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Food for Thought - Musings

Advent Reflections Week 1 and 2: What‘s in a Name?

What's in a Name?
Advent Reflections Week 1 and 2

The following Advent reflections are based on the names of individuals who appear in the time before, during, and immediately following the birth of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth. As you journey through these reflections I encourage you to do a few things:

1. Take time to prepare yourself before you enter into these reflections, endeavoring to drop things from your mind and heart so you can be fully present to God, yourself, and the reflection.

2. Give yourself permission to spend more than one day with each name. Take time to ponder, linger and savor what God brings forth in your time. Pay special attention to what feelings arise within you and share those with God. The point of the exercises is not to answer the questions but to present yourself and be open to God (Rom 12:1). There are two names for each week and a bonus week for the time between Christmas and the New Year.

3. Take something with you from the morning – a phrase, word, thought, and recall it to your mind throughout your day. This can help you stay connected to God and deepen the initial insight you received. In these reflections carrying the meaning of the name with you throughout the day can be very transforming.

4. Journal your thoughts, feelings and discoveries. One writer stated that when we go to conferences and seminars we take copious notes of what is being said yet when God speaks to us we think we will remember. Please do not make that mistake. Journaling helps you to remember what God has shared with you and can also help you to discern patterns regarding what you are learning and discovering during your times with God.

5. Finally, from time to time review your journal. You will often be amazed by what you find there.

The above title, “What’s in a name?” refers to the focal point of these Advent reflections, namely, the names of the participants that are a part of the lead-up to and birth of Jesus. We will spend time reflecting on the meaning of the names Zechariah (Zacharias), Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, Jesus and others (a total of 8 names) who are participants in this Cosmic Christmas Pageant. The reason for this is that names are important. We see this reflected in our own day in the time, energy and effort expended when naming one’s own child. There are literally thousands of websites giving information about names, their meanings and origins. I remember the process we went through with our first child. It was amazing to notice the positive and negative connotations that many names had. I remember on more than one occasion stating quite adamantly “I would never name a child of mine that.” Well, as emotionally charged and important as it can be when it comes to naming our own children, in biblical times names were even more significant.

In the Old and New Testament a person’s given name conveyed a wide variety of things. For example, an aspect of the birth (Moses – “drawn out”), the reaction of parents (Isaac– “laughter”), a message from God (Isaiah named his first son Shear-jashub which means “a remnant shall return”). Also, names where changed to demonstrate power over, or a new direction or beginning (Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Cephas becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul). It is also interesting to note that when God and Moses have their dialogue following the burning bush, Moses presses God regarding by what name he (Moses) should tell those he will be speaking with that God is called. This was a means of being able to put God in a box, to have an idea of the who, what and how of this God. Yet God sidesteps this by giving his name as “I will be who I will be” –more an invitation to relationship than a limiting name declaring form and function. So names are very significant, especially in the bible, and that is why we will be focusing on the names of the key players in the Cosmic Christmas Pageant.

Reflections for Week 1 of Advent (Gabriel and Zechariah)

Sometimes lost in the Christmas story is the story of John’s birth to Elizabeth, a relative of Mary and her husband Zechariah (some translations have the name Zacharias while others use Zechariah), a priest. John’s birth was announced about 6 months prior to the Angel appearing to Mary with the pronouncement of Jesus’ birth . John, who has become commonly known as John the Baptist, was the forerunner of Christ (Luke 1:17). In Luke 3:3-6 it states regarding John; He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

His birth marked a turning point in the economy of God and he himself played an integral role leading up to Jesus’ earthly ministry.

John the Baptist was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are described in Luke 1:6-7 with the following words: “They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.”

Then in verse 8, the first tender shoots which mark the beginning of what will come to be known as the Christmas story break through the soil of 1st Century Israel with the simple words “Now it happened that while he (Zechariah ) was performing his priestly service before God…”(NASB). These words are the prelude to God intentionally entering into human history after 400 years of silence. These words give no hint of the scope of what is about to transpire. The life of two couples, one advanced in years (Elizabeth and Zechariah), the other betrothed, Mary, (age14-16) and a simple carpenter, Joseph (at least 10 years older than Mary) as well as the entire world will be changed forever. Now before looking at the meaning of the names Zechariah , Elizabeth we will focus our attention on a central figure in both birth narratives, one who bridges the events of John’s birth and the birth of Jesus. The name of the individual, or more precisely the angel, is Gabriel.

