Friday, January 13, 2017

3 Questions to Find Your Sweet Spot (Your Professor for Life #2)

Tony Robbins says, "The quality of your questions is the quality of your life."

In this brief (5 minute) video, I offer three questions for your reflection: Who is your mission? Who is your community? What kind of person do I need to become?

The intersection of the answers to these three questions is your "sweet spot" for maximum achievement and fulfillment in life. These questions correspond to three core values/needs in each of us: mission/purpose, community, and character/holiness.

Let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review of Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World–Class Performers by Tim Ferris

I'm a Tim Ferris fan. I read his first book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. I also subscribe and listen to his podcast. He is a specialist in lifestyle design and refers to himself as a human guinea pig. I appreciate the work of Tim Ferris. He is a student of maximizing our potential through physical fitness, wise living, and efficient and effective work and learning strategies. Ferriss provides tools to help us live as the people whom God created us to be. Over the last few years, I've taken on many new challenges and responsibilities. To step up to these, I've had to stretch and grow. Ferriss has been a valuable virtual mentor. Much of life is tactics. We need to develop a positive mindset. We need to learn to leverage the connection between physical/mental health and effectiveness. We also need to learn to manage time. If you need help in these areas, Ferriss is an excellent resource. WARNING to my Christ Following Friends: Ferriss is not a Christian. He uses "salty" language and approaches life from a secular prospective. However, if you read between the lines, you will find discussions of habits that one may call "spiritual disciplines." For example, Ferriss promotes fasting, taking sabbaths (he doesn't use this language), taking care of the body, journaling, and quiet time for reflection in the morning.

His latest book Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers is a 600+ page summary of actionable information and takeaways from his podcast interviews. Ferris divides his book into three sections: Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. This is a nod to Benjamin Franklin's old maxim. Ferriss synthesizes the wisdom of women and men at the top of their game. We get to learn from Brene Brown, Peter Diamandis, Seth Godin, Tony Robbins, Malcolm Gladwell, Whitney Cummings, Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, General Stan McChrystal, and Peter Thiel to name just a few. His guests include entrepreneurs, comedians, authors, researchers, warriors, actors, and influencers. In Tools of Titans, he profiles 112 people.

In essence, this book represents a Cliff Notes summary of Ferriss' learnings from others. It can be read in any order. Each chapter profiles one of his past guests. Each begins with a pithy quotation from the guest. Then Ferriss summarizes the best ideas and practices from each high achiever. The advice is specific and includes precise details of produces, regimens, and resources discussed. A key part of each interview is getting to hear how various high achievers plan/order their days. Ferriss includes his own adaptations and experiments of the material. Ferriss personally tests the information before passing it on to the world.

Ferriss does an excellent job of cross-referencing between interviews that touch on similar themes and topics. Moreover, he includes helpful appendices. My favorite is a bibliography drawn from the recommendations of his guests. Out of this list he compiles the top 17 most recommended books by his pool of high achievers.

In addition, there are bonus essays placed strategically in the book. These include a fully updated version of Kevin Kelly's important essay on marketing "1,000 True Fans–Revisited"  (pp. 292–98). I personally found helpful his discussion of a "5 Minute Journal" (p. 146). I've worked a version of this into my own life and can testify to its helpfulness (here is a short video about my practice: "Five Minute Morning Journaling for Creating Your Best Day").

Becoming a Titan does not make one immune from pain and challenges. This is central theme of the book. Ferriss shares some of his deepest pain in an essay on suicide. We learn that Ferriss had planned his own death and was close to executing his plan before a fortunate chain of events intervened to save his life (pp. 616–627). He offers good counsel and hope for those who have suicidal thoughts. Ferriss' words are important because they hint at a core truth about life–even the most successful have personal demons and struggles. This is true for all of us. Ferriss tells his story and then provides help and hope for those who may feel as though the world would be better off without them.

