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Church Leadership Magazine, Issue 64, Autumn 2007 (CPAS)

Oasis

Advent
Reflection

We’ve probably sung `O Little Town of Bethlehem’ more times than we care to remember, and soon we’ll be doing so again. We may be able to sing the familiar words on auto-pilot, but Pamela Evans points out that to do so would be missing an opportunity...

‘I am the Lord’s servant,' Mary answered. 'May it be to me as you have said.’ (Luke 1:38)

Born in us today?

I can still remember how it felt to be a teenager. It was a time of transition: lots of things changing, some of them too quickly, others not quickly enough; a time of multiple pressures: too much homework, not enough money. Oh, and a steady stream of adults telling us that we really shouldn’t have done whatever we’d just done!

We may kid ourselves that two thousand years ago life was much more straightforward, but I doubt that adolescence has ever been a total breeze – even for those untroubled by heavenly visitors.

After receiving the news from the angel, young Mary left town. Presumably, she felt she needed somewhere else to stay while absorbing the idea of a divinely initiated pregnancy. Having any baby would make life difficult enough: in those days, unmarried mothers could be stoned to death, although it was more usual to treat them as outcasts. In the eyes of everyone who mattered in Nazareth, Mary was most definitely ‘in trouble’.

Preparing

Almost nothing is said about Mary’s life before the angel’s visit. It would be easy to assume that an encounter with the Holy Spirit was all that was necessary to transform an ordinary teenager into a young woman ready to bear God’s Son. In my experience, however, God has usually been at work preparing someone to serve him long before he commissions them.

Mary had been brought up in a family where God was honoured, in a community in which the scriptures informed everyday life. Her song (Luke 1:46ff) revealed a scripture-based understanding of the way the world is, and who and what matters. In it, she acknowledged the Lord’s hand behind her people’s history, and demonstrated that she valued what he values.

From her knowledge of the stories of her nation’s heroes, Mary would have had some idea of what being favoured by God (1:28), and strengthened by his presence, might look like. Alongside her growing understanding of his ways, Mary’s trust in God had also been developing during her formative years. This enabled her to respond to the angel as she did: ‘I am the Lord’s servant... may it be to me as you have said’.

Embodying

In the final verse of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, we invite the Holy Child to `be born in us today'. But how ready are we, really and truly, to receive Christ – and to go on receiving him – in an incarnational sense?

The receptivity which brings about pregnancy is very special, and not everyone is able to experience this state. However, we’re all called both corporately and individually to become a dwelling place of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19) – to carry him with us day by day. And not just for nine months!

During a healthy pregnancy, there’s steady growth and change, and the presence of the one being carried becomes increasingly apparent – initially to the expectant mother; eventually to all. Priorities are reordered; nutrition may well come higher up the list than before.

We who have been called to embody Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) may also expect to grow and change, as the character of Christ is formed in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 4:19; Ephesians 4:13). The transformation occurs by God’s grace, but we are responsible for choosing a healthy ‘diet’. The spiritual equivalent of junk food cannot nourish the Christ-life in us.

Changing

The season of Advent challenges us to new beginnings, so:

  • Am I willing to review my preferences and life strategies, and to abandon those which are inhospitable to God’s presence at the core of my being?
  • Am I prepared for the indwelling Christ from this day forward to shape the way I think and live?

We need to answer these questions at a visceral level; mental assent is not enough.

Each time I consider them, I detect within myself a whispering of queries and a hint of reservation. Am I genuinely ready to accept the consequences – changes in my circumstances, changes in my very self? How shall I cope if I find my reputation on the line, as I welcome the One who made himself ‘of no reputation’? Is my heart truly open to receive the One who touched untouchables, washed smelly feet and advocated the loving of enemies?

Receiving Christ as Saviour takes barely a moment. Being shaped by his indwelling is a long-term project. God has no problem with long-term projects; he has all the time in the world! Many of us, though, would prefer the transformation to be instantaneous, or at least within a time-frame that fits our view of how things should be. Maybe that’s a sign that we have yet to yield fully to the refining of attitudes which Christ can bring.

Serving

Dallas Willard urges us to remember that ‘Jesus did not send help. He came among us... We follow his incarnational model when we follow the apostle’s command to ‘associate with people of low position’ by unassumingly walking with them in the path of their daily affairs, not just on special occasions created because of their need’ (The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996).

A practical step might be to make a habit of echoing Mary’s words: ‘I am the Lord’s servant...’, while consciously welcoming Christ’s presence in our inner being. For it's only as we receive him – his character, his mind, his very essence – it's only as he is `born in us', that we can truly fulfil our calling to serve and to reveal him to others.


For further reflection

Why not use this Oasis as for a reflective time for your colleagues/staff team during Advent?

Preparing

Looking back, how has God has used people, circumstances and experiences to prepare us for our current roles?

Embodying

‘The spiritual equivalent of junk food cannot nourish the Christ-life in us.’ What have our `diets' been like in the past week?

Changing

How ready are we to yield fully to the refining of attitudes which the indwelling Christ can bring?

Serving

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Servant King, are we willing to `follow his incarnational model' (see quote from Dallas Willard)? And if that sounds impossible – too time-consuming and much too slow – might we be too busy?