This first reflection is on an oft-forgotten named participant in our Cosmic Christmas Pageant, the angel Gabriel. Gabriel is the announcer of new life, appearing to Zechariah regarding the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist and then to Mary announcing the conception and birth of Jesus. The angel Gabriel is sent by the Author of Life to tell two very different people that God was going to do something that God had done before for Zechariah and Elizabeth (e.g. Abraham and Sarah) and something that God had never done before for Mary (i.e. virgin birth). As Gabriel brings these twin messages regarding God's ability to bring forth life out of barrenness and out of nothingness (virgin birth) I do not believe that it is a coincidence that Gabriel’s given name means God is my power. Gabriel's name declares that this is God's doing and this Angel is merely a messenger, an envoy from one far greater than Gabriel. Even though Gabriel is an imposing figure in his own right whose mere presence is a catalyst for fear in Zechariah and Mary - so much so that Gabriel's first words to each is "Do not be afraid" – it is not in his power to bring his words to fulfillment. The God who is Gabriel’s strength will be the one to bring forth life from the wombs of these two women. Gabriel bears witness to this truth during the encounter with Mary. In response to her query, “how can this be”, Gabriel (“God is my strength”) states rather matter-of-factly "For nothing will be impossible with God" -a statement of the undeniable and omnipotent power of God.

As Gabriel, God is My Strength, delivers God’s message, the Angel gets two very similar responses:

Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1:18)

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)

Gabriel reply to Zechariah and Mary’s response is very different:

To Zechariah : “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.” (Luke 1:19-20)

To Mary: the angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:35-37)

Zechariah, a trained priest, was not able to live into and out the truth conveyed by the name of the Angel sent to him by God (God is my strength); instead he doubted and was dealt with accordingly.

On the other hand, Mary, who was not as knowledgeable as Zechariah, was being asked to believe that God was about to do something NEVER done before through and in her. Her question (doubt) is totally understandable, and Gabriel gives testimony to God’s unlimited power (For nothing is impossible with God) to accomplish what Gabriel has just communicated to Mary – the virgin birth. This is not Gabriel’s doing, but his presence with Mary and Zechariah, the veracity of his words is a result of God’s strength–not that of Gabriel, as is so clearly stated by the meaning of his name “God is my strength”.

Personal Reflection
-REMEMBER you do not need to do each and every exercise for each name.
-ADDITIONALLY take something with you from your time – a phrase, word, thought, and recall it to your mind throughout your day.

1. When it comes to the truths and promises contained in scripture are you more like Zechariah (one who doubts) or Mary (who does not fully understand but believes)? Why? What helps you to trust in the strength of God? What hinders you from trusting in the strength of God?

2. Would Gabriel’s name, God is my strength, be an apt descriptor regarding the locus of the power you draw upon to live life each day. Why/Why not? What would it be like to seek to live your life today and the next couple days as if, like Gabriel, God was your strength – your strength to live life, make decisions, interact with others – what if you intentionally look to God for strength? Why not give it a go and see what happens in terms of your days, your sense of connection with God throughout the day, your awareness of God in the moments of your day.

A way to help you to do this would be to stop a couple times a day and do a mini Examen where you ask yourself the following questions:

1. In the last few hours when did I intentionally live life dependent on and aware of the strength of God?

2. During the last few hours was I able to be dependent on and aware of the strength of God? What was my sense of God and sense of self?

3. During the last few hours what hindered me from depending on God’s strength?

Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25)

Zechariah’s (Zacharias - NASB) name means “The Lord remembers”. Zechariah was married to Elizabeth, who was barren. He is described as righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. He was a priest and was trained in the Torah (first five books of the Bible) the prophets, the writings and history of Israel.

As stated above and found in Luke 1:5-25, the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah as he is serving in the temple and announces to Zechariah; “your prayers have been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…” to which Zechariah responds, “How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” Zechariah, whose name means “The Lord remembers”, doubts the veracity of the Angel’s words and the power of God. Zechariah puts more stock in common sense “I am old and my wife is advanced in years”, than the power of God. He whose name means the Lord remembers has given up on the prayers of his youth, even though, Abraham, the Father of the Jews, had the exact same thing happen to him and his wife Sarah (Genesis 17:15-22).