  This is a fantastic collection of information for living well. There is insight into almost every aspect of life. The only area lacking is the role (if any) of traditional spirituality in becoming a Titan. This may simply be a matter of the selection of guests. As I noted above, there are secular spiritual practices included throughout the work. Moreover, one of the key takeaways is that 80% of the "Titans" practice some form of meditation. In sum, I recommend it heartily to all of my readers who desire up to date and actionable information to maximize the days that God has given us to live.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Video Blog: A Five Minute Journaling Practice for Creating your Best Day

I learned about the Five Minute Journal initially from the work of Tim Ferris. As I've gotten older, I recognize the necessity of getting each day off to a positive start. In this brief video, I describe my five minute practice. It involves: (1) Writing down 5 things for which I am grateful, (2) Reflecting on my internal feelings of worry or anxiety and writing down the causes as best as I can discern them, and (3) Writing down the key actions that I need to take today to make it a good one.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Wisdom for the New Year: Forgiveness (Dear Kittens #35)

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained from my 47 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen.)

Dear Kittens,

I’ve held too many grudges over the years. Grudges do nothing but keep us tied to painful memories of the past. There is an alternative to holding on to past pain. The alternative is learning to forgive.

Forgiveness is key for experiencing the life that God desires for us. Forgiveness is at the center of the prayer that Jesus taught his earliest followers. Jesus invites us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Jesus’ words assume our willingness to forgive others. Jesus emphasizes the necessity of forgiveness in the verses that follow his prayer. In Matt 6:14–15, Jesus adds, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Jesus’ intention was not to scare us into forgiving others. Rather Jesus highlights the important role of forgiveness for enjoying an abundant life. The irony of refusing to forgive is that we actually hurt ourselves. Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Forgiveness does not mean that we minimize the pain we have suffered. It is not a white-washing of the past. It does not mean that we continue to allow ourselves to be mistreated by others. It does not always mean a full reconciliation with the person(s) who hurt us. Instead forgiveness is a refusal to allow another’s action to bind us to the past. By forgiving, we release junk that weighs us down. Kittens, if we want to move forward in life, we have to unclog our inner being. Grudges, old wounds, and memories of past pain serve only to weigh down our hearts. When we hold on to past pain, we turn our inner space into a warehouse of dusty and unused junk. When we forgive, we clear out our storehouses and create space for new good things.

As we move into a new year, I encourage you to spend a few minutes reflecting on your own memories of pain. Who has hurt you? Make a list of persons that you may need to forgive. Consciously remember how they hurt you. Don’t make excuses for their actions. Instead, think about how you’ve had to grow to overcome these events. Then begin to forgive each of these people one by one. Start with the easiest ones to forgive. This may not be an easy process. It may require the shedding of a few tears. It may have to occur without the other person ever apologizing. Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a decision. Make the decision to forgive and over time God will take care of your feelings.

Maya Angelou wrote, “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” She is giving good advice, kittens. Take it. I am.

You may find it easiest to begin by forgiving yourself for not being perfect. Remember you are enough Kittens. Always. Since you are enough, you can forgive others for the hurts you’ve suffered. This will open up the future for you in ways that will astonish you.

With much love,

If you would like to be added to the mailing list to receive new "Dear Kittens" notes as soon as I write them, email me at brian.russell9113 at

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Growth Through Questions (Conversations with Scripture)

“The quality of your life is the quality of your questions.” -- Anthony Robbins

The courage to ask questions is the pathway to deep insight and growth. Children instinctively understand this. One of the first signs of intellectual development in a toddler is when she begins to question her surroundings. “What is that, daddy?” is the easy question for a parent, but the more difficult “Why?” is never far behind.

A series of maxims greeted visitors to the ancient Delphic oracle in Greece. The most famous reads, “Know yourself.” This is an exhortation to shift from the external to the internal. To grow we must move beyond the expectations and explanations of others. We must engage in a search for truth driven by a thirst from within rather than from a desire for conformity to externals or approval from others.

The harder questions begin when we ponder our feelings and thoughts. What am I feeling? What am I thinking about right now? How can I quiet my racing mind? Will the dull ache that I feel inside ever go away? When we ask such questions, we become observers of our lives. We are no longer mere participants along for the ride.

Most of us gain a certain level of mastery of our external world as we grow. We learn to drive. We earn diplomas and degrees. We start careers. We marry and begin to raise families. We are able to navigate career and culture easily. We are comfortable in our spiritual lives. In essence, we become competent at the givens and whats of life.

