The hymn is a contrast of weary longing and hopeful prophecy. The promised Messiah has not yet arrived, but his coming is sure, and cause for great rejoicing.
The hymn is also a prayer– pleading for the coming of Messiah, even as it comforts with the reminder that he WILL come. And it reminds us of the power of prayer– not just the power of approaching Almighty God, but the power of acknowledging our longings, our needs, and our dependence on God. Even in our darkest hours, even in captivity and oppression, we can have hope in God’s timing and wisdom. He DOES see our struggle; he DOES care, and he WILL send hope and rescue.
But the song also points out a pitfall–in the first verse, the prayer is for Emmanuel to rescue Israel from Roman Occupation; to end its immediate plight of being politically and economically oppressed. There were many people who saw Messiah, heard him speak, even felt his touch, who rejected him because he did not do what they were expecting. There are many today who cannot believe in Jesus Christ because he doesn’t take away their current circumstances of pain and suffering.
In their narrow focus, people miss the greater miracle of what Messiah is all about. Jesus did not come to free us from temporary troubles and trials; to make us comfortably apathetic or arrogantly victorious over personal poverty or sickness. He came to free us to be able to overcome our circumstances to offer hope where there seems to be no hope. He came to show us that our circumstances don’t define us or cut us off from God’s love; that our past is not more powerful than His forgiveness and power to heal; that even suffering and oppression can be endured with joy, even as we work together to overcome them.
This season, as we sing this hymn, I pray that we would see the continuation of this prayer. Emmanuel HAS come– Jesus not only came and won the victory over sin and death on Calvary; he has commissioned US to be the bearers of the Good News. There are dark places in the world praying for hope and rescue to COME. Will we share the love of Christ in our own neighborhoods? When we bear the name of Christ, we should be on mission to rescue those who are captives, not of Rome, but of Sin and the tyranny of Death. So that we all can know the reason to Rejoice! Rejoice!
1. 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.
2. 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 all on earth!
3. 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.
4. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; o come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Words by Phillips Brooks
Micah 5:2 English Standard Version (ESV) 2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
God’s ways are not our ways. I grew up in a tiny village in Michigan, and when we used to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I always imagined a similarly tiny town, draped in silence in the dead of night, sleeping right through the most glorious and stunning event in history. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the same thing happening in my sleepy village– Christ could have come to any of a dozen sway-backed sheds or garages around town without fanfare as hundreds of strangers crammed into local houses and public buildings, eager to be done with a bizarre census that led them back to where their ancestors once lived. There is nothing special about my hometown to anyone but those of us who grew up there.
Bethlehem was just such a small town. Prophecy that a king would arise from such a backwater village was mostly ignored. Four hundred years had passed since the last mention of Bethlehem by God or any of His prophets. No one expected a miracle there, just as no one would expect a miracle in our little town today.
We expect big things to happen in big cities– bustling, surging, modern, energy-filled cities. This is where grand events are held– political rallies, sold-out concerts, championship sporting events, groundbreaking new developments in business and medicine, coronations and ceremonies. But God often works in the quiet spaces and unexpected places of our world and in our lives. He comes softly and silently into the dark corners and forgotten nooks filling them with His glory.
And He gives us the privilege of sharing in this miracle– wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever our circumstances. Christ did not spend most of His life on earth in the halls of power or the centers of commerce. He didn’t “tour” the university circuit giving lectures, or fill great auditoriums while His image was splashed across a Jumbo-tron. He walked humbly from small village to small town, spreading truth and love and drawing people to Himself, that they might believe and find true life. He modeled how we can extend His grace– starting with those in our own small towns or neighborhoods–with simple acts and earnest prayers like the ones in this song: “Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.” “Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
Snow has been falling in earnest lately in our area– sometimes wet and heavy blobs, unsure of their status as liquid or solid; other times cold and wispy flakes, hovering and swirling in the frosty air, shimmering as they catch the light of street lamps, headlights, and even moonlight. Snow has coated limbs and branches of trees, and painted iron fences and rooftops white against the leaden skies.
We learn as children that each flake of snow is unique– no two are alike among all the hundreds of millions of flakes that fall. And just so, we are also taught, no two people are exactly alike. Each of us is unique.
