
But these are not psalms for the good times. We need language for the bad times too. For seasons like this. The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once said that his image of the psalms was of ‘a little old Jewish man shaking his fist at God.’ And the fact that we can shake our fist, that we can pour out our cry, that we can describe our sadness and our grief and maybe even our anger at God, is a great comfort. God is not insecure. God can take it – like a parent who holds their distraught child even as the child beats their fists against the parent’s chest.
And like all outpourings of grief, eventually the tears dry up and we are emptied. It’s what comes next that is significant. Sadly for some people, there is nowhere else to turn, hope is limited entirely by human factors. But for the psalmist, verse 11 is followed by the great affirmation of verse 12: ‘But you, Lord, sit enthroned for ever.’
The world lets us down – repeatedly. But God isn’t going anywhere. God is still on his throne. And God’s character doesn’t change: ‘You will arise and have compassion.’ (v13) That’s a promise for us, too, and not just the people of the day.
It’s not a magic wand. But it helps us – as we saw on Sunday – both to look down and to look up. To look down at the sure foundation beneath our feet. To look up to God’s throne, and know that there is something – Someone – greater than ourselves, in whose shadow we can find rest.
So if you resonate with this psalm today, don’t be afraid to pour out your lament to God. And then read v12 and 13, and ask God to fix your gaze where you might find hope: in the Lord of heaven and earth. Amen.
Monday 18th January – Psalm 101 ‘Eyes on the faithful’
‘I’ve got my eye on you!’ That’s what my old vicar said to me a year or so after I’d joined the church. I was in my late 20s and had started helping out in various ways. I didn’t think much about what he said at the time, though looking back maybe he saw something about my future which I didn’t pursue actively for some years yet. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t worried about his job!
But the idea of ‘keeping an eye on’ something is a familiar phrase to us. We use it in lots of ways – it can denote positive interest or (negative) suspicion. What do you keep an eye on? Breaking news, the weather, some shares you own, your neighbour’s frisky dog, the hairline crack in your wall?
The truth is we keep our eyes on lots of things. Today, though, King David encourages us to keep our eyes on something – or someone – else. ‘My eyes,’ he says, ‘will be on the faithful in the land.’ (v6)
This is a less well-known psalm, and unusually focuses much more on the lifestyle of the psalmist than the greatness of God – though there is praise as well, and to a large degree the two are linked in this psalm. David’s desire is to lead a holy life, and to promote holiness within his people too. So he wants nothing to do with wickedness (vv3-4) but rather to lead a blameless life, which welcomes the presence of God (v2).
As part of this ‘holy culture’ he also directs his attention to those who, like him, want to do God’s will. Those are the people he not only wants to hang out with, but who will themselves ‘minister to him’ (v6).
It’s a useful reminder that we walk this journey of faith together. As we long to grow in our relationship with God, so we find encouragement and strength from doing so with others who want the same. This current season has made it difficult to meet together as we normally would: but today, let’s receive the words of this psalm as an encouragement to turn our eyes towards our faithful brothers and sisters, finding creative ways to ‘dwell’ with them and minister to each other.
That might be a phone call, or a time spent in prayer for particular people, or perhaps both. But as we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let’s rejoice that we walk together, under God. Let’s keep our eyes on those who are part of our family of faith, that God, too, might come to us.
Thank you Lord, for the family of the church. Thank you for all those who long to walk in step with you. Help us to keep our eyes on each other, that we might minister your love, and dwell as your people wherever you have put us. Amen.
Saturday 16th January – Psalm 100 ‘Through all generations’
We live in a culture which focuses largely on the now. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ and the future is a crystal ball. Only the present matters.
Whilst we inevitably have to live in the here and now, we also lose so much if we get caught up with this attitude. And not just in practical terms: ‘those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,’ as the old saying goes. It is a spiritual problem too. One of the great strengths of Jewish culture – and many others too – is the sense of ancestry, of a spiritual past. Time and again, God’s people are encouraged to remember the past, what God has done throughout history.
This sense of collective remembrance has a spiritual purpose. It reminded them – and us – of who God is. The actions defined the character. How do we know that God is loving, or good, or faithful? Look at what He’s done. Creation, covenant, and then miraculous rescue, time and again. And this is before we even get to Jesus! As we honour the past, so we see God’s faithfulness writ large.
It applies at a small scale too. We will have personal stories that form part of our past, as well as the famous stories of the heroes of the faith. Never forget them. Take time occasionally to remember them, to declare them. Perhaps today might be a moment to do so for a few minutes.
As we reflect on this short but wonderful psalm, it feels like its ending is really the beginning. This is our bedrock, as it was for God’s people thousands of years ago when this psalm was written: ‘The Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.’ (v5)
This is why we can be encouraged to ‘shout for joy’ (v1), to relate to God as our Good Shepherd (v3), to spend time in his presence (v4).
God has been faithful. He is faithful. He will be faithful. May that make us glad today. Amen.
Friday 15th January – Psalm 99 ‘Between the cherubim’
When I was a student one of the pictures I had on my wall was part of a famous painting by Raphael (The Sistine Madonna) depicting two small angels looking up at Mary. You’ll probably recognise the image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rafael,_Putti.jpg . I studied Raphael, and always found the nonchalance of these two cherubs charming, and perhaps slightly subversive.
But there’s a problem with this kind of image. Take the word ‘cherub’ and this is usually the kind of image we think of: lovable, childlike, dare I say it ‘cute’. So when we read in today’s passage that God sits ‘enthroned between the cherubim’ (v1) – plural of cherub – we might imagine a scene which pictures God as a Sunday School teacher on a plastic chair surrounded by lots of adoring (or bored) young children on a mat. A vision which seems to jar with the first line of the verse, too: that this God, surrounded by all his cherubs, is so majestic that the nations ought to tremble. We don’t tend to employ Sunday School teachers like that anymore – though maybe we did once!
The underlying issue here is that we’ve got our image of cherubs rather wrong. Although there is a long-held Jewish tradition that depicts cherubs with children’s faces, the rest of them is not so, well, cherubic. Cherubs are magnificent, awe-inspiring creatures. They appear as divine guards in Genesis 3:24 when Adam and Eve have been banished from the Garden of Eden.
Their ‘guarding’ role is also at the heart of God’s relationship with his people: in the Most Holy Place a pair of cherubim flank the ark of the covenant: one each side, each 15 feet high with a 15-foot wingspan, touching in the middle. And between them, the ark of the covenant: holding the tablets with the Ten Commandments, and with the atonement cover on top, where, once a year, the High Priest sprinkled the sacrificial blood which atoned for the sins of the people.
So the description that God sits ‘enthroned between the cherubim’ is one of majesty and mercy. It reminds us of God’s awesome holiness – so holy that, under the Law, only one person once a year could enter his presence, and even then only when the room was filled with the smoke of incense.
But also merciful: the place ‘between the cherubim’ became known as The Mercy Seat – the place where this majestic, holy God lovingly forgave our sin and restored us to his presence.
The place between the cherubim is the place where God met with the world on earth, in majesty and mercy. No wonder, then, that this is one of the ‘awe-some’ psalms, where our response to this glorious God is reverence and praise. It also explains why most of the rest of the psalm talks about God’s justice, and also the famous priests who ministered on God’s behalf.
The wonderful good news of Christ is that he was the perfect sacrifice at the mercy seat – for all people, for all time. We can all now have the freedom and confidence to approach the Most Holy Place of God’s presence (Hebrews 10:19). It’s easy to forget what a privilege this is: let’s claim that freedom again today, in Jesus’ name, and bring our lives and our prayers to God, the One who graciously answers (v6,v8).
Mighty God, who reigns forever, thank you that we have access to your glorious presence. We worship at your footstool today. Hear our prayers, especially….. Thank you that you answer. Help us to hold onto you. Amen.
Thursday 14th January – Psalm 98 ‘The work of salvation’
‘Shout to the Lord, all the earth, let us sing: power and majesty, praise to the King. Mountains bow down and the seas will roar at the sound of your name. I sing for joy at the work of your hands.’
Some of you will recognise those words as the chorus of one of the most popular worship songs of the last thirty years: ‘My Jesus, my Saviour.’ They’re taken directly from the verses of this psalm (v4, then vv7-8, then v1). And yet, these words were written hundreds of years before Jesus – which begs a useful question: what is ‘the work of God’s hands’ being referred to here? What ‘salvation is being made known’?
The psalm itself doesn’t tell us, but by and large whenever the Old Testament writers – especially the psalmists and prophets – refer to a saving act which God has already done, they’re usually referring to the miraculous rescue from Egypt, especially the two saving acts of Passover and the Crossing of the Red Sea. These were acts of literal salvation which decisively showed the Israelites that this God was their God, and they were his people.
The annual Passover celebration instituted from that moment reminded every generation of what God had done, and instructed the people to ‘make that salvation known’ (v2) afresh. They are called to remember, even as God remembers his love (v3).
But God’s saving work didn’t end at a point in history. God continued to rescue his people: in the time of Gideon, or David, or Hezekiah, and even after exile through the courage of Esther. God always remembers his love for his people.
And so we fast forward several centuries to a new Passover, a new Crossing from certain death to promised life – this time seen on a cross and then in an empty tomb. A new marvellous work of God, whose holy arm works salvation. Our God is the same: yesterday, today and forever. He continues to save, and Jesus is the true and greatest fulfilment of this psalm of praise. What was enacted for a particular people at the Red Sea was enacted for all people for all time at Calvary. There Jesus revealed God’s righteousness to the nations, so that all the ends of the earth might see the salvation of our God.
So it is quite right for that famous song to put Jesus at the heart of this psalm. And perhaps, if we know it, we too can sing the song in response. Let us sing a new song today, and be inspired to make his salvation known wherever God grants us the chance.
