Series Theme: Christmas Threads Meditations
Christmas Threads Meditations: Introduction
Gal 4:4 when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman
Something More? Christmas approaches – again! TV is full of mushy ‘Christmas' stories, the link is usually snow, celebrations, a couple who eventually confess their love, and happiness, but rarely any mention of the real meaning behind Christmas, yet it is always a time for a feel-good factor to be introduced to help us feel ‘nice' at this time of the year. Surely the coming of God to the earth must be infinitely greater and deserves greater celebration than any other festive day (except Easter Sunday) and doesn't deserve to be submerged under the tsunami of Christmas glitz that is poured out every year from November onwards (as soon as shops have got Halloween over!).
I must confess that I have a ‘thing' about Christmas and for that reason, (apart from trying to fight back the glitz and let the real shine through) I pause at this time of year and pray, “Lord, please allow me to see afresh the wonder of what you have done.” As I have been praying I have had a sense of something different. The idea of threads that make up a tapestry came to mind. So I am hoping these will be brief threads, shorter that some of my usual ‘studies' and I also want there to be a strong ‘devotional feel' if possible. We'll see. Can we together push back the glitz and see afresh the wonder of the thing Matthew and Luke bring to us in their early chapters?
About Time: So by way of introduction, for meditation purposes, may I snatch out of context the apostle Paul's words in Galatians, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman,” because they seem to summarise or encapsulate just what this is all about. The Message version starts it, “ when the time arrived that was set by God the Father,” which I think makes a good emphasis that Jesus came at a time that was set by God, i.e. God had an agenda (which we will see as we go along, I think) and so Jesus' coming was not some random, haphazard event that just happened to pop up in history two thousand years ago but was a preplanned mega-event on the divine calendar.
The NIV's, “when the set time had fully come,” has three interesting words. First note, the ‘set time', suggesting the established or exact or precise time, a fully considered or worked out time. Again, taking my comment above about God's ‘agenda', I believe there is a real sense in the Old Testament (and New) that God had specific things He wanted to happen before He ‘sent' His Son. The other word, ‘fully', suggests completion or worked through to a designed end. Everything about this screams of careful planning on God's part.
In the latter half of that verse note three words: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” The thee key and arguably most significant players in the Nativity story are God, His Son, and the young woman Mary (who we'll see later). How we take some of these things for granted! The truth is that, as many sci-films show, a figure from elsewhere could just be dropped into the present. He needn't have gone through the trauma of baby and childhood and the accompanying threats. Yet that is how God chose to enter the world we know, and we'll return to this later because, again, I think there are things here we take for granted.
I referred earlier to the Nativity as ‘a preplanned mega-event on the divine calendar' so as we run up to this ‘mega-event' this year, would you like to embark on a journey with me, a journey made up of a number of threads that go to make an incredible tapestry, hopefully to the glory of God.
Prayer Time – Thanking: Our starting point in prayer must be thanks: “Lord Jesus thank you that you came to this earth in human form. Father, thank you that you sent Jesus at a very precise time to reveal you to us and to die for us. Thank you that you chose to achieve this using a human body, ‘born of a woman'; you drew that close to our human experience in your desire to win our hearts. Thank you so much. Amen.”
Prayer Time – Asking: But there always need to be requests, for the wise realise they always need God's help, so can we pray together, “Lord as we come to your word to reflect again on the wonder of this time that we call Christmas, may we snatch some words from the psalmist and ask of you, ‘Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things', (Psa 119:19) not so much from your law as from the testimony of your word. Deliver us from the familiarity with this story and enable us to catch again the wonder of it, that our hearts may truly be moved to worship. Amen!”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 1: The Throne Room of God
1 Pet 1:20 He was chosen before the creation of the world
Need of a backdrop: One of our problems, I believe, is that as Christmas comes around each year, we tend to focus on just the main events and key players involved in Israel just two thousand years ago, and that's it. Unfortunately that fails to see the biblical backdrop that puts incredible meaning to what took place. Last year, as I wrote on Christmas, I focused on the content of the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols Service held every year in King's College Cambridge, where this service has been held for the last ninety-nine years, 2018 being its centenary. What, on subsequent reflection, I find strange is that their opening reading was from Genesis 3:8-19. I understand that the purpose was to start pondering on the reason for Advent going right back to the Fall, but I would like us to go back beyond that because unless we do we may fall into the error of believing that Advent was God's backup plan after things had gone wrong and nothing could be further from the truth.
The Plan before Time: Our verse above, “He was chosen before the creation of the world,” is one of seven references in the New Testament to the fact that everything about Jesus was formulated by the Godhead before the Creation of the world, i.e. Jesus was loved by the Father ‘back then' ( Jn 17:24), Jesus was chosen to bring our salvation ‘back then' (1 Pet 1:20), we were chosen because He saw ‘back then' we would be responders today (Eph 1:4), our names were written in a book of life ‘back then' (Rev 17:8), Jesus' death on the cross was decreed ‘back then' (Rev 13:8), it was agreed that this is how God's grace would be conveyed to us ‘back then' (2 Tim 1:9), and the end result for us would be eternal life, decreed ‘back then' (Tit 1:2).