God himself underscores this analogy in the book of Job, when He describes rain, dew, frost, and ice:
28 “Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? 29 From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven? 30 The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
Job 38:28-30 (ESV)
Just as each drop of water, each snow flake, each bit of frost is unique, so are we. And so should be our prayers–millions of voices and hearts raised to our Father in praise, petition, repentance, supplication, worship, adoration–trembling or triumphant– each as unique in our needs and utterances as the beautiful snowflakes dancing and skittering around in the moonlight. No two of us are alike, yet together we fill the empty night with wonder and give honor to our creator by being who we were created to be.
As we pray today, let us remember to be grateful for our uniqueness– celebrate God’s artistry by being fully ourselves and celebrating the uniqueness of the others around us.
My mother is famous (in our corner of the world, at least) for sending greeting cards–hundreds each year for birthdays and anniversaries. Nearly every day, she sits down and chooses birthday cards, signs them, puts them in envelopes, addresses them, stamps them, and dates them to put in the mail box. She has learned over many decades just how long it takes for cards and letters to travel to various parts of the country and world, and times each card to arrive as close to the actual date of the event as possible.
As a girl growing up, I found this ritual time-consuming, wasteful, and bizarre. The calendar was a crowded mass of names, copied faithfully from last year’s calendar and crammed full of new births and recent marriages. Once the card had been chosen and signed, Mom would have to look up addresses in an ancient address book crammed with scraps of paper and index cards with changes, notes, and other esoteric information. Mom sent cards to people I had never heard of or met– old friends she knew from school, people my father knew from his army days, distant cousins, people who used to live in the neighborhood from before I was born. Each year, there would be cards returned to sender as people we barely knew moved and mom lost contact with them, often for good.
When I was old enough and sassy enough, I asked her why she bothered. What value did she see in doing something so simple, yet so complicated– who cared whether someone they had never met (or barely remembered) sent them a 2-cent greeting card? She patiently answered that perhaps no one cared (though she hoped it meant something), but she did it because one year, when she was young and times were very tough, she had received a beautiful birthday card from an unlikely source– the only card she received that year. It came from her “uncle” Ralph, who was not actually her uncle, but a dear friend of the family. “Uncle” Ralph had grown up in an abusive home, and had lost two sisters in childbirth. He knew the pain of being forgotten on his own birthday, and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen to his “niece.” Mom’s birthday wasn’t “forgotten” that year, but there was no money for fancy cards that year– just enough for a small, unfrosted cake and many good wishes. Mom faced other “tough” years as a young wife and mother, when she couldn’t afford gifts or cards for birthdays. This one small gesture so impressed my mother that she made it her mission, when she could afford to do so, to send as many greeting cards as she could to as many people as she could. As a follower of Christ, moreover, she does it from a heart that wants constantly to show love to just one more person for whom Christ died.
In the many years since my impertinent question, I have seen the incredible ministry my mother has had, and have heard from some of the many lives she has touched with her cards and her kind thoughts. Time after time, I have heard of people who were strengthened and encouraged by her example and her thoughtfulness. She is the living extension of God’s heart as she lovingly signs each card, walks it out to the mail box, and sends it on its way.
Many people have stopped sending greeting cards– we are more likely to send a text message or tweet a birthday greeting– if we think about it, or if it pops up in our news feed and we can just click a button. Yesterday was my birthday…I received three actual paper greeting cards (and yes, one was from my mother, one from my mother-in-law, and one from the ladies’ group at church). I was blessed and touched by each one– and by the dozens of on-line greetings and random birthday wishes in the days before (and probably after), as well as the hugs and special time spent with my husband and other family members.
I don’t send cards through the mail as my mother does, but I find myself typing Happy Birthday greetings on all my friends’ news feeds– sending happy thoughts to them, their children and grandchildren; their spouses and cousins (though I’ve never met them)–and each time, I am reminded that even a seemingly small gesture can make an enormous difference in someone’s life. And, because of Mom’s example, I write every name in my prayer journal. As I turn the pages each day, I see the names of two, three, or even ten precious souls– all infinitely and passionately cherished by the creator of the universe–and I have the honor to lift each one up in prayer to the One who knows and loves them best.
