11. Bring on the Oldies

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

11. Bring on the Oldies

Lk 2:25,26   Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Lk 2:36,37 There was also a prophet… She was very old …. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.

 Continuation: We carry on past ‘the Christmas day’ because there are yet to be seen two more things that I believe should be included to round off the Christmas story, neither of which tend to be included in Nativity plays. The first of these two things – and remember we said yesterday we have been seeking to pick up in the ‘big issues’ – is to do with old people.

People spread: Before we get into their accounts, it is perhaps interesting to observe the spectrum of people who we have seen and are included in these accounts, surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. First of all there were a childless elderly couple. Interesting and note that for a moment, the accounts start with an elderly couple. Then there was a young engaged couple. Then there was an emperor, a brief mention of a local king, then some wise men from the east, then the outcast shepherds and now, to round the story off so to speak, another elderly couple. This couple though are not related but they do have similarities. But isn’t that an interesting spectrum of people?

Time’s Motivation: So time moves on and because it moves on, fresh activity within this little story is provoked: “When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord  (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”).”  (Lk 2:22,23) This referred back to Israel’s very early days, Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me,” (Ex 13:2) The Law laid down guidelines: “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding.” (Lev 12:3,4) It went on, “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting …. a sin offering. He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood…But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.” (Lev 12:6-8)

Time Scale: There is the time-scale, a little over a week and the boy is to be circumcised, a month later an offering is to be made, originally in the Tabernacle, now in the Temple. Briefly, why these things: there is within these procedures perhaps a recognition that childbirth is a messy business and certainly a dramatic business, a business that can take the thoughts and actions of the couple involved – and especially the woman – away from God and entirely onto the business in hand. Understandable, but to draw them back into the place of right relationship, focusing on the Lord, there is this requirement that symbolically cleanses from any self-centred godlessness and restores to the Lord. There is nothing judgmental about childbirth but just the simple recognition that in the midst of the wonder of it all, we can temporarily take our eyes off the Lord (not necessarily but understandable if it happens). But it is these time requirements that now mean that Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus travel the few miles from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem to perform this rite. They are, you may remember, righteous young people. And there they meet two elderly people.

Old Person No.1: So let’s consider Simeon first. He is described as righteous and devout, was waiting for and expecting the arrival of Israel’s Messiah, he was a Holy Spirit person with an open ear to God and had thus heard from the Lord that he would see this Messiah before he died. He was guided by the Holy Spirit to be at the Temple at the time when the little family arrive. He takes the babe into his arms, gives thanks and prophesies, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss[d] your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel…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 2:29-32,34,35)

Old Person No.2: Then we come to Anna, a prophet, very old, a widow for many years, spending her life in the Temple, worshipping, praying and fasting. She too comes up and acknowledges the child for who he is, and tells everyone around about him.

And Us?  Can we note the full spread of this story, with an elderly couple at each end? Yes, let’s not forget how Zechariah’s religiosity hindered belief but be grateful that he learned and responded to God, and let that be an example for us. Can we feel sorry for he and his wife’s childless situation and then rejoice that God changed it?  And when we come to Simeon can we feel empathy for these two elderly people, on their own now, waiting for death? But can we also take the challenge that they present. Everything about him says a man open to the Holy Spirt – filled with the Spirit, listening to the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit to prophesy. Can we say that about ourselves and if not, why not?

Anna screams to us of godly availability. OK, she has nothing left but to seek God, and then she has the privilege of being the last person from Israel mentioned who saw and acknowledged the little family (yes, the wise men are yet to arrive). But even in old age she is declaring the glory of the Lord: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.  They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”  (Psa 92:12-15) Wow what a wonderful demonstration of those words she was!

Applied: As we pass by Christmas and come out the other side of the celebrations, can we in the cold light of day hold on to some of these challenges. Can we let these lessons impact and challenge us, can we be open to the Lord (and the world) bringing new things, can we be open to His voice, can we be described as full of the Holy Spirit, led and guided by the Spirit, can we still bear testimony to the truth of God’s love and goodness into old age? The powerful lessons within the Christmas story are not only about the impossible acts of God, they are also about people caught up in those acts because they were open to Him, and available to Him, so may that be us also.

10. The Wonder of it all

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

10. The Wonder of it all

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.

 The art of Bible Meditation: As I have been writing this brief series about the events that we lump together to call Christmas, I have not sought a neat chronological dissertation but more to anchor various thoughts that have stood out to me this year as I have pondered the story. Meditation, and more specifically Bible Meditation, should surely be the result of chewing over the facts and seeing what particular flavours stand out, what, as we wait on the Lord, He allows us to see. It isn’t neatly dissecting the word of God into neat order – that is ‘study’ – and I know I sometimes do that under the umbrella of what I sometimes loosely call meditations. But this time out I have just been seeking to sense some of the big issues that God wants to draw to our attention. The day has come and gone; can we hold onto these truths?

The big issues: So it was, at the start, there was why God should want to leave heaven to come to this war-torn earth. It is only when we wrestle with that will we realise our real plight and the wonder of God’s love. I dared to suggest the Christmas story was not the beautiful, gentle romantic story that is so often conveyed, but more simply an expression of the affairs of mankind that are so often chaotic, appearing as luck, chance, fate or maybe even providence, so often the weaving together of multiple threads coming from different distant directions. Yes, that is the fallen world in which we live, but then God intervenes and the unexpected happens which we then have to struggle with. Sometimes, in our human frailty and limitations, we don’t do very well, but even then, we find the love of God prompting us onwards in His purposes. He doesn’t give up on us.

An almost invisible plan: And yes, we come to realise that life isn’t just the chaotic ramblings of a confused and self-concerned humanity, but underneath it all, for those who have eyes to see, or those who will take the time to consider, there appears this sense that despite all the bad of the world, God is there in it all, working for good and working to an end where those who will see, hear and respond, will find a joy in eternity beyond anything we can comprehend today.  But this plan, this strategy, by God, is not seen like vapour trails in the sky revealing the silvers dots carrying hundreds of passengers, clearly visible to any watcher on the ground.

No, this plan is only perceived when you pause and you ponder on the actions of the ones and two’s who are making a tiny mark on the world that will, like the butterfly of chaos theory we referred to, cause great things to happen. Thus a young girl, in a stable with a no-doubt worried husband, brings a baby into the world, and the world is never the same again. All over the world, no doubt there were thousands of other babies being born, but this one was different, this one was the Son of God, this one would die for the sins of the world, this one would open up a possibility for mankind that would mean that prisoners to sin would be released, and orphans of sin could become children of God.

The art of distraction: Magicians, conjurors, slight-of-hand artists, all talk about the art of distraction, or the art of misdirection, which is the ability to make us, the audience, miss the truth of what they are doing and be led to believe something else. Now isn’t that what the enemy seeks to do with us at Christmas, in the West at least? I suspect this varies depending on where you are in the world, but briefly consider the things we major on at Christmas in the West: presents, decorations, lights, food, drink, parties; these are the things so many are taken up with for weeks if not months beforehand.  If we are religious maybe our efforts go into Nativities, special services, Midnight Mass and, yes, the elements of the story are all there in neatly formulated entertainment packages. The measure of the value of such things is what we are left with a week later. If it is just a sense of relief that it is all over, we missed the target. If it is just a case of looking forward to the New Year, we missed it. If our pondering on the wonder of the Christmas story has left us with a fresh perspective of life and a fresh sense of worship, it has been of value. It has been and gone. Where are we?