Do you catch the wonder of this, that the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – planned Advent even before they created the world and everything we know, there in the throne room of God? It was not a mistake; it was not a second fall-back plan; it was an integral part of God's overall plan for this world – which had a beginning and has a planned end. Many years ago, I wrote a script trying to imagine what it must have been like as the three members of the Godhead communicated and pondered on the possibilities of what would happen if they created a world with human beings with free will. As God knows everything and is all-wise, it is probable that such a conversation never happened, it was just a split second (outside time!!!) awareness that this HAD to happen, this was the only way for it to happen. The more you think into it, the more you realise this is true. If you are not sure about that at the moment, stick with me in the coming days and see what you think at the end.
Prayer Time - Thanks: Time to pray, prayers of thanks: “Lord God, you who are sovereign Lord of all things, Creator of heaven earth, the all-knowing one, the all wise one, thank you that you knew exactly what you were doing when you designed the world and us, and gave us free will, thank you that you understood the consequences and knew what had to be done, and when. Amen.”
Prayer Time – Requests: Wise men know their limitations. “Lord Jesus, you have shown us that you are for us and that you understand our limitations. Lord, please deliver us from simply reading words. Please impact our hearts with the wonder of the reality we have just been considering. Lord, please help us see and remember the ‘big picture' this Christmas, that it isn't just about a few limited events spread over a year some two thousand years ago, but this is in reality part of your big plan that began back before time and will only ‘finish' after time and in eternity. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 2: The Heart of God
Prov 8:30,31 I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.
(Additional Reading: Prov 8:22-31)
Catching God's heart: I guess many of us would agree with those famous words from Jn 3: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him,” (Jn 3:16,17) but I wonder if familiarity has dulled our understanding of these two verses. Note it was God's love that sent His Son into this world. We saw in our first study that the Father sent the Son and we see it again in these two verses, but let me ask you a question that perhaps you've never been asked before: how do you think the Son felt about that? In the Godhead the authority is with the Father who instructs the Son and the Spirit, but this instruction is going to have some terrible implications within it, which we may think about later. So let's limit the question a bit to, what do you think Jesus felt about this instruction in respect of us ?
God has Feelings? I take us down this path because I think sometimes we lose all the emotion from the Advent story. I have a horrible feeling that, for many, the emotion associated most with God would be anger, but I don't believe that is the truth. Yes, God does get angry sometimes but is that all we find in the Godhead? I find our starter verses from Proverbs amazing. You really need to read verses 22 to 31 of Proverbs 8 to catch the full import of it. Technically it is ‘wisdom personified' speaking but when you consider the Godhead, it has to be the Son who the creeds tell us was ‘begotten of the Father' (and begotten simply means ‘comes out of') who, from verse 27 on indicates that he was there alongside the Father creating the world. It's a lovely picture which corresponds perfectly to Jn 1:3 and Heb 1:2 and Col 1:16. But see what the Son says: “I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence.” (v.30) Delight, joy, pleasure, describe how the Son felt working alongside the Father. But then, even more wonderfully, “rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (v.31) The son was blessed by the world they were bringing into being – and blessed by us human beings! Yes, he had this same joy and pleasure in us that he had in the world and in his Father. That is incredible!
Yes but we fell! Yes, I can hear the negative put-down in this truth, but how do you think God felt about the Fall? Angry, yes, but anything else? Well a while later, when things start going seriously wrong in the world we read, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” (Gen 6:6) The Message paraphrase puts it, “God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.” This is one of those times when God appears, not only as the One who stands outside time and sees everything from beginning to end, but also as the One who is there in time experiencing it as if for the first time. If it had been us, we might have said, “Oh why did I ever create this world when I see what a mess it gets into?” and our hearts would be broken.
Think Again: We often come across ‘the joy of the Lord' in Scripture but to see more of God's anguish we simply need to watch Jesus outside Lazarus's tomb: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (Jn 11:33-36) The original Greek seems to suggest that in Jesus' weeping there was also a feeling of anger as well as anguish for the effect of sin, both in bringing about Lazarus's death and the impact it had on the family, as well as what he no doubt felt for Lazarus himself. God who is troubled, God who anguishes – over us! This is the love of Jn 3:16 that instinctively decided the Godhead to plan Advent even before they uttered a word to create the world.
Time to Pray – Thanks: “Lord, I catch but a bit of what your word seems to reveal about how you feel about us. Father, thank you that you love us, and sent Jesus to die for us. Thank you that it is your love that energises you to plan all of this to save us. Thank you so much. Amen.”
Prayer Time – Requests: “Lord, please forgive us that so often we never bother to try to catch your heart or understand how you feel. Lord, please open my heart, fill my heart with the truth, touch my heart with the wonder of the emotions you feel that are the guiding and motivating force behind all the Nativity accounts. Please help me see it this year like I've never seen it before. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 3: The Mysteries of God (1)
Gen 3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel
Mixing Metaphors: I'm afraid I'm going to be mixing metaphors in this study, having started out talking about threads of a tapestry, I want to suggest that the next thread is the idea of the trail of breadcrumbs, because it seems to me that that is exactly what we find in the Old Testament. The idea of a trail of breadcrumbs comes from the fairy story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the two children drop breadcrumbs to form a trail to guide them back to their home. In modern website design, designers refer to a breadcrumb trail being a navigation tool to allow users to see where the user's current location is in the whole website. In detection books, authors carefully drop breadcrumbs along the way, little clues that give the reader speculative thoughts towards who the murderer is.
