|Series Theme: Reality of Christmas|
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 1. This is History
Luke 1:1-4 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
I have at least once in the past written Advent meditations but every year when I approach this time I find I come from a new perspective, it seems, or the Lord seems to be putting a new emphasis before me. From the perspective of a gifts giving, food focused, one day orgy, I do not like Christmas, but when it comes to the Christmas story as found in Matthew and Luke, I find it the most wonderful time. Just how it is celebrated will vary all over the world but, I would like to suggest to you in this fairly short series, how we celebrate it is almost an irrelevancy. How God ‘celebrated' the coming of His Son to the earth is something else.
Now here is my worry, a concern I have for all of us who are Christians, and it is that we sink Christmas to the level of a romantic fairy story. I don't know about your part of the world, but where I live in the UK, junior schools still put of ‘Nativity Plays' by the children which are increasingly dressed up in other guises. It is almost as if teachers think, “Well, we've done this old story over and over again. It's getting boring now. How can we make it something more interesting? How can we make it something that appeals to all people and all faiths?”
So here is my point: this story IS history, it DID happen and if we take the time to think about it, it IS the most amazing story ever written down in history. I always like the start of Luke's Gospel because it is so down to earth. Yes, it does speak of another culture – how many of us have a friend named Theophilus? But it speaks of truth.
I want to keep these studies or meditations fairly short, quicker to read in this period which seems to get so full of activity, so let me tell you what worries me about all this. It is that we Christians ‘do' the Christmas story, year in, year out, and the danger is that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least boredom. I mean we all of us know the Christmas story, so why bother to make it the basis of a set of meditations when there is already one set of such meditations on this site?
Christian revelation involves a constant battle for reality. The enemy would seek to either deride it as utter make-believe, or make it so boring that it becomes irrelevant, or make it so intellectual that it sits in our heads without touching our hearts, or make it so romantic it simply comes with an emotional buzz but no intellectual understanding, or make it so mundane that we cease to worship the one who comes. Can we nail these options on the wall so we are aware of them, and then say, no, I will not let it be like this! Lord please open my eyes afresh to see the wonder of this story, touch my heart with the experiences of the people involved, touch my mind with the reality of the facts before us, touch my spirit to see the glory of the coming one and so be able to worship him in reality.
As a sign that these words mean something as you read them, may I ask you at the end of each of this series to pause and pray something specific? For this one, perhaps words that begin, “Lord, please open my eyes…..”
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 2. Once upon a time
1 Pet 1:19,20: Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Many years ago I first did a study of ‘before the creation of the world' and I discovered that in the New Testament there are seven references to the things that happened before God created anything. The one above tells us that the one who came in the form of a baby some two thousand years ago, was decided upon, not “Once upon a time”, but actually outside of time, in eternity before time came into being (because time only exists where there is a material world, in our understanding.) So back ‘then' Father, Son and Holy Spirit existed and communicated between their individual beings.
Now if you were a new arrival to the Bible and you read the Christmas story, you might wonder how they went about deciding upon these events we are going to consider. If we didn't know any better we might imagine God, the Father, turning (figuratively speaking) to the others and saying, “Let's have some fun with the human being we're going to create, let's set up a scenario that is going to blow their minds away. Let's drop some of the angels into it, that will freak them out. Let's speak some confusing and contradictory ‘prophecy' through some before hand who we'll call ‘prophets' and, hey, for the fun of it, Son why don't you drop in on them to show them how superior we are?” Such a conversation can only come when we are truly clueless about the Bible.
So why do I say that? Because that little cameo suggests a God who is self absorbed and self-concerned and who plays with mankind and makes fun of us. That sort of God sounds like a figment of the imagination that a Greek or Roman philosopher might come up with, a human god. The only trouble with that, is that everything we learn about God in the Bible says He is nothing like this. He is loving, caring, compassionate, selfless, utterly good and everything He does, He does for our good.
A more likely conversation might include, “Son, there is no other way than this for you to enter the world. It would be very easy for us to put you into the land as you are now, but if we did that they would follow you out of fear and that is not our way. We could put you into the land as one of them, fully grown, but then they would say that you did not know what it was to be truly like one of them, and they would hold you at arms length.” However, such a conversation would not touch on the real need, for as they considered the possibilities of creating a material world with material human beings the problem of giving us free will would crop up, the realisation that free will would almost certainly result in ‘sin' and absorption with self to the exclusion of God. But enough of the hard realities behind Christmas, let it come a little at a time.
“ So Joseph also went … to Bethlehem … with Mary…While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” A couple and a baby. What a leap from the throne room of heaven in eternity where the plans had been laid in the splendor and glory of the Godhead. Almighty God, all-powerful Holy Spirit, all-glorious Son, utterly beyond our wildest imagination, with wisdom beyond anything we can comprehend, who bring material existence into being, who watch and wait, and wait and wait, until the time is right. And then on earth a child is born named Joseph and then several years later, a girl is born who is named Mary. Time will pass before the Christmas events and all we can be sure of, is that when they were born, no one could guess what would happen with these two. Can you pray, “Lord, please will you open my eyes to see the things going on around me and help me understand how things either fit your purposes or are simply activities of the world and the enemy which you will yet turn for my good.”
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 3. The Right Time
Gal 4:4 when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman,
There are indicators in the New Testament, that God's timing for the coming of His Son was precise, there was no mistake about it. The Message version has our verse above as, “ when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son,” and the Living Bible puts it, “when the right time came, the time God decided on , he sent his Son,” and the same thought comes through – there was no mistake about God's timing. There are other indicators around the New Testament.
Pastor, teacher and evangelist, Michael Green, in his book, “Evangelism in the Early Church ” suggests there were a number of very specific and very practical reasons why Jesus and the start of the Christian faith came at this specific time in history. This, in itself, is a contributory factor in being able to say that this was no made up, fairy story; these were events in time-space history, events that perfectly fitted in the records of history that we have subsequent to that time. Luke pounds us with this historical foundation in his Gospel: “ In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria .)” (Lk 2:1,2) and then a bit later : “ In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.” (Lk 3:1) Historical events, historical people.
Now all this is very well from an intellectual point of view but if your names were Mary and Joseph you might not be quite so happy with this, because as we've seen before, “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.” (Lk 2:4,5) Mary is expecting but she and Joseph now have to travel many miles to register their names in his family's town, Bethlehem , purely at the whim of an emperor who had nothing better to do that show what a great empire he had. Forget the individuals, forget the discomfort and upset he may be causing many of his subjects.
So, as far as the big picture is concerned, it is just the right time; as far as Mary and Joseph are concerned, it is definitely not! Now here's the point I would like to make here: we may have relegated the Nativity to the realms of fairy story, folk-lore, or children's play level, but the details of the story include many profound lessons. In what we have seen here, the main lesson is that God is never casual about timing and does things exactly so they fit the overall big plan. The secondary lesson is that when we look at our own individual personal circumstances we may not see how the circumstances are right for they may appear thoroughly inconvenient to us.