Mary: We have a distinct advantage over Mary, at least in being able to look back with such clarity. The best Mary could do is look back to her heritage and take comfort in the stories she heard each week in the synagogue. As the apostle Paul would write decades later, “the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah.” (Rom 9:4,5) i.e. she had all their history to reinforce her faith when the angel came and spoke, for he was speaking into a long history of Israel with God, coming to fruition: “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 1:31,32) Jesus would appear in the line of David as prophesied and thus often be called “son of David” (e.g. Mt 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30,31, 21:9,15, 22:42). Mary would have known the prophetic history and when the angel spoke of her son ruling on the throne of David, it was like saying, “And he will be the promised Messiah.” The circumstances were difficult and trying but everything that was going on fitted within the plan of God that had already been hinted at by the prophets and now taught by the teachers of the Law, and she responded, and the world was never the same again. How amazing.  Now he has come!

And Us? We, of course, now have all the records, we have these stories that we have been considering this past week, but even more we have all that followed in the Gospels and Acts and the teachings of the apostles in the New Testament. Christmas for us is the crucial pivot-point of history when the Son of God left heaven and appeared on earth in a way that challenged the minds of the chief priests and teaching of the day, a baby born to a carpenter of Nazareth. Nathaniel was the first to voice it: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.” (Jn 1:46) Today it is the sceptics who utter similar words. But I have sought, very inadequately I admit, over this past week or so to give us sufficient to think about, to dig into the story afresh and ponder the big issues. Today can we join with the angels and sing aloud, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests,” and realise that we are those people and His favour rests on us, because he has come and with Isaiah we can declare, “Immanuel, God with us.”  He came in the vehicle of a tiny baby, demonstrating infinite humility, he came to a young couple demonstrating vulnerability, and he was welcomed by shepherds to demonstrate his availability to all, no outsiders, no outcasts in God’s economy! He has come and now we are different. Hallelujah!

9. To Us????

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

9. Insider information…. To who??? To Us?????

Lk 2:10-12   the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

 Go slowly: The more and more one looks into the Christmas story the more amazing it becomes and the more challenging it also becomes. It is possible that some will look at the title of this series and say, so where are all the impossible things? I can see the thing about Mary conceiving, but what other impossible things are there? Well stop and think about this word ‘impossible’. It means ‘not able to be or to happen’. One dictionary says, ‘something that cannot be expected to happen or exist.’ If you are one of these wonderers I suspect you don’t have any friends who are atheists. Ask an atheist what they think about the Christmas story and stand by and get ready for the blast. Why do we think that? Because they see all these things happening as simply impossible. Virgin births? Rubbish? Old women having babies beyond the menopause? Rubbish!  A Roman emperor affecting the lives of ordinary people by his thoughtless edicts? Possible – but not planned by God! Wise men coming from afar? Yes, well there are always weirdos in the world! Put the whole lot together as the plan of God – you’ve got to be joking!  The point we are making, piece by piece, is that this story is incredible, every bit of it and it is the story of God stepping down into this broken world to bring healing to it.

The Angels again: We haven’t finished with the angels that we started considering yesterday. In fact we’ve hardly started, really. The angel has arrived and the glory of God shines around them. They are now all wide awake and in this world that often is so predictable I will add one more thing of which I am sure: that none of them would have guessed in a million years what was coming. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (v.10-12) End of Message. That’s it.

Perplexed response: Now stop and think about this. Imagine. A bit later they might have been saying, “Hang on, what did he say? He’s got good news for us but, hold on, not just for us, for everyone…. er…. down in Bethlehem – they call it the town of David don’t they? – a saviour has just been born, the Messiah the scribes and religious people are always going on about…. er…  a baby in a stable it’s got to be because he said he was lying in a manger. But why is he telling us? We’re not religious, so why would we be interested? A saviour? From what? We’re OK out here on the hillside; the Romans don’t bother us, and in fact our boss probably sells to them. They’ll no doubt get fed up and leave one of these years, but in the meantime, who cares, we’re all right out here in the hills. You what? No, I don’t know why he should have told us. What? No, I don’t know why it is supposed to be good news for us. I guess there is more in this than meets the eye. You what? Yes, I think you’re right, we’d better get down there and see.”

Additional Motivation: Now I think that some sort of conversation like that followed but I suspect it was slightly more animated in the light of what followed the angel’s message: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (v.13,14) Forgive me if you are, but I’m not a great fan of choral works, but I can only believe that this was likely to have been THE most spectacular of choral works. A ‘great company’, i.e. lots and lots and lots! Awesome! I don’t think there is any other such earthly visitation recorded in the Bible; this was unique. Now I and many others of us may have misinterpreted this because it doesn’t actually say they were singing, it just simply says it was an incredible praise party. Angels’ primary role is to serve and extol God. Their role here is not to distract us with lovely singing (though it might have been that) but to glorify God by their praises – and the message they convey within it.

Good news? Now the first angel started out by talking about ‘good news’ which somehow or other is linked to a baby born down there in Bethlehem. Has the angelic host added anything to that? Well they are glorifying God and they are talking about peace on earth on those on whom his favour rests. Who does that apply to? It can’t be us, we’re just outcast shepherds, God wouldn’t be bothered with us, he’s religious and we’re not. Questions. Questions that might have had them just sitting around the fire for the rest of the night, except for one thing! The whole experience. The glory of God around this one being and then (presumably) around the whole heavenly host, the message and the declarations (?song). All this amounts to one amazing experience, and then they are gone, and it is dark and silent again, and I would guess after their brightness it now seems doubly dark and after their voices it now seems doubly silent. And they stand there (do you remain sitting when an incredible Air Show takes place?) and in the dark with shadows cast by the low burning fire all you can hear are occasional words from occasional shepherds. Wow. Awesome. Amazing. Incredible. Awesome. I said that already! Oh yes, marvellous. Until eventually one ventures, “You do realise there is only one thing left to do?” And without another word they are all pelting down the hillside towards Bethlehem. “Hey, what about the sheep.” “Oh God will look after the sheep, we’ve got more important things to do.” “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (Lk 2:16)

Now I want to imagine (bear with me) a committee who have been called by God to talk through the events leading up to and surrounding the arrival of His Son on earth. People or angels if you like, I don’t think it matters. Here’s the conversation:

“Ladies and gentlemen, (clearly not angels!) God has called on us to make suggestions.

“What do we know?

“Well, He says He’s sorted out the preliminaries and so the Son will arrive in Bethlehem.

“OK, so we want a welcoming committee, yes?

“That sounds a good idea. As it’s near Jerusalem, we should probably invite Herod, the High Priest, and for that matter most of the other priests at the temple and … is there a mayor of Jerusalem or of Bethlehem?

“I’m not sure. Hold on, He’s just sent down a memo. He’s suggesting that He sends some angels down to the shepherds outside Bethlehem so they can be the welcoming committee.

(Stunned silence).

“That’s what the memo says.

“But shepherds….?


