Jesse Tree Advent Devotions
These devotions follow the Jesse Tree, which is a way of journeying through Advent that traces the lineage of Jesus. The Jesse Tree, as you’ll find out tomorrow, refers to an image in Isaiah 11, in which Jesus is compared to a shoot sprouting from the stump of the tree of his ancestor Jesse. It reminds us that the coming of Jesus was long prophesied, and that in the stories of his ancestors, we can hear echoes of his own life, death, and resurrection.
- A plan for an intergenerational Advent event
- Jesse Tree family devotions
- Patterns and directions for making the symbols
This is hope: that even when the forest has been decimated, every last living plant hacked to the ground, no birdsong in the trees—even then, when all seems lost, a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.
In today’s passage, we read about Israel, having endured slavery and wilderness, now in exile. The people of God are weary and battered, discouraged by their own sin and the wickedness of the world. They look around: No one lives honorably. Evil reigns. Orphans are preyed upon. Widows are neglected. People are puffed up, and institutions corrupt. And God, in his righteous judgment, intends to put a stop to it by bringing it all to the ground. He “will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down” (Isaiah 10:33). All that will be left is a barren landscape, the bald remains of a clear-cut forest.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).
Imagine wandering through that post-apocalyptic landscape, seeing nothing but gray for miles, and suddenly coming across that shoot! The first green. The first bit of supple growth, signaling water beneath and, someday, a tree.
Who is this shoot, whom the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon?
Jesus. Jesus, descendant of Jesse. Jesus, descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus, the one promised centuries before his arrival. Jesus is the one we hope for this Advent.
When the forest is felled, Christ remains.
Prayer: God, I am amazed at your patience and your plan for redeeming all things. Give me the strength to keep hoping. Give me the faith to keep trusting. Jesus, would you show up this Advent? Amen.
A lot has changed since the time of Habakkuk, but his cry out to God in this passage still rings true for us today. When we see proud and corrupt people put in positions of power, we feel frustrated. We don’t understand why they are rewarded, while righteous, humble people suffer.
So we follow Habakkuk’s lead and march up to the rampart. If we wait at the watchpost, maybe God will notice us, we think. Maybe God will take heed and hear us as we cry out: “Things here are a mess, God! People—good people—are suffering. Yet people who ignore you and act selfishly have power. And you expect us to live by faith? We’ll just wait here until you give us a satisfying answer. Or better yet, until you do something about it.”
So we stand boldly with Habakkuk, waiting.
God answers us with a vision of the end, when God will come in glory with justice, rattling the earth, halting the moon, and rescuing Christ-followers. God tells Habakkuk to write that vision on a billboard so that people, consumed with their busy lives, will see it as they speed past.
It’s our job to stand up at the watchpost and hold this sign, proclaim it, and call others to wait with the same boldness that Habakkuk had.
Prayer: God, what unusual work you’ve called me to. You want me to proclaim your promise and your plan to the people in my life. Would your Holy Spirit help me to do that with love and conviction? Amen.
In the story of the creation of the first two humans, the cast of characters is actually more extensive than it appears at first glance. Of course, there are the two humans and God the creator. There’s also the Spirit, hovering over the scene. And there’s the second person of the Trinity, the Word who was with God in the beginning, through whom all things were created (John 1). That person, Jesus Christ, may not be present in his human flesh quite yet, but he’s certainly part of this scene.
As God squats in the dust, gathering it into the form of a man, he has another human in mind—Jesus Christ. Though Jesus has yet to be born into the world, when he is, he will define humanity for all time. He is first—alpha—and ultimate—omega (Revelation 1:8).
So when God creates that man and that woman in Genesis, fashioning them after his image, he is really fashioning them after the image of Jesus Christ, who is the image of God (Colossians 1:15). If we humans bear God’s image, Christ is God’s image.
Keep this in mind the next time you hear that it’s our ability to reason, to create things, or to relate to other people: that it is the image of God in us. It might be that. Or it might simply be Jesus Christ, the perfect human, the one there from the beginning, the one who is always interceding for us (Romans 8:34). If we worry that the image of God has grown dim in us, we can be confident that through Christ, it’s shining brightly.
Prayer: Jesus, I am grateful that you are the image of God, and that you are the true human. And I’m thankful that through the Holy Spirit, I’m united to you. I pray that you would shape me to look more and more like you each day. Amen.
Everything has begun to unravel.
The birdsong has gone eerily flat; the leaves on the trees are quivering. A deer, browsing in the meadow, suddenly darts into the forest. Death is in the air.
Sin has taken root in God’s good world like a noxious weed. Stubborn and pervasive, it seems impossible to rid the garden of it. Now, quite literally, the land will produce thorns and thistles, making daily sustenance into hard labor.
