In the months after the census, Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem, making their home there. (Mt 2:11) Learned men from the east, experts in the sacred texts, had heard that somewhere in Judea a boy had been born king of the Jews. They remembered how the Jewish holy book said, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Num 24:17)
So when they saw a new star rise in the west, an uncommon one that seemed to have been lit just for them, they followed it. It led them to Jerusalem. Wanting to honor this king and pay tribute to his majesty, they began to ask around. Where was he?
Herod the Great was a paranoid sociopath—a personality perfect for his position as the ruler of Judea under the authority of Rome. He built his empire to create the illusion that he was a man who could be in many places at the same time. Aside from his fortresses at Herodium, Sebaste, Machaerus, and Masada, he also built palaces in Caesarea, Jericho, and Jerusalem. At any moment, he could have been in any one of them, so at every moment, he might as well have been in all of them. His affinity for architecture was well known, as was his obsessive mistrust of those around him.
There could only be one ruler in Judea. This was Herod’s passionate commitment. Already the bones of one wife, several sons, and multiple distant relatives cluttered the family tomb as the result of his conviction that each and every one of them was involved in a conspiracy to kill him.
The shepherd’s life was ironic. Their job was to care for the animals that would be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people. Yet because of their handling of these dirty creatures, they themselves were unclean and thus prevented from keeping the ceremonial law. And because they were ceremonially unclean, they were often regarded as untrustworthy, irreligious, and poor in reputation.
Nevertheless, it was also expected that one who did his job well, a good shepherd, would be willing to lay down his life for his sheep. (John 10:11) A good shepherd was someone who cared deeply for the lambs under his watch, many of which were appointed to die on the altar of the Lord for the sins of the very people who looked down on the shepherds.
The shepherds’ lives were, in effect, sacrifices.
On one particular night, in the pastureland skirting Bethlehem’s northeast side, some shepherds sat like sentinels at their posts, keeping watch over their flocks, unaware of the angel regarding them from the skies overhead.
What would an angel think of their strange vocation? It was God’s idea that in this world sheep would depend on shepherds to watch over them. The Maker could’ve made them differently—and yet there sat the musty men with their staffs and their rods, cooperating with the order of creation, lest the beasts under their care perish. Though their solitary work afforded them many silent nights except for what they chose to speak or sing over their flocks, this night would be different.
[The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 21 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative.]
Nazareth to Bethlehem was a long journey. Weeks had passed, and they’d exhausted nearly every topic of conversation they could think of, including the details of the strange things they had seen and heard over the past year. They spoke of angels, of dreams, of their hopes for their people, and of their love and fear of God.
The people of the cities and camps where they lodged along the way didn’t know much about Joseph and Mary. They could see that he was earnest and driven and that she was pregnant and about to burst.
But this couple carried a holy secret, whispered into their ears by the lips of an angel and conceived in the warmth of her womb by the overshadowing Spirit of God. It played like a distant symphony, building in its movements and phrases to a coming crescendo that would shake the foundations of the world. But for now it remained a quiet, distant sound pulsing in the hearts of the man and his bride.
To their amusement—and to her discomfort—the baby often turned and kicked. They hadn’t planned to spend the final weeks of her pregnancy on the road, but this miracle didn’t suspend life as they knew it. The extraordinary work of God and the ordinary business of living under Roman occupation ran in tandem. So when the order to register for the Roman census coincided with the final weeks of Mary’s pregnancy, it meant a trip to Bethlehem. They had to go.
[The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 20 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, by Russ Ramsey.]
Joseph was a decent man. He didn’t want to shame Mary, though he could have and no one would have blamed him. But he didn’t want to lose her either. What could he do? His bride-to-be was pregnant, and he wasn’t the father. His world was spinning. This burden weighed heavily on his heart, flooding his thoughts and his dreams.
Joseph wasn’t a complicated man. He was honest and hard-working—noble in ancestry and character. He dreamed of one day having a son of his own to teach the family trade. He dreamed of married life. He dreamed of a home of his own. He dreamed of the respect of his community.