Zechariah (Zacharias) was not able to live into and out of his name (the Lord remembers) or even the name of the Angel sent to him by God (God is my strength) –instead he doubted and was dealt with accordingly. James tells us that teachers receive a stricter judgment and here we see a priest unable or unwilling to accept God’s wisdom when it went against the common sense wisdom of the day. Zechariah is the first and last person to bring doubt into this Cosmic Christmas Pageant. Zechariah, who at one time in his life prayed fervently and often for a child (Lk 1:13), prayers long since forgotten, also forgot that God is a God who not only hears but remembers.

Personal Reflection
-REMEMBER you do not need to do each and every exercise for each name.
-ADDITIONALLY take something with you from your time – a phrase, word, thought, and recall it to your mind throughout your day.

1. What are the feelings that are stirred within you as you reflect on the meaning of Zechariah’s name; “The Lord Remembers.” Has this been your experience? If so reflect on those times when you have realized God indeed does remember. What feelings arise within you and how do those past experiences impact your current encounters with God and trust of God? If you have felt or are feeling that the name, The Lord Remembers, has not been your experience please share your feelings with God feeling free to be as raw and honest as you need to be.

2. Does Zechariah’s name, “The Lord Remembers”, bring you a measure of trust and hope or does it tend to raise questions and pain? Why is this? Share your feelings and insights with God.

3. Zechariah, “The Lord Remembers”, had prayed for a child but God had not answered this fervent prayer in a timely manner; years had passed and Zechariah had given up that this prayer would ever be answered. Are there prayers you have prayed over the years that God has not answered, meaning he has not said no or yes? Bring these requests once again to God be open to God saying no or sensing God encouraging you to continue to pray in this manner.

4. What are the promises of God you hold dear, those promises that you depend on as you live life each day? Spend time reflecting on these biblical promises and sharing them with “The Lord Remembers” reminding yourself that these promises are all yes in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20).

5. Zechariah doubted God’s words as given through Gabriel. What about you? Do you live your life in light of the truths and promises of God as found in the scriptures as well as those communicated to you by God though time and circumstances may indicate that the truths and promises of God will not come to pass? Why, Why not? What makes it difficult for you to believe ‘The Lord Remembers’?

6. What are your prayers for this Advent season – for yourself, your family, your church, your community, the world? Share these with God.

7. What would it be like for you seek to live your life today owning the truth that God is a God who remembers? As you live your life today what is it that you would want God to remember? What would it be helpful for you to remember about God?

Reflections for Week 2 of Advent
(Elizabeth and Mary)

Elizabeth (Luke 1:23-35, 39-45)

Elizabeth’s name means “God is my Vow-Oath” (Luke 1:23-35, 39-45) which we will unpack below. She is a daughter of Aaron, which makes her a descendent of the priestly line of Israel (Exodus 28, Exodus 29). Regarding the name Elizabeth, it is difficult to truly ascertain the meaning of “God is my Vow/Oath” which is ascribed to her name. A vow or oath is a solemn promise, pledge, or personal commitment, a solemn pledge or promise to a god, king, or another person, to attest to the truth of a statement or contract, and when one makes an oath/vow to God or calls upon God as a witness to a spoken or written vow or oath, God is never mentioned as being a vow or oath. In fact because of the awkwardness of the phrase “God is my Vow/Oath” some scholars have translated the name Elizabeth to mean God is my seven, a possible translation given the Hebrew, but seven also has no other parallels and seems just as, if not more, awkward.

As I have reflected on this troubling phrase I have come up with several words to replace the word vow/oath that I believe capture what is contained by this phrase. The words would be certainty, assurance, promise, guarantee, confidence, and thus the meaning of Elizabeth’s name would be “God is my certainty, assurance, promise, guarantee and confidence.” This I believe harkens back to Numbers 18 which declares that while the rest of the people of Israel would receive lots of land in the promised land as their inheritance, those of the family of Aaron (lineage of Elizabeth), the priests, are told “you shall have no inheritance in their land, nor any portion among them; I (God) am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel” (Num 18:20). I believe the name Elizabeth is referring back this and is a declaration that God is the end all, the certainty, assurance, promise, guarantee, the confidence of Aaron and his descendents. That Elizabeth’s name conveys an inner heart desire that rests not on the things of this earth but on the person, character and providence of God. Elizabeth’s name, God is my Oath/Vow, means that God is enough for me. God is my promise, which is how some have ended up interpreting the name Elizabeth. Thus Elizabeth’s name seems to convey a deep trust in and dependency on the person of God, not trusting God will do what she wants, for most of her life she was barren, but that regardless of her circumstances she chooses to trust in God and depend on God.