When we look at the Christmas story as it appears in both Matthew and Luke's Gospels, it is the story of God but a story that involves people and from their perspective things ‘just happen' apparently without rhyme or reason. That is so often how it appears at the moment. So this is very real ‘where the rubber hits the road' of practical reality. It is like it is because God who knows everything doesn't share that ‘everything' with us because we probably wouldn't understand it or even believe it if He did. The underlying message of this story is that we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) So often we have to trust God with only partial understanding and we'll have a look at that faith part a bit more in the next study. In the meantime, can we pray, “Lord open my eyes to understand the times and until I do, help me to simply trust you with what comes along.”
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 4. The Faith Element
Luke 1:11-13 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. But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.
Faith, the New Testament says, comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17). When God speaks (including through an agent such as an angel) heaven holds its breath to see how we will respond. I have suggested previously that within the Christmas story are a multitude of lessons but to see those lessons we have to ask questions of the text.
So in one of the earliest parts of the Christmas story an angel comes to an elderly priest, a childless priest named Zechariah, who has found himself being called into the inner part of the temple to perform his duties. Now there is so much about this incident that we could write a dozen studies on it alone but for the moment all I want to do is observe this old man's response to the angel. First, we read, he was startled and gripped with fear, i.e. he was scared stiff! The angel reassures him and then goes on to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth will have a baby in her old age. For Zechariah this was one bridge too far. He has prayed and prayed and nothing happened. Years have passed and nothing happened. God could have enabled them to have a child, but He hadn't. It's now too late, and so his words are not words of faith: “ How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Lk 1:18)
Now there some uncomfortable aspects to this story and we usually ignore or forget them. For instance, first , do we believe God stops women conceiving and, even more, that He can make infertile women conceive? Second, if God was going to give them a child, why wait until so late in their lives? Third, if God knows everything (and He does) why does He tell this old man this, knowing he is going to reject it? Fourth , if we believe in free will (and we do) why did the angel slap a gagging order on Zechariah and make him dumb until the son was born? Difficulties!
We've got to be brief. First, yes, God can stop and release conception for our blessing. That statement takes a lot of believing and grace if we are on the receiving end of no conception, especially the ‘for our blessing' part. We could write a page on that but space prohibits it. IF He has stopped you, ask Him the reason. If it is just part of the effects of the fallen, broken world, ask Him to help you conceive.
Second, why wait for so long? We can only guess at answer sometimes and so I venture to suggest that sometimes a) there will be a right time that fits in with other things in God's plans and b) sometimes God wants you to see His supernatural hand on your life after all other hope has gone, because He wants to build a high level of faith in you for the future, for the life and ministry He has for you.
Third, God knowing the old man will reject the word. I think sometimes the Lord looks beyond the immediate present and sees how we will eventually come to faith. Fourth, why the gagging order: I believe the Lord sees that sometimes we just need a serious encouragement to press on through.
Despite his struggle to believe – and we so often give Zechariah a bad press – the Lord persevered with him so he went home (yes, dumb) but did what was necessary for Elizabeth to conceive and when the child was born, spoke the name out by faith. He got there! Look, if God speaks a word of instruction to you, it is because He knows you are capable of seeing it through. At first sight you may splutter in unbelief but God is bigger than your doubts and he can help you press through to a place of eventual victory. If He instructs, He knows you can do it – eventually. If He gives you a prophetic word and you splutter over it, there's an easy way (receive it and rejoice over it) or a hard way (splutter your lack of belief and be a Zechariah or a Jonah or a Moses – the ‘Unbelievers' Club', who eventually got there!!!!). You'll get there in the end because God knows you better than you know yourself. Prayer? “ Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil4:6,7)
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 5. The Surprise Element
Luke 1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.
I said as I opened this series that I wanted to confront the realities behind the Christmas story and one of the things I don't think I have ever heard anyone mention in preaching is the surprise element of the story. Our verse above indicates this story is grounded in Jewish culture, two thousand years ago – there is king Herod, the mention of Judea , a priest and the priestly establishment, descendants of Aaron. All very Jewish. I expect there are a few other cultures of that period as well documented but this one stands out and it does so in the form of the Old Testament and its dealings with God.
Except here is a problem: those dealings appear to have ceased. Over four hundred years have gone by since the prophetic voice brought the word of God to the nation. There have been a number of political upheavals over that period but nothing from God. Heaven seems silent for nearly half a millennia.
And then a priest in the temple in Jerusalem appears to have had an angelic visitation, the result of which he is now dumb and has had to try to convey what happened by sign language and possibly writing some words. Very strange. And then it all goes quiet and, as far as the world is concerned, nothing more happens.
Now we live in an age of great communication and perhaps because of that everything seems instant. Those who use Facebook or other forms of social media are rarely without their mobile phone (cell phone) and so a day never passes without some notification coming of some friend who has added some photo or piece of news about their life mostly – and forgive the realistic cynicism – of little consequence. But the trouble is we don't know what is of consequence. I mean what significance is there of this elderly priest indicating he has met an angel? Had he actually fallen asleep in there and had a dream or was it real, and why? What was all that about?
Now in the bigger picture of the ‘after the event' knowledge, we now know that the angel coming to Zechariah was the first of a series of happenings that would conclude with the presence of God on the earth in a new way, but at the time life carried on as usual, and there was no inkling of some big event about to change history for ever.
The reality was, of course, that the Old Testament record had a number of prophets speaking about a ‘Coming One', a Messiah, a deliverer of Israel, but when that would happen no one knew, so their lives just carried on unchanged.
And that is how it is today; life just carries on as normal. How many of us woke up this morning and thought straight a way, “Ah, today an angel is going to come and speak to me,” or “Oh great, today God is going to come and do something dramatic in our lives.” God appears to delight in surprises. Moses is one of my favourite Old Testament characters. I like the way that for forty years he looked after sheep on the backside of the desert until one day he saw a burning bush that wasn't burning. There was no wakeup call that said, “Look for a burning bush today.”
The reality – and Christmas reminds us of this – is that mostly life just carries on, day by day, month by month, but behind the scenes God watches and plans and gets ready. Who knows who we'll meet today, who knows whether it will be a divine set-up, a divine encounter. Sit quietly before Him at the beginning of this day and submit it to Him and declare your availability, and love, even if nothing spectacular happens. I will be faithful today even if nothing spectacular happens, but if it does…… Lord find me available.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 6. Confusing God or Confused Us
Isa 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
We may sing these words and we certainly tend to read them out in Christmas services but they are words, I would suggest, along with a lot of others, that are simply confusing to the human mind. In the Jewish culture it was accepted that prophets throughout the Old Testament spoke God's direct words. Isaiah was one of the ‘big' prophets and a variety of his ‘words' were taken to refer to ‘the Coming One', the Messiah, the Christ, but they left the scholars scratching their heads. Contradictory things seemed to be said – a ruler yet a servant, victorious yet beaten, and in this one verse above the most explosive prophetic words ever written – and yet we so often take them for granted as we hear them read every year.