One of the best known among the parables of Jesus is the story of the “Good Samaritan.” Jesus tells the parable in answer to a follow-up question from a n expert in the law:
The Parable of the Good Samaritan 25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25-37 (NIV)
Jesus paints with a broad brush, here– perhaps because the law expert “wanted to justify himself.” Our neighbor is anyone who crosses our path, engages our attention, and has a need for mercy, or help, or encouragement. How do we apply this to prayer? Most of us are willing to pray for those in dire need or those close to us– friends, family, and such. But there is so much more we can do! Prayer is powerful and mysterious–much more so than most of us realize. If we want to pursue prayer, we need to consider how we can lift others up–including our “neighbors” who may not otherwise come to our attention. Here are a few suggestions to try:
Make lists. It’s easy to list members of our families or close friends. Try some other lists: co-workers; the people who live on your block or on the floor of your apartment building. Are you feeling really adventurous? Dig up an old yearbook or staff directory from an old job; list all the people in local, regional, state or provincial, and federal government who directly represent you. Lists will help you to remember to pray for people, not because you already love them or know their needs, but because God already loves them and knows their needs!
Find a focus–Choose a person (maybe someone who is facing chronic pain, or someone you don’t know as well as you would like, or even someone at random: Pray earnestly for that person every day for a week– or a month! Don’t turn it into a bludgeon (“I think you should know I’m praying for you, because I think you really need it…” In fact, you don’t need to tell the other person you are choosing to focus on them, but you may wish to ask if they would like prayer and how they would like you to pray for them).
Pray for your enemies! You may not have a long list of “enemies”, but it is likely that you know several people who are “difficult”. Don’t pray at them or about them– pray for them. If they have caused you pain, ask for the grace to forgive them. (Keep asking as necessary!) Ask the Lord to bless them, and to help you be an encouragement to them. This is one of the most difficult things you will ever pray, but it can be life-changing.
Pray the calendar–write in three or four names or general prayer requests for each day of the year. For example, on February 14, I could pray for my nephew who has a birthday, three couples I know with anniversaries that day, and for those I know who struggle with being alone on a day when others celebrate their relationships. On February 15, I can pray for those who broke up yesterday (even if I don’t know of anyone specific), for a friend who celebrates her birthday that day, and for marriage and relationship counselors.
Pray the newspaper. NOT the TV or internet news! By this, I mean that the newspaper is organized into sections– pray for national and international news issues one day a week. Another day, pray for local issues; weather/environment on another day, etc. When I do this, it causes me to see God in every aspect of what is happening around me– business, government, entertainment and culture…
There is no perfect formula for being a “Good Samaritan” in prayer. But there is good reason to pursue ways that God can be glorified (and we can reach maturity in our walk with God) through our prayer life.
See more suggestions in the pages section of the blog.
My faith looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine! Now hear me while I pray, Take all my guilt away, Oh, let me from this day Be wholly Thine! May Thy rich grace impart Strength to my fainting heart, My zeal inspire! As Thou hast died for me, Oh, may my love to Thee Pure, warm, and changeless be, A living fire! While life’s dark maze I tread, And griefs around me spread, Be Thou my guide; Bid darkness turn to day, Wipe sorrow’s tears away, Nor let me ever stray From Thee aside. When ends life’s transient dream, When death’s cold, sullen stream Shall o’er me roll; Blest Savior, then in love, Fear and distrust remove; Oh, bear me safe above, A ransomed soul!
Hymn lyrics by Ray Palmer 1830
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 12:1-3 New International Version (NIV)
When was the last time you spent a little time sky-gazing? Looking up at the stars? Or even looking up at ceiling tiles or roof lines?
It turns out that the very act of looking up is good for your body, mind, and soul. Looking down, on the other hand, can, over time, lead to neck and back problems, and contribute to depression. (for more info, use a search engine to look up “health benefits of looking up” or click here: https://www.spine-health.com/blog/modern-spine-ailment-text-neck )
The author of Hebrews reminds us that we should be “fixing our eyes on Jesus” as we run the “race marked out for us”. This is more than just watching the road ahead or looking up at the sky. We look up at Jesus because:
He is the Author and Finisher (the pioneer and perfecter) of our Faith. Faith must be anchored…we will believe in something, or we’ll fall for anything, someone has said, and if we don’t make a choice to fix our eyes on Jesus, we will end up looking around or down for something else.