Loving Lord, I sing for joy at the work of your hands. Thank you that you always remember your love for me. Help me to abide in that love, and know your continuing saving work in my life. Amen.
Wednesday 13th January – Psalm 97 ‘Good foundations’
A few years ago we tried to buy a house in Manchester. My sister lives there and the idea was that once we’d bought it, she would have the security of long-term tenancy and (reasonably) nice landlords. However, when we had the survey done we discovered huge problems with subsidence. It was a Victorian end-of-terrace at the bottom of the slope and over the last century had been very gradually sinking. We sadly had to withdraw. Thankfully my sister is well housed elsewhere!
It was a harsh lesson in the importance of good foundations. Every good edifice rests on them. And in today’s psalm, we learn that God’s throne has vital foundations, too: they are ‘righteousness and justice’ (v2).
It’s easy to see these words as being ‘cold’ or abstract, but that would fall short of their original meaning. Biblical scholars have emphasised the relational meaning of both of these words. Here’s how one described each: ‘righteous action is action which conforms to the requirements of the relationship and in a more general sense promotes the peace and wellbeing of the community’; justice [is] the strongly ethical notion of action which is to be legally upheld because it is productive of communal wellbeing.’
That might sound like a mouthful, but it’s a valuable insight because it earths these foundational words in God’s relationship with us. When God is righteous, he is righteous for the good of his creation – including us; when God is just, he is just towards us.
Although we might instinctively have preferred something a bit cuddlier like ‘love and peace’ as the foundation of God’s throne, in fact what we get is something even better. God’s righteousness assures us that his love is perfectly directed. God’s justice is what secures our peace. As the old liberation slogan reminds us: ‘No peace without justice.’ Wonderfully, in knowing God we get both.
So we can be thankful for these words! God’s throne is founded on two pillars which ultimately secure our wellbeing, too – righteousness and justice. The heavens proclaim it (v6); and we are called to model it too (vv10-12). We are called to live just and righteous lives because we are made in God’s image and therefore reflect our Maker’s intentions.
In our shifting world, God’s throne is secure. And we too can rest secure in these same unchanging qualities. May those qualities shine on us today (v11), producing joy and praise in our hearts and on our lips.
Just and righteous Lord, thank you that your foundations are secure. Help us to rest firm on those same foundations. Guard our lives today, and deliver us from evil. Shine on us, we pray, and in all the dark places of our community. Amen.
Tuesday 12th January – Psalm 96 (ii) ‘The splendour of holiness’
Holy people have this thing about them, don’t they? To come into the presence of someone who really walks closely with God – it’s a strangely affecting experience. I knew a person like that in London. He had a huge impact on my spiritual life: I must confess when I first met him I found him a bit scary – but I also felt drawn to them. There was just something magnetic – you might say splendid – about them.
Others have testified to similar experiences when meeting other, more celebrated holy people. Great humility or love has something of awe about it. It was even said that the birds used to flock to St Francis of Assisi just to land on him! Who knows if that’s true – but it’s a lovely image, nonetheless.
Today, in this second reflection on Psalm 96, we are invited to ‘worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness’ (v9). I’ve always found this phrase interesting, because in modern thinking, being holy is not thought of in that way at all. We tend to think of it negatively: being a killjoy, or disapproving, or self-righteous. Not a very splendid thing.
Of course, such parodies are way off the mark. And today’s psalm invites us to recapture the real essence of what it means to be holy – i.e. ‘set apart’. God’s perfection is magnificent. To be holy as God is holy means to be perfect in love, in wisdom, in joy, in patience, in gentleness, as well as in authority and justice. It is, quite literally, awe-some. It carries with it the weight of glory.
When we meet truly holy people today, we see something of that reflected light. It’s why saints in old paintings are always pictured with haloes – auras of light around their being. They reflect the glory of the One who is truly holy: God Almighty – perfect in power, in love and purity, as the old hymn would have it.
Amazingly, this is our calling too. Most of us feel that we haven’t got very far with that – and yet, because Christ dwells with us, in our hearts, so we too are being slowly transformed into his likeness ‘with ever-increasing glory’.
So today, let’s delight in the splendour of God’s holiness. Let’s pray for eyes to see its glory and magnificence, to bask in its reflected light. And, by God’s grace, may some of that light rub off on us too.
Loving and mighty Lord, you reign. You reign over the earth. You reign in my heart. You have all glory and strength, and I delight in your magnificent holiness. I offer you myself today, the only worthy offering I can make. Fill my heart anew with the light of your presence. Amen.
Monday 11th January – Psalm 96 ‘A new song’
A couple of years ago we took out a subscription to Amazon Prime’s ‘Music Unlimited’. Generally the Trendalls are always late to any technological party – I still mourn the demise of beacons on hillsides as the primary means of communicating news. Admittedly, many of my peers have been users of a music subscription channel for 5 or 10 years. But by our standards, this was a revolution. Suddenly almost every song that had ever been published – 50 million or so pieces of music – was available for us to listen to: anytime, anywhere.
Today’s psalm begins by inviting us to ‘Sing to the Lord a new song.’ In today’s world, this could be considered straightforward when you’ve got 50 million songs to choose from – but how do we lift our hearts in faith to sing a new song every day? Surely words are limited? Feelings are finite? What does a ‘new song’ really mean?
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to minister to some wonderful old saints – people who inspired me far more than I ever did them. And what’s noticeable about such amazing people is that, no matter their age, their faith is young – it is childlike, enthusiastic. They wake up with God every morning as if they found faith just yesterday, and it still causes them wonder. They speak of God with the joy of the newly-in-love. They remember answers to prayer with excitement and thanksgiving, as if this was something that had just started to happen to them.
I think this is what the psalmist means by a new song. God does not change. His character is steadfast, constant – always loving, faithful and good. He remains the same, yesterday, today and forever. But whilst this is true, one of the keys to faith is that we receive these truths as ‘new every morning’. They remain fresh, exciting, awe-inspiring. They put praise on our lips, peace in our hearts and joy in our spirits. They cause us to ‘proclaim his salvation day-after-day’ (v2), and ‘declare his glory among the nations’ (v3).
It’s easy to get tired and stale – in faith as in life. Never more so, perhaps, than at present. Which is why the infectious joy of the psalmist is so valuable. I need a bit of whatever he or she is having! Maybe you do too.
So today, can I encourage you to pray this psalm, and offer your praises to God. And may God renew our hearts as we do, so that we would, this day and every day, sing a new song to the Lord. Amen!
Saturday 9th January – Psalm 95 ‘Above all gods’
As many of you know, I’ve always loved my football. I played (not very well) till I was 40, and Match of the Day remains a staple of my viewing habits. I’m too old now to stay up till midnight on Saturday watching it live, it’s a with-breakfast pilgrimage on Sunday and Monday mornings for me!
My favourite part of the show has long been ‘Goal of the Month’. The show picks 6 or 8 of the best goals of the previous few weeks and then the winner is chosen at the end of the show. It used to be by the presenters themselves, though now you can vote online. The winning goal gets shown again and also goes into the draw for ‘Goal of the Season’.
Many people think about matters of faith a bit like Goal of the Month. In the end, all ‘gods’ are like these good goals – fundamentally the same, you just pick whichever one you like the best, or that your team scored. It doesn’t really matter which, because a goal is a goal, isn’t it?
Today’s psalm reminds us that, when it comes to ‘things eternal’, this way of thinking isn’t really an option. There is only one God – the Lord, ‘Yahweh’ (v1,v3) – and this God is ‘above all gods’.
The psalm also reminds us that there are good reasons for ascribing ultimate authority to this one God. He made the whole world (v4), even the powerful seas (v5) – and, crucially, he forms a loving relationship with his people (v7). Unlike the other capricious deities of the time, this God wasn’t unpredictable or tyrannical. Nor does this God just wind the clock up and let it run: he engages with his world, he takes pastoral care of us.
Shepherds in ancient Israel lived and travelled with their sheep, protected them from danger (no paddocks or fenced fields in those days), fought off wild animals, walked miles to find water and pasture – in other words, gave everything for their wellbeing, because their flock was precious.
This is the God we worship! And it’s helpful sometimes to reflect on whether we’ve unconsciously allowed other things to divert our gaze from adoring this God. We might not have ‘idols’ or shrines as such, but a ‘god’ can be anything that takes our attention away from our Creator. Money, popularity, an all-consuming hobby, an addiction – you name it.
Today, we can declare with confidence, that God is above all these gods. This God –our God – is the true and only ruler of the earth. ‘If only we would hear his voice’ (v7) – and of course, when we read this psalm, we do! And this voice tells us that God is our Rock, our salvation, our shepherd, and that we are precious to him.
May these glorious truths inspire us to thanksgiving and worship today.
O Lord my Rock, you are the great God, above all others. I gladly put you first, and worship you with thanks and praise. Truly I am in your care – be my shepherd today. Amen.
Friday 8th January – Psalm 94 ‘Founded on righteousness’
I must confess that I’m too young to remember the classic 1960s TV series The Avengers. On the other hand, I’m also too old to have watched all of the recent Marvel film series, also called Avengers. So I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of cultural reference points in this whole area! What is true, though, is that while many of us watch or read stories about people who avenge on behalf of others, in this day and age we feel uncomfortable ascribing this kind of behaviour to God.
