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Food for Thought - Musings

Advent Reflections Week 3 and 4: What‘s in a Name?

Advent Prayer:
God, during Advent, may we remember the greatest gift ever given: your only Son, Jesus Christ. Fill our hearts with wonder and gratitude as we think of our Savior putting aside his heavenly glory and coming among us. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, grow our understanding about the impact of our Lord’s birth. By Christmas day, may our hearts overflow with thanksgiving as we embrace the greatest of all promises: God with us!

What's in a Name?
Advent Reflections:Weeks 3, 4 and final exercises for the week between Christmas and New Years.

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
Advent Reflections Week 3 and 4: What's in a Name?

Reflections for Week 3 of Advent (Joseph and Jesus)

Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25)

Joseph, whose name means “He will enlarge/expand”, [enclose in quotation marks to begin] was a righteous man (Mt 1:19 NASB) at least 10 years older than Mary, his wife to be. He had been apprenticed as a carpenter, and his lineage goes all the way back to King David. Joseph was preparing to marry Mary, which would involve building a place for them to move into once they were married. Joseph was busy working toward having a life with Mary, starting a family, and growing old together. His life was set. Then he heard the news – Mary was with child, an offense that could result in Mary being sentenced to death by stoning. In the NASB it says, “And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.” Joseph was not seeking retribution for Mary’s perceived betrayal but desired to save her from the public ridicule that would certainly be heaped upon her, as well as the possibility of her being stoned to death. Joseph adjusts to the news, develops a strategy that will treat Mary in a compassionate and gracious manner and also allows him to get on with his life. Now with those decisions behind him he calls it a night, he will get some rest and move forward implementing his decisions in the morning. But as with Zechariah and Mary before him, God breaks into his life. Once again an Angel does God’s bidding; an unnamed Angel this time appears to Joseph in a dream (Mt 1:21-23) encouraging Joseph to marry Mary. The Angel relates to him what has taken place and the role this unborn child plays in the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken centuries earlier, recorded in the book of Isaiah, as well as being an agent to save people from their sins (21-22). All this is part of God’s unfolding plan in which Joseph is being invited to take part.

And now like Zechariah and Mary before him, Joseph is left with a choice: will he doubt like Zechariah, or will he be like Mary saying in his own way, not my will but God’s will be done? Will Joseph be true to his name, “he will enlarge/expand”, and embrace this new expanded adventure of faith that has to do with the forgiveness of sins and the promise of God being with us as never before? A life beyond anything Joseph could ever orchestrate. Can Joseph say no to his dream and yes to a God-dream of unimaginable scope and depth? In verse 24 we have our answer, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Joseph joins with Mary in saying, “may it be done to me according to your word” and provides a foreshadowing of Jesus’ words 33 years later, “not my will but Your (God’s) will be done.”

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. Spend time pondering the dreams you have for you life. What do you want, what do you really want? Once you are finished, spend time asking God and then listening to God and for God around the questions: God, what is your dream(s) for my life? How might you want to enlarge or expand my current dreams beyond anything I can think, ask or imagine? This second set of questions you might want to sit with and carry with you over several days seeking to have an open heart and listening ears.

2. Along the lines of the above question Richard Niebuhr has said “The great Christian revolutions, come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there.” What are you currently doing, practicing, involved in that God may be inviting/challenging you to take to another level, to enlarge and expand?

3. Imagine you have a dream and in that dream you believe you hear from God, and that God is leading you in a direction that goes against your culture, that invites you into something expanded and enlarged beyond your capabilities to accomplish on your own—what would help you in saying yes to God, not my will but your will be done, and what would hinder you from saying yes to God, not my will but your will be done? Spend some time unpacking your perceived hindrances with God.

4. God enters into Zechariah’s, Elizabeth’s, Mary’s, and Joseph’s lives in ways that incredibly alter their lives in good ways and in difficult ways. As you think of the possibility of God visiting you with such a life- altering invitation, what feelings arise within you? Spend time unpacking your feelings and sharing all this with God, remembering God is not the God of the status quo but the one who invites us to get out of the boat of the normal and mundane and to walk on water with Jesus. Are you ready to get out of the boat and embrace a God-dream?

