Manger, crown of thorns, and Bible
December 4, 2023

Receiving the Gift - Week Three: How Does It Work?

Reformed Worship offers these daily meditations by Rebecca Tellinghuisen, that worship planners and pastors can distribute to their congregations or engage with personally as a touch point during a very busy liturgical season. Advent 2023 will feel shorter this year because the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 24, the day before Christmas. Because of this tight schedule, the editors recommend using Week 1 readings beginning November 27 as a preparation for Advent. If you follow that schedule these reading would be for the week beginning Sunday, December 10.

If you are a subscriber to the print or digital journal you may notice that these devotions correspond with Rebecca Tellinghuisen’s Christmas Eve service, “The Unexpected Gift” found on page 43 of Reformed Worship 149, but the service and devotions can be used independently from each other.

Whether you use this devotional series or make use of some other resource, may you find time to rest and receive God’s gift to you.

WEEK 3: How Does it Work?

The difference between a gift that gets used and one that doesn’t may be a matter of instructions. If the gift needs assembling, you will most likely need a guide. But if the directions aren’t clear (or are missing altogether), you might end up disliking that gift—or even pitching it into the trash.

Maybe it was assembled incorrectly (though you don’t know that) and it’s not working properly. Maybe, even though you managed to (just barely) put it together, you think it’s too complicated. You think, “This just isn’t for me, apparently.”

Some of us may find ourselves thinking the same thing about theology. Contrary to what you might think, theology isn’t just something done by a select group of Christians, the ones who go to school for years and years or who just really enjoy deep discussions and complicated questions. We all do theology every day because every day our thoughts and actions reflect what we believe about God. Even those (perhaps especially those) who don’t believe in God. Perhaps you think theology is best left for those “elite” or smarter Christians? Perhaps you are left puzzled by words you hear often in worship but don’t quite understand: justification, atonement, sanctification, etc. Perhaps you leave church on a Sunday morning and think “I don’t know how this works!” Or perhaps your confusion and frustration  keep you home on a Sunday morning: “I don’t know IF this works.”

One can read Scripture and come away with many questions, for sure. Those expecting a step-by step handbook for navigating each and every situation life will throw at them are going to be disappointed. But we are given a model that will indeed serve us to face each and every day of our lives. Everything Jesus did in this life was a gift. And the witness we have in Scripture of his life is a gift. Do you want to know how the Christian life “works?” Look at Jesus. He knows, and we can know too.

Admittedly, we’re putting the cart before the horse by looking at the life of Jesus in an Advent devotional. Advent is the season of waiting for the one who is to come. But just as a young child is eager for a peek at that perfectly wrapped gift ahead of Christmas day, we might do well to think about what we’re waiting for—who we’re waiting for. It’s okay. No one is going to mind if you take a little peek.

Sunday: Focus this week on Jesus, the coming king, who knows what kind of king he is.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:6–7

You might see the words of Isaiah 9 on Christmas cards and ornaments. You might hear a choir sing them. They are beautiful and powerful. But whether you’ve heard the Christmas story every year of your life and you know it by heart, or this is the first time, and you are wondering what this is all about, we can all acknowledge the chasm between those impressive Isaiah 9 titles and a baby who had to be placed in a manger because there was no room. Our thoughts might echo Mary’s question to the angel: “How can this be?” And that’s important to recognize because in order to make room for the coming king, we have to clear away our own notions of strength and might and kingship. “The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaimed. But you must think twice about what a heavenly kingdom looks like. Better yet, let Jesus himself tell you.

Monday: Jesus knows who he is (Luke 2:22–52; Luke 3:21–22)

“Away in a manger, no room for a bed.” A remarkably unremarkable arrival for a king, but we don’t have to read much further in Luke’s gospel to discover that Jesus’ presence on earth is beyond remarkable. His birth is heralded by angels, his purpose remarked upon by prophets, and his ministry is blessed by the Holy Spirit. Unfathomable. To quote another Christmas carol: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate deity.”

Where have you seen evidence of the Godhead’s presence here on earth?

Tuesday: Jesus knows his purpose (Luke 4:14–21; Luke 5:27–32)

Five minutes can feel like hours when you are sitting in traffic or standing in a line. God’s people waited centuries for the promised messiah, through years of exile and oppression. We might be quick to judge them for not welcoming him, but if we’re honest, we can understand why they wanted something bigger and better, from their perspective. But with the gift of the gospels, we can see that Jesus’ purpose was not just big, it was angels-descending-on-a-hillside-singing-glorias big.

Jesus invited many people to join him in fulfilling the purpose of his coming; to bring healing to this world. If you are a Christ follower, how are you joining in that work today?an>

Wednesday: Jesus knows you have to look deeper (Luke 19:1–10; John 4:1–26)

Humans ignore the fine print. We misread directions. We import our own expectations and (limited) understanding into situations. In doing so, we can miss the point. The gospels are full of “you thought this, but think again” encounters. The two gospel stories for today’s reading are just two examples of a wide pattern of Jesus reaching to the outside and pulling people in. Just as a manger can hold a king, that king can be a shepherd, calling his beloved sheep by name because he knows them better than they know themselves.>

Jesus met Zacchaeus when he wanted to see Jesus as he walked by. Jesus met the Samaritan woman during her normal every day chores. Where has Jesus met you? In what ways have these encounters surprised you?

Thursday: Jesus knows that prayer is essential (Luke 11:1–13; John 17)

Prayer is not just a sit down, close your eyes, bow your head moment on a Sunday morning. Though it can be that. Prayer is a purposeful posture of presence we can and should engage in throughout each day. While Jesus did retreat (often to a high place) to pray alone, the gospels also tell us that he and the Father are one. That connection—communion—was always there. We see the Gift working properly when we live like a life of faith is a life of prayer. This does not mean life is peppered with moments of prayer, but rather is a life of communion with Christ (and with our siblings in Christ) that is as vital to us as each breath we take. How might that knowledge change how you go about your daily life?

Friday: Jesus knows a king must also be a servant (John 13:2–5; Philippians 2:5–11)

Any storybook can tell the story of a powerful king who leaves his royal splendor to restore peace and order among his people. But would that story, in the end, be about love? Would it be about sacrifice? Would it be about service? Perhaps. A good author will take the story deeper. But what about a true story of an all-powerful king who could actually make his subjects do anything, but still chooses love and sacrifice and service?

The gospels tell a powerfully compelling and almost unbelievable story about an all-powerful king who could actually make his subjects do anything, but instead chooses to leave his royal splendor to restore peace and order among his people. Where have you seen that peace at work in this world? Where is that peace needed in your life?

Saturday: Jesus knows his kingship is forever (Luke 1:26–33; Revelation 5:9–14)

Advent and Christmas only make sense when we connect the dots to Lent and Easter. Receiving this king in a manger will lead you to recognize that king on a cross. This Gift of Christmas is not just a Christmas gift. This Gift is about eternity which makes it the most important one you will ever receive. Have you received the gift? If not, ask God for the Gift and embrace it. If you have received this Gift how might you show your gratitude?

Rebecca Tellinghuisen works at Trinitas Classical School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she serves as a Latin teacher, communications assistant, and resident readers theater scriptwriter, having developed a love for turning classic works of children’s literature into twenty-minute plays. She also writes prayers and meditations for her church, Fifth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.