Because Adam and Eve ate the fruit off the tree that God commanded them not to eat from, they are banished from the garden. Exiled. They ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and now they are cut off from the tree of life.
But you might know how the story ends. There’s a tree at the beginning of the story, and there’s one at the end. At the end, the tree is smack dab in the center of the city, drawing its nourishment from the river that flows from the throne of God. The leaves of the tree have restorative powers: they are “for the healing of the nations” (Revelations 22:2). The people who live in the city have a share in that tree.
So how do we get from the tree at the beginning to the tree at the end? It’s by way of another tree—the cross upon which Jesus hangs. God the Son takes up residence in the world, not like a noxious weed, but like a careful gardener, tending his creatures and sacrificing himself on our behalf. Because of his birth, death, and resurrection, we are invited back to the tree. We can eat of its fruit, find rest in its shade, and delight in its beauty. Thanks be to God.
Prayer: Lord of life, sometimes your sacrifice takes me aback. I’ve sinned. Along with Adam and Eve, I’m the one who eats the fruit I shouldn’t—but I’m not the one who is punished. Jesus, you took on the consequences of sin for the whole world, willingly being exiled from the presence of God the Father so that we could be reunited with him. Thank you for inviting us back to the tree. Amen.
The wickedness is too much to bear. Cruelty and violence are overwhelming. Everything is corrupt to the core: “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
Fed up, God demolishes it. He drowns it in rain. Water, murky water, swallows up the whole of God’s creation. What was once a lush landscape had been marred by the evil of people, so God buried the whole thing in water.
Only Noah and his family and a sampling of animals survive. And even they are powerless, reliant on God’s mercy to stop the rain and begin again. The lonely ark drifts on the vast expanse of water.
Until the rains stop, and the deep holds back its fountains. Still the ark drifts.
The waters subside. But still the ark drifts. A bird sent out returns, finding no place—not a single twig—to alight on for even a moment.
The waters recede further, though not enough to see more than the tops of mountains. No grassy plains, no flower-strewn meadows, no tree-lined valleys. Just rocky peaks.
Noah sends out another bird. He doesn’t hold his breath. It may very well return bearing no sign of life. But wait—what’s that in its beak? An olive leaf, smooth, fragrant, redolent with life. Hope is born.
Prayer: Lord, I understand the impulse to wipe everything out. Sometimes the evil is so prevalent that destroying it entirely is the only way to eliminate it. And yet you promise not to destroy all flesh again. Instead, you’ve made another way. In Jesus, we have the hope of new life. Come soon, Lord. Amen.
Moving isn’t most people’s idea of a good time. Packing feels overwhelming, loading and unloading the truck are exhausting, and settling in seems never ending. (Who doesn’t have one box still unopened in the basement?) Then there’s the way moving often takes us far away from the places we know and the people we love.
But God doesn’t let those challenges stop him from calling us to a new home. Abraham and Sarah had to pack up their tents, load up their camels, and slowly make their way from their home in Ur to a new land, Canaan. Abraham and Sarah could have decided to stay put, figuring that the energy of moving wasn’t worth it. They could have established themselves more deeply in Ur and remained close to their families.
If they had done that, though, God’s blessing wouldn’t have gone out to the world. Through Abraham, God promises to bless all the families of the earth. Abraham’s willingness to do something uncomfortable and unknown means that the grace of God goes out.
In Abraham’s journey, we can see the faint outlines of Jesus himself. The Son of God also left his home, where he dwelled with the Father. He also traveled to a distant land, the land of humanity. And through him, the grace of God went out.
Jesus’s willingness to leave the comfort of the divine dwelling and enter into our world means that the blessing extends to us. From him, we have received grace upon grace.
Prayer: Jesus, you were born of flesh and came into the world, an uncomfortable home for someone used to divinity. But you knew that if you didn’t, I wouldn’t receive your grace. So you came. Thank you. Help me to step away from familiar spaces into new ones, where you can spread your grace through me. Amen.
On a night when you’re far from city lights and the sky is cloudless, the view is enough to stop you in your tracks. Plum-black backdrop, speckled with a thousand pinpricks of light. And the longer you stare, the more those thousand multiply into a thousand thousands. The dimmest distant stars reveal themselves.
That’s what Abraham saw. He couldn’t count them. He might have tried, curious about exactly how many descendants God was promising him. But you know how it goes—as you try to focus on one star, the rest go shimmery, and you lose count.
Childless Abraham, being promised not just one son, but a multitude of descendants.
