Happiest Christmas

We hope your advent, your Christmas, and your life have been blessed by these devotions. It has been a joy for us to provide them to you. Thank you for joining together with us as we explored the surprises tucked away inside God’s word. We have only touched the surface; God has many more surprises in the Word just waiting to be revealed to God’s faithful people.

Each devotion was written by a member at Grace Lutheran in River Forest, IL. If you would like to know more about Grace, its worship life, its ongoing ministries, its school, etc. you can find more information at www.graceriverforest.org.

Thank you for being part of the Grace community during this Advent season. We hope you will join us again for devotions, for worship (see the website for worship Livestream links), or for our Bach Cantata Vespers sometime. We would be thrilled to have you join your voice with ours as we explore God in our lives and proclaim God’s salvation to the world.

The “editors”

December 25: Christmas Day

Rev. David R. Lyle

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2:15-18)

Why shepherds? Surely there were other people, worthier people, to be the first visitors to the Holy Family. Their lowliness is part of the point, of course. Who better to first visit Jesus than the last people we’d expect? The last were being made first, right from the beginning of Jesus’ life.

So the shepherds go to the City of David, the ancient ancestor whose road to the throne of Israel began in the fields. As Jesse’s youngest son, David was of little account. Not much was expected of him. Not only did he grow to become Israel’s most powerful king, but he also received God’s most powerful promises. David’s life was never worthy of these promises, yet God chose to make and keep covenant with him.

To backwater Bethlehem, the shepherd’s city, these lowly shepherds come. God’s covenant with David is being fulfilled. The Good Shepherd is born for them, to gather in the scattered remnants of Israel’s flock. To seek after other sheep, too. Those who are lost and least, of no account. Even you and even me.

Let us continue our walk to Bethlehem and the baby who was born there long ago. Let us go with haste and be quick to tell others of all that we have seen and heard of this Shepherd born. It took 1,000 years for the covenant with David to be fulfilled through the coming of Jesus. But the shoot of Jesse bloomed in God’s time. His coming caught the world by surprise, God’s grace sneaking in the back door, in the middle of the night. But he came, and he remains with us now. This Shepherd still seeks the lost and gathers us in.

Good Shepherd, give us ears to hear your voice and tongues to sing your praise. Amen.

Friday, December 24: Christmas Eve

Rev. Bruce Modahl

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

The prophets were contrarians. They surprised their hearers with words of judgment when times were good. They surprised them with glad tidings when times were bad. Micah was no exception.

Micah 5:2 and the following verses overflow with words of hope. The times were very bad. The Assyrian army had already overrun the northern kingdom and now laid siege to Jerusalem.

Micah proclaims a new king shall arise from Bethlehem. That was King David’s hometown. All the kings who sat on the throne in Jerusalem traced their ancestry to David and Bethlehem. All of them said their “origins were from of old, from ancient days.”

When reading any portion of scripture, we attend to what the words meant to the people who first heard them. So what meaning did Micah 5:2 have for the people in Jerusalem, surrounded by a hostile army?

At the very minimum, Micah was telling the people they had a future. In the near term, Micah’s prophecy was fulfilled when the siege was lifted by God’s wondrous intervention. There was another descendent of David who assumed the throne after his father. The prophet surprised them with hope.

On this Christmas Eve, we hear the prophet’s words fulfilled again in Bethlehem, by a newborn heir of David. His lineage, however, is far more ancient than King David. As we say in the creed, he is “eternally begotten of the Father.” Cross and death encompassed Jesus. But by God’s wondrous intervention, he broke death’s siege and was raised to rule eternally. He did it for us.

Heavenly Father, your prophet surprises us with hope. Your Son, whose birth we celebrate this night, sets us free from sin’s power and promises us a future the grave cannot take from us. Empower us daily to make use of Christ’s benefits: mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and confidence in his promises. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thursday, December 23

Ryan Balock

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.(Luke 2: 1-4)

From King David to the average Jo(seph), the story of Judaism and Christianity is one of underdogs … the lowest common denominator. God’s work on earth includes history littered with women and men of humble origins, lifted to the status of heroes, if only for a moment. And, as with anything, time eats away at status, eroding power and relegating relational truth to distant memory and legend.

From the King of Judah to a day laborer eking out an existence in Nazareth, a small town far away from the limelight of Jerusalem, the lifeline of God’s promise ebbed and flowed for generations, waiting for its moment to become flesh and blood, to fulfill a long-held vow. And when that time arrived, the day laborer took his supporting role aside his new bride. He hid his family when danger was near, then continued to work and provide food and shelter, living an otherwise unremarkable life as the adoptive father to the son of God.

Joseph’s special moment in this story wasn’t to become king, lead a people, or defeat an army. His surprising role in the literal birth of Christianity was to simply trust and love his wife and provide for his family. When we inspect this singular brick in the building that is our faith it might seem mundane. But, without the support of this brick, how could the walls stand?

