|Series Theme: Lessons from the Nativity|
Lessons from the Nativity: 1: Open for the Unexpected?
Luke 1:8,9 Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
It is a sad thing, I believe, that the verses found in Matthew's and Luke's accounts rarely seem to be preached on or even hardly mentioned at any time apart from the annual carol service. This is a shame because there are a number of really sharp lessons that come from those two wonderful accounts, and in the next ten meditations I hope to pick up on some of those lessons.
Although ‘the Nativity' is strictly all about the coming of Jesus, Luke intertwines it with the account of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, and so we are going to start our reflections back with Zechariah, his father. I have to warn you that I am not going to do a verse by verse study of the accounts taking in all the details, but I am going to simply spring a lesson out of a particular part of the story and then reflect on that.
The first small but significant thing that I have found grabbing my attention is the position of Zechariah and how he came to encounter an angel, which we'll look at more in the next couple of meditations. But for the moment, it is this man, a priest, an ordinary priest going about his daily duties which for most of the time, because there were likely to have been hundreds of priests, were probably fairly mundane. Think of some big cathedral you might know and think on the occasional clerical figure you have seen wandering around the building. Indeed because there were so many of them they were divided into divisions, twenty four of them, and each division was on duty only twice a year for a week at a time. What he spent the rest of his life doing I don't know but for two weeks of the year he had to be in Jerusalem serving in the Temple . Jobs appear to have been handed out by lot and one of the most prestigious, the lighting of the candles for burning incense which happened twice a day, occurred only once in a priest's lifetime and for some, never.
We are told some significant things about Zechariah. First he is old (1:7) and second that he is childless with a wife beyond child-bearing age. By that time in life his twice annual pilgrimages to serve in Jerusalem had occurred many times. Thoughts of having children must have receded long ago and although there was always the chance that his name might come up in the lottery to light the candles, the fact that so many years had passed without it happening, again probably dulled hope. And as for having any encounter with God? Yes, they were the people of God but they were overrun by the most powerful army on earth and were subservient to Rome . People of God they might have been but the Lord has been silent for over four hundred years. The last prophetic outburst had been long back. Try to imagine the end of the 1600's from our vantage point today. That is as far back as any word from God had been for this people. Suggest to Zechariah that he might be the first recipient to hear from God for over four hundred years and he would probably have told you off for being irreverent.
Now put all those things together and you have a man (and his wife) locked into a way of thinking that says, today will be the same as yesterday and tomorrow with be the same as today, and nothing will change. The fact of his name coming up to light the candles meant that, well, maybe, this is one last pleasure before I die (once they had done it they were never allowed to do it again). Lighting the candles thus became one last thing where there had been hope; now there was nothing left to hope for, except to wait until death eventually came. This is not being pessimistic, it is being real.
Now here is the question: if we are really honest about life, I wonder how many of us Christians are actually locked into the same mentality? Some of us no doubt are in churches where we have been told that God doesn't speak any more since the completion of the New Testament canon. Miracles don't happen, God isn't really concerned with me, I am stuck where I am and nothing is ever likely to change. Yes, week by week we have nice sermons that encourage me that I am saved, but I am saved to go to heaven sometime. Yes, I can pray but in all honesty I don't see too many answers to prayer. I have things I would like healed but God doesn't seem to be in that business any more. Church is for Sunday services, prayer meetings and Bible studies and that is it.
If any of this find echoes within you, then may I encourage you to think about Zechariah again. In many ways he is like Moses after Moses had spent forty years in the desert looking after sheep. He was eighty years old and had no aspirations for the future – if there was much of one left. And then of course came the burning bush, the voice of God and a commission that would involve him in miracle after miracle and a ministry that would last another forty years.
‘Settled' is a terrible word. It is another word for unbelief when it comes to so-called believers. People who have settled, are people who no longer believe in a living God, an active God, a God interacting with His world all the time, a God who could take and use them to bring changes in this world. Zechariah, may I suggest, (and I base this on his reactions which we'll look at) has settled in his way of thinking. He's got good reasons to think like that and perhaps it's time, age and experience that have dulled his spiritual awareness. Have we allowed ourselves to be put to spiritual sleep by the lies of the enemy and the witterings of the world? The first lesson of the Christmas story says, wake up, something wonderful is about to happen and if you take notice of what it is, you'll never be the same again! Ready?
Lessons from the Nativity: 2: Believe what you hear
Luke 1:11,12 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
I said in the first meditation in this short series that I will not do verse by verse studies here but will focus on one particular lesson from one particular verse each time. Yesterday we pondered on breaking free from a ‘settled' mentality where nothing changes from year to year and our expectations are low or even non-existent. We saw Zechariah, an old man and childless, serving twice a year in the Temple .
But the story goes on and an angel appears to him. Now I don't know how this happened because some scholars of Jewish practice tell us that he would have gone into the main part of the Temple to light the candles, accompanied by two attendants. Now whether they had left him or they also saw the angel we don't know but we are simply told “an angel of the Lord appeared to him.” Now we have possibly read or heard this account at Christmas so many times that we now take it for granted but suppose you had never read this account before and suddenly you read of an angel appearing. Now what makes this all the more startling is that at the beginning of this book, the writer Luke speaks in such down to earth ways about his writing: “ I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you,” (Lk 1:3) and so here now we find this scholar talking to us about an angel; not angels up in heaven but an angel here on earth, talking to a particular human being.
Now I emphasise the strangeness of this (because, in the light of the normal everyday materialistic world, this is strange) because I suspect if you are a believer you have come to accept the existence of angels and that this happened just like this in this account from Luke. Now I will say from the outset that there are a variety of ways God seems to speak to us and if you either get an audible voice or an angel turns up to communicate to you, you are either in big trouble or God is about to communicate to you major life changing information. Most of us don't get angels – but we do get God talking to us and this, as they say, is where the rubber hits the road! It is so common in the Bible that we probably take it for granted that God communicates, God speaks, God is a communicator and people are the recipients of His words.
Now I put it like that in such a general way but in the light of this account and in the light of so much of what we find in the New Testament, I have to sharpen or focus that last sentence and say, and we are the recipients of His words. You see, this is what this is all about. God spoke to Zechariah. That is it in a nutshell, but Zechariah struggled to believe what he was hearing. Why? We'll go on tomorrow to see one reason but generally, never having had this experience before and having in his mind that God sent angels to special people, he must have actually been struggling to believe the entire episode, struggling to believe that this is a real angel and an angel from God with a personal message for him !
This is all about believing that God can speak to us and does speak to us. There are many good Christians who accept all the basic beliefs they find in their Bible but when it comes to it coming up close and personal, they baulk at that. Consider the various ways that God speaks to us and then see where it is that you draw the line. If you exclude any of these four things I am going to put before you, I suggest you need to read your Bible again and ask God for faith to believe it. The biggest and most repetitive question I have from people when we are talking about these things is, “How can you know it is God?” and when people ask that they are expressing their uncertainty and lack of security in God's love for them. If it conflicts with the Bible or doesn't bring you into a closer relationship with Him, it is unlikely to be Him speaking to you. But how does he speak?
Have you ever noticed how verses from the Bible sometimes leap out at you? This does assume you read it regularly but have you ever noticed that? God speaking to you. Have you ever sat utterly convicted at the end of a sermon? God speaking to you. Now I suspect that most Christians are happy with those thoughts, even those who illogically say God stopped speaking at the close of the New Testament canon – and it is illogical because if God did stop speaking this cannot be Him speaking to us today.