(Mt 1:20-23, Lk 1:31-35, 2:11, 32-35)

The next arrival in our Cosmic Christmas Pageant is the baby Jesus. Jesus is born in a stable because there were no rooms available. He comes into the world after 9 months in the womb and is greeted and nursed by a teenage mother while his father, Joseph, helps as he can. The Creator of heaven and earth, the second person of the Trinity now clothed in flesh, helpless and vulnerable, his little fingers automatically closing around his father’s finger, the sustainer of all that is seen and unseen is now sustained by the warm milk of his mother, Mary. God has pitched his tent among us and the world will never be the same.

Although we know Jesus by the name Jesus (Mt 1:21, Lk 1:31), which means “God saves” or “savior”,
Jesus is also known by another name, recorded in Matthew 1:23; “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

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. Which name, Jesus (God saves), Immanuel (God with us) means the most to you? Why? Which of the two above names have the greater impact how you live your daily life, view your circumstance, affects your interactions with others, how you view yourself? Why?

What are the implicit and explicit promises, truths, challenges and invitations conveyed by each of the names of Jesus?

2. Spend an entire day focusing on and recalling to mind the name and meaning of Jesus or Immanuel. Pause a couple of times throughout the day and consider how your focus on the name Jesus or Immanuel affected how you viewed and interacted with your circumstances, your interactions with others, viewed yourself? The next day repeat the process with the name you have not yet used.

3. Spend some time pondering the phrases below that are drawn from the birth narratives of Jesus and communicate various truth concerning Jesus’ identity and role. Slowly read through the list noticing which ones you are most drawn to and resistant toward. Spend some time seeking to discover the why behind the feelings associated with the various phrases. Choose the three phrases from below that are most important to you. Spend time journaling why these three are so important to you.

What it says about Jesus in the birth narratives:

  • Conceived by Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20)
  • He will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21)
  • He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. (Lk 1:32)
  • The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, (Lk 1:33)
  • He will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end. (Lk 1:33)
  • So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. (Lk 1:35)
  • A Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Lk 2:11)
  • A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel. (Lk 2:32)
  • This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against (Lk 2:34)
  • …so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. (Lk 2:35)

4. The Angel’s words to Joseph, he will save his people from their sins, and the Angel’s words to the shepherds, a Savior has been born to you, declare that Jesus has come to bring forgiveness to Israel and the Gentiles (a light of revelation to the Gentiles). This being said , the Bible states quite clearly that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22) so in a very real sense the moment Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger, there was a cross being raised on Golgotha casting a huge dark shadow upon this idyllic scene—for this child Jesus, God saves, was born to die that we might live.

Spend some time sitting with this image of the baby Jesus laying quietly in the shadow of the cross. If you look closely with the eyes of faith perhaps you will see tiny red marks on this baby’s tiny hands and feet, a indication of what is to come in a mere 30 plus years. Spend time thanking Jesus for his willingness to come into this world, helpless, vulnerable, needy, God wrapped in flesh, living among us, full of grace and truth, in order to die for us. Jesus the true Christmas present, a present that continues to give for all of time and beyond. Spend time unwrapping the gift that is Jesus.

Reflections for Week 4 of Advent
(Simeon and Anna)

(Luke 1:25-35)

The next person to arrive onstage in our Cosmic Christmas Pageant is Simeon. Mary and Joseph arrive at the temple 40 days (days of purification completed) after the birth of Jesus to present their son to the Lord in accordance with the scriptures.

Simeon, whose name means “he who hears”, had been previously told by God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah, the coming hope of Israel. Simeon is described as righteous and devout, as one looking for the consolation of Israel and upon whom the Holy Spirit rested. The very day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to present him to God, Simeon was led by God’s spirit to come to the temple and Simeon, true to his name, [insert comma] (he who hears) went to the temple and saw the Messiah, as God had promised him. Simeon took Jesus into his arms, blessed God, spoke about the mission of Jesus; “A light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel”. He also blessed Mary and Joseph and warned Mary of the pain that she would suffer: “ and a sword will pierce even your own soul…”

As stated above, Simeon’s name means he who hears, and in our story he has heard God tell him about seeing the Messiah before he dies and about going to the temple on the day Mary and Joseph were there presenting Jesus. In Hebrew and Greek the word “hear” speaks about more than the ability of the brain to register sound through the ears. The word “hear” is synonymous with obey. In fact it is one’s actions that verify if an individual has in fact heard. If one does not obey then there was no real hearing, but if one does obey then it bears witness to the fact that we actually did hear.

The name Simeon is a challenge and invitation. A challenge/invitation to hear God’s words and follow them.