“But why? Why not all the top people? Why the lowest of the low? They’re outcasts!

“I don’t know. Hold on, another memo has just arrived. It simply says, “Because then no one will ever feel left out”. I’m not sure what that means. We’ll have to think about that.And us? Who would you have chosen to welcome the little family in the stable? If you can be really honest, I suspect shepherds would be the last ones to come to mind. It’s like saying, go around to one of the run-down areas of town and tell the teenage gangsters or druggies, and maybe a prostitute or two. I told you this is an uncomfortable story – when you really think about it. No, it wasn’t the nice and respectable synagogue goers of Bethlehem that God told and invited to go and be the first to visit the maternity ward round the back of the local pub or wine bar. It was common shepherds with nothing to commend them than that they were simple, they were poor, and they were scruffy. Isn’t it funny, God likes the simple, the poor and the scruffy. (Just see who Jesus rubbed shoulders with!) I wonder how many of them He finds in our churches? I did warn you! That’s what the story of the shepherds all about. Just in case you are feeling an outcast, I have a message from God for you: “Oh, there you are, I’ve been looking for you. Would you like to join me as I ….” On Christmas Day, enjoy Him, enjoy His company. Whatever else is going on this day, make sure you worship and celebrate him and give thanks for what he has made you. In God’s eyes you are no outcast. Accept that and rejoice in it because this is what his day is all about.

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.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isa 9:6,7)

8. I didn’t see that coming!

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

8. I didn’t see that coming!

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, and they were terrified.

 Indifference: Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also breeds indifference and that really is the only word to describe a malaise that can so easily creep in when we have heard the same story time after time after time. And I think that applies no more strongly than in the case of the story about the shepherds – but it’s not just ‘a story’ it is history, significant history.  I don’t know what it is about the shepherds’ story but almost more than the nativity scene it seems to engender an, “Ah, isn’t that lovely,” response, but actually that was not what the shepherds thought about it until afterwards. Our verses above reveal that they were terrified and that means scared out of their wits.

Night-time scene: I mean, imagine this scene. It is the middle of the night. It is up in the hills above Bethlehem and there are sheep and there are shepherds who look after them. The shepherds have to live out there to guard the sheep because then, just the same as today, there was always the possibility of rustlers, even if it was just one person wanting to obtain a single sheep for some free mutton.  But sheep are valuable and so you guard them in this fallen world otherwise someone else whose ethics are not very good will take a fancy to one or two of them. It’s a mixed blessing life being a shepherd. Yes, you are out on the hills in the beauty of the countryside where there is peace and quiet and freedom from petty village politics, but on the other hand ‘they’ think of you as outcasts because you are separated off from ‘polite society’ and, being answerable to no one except the owner of the sheep, you tend to be a law unto yourselves. Then there was the weather which wasn’t always wonderful, but you grew used to that. In fact you grew used to the lifestyle and days came and went, weeks, months and years passed and there was the security of ‘same old, same old’. Until an angel turned up. We weren’t expecting that! I didn’t see that coming!

Angels: There are two tricky things about angels. First, not many people see them and second, when they turn up you can’t be sure about them. First, it seems, there are the dead ordinary ones who just look like anyone else – until they start doing spooky things (check out Gideon in Jud 6:11-22, esp. v.22 when he realised who it was.) Second there are the glorious ones, ones who are big and shiny, powerful and even coming from the sky (Num 22:31, Judg 13:6,20, 2 Kings 19:35, 1 Chron 21:16, Rev 7:1,2 [77 times angels are mentioned in Revelation]) and they can be scary!

Hillside: So here are the shepherds in their natural environment, possibly some of them asleep around the main campfire while a few remained awake and on guard, minding their own business, doing what they do every night, sitting there quietly, gazing into the flames and making desultory conversation when one of the scary sort of angels turns up “and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”  Whaaaat? Little wonder they were terrified. Again I fear that those of us who tend to be regular Bible readers may tend to be somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to angels because, as we’ve already noted, they appear quite a lot, and no less so throughout the Christmas story. Zechariah, we’ve already noted was “gripped with fear” (Lk 1:12) when he first saw the angel Gabriel. Mary wasn’t so much afraid at the appearance of Gabriel as at his words: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” (Lk 1:29) Seeing an angel in a dream was not so scary for Joseph (Mt 1:20, 2:13,19), but a glorious angel in the middle of the night on a hillside, that is something altogether different!

Responses to the Unusual: Our problem in the West in the early part of the twenty-first century is that so much of the time life is predictable. Trains and buses and planes run on time (well they are supposed to), shops open and close at regular times, work tends to start at regular times, holiday dates are set, and so many other things say we live in an orderly predictable world – until either God turns up or some unanticipated crisis occurs. That is the thing about this fallen world. The nature of Nature is what makes scientists investigate it, observe the seasons or the movements of the sun, moon and stars, check the tides and so on. Yet there is still much disorder. We sound smug talking about El Nina or El Nino and we now observe jet streams as a determining factor of the weather, but none of these things seem predictable. We spend millions on great computers to forecast the changeable weather but still they often use words such as, “we think it might….” and are then proved wrong. We Brits are world-experts at this.

I think we’re actually better at handling unforeseen crises than we are God turning up unexpectedly. When He does, in big ways that affect the church, there are always those at the heart of it who are relishing the wonder of His presence, but further afield the Christian world generally is extremely good at being sceptical. In fact there are parts of the church where the unusual is almost guaranteed to be heretical. Permanence is here to stay!  Well, actually with God, no, He sometimes breaks in, in unexpected ways. If you hear of revival breaking out somewhere around the world (that isn’t your back yard), don’t get sniffy and gritty, you might be opposing God. Never be part of that Christian world that says, “It’s impossible, God doesn’t do things like that!”  Well He does; it’s just that you have never experienced it like that, so don’t be so insular and ignorant.  Gamaliel’s wisdom in Acts 5:33-40 is worth emulating.

So, try and understand something of both the wonder and the scariness of what was happening on this Judean hillside as God breaks into the mundane lives of a bunch of outcasts in this well-known part of the Christmas story and perhaps allow it to challenge us as to how open we are for God to speak to us, perhaps even in ways we have not experienced before. Let’s make sure the complacency that we have over the predictability of living in this part of history, doesn’t rob us of the wonder in the story and then make us see God’s activity in our lives or the lives of others around us as a stumbling block. Let’s not close our ears to the wonderful, whether it was two thousand years ago, or today! We’ll look at some more of this story tomorrow.

7. Threads (2)

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

7. Threads (2)

Lk 2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

Mt 2:1  during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem

 Brief recap: In the previous study I suggested that we find in the Christmas accounts of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, threads coming together to form a tapestry, a tableau, a montage, a picture that forms in our memories. We considered the ‘thread’ of Caesar Augustus and where that led, and I said we would go on to consider the ‘thread’ of the Wise Men.  I also majored on consequences and pondered on how much God might be involved in the initiating actions, as well as where they might lead.