Today’s psalm is one of those that doesn’t get read much nowadays. Psalm 91, 95, 96, 97 and 98 – the ones all around it, in other words – are very popular, and often read or quoted. Psalm 94…. not so much. The reason is there in the first line: ‘The Lord is a God who avenges’. It’s ironic in some ways because we don’t have a problem with the idea generally, as the popularity of ‘avenge’ motifs in culture makes clear. And avenging is different to revenging, which is a critical distinction to make. Revenge is something we do personally to someone else in the face of something we have suffered. Avenging is more objective: it is justice meted out usually on behalf of someone else – i.e. not as a result of our own injury. So we do need avengers – those who enact justice on behalf of others.
What’s important about these ‘avenging’ psalms – and there are plenty of them – is that by asking God to act, we are removing our own right to do so. When faced with injustice, we take it to God, rather than take the law into our own hands. This is the value of these psalms – they provide an outlet for our cries for justice, and take those cries to the one true source of justice and righteousness: the Lord God Almighty.
I’m sure it will have been hard for many of us to read the words of this psalm – which particularly addresses the issue of bad governance – and not find ourselves thinking of particular countries or situations in the world at present. It is not for me to comment on any of those directly: but what this psalm does is provide us with a blueprint for how to face issues of corruption (v20), injustice (v5,v7, v21), hubris (v4) and violence (v6) in our world and turn them back to God in prayer.
Ultimately we go back to the ‘Rock that is higher than I’ – we ask God to intervene. Psalm 94 gives us permission to name injustices and pray for God’s will to be done. We seek God’s justice, mercy and righteousness.
And as we do that, we find ourselves able to claim two wonderful promises hidden in this psalm: we find consolation in our anxiety (v19), and refuge in a time of trial (v22). How we need that at present!
One day, ‘judgement will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it’ (v15). But until then, let’s be thankful for these psalms, which give us words to approach God with the very real problems of our world; and remind us that God cares enough about his world to intervene.
‘Lord, in our fractured world, we ask you to bring your justice and mercy to wherever it is needed. Protect the vulnerable, frustrate the wicked, promote justice and grant us your consolation and refuge today. Support us, O Lord, with your unfailing love, and bring us joy. Amen.
Thursday 7th January – Psalm 93 ‘Robed in majesty’
Not many people have robes nowadays – at least , I don’t think they do! It’s a garment associated with authority or magnificence, isn’t it? The Queen even has her own Mistress of the Robes, a post which dates back to the 16th century, albeit now it’s more ceremonial than literal.
And this is the language of today’s psalm, which begins: ‘The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty.’ Whilst God is Spirit, many psalms and other scriptures like to imagine God as a physical monarch, with suitable imagery for authority and magnificence. ‘Robed in majesty’ is a wonderful, evocative phrase, but it’s no mere window dressing (pardon the pun). In this short psalm, we’re invited to sample the evidence for God’s majesty.
First, there’s our earth. A stable planet, which even the ancients knew to be ‘firm and secure’. I love playing records, and am always surprised to discover how many of my collection are older than I am. I can take out a piece of black plastic that’s still in pristine condition aged 60 – if only that would be true of me in time to come!
But these silly human comparisons pale when compared to the age of the earth. People often quote modern understandings of the age of the earth – approx 4 billion years – as being an argument against God. But here the psalmist – 3,000 years ago, remember – uses it as an argument in favour of God. He made something that can last 4 billion years. Puts every empire, every construction, every piece of human ingenuity into the shade, doesn’t it?
Then there’s his throne, which is likewise established ‘long ago’. Whilst we can’t point to a literal throne, we know that God’s authority has been seen in his dealings with our world for thousands of years – God has been God for as long as humans have existed. God is, as the psalm says, ‘from all eternity.’
Next, there are the seas – which in ancient thought symbolised all the forces of chaos and darkness. But in this marvellous poetic image, even the seas ‘have lifted up their voice’, because God is mightier than even the greatest waves. In other words, even the strongest force in nature is as nothing compared to the greatness of God.
Finally, there are God’s ‘statutes’ – that is, his laws and promises. These, too, stand firm. There is an air of permanence about everything God does, and his character (his ‘holiness’) does not change.
In our shifting times, our uncertain world, how good it is to reflect on the unchanging majesty, might and authority of God. It is this God into whose loving hands we place ourselves today. And may that thought give us the confidence of hope, the strength of joy and the peace that passes understanding today.
Father thank you that you are robed in majesty. I lift my voice to you, even as the great waves do. Help me to stand firm and secure upon the rock of your promises. Abide with me today. Amen.
Wednesday 6th January – Psalm 92 ‘Good to praise’
‘Dear Optimist and Pessimist, while you were arguing about whether the glass was half full or half empty, I drank it. Yours sincerely, The Pragmatist.’
This great little note was written on the door of the staff room at the café for the homeless in Bristol where our church used to take teams regularly. It always put a smile on my face before we opened the doors, and at the end of the evening when I came to get my coat.
I wonder how you would describe yourself: are you naturally a glass half-full or half-empty sort of person? It’s not a moral judgement to answer either way, the world needs both. Half-empty people are more naturally inclined to effect change, even if those changes are more likely to be appreciated by half-full people!
But when it comes to approaching God, it’s quite helpful to be a bit of both. ‘It is good to praise….’ begins our psalm for today. It was a song specially written for Sabbath worship, but its application is universal. It is a healthy attribute of faith and life to praise God – from first thing in the morning to last thing at night (v2).
There’s no caveat to this declaration: it’s not just for the good times. It might be said that praise is especially important in the not-so-good times. In that sense, it’s good to be half-full people – we can praise God’s character (v2) and what God has already done (vv4-5). Things that don’t change, things that form the bedrock of our lives.
We need to praise. Praise lifts our hearts and our spirits. Praise restores a sense of gratitude and wonder. Praise renews our faith, and gives us courage to believe that God is still God, that he still loves us and will remain faithful, and that, one way or another, things will be OK.
Far from being an escape from reality, praise anchors us in reality, and balances our perspective again. What is interesting in this psalm is how open the psalmist is about having enemies, and being surrounded by wickedness (vv6-11). These sections of the psalms are never easy to read to our modern sensibilities, not least because these enemies are usually described as particular people – but it’s possible to generalise the idea of enemies as being all the bad things that we face in the world, and especially those things which drag us away from God.
Whilst we may not wish to visualise particular people, we can all imagine other challenges of situations where we can declare God’s victory and find hope and inspiration once again. That’s why I still read the whole psalm, rather than the edited highlights!
In that sense, this type of praise in all situations is for the half-empty people too, those of us who are naturally wired to notice difficulties and problems. The pattern of the psalmist reminds us that we can take these honestly to God and declare his victory. We live our faith in the valley as well as the mountaintop.
Praise ultimately is what helps us to flourish (v12-13). It gives us a healthy perspective: celebrating the good, finding faith to face the bad. May God inspire us to praise this day: why not pray through this psalm for a few moments, declaring God’s praises, that we too might flourish ‘in the courts of our God’ today.
Tuesday 5th January – Psalm 91 ‘Under his wings’
This psalm has long been a favourite of many people, but in this year of all years it has taken on an added poignancy. Verses 3-6 seem to capture the prayer that most of us want to pray at present – we do fear a ‘deadly pestilence’ and it’s natural to pray for protection from it.
I myself have often returned to this psalm over the years, and prayed it for key seasons of my life. The imagery of divine protection is profound and beautiful: ‘resting in the shadow of the Almighty’, ‘finding refuge under his wings’, ‘no disaster will come near your tent’ (a phrase beloved of campers everywhere!), ‘lifted up in angels’ hands…’
I remember hearing of one lady who memorised this psalm, to use as she went into an MRI scanner which diagnosed a brain tumour. It’s that kind of psalm, and this year Psalm 91 has gone to the top of many Christians’ most used scriptures.
Yet we need to sound a note of caution. Fundamentally, it is good and right to pray for protection in anxious times – and this psalm gives us the words for that. But we must beware using this psalm as some kind of magic charm. To pray it is not to guarantee that we’ll never catch Covid, or something equally nasty. There must have been people who’ve been severely affected by the virus, or even died from it, who read and prayed this psalm.
Above all, we must avoid the conclusion that somehow we have to pray this psalm to be protected. It is sobering to remember that the devil quoted – or rather misquoted – this psalm when tempting Jesus to put God to the test (Matthew 4:5-7).
In matters of sickness and healing, there is a mystery to these things. In many ways, this psalm is a natural partner to the previous psalm (90), which equally recognised our fragility in the face of bigger forces at work. What such threats and dangers do is to cast us back upon God’s mercy and protection: we recognise that our illusion of control is exactly that, and we seek with fresh urgency God’s love and favour, his divine sustenance instead.
Treated in that way, this remains a glorious psalm, one which practises true humility in the face of all kinds of dangers, be they viral (v3,6), physical (v5,7,10), emotional (v5) or spiritual (v2). Let’s pray the beginning and the end of this psalm, and may it be the air that we breathe today:
Lord, grant me grace to shelter under your wings. Be my refuge and fortress today. Answer me in trouble, rescue and protect me, and show me your salvation. For you are my God, in whom I trust. Amen.
Monday 4th January – Psalm 90 ‘A heart of wisdom’
It’s not easy to read the first half of this psalm – especially, perhaps, in the current season. None of us really like to be reminded of the fragility of life when we have pointed reminders of it in our daily news.
And yet the enduring appeal of the psalms is precisely their raw honesty. The psalms allow us to tell it like it really is, to express what is really going on inside our hearts, sometimes even to say the unsayable – and we love them for it.
It is a great comfort to have 150 songs, poems and prayers of such depth and honesty right at the heart of our scriptures. They tell us that our God is not a tyrant whose ego cannot tolerate criticism, but a loving parent who can withstand our rants and tears as well as our successes and cries of praise. They earth our doctrines in lived experiences. They make faith real.