And the really magnificent thing is that those descendants aren’t limited to the blood relatives of Abraham. The reason his descendants would be as numerous as the stars is that we’re among them, too. In Christ, we were grafted into the family tree. A tree that includes Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Jesse and David, and Jesus himself. We are those stars. We are part of the story, too.
Prayer: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thank you for grafting me into your family tree. Thank you for inviting me into the covenant promise. Help me reflect the family name well. Amen.
Oh, the heartache. Abraham had been promised not only the abundance of a multitude of descendants but the delight of a particular son. And here he stood, about to sacrifice that very son. God put him to the test, asking for what was most precious to Abraham: his son Isaac.
The promise hinged on Isaac. If Isaac didn’t live to have children of his own, then the countless descendants would never come to be. God would have broken his promise. So, in heading up the mountain with Isaac, Abraham was counting on God to make a way where it seemed there was no way.
And God came through, providing a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead. God kept his promise.
He kept it again, centuries later, when he provided a different Lamb as a sacrifice. Like Abraham, God was willing to sacrifice his son, but in this case, there wasn’t a ram to take his place. This time, the Lamb was the Son, too.
And it’s that Lamb, the one who offered himself on our behalf and who rose again to new life, that we await this Advent. After all, Advent isn’t just about getting excited for the babe who comes at Christmas. It’s also about longing for his coming again. When all the world seems out of whack and it seems like there’s no way for good to triumph, we wait. We wait for Jesus Christ to come in glory. We wait, counting on God to keep his promise to set things right.
Prayer: God, trusting that you’ll keep your promise is so hard sometimes. Strengthen my trust and give me the courage to wait to see how you will provide. Amen.
Have you had a dream like that—the kind that feels so vivid that you sit up in bed and start to act on it, as if the events of your dream had really happened? Except in Jacob’s case, they had. His dream wasn’t just the normal processes of a brain filing away the day’s events. His dream was a vision deliberately given to him by God.
In the dream, God reiterated the promise he made to Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather: “your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth … and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Genesis 28:14). God also promised that he would remain with Jacob wherever Jacob went (28:15).
In response, Jacob determined that the Lord—the particular God of his father and grandfather—would be his God. He wouldn’t follow some other shoddy god. He also declared that this was to be the Lord’s house and that he’d give back to God a tenth of what God gave to him.
This is the pattern of the gospel: God makes a promise to us and commits himself to us, and then we offer to God our allegiance and a portion of what we’ve been entrusted. During Advent, we anticipate the fullest expression of God’s promise to remain with us. At Christmas, Jesus comes as Emmanuel, God-with-us. As we wait for his coming, let’s consider where our allegiance lies and whether we’re offering back to God what’s rightfully his.
Prayer: Lord, what a promise—to remain with us always! Through your Holy Spirit, point out to me the places where my response to your grace is less than adequate. Enable me to give myself fully to you. Amen.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is not the Bible’s only story of betrayal and denial.
Judah isn’t the last person who values money over a close relationship—think of Judas, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. And Reuben isn’t alone in his cowardice. Think of Peter on the night that Jesus was arrested: he too was too ashamed to stand up in defense of the innocent. Nor is Joseph the only person to end up alone in the pit of despair. Jesus himself knows what it’s like to be betrayed, ignored, and left for dead. He knows all about being at the bottom of a dark pit when you don’t deserve it.
The incredible thing is that whichever brother you’re most like—the traitor, the coward, or the one at the bottom of the pit—Jesus Christ loves you. If you’re a Judah or a Reuben, you are forgiven. God cherishes you as a precious child.
And if you’re a Joseph, the one deep down in the dark pit, Christ himself is there with you. You’re not alone. Jesus is holding you close and loving you.
Prayer: Lord, what a relief it is that the Bible is full of real people, whose weaknesses are so like my own. Forgive me for my failings and assure me of your love and presence. Amen.
On the one hand, the Ten Commandments seem fairly easy to keep. No idols—check. Don’t murder—check. Don’t steal—got it. We might get the impression that it’s within our power to do right, to keep the commandments, even to earn God’s love.
But as Jesus expounds upon the commandments in Matthew 5–7, obedience starts to seem less and less attainable. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says to the crowd (Matthew 5:48). Be perfect? That’s nigh impossible.
Until we remember how the whole thing works. Jesus is the true human. He’s the one perfectly reflecting the image of God (Colossians 1:15). And he hasn’t come “to abolish the law” (Matthew 5:17) by dismissing it as no longer relevant in an age of love and forgiveness. Nor has he come to make it ridiculously hard to keep, although we could stand to be reminded that we’re incapable of earning our salvation by perfectly keeping the law. Instead, says Jesus, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Ah yes, that’s right. Jesus comes to fulfill the law, to keep the commandments that we fail to keep, to reverse the Fall, and to break the curse. He does what we cannot. And when we are united to him by the power of the Holy Spirit, we mysteriously keep the law, too. Praise God!