The context is a word to what became Galilee, the northern third of Israel . A land of darkness, spiritual and emotional, a land that was always first to take a hit from northern invading armies. And then Isaiah prophesies about a great light coming to this land of darkness (Isa 9:2), a day when war will cease and peace will come (Isa 9:3-5).
It is in this context that he brings what surely must be intended to be a word of encouragement: “ For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” That is simple and straight forward. The implication is that the light-bringer is about to be born, no problem.
“and the government will be on his shoulders.” An old fashioned way of saying he will be a ruler. OK, no problem with that either but it is what follows that is confusing. There are four descriptions of this baby to be born who will become a ruler. The first and the last could be taken without too much difficulty: “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor…. Prince of Peace .” The word ‘peace' so often means wholeness so we might take this to mean that this coming ruler is coming to bring great wisdom and insight and wholeness of living. So far, so good. But the middle two descriptions?
“Mighty God…. Everlasting Father.” There is no way to read those words and not interpret them as saying, “This child will be God.” Now for the Jews, aware of their history, aware of God's holiness, aware that the Law told them not to make images of God, aware of His ‘otherness', being so awesome that they would not even use His full name as it came through Moses, this was a bridge too far. This must mean he, the Coming One, will just do the works of God.
But the words don't say that, they say something that is so mind blowing that virtually every religion the world has ever known would deny this suggestion. It seems that this prophecy is utterly confusing, but the truth is that we are the confused ones. On one hand we say that, yes, philosophically, by definition, God must be unlimited and able to do anything – and then our minds stumble – except come in human form.
The point I would make is ultra-simple, so simple in fact that you might wonder why I write about it: it is that all of the aspects of the advent story are so mind blowing to the human, materialistic mind, that they must be impossible – angels, immaculate conception, incarnation – all beyond us. But that is our confusion, because God by definition can do anything. But is this – and remember, this is all about reality – how we view all of our ‘spiritual world' – OK as long as I can understand it? Do we, I wonder as I watch the Christian world today, need to pray, “Lord, please deliver me from the materialistic prison I have allowed my mind to be limited by, when I think of you, and when I think of what you want to do in and through me”? Advent is about God pushing our boundaries.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 7. A Unique Happening
Lk 1:26,27 In the sixth month, 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.
We read things many times and they can remain common. A child is taken into a shop and is shown a stone that shines like glass and they see it as glass – except it is a most amazing diamond. A child walks into an art gallery and smiles in front of a painting of sunflowers. How nice. But the painting is by one of the great masters and worth over a million. We can read things and be unmoved. We can read them, be moved and then read them again and again so they become ordinary.
I do not speak about the baby who arrived from heaven but the fact of a conception that had no man involved. Certain parts of the Church make much of Mary but in reality there is little special about her, and yet for reasons beyond our understanding she was chosen by God to hold a seed that was the Son of God. One moment she was just Mary, the next she was Mary with child. If you had been an observer you would probably have seen no change, nothing happened in the room. In fact we don't know when it happened. Was it when the angel Gabriel was with her or did it happen later? The answer is irrelevant. What is relevant is that one moment she was alone, the next moment Immanuel, God is with us, or at least the seed to make that happened.
However hard we try to understand it, it still remains as simple as I have described it. One minute she is Mary, the next she is changed. God has done something to her and she is different. Philosophers struggle with miracles which, by definition, are humanly impossible happenings. The incredible thing is that, as we hinted at in a previous meditation, God could have spoken and in some unobserved place a God-man appeared, fully grown, but He didn't do it like that. He followed the pattern or the way that every other baby is conceived and then born, except in this case there was no man involved.
This is the struggle to cope with the very idea of the Incarnation – God in child. The One who was the Son of God grew as a tiny baby, with limitations, grew as a small boy, with limitations, grew into a young man with (fewer) limitations, all the while experiencing everything that we experience. He got hungry, he got cold, he washed, he went to the toilet, he got tired and he went to sleep.
I don't know if you have ever watched a film of a crystal growing on a glass dish in a laboratory, stretching and stretching until it becomes as wonderful as a snowflake. There is a growth there that is beautiful to behold. So the Son of God grew in human form. How could God do this? I don't know, it defies my imagination.
But the only thing about every miracle is that it is a God thing. One minute it is ordinary and the next, change! One minute there is water, the next it is wine. One minute a few loaves, the next enough to feel a multitude. One minute there is a deaf mute, the next a hearing speaking man or woman. One minute there is a body riddled with cancer, the next it is all gone. All these things are inexplicable, all of them are miracles, all of them are humanly impossible and yet the Scriptural testimony and the testimony of millions over the last two thousand years is that one minute, ordinariness, the next, transformation.
The spectrum of belief, I have come to see, produces Christians of all shades; there will be those who believe in new birth, and they stop there, there will be those who believe miracles happened two thousand years ago, but they stopped there. There will be those who believed that the Holy Spirit worked two thousand years ago, but he stopped there. Why do we limit our beliefs, when it comes to God, because if He did it then, why shouldn't He now? If He took ordinary people in the days of the Biblical accounts, why can't He take you and me now? He, after all, is unchanging, and so if He doesn't do these things in and around me, do I need to change? “Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 8. Sequence starts with one act
Lk 1:36,37 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
You may gather we are not following a chronological sequence but are merely picking up key lessons about the reality of what happened at that time of Jesus' birth, the first Christmas. So the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she will carry a son to be called Jesus (see Lk 1:26-38) When she asks how this can come about he explains, “ The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God..” (1:35) He also speaks about Elizabeth as in our verses above. Mary's response is, “I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.” She accepts and agrees to God's will for her.
Now what wasn't made clear in that conversation was that not only would she conceive by the Holy Spirit, but she would also start to move on a completely different plane. Up until then she had been a simple Jewish girl who probably attended synagogue with her family regularly; now watch what happens.
First, “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth .” (v.39,40) i.e. she went and visited Elizabeth . These two women were years apart. Mary was probably in her early teens and Elizabeth was in old age, which may have been sixty plus. But they are cousins and clearly relate well together. Whether it is God's words through the angel or the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we don't know, but she hurries off to see Elizabeth . Why? Maybe the story of Zechariah and his angel has gone through the family and it seems only right that she goes and shares with them her angel story. Indeed both women are pregnant by miraculous means and perhaps Mary wants to be able to talk to someone who has had a similar experience and receive reassurance from her cousin.
