13. Ongoing

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 13: Ongoing

Mt 2:13  When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

(Additional Reading: Mt 2:13-15, 19-23)

And Now? When one form of guidance (dreams here) is made so clear, it presupposes that it isn’t coming from any other source. The point I would make here is that, as we might say today, Mary and Joseph are flying blind. Yes, they have both had angelic guidance over nine months ago, possibly as much as a year ago now, they had received the encouragement from the shepherds and their tale, they had received encouragement in the Temple from Simeon and Anna, and they had received encouragement and resources from the Magi, and now all that is in the past. Now they appear to be living somewhere in Bethlehem and Joseph is possibly earning money as a jobbing carpenter and Mary is settling into the social life of Bethlehem and they no doubt attend the local synagogue. Life just goes on. Perhaps they are wondering if they should return to Nazareth, but beyond that, life just goes on day after day.

What???? And then Joseph has another dream. They are in danger. The arrival of the Magi had alerted Herod that he had competition and as the weeks and months pass and the Magi don’t report back to him, he gets angry and is about to send out an edict for all baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem are to be killed (There actually probably weren’t many, it was such a small place). The fact that he says any boy under two indicates that time has passed. It is now time for them to move on. If they stay in Israel Herod may search them out and kill Jesus. They must leave the country. Go south, go to Egypt. That is the message of the dream.

Egypt??? Later, when recording it, Luke will be reminded (Lk 2:15) that in one of those other ‘breadcrumbs’ Hosea had prophesied about the Messiah, “out of Egypt I called my son,” (Hos 11:1) but most had taken that to mean the Exodus, but it will indeed apply to the Messiah. Jeremiah had also prophesied (Jer 31:15) about a time of weeping that would come to this area. They don’t say God made these things happen but in the affairs of men in this fallen world, they would happen. But for Mary and Joseph at this point of time, probably none of this is clear. But he has a dream and that is enough. We’ve commented before that this righteous young man is also a man of faith, just what was needed to protect the baby.

Life has to go on: So they leave and settle in Egypt for a time until Herod dies and Joseph has another dream (Mt 2:19,20) telling him to return to Israel and then another dream (v.22) telling him to settle back in Galilee in Nazareth. The wheel has gone full circle, and the dreams end.  And so here they are back home with a young child and an uncertain future. Yes, they have had lots of guidance, lots of reassurances and it all seems to have worked out, but what lies ahead? The great unknown. They may have ideas but almost certainly nothing as incredible as the times recorded in the rest of the Gospels.

And so: For us, isn’t this just how it is, this life of faith, a life reliant upon the calling and guidance of God? We’ve had the calling, we’ve responded, and then from time to time (when it’s needed) guidance comes from heaven, but until it does, we are left with a life of reassuring faith and trust. Faith comes from hearing the voice of God – whether through His word as we read it, hear it preached or prophesied, or as it comes in prayer or as that still small inner voice – and we respond. Trust is when we hold on in the absence of the voice. That is the life we are called to, a life where we are also called to be ‘faithful’, true to our calling, true to who He has made us to be and is making us to be, true to the inheritance we are yet awaiting in heaven. This is who I am, this is who we are, and we can be grateful to Mary and Joseph for the examples of all this that they have given us, that we have been reflecting upon over this Christmas period. Now we are called to just keep on keeping on, with hearts set on Him, ears open to Him, eyes watchful for His activity, and to take whatever leading He brings us tomorrow. What a life! Hallelujah!

Let’s Pray: “Father, thank you for the wonder of this plan of yours being worked out that we’ve been remembering over these days. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you left heaven and came and lived among us in the ways we have been reading about. Thank you Lord that you do call us, guide us, direct us, provide for us, protect us. Lord, please just continue to draw my heart to follow you ever more closely. Thank you so much. Amen.”

Addendum: Over the Christmas period, at one point, we were challenged to think up one sentence (only)  that sums up Christmas. In the light of that and in the light of this series, here is my offering (and we weren’t told it had to be short!):

“Christmas is the visible outworking of the will of the One God revealed through the Bible, who expresses Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a will that from before the Creation of the world decided that the only way to deal with the Sin of the World that would come with the free-will of mankind, was to send the Son to earth, to reveal the Father’s love and goodness, and then to die in the place of every human who has ever existed, and will ever exist, to take the punishment for their sin to enable them to be reconciled to the Holy God, and thus the arrival of the Son in the form of a baby born to a virgin, supported by a righteous and faithful husband, heralded by angels, shepherds, wise men and prophets, would be the start of the earthly working out of that will in the period we call Advent and the activities that we call the Nativity that together we call Christmas.”