Prayer: Jesus, I don’t understand it completely, but I am so thankful that your life fulfills the law I daily fail to keep. Holy Spirit, work that mysterious process in me, and make me one with Christ. Amen.
The family line of Jesus is full of unlikely people. Again and again, they’re more sinner than saint. They regularly forget, disobey, or betray God. They’re not honorable or composed or polished, and they’re neither trusting nor trustworthy.
Rahab is one of these unlikely people. And she’s more unlikely than most to be named in Jesus’s genealogy (Matthew 1:5) because she is an outsider on three counts: she’s (a) a woman, (b) a Canaanite, and (c) a prostitute.
In a genealogy that stretches from Abraham to Jesus, she’s one of just five women named. In a patrilineal genealogy—a record of fathers and sons—she makes the cut. Just as shocking, she makes the cut despite being a Gentile, a non-Israelite, someone decidedly outside the family tree. And, of course, she’s a prostitute.
And yet God finds her worthy of a place in his family. He invites her to play a role in the story of Israel claiming the land God has promised. And he grafts her into the family early enough that she gets to be one of Jesus’s great- great- great-grandmothers.
What an encouragement to us! Not only does God want us in his family, he wants to use us. When we join the family, he’ll put us to work, helping move this story along to its beautiful conclusion. Rahab got to play a part in Jesus’s coming as a baby, but we get to join in as Jesus comes in glory.
Prayer: God, your grace is astonishing! You could care less about my pedigree, and you’re even willing to overlook my sin as you graft me into your family and your story. Would you help me to be faithful like Rahab as I do the work you’ve called me to do? Amen.
Notice where this story takes place. Does it sound familiar? It’s not the last time we’ll find ourselves in Bethlehem this Advent.
Maybe you know this story as a story about a woman uncommonly devoted to her mother-in-law. Or a story about a woman humble yet bold enough to find favor with Boaz, who could make life easier for these two widows. And certainly it is a story about Ruth’s faithfulness. But it’s also a story about Boaz’s faithfulness, which points to the faithfulness of one who was born in Bethlehem years later.
In Israelite law, there was a provision for widows with no sons. The brother of the deceased man was commanded to take the man’s widow as wife, both redeeming the man’s land and providing a son to carry on the family name. Without this man, called a kinsman redeemer, the widow would be left with nothing, and the family would cease to exist.
In the book of Ruth, Boaz steps up as the kinsman redeemer, a relative of Naomi’s husband with the power to redeem the land, marry Ruth, and carry on the family.
Who else do we know who steps up as a kinsman redeemer? Indeed, Jesus Christ is our kinsman redeemer. By virtue of his humanity, he is our brother, our kinsman, and he is willing to become the bridegroom in order to redeem us. He faithfully steps up to save us. He lovingly joins himself to us, impoverished though we are, and makes us his own. Thanks be to God.
Prayer: Jesus, how humbling it is that you would consider yourself my kinsman, a member of my family. And how humbling that you would pay the price with your life to redeem me. Thank you. Amen.
1 Samuel 16:1-15
It’s hard not to love the story of an underdog. Like so many people in Jesus’s family history, David is an unlikely pick. He’s not the firstborn. In fact, he’s the baby of the family, the last of Jesse’s eight sons. In his life thus far, he hasn’t been much of a hero. When Samuel anoints him, David hasn’t defeated Goliath. He hasn’t created complex battle strategies. He’s an unknown farm boy.
Yet it’s David, the underdog, whom God chooses to lead his people. God subverts expectations, choosing a young shepherd, not an experienced politician.
God has a habit of subverting expectations. David was an unexpected choice, as was Israel as a whole. If you wanted to bless the world, would you work through a tiny people group, often dominated by other nations?
And when you finally came to save your people and express your love for the whole world, would you come in the flesh as a member of that underdog nation? Would you be born as a baby, vulnerable and unknown? Would you work as a common tradesman, acquiring none of the experience or accolades of a political victor? Would you submit to humiliation, persecution, and even death at the hands of a powerful empire?
In Jesus Christ, descendant of Jesse and David, God’s love for the whole world is shown. Jesus is the one anointed to be king, not just of Israel but of all people. In the greatest subversion of expectations, God makes himself the underdog and triumphs over sin and death.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for working in ways contrary to what I expect. Thank you for showing me the way of humility and self-sacrifice, in both your birth and your death. I rejoice that you rose from the dead and reign in glory, and I await your return. Amen.