She goes and when she arrives, there is a Holy Spirit recognition of who she is: “When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (1:41,42) Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit and speaks out a prophetic word of knowledge. She knows Mary is pregnant and she knows who it is she is carrying. What a beautiful affirmation for Mary as she walks through the door. She had wanted encouragement and got it the moment she walked in.
But it didn't end there. “And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (1:46,47) Read through verses 46 to 55 and you find a spectacular declaration, now sometimes called the Ave Maria or Angelic Salutation. It is unquestionably more than a prayer, it is prophecy, declaring the glory of the Lord and it comes pouring out of her, clearly an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Both these women are moving in a new Holy Spirit supernatural dimension. There is a sequence of events here – acceptance, going to see Elizabeth , greeting, Elizabeth speaking God's revelation, Mary prophesying the glory of the Lord – and they all occur because God nudged and people responded.
I have said before I love the story of Moses at the burning bush, but if he had not bothered to stop and look, the Exodus story would not have followed. Simple actions, simple agreements, amazing outworkings. There are many stories like this in the Bible. One little matter of guidance leads to big things. Can we perhaps pray today, “Lord, please open my ears and my mind to hear your prompting that I may step out to do your bidding”? It may not be an enormous thing, it may be quite small and simple, but one thing leads to another. You wonder, perhaps, why you haven't been filled with the Spirit when you asked? Maybe because the Lord is waiting to hear in some other small issue, your words, “Yes, Lord.”
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 9. All of a oneness
Lk 1:63,64,67 he wrote, "His name is John." Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God…. His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
Remember we are trying to touch and regain the reality of Christmas. In the previous meditation we contemplated a sequence of actions. In this one I want to cement together the stories of Mary and Joseph (that we usually focus on at Christmas) with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (who often get left out) and suggest we need to consider the reality of the whole package, if I may out it like that.
We saw Mary go to be with Elizabeth , when Elizabeth was in her sixth month, and Elizabeth was filled with the spirit and prophesied (1:41-45). Note the sense of proclamation about what she said: “In a loud voice she exclaimed….” (v.42) Then Mary had prayed a prayer that was more prophetic than prayer, again declaring the truths of God. After over four hundred years of silence from heaven, there are two angelic sightings and now two prophetic declarations – from women!
We are then told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for another three months which leads one to suggest that Mary stayed there until the birth of John and maybe witnessed all that happened. Our verses above indicate the crucial things that happened after the birth. At his circumcision on the eighth day after his birth, a question was raised as to what his name should be. First Elizabeth out loud, and then Zechariah in writing, confirmed that it was to be John. As soon as Zechariah confirms the Lord's will as spoken through the angel nine months earlier, his tongue is released, he starts praising God and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies.
The similarities between what happened to the two couples knits them together. Admittedly Joseph does not appear to have been filled with the Spirit, but the other three clearly were. Moreover the effect of their being filled meant they all prophesied. And all this after angelic communication. For Zechariah and Mary it had been direct encounters, with Joseph it was in a dream and with Elizabeth it was via the signing and writing of her husband. Remember, this is all before the Day of Pentecost, still some thirty three years off, when the Spirit would be poured out on all the believers, and so it is as if three of these four act as forerunners of what will eventually happen.
For those who struggle with the idea of being filled with the Holy Spirit, please see it as just one of the ingredients that go to make up this amazing story of the coming of the Son of God. It is not the ‘be all and end all' as we might say, but it is a natural part of the whole package, just another supernatural element of this package, which contains from the outset God's supernatural intervention to enable Elizabeth to conceive naturally in old age, and Mary to conceive supernaturally without the aid of a man.
Angelic appearances, divine conceptions, outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and prophecy. For those who are locked into a materialistic mentality, these accounts are challenging. But then as the Gospels proceed, if you take out all the divinely supernatural elements, you will be left with virtually nothing. A little over a century ago there came a rise of criticism from so-called scholars, who undermined a generation or more of believers. The only thing is that these men started from the standpoint that the miraculous, or what I have called the divinely supernatural, cannot happen and all their scepticism flowed from that. They had no reason to do that than their sinful unbelief, i.e. they were unbelievers. It took a number of generations of Christians to pass before some began to challenge their original starting points and point out the folly of listening to the opinions of unbelievers over the word of God.
Why not instead start from the view that just maybe all these things written here DID happen exactly as the text says, and see where that leads you? If your life and the life of your church fails to exhibit the divinely supernatural and the clear moving of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it is time to think again as you read these accounts this Christmas and then pray, “Lord, please take away the unbelief that hinders my life,” for even as in these accounts, the Lord is waiting to do great things.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 10. Signposts
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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
I have this feeling that when we get to heaven the Lord might show us the reality of the life we've lived and perhaps show us His word and say, “Did you see this? Did you see that?” and all we will be able to say is, “Oh, my goodness, I just didn't see it.” I say this because there are ‘signposts' in scripture that point to significance and one of them is this matter of where Jesus was born.
Isaiah prophesied, “ A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit,” (Isa 11:1) and the long prophecy that followed showed that this ‘Branch' would be a mighty ruler. Jesse, of course, was David's father and they lived in Bethlehem (see 1 Sam 16:1, 17:12 etc.) The Jews were thus expecting their Messiah to come from David's family.
Now the interesting thing, of course, is that both Joseph and Mary were from the line of David, regardless of where Jesus was born, so he too would be of that lineage, so why having to go to Bethlehem (apart from the fact of the Roman emperor requiring it)? Well this is where seeker goes a step further and will see an amazingly clear prophetic word that came from the prophet 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. (or from days of eternity ) ” (Mic 5:2) Indeed, when the wise men came to Jerusalem looking for the recently born “king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2) when Herod got upset and sent for his religious leaders, and “he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea ," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:” (Mt 2:4,5) and they cite this Micah 5:2 reference, so it was clearly well known where they expected their Messiah to come from.
The next interesting thing to note is that throughout the Synoptic Gospels whenever Jesus was referred to, he was called “Jesus of Nazareth” because that was indeed where he had lived throughout his life. For some this was a stumbling block as the apostle John showed: “Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth , the son of Joseph." " Nazareth ! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked.” (Jn 1:45,46) Later, the Pharisees, arguing with Nicodemus, expressed the same thing: “They replied , "Are you from Galilee , too? Look into it, and you will find that the Prophet does not come out of Galilee .” (Jn 7:52)
So why this apparent confusion, why was Jesus from Nazareth ? Well Joseph took his family back there in Galilee to flee possible persecution when Jesus was still a baby and they were in Egypt . (Mt 2:21-23) That reference concludes, “he went and lived in a town called Nazareth . So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene .” (Mt 2:23) Although this does not appear as a quote from the O.T. some suggest a) ‘Nazarene' in Jesus' day was virtually a synonym for ‘despised' or b) the Hebrew word for it is similar to that for ‘Branch'.