The Mystery: In some senses the Old Testament is as much a mystery drama as any modern writing. If I may quote from an earlier series I wrote, ‘Focus on Christ', when Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27), it was a mystery that had been there for centuries but was now being made known: “the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.” (Rom 15:25,26)
The truth is that there are numerous prophetic words in the Old Testament about the coming of the Son, but they are dropped into the text like breadcrumbs to lead us ‘home' and home is the arrival of Jesus. All of these ‘breadcrumbs' show us that, as we saw in Thread No.1, God had a plan from before the foundation of the world and that plan involved His Son leaving heaven and being born on earth, i.e. Advent is the door into the execution of that plan. Each of these ‘breadcrumbs' points to that truth in some way or another.
Breadcrumb No.1. Conflict: There in the Garden of Eden, following the Fall, before the couple are banished from the Garden, God addresses Satan and says, “I will put
enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15) or, as the Message paraphrase puts it, “I'm declaring war between you and the Woman, between your offspring and hers.” This is strange talk. Who is the woman? Is it Eve, all women, or Mary, the mother of Jesus? Perhaps it is wise not to be too specific but certainly the protective heart of every woman is to desire the best for her child and to protect it from harm. In this sense every woman would be against Satan's intents to harm. His offspring would be everyone who surrenders to his leadership (every unbeliever according to 1 Jn 5:19).
But her offspring? Surely not every human who follows, surely it must be one specific one? There is coming one who will war against Satan, crushing his ability over humans, but in the process will himself be harmed? Who else can this be (we say with the insight of hindsight) but Jesus? The Son of God will leave heaven, come to earth, battle with Satan, and triumph over him through the Cross. And there it is in the third chapter of the Bible, this clue for the avid reader of detective fiction, the follower of breadcrumbs, the seeker of the mysteries found throughout the Old Testament. But before we pray, just one final thought here about this verse. Even in declaring this, how do you think the Father felt? He is saying, ‘My Son will come to the earth to wage warfare against you, Satan, and he will disarm (Col 2:15) you, but in the process, I know he will have to die, to give up that wonderful life he will have on earth that will bless thousands, in order that he might save millions.' As necessary as it was, how would you feel as a father, facing the fact that that had to happen?
Prayer Time: Thanks & Request: Father, thank you that you have laid out these ‘breadcrumbs' throughout the Old Testament to show us the way to Advent and on to the Cross. Lord, please open our eyes to the wonder of this, your heart that just kept overflowing from time to time so that these clues were dropped, all of which pointed to your master plan. Thank you for the plan on your heart from before the foundation of the world to save us, that was fulfilled in these events, for Advent, for the Nativity, Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 4: The Mysteries of God (2)
Gen 22:18 through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
(Additional Readings: Gen 12:1-3,22:12-18)
Recap: We are tracking just a few of what I have referred to as the ‘breadcrumbs' of the Old Testament that lead us to Advent and the events that follow. These are simply the clues God gives in that half of the book that reveal the plan on His heart for His Son.
Breadcrumb No.2 A Family Line: There is a breadcrumb, as small as it may be, in a prophecy that Noah gave, in the form of a curse and blessings, after the flood, after the incident of him getting drunk, lying naked and being mocked by his youngest son, Ham (who was father of Canaan), but covered and respected by his other two sons, Shem and Japheth. He curses Ham and brings his blessing on the other two, as he refers to, “the Lord, the God of Shem,” and Shem is clearly to be the lead family. (see Gen 9:18, 25-27). Following Shem's family tree (see Gen 11:10-27) we eventually come to a son named Abram, later Abraham. The next big breadcrumb (and remember, that clues in a good mystery novel are rarely obvious) comes in a record of a prophecy in Gen 12:1-3 where God promises Abram, “I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Reasons for this family line: Abraham is traditionally seen as the father of Israel, the first of the Patriarchs, followed by Isaac and then Jacob who is renamed Israel and whose family grows into a nation we know by that name. Much of the time we take these verses in Gen 12 to refer to the father of faith, who showed that a relationship with God is possible, but I suggest there are three other highly significant reasons for the purpose behind the existence of Israel. First, Israel are to reveal God to the rest of the world. Second, as we look at their history throughout the Old Testament, we see they reveal the sinfulness of mankind, so that even those who purport to have a relationship with God by following the rules (the Law) need something more, need some other form of salvation.
Crucial for Advent: Third, and most significantly I believe for this season of the year, the existence of Israel meant the existence of what I call a ‘God environment' into which the Son of God would be born. How we take this for granted! When Jesus arrived, he came to a God-orientated nation, a nation with history with God – lots of it – a nation with a temple and a priesthood and the Law of Moses, and synagogues in which it was taught on a weekly basis. Imagine Jesus stepping into some other country in the world where all that was absent. Imagine the work he would have to do simply to prepare the ground to be understood for who he was. But instead, he steps into an environment that is expecting a Messiah, a people who have been following the breadcrumbs for centuries, trying to work out what it all meant – but nevertheless had minds full of it all. It was into this that Jesus spoke and acted. Advent is the season observed as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, the birth of Jesus, at what we call Christmas. It all takes place in this prepared environment that is so critical to all that follows, an environment that started to be created back with Seth, then down the tree to Abram, and then on until Israel became a nation. This is the context these breadcrumbs create for us into which the Son of God will be born as a baby.