God speaks and we are to hear and respond as did Mary and Joseph. Simeon heard God promise of seeing the Messiah, heard God’s prompting regarding going to the temple. Simeon heard God and obeyed God. This characteristic of obeying is also attributed to Jesus, not here in the Gospels, but in Philippians 2 where Paul writes; “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!”

Obedience has fallen out of vogue when applied to the Christian life. In fact the word “obey” is almost a 4-letter word in terms of some people’s reaction to it. But as we can see there no true hearing if obedience does not follow. Simeon’s name reminds us that God is a God who communicates truths echoed in the gospel of John. Jesus the good Shepherd calls us by name (Jn 10:3) and it is our responsibility hear and to follow (Jn 10:4).

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. Reflect on times recently that you have “heard” God and have chosen to obey or chosen not to obey. What helped you to obey? What kept you from obeying?

2. When is it most easy for you to hear that still small voice of God: in nature, in the scripture (studying, lectio divina, meditation…), while being creative (art, dance, sculpting…), in silence and solitude, while serving others, through your senses, church services (sermon, Communion, liturgy…)…? When was the last time you spent an extended time in the place, practice that gives you the best opportunity to hear God’s voice? Why?

3. Is there currently something you sense God is communicating to you, an invitation or challenge? Are you hearing God’s voice? What would keep you from hearing and obeying? If you choose to hear and obey what might be your next step?

4. Simeon’s hearing and obeying led him into a wonderful experience of holding the Messiah, the creator of heaven and earth. His hearing/obeying brought him great joy. Look at your own life: can you see times when you have heard and obeyed God and it has brought great joy either in the immediate context of your hearing/obeying or after the fact? As you consider your history with God, look over your life: can you see where good was birthed by your hearing/obeying? If yes, how does that truth impact your present ability to hear/obey God?

5. Currently do you see obedience as a means to joy and or to something else? If something else, what do you feel obedience leads to? Share your misgivings about obedience with God. Be honest. Obedience is not easy nor is it always joy filled. Jesus heard/obeyed and his hearing/obedience resulted is his death.

Anna (Luke 2:36-38)

Now we come to the last named person in our pageant. There have been others in our unfolding drama to be sure, the Shepherds, the Magi all of which were nameless actors, but Anna, whose name means “graced” or “favored” is the last credit of our cast. Anna is remarkable, for in many ways she is the embodiment of every name in our Cosmic Christmas Pageant. There are only three verses that speak of her, but in those very few verses we discover that she was married for 7 years and then a widow until the age of 84 (a widow for over 60 years) and after becoming widowed she lived and served in the temple day and night, praying and fasting. She is also described as a prophet, a person possessing God-given insights into things normally hidden from ordinary people.

Anna was a woman with a long track record of single-minded devotion to God. As one ponders her life, we see that God was her strength (Gabriel) her promise, her all (Elizabeth), enlarging her life (Joseph) in service to God, trusting in a God who remembers (Zechariah) and is herself an embodiment of one who hears/obeys (Simeon). Her name could be translated favored one, the title the Angel Gabriel ascribed to Mary (1:30) and with the death of her husband at such a young age her heart could have turned into a sea of bitterness (Mary). Yet her name declares her perspective on life. She is blessed, graced, favored by God. She has been given the luxury of time to serve, to pray and fast without limitations, to hear from God and speak for God to those with ears to hear (hearts ready to obey). She has come to know the joy that the Psalmist speaks of when he writes, “better is one day in your (God’s courts) than a thousand elsewhere” (84:10) and has been graced to live over 20,000 days in the courts of God.

Anna has led a graced life, favored by God, and in this our final scene, she is once again gifted by God with the insight of knowing who this little baby (Jesus, God saves) was and the role He would play in the world, and she begins to immediately “thank God and to speak of Jesus to all those who were looking for the salvation of Jerusalem.”

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. Anna’s name means graced or favored and speaks of being shown kindness by one who is superior (by God). Take some time to reflect on your life, enumerating the blessings you have received, the grace and favor God has given you over the course of your life. If this is difficult, ask God to help you to see his grace in your life. Allow this to turn into a time of gratitude and thanksgiving.

2. Anna lived to see the baby Jesus, but it is unlikely that she lived to see his death and resurrection and experience the spirit of God making his home within her. Take some time to reflect on the grace you have received as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus. What are the gifts that flow from those twin events into your life now and in the life to come? Allow this to turn into a time of gratitude and thanksgiving.