But at some point, we hit a wall and realize that we’ve lost the plot. For many of us it takes a crisis moment: poor health, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, a financial crisis, or disillusionment with our faith. These are times when we long for meaning and fulfillment over easy answers and the typical road maps for life and faith. At such times, we may turn to Scripture afresh.

People often describe the Bible as an answer book. This is certainly true, but we must take care not to reduce it to an answer book such as one we’d find in the back of a high school math text. As we live, we discover that life is messier and blurrier than a straightforward math equation. Rarely is the answer we seek simply the solution 2 + 2 = 4. When we face complexity, questions tend to be more helpful than simple answers.

In fact, Scripture is full of questions. Often these questions take us further down the rabbit hole than any answer would.

Here are some examples:

The serpent asks Eve and Adam, “Did God really say…? (Gen 3:1).

God asks the first humans, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9).

Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).

Moses asks God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring out the Israelites?” (Exod 3:11) and “What is your name?” (3:13).

The psalmist asks, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:1).

God asks Jonah, “Is your anger a good thing?” (Jonah 4:4).

A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

The Philippians jailer asks Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

In each case, the careful reader gains insight and wisdom by reflecting on the question and then reading to see if and how answers emerge through textual conversation. These Scriptural examples suggest that questions are part of an authentic relationship with God. God does not demand that seekers become unthinking “yes men” or “yes women.” There is a give and take to faith. God desires to ask us penetrating questions to aid us in transformation, but we also are free to challenge God and ask questions of our own.

In the end, reading Scripture is about asking questions. Our questions serve to open our hearts and minds to the questions that the Bible desires to ask each of us. Any question may be brought to the text, but ultimately the Bible desires to confront us with the reality of God’s claims on our lives. It intends to raise questions for us to ponder. 

Here are some that I’ve sensed when I’ve spent time in the Scriptures:

Do I trust that God has my best interests at heart?

How does the Bible invite me to live differently than I currently am?

What kind of person do I need to become to live out the truth I am reading?

As you open the Scriptures with new questions, try using this prayer from the early Church leader Origen (c. 185–c. 254):
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scripture may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.

© 2016 Brian D. Russell

Friday, December 23, 2016

What's In a Name?: Reflection on Matt 1:18–25 for Advent and Christmas

Names are important. Modern parents to be spend significant time selecting just the right name for their unborn children. Dozens of “Baby Name” books are available for purchase. Moms and dads can scan through thousands of names to find the perfect one for their son or daughter. Some families carry on longstanding traditions of naming the firstborn after the father; others name a child after a favorite aunt or uncle. Whether they name the child in honor of a beloved relative or after a famous person, they do so in the hope that the child will embody the best qualities of his or her eponymous predecessor.

 In Matthew 1:18–25, we read about the naming of Jesus. Let us ponder this passage to experience its power this year:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
 Our Scripture text recounts the naming of Jesus. In previous verses, Matthew has offered a detailed genealogy that links Jesus to Israel's history. In particular, Jesus is called Son of Abraham, Son of David, and Messiah (Christ). Abraham was the fountainhead of God’s people. The LORD had called Abraham to serve as the father of a new people through whom all peoples would be blessed.[i] The LORD had raised up David to serve as the earthly ruler of God’s kingdom.[ii] To call a person “Messiah” was tantamount to declaring that the era of the fulfillment of God’s promises was at hand. All of these titles would have resonated deeply with the people of Jesus' day. They would have raised expectations and reestablished hope of a new and dramatic work of God.
  Yet our text does not burst forth in a birth announcement complete with trumpet rolls and fireworks. The birth of the Messiah will mark the beginning of the most important life in the history of the eternity. But it is not one marked with fanfare. There will be no headlines in the newspapers. It will not occur in the center of political and religious power in Jerusalem. Instead it will occur under the shadow of scandal. Moreover the familiar names of Jesus and Emmanuel will offer us a glimpse of the essence of Jesus’ life and mission.
A Scandalous Beginning? 
Given Jesus’ pedigree as son of Abraham and son of David, it seems inconceivable that God in his wisdom would send his son to be born under questionable circumstances. At least it does to those schooled in the wisdom of the world. The world values tidiness, symbolism, and appearances. If Jesus were running for political office, his opponent would be running negative ads against him reminding everyone of his possible illegitimate birth. But God does not play by the rules of the powerful and the rich. In fact, God tends to work from the outside and backsides of life to bring about his salvation. If we reexamine Jesus’ ancestors, it is remarkable that his family tree includes four other named women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Urriah [Bathsheba]).[iii] This inclusion of women in a male-dominated genealogy is unusual in its self, but these four women were all involved in unseemly or at least unusual relationships. Tamar tricked her father-in-law Jacob into having sex with her in order to have a son; Rahab was a Canaanite and perhaps a prostitute in Jericho; Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite; and Bathsheba was involved in an adulterous relationship with David.  Yet, God worked through these women and these unusual circumstances to advance the line of people through whom Jesus would be born.
So it should come as no surprise that Jesus the Messiah was born to a woman who was a virgin. However, Joseph her fiancé was no dolt. He knew how a woman became pregnant. He must have been feeling both betrayed and humiliated. He could have demanded a public accounting for her indiscretion. But our text describes him as “a righteous man.” Joseph was a person who actively lived a life of integrity and wholeness before God. He sought to value and serve God and others above his own rights and prerogatives. Thus, Joseph made the decision to end his engagement to Mary, but to do so in such a way as to not draw attention to Mary’s supposed immorality.