Time to move on.

12. Wise Men

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 12: Wise Men

Mt 2:1,2  Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

(Additional Reading: Mt 2:1-12)

Preparations: Contrasts: black and white, chalk and cheese, shepherds and wise men, angel guidance and stellar guidance, humble adoration and gifts of wealth. The shepherds have come and gone, the little family move from the inn to a house and time passes and it looks like that is it. They will be here until the days of Mary’s purification (as it was called) have passed (Lk 2 & Lev 12:1-4 – forty days) and they can present the child to the Lord in the Temple in nearby Jerusalem. The timing of the arrival of the Magi is not clear but may have been in this waiting time or after – but they turn up without any warning.

God of Surprises: The fact of the matter is that these three (perhaps more) Magi, ‘Wise-men, ‘kings’, call them what you will, had started on their journey weeks if not months before. Do you see the significance of all of this? There are four amazing things about this.

First, they had been getting guidance, God had been preparing them, weeks if not months beforehand and Joseph and Mary knew nothing of God’s provision that was on the way. Provision?  Yes, they brought at least three gifts, very expensive gifts,  gifts that could be traded in for money which could then be used for whatever needs this little family had. They were well provided for by God.

Second, take note of another factor here – these were not Jews, not their own people, these were foreigners, probably from somewhere in the area of Mesopotamia, the place of God’s original provision (the Garden of Eden), the place that had subsequently flourished and has been called the ‘cradle of civilization’. This is God providing for them from a means that was beyond their wildest dreams. But isn’t it so often like that with God? He provides for us when we are not expecting it and He provides for us by means we could never have thought about but then, as Abraham found out, He is the Lord who will provide (Gen 22:14), God the Provider.

Third, the Lord is not fussy about who He will use. Preachers often say if God could use Balaam’s ass to speak to him, the prophet, He can use anyone to bring His word (Num 22:28) but as much as we may laugh at that, deep down we’re not very sure of that. But now here we have men who get their guidance by following a star, a star they are convinced that will lead them to find the new ‘king of the Jews’ who is someone way more important that a normal earthly, human king, one who deserves their worship. And how do they get all this from a star? I don’t know; perhaps the star was just the starting point.

Fourth, they are echoing history. We may not know how they got their guidance but somehow or other, like that other beginner with God (Abram), they ‘heard’ God and so probably traveled much the same route as Abram (but not diverting to Haran) all those centuries before.

And So? Applying these things to our own lives, we might ask the following questions:

– are we open to both poor and rich alike – without prejudice?

– do we know the Lord as the God who provides for us?

– does our faith rely on a God who is not bound by what we can only see?

– are we open to the Lord to speak to us through those who are not part of ‘my group’?

– do we realize that what happens today will be a repeat of what God has done perhaps many times before?

Let’s Pray: “Father, thank you that no one is beyond your love. Help me to have the same heart please. Thank you that you are a Provider. Please help my eyes to be opened to see that provision. Lord, please take my eyes – and my limited vision – off the things immediately around me, so that you may enlarge my vision to be able to see your working in this world. Amen.”

11. Shepherds

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 11: Shepherds

Lk 2:11  Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

(Additional Reading: Lk 2:8-18)

Low Life: Jesus once commented, “You will always have the poor with you,” (Mt 26:11) and poor can have different meanings and different causes. Jesus spoke of the ‘poor in spirit’ (Mt 5:3) and simply, ‘the poor’ (Lk 6:20). You can be poor materially and very often that is linked with being poor socially. Shepherds who lived and worked out on the hillsides in the vicinity of Bethlehem, would, at the very least, be considered poor socially. They were virtually outcasts; it was the nature of the job. Their life was with their sheep and so they were unlikely to be synagogue goers each Saturday and for that, no doubt, earned the negative reputation from the pious, of what I have tended to summarize as ‘the low life of society’. If a banquet to welcome the king of kings was put on by the local town elders, it is unlikely that they would have been invited. I mean they are likely to be dirty, scruffy, unkempt, ill-behaved socially, and anyway, they wouldn’t be interested, would they!  But God likes the low life!

Shepherds: The Story of the angel(s) coming to the shepherds is usually set in the memory with the immortal words, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Lk 2:10 AV) For us today, “good tidings of great joy” tend to be something like, “You’ve just won the lottery,” or, “No, the tumor is not malignant,” and even sometimes, “The twins have been born safely Nan.” Whether it was the ‘sore afraid’ of the AV or simply the ‘terrified’ of the NIV or ‘great fear’ of the ESV or ‘terribly afraid’ of the  GNT, the message is the same, the shepherds were scared out of their lives by the arrival of the first angel (v.9) These guys didn’t do ‘religious’ and they certainly didn’t do the supernatural! And a guy who shines so brightly that he even lights up them is seriously scary and I’m not sure if there are any of us who wouldn’t have felt the same in the middle of the night.