2 Samuel 5:1-5
King and shepherd: the two seem like polar opposites. Kings sit on thrones. They wear expensive clothes and talk to important people. They are calculating and political and oversee whole nations. Shepherds, on the other hand, stand on the hillsides. They wear clothes that can get dirty, and they talk mostly to sheep. They are cautious and patient and oversee a single flock.
David, though, was both. He was a shepherd whom God chose to be king. A quick review of world leaders might suggest that actually, a shepherd would make the best kind of king. A shepherd is humble and cares more about people than about power. David carried his shepherding spirit into his reign as king.
It’s an honor for David to be called both “shepherd of my people Israel” and “ruler over Israel” because he’s not the only shepherd-king in Scripture. In John 10, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, the one who knows all of his sheep and lays down his life for them. And he is also king, the one who is victorious over the powers of sin, death, and evil.
Prayer: King Jesus, I praise you that you have the heart of a shepherd! How wonderful that you are both mighty and gentle, both self-sacrificing and victorious. Would you bring a spirit of gentleness and self-sacrifice to the political rulers in power today? Amen.
1 Kings 5:5
1 Kings 6
The temple is more than a temple. You’ve probably figured that out by this point in Advent. All of these Old Testament stories point beyond themselves. Like little mirrors, they catch the light of Christ’s birth, his life and death, his resurrection and ascension. Their reflective beams even give us a glimpse of what’s to come—his ultimate return to set all things right.
So how is the temple more than a temple? Well, throughout Israel’s history, the temple served as the meeting place for God and humanity. (Before Solomon built the temple, that meeting place was the leather-sided tabernacle, a tent that could be set up and taken down as Israel moved from place to place.) In the temple, in the holy depths of its interior, God lived. There, in the temple, God coexisted with humanity.
Eventually, the temple was destroyed by Israel’s enemies. So now where would God coexist with humanity?
In Jesus Christ. In the person of Jesus, deity and humanity exist together. They are one. Jesus is the temple. Despite the efforts of the Jewish leaders to destroy that temple by crucifying Jesus, it was rebuilt—resurrected, risen.
And because of Jesus, we don’t have to go into the inmost interior of a building to meet God. Through Jesus, we can know God directly. What a gift!
Prayer: Jesus, thank you for being the temple, the place where I can meet God. I don’t have to trek for miles to a specific place where God dwells. By your Holy Spirit, I am connected with God as I’m connected with you. Remind me of your presence with me today. Amen.
1 Kings 18:17-24
1 Kings 18:36-39
Can you imagine such a showdown between God and some other god today?
Say the other god is happiness—well meaning, certainly, but not a path to salvation. Who would win in a competition between the Triune God and happiness? In theory, God. But in practice, we’re used to seeing the gods of the world win out. Popular Instagram accounts seem to depict lives filled with so much joy. Books written by financial gurus make them seem so much more secure than we are. Even the gods of minimalism make their disciples appear to be far more content than those of us who worship Christ.
It leaves us wondering: Is God really powerful? Can God make me more joyful than happiness can? Does God hold my future more than good retirement savings can? Is it possible to be satisfied in Jesus even if I haven’t thoughtfully chosen every object in my home?
The answer is a hearty yes! It may not always seem like it, but the God we worship is the same God Elijah worshiped, the God who sent the water-logged altar up in flames. Let’s ask God with trust and conviction to show himself to us and deepen our trust in him.
Prayer: Almighty God, I know in my head that you alone are God, but I don’t always believe it in my heart. The gods of health and happiness are so seductive. Forgive me for putting my trust in them. Give me confidence in you and your power. Amen.
You can hear the resolve in Esther’s voice: “If I die, I die.” She’s not resigning herself to her fate; she’s facing it head on.
She has just learned from her cousin Mordecai that Haman is more than scheming to kill the Jewish people. Haman has convinced the king to issue a decree that authorizes the governors to kill all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day.
When Esther hears of the decree, she evaluates the situation. She remembers the fate of Vashti, another headstrong queen. Is it worth it to visit the king, uninvited, to see if she can do something about the decree?
Esther would be risking her life to appear before King Ahasuerus. The rule is that if anyone enters the king’s inner court without being called, that person will be put to death. And Esther knows it. Since entering the king’s harem, she has lost virtually all of her agency. Her life is not in her hands.
And maybe that’s the whole point: her life belongs to the Lord. Maybe that’s what finally persuades her to risk death and go before the king.
Esther’s life belongs to one who likewise gave himself up to save his people. Jesus did more than risk death. He actually died. By virtue of our baptisms, we have, too, which frees us to take risks the way Esther did. We can look past our own security and make sacrifices for others. The risks we take may very well bring life for other people.