   At this point, God appears to Joseph in a dream. This is not God’s first appearance in the story. The narrator has already informed the reader that Mary is pregnant due to divine action through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Now Joseph learns the truth and when he wakes up he takes Mary for his wife. This remarkable story illustrates the reality that God can work through the messiness of human life and how the faithfulness of God’s people can help God advance his mission.
Two Names
In our culture, Christmas has become a secular holiday. This is epitomized by the tradition of decorating homes with lights. How often today do we see heavily decorated yards filled with images of Winnie the Pooh, Santa Claus, the Grinch, reindeer, and other holiday décor? Yet often in the middle of these displays, one finds a plastic baby Jesus lying in a manger. The baby Jesus becomes an alien add on to the Christmas holiday. He is far separated from the Crucified and Risen Lord of the Church. In the 2006 comedy, Talledega Nights, Will Farrell’s character Ricky Bobby offers grace over meals in which he consistently prays to “Lord Baby Jesus.”[iv] When challenged by his wife to acknowledge that Jesus grew up, he replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus the best.”

But in his presentation of Jesus, Matthew forces us to reflect on his adult life from the beginning. The central focus in our text is the naming of the child because this is no ordinary baby. It is in the naming of Jesus that Matthew forces us to confront the power and potential of Jesus’ life and work.
He will Save his people from their Sins
The Lord reveals to Joseph in the dream two names for the child that capture and epitomize the boy’s life and mission. First, the Lord orders Joseph to name the child “Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua. It literally means, “The Lord saves.” Just as Joshua embodied this name as he led God’s people into the promised land of Canaan. Jesus will inaugurate a new era of salvation. Yet notice that the salvation that Jesus will bring involves salvation from their sins. Since this is the goal, it is profound to observe that Jesus fulfills his name by dying on the cross. Years down the road, on the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus celebrated the Lord’s supper with his disciples saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[v] In other words, Matthew is announcing from the beginning of his story that the focus of Jesus’ life will be bringing salvation from sins by means of Jesus’ death on a cross.

Who will be the beneficiary of this salvation? Our text says, “his people.” This begs a crucial question for us: Who are his people? Jesus’ ministry will subvert any attempt to define narrowly “his people.” Jesus intentionally breaks down religious and cultural boundaries by healing the sick, interacting with women, and even extending salvation to gentiles. By the end of the Gospel, he sends out his disciples to engage “all nations” with the Gospel message.[vi]
Emmanuel: God is with Us
Matthew adds a footnote to the name, Jesus. He reminds the reader that Jesus’ birth brings to fulfillment an ancient prophecy from Isaiah about a virgin giving birth to a son. Isaiah had foreseen the child being given the name, Emmanuel. Emmanuel means, “God is with us.” Profoundly this second name for Jesus sounds a critical theme for understanding the mission of Jesus. It is more than an affirmation of God’s presence in Jesus during his earthly life. If the name Jesus points to the cross where Jesus saved “his people from their sins”, then Emmanuel affirms the on-going presence of the Resurrected Jesus in the life of his people.