To be honest those two ways of God communicating don't require much faith. We've had the experience and we know what we feel at the end of it. But then comes the third way He communicates, personal prophecy. Unless you want to tear out the various New Testament references to personal prophecy, you're stuck with it. Your only questions are likely to be, how does this work and how do I know it is God and not man's ideas. Good questions. Can I answer by a statement and a testimony. First the statement: prophecy is when one person catches a word from God for another that encourages, comforts and builds up; for how it works see the next one in a moment or two. Second, the testimony: I could give you dozens upon dozens of illustrations of things that God has said to me or that I have had for others, that are basic fundamental comforting, strengthening and building (see 1 Cor 14), which have sometimes been predictive and have always been fulfilled. Dare you be open to the possibility.
The final way that I am going to mention is a personal sense of words or a phrase or sentence or even a picture that comes into our mind out of the blue, but which has clarity of meaning and understanding about it. God's Spirit communicates with our spirit through the receptor we call our mind. We think, we ‘see', we imagine, we ‘hear' in our mind. How do we know it is God? Does it bring clarity, does it bring us closer to Him, does it bring peace, does it bring hope, does it release faith? Those are all good signs that it was Him speaking to us. Who could say (read that list of questions again) that any of those things were bad? Even worse, for those foolish people who attribute good to Satan, would Satan bring those good things into your life so you walk more strongly with the Lord? (Jesus also had to counter the same thinking – Mt 12:24-28).
Zechariah struggled to believe what was happening and specifically what he was hearing. It is probable that he was set in his thinking about his life and he struggled to believe that it was God saying the amazing things that were being said to him when the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” This was God! Do not have the unbelief that Zechariah exhibited. Jesus often, it seems, chided his followers for their lack of faith. Don't be one he has to chide.
Lessons from the Nativity: 3: Too old for God
Luke 1:18 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
Zechariah stands out as a man in the Bible who dared to doubt. We normally think of Thomas in this context but Zechariah's response to the angel provides a physical rebuke that shows it was not getting heavenly approval.
As a slight aside (but only slight) I note there is a practice in Christian circles that accompanies the supposedly transparent honesty that faces our failures and our foibles and exalts grace, and goes on to make excuses. It is good that we are honest about our frailty and recognise that our salvation is all of grace, but the Bible does not leave is big loopholes through which we may squeeze to avoid God's chastising. I have observed before that there appear a number of times when Jesus chides his disciples for their lack of faith. He doesn't just say, “It's all right chaps, I understand,” but instead says, “I expect more of you and am disappointed by your lack of faith.”
Check it out: “ O you of little faith,” (Mt 6:30 to the crowd), “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Mt 8:26 of the fearful disciples), “You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?” ( Mt 14:31 of Peter on the water), “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?” (Mt 16:8 of the disciples) In each of these cases he clearly expected more of them.
I also associate this same sort of thinking with those who are profusely apologetic about something, but carry on doing it. I watch someone who is always late to the prayer meeting and who is profusely apologetic – but keeps on being late. I watch the preacher who goes on and on and then apologizes for going on so long, but keeps on doing it despite the general agreement for preaching of a certain duration. Some of us seem to think if we keep on saying sorry that will be all right. It isn't, it is meaningless. We make excuses for ourselves and then think, “Well, the Lord understands.” Well yes He does – He sees you are lazy or indifferent or whatever else may be at the root of your ongoing failure. Yes, let's recognize it for what it is – failure, sin!
As we noted previously Zechariah is probably in a ‘settled' mode of thinking where he expects no change, but now the change has happened and he's been chosen to light the candles and as he does so an angel appears to him. Well if those two things weren't earth shattering enough, the angel starts talking about Elizabeth conceiving and having a baby in her old age. Now I don't know what form this angel took but we should probably assume that he was clearly an angel and not merely someone who has sneaked into the Temple – and that Zechariah realises he is an angel. Now angels come from God so this is the equivalent of God speaking to him. Now if you think I am over-emphasizing this and being too hard on Zechariah just consider Moses in Ex 3 & 4. It would appear that it is not an unusual thing to argue with God and He responds according the nature of the event. For Zechariah it means he is going to be dumb for the next nine months.
But note his excuse: “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." I am now what a hundred years ago would be called ‘an old man', so I can empathize with this situation in some measure but what Zechariah is saying is, neither of us are up to this any longer, we can't do that. It is a common attitude among many who are getting on in years (let alone those in passive or settled mode who are younger!). We were having a corporate pray-over-people time in our morning service fairly recently and I was directing people where to go and pray and who to pray over and one person wanting prayer only had one person standing with them so I turned to one of our elderly ladies still sitting and asked her to go over and pray with that other person. At the end of the meeting she came over and thanked me profusely for involving her and that set me thinking. She was the widow of a prominent church elder in the past but had obviously got into a place where she no longer expected to be included in ministry. Why????
One of my favourite sets of verses (for fairly obvious reasons) is at the end of Psa 92: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, "The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him." (Psa 92:12-15) We who are Christians are ‘the righteous', made so by Jesus, and so with him leading, inspiring, guiding, teaching and equipping us, we will flourish, we will grow, we will still bear fruit in old age, testifying to the unchanging grace and goodness of God that still flows in and through us. If you are a young person, your turn will come in the next study; please be patient. However, for those of us in older age, please be challenged, be stirred as I tell you of my recent testimony.
For the last six months or so I have been leading a Sunday evening prayer meeting where the majority of the people are over sixty, some over seventy and even a number over eighty. Nothing unusual about that, but I only agreed to lead this prayer meeting if I could teach on learning to listen to God and minister to one another, particularly through gifts of revelation. One evening a while back I felt the Lord prompt me to point across the group to one of the elderly but sprightly ladies and say, “Would you like the gift of prophecy?” She looked confused and spluttered a ‘no', and so I simply passed on to the next thing. She missed seeing me at the end of the meeting but next Sunday morning came and waylaid me and (don't laugh) said, “I'm ever so sorry but last Sunday evening I didn't have my hearing aid in and so didn't properly hear you, but yes, please I would really love to be able to prophesy. I prayed over her and then found someone who needed prayer ministry and got her to pray over this person and she heard the Lord and brought what He has to say, simply and beautifully. Oh, by the way she's eighty four. Please never say, “I'm too old” when the Lord stretches out to you. You may be old but we'll see an elderly couple in a later meditation who were still going strong in their old age and ended up blessing the Son of God himself. How wonderful. So yes, you can bless the Lord when you just say, “Yes Lord, what's next.”
Lessons from the Nativity: 4: Too young for God
Luke 1:34 "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
I have never written specifically for the young before, but Mary is a young person. If she lived today I guess she would be part of the church's youth group and as it was she probably regularly attended Synagogue and sat with the women. Yes, I make those assumptions purely by considering her responses to the angel who came to her. She is, we would say, engaged to Joseph (Mt 1:18 / Lk 1:27) but unlike the unwise behaviour of many young people today she did not have a physical relationship with him (Lk 1:27)
Now see what happened: “The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (v.28) Now all that is, is a friendly greeting, but note Mary's response: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” (v.29) We aren't told she was afraid because he was an angel but simply disturbed by being described as one who is ‘highly favoured' by God and that God is with her. Now I have watched a sufficient number of people receiving prophetic words to know that this is not an uncommon reaction. Who am I? You say that God loves me and I am special? You say He has plans and purposes for me? Me???? These are all common responses and they come from people who are either physically young (like Mary) or spiritually young, people who don't know who they are in Christ. Low self esteem is not just the prerogative of the world; it is common in the church where people are not well taught and do not realise who they are – people loved by God.