Similarities and Differences: Now we are going to notice both similarities and major differences between these two ‘threads’, that of Caesar and that of the Wise Men. Both start off a long way away, Caesar no doubt in Rome and the Wise Men somewhere in the direction of Babylon, and both have consequences, but that is where the similarities end. Caesar’s activity was not personal, he never had any contact with Mary and Joseph and would never have known of their existence. The Wise Men, as we well know, actually travel to Bethlehem where they meet and bless the little family. And that is the final big difference. Caesar, by his actions, without any thought of this little family, caused them hardship. How much easier it would have been for Mary if they had been able to stay in Nazareth and have her baby at home. The Wise Men on the other hand bless the family with material provision which we will come to later. Having said they brought a blessing, we should also note that they brought trouble with them by going (innocently) to Jerusalem and enquiring about the birth of a new king. That upset Herod the present local king, and in sending them off to Bethlehem to look for the child, he charged them, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Mt 2:8)

Wise men? But who are these ‘Wise Men’? That is what they are called in the text: “About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived.” (Mt 2:1 NLT) but other versions have, Magi from the east came,” (NIV) although they do add a footnote, ‘traditionally wise men’. In the original Greek the word is magoi from which the Latin magi is derived and which is incorporated into some modern versions. I suggested from the area of Babylon earlier but some think the land of the Medes and Persians in the area of modern Iran. Their origins are a little speculative and some suggest a priestly caste, interested in religion but also in various loosely related fields, of which astronomy or even possibly astrology came in.

Why? So many ‘why’ questions here. Why were they there? In the explanation of why they were in Jerusalem they 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.” (Mt 2:2) We saw his star???? Mystery? Three gifts equals three wise men? Could be, but possibly unlikely. Mysterious names given – Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar – but mythical with no scriptural foundation. There is one other slightly worrying suggestion, sometimes made, that magi is linked to magician, one who practices magic, which takes us into occult fields possibly. Thus there is a mystery here that is as deep as the mysterious Melchizedek who Abraham met who, again, is shrouded in mystery and yet brought a blessing to Abraham (see Heb 7:1-3, Gen 14:18-20) around whom the writer to the Hebrews formulated a theology. But even less is known about these ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Magi’ but one thing is very clear: they have got very specific directions – a king has just been born in Israel and they have come to worship him. Wow! Not just to bow down before a sovereign but to worship him, worship a baby! This takes this to a completely new level. Where did all this come from? We just don’t know. Although it doesn’t say it specifically, the answer has got to be God!

Untidy Scenarios: We do tend to like to have everything neatly packaged when it comes to the Bible and unclear areas worry preachers and theologians alike, but we’ve already had to acknowledge that we don’t know why Caesar kicked off in the way he did – unless God was behind it – and we are having to acknowledge yet again, we are adrift without a paddle in respect of the Wise Men. But you know this desire for certainty is a sign of insecurity. I have observed that scientists pontificate about issues of science as if there are no grounds for doubt, but that is far from the truth, and we find it in the realms of theology too.  So it is that we come to the Christmas story year after year and we either give little thought to some of these incredibly strange things, or just simply duck away and pretend they are not strange – but they are!

Impossibilities? I’ve titled this series, ‘Impossibilities of God’ because some of the events are simply impossible to the human mind, impossible in the case of Elizabeth conceiving past the menopause, and certainly Mary conceiving without human male help. Those were practical impossibilities but now we are coming across things that are impossible to understand because we have not been told how God did them, but in each case the end product is startling, dramatic and amazing. Elizabeth bearing John was amazing. Mary bearing Jesus was incredible. The Wise Men turning up from who knows where with means of support for the coming years, is dramatic.

Sorry, we haven’t mentioned that have we? Gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold needs little explanation. Frankincense literally means pure incense, and myrrh was a perfume. The fact is that they were all valuable and although commentators so often try to bring significance to each of them, the basic truth is that each of them were very costly and could be traded in for money that would keep them going, at least in the next few years when they had to flee down to Egypt.   These Wise Men thus come acclaiming the newly born king, declare he is worthy of worship, and bring resources that will enable the family to travel without worry of future provisions. Remarkable! A king, more than a king, and one who we will help support for the days ahead. Yes, amazing!

Threads coming together: But here is the point I have been trying to make. God sees what is coming. He wants to bring His Son to earth in disguise and in such humility that he will not be a threat. Enter Mary and Joseph. He wants to set up a forerunner for the future ministry of His Son. Enter Zechariah and Elizabeth six months earlier. He wants His Son to be born in Bethlehem, to be associated with King David. Enter Caesar Augustus miles away. He needs to set up a mobile bank for the family guarding His Son. Enter the Wise Men.

People, different sorts of people, the great and the ordinary, all unknowingly working together as part of the great plan.  I doubt if one of them saw themselves like that, but that is what it was, threads coming together to bring about the end product which, if it was in a modern spy drama, would produce the cryptic message, “The package has been delivered,” or if it was a space-rover might have brought to the world, “The beagle has landed!”  The perfect has arrived on this imperfect world. From our perspective the details are confusing and somewhat chaotic, but only because we don’t have God’s view. From His position, it is all going to plan. OK, let’s celebrate! Which leads us on to tomorrow’s study.

6. Threads

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

6. Threads

Lk 2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

Mt 2:1  during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem

International: Perhaps one of the things we miss in the Christmas story is the truly international flavour that is there in it.  There were things going on that were not in Israel that would have a real impact on the main players of this wonderful little story. As we have seen so far things have been happening in Israel, first in the Temple as Zachariah encounters the angel, and then further north in Nazareth as Mary encounters an angel and Joseph gets a dream. Meanwhile, in the background so to speak, something is happening of mind-blowing proportions, something that still leaves us wondering, was this just the vanity of man on his own or was God in the background nudging this vain emperor into action. Whatever it was, we find in the Christmas accounts of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, threads coming together to form a tapestry, a tableau, a montage, a picture that used to appear on Christmas cards in so many forms.

Consequences: Whichever it was, these actions of men from afar, they had consequences. We live in a world where there are consequences, one thing following on from another. In modern chaos theory the butterfly effect, put most simply, means that a small change in one place can cause a greater changer somewhere else. Just why Caesar Augustus decided to call that a census should be taken across the whole of the Roman Empire is uncertain. We may assume it was pride of an arrogant dictator who liked boasting about how big the Empire was. However, it is said that in his latter years he became a great administrator and so, perhaps to overcome a sense of chaos in the administration of the Empire, he called for a census. The truth is that we just don’t know but decisions by such ‘top men’ can often have far reaching consequences for the ‘small people’.

Fulfilment: As far as the Christmas story is concerned it simply meant that Mic 5:2 would be fulfilled, that Bethlehem would be the place where the Messiah, the Christ, was born, a “ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” At the time there was probably no one taking in the significance of this. Perhaps it would not be until after he was born and the Wise Men turn up that the scribes would observe, In Bethlehem in Judea …for this is what the prophet has written.” (Mt 2:5) So the consequence of this emperor’s whim was, “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. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” (Lk 2:4-6) It was left to Matthew who so often picks up on prophetic significance to make the link; Luke simply records what actually happened.