Elizabeth is described as righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord (Lk 1:6) and is married to Zechariah. However, unlike her husband, Zechariah, who doubted even though informed by an Angel, Elizabeth lives into and out of her name – trusting in God. It then should come as no surprise that 6 months later when Mary gets the news of her virgin conception that she “went with haste” to the home of Elizabeth (Lk 1:30-42), this woman of profound faith and trust in God. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth encourages her, and moved by the Spirit proclaims in a loud voice; “ “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!... Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Personal Reflection
-REMEMBER you do not need to do each and every exercise for each name.
-ADDITIONALLY take something with you from your time – a phrase, word, thought, and recall it to your mind throughout your day.

1. Elizabeth’s name, God is my oath/vow/promise, speaks to a deep belief that God is enough for her. Just like her ancestors, for Elizabeth, God was her portion. Her name calls to mind the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 73:25,26, 28); Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge….

a. The question that arises from the name Elizabeth is this: Is God enough for you? Take time to ponder this. What if your prayers were answered by God with a no or with WAIT, would God be enough for you? Take some time to get connected with your feelings and share all this with God. It is about honesty with God and with yourself, not coming up with the correct answers.

b. Spend some time thinking about Christmas morning – what if you do not receive anything of this world, would the words and the truth conveyed in Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again be enough for you? Why, Why not?

2. Elizabeth’s name seems to convey a deep trust in and dependency on the person of God, not trusting God that will do what she wants but that regardless of her circumstances she chooses to trust in God and depend on God. What about you? What kind of “trust” do you have? Do you trust that God will do what you want, and ask God to do in the way and timing of your desire, or do you trust in God no matter what, depending on and in God’s love, wisdom and power, come what may? How might this second kind of trust, if embraced, change how you live life and your current feelings about your life?

3. Do you have an Elizabeth in your life, one you can go to and be strengthened and encouraged in the Lord, one who trusts God, is dependent on God and does not become envious or jealous when God is doing new and/or wondrous things in your life? If you have such a person, I encourage you to sit down and write them a thank you note (rather than a text or email) that communicates how God has used this person in your life and your gratefulness for her or him.

a. What about you? Are you an Elizabeth to others, someone willing to speak as God leads? If not, ask God to help you learn to grow in your trust of God, your dependency on God, that God might be your oath come what may so you can be a Elizabeth to others, bringing strength, encouragement and support as others seek to say yes to God.

b. Ask God to show you if there is someone you could be an Elizabeth to through your prayers or your words or if there is something in your life that might hinder you from being an Elizabeth to others. Remember Elizabeth did not seek out Mary but Mary was led to her. So this is not a going out to others but being ready, willing, able and available as God leads others to you to follow God’s leading.

4. What would it look like to live today in the truth that God is enough for you? That today come what may you are endeavoring to lean into and hang on to God being enough. Trusting in and depending on God’s provision this day, in the midst of your interactions, circumstances, times of critique and criticism…that is, that through it all you will seek to remind yourself this God who loves me, is for me and not against me, who delights in me and cherishes who I am and am becoming, is e-n-o-u-g-h.

One way to help you to do this would be to stop a couple times a day and do a mini-Examen during which time you ask yourself the following questions:

a. In the last few hours when did I intentionally lean into the truth that God is enough for me? What made that difficult? What made that doable?

b. In the last few hours what did I look to instead of God to get what I felt I needed/wanted? What was it that I felt I would not be able to get from God? Why?

(Luke 1:26-56)

In some Protestant circles, Mary is overlooked or her role is downplayed in this Cosmic Christmas Pageant, likely as a backlash to a perceived overemphasis on the part of those in the Catholic Church; this I believe is done to our own detriment. Mary is a marvelous example of faith in and trust of God as well as obedience to God. In her own way, Mary spoke the words Jesus would utter 33 years later while he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane sweating drops of blood, “not my will but Thy (God’s) will be done.” Mary, the mother of Jesus, put it this way, “be it done to me according to your word.” This is all the more noteworthy because Mary was a young teenage girl (14-16) and had just been told that God was going to do something that had never been done before, that humanly speaking was impossible. Yet this precious young girl, unlike the older and wiser Zechariah, doubted not but was able to yield to God’s will, though she was not able to understand how this could even happen to her since she was a virgin. Mary is remarkable!