What is the significance of all this? Well it is clear from Scripture that there were all these Old Testament prophecies clearly stating details of the coming Messiah, acting as signposts, but John's Gospel in particular points out that signs from God are only picked up by those with eyes to see, hearts that are open. We might ask ourselves, do our hearts yearn to know the truth, do we have eyes to pick up the wonders within God's word, or is the Bible just dry text? If it is the later, perhaps we need to ask yet again, “Lord open my eyes….”
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 11. Sovereign God, Responsible People
Mt 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.
There is one aspect or characteristic of the Christmas story that stands out to me and seems to prevail over all other things in the accounts. It is the balance between sovereign God and the ability of human beings to interact with Him and, when you think about this, it is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the whole Bible and, indeed, our daily lives.
On the one hand we have the sovereignty of God. God is all powerful and can do anything. Indeed we did read the angels words to Mary, “ nothing is impossible with God.” ( Lk 1:37) We see it specifically (in chronological order in the texts) with Zechariah being made dumb for nine months, with Elizabeth being enabled to conceive in old age, with Mary conceiving without the help of a man (and possibly putting the idea of a census in the mind of the emperor). In those we have a disciplinary act that brought dumbness, an act that changes either Zechariah's or Elizabeth's bodies to bring about conception, and to enable Mary to conceive. Those are all works of power by God whereby He, if we may put it like this, defies the laws of nature, and changes three people physically. The first two He just did and the third one He asked permission almost of Mary for it to happen, although it was more of a telling of what would happen.
But then the other side of the coin is human responsibility, the ability we have to choose to act in a particular way. Now Zechariah could have gone home and ignored what had happened but instead he communicated with Elizabeth and the end result was John the Baptist, as he eventually became known, the forerunner for Jesus.
There is also, of course, Joseph who, finding out Mary was pregnant, “was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly,” (Mt 1:19) but then he has a dream in which an angel says, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 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.” (Mt 1:20,21) So, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Mt 1:24) I always find Joseph an enigma is the Christmas story.
He is there as a support for Mary. To guard her, provide for her and protect her, but apart from that he is very much a figure in the background, an ordinary carpenter. It is his ordinariness that strikes me; nothing dramatic happens to him – except he keeps getting dreams that guide him, and he responds to them. They are God's guidance that keep him with Mary (Mt 1:20-24), send them to Egypt to flee from Herod (Mt 2:13), then later to return to Israel (Mt 2:19,20) and finally to settle in Galilee (Mt 2:22). In some ways Joseph is the hero of the play though that rarely comes across in Nativity plays, because, purely on the basis of dreams he was there for this little family and provided its protection.
Joseph is the classic example, I would suggest, of a believer being led by God. The amazing thing is that God leaves His Son in the care of this simple carpenter who perfectly fulfils his role. An amazing example of faith. There will be others who similarly follow in his wake, but for the moment we'll leave it with him. Will history record us as people of faith who simply did God's bidding, even when it came so simply as the prodding of His Holy Spirit, or maybe even dreams?
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 12. Uncertain Life but a Certain God
Lk 2:6,7 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
How we take for granted our daily security. If we live in one of the so-called Western nations, we live in a period of history that is more affluent than any time before, and with that affluence comes a measure of security. Yet, having said that, life is still uncertain. We can become unwell, have accidents, lose our jobs, have relational upsets that are not of our making, find ourselves in financial difficulties. That is what life is like in this Fallen World that ‘goes wrong'.
Mary and Joseph are being blown around by the winds of unforeseen circumstances. She is just about to have a baby that it not his. A year ago he would never have dreamed of a future together like this; neither would she, but God turned up and shared His will for them. And then the emperor started having silly ideas like counting every single person in his empire – including in Israel where they lived, so they are forced to trek to Bethlehem , but we've seen that before. So they get there only to find crowds of others who got there before them, but for the same reason. The only difference is that Mary is about to have her baby. End result – a manger in a stable or even perhaps a cave out back of the inn.
If you were making an honest assessment of their circumstances you would have to say their lives are ever so slightly uncertain. Yes, they have both had God-encounters and so behind all the present circumstances, the bigger half at least is down to Him (the emperor is the other ‘smaller half' of this uncertainty). Now consider their needs, because at its most basic, life is all about human needs and satisfying them. They have, I suggest, a need for mutual trust. All marriages are about that and if it hadn't been for a dream, Joseph wouldn't even have been here. As we've commented before he's a pretty spectacular guy. I mean, if your finance tells you she is pregnant and you know it's not you, then that raises some pretty big trust issues. God turned up? When has that ever happened? In the Isaiah prophecies. Hmmmm. And then the dream that seemed so real but was it just wishful thinking? Quite a remarkable young man.
But then there will be the families back at Nazareth , maybe some of whom are now here in Bethlehem also being counted. How much did they know of these things? How much did they believe? What would they think of this ‘irresponsible' couple? Only time will tell. And then there is the question of how they will live? Well perhaps Joseph will be able to do carpentry repair work around the place; there is always the need for a good carpenter. But it's all a bit uncertain and they don't live in an era of insurance or state benefits. Perhaps more than any of us have known, life for them is uncertain. The biggest question mark over them must be over what they have been told about this son of theirs who is going to be a deliverer. What does that mean? What will that involve?
Yes, uncertainty in every direction, but then there is God. For some of us He is a big question mark, the great unknown. Does He really exist. For others of us, yes, we are certain He exists and we can sing, “He's my rock, He's my fortress” and other similar words, but in the face of the uncertainty of life. is He really here for us?
God chose this couple, I believe, because she “found favour with God” (Lk 1:30 because of the sort of girl she was) and he was righteous (Mt 1:19), but more than that I believe He chose them because He knew they would believe. Why they would believe is always a mystery but He knew they would and, similarly, He chose you because He saw you and knew you would believe. Remember that when the days are uncertain. God knows you have believed and will believe. Hang in there, look to Him and watch the belief grow in you. Hallelujah! You are worth watching! And God is.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 13. God of Encouragement
Lk 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
There are two prayers that I know God has answered for me, time and time again. They are, “Lord, please grant me wisdom to know what to do here,” and “Lord, I need your encouragement, please give it.” And He does. Sometimes people say, “How can you know that God is for you when sometimes He seems so distant?” My reply? “Yes, there are such times but there are these many other times when I pray like this and He answers very quickly, sometimes straight away and sometimes within the day.