Pounded Senses: Now if that wasn’t bad enough when, after he has spoken, ‘a great company’ i.e. lots and lots and lots, of more angels appear in the sky and sing(?) – or at least praise God –  the shepherds could be forgiven if they had forgotten what the angel had said. Their senses were being pounded by one unbelievable thing after another and so, later on perhaps, when they talked among themselves about this message, it only made sense – or at least warranted them to think about it – in the light of being told about the baby, and then finding him down in Bethlehem. (How? What there a light in the stable, the only light in a dark town in the middle of the night?).

Think about it: You are a shepherd, a non-religious low-life outcast of society, and God’s messengers turn up for YOU. Why me? And says he’s bringing me good news. Do I need good news? What sort of good news? What’s the catch? Then comes, “the Messiah has arrived in the form of a baby.” Yes, right. So what? We’re shepherds, we don’t do the religious messiah bit. Why would he be bothered with us? We’re low-life, he’ll only come to the nice religious people who go to synagogue regularly or do the feasts in Jerusalem – I’ve never even been to Jerusalem and I live just a few miles away, I’m too busy looking after sheep.

How do you answer this? You undersell yourself. First, God is concerned about everyone, you included. Second, He’s come especially for the likes of you, all those who put themselves down, not to make you religious but just to let you know that He loves you and His Son has come to help you.  You may not understand it for several decades but perhaps one day you will. In the meantime, go and see him, and then tell everyone what’s happened.  It won’t change the world today but it will in the long run.

Let’s Pray: “Lord Jesus, your life revealed in the Gospels show us that you are concerned for all people, and it doesn’t matter whether they are the so-called ‘low life’ or not, you love them. Thank you that you love me and came for me, as dysfunctional as I can sometimes be. Thank you for the wonderful news that was brought to the shepherds – you had arrived here! Please help me take in the wonder of that. Amen.”

10. He’s Arrived

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 10: He’s Arrived

Lk 2:6,7  the time came for the baby to be born,  and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.

(Additional Reading: Lk 2:4-7)

How? So Christmas has arrived! It is the day that we put aside to remember the coming of the Son of God to earth in the form of a baby born to a woman, a baby that has been growing in her womb for nine months, just like any other baby. Sometimes we ask God to move in miraculous ways, ways that are contrary to the laws of nature that He has instigated, but instead we so often find, He uses these very laws of nature to bring about His purposes. As we have commented before, He could have just dropped His Son, fully grown, onto the earth, but if He had done that this unique mother would have missed out on the experience of carrying this baby to full term, and Jesus would have missed out on the full human experience of coming to gradual consciousness and self-awareness as a child.

Arrival: And so he has arrived! The background leading up to all this must have conveyed to this couple that this baby was special – they had been told – but when he was born, there he was, just a baby, beautiful no doubt as all babies are in their messy way. But he didn’t have stamped on him, “Son of God. Handle with care.”  No, there was nothing to indicate that this was Immanuel, God with us, God in the flesh for the first time ever. Pause up, if you can, in the midst of unwrapping presents or preparing lunch, and close your eyes and imagine this real, messy, possibly crying, vulnerable and needing milk, baby. This is God on earth, and he’s going to grow up and become our Savior. Savor the incredible nature of what had just happened if you can. Ask Him to help you do that.

Mixed Emotions: I am a father, so I have never experienced childbirth, for which I am very grateful. I have been with my wife when our three children arrived and I understand a little bit why she has a greater bond with these three children; they came out of her and she went through that less than easy process of birth with them. So after the arrival there must always be a sense of relief. However traumatic, or otherwise, the birth was, afterwards a sense of relief must be the prevailing emotion, relief and thankfulness, relief that it is over and the child is here safely, and thankfulness for the wonder of this tiny child. How sad, and I would suggest tragic, it is when that relief is because the child is not wanted and the mother cannot wait to offload them to someone else to look after. But as I have watched, experienced it myself, and listened to new mothers as I have led parenting courses, there is also often a sense of fear: how are we going to be able to look after this tiny mite, what do you do? Often there is help available but it’s not normally there in the middle of the night when the baby is crying.

And So: So, I guess Mary and Joseph must have had these feelings. Yes, it is all very well to think that we had these angelic encounters nine months ago, but now what, is this stable our home, how long do we have to be here to register? How long does the law say we must wait before we present him in the temple to be named? How will we live, how will we survive? And yet I am sure that somehow God would have been there reassuring this couple with their new-born babe. And if for them then, for us today?

