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.

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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.”

1. Introduction

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

1. Introduction

Jn 6:38    I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.

Genesis of an idea: Every year Advent arrives and I think, “Well, I have written about Christmas several times before, there’s not a lot left to say. What shall I write about instead?” (A rather short-sighted approach for you can, I believe, look afresh at the same Scripture time and time again and see something new). Anyway, the same thing happened at the beginning of December this year, but then I was sitting in the worship of a Sunday morning service and had a strong sense of a different view of the events in respect of what we now call ‘Christmas’.  I don’t know what caused it but I suddenly found myself thinking about all these things that go to make up the Christmas story and saw them as simply impossible – in human terms – and yet things that happened because God was stepping down onto this broken world.

A Micro Thought: A little while back I started writing what I called ‘Micro thoughts’, short writings on my Facebook pages that were short, sharp and to the point, making a single point each time, written every three or four days, and when we came to December I focused them as ‘Advent Micro Thoughts’.  Here is the first one I wrote then: “Why, before all else (1 Pet 1:20), should the Godhead have planned for one of them to leave the wonder, the beauty, the glory, the peace and the harmony of heaven to come to the war-torn earth where human beings abused and enslaved one another, fought one another, argued with one another, allowed their minds to be distorted and twisted and warped in self-centred godlessness? Why would he come down (Jn 6:38) into all this in total vulnerability, almost hidden from view, utterly reliant on a teenage mother and questioning father? Why? Love.”

Silent Night? There is a Christmas carol that starts, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” and it conveys this beautiful picture of what was taking place two thousand years ago, as if everything was wonderfully peaceful, but the truth is very far from that. It is a beautiful romantic picture conjured up by that carol and the first verse goes on to speak of the crib scene: “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” It’s a beautiful carol and I have lost count of how many times I have sung it over the years, but really and truly, when you start thinking of the circumstances that make up the Christmas story, peace is the last thing than comes to mind! We’ll see that as we go along.

Context – Ben Hur: Perhaps to understand something more of what I have just been saying, it might be appropriate to think about the film ‘Ben Hur’. I realize I haven’t seen the 2016 version and so you must put up with my comments about the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. When people speak about that film the thing that usually comes up first in conversation is the deadly chariot race, but the images that always stay with me are those of Judah Ben Hur as a slave on a galley, chained in position with absolutely no hope whatsoever of his life as a slave ever changing. That is the world of two thousand years ago under the domination of the Roman empire with possibly one of the most disciplined armies of the world, disciplined by fear (because punishment for disobedience was either death or worse, slavery) and triumph (being part of a totally successful army).

Life in General: But life in general – although we may view it through the lenses of life today – was nothing like life today. When sickness struck, the odds were against you. If there was a bad harvest, you would know the pangs of hunger and fear of food running out. If you travelled it was either by foot or possibly by donkey, horse or camel, depending on how rich you were. There were no social security benefits so you took whatever job was available and if your father was a carpenter, you probably followed in his footsteps. Money came from work – your work. If your family didn’t have a trade or business, you worked as a servant, or even slave, for someone else.  If you were a woman, you cared for the home and had children.  Life for most was entirely parochial, you just didn’t travel. The word ‘holiday’ was probably unknown for most. If you had a disability and could not work, you begged and relied upon charity of passers-by or of your family. Because of the Roman presence, sometimes you worked for these overlords, perhaps collecting taxes for them and as they were not too concerned, just that you collected sufficient, it gave you space to be less than scrupulous in your dealings with the ordinary people. Yes, they may have disliked you but who cares, you are in the place of power and power means wealth and wealth means comfort in this often-uncomfortable world.

Why this world? Perhaps most people were too busy surviving to bother thinking about such issues but for us today we have space to ask the big questions, why is this world like this, why did you allow it to be like this God, why don’t you do something to change it? Security comes from an ordered life, and for a Jew living in the land we call Israel, order came through following the Law of Moses, hoping for a Messiah to come one day to bring us freedom as the prophets hinted, attending Synagogue on Saturday and entering into the life of our local community. As long as you kept the rules you were acceptable. Those who collaborated with the Romans were despised, and some had jobs that put them outside the ambit of community life, like those who were shepherds and who had to live out on the hills looking after their master’s sheep. Why was life so tough?  Why did God make it like this? Why didn’t He do something to change it? Those are some of the questions we’ll pick up along the way in these days ahead.

Meanwhile, back in heaven: Some have the view that Jesus first came into existence when he was conceived in Mary but such people clearly have never read John’s gospel. Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, certainly did appear in human form for the first time two thousand years ago, but the Son of God had existed with the Father from before time began and was there with the Father bringing the material world into being (Jn 1:3, Heb 1:2, Prov 8:27-31) and there he existed as the glorious second person of the Trinity (Jn 17:5,24). From there the Son ‘came down’, “I have come down from heaven.” (Jn 6:38)

And to Christmas? Unfortunately so often, in our thinking, we have relegated the Christmas story to nativity plays in schools where the baby Jesus gets accompanied by angels, sheep, penguins, lions and anything else that takes the school’s fancy, just helping the reality of what really happened drift further and further away from our understanding today. It is actually a harsh and difficult story, with occasional bursts of glory, but it is the story of God coming to do things which most people consider impossible – the first being that Almighty God, who sits on clouds in many people’s imaginations, comes to earth in the form of a baby. How ridiculous – but true!

The reality: Perfect God coming to a very imperfect world, perfect God coming to very imperfect people: that is what brings hope for you and me, and that must be one of the primary messages of Christmas, that God acted on their plan to leave the wonder, the beauty, the glory, the peace and the harmony of heaven to come to the war-torn earth where human beings abused and enslaved one another, fought one another, argued with one another, allowed their minds to be distorted and twisted and warped in self-centred godlessness. That is the wonder of Christmas and if you’ve never seen it like that, perhaps you’ve missed the reality of this story.  But it’s not just a story, it is history, facts of time-space history, and it is, together with the story of Good Friday and Easter Day, the most incredible and wonderful story ever to be declared on the earth.   It is only, I suggest, 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.