3. Anna was able to see her life, the life as a widowed woman, as a favored and graced filled life. It does not mean it need not have its struggle, but the focus of her life was on God and the gifts of God. What about you? Are there things in your life that take your focus off God, that make it very difficult for you to see your life as one graced by God? Share this honestly with God, expressing your heart, your pain, the unmet desires, shattered dreams that cripple your ability to see God’s grace in your life. Jesus came to give you life, abundant life. Share with God your feelings around this that flow from the life you are currently living, experiencing.

Taking it out into the world

Each name we have focused on during these Advent reflections communicate marvelous truths that if embraced would helpful to us to view life, God, our circumstances, in life affirming and Christ honoring ways. The names of all those appearing in our Cosmic Christmas Pageant are listed below. Each of the participant’s stories transcended themselves, their social, economic and cultural setting and even their time. Our pageant began before time and the ripples will continue long after time has ceased.

Take some time to review the names below and ask yourself: what are the challenges and invitations implicit in each of the names regarding living life in way that impacts the world with the truth of Jesus? Which one of the names are you sensing that God is seeking to birth within you as you enter into a new year? How might you partner with God in creating the best circumstances to birth this reality in you?

Names from our Cosmic Christmas Pageant: in the list below you will see that I have left the name Jesus off the list. Jesus’ role was and is unique. There is only one savior and that is not you. As I journey with people I see many individuals taking on the role of Jesus and that role is already taken.

· Gabriel - God is my strength

· Zechariah - God remembers

· Elizabeth - God is my vow/oath (my promise, my all)

· Joseph - He (God) will enlarge or expand

· Mary - Sea of bitterness

· Simeon - He who hears (obeys)

· Anna - one graced, favored (by God)

Spend some time journaling your thoughts and insights regarding the name God is seeking to birth within you.

Final Exercises (for the week between Christmas and Christmas)

1. As we have seen, names are important. They convey much and often contain both invitations and challenges. Take some time to look and explore your own name, the one given you at birth. What are the implicit and explicit invitations and challenges of your own name in terms of living a life following, trusting, honoring, loving God and loving others? Why might God have given you your current name?

2. If you have some time and space to be still and listen for the still, loving voice of God, I encourage you to sit before God with this question: God, is there a new name you would like to give to me, a name that communicates what you want me to know about who I am, what you are inviting me into – a name you would want me to embrace and live into and out of?

Do not try and force something to happen; God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament at times change someone’s name. This was not done to everyone but it does happen from time to time, so if you are willing, create some space so you can hear if God has a name change in mind for you. Just be open to God and see what if anything is spoken to you – it may not happen in this moment but continue to incline your heart and ears to God in the days and weeks to come. If God gives you a new name, spend time unpacking it. What are the implicit and explicit invitations and challenges of your own name in terms of living a life following, trusting, honoring, loving God and loving others? If God chooses not to give you a new name, share your feelings about this with God? Be honest.

3. When our lives are intimately intertwined with another with the expectation that this partnership, this union will stand the test of time (e.g. marriage) we often come up with a ‘pet’ name of endearment for the other person in our life. A name that we only use for that other person, a name that conveys more than the name itself but speaks to the deeper level of connection we have with that individual and desire to continue to have. Take some time and consider what name you would come up with for Jesus. You may want to try a couple on for size. Once you have a name or two, spend some time journaling the whys behind your choice of your pet name for Jesus. Once you have settled on a name give it a go. Use the name next time you are speaking with Jesus in a conversational way. What is Jesus’ reaction? Does Jesus say something to you? How did you feel using your ‘pet’ name for Jesus, your friend, you lover, your savior, your Lord?

Suggestions for those of you who are parents.

I encourage you to write a letter to each of your children explaining why you chose their name and how you have seen them live into and out of their name, and what a blessing they are to you.

If your child is not at a good place and not really living into and out of the name you gave them, take time to share your pain and sorrow with God. And then write a letter to your child expressing your love for them and the why of the name you chose for them. Be careful when writing this letter – it could easily become condemning and accusatory. Ask God to give you eyes to see what good is there: she or he has been created in the image of God.

If you write a letter to your children/child, do not expect anything in return. Send it as a gift, a token of your love and God’s love for them.

If you have lost a child:

This could also be a powerful, although difficult, exercise to do for a child who has died before their time. Share the pain and sorrow of your loss with God and anything else you may need to process through with God, and then write the letter to your beloved child who was taken from you too soon, communicating why you chose the name you did for them.

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