Christmas on Patmos – Bob Lowery

Note: This post was written by Dr. Robert Lowery, former professor of New Testament at Lincoln Christian Seminary, and first published on his website, Since Dr. Lowery’s death in 2006, that domain (which I used to administrate) is no longer active.

The Christmas story occupies approximately thirty-one verses in Matthew whereas Luke’s devotes seventy-four verses. Because of these verses people have constructed pageants and plays and have composed carols and cards. Poets and preachers along with artists and authors, ancient and modern, continue to stir our hearts.

Many of us have heard the stories of Matthew and Luke so often that perhaps we have become numb to their beauty. On the one hand, perhaps the story needs to be rescued from either the contempt of so-called biblical experts who deny the reliability of Scripture. And on the other hand, perhaps the story needs to be rescued from the sentimentality of people who either follow Jesus or barely know of him.

Year after year, decade after decade, and century after century, the same cast members have been assembled each December: sleepy shepherds and wandering sheep; a wandering star and exotic (three!) wise men; blaring trumpets and singing angels; an expectant mother and waiting husband. This year children of all ages will march across the stage and act out their parts. The same cast members are found in our carols and are beautifully portrayed on cards.

But one little word unites these images and individuals. It is often over-looked and omitted from the newer translations. And yet it appears six times each in Matthew’s and Luke’s renditions: Behold!

It serves as either a word of comfort or challenge, exhorting us to lift up our eyes and see the world from a different perspective or encouraging us in hard times.

Consider the following:
When Mary is told that she is to give birth to God’s Son, she responds: “Behold! the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38).*

A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in order to share the good news. And we are told that Elizabeth’s baby leaped within her and she shared with Mary: “Behold! when you came in and greeted me, my baby jumped for joy the instant I heard your voice!” (Luke 1:44). And Mary responded by singing: “Behold! . . . now generation after generation will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48)

When Joseph found out about Mary’s condition, he was ready to divorce her. But before he could do so “Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid” but that the baby had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:20). And in that same dream he is told: “Behold! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us)” (Matt. 1:23).

And on the night of that great birth, the angel of the Lord reassured the frightened shepherds: “Behold! I bring you good news of great joy for everyone!” (Luke 2:10)

Eight days later, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus journeyed to the temple and Luke catches our attention: “Behold! There was a man named Simeon who lived in Jerusalem. He was a righteous man and very devout. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he eagerly expected the Messiah to come and rescue Israel” (Luke 2:25). And upon taking the baby in his arms he begins to praise God, thanking him for the Savior of the world and near the end he turns to Mary and says: “Behold! This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy to many others” (Luke 2:34).

In Matthew 2:1 there is the dramatic appearance: “Behold!” some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, inquiring about the newborn king. How did they know where to go? “Behold! the star appeared to them, guiding them to Bethlehem” (Matt. 2:9).

One more time, the word is used with the angel of the Lord, when we read: “Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph” in still another dream, this time he was instructed to flee with Mary and the baby to Egypt because of the danger faced by the family. And the same angel appeared once again: “Behold!” this time with the command to return to Israel because Herod was now dead (Matt. 2:19).

Behold! It is one of the most important words in the Christmas story. In reading through the above verses do you catch the sense of challenge or comfort? The word beckons us to sit up and take notice, to cease looking down and around and instead cast our eyes to the heavens, to the God who reigns and the Lamb who redeems.

John the apostle does not refer to the Christmas story in the opening pages of his gospel. But it is in another book that John celebrates Christmas, albeit in a most peculiar setting, as a prisoner on the desolate island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9), just off the coast of Asia Minor, nearly a hundred years after the first Christmas. John’s nativity is described in a mere five verses.

Consider John’s unique telling of the Christmas story as recorded in Revelation 12:1-5:

Then I witnessed in heaven an event of great significance.
I saw a woman clothed with the sun, with moon beneath her feet,
and a crown of twelve starts on her head. She was pregnant, and
she cried out in the pain of labor as she awaited her delivery.
Suddenly, I witnessed in heaven another significant event. Behold!
I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven
crowns on his heads. His tail dragged down one-third of the stars,
which he threw to the earth. He stood before the woman as she
was about to give birth to her child, ready to devour the baby
as soon as it was born. She gave birth to a boy who was to
rule all nations with an iron rod. And the child was snatched
away from the dragon and was caught up to God and to his throne.

Contrary to many who believe that Revelation should be interpreted literally, John himself calls this brief story a portent or sign, not a literal account. On the basis of the Old Testament symbols for the tribes of Israel (12:1-2), we can identify the woman as Israel, God’s people. The child who is to rule all the nations is obviously Christ. And the dragon, we know, is Satan (cf. 12:9), who was unable to destroy Christ during his earthly life.

