Christmas Reflection: Praise God!

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He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God.

Luke 1:63-64

Take a moment to praise God for the life he’s given you–for the blessings and the challenges, for the things that make sense and the things that don’t.

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Going Deeper

Read Luke 1:63-80.

Zechariah had been mute since his encounter with the angel Gabriel more than nine months before. What did he do first when he regained his voice? He praised God.

What is the first thought in your head when you wake up in the morning? When you get in the car? When you get out of a long meeting? When you leave work? When you lie down in bed at night? When you feel angry or grateful or frustrated or content? How would your life be different if your first thought was a prayer of praise?

I challenge you to begin every day of the next week praising God. Pick a favorite song or prayer of praise. Write down the words and post them in a place where you will see them first thing in the morning—maybe on your bedside table or in your bathroom. Try to make those words of praise the first thing you say (or sing) each morning.

Here are a few ideas:

Songs

Prayers

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Christmas Reflection: Going Against the Grain

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When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”

Luke 1:59-60.

Think of a time when you chose to do the unexpected. What were the results?

Going Deeper

Read Luke 1:39-45, 56-60.

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John was the only son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Everyone in their community assumed they would follow tradition and name their first-born son after his father. Their neighbors couldn’t imagine why Zechariah and Elizabeth would choose the name John, a name that wasn’t even in the family. Despite their neighbors’ objections, the new parents were determined to follow the angel’s instructions and named their son John.

The name John means “Yahweh has shown favor.” John’s name was selected not to show the world to which earthly family he belonged, but rather to point to his role in salvation history.

There are many examples of people going against cultural norms, often with very positive results. A fun example can be found in the Joe Diffie song, “John Deere Green.” In it, Billy Bob paints his message of love on the local water tower using the color ‘John Deere green.’ The song explains: “The whole town said the fool should have used red, but it looked good to Charlene in John Deere green.” I’m guessing things probably turned out pretty good for Billy Bob.

Other examples are profound in their simplicity—like Pope Francis traveling around Washington DC in a small Fiat instead of a fancy limousine.

I chose to ignore cultural norms when I accepted a weekend option position at work. Most people try to do everything they can to avoid working weekends. All the good stuff happens on weekends—if you’re working, you’re going to miss it. And here I was, committing to working Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with only a few weekends off each year. While I did miss some events, and I had to work a little harder to plan time to hang out with friends, the whole experience was an amazing blessing. I was able to spend time with my sister while she was in treatment for breast cancer. I took classes and got my doctorate degree. But perhaps most significant, it felt like my life was in balance (a three-day week and a four-day weekend helped a lot in this regard!).

Think about the things that are part of your routine because our society expects it or our culture demands it. Are you being called to make a change in one of these routines? What would happen if you did?

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Christmas Reflection: John the Baptist’s coming announced

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But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

Luke 1:13,16-17

What can you do to guide people to God, to turn the hearts of fathers toward their children, and to bring the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous?

Going Deeper

Read Luke 1:5-25.

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A quick glance through the headlines on CNN.com reveals stories of murder trials, civil wars, a newborn baby left in a cardboard box next to a trash can, pornography, and kidnapping. It seems now, more than ever, we need someone like John to “turn many…to the Lord their God,” “turn the hearts of fathers toward children,” and turn “the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous.”

John the Baptist lived a lifestyle that was counter-cultural. He hung out in the desert, abstained from alcohol, ate bugs, and wore camel’s hair clothing. I’m quite certain that the average dinner party in Jerusalem did not feature a dish of locusts and a glass of water.

John didn’t dress or act like everyone else. He didn’t deliver a comforting “I’m ok, you’re ok” message. In fact, he called those who came to see him a “brood of vipers,” warning that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (from Luke 3:7,9). And yet people flocked to the desert to see him. They recognized the truth that John spoke and their need for repentance. Can you imagine what a different world we would live in if we all followed John’s call to repent and turn back to God?

So, does that mean we need to pray for God to send another John the Baptist to transform our world? Maybe. Prayer is our first and best defense against the evils we find in our world. But we also need to take action. It might be that God doesn’t plan to send a new messenger; maybe he plans to use you to spread his message. Jesus did challenge us to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19a).

How can you, like John, turn people’s hearts toward God? God is probably not calling you to move to the Sahara and replace all of your fresh veggies with wild honey. But he may be calling you to live your life in a way that shows that you value the things of heaven more than the things of this world. Something as simple as refraining from gossip or profanity can serve as a powerful testimony.

I wouldn’t recommend that you adopt “brood of vipers” as your standard greeting for your neighbors. But God may be calling you to share with them the truth about how God is acting in your life. Just as important as sharing where God has brought you, you need to be vulnerable enough to share where you were when God reached down and touched your life.

So, what can you do to guide people to God, to turn the hearts of fathers toward their children, and to bring the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous? There are many answers to this question, including prayer, living counter-culturally, and speaking the truth about your own encounters with God. Pick one thing that you will do this week, in imitation of John the Baptist, to draw other people closer to God.