Mary and Joseph, in this stable out back of the inn would, I suggest, need a fair bit of encouragement. Previously we considered the many uncertainties of their situation, past, present and future. So a little bit of encouragement would go a long way to help here. Now God could have given the innkeeper or his wife a dream and as clear as it might have been, like “Go and tell that couple in the stable I love them and am with them,” they might not have responded. But I have a bigger reason why God didn't do that. It is because God is a big God, sometimes a flamboyant God, a God who really pushes the boat of celebration out; you've only got to read various passages in the Old Testament to see that, or even the times in Acts when He pours His Holy Spirit out on the Day of Pentecost and in Cornelius's house. There are mega-blessing times of celebration.
So, no, just a dream isn't going to do it here. This is a time that is worthy of something far more spectacular. Now if it had been China perhaps He might have used fireworks but I don't believe Israel had them – I may be wrong, but anyway God has got something far better lined up, and He brings it in stages so He won't blow away the recipients. So who does He come to?
“ And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (v.8) I love this! I love the whole Christmas story but this bit I always think is brilliant! Shepherds, because of their lifestyle, living out on the hillsides with their sheep, guarding them and protecting them and leading them to fresh pasture, were outcasts. They didn't turn up for Synagogue time every Saturday and their personal hygiene probably lacked something (no hot showers on the hillside). So, yes, they tend to miss out on the life of the community, but God doesn't miss out on anyone so, yes, in the middle of the night when the baby is born, who else is awake who I can tell? Ah, some of my shepherds on duty warning off predators of the dark.
So, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Yes, well, there are going to be some downsides. An angel carrying the glory of the Lord is going to be pretty spectacular, so live with it, what's a little fear, OK a lot of fear, between friends?
Now there is too much here to cover in one short meditation so we'll continue this in the next one but, hey, here's the point, here's the question I want to ask as we try to penetrate the reality of these things. This angel, and the others who follow, comes to bring good news from God. What sort of God do you and I believe in? Your answer will almost certainly be reflected in the sort of life you live and the sort of church you are part of. If it is a God of rules (er, wasn't the Law the Old Testament?) you probably live a somber life and go to somber church services that are all about ‘serious' theology.
Everything I find about Jesus' ministry in the Gospels is all about celebration. The coming of the kingdom meant, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor,” (Mt 11:5) and Jesus also said, “he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Lk 4:18,19) Serious? I don't think so! Celebration? Most definitely! Perhaps we are serious because we don't have a Jesus who does these things today. Please pray what you dare now.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 14. God of Encouragement (2)
Lk 2:10,11 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
In the previous meditation I suggested that Mary and Joseph needed some encouragement and the coming of the shepherds was just that, but we have first to see what happened to them. We got to the point where the lone angel appeared in all his glory and scared the shepherds witless. But he encourages them: “ But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (v.10).
How we take some of these familiar things for granted! Remember, I concluded the previous thoughts asking about the sort of God we have. It is a very real question for many Christians have a ‘hard' God (see Jesus' parable Lk 19:21), a God who seeks to chastise, tell off and generally beat up on His children. No, the angel comes bringing GOOD news that will bring GREAT joy and it will be for ALL the people. Do you see the strength in those words? Do they make you feel uncomfortable or do you have childlike faith that leaps with joy over them?
The trouble is we know what comes next and somehow the fact of a baby seems to diminish the power of the words I have just emphasised: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (v.11,12) i.e. you will know my words are true when we actually find him down there in a manger, which is not where you would normally expect to find a baby.
Now don't get me wrong because without doubt our hearts lift when we read the account, but the truth is that I often find there is a chasm between the words of Scripture and a person's everyday experience. Note the last of the words I emphasised – ALL the people. There are no exceptions so if you have low self-esteem and write yourself off, I have to tell you that God's plans include you and they are GOOD News that is designed to bring you GREAT joy. Did we have that great joy once but it got covered over by the requirements of pharisaical religion, or even just the hard knocks of life? Have we never known that great joy? If you answer affirmatively, don't feel bad but just realise that God has a lot more for you to come.
See what follows: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (v.13,14) Now I don't know whether this was singing or just an awesome declaration but one way or another this was incredible. These shepherds would never forget this. The sky was full of angelic beings and the message was clear: God is almighty and His plans and purposes are for peace for whoever will come to Him and receive it because on them His favour will rest, His intent to bless them and bless them again.
Now the end of this part of the story is rather good: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (v.20) They found the baby (v.16) went out and told others about him (v.17) but now they return to their hillside, as believers, but not just any old believers, believers who glorify and praise God. They cannot hold in what had happened it was so wonderful. Yes, I suspect Mary and Joseph were encouraged by all this but then so were the shepherds; they were no longer outcasts but those who knew God had come to them – and they mattered.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 15. Is that it?
Lk 2:19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
In our search for the reality of that first Christmas, I believe one of the things that hinders us is the fact that we actually have the whole story before in the Gospels and so we lose the sense at any one point of the wonders or questions that confronted this little family, now in Bethlehem .
The baby has been born, the shepherds have come with their excited talk of angels in the sky and the news of this new baby, and then they had gone, and all would have been quiet again. It is the middle of the night and Joseph and Mary and their tiny baby are alone in this stable, alone with their thoughts. We aren't told about Joseph because it is thought that one of Luke's sources was Mary and she tells how it had been, Joseph, it is assumed, having died before Jesus' final years (because there is no mention of him later in the Gospels). But Mary held on to these things and pondered on them.
How amazing it had all been: an angel visit, a miraculous conception, a dream-guided Joseph, a journey south, the arrival of her baby, more angels and the coming and going of shepherd messengers. We obviously don't know what went through her mind at that point but I think it is fair to suggest that one thought might have been, “Is that it? Can we go back to Nazareth now and just live ordinary lives?” Now you and I know that there are at least three significant events yet to come in this story – going to the temple, the arrival of the wise men and fleeing to Egypt – but this is what I meant about the thing that hinders us in seeking the reality of the day, the fact that we know these things. Mary didn't. The future was a blank page as far as she and Joseph were concerned.
I don't know if you have ever thought about this but there are two amazing apparently contradictory things about God that come through in the Bible. The first is that He is a communicator. The fact is He DOES communicate with us. If you look at the story of Abram, for instance, stretched out over the chapters of Genesis, you see God communicating again and again with the father of faith. The second thing is that although God does communicate with us, so much of the time He keeps us in the dark; He does not spell out in detail what is coming. In Abram's story we may marvel at the number of times that the Lord speaks with Abram, who became Abraham, but then when we look more closely we realise those times were probably stretched over a period of possibly thirty years and so the reality of the story is that there would have been years passing without a word being said between God and His man.
And so we come to Mary and Joseph. The Lord could have sent an angel, following the departure of the shepherds, to say, “In a week's time when you go to the temple, I will give you a double encouragement. After that you can settle here and find a house to rent while you wait for my private financiers to arrive, after which you'll have to go and stay in Egypt for a couple of years, but don't worry you can come back later and resettle back in Nazareth.” But He didn't. Why? Perhaps, very simply, He knew these things were going to roll out before this couple anyway, and He trusted them to handle the unknown nature of their future together. I think that is a reasonable hypothesis, although there may be other things as well.