Personally, give me honesty over platitudes any day. I imagine most of us feel the same. So this year, we’ll begin with a walk through a section of the psalms – and my hope and prayer is that in them we will find a voice which echoes our innermost thoughts and feelings, and grounds them in God’s love and goodness.
What we also notice is that in the worldview of the psalmist, God is always the main actor – at the centre of the stage. Things happen because God wills it. And whilst that sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading, on balance it is a healthy counterpoint to the modern view (even among Christians) which often relegates God to the sidelines of the drama. At its root, there’s an infectious humility which we all need – and never more so than at present.
So, how does the writer of psalm 90 respond to their reflections on the fragility of life and the challenges of suffering? They ask God for several things: to accept their mortality (v12), which they describe as the ‘heart of wisdom’; to be satisfied with the sufficiency of God’s unfailing love (v14); to find joy again after a season of sorrow (v15); and for their work to bear fruit, according to God’s blessing (v17).
It’s not a bad perspective to face the new year, is it? It strikes me that verse 12 onwards is a great prayer to pray – and I invite you to join me, that we might all gain the humble trust of the psalmist:
Lord, teach me to number my days rightly, that I might gain a heart of wisdom.
Lord, so often I do not allow myself to be satisfied with the assurance of your love – so today, I pray, satisfy me with that glorious truth and plant it in my heart.
As your love dwells in me, make me glad and grant me the gifts of gratitude and unexpected joy in this season of sorrow.
And may your favour rest upon me, that all I do might bear fruit for you. Amen.
Christmas 2020: please enjoy any of the recent series for November and December below. Alternatively, to try an ’embodied liturgy’ click on the link below!
Our Virtual Advent Calendar – click here to see it! – reaches its climax on Christmas Eve with an amazing timelapse version of the image for 24th December, created by Emily. To watch this timelapse set to music, click here, or click this back-up link.
Our Daily Inspirations follow the same themes as the Advent Calendar – the latest posts are available below.
Spoiler alert: the reflection for Christmas Eve is the transcript of Matt’s talk for the Midnight Communion service.
Day 24: Christmas Eve – Isaiah 9:2,6-7 ‘A great light’
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
We live in dark and anxious times. Fears for our health, for our loved ones, for our prosperity, for our mental wellbeing are all prevalent in our hearts and minds this Christmas. We are not alone in this – such fears are widespread across our world – but they are none the less real for that.
We need the light.
But what use is a light, we say – what about a vaccine, or a trade deal, or just a Christmas meal with our loved ones? Isn’t that what we really need? Is not this talk of light just a distraction?
These are fair questions to ask, but I think they miss something: our world runs according to deeper truths, deeper realities. Truths which outlast the crises of our, or any, passing age. The light shone long before us, and will shine long after we are gone.
And we need light for what it brings to us. We need light for its perspective. When the light shines, we see things as they really are. We see God coming to earth, bringing salvation, bringing hope and healing, bringing love, authority and wisdom. We see the dawn of redeeming grace – God’s great rescue plan put into operation.
May God grant us grace to see life again as it really is, infused with the light of God’s coming into the world.
We need the light for the warmth that it brings. In ancient societies all forms of light generated measurable heat. And the light of Christmas is not just something to stand and admire, or to gaze upon. When Jesus comes, he promises his very presence, here in our hearts. ‘Behold I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ The light of the world brings us warmth: intimacy with God, the chance to discover unexpected peace in our hearts, and praise on our lips.
May God grant us grace to welcome the light of his presence in our hearts, and be warmed by his love and peace.
We need the light to be guided on right paths. So much of what happens we can’t control at the moment. There are forces at play – be they viral or political – which seem overwhelming. But if we can’t change the world, we can change the world in us. We can still be bringers of light to others, we can still share grace and peace with those around us, we can choose the quietly radical path of peace-making and joy-bringing in the small places where we do have an influence.
May God grant us grace to be guided by light to be bringers of light to others.
We may still wish things were different. And that’s normal and natural. I do, too. But can I encourage us all to look in two directions this season. Firstly to look down, into the face of God lying in that manger, and see that hope still lives on in the world. And then to look up, towards the light – the light which shines in the darkness, and still shines – and the darkness does not overcome it.
And may God’s light shine in our hearts, our homes, our families, our nation, and our world this Christmas. Amen.
Day 23: Wednesday 23rd December – Matthew 2:9-12 ‘They opened their treasures’
Our best wedding present was in many ways the most unlikely. Like most couples we’d received a lot of wonderful gifts to start a new home. Shortly after we’d arrived back from honeymoon we received one final gift, which came in an unmarked brown cardboard box, wrapped up with brown parcel tape. For those of you who like bows, tags and hospital corners on your wrapped edges, this would have given you palpitations. What on earth was it?
However, when we opened it (with some difficulty), we discovered inside a beautiful crystal lamp – like a larva lamp only much prettier – and an amazing poem written specially for us and our wedding. It was a unique gift: in fact, two unique gifts, both of which were among the best we’d ever received, and from the same dear friend.
The theme of unusual but well-chosen gifts sits at the heart of our reading for today. I guess if you’re going to trek 600 miles across the world, you’d better bring something with you. And as the Magi finally get to meet the new king they’d come so far to see, and after they had knelt in his presence in worship, it was time to crack open the chest and offer the (now obligatory) baby shower presents.
Much is made of the meaning of the presents and their prophetic significance: gold for a king, frankincense for an offering to God, myrrh foreshadowing what Jesus came to do i.e. his sacrificial death. And that’s all true – we can interpret the outline of Jesus’ life and ministry purely from those extraordinary treasures. But today, let’s observe very simply that these were unexpected gifts. After all, there was no reason to assume that this unknown king needed any more gold; frankincense was for priests, not kings; and myrrh was the equivalent of bringing a food-poisoning testing kit to a dinner party.
But God used those unexpected gifts, and did something wonderful with them. And not just as a prophetic sign: the gold probably kept the family alive as they fled into exile. Frankincense might have helped sustain their home prayer life as they left behind the familiar festivals and rituals of their home country. And myrrh could remind them of their unusual visitors and the greater sense that God was up to something special.
This Christmas many of us will share fewer gifts than usual. That is rightly a cause of sadness and regret. But let’s take heart from today’s story and pray instead that we would give and receive unexpected gifts. Anything offered to Jesus can be used for his glory. What treasures might you open as you worship the newborn king?
Day 22: Tuesday 22nd December – Matthew 2:3-8 ‘Greatly disturbed’
In February each year, the charity Open Doors publishes its World Watch List. This constitutes the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian – places where it is not just frowned upon but actually illegal to convert or own a bible, and where persecution is commonplace. Sadly, the list could be longer than 50, and the levels of danger experienced by Christians has risen sharply in many places over the last 20 years.
Whilst many of these countries will point to a clash of religious cultures as the root of this issue, in other places it is much more overtly political. No matter that most Christians are peace-loving, servant-hearted, and in many other respects model citizens: hardworking, clean living, law-abiding. Power corrupts, and there are many ‘powers’ across the world who hate the idea that any of their citizens might ultimately worship a different boss. Or indeed that they might themselves be answerable to a Higher Power.
This insecurity in the face of the Lordship of Christ is nothing new. It started right from his birth. As the Magi enter the court of puppet King Herod, propped up by the Romans and every bit as venal and ruthless as popular history makes him out to be, news of a new king, a true king, is not welcome.
Herod has already executed several members of his own family, including his wife Mariamne, in the paranoid belief that this will help him cling on to power. To have foreign travellers journeying hundreds of miles to worship someone else right on his doorstep is frankly horrifying, and yet another threat to his rule.
We love to read the prophecies of the coming Messiah, one of which is quoted in today’s reading. They stir the heart and fire the imagination. But Herod’s response sets another, more sobering context for these prophecies. They never come in a vacuum. A new source of authority threatens the old order, however radically different this new authority might be.
Today let’s pray for just and godly leadership around the world – we need it as much as ever. And let’s also give thanks for the freedoms we still enjoy, whilst praying blessing and protection for our brothers and sisters around the world who face similar dangers to those faced by the Magi and the Holy Family. May the joy of the Lord be our – and their – strength today.
Day 21: Monday 21st December – Matthew 2:1-2 (ii) ‘We saw his star’
We didn’t plan this but it’s amazing that we come to the famous star which the Magi saw on this very day; because tonight the two largest planets in the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, will be so close to one another in the sky that they will appear to be fused into a single point of light.
Although the trajectories of these planets come close to one another every twenty years or so, to be aligned within a tenth of a degree is something that hasn’t been seen for at least 400 years, and probably longer. Although it may possibly have been visible in 1623, the last time this event is believed to have actually been witnessed by human observers was in the year 1226, on a certain day before dawn, which afforded about ninety minutes to see it before the sun rose.
Even more remarkably, there also has been speculation among scholars that the conjunction of these planets formed the very Star of Bethlehem quoted in today’s reading that inspired the Magi on their journey. A possible date can be calculated which falls close to the year of Jesus’ birth.
We can’t say for sure – and sadly the typically British forecast for tonight is for mostly cloud, so we’re unlikely to get a glimpse. But even so, isn’t it amazing that we might be privileged to witness an astrological phenomenon which connects us directly to the story of Jesus’ birth!
We’ll never know this side of heaven; but what we do know is that this phenomenon – whatever it was – so profoundly moved our intrepid travellers that they were willing to stake their time and reputations on following it. And this despite it relating to a ‘foreign’ religion in a faraway country.
I sometimes hear people bemoan the diversity of belief in Britain today. I wonder if rather we should celebrate the fact that many more people around us are spiritual searchers, hungry to connect with eternity. They may sometime look for it in unusual places, to say the least. But, like the Magi, our response is surely to point all seekers towards the real Way, Truth and Life.