But Mary’s condition threatened all of that, waking the young man from his dreams to a harsh reality. He knew the moment approached when he would have to act. And when he considered his options, his heart ached.
One night as he tossed and turned, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. He had come to set something straight. This baby was not forming in Mary’s belly because of anything she had done. This was something God had done—something God was doing, part of the order and structure of his divine purpose.
No one remembers where Mary came from, but Joseph was descended from the great King David, though for his part he was a common laborer, a carpenter.
They were simple, honest people, dreaming and working toward a life they could live out together as husband and wife and, God willing, as a family. They probably expected to be ordinary in every way and perfectly happy for it.
But all this was interrupted in a moment when the angel of the Lord—the same one who visited Zechariah six months earlier—appeared to Mary and told her something that would alter the course of her and her husband’s lives—and for that matter, the world itself.
The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Though the angel’s words were friendly, Mary feared for her life. What could this messenger of the great I AM possibly have to say to her?
I immediately thanked him and then panicked because I didn’t really have any idea what I was supposed to do with it.
Here’s what I’ve come up with: a daily advent devotional to go along with the chapter of the day.
I would love for you all to check it out, and I would love for any of you who feel so inclined to tell your friends about it and share it around the interwebs.
In the coming weeks I’ll run a few longer excerpts from the book here at The Rabbit Room as well. Hope you enjoy.
Also, my follow up book, a 40 chapter Lenten companion called Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ will be available through the fine folks at Crossway Books in January.
[The following is an excerpt from my essay by the same title in the forthcoming Molehill, Vol. III.]
Rembrandt is in the wind.
The sea surges and swells. The little fishing boat has no hope of holding on to the churning foam below. The bow rides up the back of one white breaker while the stern dips in the valley beneath it and the next. Waves break over the sides. The half dozen men to Rembrandt’s right shout and strain at the sails, struggling to keep the ship from capsizing. The five men to his left plead with Jesus of Nazareth to save them. Rembrandt stands in the middle of the boat, his right hand tightly clutching a rope, and his left pinning his hat to his head. His name is scrawled across the useless rudder, as though this is his boat on his sea and they are all caught in his storm. He and everyone else in the ship are soon to be lost unless their leader intervenes.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only known seascape, is one of his most dramatic paintings, capturing that moment just after the disciples knew they would die if Jesus didn’t save them and just before he did.
The five foot by four foot canvas hung in the Dutch Room on the second floor of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum for close to one hundred years. Everyone who looked at it saw the same thing; Rembrandt looking out through the frame to us—looking us dead in the eye. The terror on his face asked us what the disciples were asking Jesus: “Don’t you care that we’re perishing here?”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” —Jesus of Nazareth
Several years ago I decided that I was going to give Paul Simon my undivided attention. For reasons I cannot explain, I had never really listened to him beyond what I heard on the radio and MTV back when MTV played music videos.
Since so many of my friends regarded Simon as one of their favorite songwriters, I decided I would download the iTunes Essential Paul Simon playlist and listen to nothing else for at least a month.
I was immediately taken in by the brilliance, complexity, and originality not just of the music, but of the artist himself. Paul Simon has been a consistent treasure in American songwriting for over five decades. I find that amazing.
Early this year, I decided I would do for Bruce Springsteen what I had done for Paul Simon. This would be The Year of the Boss.
One day I will take the boat to Ellis Island.
I will walk the pier and enter the station.
I will see the stacks of abandoned steamer trunks,
the rejection papers under glass,
the black and white photos of the mustachioed men
in their bowler hats, and the women with their parasols.
I will study their eyes,
looking for hints of their hope,
their fear, and their desperation.
I will try to imagine them standing on that same floor,
not browsing a museum,
but looking for a new world.
I will climb the Separation Stairs
and I will consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.
I will think about what it means
to be a citizen of a Kingdom
I must leave everything to enter.