Prayer: Jesus Christ, you willingly went to the cross so that I could live. In baptism, I have died, too, so I no longer have to fear death. Help me take risks, whether big or small, for the sake of other people. Amen.
Deep darkness is unnerving. Maybe you’ve experienced it while camping. The night is moonless, the trees thick overhead. Your campsite is at the far end of the road, and you’ve left your flashlight in the tent. The fire has died. You can see nothing. No silhouettes, no shadows, no specks of light in the distance. Nothing.
You don’t know what’s around you. You’ve lost your bearings. Your eyes strain to adjust, but the futility of it gives you a headache. The darkness is oppressive.
This is the kind of deep darkness the people of Israel walked in—disorienting, oppressive darkness. They had been walking in it so long, they’d lost hope. They’d nearly forgotten what it was to see.
It’s into this darkness that the sun comes blaring over the horizon, heralding a new day. On this day, a Son will be born. He will be a righteous king, and with his reign of light come hope and peace. The atmosphere has changed completely. Rather than feeling disoriented, the people know which way is up. They are certain of what is right, of where they are headed.
This is the hope of Advent. God promises that morning is coming. Whatever our dark, depressing circumstances, we can have confidence in this: a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace is on his way.
Prayer: God of light, I can’t wait for your arrival. I pray that you would shine into the darkest corners of our world and of my life, bringing hope and setting things right. Amen.
What a scene! Wolves wander alongside lambs. Leopards nap next to baby goats. A parade of calves and bears is led by a bright-eyed toddler, who stops to invite a snake to join the fun.
The scene has a fantastical, circus-like quality to it, so playful as to be silly. You can practically hear the honky-tonk in the background. Is it a joke? It’s so farfetched that it might as well be.
When in this dog-eat-dog world would a wolf ever restrain itself enough not to tear into a plump young lamb? When would a mother dare to let her child wrestle with a bear cub? When would a venomous snake lick a baby’s hand the way a puppy might?
In this world, probably never. Even the most optimistic among us wouldn’t expect a lamb to survive in a pasture with a wolf. But in the world to come, the world that’s just over the edge of the horizon, this improbable parade will be the way of things. In the world where the Lord reigns, all of this improbability becomes not just probable but actual. Isaiah’s scene is no fable. This is what we have to look forward to!
Prayer: How eager I am for a world in which predator and prey play together. May your kingdom come, filling the earth with the knowledge of you. Amen.
Let’s play a word association game: I say, “Jonah.” You say, “_____.”
If you said “whale,” I don’t blame you. That’s the first thing that pops into my head, too. If you said “sackcloth,” bonus points for you! Because the story of Jonah doesn’t end in the belly of the fish. The story of Jonah is actually about calling the city of Nineveh to repentance, and that’s exactly what happens. The story doesn’t end until the people listen to Jonah’s message about God, repent of their wrongdoing, and turn to what’s right.
And their change only happens once Jonah listens to God, repents of his wrongdoing, and turns to what’s right—namely, bringing God’s message to Nineveh. It’s a good reminder that we’re capable of standing in the way of others’ obedience. Once we obey, they can, too.
Thankfully, Jesus, who also spent three days in a dark, dank place, was obedient. His obedience, even to the point of death on a cross, has made it possible for the rest of us to be obedient, too.
When we abide in Jesus, we don’t have to scorn Ninevah and run the other way. We can proclaim Jesus so others can follow, too.
Prayer: God, search my heart and point out the places where I haven’t been following you. I confess that I have fallen short. Help me, like Jonah and Jesus, to be obedient. To where or what are you calling me? I want to follow. Amen.
Don’t mistake Daniel 6 for a children’s story. This is the gruesome stuff of nightmares—a sinister plot to trap Daniel in his singular devotion to the God of Israel, a pit full of hungry wild beasts, and in the end, the mauling and death of whole families, including children, by those lions.
The story reminds us of the risks of following God, of the very real consequences of dogged faithfulness in the face of a cruel, power-hungry world. It reminds us that to be a Christian is a political statement and a political act. The fragrance of Christ is threatening to people who reek of selfish ambition and corruption. Daniel’s insistence on “smelling” like the God of Israel nearly got him killed by people who couldn’t stomach the aroma.
But he didn’t get killed. And that part of the story reminds us of God’s faithfulness to us when we are faithful to him. God has promised that he will be with his people, so he doesn’t shut the mouths of the lions from a distance. He sends his angel to keep Daniel company. In the Bible, angels are more than messengers, delivering God’s words like celestial mail carriers; they are understood to represent God. It’s as if God himself is with Daniel in that den. The Lion of Judah tells those lions of Babylon who’s boss.