There are surprises waiting in the mundane passages of life for every one of us. Maybe your special moment is just around the corner. Or maybe it’s now.

Are you aware? Are you ready?

Father, be in my heart and lead my spirit. Help me to prepare so that when my surprising moment is before me, I will be aware and ready to do whatever my part is in supporting your great story. In your name I pray, amen.

Wednesday, December 22

Katharine Roller

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Luke 1:18b-19)

In a world so focused on questions of justice—on what we and others deserve—it’s always surprising when, instead, we are confronted by mercy. Joseph has every right, by the standards of his day, to ruin Mary in the eyes of the world because of her presumed violation of their community’s code of sexual morality. By those standards, that would be justice. That would be what she deserves.

But that is not what Joseph does. Given power to harm, he stays his hand. Confronted with what he believes is evidence of very human sin, he meets it with God-like virtue: for “earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.” (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1.)

We serve a God of justice, and we are not wrong to cry out for that justice and to seek to make our world a more faithful reflection of the kingdom of God, in which law is justice, everlasting. But in this unjust and sinful world, God has as much to teach the powerful as the dispossessed. And those who possess power because of race, wealth, gender—which is what gives Joseph his power here—or any other source can learn from Joseph’s surprising and righteous choice to do mercy rather than justice … or what appears to be justice. For it is a tricky business for us, as earthly judges, to decide what others deserve. That, too, is often a surprise. The true nature of Mary’s condition—not a sign of sin, as Joseph first believed, but of deep and courageous faith—should teach us that lesson as well.

God of mercy, teach us to stay our hand when given power to harm. God of justice, teach us humility in pronouncing judgment. Amen.

Tuesday, December 21

Jeff Cribbs

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matthew 2:19-23)

As we head into the Advent season with hope and joy to celebrate the birth of Jesus, these dark verses describe Joseph led by angels to settle in Galilee. 

Perhaps we take for granted angels guiding Joseph to safety. Yet Jesus arrived as a baby into a fallen humanity to grow up and live among us. Vulnerable and needing care and protection, Joseph protected Jesus from Herod. 

Herod was an evil ruler. (In fact, it seems like it was a family business to be ruthless.) His words and actions showed violent indifference to others, lacking compassion and full of jealousy and hate. When that is the state of politics, division foments hatred and anger, destroying love and care for others, especially when those others are not like us. Unfortunately, we live in a world where Herod has not disappeared, where what is holy and sacred is under constant attack.

The angels illumined Joseph’s decisions. Maybe the light was overwhelmingly clear to guide Joseph in his choices. Is that same light present in our own lives? Do we see it, or is it drowned out by demands on our thoughts, time, and resources? Who has God entrusted to us? God’s light draws us to serve Him and love one another. Are we missing it? Are we even allowing God to show up?

In COVID times, having been disconnected from so much that fills our hearts with joy, this short scripture lesson could be a call to seek God’s light. God shows up if we open ourselves to his guidance. So let us return to be present in those places among our family, friends, community, and yes, church, which help make us who we are called to be.

Heavenly Father, we seek your light in our lives. You have endowed each one of us with skills and purpose. Please help us see and feel your presence every day to guide us in our actions, so we may care for others entrusted to us as Joseph cared for his family. Amen.

Monday, December 20

Ole Schenk

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2: 10-12)

More than a century ago, during the First World War, British poet Thomas Hardy reimagined the scene of the announcement of good news in his poem “The Oxen.” What we have in the poem is a group of anonymous and unknown figures huddled around a fire. Perhaps this scene evokes soldiers camping in the trenches, or family members separated by wartime. They could be gathering by firelight around a radio for any news that could bring some word of battles impacting their loved ones.

At the stroke of midnight, someone breaks the silence and says, “Now they are all on their knees.” Everyone gathered begins to remember: the Christmas story of shepherds kneeling in wonder around the baby born in the manger and how, in tales of British folklore, even the oxen join in the kneeling. “Now they are all on their knees,” says the voice, and none of the group could doubt “they were kneeling then,” that it has happened, that into this world it happens. Though the narrator of Hardy’s poem speaks in polished and educated diction, when he imagines what the invitation to come join in the kneeling might sound like, the voice that does the inviting breaks into a rural and lower-class accent.

It’s as if the joy comes up from the very roots. To a world brought down to its knees, down from the heights of education and technology, of material wealth and imperial power, down to wartime misery and breakdown, separation and loss, the voice of the angel breaks forth to speak and summon us all, with the shepherds and even the oxen, to adoration. 

God of love, help us, with the shepherds and oxen, to kneel in joy and adoration. Help us break silences and witnesses to your angel’s words. Amen.