The Hand of God? I couldn’t help wondering earlier if it was God who nudged Caesar to call for a census, God who knows what His prophets have declared in bygone centuries, and what the scribes down through the years have spotted, God who wants to give any onlooker with an open heart, a heads-up of what He is doing. Some of us are a bit chary of attributing the actions of pagans to the moving of God, but Scripture is not so wary. Centuries before the event, probably somewhere between 700 and 680BC Isaiah had prophesied and written and in the midst of his writings, apparently without any present significance we read, speaking of the Lord, “who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd  and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.” (Isa 44:28)

It is left to one of the scribes recording the history of 2 Chronicles, to conclude the book by speaking of how Jeremiah’s word about the restoration of Jerusalem and Israel would follow the Exile, was fulfilled and we find: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: ‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.” (2 Chron 36:22,23) Can you imagine that king, egged on by the faithfulness of Daniel in the court in Babylon, perusing the documents, the scrolls that had been taken decades before from Jerusalem, and he comes across the Isaiah prophecy and is astounded to find his name there, and the Spirit convicts him and he sees it is his role to send Israel back to their land to start rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Oh yes, God speaks to pagans!

Magi: Meanwhile, sometime during the time of Mary’s impending confinement, possibly nearly a thousand miles away, some other interesting characters are starting to talk together, but in order not to reduce our reflections upon them down to an unworthy brevity, we will consider them in the next study – yet they very clearly are ‘distant threads’ worthy of our consideration.

Life in General: There is a big lesson in the midst of all this speculation and it goes back to what we were saying earlier. Yes, we live in a world of consequences. The lives we live we live because of what has happened before us. When we come to national histories there is always a mixture of good and bad. This is not the place to give a history lesson but few countries fare well under the microscope of history because ultimately every history is a history of sinful, fallen men. Most of us have things about which we can feel proud about our nationhood, but the wise man does not elevate one nation above another for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!

Stuck with the Consequences? Some of us may feel bad about our background. Our histories may be littered with misdeeds, wrong-doings, unfaithfulness, adultery, out of wedlock children, and so on. Some of these histories may be very recent and that leaves us feeling damaged. Do we have to remain like that? No, every day is a new day with God and we are what He wants to make us and that is always something more glorious than before.  Perhaps we can look back on miscarriages of justice and other unfairness, of unkind words spoken over us, of situations that have come about because of the thoughtless action of ‘top people’ that have left us feeling abandoned, or feeling we are on our own, wondering what tomorrow will hold. Our answers are found in the Christmas story and particularly in the things on which we have been reflecting today.

A Surreal World? There may be a variety of reasons why we are where we are today, and we may never know what they all are. There is only one stable factor in the bizarre equations of life – God. He was certainly the prime cause of Mary being pregnant; whether He was the direct cause of them ending up having to travel at a most inconvenient time to Bethlehem, we are not sure – but it feels like it! No doubt for them it felt a somewhat surreal world as they are being carried along by events beyond their control, and that is a not uncommon feeling. Yet the truth is, as we know, this is the plan of God and it is just part of His plan to redeem the world. That is a staggeringly big plan and they feel so small – but they are the ones bringing it into being, even if they do not realise it.

And that is you and me again. We have been called and we now call ourselves Christians, children of God. We often feel small and insignificant, we often feel we are the beck and call of circumstances beyond our control. and we are left wondering about our significance. Yet today, your life or mine may impact others, today we may be the fluttering butterfly wings of chaos theory that cause, along the way, major events to be unfurled. Who knows the effect our words will have? Who knows what that effect will have… will have… will have. Small players? Not in God’s economy. That is what this part of the Christmas story leads us to! It may be a fallen world and it may appear chaotic sometimes from our viewpoint, but the God of the impossible is working and weaving His will into our everyday events to redeem them. Hallelujah!

5. God knows how to choose people

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

5. God knows how to choose people

Lk 1:5,11   In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah…. an angel of the Lord appeared to him

Lk 1:26-27  In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, 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.

Fresh Perspective: So often when we think about the Christmas story we focus on people and events, but perhaps a more profitable perspective might be to wonder what was happening in God’s mind. Now that sounds seriously pompous, affected or pretentious, possibly even arrogant, but I want to suggest that by looking at some of the people involved, we may make some reasonable assumptions about the Lord. The greatest sense I have, pondering afresh on the Christmas story and the people we have already mentioned, is that God knows how to choose people. I mean, can you imagine the crazy scenario of the angel Gabriel going from one priest to another before he felt satisfied that Zechariah was the one for the job. Or even worse, turning up in one bedroom after another before he found a girl who would say yes. And as for Joseph – well, it was more about Mary really because he was her fiancé so perhaps in this silly imaginary scenario imagine him going from house to house looking for a girl, not yet married but who has a fiancé in tow who would eventually agree to the job? No, I don’t think it was like that at all. God looked, God saw, and God knew.

What did God know? Well the good things first, the obvious things. Zechariah was described as righteous, a follower of the Law blamelessly (Lk 1:6). All we are told about Mary is that she found favour with the Lord (Lk 1:30). Joseph, we are told was “faithful to the Law” (Mt 1:19) but also that he was clearly compassionate and caring not wanting to expose her to public disgrace. Each of these three are clearly righteous, godly people. When it comes to their futures, Zechariah, I would suggest, has really given up hope of ever being a father and is just living out his days serving in his division of the priesthood without much hope. Mary and Joseph are looking to a future together, as we said in the previous study, looking forward to setting up home together and having a family. A positive expectation, a future full of hope.

But God knows everything. Yes, God knows the past, the present and what will be the future. He also knows how we will respond to each situation so, I would suggest, He is not at all surprised when Zechariah splutters over the thought of becoming a father in his old age. He is not at all surprised when Joseph determines to quietly divorce Mary, i.e. break off their relationship, for that is what a righteous man apparently faced with unfaithfulness would do. He also knows that giving Zechariah a nudge of dumbness would make him a believer and giving Joseph a dream would be all that was necessary to bring him round to take on the responsibility of being a husband and a father to a child that was not his.   And Mary? He knew she would simply acquiesce to His plans for her. Why was Mary an easy-believer, Joseph a bit of a struggler and Zechariah a serious struggler? I want to say that they each have reasons to struggle (Joseph’s righteousness, Zechariah’s childless old age) but the simple truth is that it is a mystery why one person is full of faith and another is a struggler.

Knowing the end result: Now here is the exciting thing, I believe: God knows what He can achieve with each of is, even if He needs to nudge us forward once or twice. Now this is actually monumental when you think about it. You and I look at one another as we are now, and we assess one another on what we are now, and sometimes write one another off on what we see now – and that’s where we differ from God. God knows our capabilities. God knows that Zechariah will struggle to begin with but with nine months of dumbness he will come to a place where he declares his new son’s name in line with God’s will and will then be filled with the Spirit and prophesy. God knows that Joseph will struggle in his righteousness in the face of what the circumstances seem to be telling him, but with just one dream will come around and will join the place of possible shame and being the butt of gossip when Mary has a baby within an unacceptably short period after their wedding – indeed she might have been showing signs of it at the wedding – even more gossip! Mary is just simply a devout child of God who doesn’t need any nudging to accept the will of God for her life, even if it does mean loss of reputation and lots of misunderstanding.