But isn't that how it is so often with the Lord? We come to Him and find we have a New Testament full of guidance to take on board, and then from time to time there are special occasions when He seems to speak very clearly, but for most of the time it is just a matter of remaining faithful while life rolls out around us. He is there, we can speak to Him and He does speak to us, but mostly it is a matter of living by faith and not by sight. It's like night and day. Much of the time we walk in the light, but then come periods where all is still and silent, like we are being kept in the dark, and it is in those times that we prove ourselves, that we are truly children of God. Rejoice in your present circumstances, that He is there, whether you are going through a light or darkness period; He is there guarding over you, providing for you, and watching you with pleasure.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 16. Life Threads
Lk 2:22 Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord
Human life is like millions of threads growing, intertwining, reacting and responding, each life a thread unaware of the other threads until they cross. Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem and Mary has just had her baby. Several miles away in the temple in Jerusalem an old woman worships and nearby and elderly man looks heavenward. It is likely that these last two know each other but Mary and Joseph know nothing of them. Their lives continue but do not yet interact.
Time is an important factor in the Jewish faith. On the eighth day Jesus was circumcised. That means they would have sought out the local rabbi and made arrangements for this to happen. Then there is a period of waiting. According to the Law the mother had to wait forty days before going to the temple to offer her sacrifice for her firstborn son. The time passes and eventually, to conform to the Law, the young couple make their way on the six mile journey to Jerusalem .
Meanwhile the elderly man named Simeon, a righteous and devout man, a man led by the Spirit, suddenly senses today is the day and gathers himself up and makes his way to the temple. Already in the temple is aging Anna, a widow of many years who spends her life there, praying and fasting. She has become part of the background there. Figures converging.
The young couple arrive at the temple. Maybe they have been there before, brought by their parents. They enter the precincts of the temple and find themselves stopped by an old man. He takes the baby in his arms and prays out loud. He pauses, turns to Mary and prophesies, “ This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel , and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk 2:34,35) or as the Living Bible puts it, “ A sword shall pierce your soul, for this child shall be rejected by many in Israel , and this to their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy of many others. And the deepest thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed.”
Yet again this child is heralded on earth and his parents have been witness to it. First it had been by the angelic encounters. To Mary: “ 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." (Lk 1:32,33). To Joseph: “he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) Then the angels via the shepherds: “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:11) The message rings loud and clear, God's Saviour is here, this is him, this little baby!
Then up steps the old lady, Anna, a fourth heralding: “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem,” (Lk 2:38) or, as the Living Bible puts it, “ she also began thanking God and telling everyone in Jerusalem who had been awaiting the coming of the Saviour that the Messiah had finally arrived.”
Threads coming together, pieces of the puzzle falling into place, people converging, the plan of God being revealed. There is more to come, much more, as the divine jigsaw maker brings together piece after piece and the picture becomes clearer and clearer – for those with eyes to see, for those who bother to read the accounts, for those who bother to think through the reality of these things – the Son of God has arrived and we can never be the same again! Give thanks.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 17. Strange Seekers
Mt 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."
Just when everything is settling down and Mary and Joseph might be forgiven for thinking it might be an idea to think about going home to Nazareth , a camel train turns up with three strangers. They are ‘magicians' or wise men, possibly astronomers, possibly astrologers, not Jews. They are definitely foreigners and they have come from the east. They first turn up in Jerusalem and there they enquire after one who is the newly born king of the Jews. For the present ruler, Herod, this is disturbing (v.3) because he knows nothing of this but, as it seems to fall within the ambit of Jewish folklore or Biblical law, he questions the religious leaders who say that ‘the Coming One', the Christ or Messiah, will come from Bethlehem (v.4-6). Herod sends them on there with a request to come back and tell what they have found (v.7,8).
It turns out that these wise men have apparently been following a star (v.7) which appeared in the sky, possibly a meteorite, which has led them to Judea . They leave Herod and follow the star which appears to stop over Bethlehem , confirming the words of the religious leaders in Jerusalem . Somehow, and the text is not specific, they find this little baby: “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.” (v.11) The fact of the mention of a house seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph had settled there for the time being at least and the fact of the mention of child and mother but no mention of Joseph, may suggest that Joseph was out working.
We very often focus on the three gifts but the easiest thing to say is that here were three gifts, expensive gifts, that could be easily sold and converted into money to keep them going in their travels, in the near future at least. These three men are God's material provision for this little family. Now let's note various thing about their coming and going. (We assume three men because of three gifts, but there may have been more).
First , they are foreigners. This shatters the Jewish illusion that they were the only people God speaks to. God is concerned for all of His world, people of every nationality.
Second , their means of guidance is somewhat strange to say the least. As good Christians, we might think that the Bible is God's only way of communicating with people. It is not. It is our primary and essential source of our knowledge of Him and His purposes but this does not stop Him communicating with people through other means. Next to the Bible we would say the Holy Spirit is the second primary source of God's communication and as critical as He is to our relationship with the Lord, He is not the only other way God speaks. God's word – Old Testament prophecy – was involved here, but these seekers from the east also used signs – the star – and inevitably the sense that God gave each of them about this quest – maybe by direct communication that we might say was the Holy Spirit. The Lord speaks through many ways and the important thing is that we be open to hear what He wants to say to us, however He chooses to speak to us
Third , they come confirming the message heard previously, this child is a king and one worthy of worship – more than a mere human king, for only God deserves worship.
Fourth , they are sent on their way with a warning dream, a dream that says avoid Herod, so they obey it and do. These are men of faith, people who hear God, respond to God and worship God. May that be said of us as well.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 18. Pushed Around or Gently Led
Mt 2:13 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 are various question marks over this part of the Christmas story. Joseph's dream appears to come before Herod takes action. The Lord clearly knows what Herod is going to do. We might be tempted to ask, why didn't the Lord kill Herod rather than let Herod order the killing of many young children? An answer might be because He might kill off Herod but another member of Herod's family would just step into his place and do the same thing. It is the quandary we have about a sovereign God who ‘has' to allow sinful men their say, although there are clearly times when He does step in and bring judgment. It is an unanswered question, I suggest, in this case. The bigger question is why does God not stop all wars, all violence and all oppression?. The answer is found in the reality of free will and God's desire to respect that even when evil follows. Without free will good things cannot be seen as good things.
But a bigger reality that nags at me in this story is how do Mary and Joseph feel about all this? It almost seems like they are pawns being pushed around a chess board. First the emperor issues an edict that requires them to leave their home at a most inconvenient time and now the local ‘king' is about to embark on an act of genocide that will require them to flee the land. For the couple chosen to host the coming of the Son of God, this seems tough and they might have expected better.