And then I will understand
that I, too, am an immigrant.
This past spring when my friend Stephen Gause (record producer, songwriter, and one of the kindest men I’ve ever known) invited me to work with him to turn Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative into an audiobook, I jumped at the offer because I wrote the book to be read aloud. Much of my own editing during the writing process came from reading what I had written aloud. If it sounded like writing, I rewrote it. I wanted this book to be something people could read to each other because beautiful are the feet and voices of those who bring good news. There’s something rich and lovely about one person telling the story of the coming of Christ to another.
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 1: The Sacramental Echo
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 2: The Letters
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 3: Meant to Live
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 4: Struck
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” —Galatians 5:22-23
We sat together, just the two of us. The sun would be coming up any minute. We didn’t say much. We couldn’t. We were on the verge of bursting into tears, but neither did. What we did say was mostly of a light-hearted nature.
It was our eighteenth anniversary.
“In sickness and health,” I joked.
“Yeah, well,” she said, “it’s only fair. You stuck with me through four labors and deliveries. It’s the least I can do.”
A man wearing black scrubs and carrying a clipboard entered the waiting area and barked, “Ramsey. Ramsey.”
Together we stood and made our way to the shouting man who led us to the elevator.
“I’ll be right out here,” my wife said. “I’ll see you just as soon as they’re done.”
I squeezed her hand, gave her a kiss, handed her my wedding ring, and then stepped into the elevator as it closed and carried me up and away.
The man in black said, “If you have any modesty issues, now is the time to get over them.”
“By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2:8
“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” – Annie Dillard
Everything was draped in a blanket of shimmering white. As a country kid I preferred the outdoors, so when this snow came I layered up to spend as much time in it as I could before the thaw. The air was bitterly cold—the dry kind that freezes your lungs when you take a breath. Everything was so still that my boots crunching through the surface of the snow made a muted sound as though I were in an acoustically perfect concert hall.
Our dirt road was socked in so that no one could pass, so I stood on my plat of Indiana farmland alone and uninterrupted. I walked to the end of my driveway to look out past the giant blue spruce blocking my view of the prairie when out of the corner of my eye I saw something. There on one of the pillowy boughs of that tree, amid the alternating layers of bluish-green and white, sat a gray speckled dove. I crept toward it. It didn’t fly away. It wasn’t until I was only inches from it that I realized the little bird was dead, frozen where it had nestled in.
With my gloved hands I picked it up and held it in such a way that if it wanted to take to flight, it could. It weighed next to nothing. I wondered if it was hollow. I studied it closely. A gentle breeze came and ruffled its feathers, startling me into thinking it had snapped back to life. I almost dropped it out of fear.
I started thinking about how the Bible talks about birds. I thought about how God must know the number of feathers on that bird if he knew the number of hairs on my head. (Mt 10:30) I thought about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made, (Ps 139:14) and how the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, (Ps 24:1) and how God cares for the birds of the field. (Mt 6:26) This was God’s bird. He made it. He was there when it poked its little beak out of its little shell. God aligned its DNA to produce feathers. He gave it instincts to find food. He gave it the proportions for flight. And he numbered its days—a number now expired.
In my own romantic teenage way, I found myself caring for the little creature, even grieving a bit the way a child grieves a goldfish just before the flush. I couldn’t shake the thought that God loved this little lifeless bird in ways I couldn’t comprehend.
So I decided to pray.
It started as a prayer of thanks for the magnitude of creation and for God’s attention to the tiniest details. But before I knew it, found myself praying for the bird itself. Like a priest presenting his offering to the Lord, I raised the dove up in my hands and prayed, “God of all Creation, you gave this bird life and you have cared for it all of its days. Now it is dead. If you wanted, you could bring it back to life. Right here and right now I know you could. It wouldn’t take much. Just a word. Not even that. So if it be your will, I pray that you would raise this little creature from the dead and give it new life.”