In essence, what we have here is Christmas on Patmos, a Christmas with no shepherds or sheep, no carols or wise men. Not even Joseph is present. John’s nativity set, if it were to be sold in stores, would have only three pieces: a woman, a child, and a dragon. Not much money to be made off of it.

“Behold! . . . a red dragon . . . ” Leave it to John to confuse us once again! He does it so well throughout Revelation, at least according to many. He just can’t get the story right, can he? Ever the realistic prophet, the one who is always truthful but often tactless, John’s rendition offers conflict not carols, war not worship. It is a PG-13, if not R-rated, rendering of the story. Some scenes are too intense for young audiences, indeed for audiences of all ages.

There is no sentimental Christmas story here: no cozy fireplace, only a fire-breathing dragon; no cookie-eating Santa dressed in red, only a red dragon ready to devour the baby Jesus; no cuddly animals lowing, only a cunning dragon sweeping his tail across the heavens.

Can you imagine a dragon becoming a regular in a Christmas story performed by little children? Who would want the role? Can you picture a well-known company printing Christmas cards with a red dragon lurking behind the manger scene? Of course not! Someone else already lays claim to the color red this time of year, we would be told. Let’s not confuse the public.

Of all the Christmas gifts I received as a child, there is one that disappointed me most: a set of encyclopedias. “What place do these books have being under a Christmas tree?!” I asked after I had stripped off the wrapping paper on a Christmas more than forty-five years ago. I wanted my Roy Rogers sixshooter and cowboy hat. At the age of eight, I believed that no book weighing more than two ounces was to be considered a gift.

But then one winter night, a year or two later, our family was listening to a family radio quiz show and we were challenged to crack open the volumes. We were told that the first family to answer the question correctly would win free tickets to some now-forgotten movie. The question? What was the first song ever recorded on a record to be played on the phonograph? We scurried through the pages and we found the answer.

The song? “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Now that is a Christmas carol?

Only once is Jesus referred to as a child by John. But twenty-eight times the child looks like a Lamb.

At our house we have a nativity set up year round. It is a beautiful set, carved out of wood from Israel. I have added a plastic piece which appears out of place. Right behind the manger, I have placed a red dragon. On Christmas day John of Patmos proclaims: “Behold! The Lamb went forth to slay the Dragon. Blessed be the name of the Lamb!”

[*The New Living Translation is used throughout. The word “Behold!” is in italics because it was omitted by the translators.]

Is God Angry With Us?

Because of an interview this past weekend, I was reflecting on my personal discovery of Isaiah, back in the spring of 2010. I remember with fondness a short season I had with all the kids in school (before the new ones came), chores caught up at home, and available time to spend hours in the Word. It was a season where I eagerly and purposefully pleaded, “Lord, please reveal to me your heart, so I can be more like you.” I will honestly admit that this is often not how I come to Scripture, but it truly was during that season.

My journey began with Isaiah 1, where I was blown away. I had never seen language like this to describe God.

God is ANGRY with his people! He calls them “a brood of evildoers.” They have rebelled against him so much that their whole bodies are beat up, from the bottoms of their feet to the tops of their heads. They are covered in welts and nasty unbandaged open sores because foreigners have come and desolated their people and their land. If God had not saved a remnant, they would have been totally demolished like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Even more than their land and their bodies, their hearts are as far away from God as they could possibly be. So much so that God says, “What are your sacrifices to me?” When they come to their place of worship, he tells them to “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” They are “trampling his courts.”  He “cannot bear their worthless assemblies.” Their prescribed festivals “I hate with all my being!” God is so tired and “weary of bearing them.” When they lift up their hands in prayer, he “hides his eyes” from them. He says, “I am not listening”–those hands are “full of blood!” Their incense is “detestable” to Him! He even goes on to say that the “faithful city has become a prostitute!”

My heart is racing even now as I read those words in Isaiah. Have you ever heard words like these from God??

Now, before you want to jump to conclusions like: “Well, that was the Old Testament God… He was authoritarian and domineering and far away from His creation… That was before Jesus”– look back at the beginning of the chapter.

Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
    For the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
    but they have rebelled against me.

This Old Testament God calls his people his “children” and he raised them and cared for their needs as any loving father would. But he is so sad that they have rebelled against him anyway. He says that even the donkey and ox know their master and their home, but his own children are far from him. They do not know or understand him at all.