So the angel reassures her: “ But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.” (v.30) But that may not help, that may need explanation, so he provides it: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.31-33) That is supposed to reassure her??? You're going to have a baby, and not just any old baby, a very special baby who will become a mighty king, a mighty deliverer (for that's what Jesus means).
Now at that point she has a problem, not because she doesn't believe him but simply because she can't see how such a thing can be. I mean, she's only engaged, so will this happen after they are married, and what about this mighty king thing, Joseph is only a carpenter (maybe just an apprentice)? So she questions him (v.34) and he explains it will be a work of God enabling her to conceive without Joseph (v.35-37). Her response is what marks her out: “I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said.” (v.38) Now I have done what I said I would not do with these studies – go through verse by verse – because I wanted you to see that she is an ordinary person with ordinary natural responses. As I said, the thing that marks her out is her response – willing availability to the will of God that is beyond her ability!
Now I have already told you of the responses that I often observe when prophetic words are brought to people and we've already seen how Zechariah was so locked into his ‘settled' state that unbelief prevailed and he couldn't believe it without something dramatic happening to him – which it did, when he was made dumb. But Mary isn't locked into that feeling. Yes, she feels inadequate and maybe even embarrassed when she is told she has found favour with God (God likes you!), and she would like to know how practically such a thing could happen, but once she's told, her response in modern terminology might be, “Right, let's go for it! I don't understand how it can be, but if God says it, I'll go for it.”
So are you a young person, a young in heart Christian, or a young Christian, and suppose I wander up to you and say, “God's got some great stuff for you and wants to do some great things through you to build his kingdom,” what would your response be? If it is simply, “Great let's go for it,” then excellent! However if it is the more common, “You what? Me? You've got to be joking,” then we have some work to do!
The two big questions that must come before you are, (1) do you want your life to be a mundane materialistic life that leaves you feeling bored and unfulfilled by middle age, or do you want to be available for God to take you, teach you, build faith in you, equip and empower you and use you? and (2) do you actually believe in the God of the Bible who has the power to equip and transform and invites us to join him in changing this world?
The first question is about basic life ambitions and availability and the second question is about belief and faith. The answers for the first question tend to be clear cut: either you go for God and for a fulfilling life, or you go with the world, have a sham Christianity and die unfulfilled. It IS that simple. The second question is really about building a foundation on which to have a positive answer to the first question. If you are not sure about God then study the Bible on a regular basis, pray on a regular basis and watch your faith level rise. Use these meditations by all means and the series to follow this one in a week or so will all be about the God of transformation which should also help your faith grow.
Mary is a challenge to us with her simple availability to God and she provides an example to follow. Her obedience opened the way for the Son of God to come to the earth and for salvation to come to all who would receive it. Her obedience enabled the kingdom of God to be seen on earth.
To think on: our obedience will open the way for Jesus to come and move through us and be expressed on the earth thus revealing the kingdom of God to the world. You are never too young – physically or spiritually to let that happen. You have plenty of time to learn along the way but it starts with availability and willingness to let God do what only He can do in and through you. Go for it!
Lessons from the Nativity: 5: Open for Grace?
Matt 1:19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
As Christians we would claim to be the righteous of God, for God has so declared us through the work of Christ on the Cross. We work to maintain that righteousness by standing in opposition to wrong ways of the world and the ways of the enemy. We seek to be Christ-like, we seek to be obedient and we seek to be honest, full of integrity and honourable. They are all part of the package and it is good.
In that sense we are just like Joseph. He is a good man and he is engaged to a good woman, or so he thinks, but then one day (we assume because we are not told the details of how this worked out) Mary shared with him what had happened to her. An angel? We haven't had any contact with God or angels or prophets for over 400 years. If you had to make up an excuse to cover up your indiscretion – and I can't imagine how you did this and let this happen – you could have come up with something better; you could have said you were raped by an unknown assailant, but to make up this cock and bull story that is just so unbelievable……
But he ponders on this. This is the girl I was going to marry. How could she do this? There is no way we can continue with our wedding arrangements, there is no way that I could marry her knowing she is carrying the child of another man…. what man? But she is still the one I was going to marry and she may have let me down but I don't have to let her down. I'll simply divorce her, break off our engagement, quietly. At least I won't make a big thing of it publicly. That's how righteous people deal with bad things, we do it with grace. And so there it was, the decision was made.
But then he started dreaming and the dream was so vivid that he remembered every word, every syllable, every little bit of it. An angel – oh no, not an angel again – yes, an angel appears in the dream and tells him this baby is a work of God not of man and that he must marry Mary and look after this very special baby.
Now here's where it gets tricky because righteous people are told to live according to God's words and not by emotions. Righteous people know what is right and what is wrong and that is the end of it. But then we come across this thing that we stumbled around a couple of meditations back, the question of whether God speaks to us today. Was this dream just wishful thinking or was it truly a dream from heaven? Why didn't the angel appear directly to Joseph in the same way he did to Mary, the sceptic might ask? How do we know this dream is from God? Surely God's word, the Law, is quite specific that there shall be no adultery (Ex 20:14), and if a man had laid with a virgin he should marry her (Ex 22:16) and the law of divorce was simple enough (Deut 24:1-). It's all there surely, it is quite specific.
But what if this was God? Would God do such a thing? I've never heard of such a thing happening before; why should it happen now? Faith comes from hearing the word of God and if God speaks, faith is responding to that – but was this God? We don't know what it was that convinced Joseph but thankfully he believed and obeyed the instructions that had come to him through a dream. Later on it's going to be another dream that gets Joseph to take his little family to Egypt to protect them from Herod (Mt 2:13). Somehow this righteous man is open to being spoken to through dreams.
How many of us, I wonder, would make major life changes as a result of a dream? Yes, Joel prophesied that old men would dream dreams (Acts 2:17, Joel 2:28) but when those dreams appear to go against the Law, against the declared will of God, how does that work? All we can say is that somehow something of this dream convinced Joseph to respond and act in faith, but we aren't told what that thing is. (There is also a clue in the word ‘appears').
So let me make a suggestion about it. Maybe, just maybe, this righteous man was also a young man full of grace. Grace in this sense means that godly characteristic that thinks well of people and wishes well for people and seeks to do well by people. Not all righteous people have grace. Righteousness without grace can be cold, formal and heartless – the Law says this so I'll do it. Grace says, is there someway in the midst of this that God wants to bring blessing to this people or this situation? Thus when Joseph hears the angel declare the baby is of God, he finds a tremendous sense of relief and he has the gift of faith and believes and is willing to respond accordingly. There is a feeling about the goodness of God about this message: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Wow! Awesome! Incredible! But how wonderful! Wow, this IS God! And grace triumphs over righteousness (and personal feelings), and so Jesus has the human protective guardian that he needs.
