Saturday, December 26: For Unto Us a Child is Born

We come to the end of our Advent devotionals for 2015, in part because it is no longer Advent. We shift from expectation, waiting, and hoping to celebration because, indeed, unto us a child is born!

As we read in Isaiah 9:6 

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

As we drove to see family on Christmas morning, we listened to “For Unto Us a Child is Born” from Handel’s Messiah. (You can listen to it here.) Ben and I were commenting on the power and beauty of this song. It reminds me of the time my mother took me to a church in Kansas City to hear Handel’s Messiah. Even as a little girl, I remember being overwhelmed by the majesty of the music.

Today, I listen to this song and am amazed by the simple proclamation made repeatedly in the lyrics–1 verse, 39 words from the Book of Isaiah–pointing to the identity of Jesus the Christ. The Son of God is born, and this is who he is:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. A clear, simple message, echoing again and again in gorgeous harmonies knit together to make a beautiful offering to celebrate this God-with-us child.  

For unto us a child is born! Amen!

May you be filled with joy in the days of celebrating Christmas and on into the next year. Until next Advent…

Molly Simpson, editor/organizer/copy and paste-er for Read. Reflect. Pray.

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Friday, December 25: Angels’ Carol

merry_christmas_red_by_mrana

Merry Christmas! It’s here, the day we’ve been waiting for! Christ is born, the promise is real, and he is with us even now. May you be blessed wherever you are and however you are celebrating the birth of the King of Kings!

Authorship:   

John Rutter, 1980.

Lyrics:  

Have you heard the sound, of the angel voices
Ringing out so sweetly, ringing out so clear?
Have you seen the star shining out so brightly
As a sign from God, that Christ the Lord is here?
Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven
To the humble shepherds who have waited long?

Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

He is come in peace in the winter’s stillness
Like a gentle snowfall in the gentle night;
He is come in joy like the sun at morning
Filling all the world with radiance and with light.
He is come in love as the child of Mary;
In a simple stable we have seen his birth.

Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing “Peace on Earth”.

 He will bring new light to a world in darkness
Like a bright star shining in the skies above;
He will bring new hope to the waiting nations
When he comes to reign in purity and love.
Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour’s coming;
Let the heavens answer with the joyful morn:

Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing “Christ is born”,
Hear the angels singing “Christ is born”.

 

Reflection: by Sarah Thornton

In the Jones family, the first sign that Christmas was near was the music. Yes, we were that family—the one singing carols around the piano in four part harmony, just like a picture on a Christmas card. Not much has changed as I find myself serving in a church music position today. Christmas music usually starts swimming around my head in August, and by October musicians are in full Christmas rehearsal mode in churches, schools, and community choirs around the world.

So which one carol, out of the hundreds I know and love, do I possibly choose from? Angels’ Carol by John Rutter.

Rutter is a British composer known for his major choral works and for countless more sacred and secular pieces performed by choirs all over the world. (Side note: He is so beloved in England that he was commissioned to write This is the Day, which was sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir at William and Kate’s wedding.) But of all his pieces, the text of this simple carol is the epitome of Christmas to me. In verse one we have angels singing, a shining star, and humble shepherds. Verse two tells us that He came to bring peace, joy, and love. And in verse three, He is the light in the darkness and the hope for waiting nations.

In my mind I’m sitting in a cathedral in England listening to a choir of celestial voices, and no sound is more beautiful and holy. Nothing can give me goose bumps, bring me to tears, or stir up emotion faster than voices uniting together in song. Music is always a labor of love, but at Christmas especially, music is our offering to Him. It’s our one small gift to the One who sent the greatest gift of all. He deserves every “Gloria in excelsis Deo” we can possibly sing.

If you read music, you might have some fun with the YouTube link below. If not, you’ll still enjoy the angelic voices of The Cambridge Singers while following along with the text of this lovely carol.

 

Pray:

Gracious and Holy God, we celebrate you today! It is your birthday and yet you’ve given all the gifts to us. Oh, that we would live with such love and generosity! I may not have much to give to honor the newborn King, but I give my life, my heart, my all to you again today, this Christmas Day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thursday, December 24: A Baby Changes Everything

Authorship:   

Faith Hill, 2008, from the album Joy to the World.