Others? But go back into the Old Testament, as I did in a previous series entitled, ‘Reaching into Redemption’ and see some of the strugglers back there. Abraham, man of faith, friend of God, struggled in the face of threats to his life (Gen 12:12-), and struggled when his wife failed to conceive and gave way to her suggestions (Gen 16:2-) – and that had serious long-term consequences! Yes, he was a man of faith but it was often a struggle. Then there the schemer and twister, Jacob, and all the comings and goings of his life before he ends up being a faithful patriarch who understood the ways of God and prophesied the word of God over his sons. He was followed by Joseph, the spoilt brat who ends up a wise ruler who, again, understands the ways of God (see Gen 50:20). It gets better (or worse depending on how you look at it): Moses, a Hebrew Prince of Egypt who totally blew it and ended up on his own looking after sheep in the desert for forty years before God came and had a long argument with him (Ex 3 & 4) to get him to accept his destiny. All great men – eventually!

Us? Don’t you find this encouraging?  Here we are, chosen of God (Eph 1:11) but so often feeling we are spiritual nightmares, tripping over our spiritual feet! You know one of the even bigger and more amazing things about this is that God chooses us, and calls some of us into leadership, even while He knows we are going to make a mess of it. I wonder how many leaders could say with an honest heart they haven’t got it wrong some way along the path, and as for those who have clearly blown it…..   the Lord knew and continues to work to redeem each of us and, as we said at the end of the previous study, the long-term outcome may be more determined by our availability or otherwise, although these stories challenge that belief. If it is our availability it will only be because the Lord presses us forward. I am always challenged by the words the apostle Paul uses, “the faith God has distributed to each of you,” (Rom 12:3) and “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” (Rom 12:6) We do have a part to play without doubt, but the Lord’s impartation of faith and gifting is of major importance and He will be there, knowing exactly what we are like, but encouraging us on.

The supreme example: We’ve been looking at how the Lord ‘encouraged’ on Zechariah and Joseph (not needing to do it with Mary) and pondering how He does it with us, but possibly the best example in the New Testament has to be the apostle Peter. When Jesus renamed him (Jn 1:42) he knew Peter was destined to be changed from ‘a small pebble’ to a ‘big rock’ but it wasn’t going to be without its downsides. The fact that he three times denied Jesus (e.g. Mt 26:69-75) – with Jesus’ prior knowledge (Mt 26:34) – did not disqualify him from the role Jesus had for him, leading his church (see Jn 21:15-19). God knew all about Zechariah before Gabriel left heaven, He knew all about Joseph and He knew all about Peter and He knows all about you and me. Thank goodness, thank God!

4. A Risky Conversation

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

4. A Risky Conversation

Lk 1:26-28  26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’

Really?   Possibly there is no passage among the ‘Christmas stories’ that is as romanticised as this particular one, of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. Let me put before you an imaginary modern scenario. Let’s suppose you are a teenage girl who has fallen for a royal prince or, if you are American, for a son of the President. Preparations are being made for your wedding day. Every ounce of your life is being dissected by the media, but the good news is that you come from a good family, have never had a meaningful boyfriend, have never gone the way of so many of your peers and so have never slept around. You are a good person and a Christian and you regularly attend the most respectable church in town. You are being groomed for public life with this man of your dreams. He thinks you are wonderful, as do his family, and your family likewise are elated at the coming nuptials. And then one night, on your own – and you are sure you are awake – a glowing figure appears as if out of the air and tells you he is an angel of God – and yes, you are sure you are awake – and he tells you that you have been chosen by God to act as an example to the people of your country, of humility and piety, another Mother Teressa. Yes, you can continue to get married but you will forsake riches, affluence and the lifestyle of a princess / lady of the first family, and you will devote your life to caring for the poor. How do you respond?

Mary: I’m afraid I cannot think of a parallel drama to the one facing Mary and the above is the nearest I can get. You, in the above scenario, are being told to enter into a life that is totally contrary to everything you expect and is expected of you. Mary is being told she will enter into a life totally contrary to everything she expects and is expected of her. Mary is a good Jewish girl. She is engaged to be married to a good Jewish boy. It is quite likely it is a marriage that has been agreed between their parents. They will go through all the traditional celebrations that young Jewish people getting married go through. Afterwards they will set up home together, have children and no doubt be pillars of the community. They both live in Nazareth which, although it has now become a city of over seventy-six thousand today was, back then, a mere village of between two and four hundred people. Everyone knows everyone else. In fact, there may only be about twenty (if that) family groupings that have lived there for generations, and everyone knows their place and everyone is respectable. There is no room for disreputable, and disreputable means those who do not keep to the beloved Law of Moses which their rabbi faithfully teaches them. One man, one woman and “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) That is how it is in this traditional community and this is how it must stay. The conversation that follows is, it would appear, from God’s point of view, a risky one. This girl could have screamed and rushed out of the room – but she didn’t.

Joseph & the others: But, we said, Mary is engaged to Joseph and Joseph is a good upright boy, a growing pillar of the community, a carpenter following in his father’s footsteps. He is there in the synagogue every week and he understands the Law. Yes, it may appear harsh at times but that is only to preserve the sanctity of marriage within the community and thus bring stability to the community. Infidelity is frowned upon – severely! If Mary heeds and goes along with what this angel is saying – “You will conceive and give birth to a son,” (v.31) and “‘The Holy Spirit will come on 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.” (v35) – she is going to be in serious trouble with her fiancé and with her community. What the angel is saying is humanly impossible and so there is no way that she can expect anyone to believe her. If she goes along with this, she is on her own! Do you remember me saying previously that the Christmas story is often uncomfortable, if not harsh and difficult? I started by saying I believe we romanticise this story because I don’t think I have ever heard a preacher spelling out just how difficult it must have been for Mary.

This Incredible Girl: I suggested at the end of the first introductory study that it is only when we see the impossibilities confronting these people and the harshness and difficulties that they went through, will we truly see the wonder of these events and, I might add, of the people concerned. Nowhere is this truer than in the account of Mary with the angel Gabriel. I have sought, very inadequately I feel, to convey something of the difficulties facing Mary and if we can really take this in, then, and perhaps only then, will we really appreciate the sort of young woman that she is. She is young and she is about to become alone, very alone and she is going to enter into an experience that is common to most women, and yet without the love of a man who took her into that experience. She doesn’t know how what the angel says can be: “How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?” (v.34) and the fact that he explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you,” (v.35) really doesn’t help a lot. Yes, he does seek to bring encouragement by explaining that, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month,” (v.36) but that is probably not going to provide a ‘how’ explanation that most of us would want. Yet we find at the end of this episode before the angel leaves, “I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.” (v.38)

An Incredible Woman: It all happens and miraculously, without the help of Joseph or any other man, she conceives and brings into being the baby Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. Twelve years later, as Jesus comes of age (in Jewish terms) he stays behind in Jerusalem and after he has been found by his concerned parents we read, But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51) She thinks back perhaps to the birth narratives and all she was told by Gabriel and now as Jesus speaks of his father (not Joseph) she wonders. Another eighteen years on she is at a wedding where the wine has run out and she tries to prod Jesus into action to help – she has high expectation of him – but when he holds back, she knows otherwise and simply tells the servants, Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5). Three years later she is at the foot of the Cross watching her son die (Jn 18:25-27) and perhaps she remembered all those thirty-three years ago, the words of the aged Simeon in the Temple, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk 2:35) And so it was. Her walk through life was truly a lonely and often times painful walk – but she was available to God for Him to work out His purposes through her.