The only time I have found myself in such a situation was many years ago and also involved the matter of divorce. I believed (and still do) that divorce is a tragedy to be avoided if at all possible, and something that grieves God (see Mal 2:16). Jesus pointed out that God through Moses permitted divorce because of hardness of heart (Mt 19:8), i.e. if you are so hard hearted you cannot receive counsel and reconciliation then it is better that you divorce, but I was still part of the righteous church that heard God say, “I hate divorce,” and that was as good as the Law. But then we had these two very godly people in our church, both single, and both in middle age. He had been divorced many years before he become a Christian. Her history was that her husband had abandoned her and despite her desire for reconciliation he forced through a divorce after five years. To cut a long and beautiful story short, they came to me and asked me to marry them. I am against divorce, God hates divorce, and so what about marrying two divorcees? The Law in me said no but I did go away and pray about it and while praying heard very clearly the voice I have learned is the Lord's saying, “You will marry them.” Well we did and they have had many happy years of married life as two strong Christians.
The thing about Joseph (and what I came to see despite my legalistic perspective) is that God ‘permitted' divorce which is different from saying God ‘demanded' divorce. Joseph didn't HAVE to divorce Mary but it was a major act of grace and faith for him to many her and be a father to this child that was not his in a physical sense. Joseph believed on the basis of a dream and that belief was grace incarnate to provide protection for grace incarnate in the crib.
May I ask, ever so gently, are you a legalistic Christian whose life is based on the Law, or are you a grace and faith person, who is open for God to prompt them into gracious and grace-filled activity of bringing His blessing into the lives of those who do not appear lovely or who do not appear righteous? I just leave it with you to ponder on, if you will.
Lessons from the Nativity: 6: God's Confusing Will
Luke 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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
The problem, I believe, of going to Nativity plays at school each year, or watching Christmas films on TV, is that we get soaked with sentimentality and lose the reality of the Christmas story. It is not a story of warm fuzzy feelings, it is a story of uncertainties, and in that respect it reflects how life really is, especially when it comes to God. If you come from a church background where all you hear are nice warm words of how wonderful the Christian life is, it is time to grow up and face reality. Consider what I am saying in the light of the nativity story.
First we've seen poor old Zechariah struggling and failing to cope with God's arrival and God's good news. It's beyond his comprehension. Come on now, how many of us struggle with the wonder of God's love for us and struggle to accept the good things said to us about His good desires for us? Then there is young Mary being invited into the world of impossibility and who knows where that will lead! Then we saw Joseph struggling to maintain his righteousness but submitting to grace and no doubt still left with a bunch of questions about the past and the future.
And then the great and mighty Roman emperor wades in: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” (Lk 2:1) Brilliant! That will mean upheaval for millions of people. Why not count them where they live, why insist they go back to their town of origin to be counted? ‘Augustus' simply means ‘exalted one' and was a title given to him by the Roman senate in 27 BC. Without doubt he was a great and might ruler who did much for Rome but at the moment he is doing no favours for this young couple we have been considering. Time has moved on and Mary is well advanced in her pregnancy – not the best time for travelling. There they are settling in to accept God's will up there in Nazareth up in Galilee, but Joseph's origins were in Bethlehem in the south in Judea, some eighty miles away. Eighty miles without modern public transport when you are nearly nine months pregnant is not fun! And this is the will of God?
Little did they realise there were big prophetic dynamics at work here. Long back Micah had prophesied, “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,” (Mic 5:2) but actually was Micah simply seeing how Augustus would act and what he would cause to come about? Or was there more about associating Bethlehem with king David so that this one, naturally descended at least from David would be known as the Son of David? There are spiritual interweavings here that are not clear, but that is so often how it is with the will of God. So often He speaks His will but it is unclear how it will work out; the end product is spoken out but the process has to be walked by faith.
And that is how it is for this young couple. They have both had angelic encounters and so both have had direction from heaven, but the way ahead was not spelled out; they have to live within the life circumstances that are being played out around them, and they are both inconvenient and confusing and, in the light of Mary's state, worrying. Will she have the baby on the journey which may well take her a week to do? Where will they stay when they get there? How long will they have to stay there? Where will she be able to have her baby? These are all good and valid questions, questions which will not get answers until they happen!
If you complain about living in a day when so often it is morally questionable, where Satan so often seems to have the upper hand and the world seems to be going crazy, where possible world-wide terrorism has cast a shadow of fear, where climate change seems to have brought uncertainty and chaos for many people, then look again at this most important couple, heralding the Son of God into the world, and think again. Their uncertainties were different – they are in every age – but uncertainties there were because it is a Fallen World and things go wrong and people do nasty or inconvenient things; that's just how it is.
But in the midst of this – and this IS the reality – God is sovereign and He is working. Yes, He has worked in Mary to enable her to conceive, He has worked in Joseph to get him to accept it, He is working in Wise Men who are probably just about starting out on their quest, He will work in the heart of an innkeeper to provide somewhere for them to stay, whether it was a back stable or a cave, whatever! He will be working with some shepherds to come and greet the new baby and He will work in the wise men of Jerusalem to guide the Magi to their destination, and He will work in Joseph to get him to escape with his little family to Egypt. Oh yes, it may be confusing, it may be chaotic, but hold on to this fundamental truth – God IS in the midst of it and He is there for you as He was for Mary and Joseph! Hallelujah!
Lessons from the Nativity: 7: Open for the Outcast?
Luke 2:8,9 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
Now there are certain parts of the Nativity story that clearly have purpose. The angel coming to Mary has clear purpose. The angel coming to Joseph in a dream has clear purpose. So far so good. But then we came to the business of Caesar Augustus making a decree that meant the young couple hiking down to Bethlehem, when Mary was about to have her baby – not quite so clear. Perhaps we've moved into the realm of prophetic overtones, but not so clear. And now we come to the shepherds who see and hear angels and come storming down to town to look for the baby they have been told about. Why? There are those who link symbolically the lambs they might have been looking after with the Lamb of God they run down to see, but it is a tenuous link.
I have a pastor friend who talks about the Nativity story being all-inclusive, and I think he's right, I think this is what this bit is all about. Because of their lifestyles, shepherds tended to be on the edge of society. They had to live out on the hills with their sheep – somebody had to be there warding off predators, human and the animal kind. A sheep is valuable and so sheep needed looking after; somebody had to do it but it wasn't exactly conducive to family life. Perhaps that was why in Jesse's family, the youngest son, David, is the one out with the sheep.
There was a time in our society when certain groups were a bit like this, those who left their families at inconvenient times, nurses, soldiers, oil rig workers and the like, but now it is more common with ‘flexible working'. But these shepherds were like that. While the rest of the population was warm and snug in their homes, these guys sat around a camp fire and tried to ward off the cold as well as the predators. Not a very sociable life as far as the rest of society was concerned. That is why they tended to be outcasts, and maybe even sometimes they did it because they were no good at doing anything else.
So why were these men given the privilege of having this divine encounter? Let's look at it. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” (v.9) There is no question what is happening; this angel is not coming in disguise so you might think he was a mere human being. No, God's glory shone all around him which was even more obvious in the night (which it was, see v.8) Now listen to his reassuring message: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (v.10) Note the last bit – “for all the people”. That's it – ‘all' includes you. You may be outcasts but this is good news that applies to you as much as to anyone else. There will be those who will try and turn the Gospel into a religious message for religious people who do religious things, but I know you don't have time or opportunity to do the ‘religious things' (like attend synagogue regularly) but this is good news for YOU, whoever you are, how ever distanced from others you might feel.