Lyrics:  

Teenage girl, much too young
Unprepared for what’s to come
A baby changes everything

Not a ring on her hand
All her dreams and all her plans
A baby changes everything
A baby changes everything

The man she loves she’s never touched
How will she keep his trust?
A baby changes everything
A baby changes everything

And she cries!
Ooh, she cries
Ooh, oh

She has to leave, go far away
Heaven knows she can’t stay
A baby changes everything

She can feel He’s coming soon
There’s no place, there’s no room
A baby changes everything
A baby changes everything

And she cries!
And she cries!
Oh, she cries

Shepherds all gather ’round
Up above the star shines down
A baby changes everything

Choir of angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
A baby changes everything
A baby changes everything
Everything, everything, everything

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

My whole life has turned around
I was lost but now I’m found
A baby changes everything, yeah
A baby changes everything

 

Reflection: by Ryan Thomas

I believe that we have all been taught to expect the unexpected. This element of life is perfectly illustrated in Faith Hill’s song ‘A Baby Changes Everything.”

I have a very eclectic taste in music. One moment, I can be jamming out to a Justin Bieber Christmas song and the next I can be calmly reflecting on the words sung in “Silent Night.” Of all the songs that I could enjoy during this time of year, ‘A Baby Changes Everything” has become one of my favorites to reflect on and it’s primarily due to this idea of expecting what cannot be expected.

“Unprepared for what’s to come” is the second line of the song and personally I believe it is the most powerful. Around this time a year ago, I received a text from a young man I used to coach. He told me he was getting married that weekend. Shocked, I replied saying “Is she pregnant?” and he replied, “Yes.” At that moment, it was hard for me to process. It wasn’t necessarily bad news. Getting married, having a child, it is something that many of us dream of but all I could think is that they were much too young. How could they possibly handle this situation? How could I, someone who has maintained a relationship with this couple for over two years, allow something like this to happen (as if I had control over someone else’s actions)?

Faith Hill sings of Mary, “all her dreams and all her plans…” and that is exactly what was going on inside my head. All of the dreams and the plans that this couple had were going to be ruined by this unexpected baby. How was he going to play baseball? How was she going to be a nurse? It is definitely true: a baby does change everything. For someone who devotes their time working with young people, there’s nothing that I love more than seeing them reach their dreams, and I found it hard to fathom that they would be able to do so anymore.

Flash forward to a year later, and I realize that I could not have been more wrong. Rarely do I admit I am wrong (which I must admit is a personal flaw) but I was wrong about how the life of this young man and his young wife would go. They are presently not only surviving; they are thriving.

I wonder how Mary received the news that she was expecting a child. Faith Hill sings of how Mary cried and cried and it is my belief that those tears were not tears of joy. They were tears of despair and heartbreak because she had no idea how her life was going to go. It is so hard to accept unexpected news, especially if we perceive it to be bad. It is even harder to accept it if we are led to believe that that news ruins our plans and our dreams.  But Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans of a man’s heart but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Mary probably had plans of a great wedding with Joseph. They would get married, find a nice place to live, and eventually have a family, yet all of that was interrupted by what God had planned for her life. There are times in our lives when we will receive news that is unexpected and life-altering. It may not be a baby but it could change everything.

But that leads me to the most important factor in all of this–God. No matter the news, no matter how life-altering it may be, God is with us; Immanuel. And that is the promise of Christmas.

Pray:

O Lord, my God, I rejoice in the news that changes everything, that you are with us. On this Christmas Eve, may my spirit rejoice in the good news of the coming of Christ and may my life be a reflection of your love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Wednesday, December 23: Gentle Mary Laid Her Child

Authorship:   

Words: Joseph S. Cook, 1919.

Lyrics:  

Gentle Mary laid her Child
Lowly in a manger;
There He lay, the undefiled,
To the world a Stranger.
Such a Babe in such a place,
Can he be the saviour?
Ask the saved of all the race
Who have found His favour.