Availability: No, there was nothing comfortable or great and glorious about any of this – from a human perspective at least. I mentioned previously I had earlier in this month started writing ‘Micro Advent Thoughts’. This was the one about Mary: Advent Micro Thought no.2. Why would God choose a teenage girl, a good girl, a godly girl, a righteous girl, to carry His Son, without a visible father, so that people would gossip about a girl who no longer looked so good, no longer looked so godly, so righteous? Because God doesn’t worry about gossips, God looks for those who are good and godly and righteous – and available – through which to perform His purposes, even though others will misunderstand, because the uncomprehending gossips will fall away but the will of God will remain for ever, transforming the world. Availability.”

A friend from the States added, “Availability” has been a recurring word this year for me. It’s good to hear it again. Settling into a new area this past year, one of the things we’ve worked at is making ourselves available to serve. I believe that’s where opportunity begins with God. After availability, then comes empowerment and equipping for service.” Wise words which fit perfectly here: “after availability then comes empowerment and equipping for service.” Heed that wisdom.

3. Oh help, it’s God!

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

3. Oh help, it’s God!

Lk 1:11,12 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.

 Really?   One of our dangers in the modern church is that we talk about ‘God’ too easily. I have to confess that applies to me as much as anyone else, whether it be in these studies or when I am teaching people to listen to God.  Moreover, I believe when we read the Bible, so often we read through rose-tinted glasses and see ourselves as wise responsive Christians who could never act like some of the clowns we read of in Scripture. Now that may be slightly over-stating it, but we are often not far from that. Take what I was saying at the end of the previous study, that we may be ‘good Christians’ but we don’t always handle ‘God encounters’ well.

For Example: It’s quite likely that many of us have never really had a ‘God encounter’ (except at new birth) because they are relatively few and far between for most. I was around in the days of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ at the back end of the last century, the time when God started turning up and people started laughing a lot and often appearing drunk in the Spirit, and many were falling down in the Spirit. I won’t go into long details of how we, as a church, were first introduced to what was happening, suffice it to say at the end of one Sunday morning, in the early days of it, as a response to what was preached we invited people, who felt the need, to come forward for prayer. Already the manifestations I referred to just now had started to happen and so on this morning the expectation of many was high – but not me. I was struggling with it as the leader of this church. I invited various of our leaders to come and pray over the ones who had come forward and I stood back and watched.

Yes, various stuff started happening and nearest to me two of my guys were praying their hearts out, clearly wanting this person to come under the power of the Spirit. After a few minutes of nothing happening, I was not amused and stepped in and they stepped back to let me pray. Without thinking I stretched out my hand and managed to get out, “Dear Lord, please…..” and the person went straight down under the Spirit. Now I am being completely honest when I say my reaction was to look to heaven and think, “How did you do that, and why?”  For the next six months it continued like that. I felt uncomfortable but I only had to pray a few words and the power of God fell. It took that six months for me to get to, “OK, Lord, if this is what you want to do, use me as you will,” and felt comfortable with it. If my memory is right it lasted for about a year and a half, during which our prayer meetings were always full and our people, young and old, were reading their Bibles like there was no tomorrow and all rejoicing and worshipping like they had never done before.

And Zechariah: Now I mention all this because so often (and I’m just as guilty) we give Zechariah a bad press. What an idiot! Fancy dissing an angel! But this year I find I am looking afresh at this and I find myself thinking more widely across the Bible. Fear of God – or at least mentions of it – appears early in the Bible (see Gen 20:11, 22:12, Ex 1:17 etc.) and especially when God turns up, which is why so often the person has to be reassured (see Ex 3:6, Judg 6:22,23, Isa 6:5, 41:10,13 etc.) When God turns up, it is natural to be afraid: “he was startled and was gripped with fear.”

It is a sign of the lack of God’s presence in the life of Israel at this time when Zechariah went into the Temple, that no one expected to actually meet with God there. Stories of the Tabernacle or the Temple being filled with the glory of the Lord had just been consigned to the distant past of the Old Testament scrolls.  We see the same thing some thirty years later when Jesus enters the local synagogue, teaches and casts out a demon and the people respond, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’” (Mk 1:27) Powerless religion at the hands of the local rabbi was all the people knew – until God turned up in the form of Jesus.

And Us?  We should not pass by on the other side here but stop and face the challenge with which we are presented. Is Christmas for us simply a materialistic time of celebration with food, drink, presents and parties, or perhaps do we go a stage further and attend all the various services the church lays on, mostly services which are essentially an entertainment which we watch, appreciate and can walk away from unchallenged? Do we see Christmas as a time when God invaded the earth in the most low-key invasion ever known, but an invasion never the less?  The heavenly presence starts here with Zechariah and he wasn’t expecting it and so it was scary. Do we see the challenge here, as to how we might have responded if we had been in Zechariah’s shoes? Or even closer to home, are we open to God coming and invading our personal space with fresh challenges to become part of His strategies for the earth today?

Zechariah’s Alternative: For that is all that is happening in this ‘forerunner story’ about Zechariah. God is inviting him to become part of His strategy to bless the earth through the coming of His Son. Put aside Zechariah’s negative response which evokes a disciplinary response from the angel; suppose Zechariah had responded positively and simply said, “Great bring it on.” The only difference would have been that the distraction (which God would use) of his disobedience and subsequent dumbness would have been removed from the story, but the end outcome would have been the same. God was going to enable this elderly couple to have a son anyway!

The funny thing is that all it required was for Zechariah to go home after his time serving in the Temple and persuade his wife that they weren’t too old to make love and leave the rest to God. He needn’t have gone home and said anything but just let nature and God take their course. Now, instead, he is made dumb, just as a little encouragement along the way, and so has to explain by sign language or perhaps in writing, why he is dumb and what God has said. He has been forced out into the open. But doesn’t God do that sometimes, manipulates circumstances so we have to come out into the open and declare our faith?

The divine perspective: The truth is that God has chosen Zechariah knowing, I suggest, all about him, knowing he is righteous, knowing he is religious, knowing he is not expecting divine encounters, know he is not full of faith, knowing he is old and knowing he is childless, and so He is going to take all these things and weave them together into a tapestry that will be clear and obvious for all to see and which will have the neighbours talking, and will remain in the family memory for a long time to come. Whether John’s parents were still alive when John started his ministry or whether they had already passed on, we don’t know, but whatever the truth is of that, John would have been told and John would have that foundation even before the Spirit started to stir him into his ministry in the days to come.

Weaving the Tapestry: Oh yes, this is going to be a beautiful tapestry built upon this man’s righteousness, challenging his religiosity and low expectations and low faith level, provoking him into faithless questioning and receiving a heavenly rebuke in return that meant he would be dumb, which in turn would necessitate him explaining and testifying to what had happened and becoming a sign for all the onlookers. Yes, this is God breaking into the happy experience of an aging, childless, righteous and religious man to completely upset his apple cart as we might say today, as he enjoys his big moment serving in the Temple, completely disturbing his peace and quiet and normality, to make him a figure of history.  I suspect if we ever could meet him in eternity and ask him about it, he would look down and with a smile reply, “Yes, well, I was obviously having a bad day in the Temple. I thought it was a great day but I didn’t realise the challenges that would come with it.” And then looking up would add with an even bigger smile, “But the Lord got me there in the end!”