God honoured the spiritual hunger of Persian astrologers, and marvellously brought them into his story. And so should we. Perhaps you consider yourself a seeker in a similar way. Or perhaps you are confident in your beliefs. Either way, God loves those who seek after him. He longs for all of us to become part of his story. Wise men and wise women still follow the star towards Jesus.
Day 20: Sunday 20th December – Matthew 2:1-2 ‘Magi came….’
‘We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…’
The image of the Wise Men or Kings is so iconic that it’s etched into most of our minds. Three elegant travellers, dressed in fine richly-coloured robes, perched on majestic camels, striding across the desert, with a large train of servants. There’s usually the star up above (more on that tomorrow), and a few romantically undulating desert hills in the background.
It’s a wonderful image, with more than a whiff of blarney about it. For a start, they weren’t kings. The word used to describe them is Magus (plural Magi): these were originally Persian priests or even sorcerers – it’s where we get the word ‘magician’ from. More broadly you could translate it as ‘scholar’. So probably wealthy, certainly clever – but not kings.
There may well have been more than three of them too – we only assume there were three because they gave three gifts. But allowing for ‘group offerings’ there could have been any number… there might even have been just two, one of whom was particularly generous!
And they probably avoided the desert. Rather than go direct across the Arabian sands from Iran or Iraq to Israel (and almost certainly die in the attempt), they would have gone north-west round the so-called Fertile Crescent – adding a good 200 miles to their journey, but saving their lives in the process.
The image of a dozen magicians travelling through scrubland isn’t quite as magical (pardon the pun) as the alternative, I’ll give you that. But there is something much more important going on here. The extraordinary thing about the nativity story is that the key witnesses are (in the case of the shepherds) ceremonially unclean, and (in the case of the Magi) not even Jewish! It’s like a play which at first sight appears to have all the wrong people cast in it.
But that’s the point. When God comes to earth, he comes for everyone. Smelly shepherds, exotic magicians, teenage mothers, furniture makers – everybody. The great and the good, as well as the lost, the last and the least. Every nation, every age, every culture. The good news of Jesus is truly universal – the Messiah is a Saviour for all of us.
That’s why the Magi matter. As we travel with them for a few days, let’s be astonished once more by the extraordinary length, breadth and depth of the love of God. A love which reaches to you too – right here, today.
Day 19: Saturday 19th December – Luke 2:19-20 ‘Mary treasured all these things…’
Today’s beautiful image really needs no words from me – as a visual representation of Mary’s thoughtful godliness it captures the moment perfectly.
So lest I detract from the power of the image, just a very short reflection from me today. I have always been struck by v19, and Mary’s capacity to treasure what she sees and knows. It is a great gift, and one we have largely lost as a society. Everything is instant, and we move from one experience or morsel of useful info to the next.
It was the old philosopher Plato who said that: ‘The unreflected life is the unlived life.’ We all need to treasure more. I certainly do. To allow ourselves time to dwell on beautiful truths; to root ourselves in things that are solid and permanent; to drink deep of profound experiences.
Mary was perhaps privileged to share more than most. But her simple lesson lives on, and is pure gold. Here’s to treasuring.
What could you ‘treasure’ today?
Day 18 – Friday 18th December – Luke 2:15-18 ‘They hurried off…’
On Wednesday I almost lost our car. I arrived for a school event at All Saints and parked up as the children were rounding the corner on the redway about a minute’s walk from the church. Although I was mostly set up already, I had about two minutes of final preparations to do. I grabbed my kit from the boot, waved to the class, asked the teacher to hold them at the gate for two minutes, and hurried into the church. As it happened, I left the car key in the boot lock, on show for all to see.
A couple of hours later, as I was finishing another meeting after the school had gone, a very kind local family popped into church asking if anyone had their key in the car lock of a blue car. That was, of course, me. Thanking them profusely I retrieved the key, grateful that we lived in a safe and neighbourly area!
When events overtake us, and we have to act quickly, it’s easy do things like that. For the shepherds in our story, the golden rule was: ‘Never leave your sheep.’ Sheep were precious, and vulnerable to rustlers and predators alike. And yet here we find them doing just that: hurrying away from the fields and into town. Risking their livelihoods, and their reputation.
For good reason, it turns out. They were on their way to visit the king! And they, of all people, had been chosen to do just that. To be first on the scene. To represent humanity offering its worship and praise to the child in the manger. God had come down, and they had the ringside seats.
I imagine in that moment, their business was the last thing on their minds. When God meets with us, we crave more of his presence. Something keeps drawing us back. We want to meet Jesus again, and again.
The shepherds are a great part of the story. They are people like us, and do things like we do. At least they had a heavenly host as their excuse, rather than thirty 5 and 6 year-olds. But their hearts had been ‘strangely warmed’ – they were filled with the excitement of God’s intervention in their lives. They got to meet Jesus – ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary story.
That is our privilege too. God is still meeting ordinary people. Often in unexpected ways. Always to draw us into his presence, and towards worship, hope and peace. May God meet with us this Advent, as he did the shepherds. And may it too cause us to ‘hurry’ once more to meet Jesus, and worship the new-born king.
Day 17: Thursday 17th December – Luke 2:13-14 ‘The heavenly host’
We live in a spiritual world. Yes, it’s material and physical as well – but we are also spiritual beings, able to connect with spiritual realities. We don’t necessarily see those realities very often, but we remain attuned to it. Even in our secular culture, the continuing fascination with ghosts, horoscopes, superstitions and they like, while misguided, remind us that we are spiritual beings. We are made to make spiritual connections, one way or another.
Today’s reflection is a counterpart to day 15. There we affirmed that a real God comes for real people. God enters our flesh-and-blood world, as a flesh-and-blood human. He laughs, he cries, he feels pain. It is earthy, grounded.
But let’s beware making this amazing story all (or only) about this world. There is a spiritual reality to all this too. Heaven is real, and is populated by created spiritual beings – generally referred to as angels, though this broad term covers a number of words which might refer to different types of spiritual being.
The word angel itself means ‘messenger’ – their job is to do God’s bidding, and, throughout history, Christian theology affirms that they do interact with our physical world. The nativity story is, of course, a key moment in this interaction, full of angelic activity – first Zechariah, then Mary, then Joseph, and now the shepherds.
What is the significance of all this? In essence, heaven comes to earth. The spiritual realm connects with our physical existence in new and deeper ways. It’s not just Jesus – it’s the whole machinery of heaven. Here the heavenly host appear in the sky – the shepherds were uniquely blessed to see them, and we can only imagine what that sight must have been like.
We are sometimes tempted to imagine that heaven is kind of empty until humans are reconciled to God and able to fill it. But this passage reminds us that heaven is pretty full already! Angels abound, praising God eternally. And the amazing truth is that we get invited into that. One day, we’ll join the fantastic heavenly party.
But it’s not just ‘for later’, it starts well before that: whenever we worship God here, we are joining in with the eternal song of heaven, joining heaven with earth in our praises. And one day, we will get to do that forever. Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth!
Day 16: Wednesday 16th December – Luke 2:8-12 ‘There were shepherds…’
A young man sits round an open fire at night, warming his hands and dreaming of revolution. He needs to think to stay awake – his job means that he can’t afford to fall asleep. By the standards of the time he’s not particularly religious: can’t afford to be, his work consumes all hours, and he’s too much of a scruffbag to show his face on Saturday at the synagogue. His life is here, out in the open – just him, his friends and his animals.
But all the same, he dreams. The current lot that rule his small nation are much better than most of the previous ones, who were far more corrupt and far less competent. He’s heard tales of the terrors inflicted by tyrants of old. But even so, they’re not his people. And one day, his God, Yahweh – the one true God of the universe, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings – will ensure that they are free once more. He’s read the prophets, he’s heard the preachers. And still he dreams, of victory and freedom and prosperity. Of planting vines and sitting under them in summer.
His head starts to nod – he feels sleepy. He pinches himself: ‘Not tonight, old son, not tonight…’
And then – LIGHT! Glorious, brilliant light. His mates are terrified – he pretends not to be, but really he is just as scared too. What is this? An angel?? You’ve got to be kidding….
Did someone just say good news? The Messiah is coming? After all these centuries? Never mind 30 years of hurt – how about 500? Really? Coming – now?
Oh yes. And what’s more, you can see him. Just head into town – listen for the cries of a newborn bedded in with the animals. Just like you lot, really. Born to be a shepherd.
Imagine that. The divine shepherd visits us human shepherds, telling us to go and visit a newborn shepherd lying there with the animals. He really is one of us! Not just another posh tyrant, a normal lad, who lives like we do. Come on lads! Let’s go and take a butcher’s….
Good news. God comes as one of us. He meets those who are keeping watch, waiting for him. We don’t always dream the right things – or perhaps we do, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. But God is gracious. He comes anyway.
Keep watch. Good news is coming.
Day 15: Tuesday 15th December – Luke 2:5-7 ‘The time came…’
And so we get to the crucial moment in the story – Jesus is born! Most of us know the story inside out… or at least we’re fairly sure we do.