What encouragement for us when we feel like we’re surrounded by bloodthirsty lions—whether it’s a competitive work environment, a mental soundtrack that tells you you’re just not measuring up, or an illness that threatens to sap all your strength. God, who delivers and rescues, is with you always.
Prayer: Living God, your kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. You invert the usual power systems and provide a different set of rules to live by. Living in your kingdom can put me at odds with the world around me, but I trust that even when I feel under attack, you are with me. Amen.
Our ears aren’t accustomed to hearing prophecies. We sure hear a lot of promises—campaign promises, wedding vows, promises from brands that buying their product will improve our quality of life. But those promises are so often broken that we start to think promises hold no real weight. And we might think the same is true of prophecies. They won’t possibly come true, will they?
Don’t let your skepticism about promises color your hearing of this prophecy: from Bethlehem will come someone who will rule, not the way those promise-breaking politicians do, but like a shepherd. He won’t say one thing and do another. He won’t disregard his constituency. No, this leader cares for his people the way a shepherd cares for his sheep. He’ll stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.
The people who heard this prophecy for the first time worried about the same things we do: what to eat for dinner, how to make amends with their mothers, whether their homes and land would be secure. And the prophecy can bring us the same comfort—comfort that we will live securely and in peace. The same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, fulfilling Micah’s prophecy, will come again to reign as Prince of Peace. Come, Lord Jesus!
Prayer: Prince of Peace, I am eager for you to return. Some days, both the world and my life seem out of control and beyond repair. But I am trusting you to keep your promise to come and rule like a good and gentle shepherd. Amen.
The punishment for Zechariah’s unbelief seems disproportionately harsh: no voice for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy? Really? This punishment comes from a God who says it’s enough to have faith as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20). Zechariah doesn’t outright reject the angel’s message, after all. He doesn’t laugh the way Sarah does when she overhears that she will bear a son in her old age (Genesis 18:12). He just asks how he can be sure the angel is telling the truth, a fair question to put to any stranger who promises to fulfill the deepest desires of your heart. So why is Zechariah prevented from speaking for the better part of a year?
Perhaps we can see Zechariah’s silence not as a punishment but as a gift. As the child grows in Elizabeth’s belly, he is given space to reflect quietly. He won’t run off at the mouth, crowding out the Spirit inside him with his own blathering. He’s saved from saying stupid things, from bragging about his encounter with the angel, from broadcasting his skepticism.
Rather than questioning the silence God imposes on Zechariah, we might consider adopting a habit of quietude ourselves this Advent. In a season of stimulation—lights! music! sugar!—we need to carve out space to reflect and prepare. In these final days before Christmas, find a quiet corner. Turn off the Christmas station. Set aside your phone. Open your Bible and listen. What is the Spirit saying to you?
Prayer: Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening. Help me to quiet my buzzing thoughts. What do you want me to hear? What invitation are you extending to me today? Amen.
A lonely voice is carried down the centuries by a dry desert wind: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!
The voice prophesied by Isaiah is growing louder, clearer. Its source is coming into view. It is John the Baptist, calling out to the people of Israel. The years of waiting made the people nearly forget about God’s promise to send a Savior, someone who would redeem the people from their lives of misery, sin, and oppression. But John the Baptist is here to refresh their memory. You might have forgotten, but God hasn’t! A Savior is on the way.
John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus Christ to come. He invites the people to be baptized in preparation for Jesus’s arrival. The people confessed their sins and were washed clean.
Like John and the people he baptizes, we can prepare for Christ’s coming. We can confess and repent of our sins. We can ask God to make us clean, fit to be in the presence of our Savior.
Prayer: Lord, would you point out the places in me that are a mess? The places that are making it hard for me to encounter you? I confess those sins to you. Make me clean. Prepare my heart to welcome you. Amen.
Imagine the ordinariness of this moment: Mary is padding around the house in her socks, wiping the crumbs off the breakfast table and washing the dishes. She stands at the sink, one hand plunged into the dishwater to clean the spoons, the other tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
Or maybe she’s weeding the garden or assembling a bookshelf that’s been sitting in a box in the front hall all week. Who knows—she might be walking to the corner store to pick up some cold medicine. Whatever she’s doing, it’s so ordinary that it’s not worth mentioning.
What isn’t ordinary is the unexpected arrival of an angel, who interrupts her with his tidings. He breaks into her day, changing the character not just of that moment but of her life as a whole—and of every life, the ones that came before and the ones that would come after.
Her life won’t be ordinary anymore. Mary might do ordinary things again—walk the dog, take out the trash, have the neighbors over for dinner—but those moments will be shot through with the reality that her son, Jesus Christ, is the Son of the Most High.