The meaning of Mary’s name may surprise you. Given her pivotal role in God’s plan, her being addressed by the Angel Gabriel as favored one, the Lord is with you (Lk 1:28) we might think her name would mean something like, One on whom God’s favor rests or One of God’s own choosing or something else along those lines, but we would be wrong, in fact we would be very far afield. The name Mary means
”bitter” or ‘sea of bitterness”. A harsh name indeed, yet a name that hints of the pain and sorrow this young girl will come to know all too well in the intervening years of her life. A life hinted to in the words of Simeon to Mary when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be presented in the temple “… and a sword will pierce even your own soul….”

Before the appearance of the Angel, Mary was a typical teenage girl of her day. She had reached marrying age and was pledged to a Jewish man named Joseph whose trade was that of a carpenter. Her life was set. She was marrying a man of faith who had the means and ability to care for her and the family they would one day be starting. But all that changed, and in a blink of an eye her life, as well as the way others perceived her, would be changed forever. Mary, the innocent bride to be, was now Mary, the pregnant teenage girl, promiscuous, unsavory, the kind of girl you do not let your girls hang around with for fear that merely keeping company with such a morally bankrupt person would besmirch the reputations of your girls and cause others to think twice when it came to choosing to marry one of them. Her yes to God came at great personal cost, a cost that would grow ever greater until she stood and watched her son hanging before her on a cross, naked and dying.

Personal Reflection
-REMEMBER you do not need to do each and every exercise for each name.
-ADDITIONALLY take something with you from your time – a phrase, word, thought, and recall it to your mind throughout your day.

1. Take a moment to consider the radical changes that took place in Mary’s life as a result of God’s choice of her. Think through the loss of her reputation—at this point she is not even certain that Joseph, her husband to be, will believe her, let alone marry her, and that there was a good possibility that she could be punished for her perceived infidelity or at least forced to be an outcast of the community and reduced to begging for her subsistence. What are your feelings toward the God who has put you in this position? What would you want to say to God? What would you want to say to Mary?

2. What might God be seeking to birth in you? Take some time to sit silently before God open, yielded, desiring to cooperate with that which God is seeking to develop within you and birth from you. You may very well want to do this on more than one occasion, reminding yourself that “nothing is impossible with God” and desiring to be able to say to God, “may it be to me according to your word.”

3. When Mary is addressed by the Angel Gabriel she is called “favored one! The Lord is with you.” How would God address you? Remember to draw from the truths of scripture that clearly communicate who we are in Christ.

4. Mary was willing to lose her reputation and embark on a painful journey in order to say yes to God’s plan for her life, Paul was willing to be labeled a fool for the sake of Christ, to turn his back on all he had accomplished, to be beaten, shipwrecked and imprisoned for the sake of knowing and following Jesus more closely. What about you? Are you willing to say yes to God no matter what? What would/does keep you from going all in with God? What keeps you from saying with Mary. “be it done to me according to your word”? Be honest and share your feelings and insights with God.

5. Angel Gabriel, God is my strength, says in response to Mary’s question, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” that “nothing is impossible with God”. Soren Kierkegaard has reminded us that without risk, faith is an impossibility. So what are you trusting God for that only God can do, where are you embracing risk that is a result of heeding God’s words to you, words which at this point you may not fully understand but nonetheless are known to you to be an invitation/challenge form God?

6. Mary’s name, bitterness, sea of bitterness, conveys not a life of ease but one of deep pain and sorrow, one reminiscent of Jesus’ words to the disciples, in the world you will have tribulation, and his warnings to his followers that the world will hate them. If you knew that God’s call would lead you into a life of sorrow and pain, would you be able to respond as Mary did, “be it done to me according to your word”? Why or why not? If no, what is it that you value over following the call of God? Be honest, for it is in honesty with God that we can truly grow, learn and discover the richness and scope of God’s love and that nothing can separate us from it.

Advent Reflections for Week 3 and 4 are also currently available on the website. Go to b-ing.org and click on Food for Thought and look under Musings heading.

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