Images of how the nativity happens are so full of our minds, it’s almost impossible to imagine it any other way. We’ve seen it so many times: Joseph and Mary travelling down to Bethlehem with Mary on a donkey (even though a donkey is never mentioned). Arriving late, with Mary’s contractions already starting. Joseph frantically dashing around trying to find an inn or guest house with a spare room. The last B&B in town offering them access to their stable just as Mary’s contractions get too severe to go any further…. a ‘modesty time gap’ fast forwards us a couple of hours to see Jesus in the wooden manger, with an exhausted but blissful Mary sat next to him, gazing lovingly at Jesus and then Joseph in turn…
And it’s possible that this is how it went. Unlikely, but possible! And it’s a much better story than the more likely one: that, given the length of journey, Joseph and Mary travelled down several weeks earlier and stayed with relatives in Bethlehem. That they shared the single living area with these relatives for the time they stayed there, only relocating into the other adjoining room – small Palestinian houses of that time had two rooms joined together: one for people, the other for animals – to offer some privacy for Mary when it was time for her to give birth. That the female relatives would therefore probably have been with Mary for the birth, rather than Joseph, who probably joined them shortly after Jesus was born, like most fathers of the time would have done. That the makeshift bedding arrangement of the animals feeding trough (manger) was likely made of stone, not planks of wood.
It’s much less romantic, isn’t it? A planned visit, a stay with relatives, decent midwifery, stone bedding furniture.
But it’s real.
And that’s the point. The nativity is not a fairy story, but a gritty, real-life drama. A real baby is born into a real family with a real home and real problems. In other words, when God comes to earth, this is a real God for real people. People like Joseph and Mary. People like you and me.
We like the fantasy version – it’s visually much more appealing, and allows us to put tea towels on our heads with impunity for a couple of weeks. But let’s never miss the real joy of this scene: a real baby is born – a real Messiah for real people. ‘And he is called Emmanuel’ – God with us. Amen.
Day 14: Monday 14th December – Luke 2:1-4 ‘Our plans, God’s plans’
On 23rd March 2020, the UK entered a full national lockdown for the first time in 100 years. One immediate effect of this was that all church buildings were shut. No services of any sort could be held. A couple of days later, most church denominations went further still: to avoid the risk of ‘mixed messages’, ministers couldn’t even record acts of worship in their buildings. In the space of a week, physically-located worship ceased to exist.
What would happen to God’s Church? From the very beginning, our pattern of faith has been built around physical gatherings – the very word ‘church’ is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘assembly’. Understandably there was considerable fear – sobering statistics of church decline have been received wisdom for decades: notwithstanding the pandemic itself, the future looked bleak.
Yet in mid-April, a survey of UK residents indicated that 25% of the population had accessed an online act of Christian worship within the last month. Given that the equivalent face-to-face figure for average monthly in-person attendance is around 10%, this was astonishing news. Millions of people who would not have set foot inside the door of a Christian building were connecting online. As one lovely cartoon portrayed it, the devil and God were having a conversation: the devil was boasting that he’d managed to shut down every church – ‘yes, and I’ve just turned millions of homes into churches instead,’ God replies.
Humans decide, God acts. So often things that might seem to be problems only unleash a new work of God in different ways. It took the forced shutting of our buildings by the current government to unleash a mighty new wave of mission that has reached millions of people – and nine months later, still is. After all, you’re reading this on the church website right now!
God is not ‘apart’ from what happens on earth. He might give us freedom, but equally God is so great he is well able to use the calculated decisions of human leaders and authorities to achieve his purposes. In today’s reading, Caesar wants to raise money from taxing the populations he ruled – it is what powerful people have done since time immemorial. But in the midst of the process, God resolved a conundrum written into the biblical prophets for hundreds of years. How would the Messiah come from both Galilee and Bethlehem?
The answer – a census, at just the right time in history when fading Greek power nevertheless left the legacy of widespread use of the Greek language, allowing easy communication between people and therefore sharing of ideas/messages; when recently upgraded Roman infrastructure allowed the easy movement of people to spread a new message; and, crucially when a young descendent of King David had to travel from Galilee to Bethlehem with his young, heavily pregnant wife.
It doesn’t matter whether Caesar would have made the decision to tax anyway. The point is that God used it to birth something – someone – remarkable, that would change the world and the course of history.
God is good. God is also great. Let’s commit ourselves again today into the mighty and merciful hands of this amazing God. And let’s trust in his capacity to achieve his good purposes in all circumstances.
Day 13: Sunday 13th December – Luke 1:67-80 ‘The great rescue’
On this day two years ago – 13th December 2018 – the writer C.J. English published the bestselling book ‘Rescue Matters’. It charts the astonishing story of Keith Benning, who, using his own garage to house those rescued and with just a small team of volunteers, over four years rescued 4,000 dogs from terrible situations: unwanted, starving, mistreated. As the subtitle summarises: ‘An incredible true story of rescue and redemption.’
Today’s passage looks forward to another incredible true story of rescue and redemption – only this time, it’s our own. If Mary’s song describes the Great Reversal, Zechariah’s could be called The Great Rescue.
Rescue images are studded through the text of Zechariah’s song, but the literal and metaphorical centre is v74, which uses the word directly. And it promises a rescue in three dimensions:
From our enemies – for the Israelites of the time, that would mean the Romans and other nations around them, but for us today we might cast the net wider towards everything that stops us from enjoying the relationship with God that we were designed to have. It could be summarised as sin and death – our ultimate enemies – but might be anything that has a poisonous effect on our spiritual lives. God’s purpose is that we should be free, and the coming Messiah will rescue us from these enemies.
From fear – since time immemorial, humans have feared God. And there is something wise about that: God is God and we are not. But we were made for more than fear – we were made for love. God wants us to love him as he loves us – and, as St John says later, there is no fear in love.
For righteousness – it’s not just what we’re rescued from, it’s what we’re rescued for. The life we were made to have, living God’s way. To be holy is to be set apart, called to something better. Like Keith Benning’s dogs it’s not enough just to save us from death, but to lead us into life, to a true home, to wellbeing and wholeness.
This is what the Messiah comes to do! It is a story of redemption (v68), salvation (v71), mercy (v72), faithfulness (v72-73), wisdom (v77), light and peace (v79).
This is our story. The new baby John would grow up to declare it. And, thanks be to God, we get to live it. The great rescue is a story that hasn’t finished yet. Let’s pray that, this Christmas, others may find the joy of knowing and receiving this Great Rescue.
Day 12: Saturday 12th December – Luke 1:56-66 ‘His name is John’
I don’t know about you, but it’s not easy to name a child. It was a bit more straightforward with Amelie, but for our second, we spent weeks batting around various names. We didn’t know if it was going to be a boy or a girl, so we had to have at least one of each. All kinds of options were discussed: at one point for a girl we had ‘Raymonda Ping’ on the shortlist – well, the longlist.
In the end we settled on Isaac for a boy and Charis for a girl. One means ‘laughter’ and the other means ‘grace’. That worked for us. And we got laughter.
We return today to Zechariah, who has been mute for 9 months after his debacle with the angel in day 5. And names come to the fore again. In this case, Zechariah and Elizabeth face strong encouragement to stick with tradition and name the new baby boy after his dad. But Elizabeth is having none of it: so they turn to Zechariah for his view.
And, with the help of a convenient tablet – not that kind of tablet – he writes four simple words, which in one moment restores both his voice and his relationship to God: ‘His name is John.’
John – the child promised by the angel, the name given by God, the declaration that a new work of God was on its way. ‘John’ means ‘God is gracious’, which is spot on. Gracious to Elizabeth. Gracious to God’s people. Gracious to a waiting world.
Gracious to us as well. John comes to herald the arrival of God’s grace in all its fullness. A Messiah who sacrifices himself to win our forgiveness and freedom. To reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. To draw us back into the loving arms of Almighty God.
Grace. What Philip Yancey calls ‘the last, best word of the English language’: nothing we can do will make God love us more. Nothing we can do will make God love us less. The beating heart of our faith, and what inspires faith in our beating heart.
And it’s all in a name.
His name is John. May his name’s meaning be ours too.
‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.’ Amen.
Day 11: Friday 11th December – Luke 1:46-55 ‘The great reversal’
Blessed are the self-sufficient, for they will never need help from God, or anyone else. Blessed are those who have no problems, for they will avoid pain and discomfort. Blessed are the assertive, for they will usually get what they want. Blessed are those who don’t want to be too good, for they will avoid moral dilemmas. Blessed are those who know their rights, for they will usually get what they want. Blessed are the cynical, for they know how life really works. Blessed are the competitive, for they will win out more often. Blessed are those who follow the crowd, for they will avoid unpopularity and blame.
Who is really blessed in this life? The list above might sound like a fairly blunt summary of modern culture – but to be honest it could have been written at most times in history. Life is full of winners and losers – and it’s best, on the whole, to be one of the winners.
But what if God sees it differently? In today’s famous passage, as Mary bursts into song, we see another dynamic at work. Maybe it’s not the ‘winners’ who prevail after all. God’s intervention will reverse the natural order of things. The humble are lifted up and the rulers are brought low (v52); the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty (v53). God’s mercy extends to those who fear him (v50), but the proud are scattered in their inmost thoughts (v51).
The kingdom of Christ is the great reversal – the world’s values are turned upside down, ‘success’ is redefined, and the marginalised are suddenly at the heart of the story.
And God achieves this, as Mary recognises, not through a birth to a queen in a palace, but to an obscure young mother living in an unfashionable town. It starts how it intends to go on.
Thirty years later, someone else stood on the side of a hill and declared: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted….’ Or to put it another way: blessed are the losers in this world, for they are the winners in the kingdom of God.
This is great news to all of us who have ever wished we were more than we are. Who’ve failed, or fell down, or felt low. Who wished we were louder, or richer, or funnier, or more popular, or more clever. God is for you – yes, you. This God is not interested in status or self-assurance. This God lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry and showers his mercy and love on all who know they haven’t got it all together – as Brennan Manning beautifully put it: ‘weak, unsteady disciples, whose cheese is falling off their cracker.’ People like us.
Today, give thanks and claim afresh the love of this God – it’s for people like us that Jesus came.