This makes me want to cry. I think any mom or dad would want to cry after their beloved children have turned their backs on the ones who love them the most.

So here is the clincher in verses 16-17. The part that stopped me in my tracks. God tells them to clean themselves up. “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right.” This is the part where I expected to read about how God wants us to worship the right way. Change our hearts when we go to the house of worship. Pray more. Do our sacrifices better. Don’t do things for show. But this is where I was blown away.

Here is the equation. How do we “learn to do right”?

Seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

What?!? This doesn’t sound like worship? What about church? What about Bible studies? What about my quiet time??

What God wants from us in worship is much more practical and doesn’t just happen on Sunday morning: Take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Look after the most vulnerable, the ones who are taken advantage of by others, the ones most avoided and forgotten by the rest of the world. THIS is what “religion” is supposed to be. This is true “worship!”

Sound familiar? We have read it so many times in the New Testament it has become old news. But read the equation again:

 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1: 27)

Our New Testament God and our Old Testament God are one and the same. His love for us is the same, and the worship he expects back from us is the same. He is the same loving and intimate Father.

Similarly, in Hosea 11 (another prophet like Isaiah who is called to preach repentance to a rebellious people), God talks about his love for his children, how he “taught them to walk.”

I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
    a little child to the cheek,
    and I bent down to feed them.

Does that sound like a harsh, overbearing, distant father? No, this is a beautiful picture of a Daddy bending down to scoop up his beloved child and swing her around like a princess!

Many times in the Old Testament, God is shown to have an intimate relationship with his children. And he yearns for relationship with them.

I long to redeem them (Hos 7:13)

So here is the answer to my question when I asked God to show me his heart: Take care of the vulnerable, those without someone to provide for and protect them. Period.

We all can relate because that is what we all were before He adopted us into his family. We were fatherless, far from our Heavenly Father. Since we understand what it means to be redeemed, to be a part of a family, shouldn’t we do everything we can to help others have that kind of relationship, to not be alone and destitute? God even calls himself the “Father to the fatherless” in Psalms 68:5. Should we not do the same, in whatever way He has called us?

Or is God angry with us? Are we doing all the “church things,” and avoiding the mess and inconvenience of taking care of others? I want to ask myself this question every day. Is my worship selfish, for me to feel good? Or does it honor God, and in doing so sometimes not “feel good” at all? Is my life a sweet incense to the Creator, or do I just stink?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Rom 12:1)

Aidan’s Birthday

I am not reflecting on today, Aidan’s fifth birthday, in the way I am accustomed to remembering my children’s birthdays. Usually, I think about the hospital stay on the day of their birth, the visitors and doctors, the screaming squishy face that gets gently handed to me, and the solemn quietness at some point where my baby and I just study each other. There is much joy in those memories.

Obviously, I know nothing of Aidan’s birth, except that there were probably no doctors and maybe not even many visitors. There may have been more grief than joy because his birth mom worried how she was going to care for him alone. I do know, from meeting her, that she lost friends that day because many deserted her in her shame of having a child with no husband. Adding a child to her life made her more alone than ever.

I also know it probably wasn’t five years ago today that Aidan was born. Our dentist believes Aidan is at least 6 1/2, maybe even almost 7 years old—the same as Maura. But the adoption specialist says she rarely recommends changing birth dates because children from other countries have so much to catch up on. So Aidan will start Kindergarten in the fall as a 5-year-old/6-year-old, which will not be much different than the rest of his class.

So though Aidan is not actually 5 today, there are two things I am reflecting on today. One is that I do know that exactly one year ago today (which is probably how Aidan got his official birthday), Aidan and Eva’s birth mom did the most unselfish thing any mom could do. She put her two beautiful children’s needs ahead of her own and brought them to the court to ask that they be given to someone who could care for them as she no longer could. There are many other choices she could have made that day, but she chose life for her two children. She had no idea where they would go and had to trust in her God that he would be true to His Word and take care of the fatherless. After our brief conversation with this beautiful lady (through two translators), we could tell that a huge burden had been lifted from her. She finally smiled and knew in her heart that she had made the right decision, and her shame was lifted. She knew that she had made the most courageous decision of her life, and those who shamed her could not take that away from her. She knew that her children would be well taken care of and loved and have a chance in life.

The second reflection is that though it is not Aidan’s actual fifth birthday, it is his first birthday celebration! The first time friends gathered around him, the first time he opened more presents than he could count, the first time he was embarrassed as people sang Happy Birthday to him, and probably the first time he’s had a family who celebrated his birth. I pray we all grow closer and closer together as God works out the sometimes painful, but beautiful, process of grafting us together.