Angels sang about His birth,
Wise men sought and found Him;
Heaven’s star shone brightly forth
Glory all around Him.
Shepherds saw the wondrous sight,
Heard the angels singing;
All the plains were lit that night,
All the hills were ringing.

Gentle Mary laid her Child
Lowly in a manger;
He is still the undefiled,
But no more a Stranger.
Son of God of humble birth,
Beautiful the story;
Praise His Name in all the earth,
Hail! The King of Glory

Reflection: by Julia Robinson

If you ever need to explain the literary term juxtaposition, this precious nativity song provides a perfect example:  the miraculous birth of the Christ child, baby Jesus, Son of God, Messiah – placed in  lowliest of cribs, a manger in an ordinary barn.  Miraculous gift.  Most lowly manger. What greater extremely opposite images could be placed together?  And yet how obvious it is that the wisdom of God’s plan is the exact opposite of the way we, mankind, would have arranged the birth plan for the long awaited Savior.  The shepherds and later the wise men would only find this incredible gift in unlikely setting by the grace and guidance of God himself.

 
The lesson for me this season is to be ready in my heart, my ears and eyes attentive to that same grace and guidance, to find the perfect presence of Christ in the most unlikely of places.  Perhaps waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store or walking through the crowded halls of a high school.  The very spirit of that baby Jesus, who came to seek and to save, can show itself at any time or in any place where his love and caring are brought out of our own lives or others’ lives who share the his Miraculous Love.

 

Pray:

As Christmas draws very near, O Lord, I pray that you would would meet me, even in unlikely places. May my heart be open to you, and I pray that you would share your love with others through my life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Tuesday, December 22: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Authorship:   

Words: Phill­ips Brooks, 1867. Music: St. Lou­is, Lewis H. Red­ner, 1868.

Lyrics:  

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

 

Reflection: by Will McDonald

O Little Town of Bethlehem was birthed in the rush of the holiday season of 1868. In the midst of preparations for a Sunday School Christmas program for the Holy Trinity Church of Philadelphia, Phillips Brooks, the church’s rector, wrote a simple poem to share with a children’s Sunday School class for a lesson on the birth of Jesus. As the children liked it so much, he approached the church organist, Lewis Redner, asking him to compose a tune to allow it to be sung at the Christmas program. The organist, exceptionally busy with other parts of the program, reluctantly agreed. The Friday before the service, Brooks asked Redner if he had “ground out” the music for the poem yet. He said, “No, but I’ll have it by Sunday.” On Saturday evening, Redner struggled with composing a tune, but gave up. After spending time preparing his Sunday School lesson, he went to bed. Late in the night, a tune formed in his head and he got up to jot down the melody. Before church the next morning, he worked out a simple harmony. The children’s choir rehearsed and performed it that evening. Neither Brooks nor Redner thought it would ever be heard again.

The lyrics of the carol stand out from many other Christmas hymns and carols by the emphasis on silence, quietness and stillness. Phillips Brooks had been profoundly affected by carnage of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s funeral train had passed through Philadelphia only three years before with hundreds of thousands of mourners crowding the streets to pay their final respects to the fallen President. Brooks had also gained renown for a sermon on the life and death of Abraham Lincoln, preached in that very church, and it is fair to say that the grief of the nation’s trauma was still with the congregation to some degree. Shortly after Lincoln’s funeral train had passed, Brooks had gone on an extended overseas vacation to rest. Christmas of 1865 found him in Jerusalem and he and some companions decided to ride their horses to Bethlehem to see the city that evening. As they looked upon the village from the hillside, Brooks felt a great weight fall away in the peaceful meadow where shepherds still tended flocks. God was still at work in the world. It is no surprise that Brooks tried to recreate that moment in the words of the carol.

In the unknown places, God is at work.

In those who are crushed with grief, God has come to heal.

In people overlooked by the world, God has come to live.

In humility and quietness, Jesus has come to change everything.