He is our guide. Like a highway sign keeping us on the right road and keeping us from taking a wrong turn, we look to Him to stay on track.
He is our example. In looking up to him, we are also learning how to live and endure and overcome.
He is our advocate and encouragement! How much better will we run when we look up to see Him cheering us on!
He is our goal. We run to Him, so we look up to see how close we are to running into His loving arms.
For anyone familiar with the Star Trek series, the phrase, “To boldly go…” conjures up pictures of galactic travel at warp speed, with haunting soprano voices, uniforms in mustard yellow, red, and black, and the voices of actors William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy (or Patrick Stewart, et al.) It probably does not make anyone think of The Lord’s Prayer, or the teaching ministry of Jesus Christ. I hope to change that today!
There is a running theme throughout scripture of God asking people– from Abraham to Moses to Mary and Joseph to the Disciples and Apostles and on to all of us– to COME, and to GO. BOLDLY! Abraham left all that he knew to follow God’s prompting to the promised land. Moses was told to Go and confront Pharaoh, Mary and Joseph were to Go– to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and then to Galilee. The Disciples were to Go into all the world! We are to continue this Great Commission.
But Jesus, in His teaching on Prayer, also told His Disciples to Come to the Father with boldness:
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us each day our daily bread,
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”
Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’ Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness, he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
As Christians, we often quote the Beatitudes, where Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek..” We should not be pushy, arrogant, or selfish in our actions or our prayers; but we should be bold, confidant, and eager. God doesn’t want us to be timid, coy, or “fake” in asking for wisdom, power, and basic needs– He wants to give us good gifts. He also wants us to trust Him enough to ask forthrightly and boldly.
So let us pursue the “Enterprise” of prayer by “boldly” going before God’s throne, and then “boldly” going forth in the power of His Holy Spirit.
We offer prayers to God, but sometimes, we lose touch with who He really is. One way to freshen our prayer life and our spirits is to rehearse the names of God. There are several throughout the Bible– too many to list them all here, though I will leave some at the end of today’s blog and links to sites that list more.
The pursuit of prayer isn’t just about the act of praying– it is about knowing God better; getting to know who He is, and who we are in Him. God is so much bigger than any one name or title, and the more we rehearse and remember His attributes, the more we discover Him to be beyond all that we can think or imagine.
It is also a wonderful idea to keep a running list (or start one) of your personal names for God– in fact, many of the names we use come from names given by others after a personal encounter with God. “The God Who Sees,” “The God Who Hears.” “God My Provider,” “The God Who Heals,” and many more are scattered throughout the Bible as God revealed Himself in a personal way to various people. There are also names and titles God has used to introduce Himself– “The God of Abraham,” “Yahweh (I AM),” “King of Kings,” “Almighty,” and many more.
God is spirit– we may feel His presence, but we do not see Him as He really is– not yet! And when we don’t see Him, we can lose sight of His Glory and Honor and Power. So let’s take some time today to “see” Him with new eyes– eyes of wonder and awe as we get just a bigger glimpse of Who HE Is!
Alpha and Omega
Ancient of Days
Author and Finisher of Our Faith
Beginning and the End
Bread of Life
Breath of Life/Breath of Heaven
Fisher of Men
I AM THAT I AM
Lamb of God (Jesus)
Lord of Lords
Maker of Heaven and Earth
Most Holy/Most High
Name Above All Names
Omnipresent (ever present)
Prince of Peace
Promised One (Jesus)
Quick to Hear
Resurrection (and the Life)
Shield and Defender
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (The Same)…
Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party? Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”. Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration. (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)
Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party? Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father. It required several months of planning. We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends. We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions. All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing. Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up. We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.
Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident. The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration. We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead. With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan. It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other. Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away. From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other. The first several minutes were surreal and jarring. But it was also cathartic. As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt. Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.
Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother. Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event. As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion. All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time. Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.
What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties. We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.
But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge. “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party. But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans? When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome. When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences. What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing. God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives. Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.
If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness. And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing. But we learned so many things that day. We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way. We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources. We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt. But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.
If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom. If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life. Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder. We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.
God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time. He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds. It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation. Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.
As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way. And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.