THAT was why these shepherds were included in the Nativity story and so why a little bunch of little people with towels around their heads are part of the group standing around Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the crib scene. Actually, these are the great unwashed of society (there aren't bathrooms and showers on hillsides!), the scruffs of society who probably lived in the same clothes day in, day out (there aren't wardrobes on hillsides). Their language is probably pretty coarse because they don't have the refining effect of women around most of the time. Are you beginning to get the picture? I'm afraid the representatives from year 3 don't do them justice, especially when Mum made sure they were clean and tidy when they left for school.
No, meet the outcasts, the people we would rather not touch or even encounter. These are the ones God sends His angel to, and then to whom He sends along a heavenly choir to really give them the full outdoor concert. Awesome! I don't know if you have ever thought about how impacting this experience was on these men. Look: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (v.15) Hold on, what about the sheep, what about all this warding off predators stuff? Supposing you had been there and challenged them. I wonder what they might have said? “Sheep, predators? You've got to be joking. We've just seen heaven open and it was absolutely incredible, and if that's what God says to do, I'm sure He'll look after our sheep for a couple of hours, so excuse us, we've got somewhere to be!”
Amazing! They have just been included in the plans of God. No, not the local doctor, dentist, priest, rabbi, councilor, town elder, not the nice ladies who dress up and drink tea together one afternoon a week and who are so proper. No, we're talking about stinky, smelly outcasts who haven't attended synagogue since…. well don't ask! These are the people Jesus invites to his birthday celebration because most other people would feel out of place in a stable.
So here's the lesson in just a couple of questions: Do we categorize people and exclude some because either “they are not like us” or “they will never be religious”? Do we exclude people that God doesn't exclude? Enough said. Ponder on.
Not to lose contact with Mary, I once wrote a short piece envisaging Mary after the shepherds had gone, pondering on all that was happening. Here it is.
Mary again: a story
I am a mother! I really am a mother! It's strange, I knew I was pregnant, there was no doubt about it, but somehow I almost didn't believe it until he arrived last night, and now here I am, a mother! And I have a son!
And here we are, the three of us. Three of us! We're a family! Me, my Joseph and now our baby, Jesus.
I almost feel that I have been living in a dream this past year. Did the angel Gabriel really come to me? Oh yes, it was so real, so vivid, I'll remember it until the day I die. I'll never forget his words to me. Initially he scared me for I wondered why God should send an angel to me, a twelve year old girl. What had I done? Was he about to tell me off? But no, it had been exactly the opposite, for he said I had found favour with God. I remember being taught in synagogue about Noah, and he had found favour with God. I wasn't sure that ‘finding favour with God' was a good thing, but when he told me I would have a special baby I was overjoyed. And yet I wasn't yet married so how could such a thing be? That's when he told me it would because God would enable it to happen. How could such a thing happen? I had never heard of it happening to any other girl. Was this just a dream, a silly dream? But no, it was so real and I was wide awake. And then I started feeling sick and I realised it had happened, I was expecting a baby.
After the initial shock, Joseph was wonderful – with a little help from God, he told me.
Then I had gone to Elizabeth and stayed with her until she had her baby. That was an amazing time as well. It was clear that I was not the only one who had had dealings with God. But it was still all very dreamlike.
The reality hit when I returned home and tongues were wagging when they saw me, for it was quite clear what my condition was. I knew why, but few others would believe it when I told them.
Then came the orders from the Romans to go to the town of your family and so Joseph had to come here to Bethlehem to be counted like sheep. Then we ended up in this stable and my Jesus was born. Why does that expression ‘a little lamb' stay with me? How very appropriate that a lamb was born in a stable. But he's not a lamb, he's going to be a leader, a ruler, the angel said.
Oh dear, what is the future going to hold for us? How are we going to live? I assume Joseph will carry on his father's carpentry business and we would expect Jesus to follow in his father's footsteps, so I don't know where all this stuff about him being a ruler comes in. Carpenters aren't rulers.
I don't know how long we're going to have to stay here for the census. I don't know what we do about that. I suppose there must be a census house somewhere here in Bethlehem that we'll have to go to and be registered.
It's convenient that we're near Jerusalem though. We'll be able to go and make an offering for our little one as the Law requires, before we return home.
Yes, it all seems a bit dreamlike, but those men turning up last night were very real. I couldn't get to sleep for some time after they left, wondering about all they said. More angels? Angels telling them to come and see my Jesus? There's more in all this than we realise. What is the future going to hold for us? What will it hold for my son? I really don't know and yet one thing seems very clear: with all of these angels appearing – to Zechariah, to me, to Joseph, and now to the shepherds – it seems like God is closer than we've ever known before. Somehow it feels like He's really with us.
Lessons from the Nativity: 8: Open for the Weird?
Matt 2:1,2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, 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 in the east and have come to worship him."
There is going to be what in effect will be a second part to this meditation but we'll have to wait a bit for that. For the moment I want to focus on a particular feature of the Nativity story, the coming of the kings or wise men, call them what you will, and I would just like to observe how we so happily have these men in our Nativity, and yet there is something seriously weird about them, something so weird that we would probably not countenance it in any other circumstance.
First of all let's just note the uncertainty of just who these men were, and indeed for that matter how many of them there were. Our verses above speak of them as Magi but your Bible probably has a footnote saying “traditionally Wise Men”. They are men who have travelled from the east, probably in the direction of Babylonia, historically the land of the Medes and the Persians, and some say they came from the Medes who had a priestly cast who become known for their study of astrology and religion, while others suggest they came from the Persians. The truth is that we do not know.
They came bearing gifts, which we will consider at a later date, but for the moment we will note that the traditional idea that there were three of them comes from the fact that three gifts are mentioned. It is the value of the gifts that has caused some to suggest they were kings, although there is no documentary evidence at all to confirm that.
But note that they come saying, “We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Yes, these were more that astronomers (those who observe the stars in the sky); they must have been astrologers (those to put meaning to the position of stars to foretell the future.) Now astrologers have got to be in the same category as ‘seers' and not far off being related to ‘mediums', all in the business of speaking about the future, and yet we know that mediums were expressly spoken against in the Law of Moses (see Lev 19:31. 20:6.27, Deut 18:10-12 ) and Isaiah had prophesied, “ When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” (Isa 8:19,20). Now some might say that seeking the future is not the same as consulting the dead, but there is a very close connection and so we find that this practice of astrology would have been strictly banned in Israel, yet here come these prominent figures in the Nativity story that we accept so happily!
Somehow or other these men from the east have managed to come up with a conclusion that somewhere out there a great king is about to be born and this ‘star' in the sky is leading to him. So certain were they about this, and so significant would this king be, one greater than all others, that he would be worthy of their worship, that they (almost certainly) formed a camel train and set out and trekked hundred of miles to find him. It is clear from later on in the story that they did not know their destination but just kept on until some further sign appeared to show them where it was. In the event, they stopped at Jerusalem and enquired there and were told Bethlehem was likely to be the place. How they decided that the star had stopped over Bethlehem is unclear, but this they decide and somehow manage to find where Mary and Joseph are with their baby. It is a strange story with lots of unanswered questions. It is definitely weird but we accept it without question every Christmas. What does it say to us?