 

Pray:

The hopes and fears of all the years… may our hopes, our fears, our tears, our restlessness, our wonder, our worry, even our best dreams be met in you, Lord Jesus Christ. May we discover how you have indeed come to change everything. Amen.

Monday, December 21: The First Noel

Authorship:   

The First Noel is unknown in origin but is generally thought to be English dating back to the sixteenth century. There is a misconception that the carol was French and because of the French spelling of “Noel” as opposed to the olde English Anglo-Saxon spelling of the word “Nowell.”

Lyrics:  

The First Noel, the Angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the East beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light
And so it continued both day and night.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

And by the light of that same star
Three Wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

This star drew nigh to the northwest
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there it did both Pause and stay
Right o’er the place where Jesus lay.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then entered in those Wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee
And offered there in His presence
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made Heaven and earth of nought
And with his blood mankind has bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

Reflection: by Tricia Ryan   

Eleven years ago this month I gave birth to my firstborn. There was so much excitement, anticipation, exhaustion and worry all wrapped up in her birth and yet, there was so much love. A love that was overwhelming, tremendous and all consuming! A love that completely and totally changed my world!

I imagine that it would have been that way for Mary. I imagine that there was excitement, anticipation, exhaustion, worry and yet, tremendous love for her sweet baby Jesus. I imagine that this love for her son changed her world. But this love changed our world too. For Mary loved God and was the Lord’s servant. She was obedient to God’s call and gave birth to Jesus. In the carol “The First Noel,” noel (French) or nowell (English) is from the Latin “natalis” which means birth. This song speaks of Jesus’ birth, and of the angels who came to tell of his birth to the shepherds caring for their sheep. It speaks of the star shining bright and pointing the way to a sought after King.

Ten years ago this month my grandfather passed away. He had suffered from illness for several months. There was sadness and grief in his death and yet, there was hope and love. This hope came from a baby born many, many, many years ago. For this baby sent down from heaven, grew up. And when He was grown, He loved us. He loved us so much He died on a cross for us and saved us. With His birth came love, and with His death and resurrection came eternal life. For those who believe and seek Him there is new life, a re-birth of a life where one is loved unconditionally, forgiven and will be forever with God. So, as advent is celebrated, may you lift your voice with me “in one accord sing praises to our heavenly Lord” for the love He offers and the hope He gives in our suffering!

 

Pray:

O Lord, I lift my praises to you, our Heavenly Lord, the hope and giver of life! Thank you for having such love to give such a gift to us, to all people, to the world. May I honor you in this day and continue to rejoice as we anticipate Christmas! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday, December 20: A Prayer for the Week

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the church worldwide celebrates the gift of love that is given to us and the world in Jesus Christ.  This Sunday we name that God is love–and he showed us the depth of his love by coming to live among us, “born a child and yet a king.”

God comes to us in Christ Jesus, wherever we are, offering love that is perfect and is given without condition.  There is no power that is greater than love–it is stronger than rulers and empires, stronger than grief or despair, even stronger than death.  And we love because God first loved us.

Isaiah 7 speaks of the sign of God’s love–of God’s coming to us:

“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:13-14).

Stop today and consider this sign–the incomparable love demonstrated by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Are there ways in which you long for love that God’s love will not satisfy?  Are there hard, dark places in your heart that could be transformed by this love if you let it?  Is there anything more valuable, more sought after, this Christmas than Christ our Lord?

Prayer:  Loving Father, you’ve always been faithful to give hope, peace, joy and love to your people.  Sometimes it is hard for me to truly grasp the greatness of the love demonstrated in the birth of Jesus Christ, in Christmas.  You dwell with me, Immanuel, and your love is strong.  Magnify your love within me and transform my heart that I may walk in the way of the Lord.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Saturday, December 19: Family Advent Activity

Each Saturday during Advent, we share an idea for an Advent Activity.  These are things you might do alone–but would also be meaningful to do as a family or with friends.  May you be blessed in doing so!