And so the prayer: “Father, how incredible this story is, that having the plan to send your Son to redeem us, you started paving the way by creating this family tree that formed a nation into which he could be born. Thank you for the long-term wonder of all this, thank you that you did it to redeem us – me! Lord, please open my eyes that I may understand more fully that even today I am a player in this plan that originated before Creation, was revealed through the coming of your Son, and is still being worked out – even today! Thank you so much, Lord. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 5: The Mysteries of God (3)
Isaiah 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
(Additional Reading: Isa 9:1,2, Mic 5:1-4)
Recap: We are following some of the ‘breadcrumb trails' in the Old Testament, not because it is just fun to do so, but because each of these ‘breadcrumbs', these prophetic clues that we find there, are highly significant when it comes to examining the Nativity, and without them just reiterating the Nativity story misses some of the key aspects of it all, things the Lord went to some trouble to provide for those with eyes to see. Well, may that be us. The two breadcrumbs we are going to consider in this study are both to do with location. Each of the places have great significance.
Location breadcrumbs - Galilee: Our first of the two we are going to consider here, and seen in our two starter-verses above, comes from Isaiah. Being one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, it is not surprising that his book is littered with these ‘breadcrumbs'. Chapter 9 starts with, “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations.” (9:1) Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the tribal areas in the north of the land, both tribes of which had failed to completely oust the Canaanites in the original taking of the land. Perhaps because of this or perhaps because they were simply first in line to encounter enemies coming from the north, they had suffered through the years; it had been a dark area, so often in conflict.
Isaiah, referring to this darkness, speaking in the prophetic future, speaks of “a great light” coming to light up this darkness. In their history, what light came to that land? Only that of Jesus. It should not be surprising, therefore, to note that both Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, located in the centre of lower Galilee, (Lk 1:26) and it was to there they returned after their stay in Egypt after Jesus was born. It was to Galilee that Jesus returned after being baptised and where he carried out most of his ministry. It was indeed like a great light coming into the land. Why Galilee, perhaps because it was furthest away from Jerusalem in Judah in the south, with the buffer of Samaria in between so that the interference from the religious authorities from Jerusalem was strictly limited. So Mary and Joseph start out from Galilee and return there in order that Jesus be raised there and so that he may start his ministry there.
Location Breadcrumbs – Bethlehem: The second ‘location breadcrumb' comes from Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” ( Micah 5:2) That had the Jewish scholars scratching their head and yet when the Wise Men, the Magi, turned up it was the verse the scholars of Jerusalem turned to in the Greek Septuagint version, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel. “ (Mt 2:6 quoting Mic 5:2 & 4) There it was a ruler, to shepherd Israel who would come from Bethlehem. Now what is intriguing about this is that Bethlehem was king David's home (see 1 Sam 16:1) but David lived long before Micah prophesied so Micah prophetically had another in mind and so, yes, this prophecy was added to the many others that the scholars pondered over in the writings of the scrolls that we now call the Old Testament. And then, of course, we find Jesus being referred to as the Son of David (Mt 9:27, 15:22, 20:30, 21:9) but we'll have to wait for the next study to see more of that.
And so to prayer: “Lord, thank you for the wonder of your word, thank you that you dropped all these clues, referring to the coming of your Son that had been agreed there in heaven even before You created this world. Thank you that we see your wisdom in the way you set him up in the north to reveal your love to us through his incredible ministry, away from the political and religious pressures of Jerusalem. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you blessed your people in Galilee, revealing yourself and your Father's love through those three amazing years. Thank you that all of this flows from that amazing episode we call the Nativity that reveals the way you came in humility to bring all this about. Thank you so much. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 6: The Mysteries of God (4)
Isa 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
(Additional Reading: Isa 9:6,7, 11:1-9)
More from Isaiah: We have already seen how Isaiah dropped the ‘breadcrumb' showing where the Messiah, the Son of God, would come to reveal the glory of God, a ‘great light' in dark Galilee. The only trouble was that in the eyes of the scholars at least, some of these things seemed contradictory. Following that Galilee prophecy the prophecy flows on getting more and more incredible until in v.6 we find references to this coming one who will be called, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” a ruler over the throne of David, a rule that will go on for ever. If you have never heard those words in the crescendo that builds up in Handel's Messiah, you have never heard anything! But what did they mean? The coming one will be God the everlasting Father? How can that be? Already Isaiah had prophesied in another mysterious way about a child to be born to a virgin, a child to be called Immanuel and that name means ‘God with us'. How can this be?
The David Link: But there is more: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse ; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit,” (Isa 11:1) and, “In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it-- one from the house of David --one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.” (Isa 16:5)and, “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” (Isa 55:3) We commented yesterday about Bethlehem being David's home. This coming one is going to linked with David who was a ruler who brought peace to Israel.
The Suffering Servant: So, on one hand we have talk about God coming, a ruler coming with a mighty reign, and then we find Isaiah prophesying a number of ‘servant songs' about the coming one and in chapter 55 we find, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.” (Isa 53:13,14) This is the confusing mix of these ‘breadcrumbs', these clues, these prophetic words that filtered through the other prophecies of Isaiah, that left no other conclusion than One is coming to instigate a new, unique, everlasting reign, an expression of God with us, and yet somehow there is this black cloud hanging over it all with the mention of suffering and rejection. How could it be?