I would suggest that it says that God can be in all manner of things that perhaps we don't have a clue about. We've noted previously that for Mary and Joseph the working out of the will of God was almost certainly confusing and certainly inconvenient. We might want to blame Satan for stirring up Caesar Augustus into making a decree that might put Mary's life at threat, but the prophecies about Bethlehem bring it all back under the will of God saying, at the very least, that God knew it was going to happen and He would use it to link His Son from heaven with the history of David, the man after God's own heart.
In the Old Testament we see the Lord speaks through His word to Cyrus, a pagan ruler, to allow God's people to return to Jerusalem after the Exile. He had previously spoken forcibly to Nebuchadnezzar about his pride. The Lord does have dealings with unbelievers. Let's face it, Abram probably came from the same area as these ‘wise men' and when he had originally set out from his home it had been at his father's instigation and only later did he receive the call to go with God. God called him as a pagan.
God called you while you were still an unbeliever. God speaks with unbelievers – even astrologers. Perhaps that is the lesson here: God calls unbelievers and draws us into His purposes. Some unbelievers respond and become Christians, others refuse to heed the call and remain unbelievers, but the fact of the matter is that we all start out as unbelievers, and still God calls us. We've seen Him call the dregs of society out on the hillside and now we've seen Him call those who believe in the weird and the wonderful that is clearly deception – even though on this unique occasion God was behind it. We'll see the wonder of the outcome of this call to these astrologers later.
Lessons from the Nativity: 9: Surprising Encouragement
Luke 2:27,28 When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,
We have commented about how working out the will of God can sometimes be confusing and even requiring much patience, and often life is merely getting on with it and trusting the Lord to work it all out. The Nativity story is full of surprises. Obviously the first surprises were the angelic appearances to Mary and Joseph, and the fact that Mary is pregnant without any help from Joseph. You probably can't get any bigger surprises in life that those which these two young people had to cope with. I suspect that for many of us who came to the Lord at least from teenage years on, if you asked us what was coming several years earlier, did we have any inclination of it, we'd have to acknowledge that for each of us who has been born again, that that very series of events came as a surprise. In fact if I think on to all the big milestones in my spiritual life, I have to say they all came as a surprise; they were God initiated and as such I didn't see them coming. I think when you work your way through the main characters of, say, the Old Testament, (true also of the New) – Abram, Joseph, Moses, for example – they all have encounters with God which appear to come as a surprise. Moses at the burning bush has to be the classic one.
The point as I have indicated above, I think underlines this next incident in the Nativity story and which is that life, and especially the Christian life, is never all neatly mapped out for us so we can see exactly where we are going. Yes, in life there are things that are pretty much expected – going to school, going to college or university – yet even within those things there is great opportunity for variety of outcome which often have little to do with our efforts. So for Mary and Joseph they safely reached Bethlehem before Mary's baby arrived. Then came the surprise of the shepherds turning up telling, no doubt, of their angelic experience, but after they have gone and the days pass, life settles down and once the registering for the emperor had taken place (and we don't know how long that took) they were free agents, but the appearance is that they stayed where they were for the while.
However as good Jewish young people with a child there was one thing they felt they should do, and that was take the child to the Temple in Jerusalem and give thanks for him according to the Law: “When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, (see Exodus 13:2,12) "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord (see Lev.12:8) : "a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Lk 2:22-24). The period for purification was 40 days and so Mary would have had to wait 40 days before going to the Temple to offer sacrifice for her purification and to offer her firstborn to the Lord (see Ex 13:12-13). The distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem was only about six miles, and so being that close they would have remained in Bethlehem a little over a month before taking the opportunity to go up to Jerusalem. So far, they are simply acting in accordance with the Law without any great expectations. No doubt they would be looking forward to going up to the Temple in Jerusalem because even though they might have visited there before, now it was for a very personal reason.
What they don't know is what has been going on in the life of an elderly man who lived in or near Jerusalem : “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel , and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.” (v.25-27) This is a man in close relationship with the Lord who had previously received revelation from the Lord and now received a prompting by the Lord to get into the Temple on this particular day. Trying to get inside this man I once wrote a short piece about Simeon and include it following this meditation.
Now I leave you to look up the story and see the things Simeon said to them. They are words of comfort and encouragement and also of warning. He is clearly a messenger of God and at this point in their lives it must have been such a welcome reassurance. No, they were not living in a dream; they are living in the purposes of God, amazing as they are.
Here's the point: God is good on encouragement and so although all the things I've said previously about uncertainty are true, nevertheless the Lord is always there, and there to encourage us. I have lost count of how many times, over the years, I have asked the Lord for encouragement over some issue or other, and it has come, often very quickly indeed – but of course you have to be open to recognize it, but it will be there.
The story does not end with Simeon for the Lord often delights to bless with a double blessing and so another of His servants, Anna, is on hand to carry on blessing them (see v.36-38). We are called to walk by faith and not by sight but the Lord knows we need encouragement along the way and He delights in bringing it. Perhaps all we need do is ask for it and then watch out for it, and then give thanks for it. Amen? Amen!
Simeon: a story
The old man had been praying. He was very conscious of how good it was to live in Jerusalem and be near the Temple. It was an easy walk in each day, to this place where the presence of God was supposed to live. It had started some time back in the local synagogue when the scrolls had been brought out and the Rabbi had read one of those enigmatic prophecies from of old that spoke about a coming one. As the words were read, something in him seemed to say, “You'll see him!” He gently chided himself for his foolishness, “I'm an old man. We've waited all these years and there has been no sign. I can't have long to go. Why should I be special? Why should I see him? It may be centuries before he comes!” But that inner voice seemed to persist, “No, you will see him when he comes to his house.” It was then he had decided to move into Jerusalem , to be near the house of God, the Temple. How long would he have to wait, he wondered?
Day after day he had risen early and made his way into the Temple and sat in the courts in the shade and watched the pilgrims who came, but no special figure appeared. How would he come? Riding on a donkey or riding in on a charger? Would he arrive with an escort or would he make a lone entrance? The pilgrims came and went, but no special figure appeared. Had he come and I missed him, he mused?
That morning he woke from a disturbed sleep. He felt tired. Perhaps, just this once I may stay at home. How many days have I been going there? What's been the point? Perhaps I just made it up. What had Joel said? Old men will dream dreams. Perhaps it was just a dream of an old man, perhaps it was wishful thinking. Yet there again came that gentle nagging inner voice, “This is the morning. Today he will come.” Oh, what am I on about? This is silly! There's nothing special about this day! It's no great feast day! Surely he would come in great glory on a feast day, a day of celebration in his house? “Today he will come.” The inner voice persisted. Very well, I'll go.
He made his way up to the Temple courts. He ached a lot this morning. It hadn't been a good night. He felt highly unspiritual. I'll just sit in the shade and watch what happens. He had been there an hour or so, just watching the crowds coming in, when he first saw them, a young man and even younger woman, more a girl really, and she with a bundle in her arms that looked like it could be a baby. His eyes drifted past them to others following them in, but strangely he felt his eyes being drawn back to them. Something inside him leapt. He found himself on his feet and moving towards them. Is this young man the one, but with a girl and a baby? No, it's the baby! Suddenly he knew! It's the baby! He ran towards them. They looked startled as this old man with a big smile came panting up to them with his hands out. “Please….” The girl looked up and smiled and handed the tiny bundle over.