Day 10: Thursday 10th December – Luke 1:39-45 ‘Blessed are you’
Shared experience is a powerful thing. So much of what binds us together as humans lies in what we can share – in a sense, we were made for it. It is particularly powerful when people who have experienced similar challenges or opportunities find comfort and inspiration in each other.
In today’s passage we see such a meeting. Mary ‘hurries’ to see Elizabeth, and although they find themselves at opposite ends of their journey in life – one is very young, the other very old – they find themselves in the same unusual situation: that of an unexpected pregnancy, and the enormous life-changes that will bring.
One senses that this is the main reason for Mary to visit Elizabeth. Whilst it would be common for relatives – especially female relatives – to pay their respects upon hearing of a new pregnancy, Mary needs to go somewhere, anywhere, that she feels safe, where she can share all her deepest hopes and fears with someone who gets it, who understands.
And there is a good deal of healing in this encounter. Elizabeth already seems joyfully reconciled to her new reality, praising God as early as v25 of Luke’s narrative. However, Mary’s position is more ambiguous. When the angel first visits, she is ‘greatly troubled’ (v29). By the end of the encounter she shows remarkable faith and composure in receiving and believing the angel’s word (v38), but her emotions are veiled – at least not that Luke records. It is only in the company of this wise old mentor and friend that she is finally able truly to embrace her calling, and to burst out in a song of great joy – now known to us as the Magnificat, and the subject of tomorrow’s reading.
It is surely significant that Elizabeth’s first words to Mary are ‘Blessed are you…!’ It might have been the first time that Mary heard it put like that. The Messiah would bless the world, of course – but bless her? It probably didn’t feel like ‘blessing’ at that moment: the scandal, the disgrace, the fear for her own and her family’s safety. Elizabeth’s divinely inspired utterance enables her to see it in a new light – God was blessing her, too.
Perhaps we too have faced – or are facing – great challenges, and have wondered where God is in the midst of it. It is hard to cling on to faith and trust in those times. And we may never get a complete answer this side of heaven. But today’s story encourages us to dare to hope that, somehow, God is in what we face, and that he can bring good out of it.
May we too, like Mary, have courage to receive Elizabeth’s words, this acclamation of God’s healing presence with us in all things: ‘Blessed are you…’ And may the Lord grant us grace to trust again that he always fulfils his promises.
Day 9: Wednesday 9th December – Matthew 1:22-25 ‘He did as commanded’
It’s always a lovely surprise when you hear about people with unexpected gifts. Friends you thought you knew suddenly appear in a different light, as they manifest some striking creative ability, or describe an unusual hobby. People never fail to surprise you!
I often feel the same way about Joseph, as he is described in the nativity story. In many respects Joseph comes across as a conventional character – honest, hardworking, keen to observe the law. A pillar of the community, you might say.
And yet, below the surface beats an equally remarkable heart as that of his more celebrated bride. It was no small thing to choose to live with the ongoing scent of scandal, the whispers in an insular village of being a cuckold – to stick by Mary, come what may, and fashion a stable family home.
And Joseph also had a hidden gift – he was unusually sensitive to the Holy Spirit. No less than four times he receives divine instruction through a dream – only his Old Testament namesake with the multi-coloured dreamcoat receives significant dreams as often as this Joseph (1:20, 2:13, 2:19, 2:22).
These dreams dramatically affect the course of his life, and those around him – he marries Mary, flees to Egypt with his young family, returns to Israel a few years later and then settles in Galilee. But what is often overlooked is the very simple observation that Joseph acted upon these revelations. He believed that God had spoken, and he obeyed. Each time he does exactly what has been revealed to him in the dream.
We may not receive such striking revelations – although I’m frequently surprised by how many ‘ordinary’ people tell me about significant dreams they have received at some point in their lives. But, whether we do or not, there is a simple two-fold lesson in the story of Joseph: to trust in what God speaks, and to obey. As the old children’s bible song has it: ‘Trust and obey, for there’s no other way….’
Life is complicated, but in many ways faith is simple: trust God, and try to do what he wants you to do. As Joseph knew all too well, such childlike trust led him in very unexpected ways. The life of simple trust is never dull! But it is the path to intimacy with God. The more we trust, the more God speaks. The more God speaks, the more we trust.
Keep saying yes to God. And our loving God will keep drawing ever closer to you.
Day 8: Tuesday 8th December – Matthew 1:18-21 ‘This is how…’
Today we flip from Luke back to Matthew, to allow us to cover the story in broadly chronological order. Mary is now pregnant, so it’s time for Joseph to enter the picture. Like Elizabeth, Joseph is another of the great unsung heroes of the text – he is usually pictured as being a frail old man, quite without foundation. In all probability he was in his late teens or early twenties, marrying the bride arranged for him by his family, as would have been the custom.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the character of Joseph in more detail, but today, let’s ask a simple question: how does Jesus’ birth come about?
The natural answer would be to quote the passage from Luke we looked at yesterday – it was a mighty supernatural act of God. Mary conceives miraculously, confirming the divine ancestry of the Messiah. And this of course is true.
But there is also another, human answer to that question. Jesus is born because Joseph and Mary get married anyway, and Jesus has a human family to be born into. Jesus has an earthly father, too, who likewise receives a divine messenger and the revelation of the new baby’s name (and what it means for the world).
This is so often the way God works. The divine and the human weave together. Very occasionally, God does something totally down to him. But most of the time, God works through our work, our faithfulness, our prayer. ‘Pray as if everything depends on God: act as if everything depends on you.’ That’s not a bad maxim for the spiritual life – and here we see Joseph and Mary embody it perfectly.
Yes, Jesus is wonderfully and divinely conceived. But he is still born to human parents, with a real life in a real village. They make a real journey to Bethlehem, and have to agree on a very real (and hard) choice to wed anyway, despite the circumstances. And so – praise God! – we have a fully divine and fully human Saviour, born as the result of fully divine and fully human faithfulness.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about.
It’s also how most of the work of God in our own life and times comes about too. We co-operate with God’s plans – we pray for them, obey them and see God work through our faithfulness.
Where is God at work in you presently? Pray today for wisdom, courage and resolve to co-operate fully with whatever God is up to. This is how God’s marvellous work comes about.
Day 7: Monday 7th December – Luke 1:34-38 ‘No word ever fails’
‘How will this be?’ It’s not a bad question to ask, is it? You’ve just received some of the most extraordinary – and shocking – news anyone could imagine. Perhaps as you’ve read today’s passage, you found yourself remembering such a time in your own life, when you received news it was hard to take in. And Mary asks a natural follow-up: but what’s striking in her reply is that she doesn’t question the fact of it, only the process.
This is in stark contrast to Zechariah earlier. He asks: ‘How can I be sure?’ (i.e. ‘…that what you’re saying is true?’) Mary doesn’t doubt the message, only the method. And her faith is rewarded with a direct answer form the angel.
The text doesn’t tell us what she felt emotionally after receiving this visitation. The hundreds of portrayals of this scene in art through the ages tend to reflect the values of the society of the time. Mediaeval paintings picture her receiving it demurely, like a good lady of the court. Modern versions tend to emphasise the emotional shock and even pain, reflecting our more therapeutic culture.
In some ways, this is good – it means that we see Mary as fundamentally one of us – a real human being. And yet, we can so easily read into her response what she ‘must’ have felt. Luke cleverly avoids such guessing. Instead he tells us simply that Mary accepted the word, whatever it would cost: ‘I am the Lord’s servant…. may your word to me be fulfilled.’ (v38)
It is a remarkable encounter – and at its heart is a remarkable young woman showing even more remarkable faith. This single scene changes the course of history, and in its turn transforms this anonymous young villager into the most famous woman in history. Lady Di might have been photographed more often, but nobody has been captured more in art and literature over the course of 2,000 years. I do wonder what Mary herself would have made of that.
But let’s close with a glorious affirmation: God’s word never fails (v37). It didn’t fail for Mary – it doesn’t fail for us too. The bible is full of promises – and ‘all of them are yes in Christ Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Because God’s word never fails, we can say ‘yes’ to God’s love, to his salvation, to God’s gift of the Spirit to dwell in our hearts, bringing peace that passes understanding, joy that gives us strength, and hope in times of trial.
Christ comes into the world as the fulfilment of God’s word – today let’s spend a few moments reading any one of our favourite passages and choosing to rejoice in those promises again. ‘For no word from God will ever fail.’
Day 6: Sunday 6th December – Luke 1:26-33 ‘What’s in a name?’
Names matter. They certainly matter in the bible. A name wasn’t just a parental preference, it was meant to signify something. We can learn a lot from names. Take Gabriel, for example. It means ‘God is my strength’ – a perfect name for an angel. Mighty as Gabriel was, he knew where his true strength came from.
Or take Mary as another example: in today’s reading we get the iconic encounter between the angel and the young woman. The name Mary is most likely from the ancient Egyptian name ‘mry’ meaning ‘beloved’. Beloved of Joseph, certainly; but also beloved of God.
So God-is-my-strength meets The Beloved One – and promises a miraculous child. Not surprisingly, his name is important too. Jesus means ‘God saves’ – it is the updated version of the Old Testament name Joshua, the great hero of the Israelites who led his people into the promised land.
God was coming to save his people again. Only this time he would do it himself: ‘He will be called the Son of the Most High… his kingdom will never end.’ A greater rescuer, an eternal king.
Tomorrow we’ll deal with Mary’s shock – and her remarkable faith. But today let’s rejoice that Jesus lives up to his name. God saves, and his salvation is glorious. All the promises to Israel – to the prophets, to those waiting generation after generation – are coming to fulfilment. There is a new way back to God, a new hope for the renewal of our broken world.