Feast of Mary, the Mother of God

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“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:45

Listen today for the word God is speaking to you. Ask the Holy Spirit for the strength and courage to believe and say “yes.”

Going Deeper

Read Luke 1:39-55.

We can learn a lot from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the angel appeared to her and told her she was going to have a baby, she believed what she was told, and her answer was “Yes.” Where is God inviting you? Are you ready to say “Yes”?

Mary’s response to the news that she was to be the Mother of God was a song of praise. Read or sing along with Mary’s prayer. When you finish, sit in silence, reflecting on Mary’s words of worship. Write your own canticle of praise for God’s presence and action in your life and in your family.

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Jesus, Mediator of the New Covenant

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But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Jeremiah 31:33

What is written on your heart? To help answer that question, ask yourself: What is the first thing that comes to mind when I’m in a stressful, scary, or uncertain situation?

Select a verse from the Bible, write it on an index card, and post it on your bathroom mirror. Work on committing that verse to memory this week. Need some ideas? Check out these verses:

I Thessalonians 5:16-18, Isaiah 41:10, Isaiah 40:31, Proverbs 3:5-6, Mark 12:29-31.

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Going Deeper

Read Jeremiah 31:31-34. After quoting Jeremiah, the author of the letter to the Hebrews goes on to explain how Jesus brought about the New Covenant, offering himself as the perfect sacrifice. Read Hebrews 9:11-15.

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A covenant is defined in secular dictionaries as a contract. But in the context of the Bible, it is so much more than just an agreement between parties. A Biblical covenant solidifies a relationship. The actions outlined in the covenant, agreed to by both parties, serve as an expression of the relationship and help the relationship to mature and deepen. A covenant is sealed not just by signatures, but by a solemn rite, reminding the participants that they are entering into something much deeper than a legal agreement.

The covenants of the Old Testament helped to prepare the people for the new and everlasting covenant, ushered in by Jesus. In contrast to the Old Testament covenants, which were made between God and a limited group of people, the New Covenant is open to “everyone, from least to greatest” (Jer 31:34).

What action will you take today to demonstrate your commitment to God and to enrich your relationship with him?

Feast of the Holy Family

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When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.

Matthew 1:24a

What can you learn from Mary, Joseph, and Jesus that will help you to be a better mother, father, son, daughter, sister, or brother?

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Going Deeper

Read today’s Gospel, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.

As family life goes, it might seem like Joseph had it pretty easy. After all, how many of us can say that our spouses and children are sinless? While I’m sure discipline wasn’t a major problem in the home of the Holy Family, Joseph’s life wasn’t without its challenges.

How would you react if your fiancé came to you to say she was pregnant–with someone else’s baby? It took a lot of faith for Joseph to trust Mary and the angel’s message, and take Mary as his wife.

Then, just as he was getting his new family established, he had to uproot them and move to a different country. While the move was necessary to keep them safe, I’m sure it wasn’t easy to find a good place to live and rebuild his carpentry business in Egypt. The news that he could safely return to his home country must have been met with mixed emotions—excitement about returning to home and family, but trepidation about the work of moving and getting re-established in another new community.

Can you imagine the panic and desperation Mary and Joseph felt when they realized, on the way home from Jerusalem, that Jesus was not with the party? And the sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs as their search for the child, Jesus, stretched from hours into days? (A similar event occurred in our family, when the van left the campground while one child was still in the restroom. Road trips now begin with the kids calling out “No child left behind!”)

The early years of the Holy Family were definitely not easy ones! But we don’t see Joseph questioning or complaining. He doesn’t ask for proof of Mary’s faithfulness or the potential threat to his child’s life. He has great faith in God’s messages, communicated through angels.

Listen to Joseph’s Song as you reflect on Joseph’s great faith.

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Christmas Reflection: Jesus is Wisdom

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Come to me, all who desire me, and be filled with my fruits. You will remember me as sweeter than honey, better to have than the honeycomb.

Sirach 24:19-20

Do you seek wisdom? Draw closer to Jesus, who is Wisdom.

Going Deeper

Read Sirach 24:3-22. This is a quote from Wisdom personified.

terebinth“I spread out my branches like a terebinth, my branches so glorious and so graceful.” Sirach 24:16

This description of Wisdom as coming from God (“from the mouth of the Most High”) but distinct from God is similar to John’s description of the Word (“He was in the beginning with God” John 1:2) at the beginning of his gospel. Jesus, the Word of God, is also the Wisdom of God.

Jesus demonstrates the embodiment of wisdom in several ways. In his words, Jesus reveals a wisdom that is often counter-intuitive: “The last will be first, and the first will be last” Matt 20:16. In his parables, Jesus helps us to better understand things that are beyond our grasp: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field” Matt 13:44. In his actions, Jesus shows us how to apply the wisdom of God to our daily lives: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Matt 22:21; “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil?” Luke 6:9; “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Mark 10:21; “Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.’ ” John 8:10

What is your favorite Gospel story? Read the familiar story again, looking for the wisdom in Jesus’ words and actions. I invite you to devour the Gospels, feasting on the sweet fruits of the Wisdom of God.

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