As he took the child into his arms his heart seemed to explode with joy. He looked upwards with tears pouring down his face. “Almighty Lord, it's just as you promised! I can come home now! I've seen your glory!” The young couple looked on in wonder. He turned to them, “Dear children, may the Lord bless you! This child of yours will be a measuring stick to determine God's people. He will reveal their hearts.” He turned to the girl. “Your heart will be pieced before his days are ended, but fear not.” Just then an old lady appeared at his elbow praising God for the tiny child. The old man handed it back to the girl and then slid away while others came up and blessed the little family. With his heart beating so much he felt it would burst, the old man made his way outside and sat down. Still with tears running down his face he looked up. “Lord, I can come home now.”
Lessons from the Nativity: 10: Surprising Provision
Matt 2:11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh
We thought previously about surprises, for the Nativity story is full of them. The last one we considered was the greeting the young family received when they went to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks for the safe birth of baby Jesus. Now the above events may occur straight after that, which is at least forty days after the birth, or it may be even later than that. The only clue we have is in the word ‘house'. We can only assume that they have found shelter with a family friend or even rented a house for a short while to carry them through the waiting period after the birth. It may be that as Joseph was a carpenter he earned money by performing carpentry services around Bethlehem, we just don't know. All we know is that they appear to still be in Bethlehem when the camel train of the Magi, the ‘wise men', turns up.
Now I don't know if you have ever wondered just why they came? Yes, they were searchers and seekers and they followed a mysterious star and were then helped on their way by the officials in Jerusalem, and they said they had come to worship the king that had been born, but what was behind it? I would like to make a suggestion: they were God's financial providers for this little family. They come bearing ‘treasures'.
Now we don't know just how much of these three commodities they left with this little family but if they had come with a heart to worship this little king, it is unlikely that they would be skimpy in their giving. Now if you go looking in commentaries you will find that from the early church on, scholars and teachers have focused on the symbolic meaning of these three sets of gifts and in so doing, I suggest, they miss the most significant thing – these are things of great value and as such could be sold off to provide finances for daily life. This little family is shortly going to have to escape to Egypt where they will have to live before returning later to Nazareth, and once they get back home they will need resources to set up home. Couldn't Joseph's carpentry skills be sufficient? Even asking the question suggests we are looking for minimal and forget we are dealing with a God of bounty, a God of generosity.
I was cured of my negative feelings about wealth by reading about Solomon and all the wealth he accumulated by the use of his God-given wisdom. Solomon was the peak of kingly ruler-ship in Israel; no subsequent king ever came near him, and it was God's wisdom that enabled him to become what was undoubtedly the richest person in the world at that time. Read 1 Kings 10 and the visit of the Queen of Sheba who was almost overwhelmed by what she saw. Now this is not to take away words of caution found in the Bible about making money your god, and so we are to hold these things in balance and see that, according to the Law at least, when the people were living wholeheartedly for God, His promise to them in the blessings of Deut 28 was that “The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity.” You cannot escape it, and perhaps we have much to learn here. To say we are a spiritual people and that physical blessings don't apply, denies the Creator God who has given us all good (material) things to enjoy.
No, the truth is that by these gifts brought from afar, God was leaving Joseph and Mary with resources which would keep them secure for many years to come. The Lord was looking after His Son.
Now even what I have written above may raise issues within you because in a Fallen World where one of the fruits of sin is low self-esteem, that low self-esteem is so often seen in the attitude of “Oh, I can't do it, I'm no good,” and that produces an outlook that fails to rise to potential. How many of us settle for being something less than is on the Lord's heart for us? Even more, how many of us shy away from thoughts of comfortable provision in the material realm because we have been taught that it is ‘worldly' to think like that? No it isn't! Consider the wonderful world God has given us, full of such incredible variety and He has given us five senses – taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight – all of which enable us to experience pleasure. Yes, seeking after these pleasures and putting them before the Lord is a recipe for disaster but when we put Him first, then surely according to His word, we may expect His blessing on our lives that enable us to enter into the enjoyments He has designed us to receive.
We said earlier that it was Solomon's wisdom from God that enabled him to prosper. Isn't there a picture for us there? Do we read James 1:5 – “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him,” – and immediately let our unbelief limit the outworking of that? There is of course the condition that follows that verse which speaks to our unbelief: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.” (v.6,7) So isn't wisdom a provision of God, a gift enabling other things to follow? Have we become so saturated with the materialistic view of the world that “the Lord our provider” is limited to purely spiritual salvation that makes you a spiritual child of God. Heaven forbid! That is a worldly-cum-spiritual form of godlessness. We push God out of His material world, the world He designed, the world He created, all for our enjoyment.
The lesson of the Wise Men is that God will provide material provision. For some that material provision will be described as adequate or sufficient while for others it will be abundant. It is not to be our goal, God is, but He IS a provider if we let Him. Once we acknowledge that (and this may be a reason we hesitate over this) we see that there must be no limit to what we put under His direction, and so our very jobs, our careers, our very goals in life, may perhaps need to change, for these all come under the ambit of His wisdom and His provision if we will but let Him.
Lessons from the Nativity: 11: God who takes risks
Matt 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."
There is always a tension in the Bible between God who knows all things before they happen (and in fact knew them from before the foundation of the world) and God who seems to operate entirely in the present. It is a tension that has caused Christian scholars and theologians to scratch their heads and argue and disagree. I don't know how it works, but it just does. Now I say this because it just may be the answer to a conundrum that appears to face us at this point of the Nativity story: how could God risk the very life of His own Son to a human being and, even more, risk his life being saved through that human being responding well to guidance given in a dream, because that is what is happening here.
The more you think about it, the more remarkable it appears, that God would risk Jesus safety on Joseph remembering a dream and then acting on it. Yes, Joseph had acted on a dream and so had married Mary. Yes, they had been encouraged when shepherds turned up and told them about their angelic visitation. Yes, they has been encouraged by Simeon and Anna prophesying over them in the Temple in Jerusalem, and yes, they had been mightily blessed by the gifts of the Wise Men, but all those things were others coming to them, not them having to do anything; they were simply recipients of God's goodness. The temptation after all those things was to feel secure in God's provision which had come in so many ways, so secure in fact that they could just go back to Nazareth and carry on life there. That was the danger.
It is also probable that they did not know of Herod's plans and at this moment realise the threat that was about to come their way: “ When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Mt 2:16) If the order of the verses in Matthew 2 is also the chronological order of what was happening, the dream came before Herod had actually got round to taking action because according to his instructions we may deduce that two years had passed since the Magi had passed through, indicating the birth of this threat to Herod's dynasty. So they don't know there is any risk and then one night Joseph gets this dream. It may have been very clear, as we suggested previously of the earlier dream, but nevertheless it is a risk.
Can you imagine a modern Joseph and Mary talking it out – you and your partner. He says “I've had another one of those dreams, just like I had when I was told to marry you.” She responds: “So what did it say?” “Well,” he goes on, “it said we should leave this country and go down to Egypt and stay there.” “Leave Israel ? Leave God's country, our people? Surely we were told this child was to be a Saviour for his own people; how can he be that in Egypt?” Those must have been the sort of natural thoughts that might have arisen within them. Was this dream God? Should we take any notice of it? Should we go to a foreign land? What will become of us there?