And so, the Big Picture: Finally note the stages of what happened. Stage 1: Serving in the Temple. Great! Stage 2: Chosen to offer the incense. Wonderful! Stage 3: God turns up. Help!!!!!!   Stage 1 he saw coming. Stage 2 he probably didn’t expect but was delighted about. Stage 3 he definitely didn’t see coming and initially didn’t like, but stage 3 was exactly that, just a further stage in God’s plans for this man, plans that have a much bigger panorama, the first stage of preparing the way for the arrival of His Son. And of course Christmas in itself is just the first stage in the plan of redemption, or perhaps we should say a further stage because the first stage took place before the foundation of the world when the Godhead agreed it, the second stage was it being drip-fed through the prophets, and so what we have been considering today is actually the third stage of the plan. But isn’t that how life with God is? We think the present moment is THE big moment, but it isn’t, it is just a further stage in the ongoing plans of God involving us, so perhaps that can be the last of a variety of lessons that come out of this story. Enjoy your next stage that is today.

2. Lottery Winners?

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

2. Lottery Winners?

Lk 1:8,9 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

 Luck?   One of the mysteries of life on this planet is about ‘luck’. Just what is luck? An online dictionary defines it as, success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.’ Millions of people, who really can’t afford it, play the lottery. It is said, I believe that the odds of winning the National Lottery in the UK is 1 in 45 million, but people think, ‘Why shouldn’t that one be me? Imagine 45 million of you crowded shoulder to shoulder on a small island – well, not such a small island! And somebody on a passing boat who happens to have a catapult fires a small stone into the air. How safe are you? Pretty safe. The odds are that it is going to hit someone else.

Zechariah’s odds:  We find early on in the Christmas story an aging priest called Zechariah. Now every male directly descended from Aaron was automatically a priest and at this time there were likely to have been about twenty thousand of them, divided into twenty-four divisions. Each division served in the Temple in Jerusalem for one week twice a year. Burning incense in the temple happened twice a day and, as it was considered a special privilege, the person doing it each time was chosen by lot. Because there were so many of them, often a priest would never have that privilege but if it did occur, thereafter the priest would be considered special, “rich and holy”. Work out how many times in a year and the number in your division and the odds are something like 1 in about 50-70. No wonder most never had the opportunity.  (An aside: You and I were not chosen by God in a lottery.)

Destiny? So the odds were remarkably better than winning our lottery but still pretty unlikely. At this point people start muttering about ‘destiny’ and we start getting into what power, if any, makes something happen, fate if you like. And then again we come back to luck, chance or good fortune? Or does God have a hand in it all? Well there is something we can say about this when it comes to the Bible and that is that there ARE clearly times when God does intervene, act or speak, and there are times when it seems a bit of a long-shot for something to have happened without it being God, and there are times when it just does seem chance, stuff that happens for no discernible reason. Sometimes things do happen as consequences of other previous things.

Here in the account about Zechariah it doesn’t say God made Zechariah win the lottery. Yes, he’s in it because he is of the family of Aaron and yes, it’s the turn of his particular division but beyond that we really can’t go any further. Often people ask, “Why did that have to happen?” and it is an unwise person who tries to give a specific answer. If you drink too much and then stumble into the road and are run over by a passing vehicle, you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to suggest that alcohol had a part to play in it.  Yet often things do happen for no apparent accountable reason, but when you start looking at other factors in the equation, that’s when it starts getting interesting!    

Life is not always kind: For instance, let’s consider Zechariah. You probably know about him if he has been included in your Advent readings. He is a good man and he’s got a good wife. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Lk 1:6) You can’t ask more than that! But merely because you are good doesn’t mean to say that life will always be kind to you: “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (v.7) In a society where children were important that meant heart-ache. “Don’t you see that children are God’s best gift? the fruit of the womb his generous legacy? Like a warrior’s fistful of arrows are the children of a vigorous youth. Oh, how blessed are you parents, with your quivers full of children!” (Psa 127:3-5 Message version) When you live in that sort of culture, the inability to have children must raise questions, and certainly cause heart-ache, and maybe even a sense of shame at not being able to have children.

No Hope: The fact that they were both “very old” also suggested that now there was no hope of there ever being that possibility. Time has gone, we’ve missed the boat, we are second-class citizens, we always have been and always will be. The Lord gave me a word for someone the other day: “Don’t take anything as fixed”. Over the years I have twice had the privilege and joy of imparting the word of God to childless couples, “You will have a child within a year,” and they did. In both cases I had not known that the couples previously had been told they would remain childless. Jesus taught, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Lk 18:27) or, as put in Matthew, “With God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26), and as the angel later said to Mary, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Lk 1:37) (An aside: Let’s never take what we see as the final, ‘This must be’).

Timing & Purpose: Now we are going to see that God is going to change this for this couple and give them a child and the question naturally arises in the mind, “Did God stop Elizabeth conceiving up until this time so as to reveal a miracle birth?” There is no indication of that and there is certainly no indication in Scripture that God has stopped all childless couples having children. It is simply the fact of living in a Fallen World where things go wrong. Yet one cannot help but wondering about God’s strategy behind all that is shortly going to take place. Was it pure chance that a childless (but righteous) priest gets the lottery and ends up in the Temple, the place where God was said to reside?

Expectation: But did Zechariah expect anything more from this experience beyond the fact that he could say he had done it? I doubt it. His response when the angel turns up and conveys God’s will is not a ‘full-of-faith’ response. And yet here is a significant lesson. We don’t have to be full of expectation for God to turn up. It does help sometimes but the bigger message that comes over in the Bible again and again is that God is the initiator. Moses was definitely not full of faith when God turned up at the burning bush (Ex 3) and similarly Zechariah is not full of faith here. In fact it may be that the disappointment of not having children had meant that his expectations of God were very low. No doubt he had prayed and prayed, but nothing had changed – until now, but now it is too late. It’s a broken world and sometimes it seems you just have to live with that – until God turns up and says otherwise, which is unlikely, we think. (An aside: Again, with God with us, let’s never say, “I’m stuck”.)

A problem: Now we are going to have to face a problem. We said in the first of these studies that this is not always a comfortable story, it’s often difficult and scary. Perhaps because we know the story too well we take things for granted. Zechariah is a good man and he is religious. His life is focused on the Temple, on serving God, and that describes many good Christians many of whom it could be said, “they were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”   Unfortunately that is good only up to a point. Why do I say that? Because Zechariah is just about to have a ‘God encounter’ and he’s not going to handle it too well. I have lived long enough to have seen the Lord turn up with ‘God encounters’ a number of times and I have to tell you that the people of God don’t always handle that very well. It is one thing to go to church, to be a ‘good’ Christian but how open are we to God turning up and doing something unexpected? That is the challenge that is about to come here. Are we ready for it? Dare we be honest about our likely response? I did say this story isn’t always comfortable. Now do you believe me? No longer an aside: When God comes and initiates an encounter with us, let’s see if we can simply say, “Yes, Lord.”