Then, through the vapors of my own breathing, I stared at the bird in my hands and I waited. What happened next changed my life and has been shaping it ever since.
“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed forever.” – 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
We were not meant to die. We were meant to live. We were meant to live forever. That may sound absurd to many, given that we all do, in fact, die. But as a Christian I believe death is an intruder. I believe it is the wage of sin (Rom 6:23) and an effect of living in a broken, fallen world. (Gen 2:17, Rom 5:12) I don’t believe this is a blind faith either. As a pastor I spend time with many grieving people, and one prevailing emotion they all seem to share is that the death of a loved one feels wrong—like it’s not supposed to be this way. I believe they’re right and I believe the way our bodies fight to heal themselves when they’ve experienced something traumatic supports this idea that we were not meant to die, but to live.
A few weeks ago I had open-heart surgery. Something happened to me while I was on the operating table that has me thinking about how we were meant to live and not die. No, I didn’t talk to an angel or spend five minutes in heaven or have a prophetic vision. I had a stroke—a small one known in the medical world as a reversible ischemic neurologic deficit, or RIND for short.
“When times are good, be happy; but when times are hard, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.” – Ecclesiastes 7:14
In less than twenty-four hours I will be lying unconscious on an operating table. My wrists and ankles will be in restraints and I’ll have a breathing tube down my throat. My chest will be open and a machine on a cart beside me will perform the work of my heart and lungs while a surgeon and his team attempt to repair, or if that’s not possible, replace my heart’s mitral valve.
Mitral valve repair is a relatively safe surgery, especially for a guy my age—major for me but routine for my surgeon, I’m told. I am confident everything will go according to plan, and I’ll emerge from the anesthesia sore but ready and eager to rehabilitate. Nevertheless, I have agreed to let a team of highly trained medical professionals stop my heart tomorrow in order to remove a part of it, and then sew it back up and start it again. So in light of that reality, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks writing letters.
Ten years ago I met a woman named Alice. She was in the late stages of a very aggressive cancer. She moved to the Kansas City area so she could spend the last weeks of her life close to her daughters. One Sunday Alice and her girls visited our church. She wore a floral print bandana on her head because the chemotherapy and radiation had taken her hair. I introduced myself after the service and she asked if I could meet her for a cup of coffee.
We met the next day and Alice told me some of her story. She had experienced more pain, loss, and grief in her fifty-one years than anyone I could recall, and that was all before she found out she had cancer. Somewhere in all her Job-like suffering Christ had taken a hold of her and, as she said with the joyful sincerity of a child, had promised not to let her go.
I asked what brought her to our church.
She said, “I want you to bury me.”
“You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows this well.” – Psalm 139:13-14
I watched the ceiling tiles pass overhead as the radiology nurse wheeled my gurney into the room where she would perform my echocardiogram. I remember thinking the dimly lit room felt familiar. This was my first echo and I knew I hadn’t been in this room before. But I had been in one like it. More than once, too. But when? And then I remembered—my babies.
My wife and I have four beautiful children. During the doctor visits leading up to each of their births, she and I were taken into rooms just like this one—peaceful, spacious, warm, and clean. We’d take our places—she on the paper-covered bed, me in the chair beside her, both of us wide-eyed with nervous excitement waiting for the doctor to come in and show us something we could hardly believe was possible—a live video of our unborn child kicking away in my wife’s womb.
The first time we went in for an ultrasound I remember being surprised that the equipment wasn’t larger, given the task it was built to perform. The sonogram machine stationed next to the bed didn’t look like much more than a low-profile computer cart with a few unfamiliar accessories neatly resting in their places. Surely a wonder like the one we were about to experience would require my wife to be squeezed into some sort of giant hi-tech tube. Or if not that, shouldn’t there at least be a luminous belly-shaped dome on a large mechanical arm controlled by a technician behind a wall of glass? This room had neither. There was just a computer, a display screen, a moon-shaped wand, and a squeeze bottle of warm lubricating gel.