In Matthew 1:21-25, we read about the meaning of Jesus’ name. Emmanuel (or Immanuel from the Hebrew) means “God with us.” Jesus is a form of the name Joshua which means “the Lord saves.” Do you know what your name means? Is there a special reason why you were given that name?   Discuss names as a family.  You can look up names here.

Conclude your time by praying and giving thanks for your family members by name. Thank God that you are embraced as his child and that he knows you by name.

Friday, December 18: The Little Drummer Boy

Authorship:   

Words and music: composed by Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone in 1958.

Lyrics:  

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

Reflection: by Jennea Pilcher      (Jennea is one of our college students, and she will be graduating from TCU on Saturday. Congrats Jennea!)

When I was younger, my favorite Christmas carols was “The Little Drummer Boy.” I play percussion, so I always thought it was cool that someone would write a song about a little boy playing his drum for Jesus. As I thought about which song to write about, I began to listen to the lyrics more closely and I found a new connection to the song.

Most people would never want a drummer to play for their newborn baby! As a percussionist, I understand this reluctance, however, I have also heard some incredible drum solos that are actually beautiful. Now I know that there was probably not a boy playing his drum for Jesus when he was lying in the manger in Bethlehem, but we have great imaginations! I imagine that this little boy’s solo would have been the most beautiful any one had ever heard. It wasn’t his talent or skill that made it so beautiful though. It was that he was playing his heart out for the King of Kings. His drumming was all he could offer the newborn child and he gave it all he had.

This is what struck me most as I began listening to the song again. As others were offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, this little boy only had a gift of music. I think this may have been the greatest gift given. For the young boy gave Jesus everything he had and because it was for Him, Jesus made it beautiful. He smiled.

With tears streaming down my face, I realized once again that Jesus doesn’t need our hard work or perfect lives–if we come as we are and surrender to Him, He will make us beautiful.

 

Listen:

Pentatonix video

Frank Sinatra version

 

Pray:

Oh Lord, that our simple gifts would be enough. Sometimes we feel as if we have very little to offer to you, but you take our meager offerings and make them beautiful. Help me to give myself to you again today. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Thursday, December 17: In the Bleak Midwinter

Authorship:   

Words: Chris­ti­na Ros­set­ti, 1872; she wrote these words in re­sponse to a re­quest from the mag­a­zine Scrib­ner’s Month­ly for a Christ­mas poem. Music: “Cranham” by Gus­tav T. Holst, 1906.

Lyrics:  

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Reflection: by Toby Owen

Christmas! A time for joy! A time for family! A time for peace! These are just a few of the messages that we receive each year about Christmas, but for many, its nothing but a bleak midwinter. Some of my recent images of Christmas include an 18-year-old foster child being dropped off at the shelter wearing shorts when it was below freezing, or the mentally ill woman barefoot in the snow because she couldn’t remember if she had shoes, or the homeless man returning from the hospital wearing the gown they gave him when the temperature was rapidly dropping following a cold front. Talk about a bleak midwinter.

When we think of our Savior’s birth we often feel warm and cozy yet the physical surroundings prove otherwise. Born outside, in an unsanitary barn, surrounded by dirty animals, freezing cold, no doctor, no midwife, very little light, no extended family, and to a mom that was a teenager and a dad that was very poor. Talk about a bleak midwinter.

But despite all of this, Christ entered the world quietly and with purpose. He was born for peace to combat our fear, he was born for joy to battle our gloom, he was born for compassion to withstand our self-judgement, he was born for love to oppose our hate, he was born for forgiveness to eradicate our shame, and he was born for acceptance to destroy our doubt.

I for one am thankful for that special night so long ago. In that bleak midwinter all things changed in the most perfect and most loving way. We will continue to experience that bleak midwinter, but thanks be to God that we have a Savior that understands and walks beside us along the way.

 

Listen:

Lily & Madeleine with Acoustic Guitar and Piano

Susan Boyle with Liberian Boys Choir

 

Pray:

Heavenly Father, you’ve already heard our cry and answered with your love incarnate. You’ve broken through darkness, through a bleak midwinter, to give the light of incomparable grace to our world. May I respond in the givng of my heart. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.