Advent? Now we have to concede that many of these prophetic references do not see their fulfilment until the Son has come, revealed the Father's love through his ministry, and then suffered and died for us, been raised from the dead and ascended back to heaven. But here is the point: Advent, we said, is a time of waiting and expectation and this expectation, built by an amazing trail of breadcrumbs (it is said there are over 300 prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament) is what was there in those whose hearts sought after God (see Simeon Lk 2:26) and there, probably in not such a strong way but there nevertheless, in the general Jewish population and taught in the synagogues. All of this is the backdrop to the coming of the babe in Bethlehem, but it is no wonder the expectation was so unclear because it had so many different shades that would not become clear for at least another thirty or so years.
And to prayer: “Lord, again, in anticipation we want to say thank you for the wonder of this time that we remember this month, of your coming to earth. Father, thank you for this amazing kaleidoscope of breadcrumbs, so many different aspects of his coming which must have left a quizzical anticipation in your people, wondering how all these things could be. Thank you that we now have the whole picture and so we can see, Lord Jesus, how you fulfilled them all. Help us please, Lord, to handle the aspects of life and our understanding of you and your desires for us, where we don't yet see it all clearly. Please give us patience to wait your timing, trusting in your goodness that will be revealed in the way you want it to come. Thank you Lord so much. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 7: And so it begins
Lk 1:5 there was a priest named Zechariah
(Additional Reading: Lk 1:5-25)
Preparations: The years have passed and we arrive at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. I once heard someone say if you hear the audible voice of God you are probably in deep trouble if you need that. Reading about Abraham I was surprised to note that years would have passed and there are actually just a few number of times when God spoke to him. For him, we assume he heard God in the quiet thoughts in the mind (it may have been other ways, we just don't know), but his was a time of building an embryonic relationship with God. Moses, by contrast, knew all about the history his people had with God and perhaps, because he felt so low about himself after all those years in the desert, he needed the audible voice plus the burning bush – and he had a pretty big job ahead, so he really needed that clarity of encounter.
Silent Days: The fact is that for most of us, I suspect the days go by, just like Abram, with hearing little from heaven. We may be those who sit silently before the Lord each day, waiting upon Him, but even then, I guess, if we can be really honest about it, it is a real mix of those days when we just don't hear anything (most often), the days when He seems to draw near and there is a holy sense of His close presence (rare), and those times when it feels like He is down the other end of the universe (more than we'd like to admit).
And Zechariah: I think I've probably written it before, but I think we often give Zechariah a bad press but, hey, remember he was an old guy, and he's been a priest for many years and has done the stuff that priests do and lived the life that priests live, for decades, and nothing has happened. In fact God has been silent in Israel for over four hundred years. Now familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly dulls expectations, so if I suggest that Zechariah was seriously surprised when the angel Gabriel turns up that is probably the understatement of the year.
And would you have been fearful when an angel turned up? Quite possibly, because such an encounter is so out of the ordinary, and sometimes we're not very good with ‘out of the ordinary'! But it gets worse because he is told that his aging wife (past it!) is going to have a baby. Right! That is really beyond a bridge too far when it comes to belief! That also suggests a tricky conversation when he gets home. So was the angel Gabriel being unkind when he made him dumb for nine months? I don't think so really. The Lord wanted Elizabeth to be pregnant and an encouragement to her niece Mary soon, and so Zechariah (and perhaps Elizabeth too) needed a little nudge forward and that certainly did it!
We must pray! “Lord, I have to confess when I think about Zechariah it leaves me feeling vulnerable. I would like to think I would have responded more positively but I think I may be kidding myself. Lord, if I an honest, those seriously pious individuals who go on about total commitment feel a bit unreal. Lord Jesus, you said that, “apart from me you can do nothing,” (Jn 15:5) and you know I really want to be available to you and be used by you so that I will “ still bear fruit in old age,” (Psa 92:14) and so, Lord, I really need your help to achieve that. Please help me Lord. Thank you. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 8: Difficult Conversations
Lk 1:26 God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
Mt 1:20 an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife
(Additional Readings: Lk 1:26-38, Mt 1:18-25)
Continuing: We said in the previous meditation that we have arrived at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. Zechariah was the first of the two face to face encounters; Mary is the second. What we said in respect of Zechariah and life going on without surprises and thus lowering expectations, must surely be true of this young teenage girl, but after that her youthful response is much different from the aged priest.
An Unusual Conversation: When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary he does not ask permission, he tells Mary what WILL happen. Look at all the positive words in what he says: “ Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob's descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Lk 1:30-33) We often say God never forces His will on people but this seems a rather straight forward declaration of what He is going to do. Mary's only question is how this can come about. After he explains how, she simply responds, “ I am the Lord's servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)
God knows His people: I think the answer to my implied question above is very simple: God knows His people and therefore knows how we will respond and He knows Mary's heart and knows it is open to whatever He has for her. It perhaps raises a further question: does God instruct where there will be rejection or disobedience? Well, looking at the biblical record, clearly yes. Jonah is another example who, like Zechariah needed a nudge from circumstances. There are others in the Old Testament who were told things but refused them (Eve has to be the classic example!).
So yes, God knows our hearts but if Jonah or Zechariah are valid examples, then He also knows that some of us just need a nudge in the right direction to get us there. So why does He persevere like this? Is it that He knows our potential, knows what we are capable of, even if we do need quite of lot of encouragement? Joseph in the third of the angelic encounters was a righteous young man and that righteousness almost got in the way. It needed a dream – yes, just a dream – to get him on side. In fact Joseph was so open to the Lord that four times the Lord gave him a dream to guide him. (1:20, 2:13,19,22) What is it, I wonder, that we need to get us on side, into the flow of the ongoing activity of the Lord? Sometimes it is just encouragement from a partner or friend, sometimes it comes when reading His word or hearing it preached, sometimes it comes through circumstances, but however it comes, remember, its goal is to move us on in the will and purposes of God. Let's make sure we do that.