However, as we have already seen, the act of the emperor simply highlights who Jesus is as far as human genealogy and Old Testament prophecy goes, and that was to help those who had eyes to see. Herod is simply the sinful act of a sinful man, no doubt egged on by Satan, to seek to thwart the will of God as He seeks to bring His Son into the world to start the redeeming process that will follow. But yes, if you were so inclined you might want to grumble at being pushed around the world at the whim of powerful people – but then isn't life so often so like that in this Fallen World?
On the other hand, as they reflect back on all the communications that have come either directly or indirectly from heaven – angel instructions, Spirit conception, family & Holy Spirit encouragements, angelic and shepherd encouragements, Temple and Holy Spirit encouragements, wise men encouragements and now, finally it seems, dream guidance yet again – all of this is amazing leading. Looking back over the story I can see eight times when God has been involved bringing them guidance or encouragement so far.
Now to be fair, when it comes to seeing how this can be applied to us today, we have to acknowledge that angelic guidance tends to be fairly rare. It does seem that God saves angelic usage for major or serious affairs. Nevertheless, I can see at least four instances of the Holy Spirit's participation (it may be six) in all of this and there we may be on more familiar ground.
I have sought to ask a question of us with each of these studies or reflections so here is this one: recognising that we are living in a Fallen World, do we have more a sense of being pushed around by the circumstances of this Fallen World and the people in it, or do we have a sense of the hand of God overshadowing our lives, guarding and protecting us, and providing for us, and guiding us? Have we learned to have an open ear to the Lord so that He may speak to us either through His word or by His Spirit, bringing guidance and reassurance? These are to the sort of challenges and encouragements that perhaps should come to us as we near the end of these reflections on the realities of the Christmas story.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 19. Christmas equals Change
Jer 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
If we look at the whole Christmas story as recounted by Matthew and Luke, there is one thing above all else that stands out. It is about a series of events that must have stretched out a little over twelve months. In the previous meditation we left the young family escaping to Egypt . After a couple of years they will get the ‘all-clear' and can return to Nazareth where they will settle and the boy Jesus will grow up.
But a little over twelve months back, none of this had happened and there was no warning of what was about to happen. Zechariah had not seen his angel, Mary had not seen her angel, Joseph had not had his dream, Mary had not conceived, the emperor had not sent them to Bethlehem , the baby had not been born, the shepherds had not come, Simeon and Anna had not greeted them, and the wise men had not come. No, twelve months or so back, none of that had happened.
So here is the thing that stands out – the Christmas story is all about change, change that took place in the lives of many people. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph are the key players and they experience the biggest changes, but then there were the shepherds, Simeon, Anna and the wise men, and none of them would ever be the same either.
Look back over your past twelve months and your life will almost certainly be summed up in the same way – change. Circumstances, things happened, maybe babies being born, maybe people dying, maybe changes in schools or workplaces. Maybe marriages and, tragically, maybe divorces. We are not the same people today that we were twelve months ago.
But if that is the big thing that stands out, there is something else that is equally important but not so obvious, and it is the hand of God working out His plans and purposes as He works to bring about His will on earth. What was that will in the Christmas story? It was to bring Jesus into the lives of all these people. What is His will today? It is to bring Jesus into the midst of all of our lives. For those of us who already know Him, it is to know Him more. For those around us who don't know Him, His desire is that they do come to know Him.
Within those broad sweeps of His will there may be a myriad of smaller details that are involved in bringing those big sweeps about. He may not bring about the bad things that go on around us – for we live in a fallen world where things go wrong because of the presence of Sin and Satan – but He will work in the midst of them to bring about His primary goals. He may not have prompted the emperor to issue the edict that affected Mary and Joseph, but at the very least He knew it would happen and used it for His bigger purposes. He certainly didn't prompt Herod to come after all the baby boys, but He certainly knew about it, and was there guarding, protecting and guiding this little family.
So here is the big picture view of Christmas. It is not about presents and parties, about food and drink, it is all about the changes that go on in lives prompted by God as he works out His will on the earth. It says to us that this is how life is, full of constant change, but behind it there is the Lord subtly working out His plans and purposes for the earth, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That is God's intent for the earth, for the world and its people who have fallen and turned their back on Him. It is to say, “I am still here, I still love you and I still want to draw you to myself for I have so many good things on my heart for you if you will only receive them.” May we each hear that voice.
Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 20. Advent equals a changing Jesus
Lk 2:40-42 the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him…. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom.
There is a danger with a series like that reflects on the wonder and reality of Christmas. It is that we only see Jesus as a little baby and get all warm and mushy about him and have nice romantic feelings that fail to develop to see the full picture.
The full picture starts with the glorious Son of God in heaven with his Father. Jesus indicated very clearly that he had come down from heaven where he had lived, full of glory before hand (see Jn 6:33,38, 17:5). John in his Gospel (Jn 1:1-3) and the writer to the Hebrews (Heb 1:2) reveal Jesus as co-Creator with His Father. That was Jesus before he came as a baby.
But then comes the human stages that we have been observing, coming as a baby born of the virgin Mary, who then grows up (see our verses above). Then about the age of thirty he started his three year ministry culminating in his death on the Cross, followed by the resurrection and then the ascension, his return to heaven where he sits with his Father, ruling in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2)
In those three years of his ministry we see a figure so different from that helpless babe. We see him as master of the wind and the waves, manufacturer of wine and bread, healer of the sick, one who raises the dead, one who fearlessly confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and religious establishment and who then courageously faces his own impending execution. Oh yes, very different from the ‘meek and mild' infant we observe in the Christmas story.
But it doesn't end there. See him as he reveals himself to his servant John on the Isle of Patmos. “ among the lamp-stands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev 1:13-18) Unquestionably the description, “I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever,” must apply to the ascended Jesus who stands before John in his vision as a wise elder-priest but unlike any human. This is the One who is Lord of all, head of the Church, yes, but even more than that, the One who has ultimate say over life and death.
Later John was to see him standing before the throne of God as the Lamb of God, the only one worthy to undo the scroll of end-time history. (See Rev 4). Even later he is revealed as the coming conquering king before whom all will bow (see Rev 19).
This is the same Jesus we have been considering in these reflections on the Christmas story but it is, in reality, only a tiny part of the overall picture, a wonderful and glorious part certainly, a part involving specific human individuals and they (and this is the wonder) contribute to the working out of the overall purposes of God. So, likewise, you and I do the same as we work out, live out, our lives with Him as He uses us to contribute to the working out of His overall purposes. You may read this and Christmas is either past or even long distant, but the truths remain the same. Marvel at the wonder of the plans and purpose of God, worked out in the players of the Christmas story, but remember, He is still doing it today, with you and me. Hallelujah!