‘Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?!’ So jokes the disciple Nathanael 30 years later (John 1: 46). Today we have our answer and it is emphatically yes. The Beloved One is promised the gift of the Messiah – God’s Son, salvation made flesh. A saviour not just for then, but for now. A Saviour for you and for me – for the whole world. It’s all in the name.
And may that beautiful truth lift your heart today.
Day 5: Saturday 5th December – Luke 1:18-25 ‘He has shown his favour’
Poor old Zechariah. It’s easy to give him a roasting. All those years waiting hopefully and serving faithfully, and when his big moment comes…
But I wonder if Zechariah is not somewhat more like us than we care to admit. One of the great pointers to the truthfulness of the bible is that the characters are so much like us. There’s no massaging of egos or marketing jingo. The human characters are very… human. We can see ourselves in them – which reminds us that the God of the bible is a God for people like us.
People like Gideon, the mighty warrior who hides in the shed. Or Peter, the Rock who blows his mouth off and then runs away. Or, as here, Zechariah who doubted an angel, and temporarily lost his voice because he temporarily lost his trust.
Never is God’s love and mercy more greatly shown than in the people he chooses to use. Ordinary people, people who mess up and let him down. People that God gives a second chance to; and a third, and a fourth…
There is redemption in this story for Zechariah – just as there is for you and me. That’s who God is – and we’ll see Zechariah come good in a few days’ time.
But let’s also celebrate the faithfulness of Elizabeth today – one of the great unsung heroes of the bible. Mother of the Baptist, woman of faith – and encourager of Mary, who only sings after Elizabeth has welcomed her and prophesied over her. She may only get half a chapter, but her unique contribution alters the course of history: just as it has been for many people of faith through the ages. Her ‘appointed time’ was brief but brilliant.
Our God is the God of second chances: for Elizabeth, long after her childbearing years were over; for Zechariah, when their son was born; for us too, whatever falls, foibles, faults and failures we’ve had along the way.
God shows his favour to those who don’t deserve it. People like us. Give thanks for that beautiful truth today – and may it cause your heart to sing.
Day 4: Friday 4th December – Luke 1:5-17 ‘Your prayer has been heard’
Most modern tellings of the nativity story begin with the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. But that’s not quite the beginning of the story – not even in Luke’s gospel itself. Six months before that historic encounter, Gabriel has another divine errand, to an old priest performing his duties at the temple in Jerusalem.
Zechariah was a righteous and blameless man, as was his wife Elizabeth (v6), and their lives were similarly about to be turned upside down, almost as much as Mary’s. It was another miraculous birth – only this time because of age. They had never been able to have children, and presumably had long since given up hope. But they remained faithful, and got on with the day-to-day business of living, and serving their Lord.
And into this pair of quiet lives comes the angel, with an extraordinary promise: ‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John’ (v13).
You see, there was one other prophecy in the bible that had to be fulfilled before the Messiah could come. It was one of the very last words in the Old Testament, given to the prophet Malachi: that Elijah would return first, preparing the way for the Messiah.
This is the divinely-appointed task that John – later known as the The Baptist – would come to do. That’s why it’s so important that he comes ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (v17), ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. John is that ‘voice calling in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40:3): the herald announcing that the Messiah has come!
So there’s no time to waste – if Angel is going to visit Mary, he has to visit John’s would-be parents first. So he does.
Yesterday we dwelt on the idea that God keeps his promises – which he does again here. But today let’s feast on this short but profound phrase in v13: ‘Your prayer has been heard.’
What a glorious thought! That Almighty God, the creator and sustainer of the universal, all- powerful and all-knowing – this God hears our prayers. He listens, his faced turned towards us, full of love: he knows who we are, and what we’re asking.
Many of us will have prayers we’ve prayed for a long time, just like Zechariah and Elizabeth. Let’s take heart today and seize this promise with renewed faith: God hears our prayers. Yes, yours! And let’s have courage to keep praying them. God has not forgotten you.
Day 3: Thursday 3rd December – Matthew 1:1-17 ‘The divine promise-keeper’
Admit it – you skipped a few lines of today’s reading, didn’t you? Most people do. In fact, if I was able to secretly watch your reading time, I might find it was more than a few lines!
The bible is full of genealogies. Long lists of who begat who, to use the old language – and I’m sure most of you have often wondered what the point of them is. If the bible is first and foremost a book about God, what can we possibly learn from human family trees? Those of you who are family history fans might derive a modest interest from this kind of thing, and others of you – you know who you are – are mostly having a chuckle at the funny names, or trying to pronounce some yourself as a personal challenge. But otherwise, what is the point?
To answer that question you need to go back to the third chapter of the bible – to verse 15 of Genesis chapter 3. It had all started so well. A perfect world, and humans in perfect relationship with their Creator…. and then disaster. The bond broken, the innocence shattered. A fallen world.
But in the midst of this catastrophe God promises that one day Eve’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head. You might say that the rest of the bible is The Search for the Serpent Crusher.
And as we read these long lists throughout the Old Testament, generation after generation, we can detect a voice echoing down the ages: ‘where is he? Is he here yet?’ Waiting, waiting.
And the promises keep growing. As God speaks and blesses one family in particular, we see a line from Abraham – through Isaac, Jacob and Judah – which carries special hope. King David came and went, and the promise escalated: one of his descendents would inherit an eternal throne. Then the prophets weigh in, too: this new king would outstrip anything which had gone before – a new era of peace and justice, a global reach. Way more than just the serpent’s head! But still the waiting…
And so we get to the first chapter of the New Testament – Matthew’s gospel. And now the voice changes – a divine voice answering all those echoes of longing, of faith and perhaps also of doubt: ‘the serpent crusher is here. I keep my promises.’
Jesus is the Anointed One (i.e. the Messiah or Christ of v1). Jesus fulfils the promises of global blessing given to Abraham. Jesus inherits the eternal throne promised to David. The serpent crusher has come!
It’s big stuff. Perhaps take a moment to breathe in the enormity of a ‘boring’ family tree. And more than that, remind yourself of something very simple but incredibly profound: God keeps his promises. He keeps them to the world, to his people, and also to you. God keeps his promises to you. And may that awesome thought lift your heart and also your faith today.
Day 2: Wednesday 2nd December – Micah 5:2-5a ‘A surprising Shepherd?’
The Advent story is full of surprises. In many ways we’re so familiar with it, that often those surprises pass us by. We think of shepherds and angels and wise men and it all seems so… normal. Which is odd, when you think about it!
Today’s passage from the prophet Micah likewise has its share of surprises. Any of us who’ve attended traditional carol services over the years will recognise it – the promise that the new king would come from Bethlehem.
That the town of King David should feature is, we might think, not unexpected. The great shepherd king would prove the ancestor to an even greater Shepherd who would ‘stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord’ (v3). This ruler would transcend even the boundaries of the nation: ‘his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth’ (v4).
But there are hidden surprises here. The first is that prophecies of the new king’s birth refer both to God honouring Galilee in the north of the country (in Isaiah), and also Bethlehem in the south (here in Micah). Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries – one was of noble rank and lived at the court, one lived in relative poverty and obscurity away from the corridors of power. How would this conundrum be resolved?
God’s solution is simple, but beautiful: Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth (in Galilee), but had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral hometown (Bethlehem) to pay Caesar’s poll tax. Galilee and Bethlehem – both prophecies fulfilled without contradiction.
The second surprise is that Bethlehem was chosen at all. It may have been linked to King David, but in other respects it was a small, insignificant place. Its name means ‘house of bread’, and its main business was to live up to its name – it provided the capital city of nearby Jerusalem with corn, and also lambs for sacrifice.
Centuries later, the new ruler prophesied by Micah – the one born in ‘the house of bread’ – would stand up and declare to the world: ‘I am the bread of life.’ This Great Shepherd would himself become the ‘lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.’ You never really get away from the place of your birth.
God knew what he was doing when Bethlehem was chosen. As we spend the next three weeks on our annual pilgrimage to the stable situated in ‘the house of bread’, may we too be fed daily by the Bread of Life, and fall in adoration before the Lamb of God. Bethlehem is just the beginning…
Day 1: Tuesday 1st December – Isaiah 7:14 ‘God with us’
God with us. That’s really the whole ball game, isn’t it? Over the next 24 days, as we prepare ourselves in this season of Advent, we’ll tell the ageless story afresh, and we’ll marvel again at the wonder of it all: the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the journey to Bethlehem, a young carpenter and his pregnant wife, the stable and that glorious Christmas night.
But, in all the beauty and mystery of what is to come, nothing really summarises it better than this one word which begins our journey: Emmanuel. God with us.
It was always the plan. God is not a distant deity, who winds the clock up and observes passively while it runs. God is a ‘with’ kind of God at the very core of his being. It begins as God with himself: ‘the Word was with God’ (John 1:1) as the Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2) – a Trinity of love.
Then God with humanity, as originally intended. Humans made in his image, knowing true intimacy with each other, and with their Creator. And the Lord comes walking into Eden in the cool of the day to spend time with Adam and Eve, only to find the barriers up, and the pattern dislocated.
After that time, we are no longer with God – but even so, not everyone gets the memo. King David, among others down the centuries, knew what it was like to experience God’s presence: ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ (Psalm 23:4)
Somehow the promise never goes away, never disappears for good. God would be with us – in a new way, for all time. It would take a miracle – the Virgin birth – but it would surely come to pass.
And seven centuries later, it does. God comes down to earth. God with us as never before. And this divine Son grows up to utter this great promise: ‘My Spirit will be with you…. Abide in me.’ God with us for all time.
There so much we can say about what the Christmas story means. But let’s start here – and maybe let’s finish here too. God is with us. May this beautiful, intimate, faithful God be with you today, and throughout this season. And may this stir all of our hearts to joy and adoration. O come, o come Emmanuel.