Let's Pray: “Lord, yesterday I confessed to you that I find this matter of calling to be scary, but I thank you that you know each one of us uniquely and you know our potential and you know what ‘encouragements' we each need to reach that potential. Thank you that you have unique plans and purposes for me (Eph 2:10) and, even though I stumble, you see my heart's desire to serve you and so you will get me there, you will see me through to completion of your plans for me (Phil 1:6). Lord please do it. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 9: Difficult Times
Lk 2:4,5 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
(Additional Reading: Lk 2:1-5)
Why: How much God was involved in Caesar Augustus issuing a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, which meant that Joseph had to go to the town of David, his ancestral home, is unclear – OK, we aren't told anything about that – but the end result is, I suspect, a lot of grumbling by a lot of people who had to do a lot of travelling. Mary and Joseph were just caught up in something that perhaps most people in Israel were caught up in, it wasn't just them. Sometimes God seems to care about the small details and Jesus being born in the ancestral home of King David seems to be one such ‘small detail'. A nuisance detail because it meant they had to travel a 90 mile journey – a little over two hours driving time today, but probably between four and seven days on foot and donkey back then. Seriously, with a pregnant girl just a few days off birth??? Does God make mistakes? No, but He knows what He can trust us with and knew that Mary would be safe. And us? Yes, us too.
The Good Life: Most of us, if we could be honest, would say that we would like the good life, a life of affluence and comfort, a life free from hassle, angst, worries and concerns. If only! There are people who don't like me saying this because they say it is a cop-out, but it is true, we live in a fallen world where because of the presence of Sin stuff goes wrong, the world ‘breaks down' and basically we are all dysfunctional, we just don't ‘work' like were originally designed to. So emperors get high and mighty and inconvenience millions but what does that matter when you are comfortable in your palace! So the good life is marred by the sins of mankind and sometimes that means life gets tough.
Any Alternative? Couldn't God have made the world different? Well of course He could have made us robots, make us have to do what we are programmed to do but imagine it, one day a super-model robot is designed who looks, feels, acts, and sounds just like a human being. Sex might be on the cards, but not a real relationship, because all the while you will know that you are just getting the responses of a programmer's amazing work. This isn't real love, as much as it seems it. Any creativity is a programme and therefore any work of art can never be called ‘great'. It's these things that make us human. Remove free will and you remove our humanity. The cost is a fallen world, an emperor who causes great inconvenience, a dangerous journey, no room at the inn, a birth in a stable.
The Value: Now some of us don't like to face this but hardship builds character. Yes, we'd rather do without the hardship but when it is forced on us, get ready for character building. (More than that it creates some brilliant stories when you get back from the holiday that went disastrously wrong!) But seriously, we would prefer a coddled, comfy life, protected from every ailment, hiccup in life and so on, but God never promises that because in the same way that a plant grown in a hothouse can be weak and spindly, so a life devoid of the toughness of life, never matures. If you hide away from the knocks of the world you will end up being good for little. A tough lesson but true.
Let's Pray: “Lord, I confess I shy away from the thought of discipline, I dodge the idea of the tough aspects of life, but I thank you that I am what I am because of your grace that has flowed to me through those times. Thank you that you trusted Mary and Joseph, who were always under your watchful eye, and you enabled your Son to enter the human scene despite the tough aspects of it all. Thank you that you were there for them and are here for us – in it! Thank you so much. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 10: He's Arrived
Lk 2:6,7 the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
(Additional Reading: Lk 2:4-7)
How? So Christmas has arrived! It is the day that we put aside to remember the coming of the Son of God to earth in the form of a baby born to a woman, a baby that has been growing in her womb for nine months, just like any other baby. Sometimes we ask God to move in miraculous ways, ways that are contrary to the laws of nature that He has instigated, but instead we so often find, He uses these very laws of nature to bring about His purposes. As we have commented before, He could have just dropped His Son, fully grown, onto the earth, but if He had done that this unique mother would have missed out on the experience of carrying this baby to full term, and Jesus would have missed out on the full human experience of coming to gradual consciousness and self-awareness as a child.
Arrival: And so he has arrived! The background leading up to all this must have conveyed to this couple that this baby was special – they had been told – but when he was born, there he was, just a baby, beautiful no doubt as all babies are in their messy way. But he didn't have stamped on him, “Son of God. Handle with care.” No, there was nothing to indicate that this was Immanuel, God with us, God in the flesh for the first time ever. Pause up, if you can, in the midst of unwrapping presents or preparing lunch, and close your eyes and imagine this real, messy, possibly crying, vulnerable and needing milk, baby. This is God on earth, and he's going to grow up and become our Saviour. Savour the incredible nature of what had just happened if you can. Ask Him to help you do that.