Here are a few pictures of Aidan’s special day:

Between the Testaments

No, we don’t have any new news about our paperwork, but I did want to share some of my personal reflections now so that God can be glorified when all is fulfilled.

To be honest, I haven’t been very worried during most of this journey.  I have known that I can trust my God who has led us this far, and I trust His timing and His provision.  Until now.  It’s actually really bugging me that I am letting a little thing (a very common thing, actually) like not passing court the first time, bother me.  But here are my honest worries:

  • that we won’t pass in time to get the kids home before Christmas
  • if/when we do pass, we will have such a short time to get flights that we won’t be able to sit together with our new kids (plus Erin) on the long flight home (not to mention the 3x cost of airfare at Christmas!)—you know, a mommy needs to keep all her little chickadees safe under her wings!
  • that we won’t pass at all—feeling forgotten by the social agency that was supposed to have written the last piece we need to pass court (the same agency that has written numerous other letters since our court date)

I know in my head that God has it all under control, that His timing is best, that He is powerful enough to take care of a piece of paper and some plane tickets, and that this is HIS story to write, not ours.  I KNOW it.  But I’ve had a hard time letting go of the control (that I don’t have anyway!) and letting my heart be OK with that.

This week God has been impressing some things on me that have helped me to let go.

  • Last Sunday we sang a song at church that reminded me that God has “overcome.”  He has already “breathed” this story, intended somehow for His glory, and we are simply His ink, writing it down.
  • Rom 8:28: An oldie but goodie—“And we know that IN ALL THINGS God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
  • Gen 22: In faith, Abraham obeyed God and took his only son Isaac, the one through whom God had promised blessing to all subsequent generations, to sacrifice him on the mountain.  When Isaac asked where the lamb was for the burnt offering, Abraham answered, “The Lord will provide.”  God took Abraham down to the wire before he stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and provided a ram instead.  Abraham renamed that place “The Lord Will Provide”—a phrase that later became an important name for God.
  • Dan 3 (from church today): Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew they would be thrown into the fiery furnace if they did not worship the statue as the King ordered, but this was their response: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

So it finally sunk in to my heart today.  My God WILL rescue and deliver our children to us, in His timing and by His method.  But if He does not (worst case scenario), I will still trust in His faithfulness and redemption and will trust Him with my life and my heart.  To quote a song from today, whether “the sun is shining down on me” or I’m a “road marked with suffering,” “I will choose to say: Blessed be Your Name!”

In my Beth Moore study of Esther this week, she providentially reminded me, “God’s plan for Israel hadn’t fallen through the cracks between Testaments.”  During the time between the OT and the NT when God seemed silent, He was, in fact, doing a major work behind the scenes to prepare the world for His most glorious work—the birth of His Son!  Similarly, during this silence between our two trips to Ethiopia, it is easy to wonder if God has forgotten us and our court issues.  But I truly now KNOW that even in His silence, I can trust that He is preparing a glorious work for us—the adoption of our son and daughter!  Hold on tight, Babes, “God Will Provide” is providing a way!

Milestones and Anniversaries

As with most families, it’s been a big week for us. Besides the usual Easter activities and traveling to visit family, we have had a few other milestones. Since we have been so busy, I am cramming it all into this blog entry. ☺

Last Monday, Mar. 29, was our 14th wedding anniversary. We celebrated by going out for dinner at Jack & Jo’s in Mason City. We cannot recommend it enough! It is well worth the short 20-minute drive from Lincoln. John Means, the owner and Donald Trump of Mason City, showed us around his newest project—a building space across from the restaurant in which a chiropractor’s office and art studio will be located.

We also celebrated the long anticipated day of mailing off our “dossier” (9 months worth of paperwork, background checks, notarizations, autobiographies, medical forms, and a chunk of money!) to America World Adoption Association. They will double check it all, bring it to the US Embassy in DC to be certified, and then mail it off to Ethiopia! After it gets there, we will be put on a waiting list for a sibling group (boy 3-6 years and girl 0-18 months) and will wait on God’s timing to bring us together with them. We are officially in the 2nd trimester our paper pregnancy! We will be doing some fund raising and a lot of reading during this stage, but it will be a little more relaxing than the other 2 trimesters.

The Sunday before we mailed the dossier, we brought those important papers to church. Our elders prayed for us and for our paperwork, for the mother of these children, and for God to bring them to us to raise in His perfect timing. We are so thankful to be able to share this with our congregation so that they can be on this journey with us. They will have a big part in helping us to raise them in the Lord, and we can’t wait to share with our children how may people have been praying for THEM!  In fact, when we got home yesterday, we had a card in the mail from a home care group that has been praying for us, many of whom we don’t even know personally!  I love the community of God!