For disciples of Jesus, this is critical. We are not merely persons who admire a life well lived by attempting to emulate Jesus’ life. Instead, Emmanuel is a promise that God will be eternally present with his people through the person of the Risen Jesus. Most profoundly Jesus promises to accompany his people as they spread across the globe to fulfill Jesus’ final command to make disciples of all nations. Matthew’s Gospel ends with this promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[vii]
Jesus fully embodies his names. But what about us? Each of us has been given a name by our parents. But in Christ, God has granted each of us a new names—Christian, child of God, son or daughter of God. Jesus came to deliver us from our sins and to lead us into the world with good news to share. In this season as the world awaits the light of Christ, will we follow him?

[i]Genesis 12:3b
[ii]2 Sam 7; Ps 2
[iii]Matt 1:1-17
[v]Matt 26:27-28
[vi]Matt 28:19-20
[vii]Matt 28:20b

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Community of the Desperate: A Reflection on Luke 2:1–20 for Christmas Eve/Day

A Community of the Desperate
"It was the most fun that I have ever had in ministry.  We were a community of the desperate."  Those were the initial words that rolled off of the tongue of church planter and pastor Eric while he was recalling fondly the early years of a church that he and his wife Kim founded in Maine back in the 1990s.  Eric and Kim were in their mid-twenties and fresh out of seminary.  They moved to Bangor, Maine to establish a new congregation without knowing a single person in the city.  They worked feverishly to make contacts and foster relationships with all whom they encountered.  To this day, Eric and Kim remain awestruck and joyful in their description of the persons who first expressed interest in this fledgling church.  They did not attract the movers and shakers nor did they reach the beautiful and the self-assured.  Instead, the core members of this congregation consisted of recent transplants to the area, several persons struggling with addictions, some ex-convicts, and many who for a variety of reasons were simply struggling to make their way through the world.  What did these persons have in common?  To put it simply: They were desperate for the very things that the Gospel alone can truly deliver - they were desperate for God.  Moreover they were precisely the types of persons whom Jesus himself impacted powerfully during his earthly ministry.  Jesus' earthly life models the creation of a community of the desperate -- persons hungry and desperate for God whom God can then transform and deploy back into the world to love and serve others.  Luke's birth narrative provides for us the earliest hints that this will in fact be the focus of Jesus' ministry and should be the focus of our own lives as followers of Jesus.

Our Scripture lesson on this Holy Day (Luke 2:1–20) is so familiar that it is easy to miss its subtle and subversive message.  The text recounts the Christmas story of a census, the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, Jesus' birth in a manger, and the arrival of angels and shepherds to celebrate the event.  Yet, it is in these well-known details that we find the true power of the story.  For in them, we discover God's intentions to create a community of the desperate through whom God will reach out in love to the world.

Let's hear Luke's words again:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A Tale of Two Cities
Luke skillfully opens his report of Jesus' birth by setting it in a specific time and space.  The reference to Caesar Augustus serves as much more than a chronological marker.  Rather it sets up a conflict between two kings and two kingdoms.  Augustus was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all Emperors who ever reigned over Rome.  Caesar bore all of the rights and prerogatives of power and influence.  His reach extended even to the small and insignificant province of Judea.  There our Scripture lesson opens with a trip by Joseph and Mary from the town of Nazareth to their ancestral city of Bethlehem in order to register according to a decree from Augustus. 

While in Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor and gives birth in a manger because there was no room in the inn.  A king is born that night in Bethlehem, but this King will lay aside all of the trappings of power and live his life armed only with faith, hope, and love.  Furthermore, Jesus' humble birth in a manger emphasizes God's care for the lowly.  The King of kings and Lord of lords is not born into wealth or power; he was not found in Rome; but rather he lay asleep in a manger.  What kind of king is this?  If Jesus were born today, where would we find him?