Mixed Emotions: I am a father, so I have never experienced childbirth, for which I am very grateful. I have been with my wife when our three children arrived and I understand a little bit why she has a greater bond with these three children; they came out of her and she went through that less than easy process of birth with them. But after the arrival there must always be a sense of relief. However traumatic, or otherwise, the birth was, afterwards a sense of relief must be the prevailing emotion, relief and thankfulness, relief that it is over and the child is here safely, and thankfulness for the wonder of this tiny child. How sad, and I would suggest tragic, it is when that relief is because the child is not wanted and the mother cannot wait to offload them to someone else to look after. But as I have watched, experienced it myself, and listened to new mothers as I have led parenting courses, there is also often a sense of fear: how are we going to be able to look after this tiny mite, what do you do? Often there is help available but it's not normally there in the middle of the night when the baby is crying.
And So: So, I guess Mary and Joseph must have had these feelings. Yes, it is all very well to think that we had these angelic encounters nine months ago, but now what, is this stable our home, how long do we have to be here to register? How long does the law say we must wait before we present him in the temple to be named? How will we live, how will we survive? And yet I am sure that somehow God would have been there reassuring this couple with their new-born babe. And if for them then, for us today?
Let's Pray: Pause in silence for a few moments and reflect on the reality of what happened. “Lord, there are times when we are conscious of standing on holy ground. This, I feel, is one of them. We dare to risk remembering your arrival, Lord Jesus, and so much of the time today it is almost submerged in the affairs of the day – giving presents, preparing lunch and so on – and we risk skipping past this holy moment because of the pressures of ‘the things yet to be done'. Forgive us. Lord, thank you for the shear wonder of this unique time in history. We confess we cannot fully understand it, how this tiny baby is the vehicle that carries almighty God, that he is ‘God with us' and so simply, by faith, we just say a tentative thank you, tentative because we hardly know what we're saying, but thank you, thank you that you came and you came like this. Lord, for what the words mean, thank you. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 11: God of Extremes (1)
Lk 2:11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
(Additional Reading: Lk 2:8-18)
Low Life: Jesus once commented, “ You will always have the poor with you,” (Mt 26:11) and poor can have different meanings and different causes. Jesus spoke of the ‘poor in spirit' (Mt 5:3) and simply, ‘the poor' (Lk 6:20). You can be poor materially and very often that is linked with being poor socially. Shepherds who lived and worked out on the hillsides in the vicinity of Bethlehem, would, at the very least, be considered poor socially. They were virtually outcasts; it was the nature of the job. Their life was with their sheep and so they were unlikely to be synagogue goers each Saturday and for that, no doubt, earned the negative reputation of the pious, of what I have tended to summarise as ‘the low life of society'. If a banquet to welcome the king of kings was put on by the local town elders, it is unlikely that they would have been invited. I mean they are likely to be dirty, scruffy, unkempt, ill-behaved socially, and anyway, they wouldn't be interested anyway, would they! But God likes the low life!
Shepherds: The story of the angel(s) coming to the shepherds is usually set in the memory with the immortal words, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Lk 2:10 AV) For us today, “good tidings of great joy” tend to be something like, “You've just won the lottery,” or, “No, the tumour is not malignant,” and even sometimes, “The twins have been born safely Nan.” Whether it was the ‘sore afraid' of the AV or simply the ‘terrified' of the NIV or ‘great fear' of the ESV or ‘terribly afraid' of the GNT, the message is the same, the shepherds were sacred out of their lives by the arrival of the first angel (v.9). These guys didn't do ‘religious' and they certainly didn't do the supernatural! And a guy who shines so brightly that he even lights up them is seriously scary and I'm not sure if there are any of us who wouldn't have felt the same in the middle of the night.
Pounded Senses: Now if that wasn't bad enough when, after he has spoken, ‘a great company' i.e. lots and lots and lots, of more angels appear in the sky and sing(?) – or at least praise God - the shepherds could be forgiven if they had forgotten what the angel had said. Their senses were being pounded by one unbelievable thing after another and so, later on perhaps, when they talked among themselves about this message, it only made sense – or at least warranted them to think about it – in the light of being told about the baby, and then finding him down in Bethlehem. (How? Was there a light in the stable, the only light in a dark town in the middle of the night?).
Think about it: You are a shepherd, a non-religious, low-life outcast of society, and God's messengers turn up for YOU. Why me? And says he's bringing me good news. Do I need good news? What sort of good news? What's the catch? Then comes, “the Messiah has arrived in the form of a baby.” Yes, right. So what? We're shepherds, we don't do the religious messiah bit. Why would he be bothered with us? We're low-life, he'll only come to the nice religious people who go to synagogue regularly or do the feasts in Jerusalem – I've never even been to Jerusalem and I live just a few miles away, I'm too busy looking after sheep. How do you answer this? You undersell yourself. First, God is concerned about everyone, you included. Second, He's come especially for the likes of you, all those who put themselves down, not to make you religious but just to let you know that He loves you and His Son has come to help you. You may not understand it for several decades but perhaps one day you will. In the meantime, go and see him, and then tell everyone what's happened. It may not change the world today but it will in the long run.
Let's Pray: “Lord Jesus, thank you that you came “ to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,” you came for all us dysfunctional people, all the people of the world. Thank you that within the humility that comes through in the Nativity story, you reached out first to the poor, the outcasts, the ‘low-life' of society with the good news of your arrival – and they received it! Help me never to think I am a superior being who doesn't need this good news as much as they did. I receive this good news with joy, yes, good news that I need as much as anyone else on this planet. Thank you so much. Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 12: God of Extremes (2)
Mt 2:1,2 Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
(Additional Reading: Mt 2:1-12)
Contrasts: Yesterday we thought about the shepherds, the low-life of society and I suggested (and I do it on the basis of those Jesus mixed with) that God likes low-life! Today, by contrast, I have to say that God likes the rich and the wealthy, the wise and the clever – not because of any of those characteristics but He likes everyone (put aside their sin for a moment) regardless of their social station or status. It's not poverty or wealth that identifies me and you, it is who we are before God and how we let our heart respond to Him.