Let’s Pray: Pause in silence for a few moments and reflect on the reality of what happened. “Lord, there are times when we are conscious of standing on holy ground. This, I feel, is one of them. We dare to risk remembering your arrival, Lord Jesus, and so much of the time today it is almost submerged in the affairs of the day – giving presents, preparing lunch and so on – and we risk skipping past this holy moment because of the pressures of ‘the things yet to be done’. Forgive us. Lord, thank you for the shear wonder of this unique time in history. We confess we cannot fully understand it, how this tiny baby is the vehicle that carries almighty God, that he is ‘God with us’ and so simply, by faith, we just say a tentative thank you, tentative because we hardly know what we’re saying, but thank you, thank you that you came and you came like this. Lord, for what the words mean, thank you. Amen.”

9. Difficult Times

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 9: Difficult Times

Lk 2:4,5  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

(Additional Reading: Lk 2:1-5)

Why: How much God was involved in Caesar Augustus issuing a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, which meant that Joseph had to go to the town of David, his ancestral home, is unclear – OK, we aren’t told anything about that – but the end result is, I suspect, a lot of grumbling by a lot of people who had to do a lot of travelling. Mary and Joseph were just caught up in something that perhaps most people in Israel were caught up in, it wasn’t just them. Sometimes God seems to care about the small details and Jesus being born in the ancestral home of King David seems to be one such ‘small detail’. A nuisance detail because it meant they had to travel a 90 mile journey – a little over two hours driving time today, but probably between four and seven days on foot and donkey back then.  Seriously, with a pregnant girl just a few days off birth??? Does God make mistakes? No, but He knows what He can trust us with and knew that Mary would be safe. And us? Yes, us too.

The Good Life: Most of us, if we could be honest, would say that we would like the good life, a life of affluence and comfort, a life free from hassle, angst, worries and concerns. If only!  There are people who don’t like me saying this because they say it is a cop-out, but it is true, we live in a fallen world where because of the presence of Sin stuff goes wrong, the world ‘breaks down’ and basically we are all dysfunctional, we just don’t ‘work’ like were originally designed to. So emperors get high and mighty and inconvenience millions but what does that matter when you are comfortable in your palace! So the good life is marred by the sins of mankind and sometimes that means life gets tough.

Any Alternative? Couldn’t God have made the world different? Well of course He could have made us robots, make us have to do what we are programmed to do but imagine it, one day a super-model robot is designed who looks, feels, acts, and sounds just like a human being. Sex might be on the cards, but not a real relationship, because all the while you will know that you are just getting the responses of a programmer’s amazing work. This isn’t real love, as much as it seems it. Any creativity is just a programme and therefore any work of art can never be called ‘great’. It’s these things that make us human. Remove free will and you remove our humanity. The cost is a fallen world, an emperor who causes great inconvenience, a dangerous journey, no room at the inn, a birth in a stable.

The Value: Now some of us don’t like to face this but hardship builds character. Yes, we’d rather do without the hardship but when it is forced on us, get ready for character building. (More than that it creates some brilliant stories when you get back from the holiday that went disastrously wrong!) But seriously, we would prefer a coddled, comfy life, protected from every ailment, hiccup in life and so on,  but God never promises that, because in the same way that a plant grown in a hothouse can be weak and spindly, so a life devoid of the toughness of life, never matures. If you hide away from the knocks of the world you will end up being good for little. A tough lesson but true.

Let’s Pray: “Lord, I confess I shy away from the thought of discipline, I dodge the idea of the tough aspects of life, but I thank you that I am what I am because of your grace that has flowed to me through those times. Thank you that you trusted Mary and Joseph, who were always under your watchful eye, and you enabled your Son to enter the human scene despite the tough aspects of it all. Thank you that you were there for them and are here for us – in it! Thank you so much. Amen.”

8. Difficult Conversations

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 8: Difficult Conversations

Lk 1:26   God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,  to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

Mt 1:20  an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife

(Additional Readings: Lk 1:26-38, Mt 1:18-25)

Continuing: We said in the previous meditation that we have arrived at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. Zechariah was the first of the two face to face encounters; Mary is the second. What we said in respect of Zechariah, about life going on without surprises and thus lowering expectations, must surely be true of this young teenage girl, but after that her youthful response is much different from the aged priest.

