Paying Attention in the New Year

We live in a culture of seemingly constant, unremitting distractions not withstanding smart phones and other rapidly evolving technology. This is so much so that being distracted is the new normal. As a result, we accommodate non-stop distractions by embracing short attention spans. We experience discomfort if any task takes more than a brief encounter. Along the way have we lost the habit of being attentive? Do we have what Asbury University professor, Daniel Strait, identifies as a diminished capacity to see beyond ourselves.

Dan Strait writes in the November 2016 issue of Word & Deed, “We are called to ‘behold,’ ‘look,’ ‘witness,’ and ‘see’ God’s presence in our midst. Isaiah 43:19 calls us to live in the expectation of God now, at this moment, in the place where I stand: ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (NRSV). Often we don’t perceive it, and, just as often, perhaps, we don’t expect anything new, not even at the start of a new year.”

He calls for a recovery of attentiveness and for a recognition of the difference between attentiveness and “attending to.”  In our attentiveness, there is always more to see, learn, and know and yet always mystery, discovery, and light. A good place to begin the New Year is with attentiveness with expectancy to the presence and provisions of God in our daily lives. The Psalmist declares (Psalm 40:5), “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to count.” The Apostle Paul (Ephesians 3:18) prays we might grasp the magnitude (how wide and long and high and deep) is the love of God, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (knowledge of the heart).

Here’s the call at the beginning of a New Year: “Wake up! Look! See! Pay far more attention to God and others! Make it a habit! Stop slacking off! Do something about your inattentiveness! There’s more about life in Christ than you’re seeing! Cultivate an appreciation for the wonder and grace right in front of you that makes possible a profound love for God and one’s neighbor.  Instead of a New Year’s resolution, consider praying a prayer for attentiveness:

 Open my eyes, that I may see 
glimpses of truth thou hast for me;
place in my hands the wonderful key
that shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for thee,
ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!
 

Happiest and Attentive New Year!

 

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Part Two: CHRISTMAS JOURNEYS . . .

The four Christmas journeys of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus the Christ child, together begin a journey that became our journey. It was and remains a journey of acquainting grace with divine purpose. Glory to God!

Journey is an enduring theme throughout Scripture. We see this in the journeys of Abraham, Moses, Ruth and Naomi, the journeys of the people of Israel exiled to Babylon and their eventual return, the ministry years of Jesus, and the missionary journeys of Peter, Paul and Barnabus. The traditional Christmas story of the journey by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in her third trimester is but a part of a longer narrative of four Christmas journeys: (1) Mary with child in her pregnancy first trimester traveling to visit her cousin Elizabeth; (2) Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; (3) their flight with the toddler Jesus to Egypt; and (4) the holy family’s return from Egypt to Nazareth.

The complete journey from Nazareth to Egypt and back again likely covered a period of five years. Altogether the four-journeys-in-one were just the beginning of Christ’s journey throughout his life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and return to the Father. Our Acquaintance with his journey is the beginning of our journey. Because of his life’s journey, we are blessed with the privilege to become personally acquainted with Jesus and through his self-giving love. Thereby we come to know the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Knowing God, we come to love him.  The Christmas journeys begin our journey of an acquainting grace.

It is by God’s acquainting grace that we come to know God in the Trinitarian personhood of perfect unity and love. We begin a journey to knowing his presence (God with us), his identity, and character.   With increasing acquaintance with him, we appreciate Christ as Lord and King. We accept the Father’s love for all the world and embrace our life as children of God. We acknowledge the Spirit’s work in us as comforter, counselor, and guide. Through our journey in Christ by the Holy Spirit we continue to increasingly knowing, love God, and live for him. Those first four journeys of Christ continue in and through us with God who is Emmanuel, God journeying with us, and who continues to love us with an everlasting love! Thanks be to God!

Christmas Journeys and Acquainting Grace

Four Christmas Journeys.

A trip to the mall is not the same as a journey across the country. A journey takes more time, costs substantially more, and holds more challenges, risks, and prospects. In the Christmas season, its traditional to retell the Christmas story of the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah, baby Jesus. However, there’s more to the story than that one journey. Actually, there are altogether four journeys which speak to our own spiritual journey with challenges, risks, and yet prospects of God’s acquainting grace.

Journey 1 – Mary visits Elizabeth.  Mary was about 14 years old when first “with child.” She set out on a journey from Nazareth to the hills of Judea to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. There’s no mention of Joseph accompanying her. Scripture suggests she made the trip of about 20 or more miles alone. She stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah through the first trimester of her pregnancy for three months before returning home. Since the Christmas story starts with her miracle conception, this was the first Christmas journey. It is significant in connecting the Christmas narrative to Elizabeth’s anticipated birth of John the Baptist. John was to play a major, prophetic role in the eventual start of Christ’s ministry.

Journey 2 – The traditional Christmas story begins with Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. In the third trimester of her pregnancy, the couple journeyed sixty-nine miles to Bethlehem. The likely route was directly south through Samaria. Mary rode on a donkey with Joseph walking the whole way. Only the mega-wealthy would have made the journey by means other than walking or by donkey. Imagine such a journey for Mary’s in her third trimester. The journey could not have been pleasant. It ended with no place to recover but in a stable. Upon arrival, Mary went through the physical rigors of labor and giving birth to baby Jesus and then hosting visitors that smelled like sheep. Nevertheless, the journey ended in an amazing, celestial celebration like no other. Then, it wasn’t for several months, possibly as much as two years, before the next segment of their Christmas journey.

Journey 3 – The flight to Egypt. Contrary to the traditional narrative, the Magi mentioned in Matthew 2:1 did not visit Jesus in the manger on the night of his birth along with the shepherds. They arrived several months and possibly a much as two years later.  By then Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had moved out of the stable. Luke’s narrative (v. 2:11) states that the Magi, on coming to the house, saw the child and Mary and worshiped the child king. The blood thirsty king, Herod, was out to murder the Christ child when the Magi returned to Jerusalem on their way home. Sensing Herod’s malevolent intentions, they returned another way. If so, they were right. An angel then appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night they fled as political refugees to Egypt, a trip of 430 miles.

Journey 4 – Return to Nazareth. After a good while in Egypt, Herod died. An angel appeared again in a dream to Joseph again and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and go to the Land of Israel for those trying to take the child’s life are dead.” They then returned to Israel and settled again in the little town of Nazareth where it all started. The journey likely took more than twenty days covering nearly five hundred miles. By this time Mary was nineteen or twenty years old and Jesus was four or five years old. Rome’s oppressive occupation of Israel was in full swing controlling the lives of the people by intimidation and fear. Likely, for the child Jesus, crucifixions along the journey to Nazareth previewed the cross to the young Jesus and what was yet to come later in his continuing life’s journey. To be continued . . .