A Surprising Announcement
The scene shifts to the regions around Bethlehem in which shepherds were out with their flocks (verse 8).  Perhaps these were the same areas once patrolled by Israel's first shepherd-King, David.  Shepherds in Jesus' day were not numbered among the rich or powerful.  They were peasants at the bottom of the status ladder. Yet, these were the persons to whom Jesus' birth is first announced. God did not come looking for the proud, the important, or the powerful; he came to those in need.  Jesus came to those desperate for the sort of life that comes only by living for God.  Jesus came looking for those desiring a better life, a life lived for a value greater than their own good.

The shepherds were terrified at the appearance of an angel (verse 9), but their terror soon turned to awe, wonder, and joy at the announcement.  The angel tells the shepherds to be full of joy because of the good news of Jesus' birth.  Moreover, note that verse 10 declares that the birth of Jesus will be a source of joy "for all the people."  Jesus' birth and the salvation that he will bring has the potential to reach and touch everyone!

What does the angel announce?  In verse 11, Gabriel declares the place of the birth to be "the city of David."  The angel also gives titles to the child: Savior, Messiah, and Lord.
"Savior" was a title worn by the Roman Emperor, but Luke boldly declares the Jesus is the savior.  What an audacious and surprising claim!  In this distant corner of Roman influence is born one much greater than even Caesar Augustus.  Yet, he does not bear the trappings of his rank – the baby Jesus identifies with the weak and lowly.

"Messiah" implies that Jesus is Israel's long awaited Davidic King and deliverer.  "Lord" is the title used typically of God.  By declaring Jesus as "Lord", the angel is saying that Jesus is the one in whom God is working to bring forth salvation.  In verse 12, the shepherds receive a sign. This sign coincides with the description of Jesus' birth earlier in the passage.

Verses 13-14 describe the worship and celebration of "a multitude of the heavenly host."  Worship is the proper response to the miraculous work of God.  Verse 14 contains the familiar words of the angels.  Note carefully however that modern translations such as NRSV or NJB differs from the old King James' "...and on earth peace, good will toward men."  The NRSV correctly translates the best Greek manuscripts “on earth peace among those whom he favors.”  These words carry a powerful message.  They proclaim worship and glory to "God in the highest heaven."  God is worthy of honor and acclamation for his work.  Additionally, on account of the arrival of Jesus, "peace" is available for humanity, those most in need of God.  This peace of God refers to God’s desire for justice, restoration, hope, and wholeness.  Think about who received this message: lowly shepherds out in the field.  Yet, these were precisely the persons whom Jesus came to save.

Whom does God favor?  The contrast between the powerful and lowly continues here.  The announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angels does not occur in the presence of the Roman power brokers, business tycoons, or other influential elites.  The announcement of Jesus' birth came to the community of the desperate.  But God’s work does not stop with a mere announcement.  The announcement becomes a mission.

A Mission to Live

How do the shepherds respond to the birth announcement and the worship of the angels?  An experience of God’s grace is never an end in itself.  If it is authentically from God, it will always push us outside of ourselves and point to others.  The lowly shepherds become this new king’s first ambassadors. 

The shepherds head directly for Bethlehem to see things for themselves.  The authentication of the events with their own eyes causes them to proclaim the words of the angels to those who are present (verse 17).  This leads to amazement by "all who heard it" (verse 18).  Perhaps the "all" refers to those staying in the actual inn that night.  Mary, who already knows the truth about Jesus (1:1-76), simply reflects on the wondrous events around the birth of her son, Jesus (verse 19).  The shepherds then return to their flocks worshiping and praising God (verse 20).  The actions of the shepherds are significant.  They receive the good news about Jesus, and they are transformed from lowly shepherds to heralds and ambassadors of God's good news.  This is the call to all of us who know and believe the story of Jesus.  We who have experience outpourings of grace must become witnesses to the world of this fact.

A core value of Christianity is hope.  Too often we make hope a mere insider value.  In other words, Christians have hope because we put our trust in God.  This is certainly true but it is not radical enough.  Hope is also to serve as a value offered to outsiders. Christians are to be known to the world not simply as persons of hope, but more profoundly as persons who inspire others, especially those outside the Christian community, to have hope as well.  This is the true witness of Jesus' birth - that a community of the desperate becomes the source of hope for the world.

How will you be a beacon of hope for someone today?  Who represent the desperate in your circle of family, friends, and acquaintances?  

© 2016 Brian D. Russell