This is the risk that God was taking. He didn't speak with an audible voice to them and He didn't send an angel in the flesh so to speak, He simply gave Joseph a dream? Why? Why take that risk? The answer has to be that He knows His man, He knows that this man Joseph is a man of faith who recognizes a divine communication when he receives it and acts out on what he hears. So often I've had the impression that commentators play down Joseph. They say he doesn't feature later in Jesus' life and that Mary appears on her own. The suggestion is that Joseph must have been a good bit older than Mary and has thus died earlier in Jesus' life and in this they seem to play him down as a lesser player in the divine strategies. I would suggest that Joseph did exactly what he was called to do – provide respect and security for Mary, and provide protection for Jesus while he was still young.
Now here is the challenge. So often we would like writing in the sky when it comes to receiving divine guidance but the reality is that instead He comes as Elijah's still small voice, in a way that is not dramatic, a way that needs sensitive ears and which needs faith to respond to, a voice as the NIV puts it, that comes as “a gentle whisper”. (1 Kings 19:12). Wow!
So we're back to one of those earlier questions. Are we people of faith with ears open to hear God who speaks to His people, people who recognize divine communication when it comes and then, even more, people who will step out on the water of faith with just a single word – “Come”? (Mt 14:29) Yes, elements of this Nativity story provide penetrating challenges, uncomfortable lessons.
Have you ever thought that God has all these plans on His heart for us (see Eph 2:10) and He risks those plans on our free will, on us hearing and responding to Him? Of course He comes with challenges like this, to take time out to sharpen our hearing, to learn to listen for God, but it is still a risk. As we are doing these studies near the end of the old year, may we have a new year resolution (that we might just keep) that we will spend more time waiting on Him, learning to listen for the gentle whisper that comes into our spirits by His Holy Spirit? But of course we will only do that if we are prepared to act on what we hear. Both are expressions of faith and both lead us to avoid the strategies of the enemy and move further on in the purposes of God – just like Joseph did.
Note finally, that the instruction was open ended – “Stay there until I tell you.” They did not know how long they would be there, but they went. So often this is how it is with God's communications. Not only would we prefer to have writing in the sky, but we would like that writing to fully explain exactly how the future will work out – but He doesn't do it like that! More often He simply gives us the next step and that is it. We don't need to know subsequent steps; all we need to know (and it is true) is that He is there for us, He has it all in hand, and He will be there to work it all out for us, for however long we have on this earth. Live with that knowledge. Listen, learn what He has to say, and leave the comfort of the present to move into the excitement of tomorrow as He leads you and will go on providing for you. That's what this story says.
Lessons from the Nativity: 12: Now what?
Luke 2:40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.
As we come to what I believe should be the last in this little series about the Nativity, I have to confess I have come to the story this year with new eyes, it feels, and in so doing I have asked again and again, what is this part of the story telling us, or how does it challenge us? One of the feelings that I have found that has come out of it has been the uncertainty about everything and the surprise of the things happening and so, as I have commented before, it seems that so much of what comes out of the Nativity story simply reflects how life is with God.
So the wise men have come and gone, Joseph is warned to take his family to Egypt until the threat of Herod has passed, and then eventually they return to Nazareth and we are left with our verse above. We will hear no more until he is twelve, and then only the record of one instant in Jerusalem that suggests that he is still on course for his later ministry which doesn't start until his is about thirty. All of the dramatic stuff wrapped up in the Nativity has passed and what I find myself wondering when I read these passages is, what must it have been like being Jesus' parents in the years that follow the accounts we have been looking at over these past two weeks?
I expect you can identify with the idea of anti-climax. Perhaps you have a big service at church, maybe it's the Christmas Carol Service, and there have been lots of preparations and you've sent out invitations and then the night has arrived, it's been great and then it is all over. Anticlimax. Another example I find occurs in the life of my particular family. We have family living abroad and so every now and again they come home in the Summer and stay with us for three weeks. After the initial decision to come, we are counting days, planning how we will put them up, what we will do together while they are here. Then there's the last few days countdown and all the excitement, then they arrive, more excitement, they settle in, we do things together, then before we know it we're counting days before they leave, then comes the leaving day and tears flow, and then they are gone. Anticlimax.
Was there a sense of anticlimax for Mary and Joseph I wonder? They are back home in Nazareth. It may well have been several years since that fateful time when the angel first came to Mary. Their friends and family welcome them back home. They are clearly a well established little family and the stigma of an unexpected pregnancy is forgotten. Life settles down… and goes on and goes on…. without any more spectacular signs of God's activity.
Perhaps a better illustration of this anticlimax might be when you've been to some great Christian gathering where you've really met with the Lord. The singing was amazing, the teaching with brilliant and the sense of God's presence was awesome. To cap it off you were given some prophetic words by leaders that indicated a new direction and a new sphere of ministry the Lord was going to lead you into. And then you come home and a couple of days later return to work, with the same old people, the same old problems. Church next Sunday seems flat by comparison with the heavenly experiences you had while you were away. Another week comes round and the memory of that time away starts to fade slightly and you realise again that this is the life you now have to live out, a life of the ordinary, waiting for God to fulfil His words spoken over you in those glorious times. What does He require of you in the waiting time? Faithfulness in the face of the ordinary. He IS working out His purposes for you and you just have to rest in that knowledge. You need to hold on to the memory of the experience so it is not lost in the mix of life. You need to hold on to the words spoken over you and wait expectantly for the Lord to show you your part in bringing them to fulfilment.
Perhaps that's how it was for Mary and Joseph. All that we have been reading about was merely the first stage of the incredible life that was the Son of God on earth. The strange thing about the Nativity story is that Jesus plays such a small part in it. Angels, yes. Mary and Joseph, yes. Shepherds, Herod, Magi, Simeon and Anna, all yes. But Jesus is very much there in the background. It is natural to focus on all of these others for they make up the very environment into which Jesus came, and we have taken them and the circumstances involving them as the basis for lessons about life as a Christian and that, I believe, is good and right and proper. What is amazing is that God planned it like this. Talk about an unspectacular entrance!
Well that is what is so funny about all this – the circumstances ARE spectacular, some of the most spectacular in the Gospels. What is NOT spectacular is Jesus himself. He's just an ordinary baby, suckled by his mother, guarded, protected and provided for by his father, and just living out a normal life, growing up as a normal child, except of course, he isn't, he's God! And that's where our minds really start to boggle because how can we possibly understand how this child can be almighty God. No wonder there are some non-canonical writings in existence with the child doing weird things, things best cast into the rubbish bin, for it was bound to happen that someone somewhere was bound to try to conjure up some spectacular things for the child to do. However, that is the wonder of God's grace, His Son grew in the most unspectacular way, just like an ordinary child and the best Luke can say is, “the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” Enough.
Final lesson reminders? Life is often uncertain, even as a Christian, but God is always there with us working out His purposes. The Christian life is sometimes spectacular but mostly not. In the ordinary times we are called to be faithful and watching and waiting in faith with expectancy that He WILL do what He has said. There's a life to be lived, a life focused on Him, even if at times He seems distant and nothing much seems to be happening. Watch and listen and be ready for the next stage of your life, yes, a continuation on from what has been – but better? Better isn't a good word for this. Very simply there is more to come, and as it comes from God, the outworking of His kingdom, it is good. Enjoy His growth in you. Hallelujah! Right, what are we next going to look at?