Sunday, December 19

Julie Hinz

And there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

It’s a balmy evening, the sky full of stars, sheep quietly rustling. A warm fire glows while your fellow shepherds settle in for the night, your rucksack under your head and a light blanket to warm your shoulders. Peaceful. Not an easy life, but nights like this, safe on a hillside outside Bethlehem, seem perfect.

And suddenly … the peace of the night is shattered, the sky glows, a cacophony of angels … angels? Did the shepherds even recognize them as angels? These simple, most likely uneducated shepherds, did they even comprehend angels?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, amid their shock, they responded. They acted. They ignored the task at hand, left their jobs and did what the voices in the heavens told them to do. And they found exactly what they were told they would find.

The first surprise we see is … angels. Pretty terrifying surprise! The second is the location of this “Messiah, the Lord.” A manger. Where animals feed. This is where they lay a King? Another purposeful surprise from God.

Yet a third unexpected “thing” strikes me. Those shepherds just went. They left their work; they did not stop to question the message or consider what their boss might say. They did not wonder if they would be seen as foolish or stop to consider the ramifications of their leaving. They (scripture uses the plural so we know it was more than one) as a unit, simply up and went, trusting that what they heard would be true and all would be well.

Faith isn’t about sitting on a hilltop considering. Faith is about hearing and responding. Advent is about preparation … acting on the Good News of our salvation.

O Lord, grant me open ears and a faithful heart so that when you call, I respond, knowing you will show me the path you desire for my life. Amen.

Saturday, December 18

Rev. David Kluge

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

Imagine for a moment that you are engaged to be married only to find out that your future spouse has been unfaithful. How would you react? This is what Joseph faced at a time when engagement was tantamount to marriage.

The 15th-century carol “The Cherry Tree Carol” depicts Joseph “flying in anger” and refusing to pick cherries for Mary. But when he realizes that the child is of divine origin he relents and asks for forgiveness.

Our reading from Matthew relates Joseph’s reaction to the news that Mary was with child before they were married. The evangelist describes Joseph as a “righteous man” who planned to “dismiss” his relationship with Mary “quietly” lest she be exposed to “public disgrace.” Only after our Lord assured him in a dream that the baby she carried was of divine origin did he take Mary as his wife. Joseph could have very easily gone through with the separation thinking that the dream was a figment of his imagination.

Interestingly the evangelist placed this event within the context of our Lord’s ancestry. He divided it into three sections of fourteen: Abraham to King David, King David to the Babylonian Captivity, and the Babylonian Captivity to Joseph. In each case a man fathers a son except one: Joseph. Joseph does not father Jesus, underscoring Jesus’ divine origin.

The number seven was viewed as number of completeness as in the seven days of creation. Matthew’s use of seven plus seven and the inclusion of three women of questionable morals and one Moabite woman underscores Matthew’s message: God’s grace to humanity was fulfilled/completed with the birth of Jesus.

Joseph believed what the Lord had told him in the dream and he “took Mary as his wife.” Would we have such faith? Faith is always a challenge!

Graciously Lord, create within us a faith similar to that of Joseph as we deal with the challenges of daily life and at times may struggle in understanding your will for us. Grant that we may hold fast to the word of forgiveness and promise of life in your Son. In his name we pray. Amen.

Friday, December 17

Carolyn Garber

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1: 26-33)

This text is full of surprises for Mary and Joseph. Mary, a young woman betrothed to Joseph, is tapped by the angel Gabriel to bear a son to be named Jesus and he will be a great one, the Savior of the world. We wonder what Mary thought when she received this message.  The voice of Gabriel bore many surprises and was difficult for Mary to comprehend. Some of the surprises were why was she chosen, how could she be pregnant never having had an intimate relationship with Joseph and what would Joseph think. Depending on translations we find that Mary upon hearing Gabriel’s message was “much perplexed” (NRSV), “greatly troubled” (NIV), and “confused and disturbed” (NLT).

According to scripture Mary was a devout Jew and an exceptional woman of faith. Mary had been learning about biblical prophecy her entire life. This wondrous birth was prophesized in Isaiah 7:14. Mary’s response to Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) We can be assured that God convinced Joseph to believe Mary and that her pregnancy was a divine conception.

Mary’s message speaks volumes to us this Advent season. We are to be humble, speak with boldness and hear God’s calls to make the world a better place for all. 

Who wants to be Mary? I remember as a young Sunday School student being asked to play the part of Mary in our Christmas program. I was so excited to kneel in front of the manger crafted by my father of tree limbs from our farm.  What a wonderful experience!

Our dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for choosing Mary to give birth to your Son, Jesus Christ. We are thankful for our Savior who brings us peace, joy and hope.  Help us to remember that Christ is our greatest treasure for the whole year. Amen