That Sunday was also memorable to me because it was Palm Sunday. It reminded me of the Easter Sunday just before our firstborn Erin was born. We had a very scary previous week in the hospital during my 29th week of pregnancy, being told Erin was going to be born and all the dangers that come with premature births. The doctors then ended up sending me home, very surprised that I had gotten better, thinking they may have even misdiagnosed my condition. They told me I could go home on bed rest and that I could attend church on the following Easter Sunday. I will never forget the overwhelming emotions I had as that service began with a rousing, organ-led “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today!” I knew I had come home from the hospital because of the prayers of the saints and I knew, to my very core, that Christ was indeed ALIVE! Incidentally, the doctors had not misdiagnosed me, and Erin was born by emergency c-section (along with a surprise emergency liver surgery for me) the following Sunday at 32 weeks. I know that because of the prayers of my brothers and sisters in several states, Erin was given a couple extra weeks for her lungs to develop, and He sustained and saved both of us from other possible devastating complications.

The song gift that God gave me this monumental Palm Sunday 2010 was “Hosanna” by Brook Frasier. I have always loved her spirit for the poor and lonely. The line in the song that has always grabbed hold of me is “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” I know it breaks God’s heart for there to be hurting and lonely people in this world, especially the vulnerable orphans and the oppressed, and I know it is our job as Christians to do whatever part God has called us to care for them in His Name. Lord, “give me your eyes” and “break my heart for what breaks yours.”

So 14 years ago I married my best friend, 10 years ago we had our first child, and this week we sent off the paperwork for our little Ethiopian blessings. This is a good month for anniversaries.

Save the Date!

We are officially hosting our Mother/Son fundraiser event on Mar. 20 at Lincoln Christian Church, 6:00. It will include dinner and various games, including playing Wii with your son!! More details to come…..

BTW, we finally got our USCIS appointment to get our fingerprints scanned in St. Louis in March! Immigration needs these so they can send us an I-171 document–the last thing we need for our dossier (international papers) to send to Ethiopia! Baby steps…. 🙂

Thanks to the Lincoln Christian Church folks

A couple of things to get this site started with a real post.


As I mentioned late yesterday (when I created the site), Suzanne and I spoke about our adoption journey at Lincoln Christian Church this morning. Suzanne met with Ron Otto, our preaching minister, several weeks ago to ask if we could have a few minutes to tell the church about our adoption decision and to enlist their support.  Ron was enthused about the idea, especially since it coincided with the church’s annual Harvest of Talents weekend.  Harvest of Talents was begun in 1983 by Pat Snyder, a faithful woman in our congregation who wanted to see if we could do something to help hungry and hurting people around the world. On the fourth Saturday of October, people from within and without the congregation fashion crafts, offer their services, and make food available for sale.  Since the beginning, every penny raised is given to IDES to help those in need.  This year’s Harvest raised over $82,000, bringing the 26-year total over $1.4 million. Pretty good.

So Suzanne and I were given some time to talk in this morning’s service about how we believe God has been leading us in this decision and how we foresee the church being involved with adoption ministry.  We were moved by numerous conversations after the services, well-wishes and offers of support from this community. We’re truly looking forward to seeing how God uses this church in Lincoln, Illinois, to continue to help those in need around the world.  Thank you, friends.


I mentioned in part of my comments this morning that I believed God used a couple of experiences last fall to help turn my heart toward adoption.  The first of those was a series of photographs I’d seen on The Big Picture, a photoblog published by A post entitled “Congo’s crisis worsens” captured my attention in a way that surprised me.  Background: I was in high school during the 80’s, at the height of the famine in Ethiopia. Since then I have seen thousands of pictures of the people of Africa whose lives have been altered by war, poverty, and famine. At some point, a lot of this simply became noise which I’d learned to ignore over time. When I saw the photos that day on The Big Picture, however, I was moved and couldn’t really explain why. These photographs weren’t all that different from others I’d seen but something was different inside me.

The other experience was a chance(?) viewing of a two-minute video called “The Girl Effect.”  Go ahead and watch it.

This too had a powerful effect on me that I wasn’t prepared for. Although neither of these were related to adoption, they are related to Africa and caring for some of the world’s neediest people. In conjunction with the prayer and reflection I’d been doing last fall, these seemingly random bits of media shook me. I’m convinced that God used them to help me better see his vision for our family.