History is changed. The God of the universe has just taken up residence in the womb of a human. This is the moment where God unites himself to humanity in the person of Jesus. It’s not just the angel who is breaking in; God himself is breaking in, infusing all of history with his redemptive love. Knowing that truth, let’s consider every moment holy.
Prayer: Most High God, what an incredible thing you’ve done by entering into history as a human being and redeeming me as one of your own. As I go about my day, help me to remember that fact. Keep me attentive to the holiness of each moment. Nothing is ordinary anymore. Amen.
In the story of Jesus’s birth, Joseph plays a bit part. He’s not as central to the narrative as Mary, yet we shouldn’t overlook him. Consider the honor with which he conducts himself. Mary’s miraculous extramarital pregnancy tarnishes both of their reputations. Still, Joseph resolves to “dismiss her quietly,” without fanfare or scandal. He doesn’t want to make things harder for her, this woman he has come to love.
Then an angel comes to him in a dream and instructs him to take his righteousness a step further by going ahead and marrying Mary. Yes, her pregnancy seems to taint her with sin. Yes, it will rub off on your reputation, too. But it’s okay. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, the angel says. Don’t let fear rule you. Let compassion and love motivate you.
If you’re willing to unite yourself with Mary in marriage, you’ll be opening yourself to a wonderful role in the story. Rather than being the guy who ditched Mary in favor of his reputation, you’ll be Joseph, father to Jesus Christ. You’ll get to be the man who loved the woman who carried the Savior of the world in her womb. You’ll get to teach God the alphabet and how to build a chair. You won’t be the star of the show, but it’s a pretty cool part.
And to all of this, Joseph says, Yes!
How might we say yes? How might we set aside our fears? How might we take our righteousness and good intentions even further and embrace the risk of following God’s lead?
Prayer: God, thank you for inviting Joseph into your story, and for the example he sets for us. Where is a place that I’m resisting following you because I’m worried about how it might affect my reputation? Is there some good I’m doing that I could ratchet up a notch? Give me the courage to say yes to you. Amen.
Folks, we’re on our way. We’re on our way to that town that has come up again and again this Advent. We’re on our way to Bethlehem.
We journey with Mary, uncomfortable in the final days of pregnancy. Our bodies are tired and pinched. We’re aching and ready to give birth, to experience the life that lies on the other side of labor.
We journey with Joseph, anxious about what’s ahead. We’re nervous about the birth itself, as well as about the responsibility of caring for this new life. We don’t know what to expect.
Like Mary and Joseph have been waiting, preparing as Mary’s belly swells, we’ve been waiting, too. We’re waiting for Jesus to come, too, this time in a different way. The labor pains are still there—so much about our lives keeps us awake at night and wears us down and makes us want to cry in exasperation. It makes us impatient. Don’t make us wait longer than we have to, Lord. Be merciful. We want this new life to be here!
We’re antsy with anticipation. Come, Lord Jesus. Come and be born. Come again and stay. Come and light up the darkness. Come and breathe new life into everything. Come and overturn the maddening political structures. Restore the broken friendships. Heal the diseased bodies. Fulfill the longings.
We are ready.
Prayer: Come, Lord Jesus. I am ready for your arrival. I’ve made all the preparations I can think of. On the eve of your birth, grant me peace. Grant peace to your world, as we wait, in eagerness and longing, for you. Amen.
Into the darkness of that dank stable, a child is born. Into the darkness of the world, a light shines. From the knotty, gnarled stump of Jesse, a shoot springs up.
This is it. To you is born this day a Savior. A Savior!
The waiting is over. Hope is here. This is the olive branch in the beak of Noah’s dove, the confirmation that all is not lost. Life will flourish again.
And who gets to witness it? Who gets the privilege of being called over to see the solitary green shoot, so fresh it hasn’t yet unfurled?
Not the clean, charismatic professionals with access to big marketing budgets and platforms to publicize the news. Just a shabby bunch of shepherds. Maybe it’s because they share the vocation of the one who was just born; like him, they tend and guide a dim-witted flock, prone to wandering. Maybe they’re more likely to rejoice in his birth rather than feel threatened by it. Maybe they understand best of all what his coming means.
And guess what: today, you’re among those shepherds. You get to hear the news, to be a witness. You’re invited to the birthing room of Jesus. You’re sent back to glorify and praise God for all you’ve heard and seen.
What a privilege! Cherish it. Go see the Savior and come back singing.
Prayer: Welcome, Jesus! How thrilled and grateful I am that you willingly entered into the darkness of the world to bring your light and life. The life you bring is just the beginning of a whole new creation in your Spirit. I can’t wait to see what’s yet to come. Amen.