An Unusual Conversation: When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary he does not ask permission, he tells Mary what WILL happen. Look at all the positive words in what he says: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”  (Lk 1:30-33) We often say God never forces His will on people but this seems a rather straight forward declaration of what He is going to do. Mary’s only question is how this can come about. After he explains how, she simply responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)

God knows His people: I think the answer to my implied question above is very simple: God knows His people and therefore knows how we will respond and He knows Mary’s heart and knows it is open to whatever He has for her. It perhaps raises a further question: does God instruct where there will be rejection or disobedience? Well, looking at the biblical record, clearly yes. Jonah is another example who, like Zechariah needed a nudge from circumstances. There are others in the Old Testament who were told things but refused them (Eve has to be the classic example!).

So yes, God knows our hearts but if Jonah or Zechariah are valid examples, then He also knows that some of us just need a nudge in the right direction to get us there. So why does He persevere like this? Is it that He knows our potential, knows what we are capable of, even if we do need quite of lot of encouragement?  Joseph in the third of the angelic encounters was a righteous young man and that righteousness almost got in the way. It needed a dream – yes, just a dream – to get him on side.  In fact Joseph was so open to the Lord that four times the Lord gave him a dream to guide him. (1:20, 2:13,19,22) What is it, I wonder, that we need to get us on side, into the flow of the ongoing activity of the Lord? Sometimes it is just encouragement from a partner or friend, sometimes it comes when reading His word or hearing it preached, sometimes it comes through circumstances, but however it comes, remember, its goal is to move us on in the will and purposes of God. Let’s make sure we do that.

Let’s Pray: “Lord, yesterday I confessed to you that I find this matter of calling to be scary, but I thank you that you know each one of us uniquely and you know our potential and you know what ‘encouragements’ we each need to reach that potential. Thank you that you have unique plans and purposes for me (Eph 2:10) and, even though I stumble, you see my heart’s desire to serve you and so you will get me there, you will see me through to completion of your plans for me (Phil 1:6). Lord please do it. Amen.”

7. And so it begins

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 7: And so it begins

Lk 1:5  there was a priest named Zechariah

(Additional Reading: Lk 1:5-25)

Preparations: The years have passed and we arrive at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. I once heard someone say if you hear the audible voice of God you are probably in deep trouble if you need that. Reading about Abraham I was surprised to note that years would have passed and there are actually just a few number of times when God spoke to him. For him, we assume he heard God in the quiet thoughts in the mind (it may have been other ways, we just don’t know), but his was a time of building an embryonic relationship with God. Moses, by contrast, knew all about the history his people had with God and perhaps, because he felt so low about himself after all those years in the desert, he needed the audible voice plus the burning bush – and he had a pretty big job ahead, so he really needed that clarity of encounter.

Silent Days: The fact is that for most of us, I suspect the days go by, just like Abram, with hearing little from heaven. We may be those who sit silently before the Lord each day, waiting upon Him, but even then, I guess, if we can be really honest about it, it is a real mix of those days when we just don’t hear anything (most often), the days when He seems to draw near and there is a holy sense of His close presence (rare), and those times when it feels like He is down the other end of the universe (more than we’d like to admit).

And Zechariah:  I think I’ve probably written it before, but I think we often give Zechariah a bad press but, hey, remember he was an old guy, and he’s been a priest for many years and has done the stuff that priests do and lived the life that priests live, for decades, and nothing has happened. In fact God has been silent in Israel for over four hundred years. Now familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly dulls expectations, so if I suggest that Zechariah was seriously surprised when the angel Gabriel turns up that is probably the understatement of the year.

And would you have been fearful when an angel turned up? Quite possibly, because such an encounter is so out of the ordinary, and sometimes we’re not very good with ‘out of the ordinary’!  But it gets worse because he is told that his aging wife (past it!) is going to have a baby. Right! That is really beyond a bridge too far when it comes to belief!  That also suggests a tricky conversation when he gets home. So was the angel Gabriel being unkind when he made him dumb for nine months? I don’t think so really. The Lord wanted Elizabeth to be pregnant and an encouragement to her niece Mary soon, and so Zechariah (and perhaps Elizabeth too) needed a little nudge forward and that certainly did it!

We must pray! “Lord, I have to confess when I think about Zechariah it leaves me feeling vulnerable. I would like to think I would have responded more positively but I think I may be kidding myself. Lord, if I am honest, those seriously pious individuals who go on about ‘total commitment’ feel a bit unreal. Lord Jesus, you said that, “apart from me you can do nothing,” (Jn 15:5) and you know I really want to be available to you and be used by you so that I will “still bear fruit in old age,” (Psa 92:14) and so, Lord, I really need your help to achieve that.  Please help me Lord. Thank you. Amen.”