The Magi are clearly well off – they coming bearing very expensive gifts. They are also a bright bunch - we're not certain how many of them they were but somehow or other at the least they appear to be astronomers and they are explorers – they have travelled somewhere between 400 and 700 miles, probably on camels, being anything between three to five weeks journeying time. And all to worship a baby! They describe him as “king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2) but they indicate he is something special in that, “We … have come to worship him.” You don't normally worship a human king. The response of Herod and his advisors clearly indicates they think they refer to the Messiah.
Challenge: Now I have to confess I find these Magi a challenge? Well think a little more on what we've just said. First they are seekers and seekers who are willing to put themselves out to go searching for this baby, leaving the comfort of home to do this. Second, their hearts have been caught by a simple idea – that out there, there is a baby who is unique and who is worth all our efforts. Third, they go looking down the usual channels, they turn up in Jerusalem where a king lives and a son may be expected – but they got it wrong, for this child will be born without the trappings of royalty, this child will be born in a stable. Fourth, they come with a simple naivety for they go to the king, not realising the sort of king Herod is – one who accepts no competitors. They would have been wiser to avoid Jerusalem. Fifth, they come following a star, using the arts available to them, but that is limited and will only take them so far. Sixth, they come without knowledge of the prophecies of the Old Testament. If they had thought about it and had further revelation they would have known beforehand that their star would end up over Israel and therefore the heart of revelation about Israel and its future will be found in the scrolls. Seventh, they come with a desire to worship the divine one. Pure wisdom.
And Us? Well in parallel with them, perhaps we too get it right in three ways and wrong in four. First the wrong ways: First, don't blend the world's ideas with God's revelations, the world works on pride and strength, God works on humility and weakness. Second, don't be naïve and listen to all and sundry. Listen to God. Third, realise that human wisdom is good but will only take you so far. So, fourth, realise meaning comes through a knowledge of God's revelation in His word (so we need to be regularly searching it).
But now the good aspects: First, commit yourself afresh this Christmas seek the Lord and not be put off by the glitz. Second, let Him catch your heart with the wonder of the things we have been considering. Third, respond to that by worshipping Him.
Let's Pray: “Lord, please forgive us that so much of the time we look anywhere for answers but to you. Forgive our folly. Father, we realise that all answers are to be found in you and in your word. Please help my heart to be anchored in you and in your word, so much so that I will let nothing distract me from the task of seeking you out, to ‘know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.' Amen.”
Christmas Threads Meditations:
Thread 13: Ongoing
Mt 2:13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
(Additional Reading: Mt 2:13-15, 19-23)
Continuation: Relief. All the preparations and festivities of Christmas are over for another year. For many it was a lovely time, for some a time of stress or loneliness and heartache. But now that has gone, we look forward to the coming of the New Year and for a moment raise our hopes as to what that might bring. But one thing we do know, there is more to come. Life didn't stop with Christmas, that was just another step on in this life. We don't know how long we have ahead of us, and we rarely think about it, but it may be days for some, weeks, months, years or decades, but the story of life goes on, bringing with it a mixture of the expected and totally unexpected. If I had been drawn by the Lord years ago to know Jesus, I would feel totally unnerved by the various scenarios that futurologists keep laying before us, whether it is ongoing political upheaval or environmental catastrophe or whatever other negatives we seem to be faced with today.
Joseph: But then we come to the story of Joseph having another dream and taking his family down to Egypt for a couple of years, to avoid the wrath of Herod that is about to bring misery to hundreds of homes. I always tend to feel that this back end of the Nativity story has a rather anti-climax feel to us now that the birth, the coming of the shepherds and then the coming of the Magi, is past. It's all happened. End of story. Well no, of course not, we know it's not, we know it's really just the beginning of something that will only come to fruition in another thirty years' time. But if we just write it off as anti-climax and skim over it and move on with life, we miss some important lessons.
Lessons: The first one has surely got to be that God is overseeing this situation and although He will not intervene in the affairs of mankind, stopping us doing wrong, He will be there for those with ears to hear to guard, protect and provide. There are always these two parallel worlds running around us – the world of pandemonium and chaos as the world does its thing, a dangerous and often threatening world, and the world of divine provision and protection, a world of peace and blessing, that is available to those who will incline their hearts to the Lord.
The second one, that naturally flows out of this, is that blessings flow to those whose hearts are for God and who are open to His guidance with childlike faith. We have commented before on the fact that it just needed a dream to direct righteous Joseph down the right path. There are no doubt a number of other lessons we could dig out of this story but I think these are the two we should hold before us as we come to the end of this mini-series.
Let's Pray: “Father thank you for the wonderful provision you have made for us of our salvation through Jesus and administered by your Spirit. Thank you that you delight to guide and direct us, to provide for us and to protect us. Please increasingly open my eyes to see, understand and appreciate these things, for the days ahead. As far as I am able, I submit myself to you with grateful thanks for the various things you have said through these amazing accounts that we have pondered on afresh over these last two weeks. Please, take me, lead me, guide me, and use me continually in the days yet to come. Amen.”