11. And that’s it?

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 11. And that’s it?

Addendum: Luke 2:22-38

Luke 2:32  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Context: Well, yes, we did come to the end of the readings yesterday but they left in me a feeling of incompleteness. I realise that those who constructed this ‘service’ had to limit the number of readings and draw a line somewhere and although I always think of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John as part of it, I realise adding in their story might seem a distraction from the main story. However, when it comes to Simeon and Anna, they definitely add to the main story and of course chronologically they come before the wise men. If I was adding a header to this extra ‘reading’ it would be “The story goes on” and with tongue in cheek I might add,  “and that’s just the beginning”.

Reading: The Law required a period of 40 days of ‘purification’ for the woman before she was to take a thank offering to the Temple, so a little over a month passes and they go up to Jerusalem with him (v.22) to comply with the Law (v.23,24). It is then that we are introduced to Simeon, an elderly, righteous and devout man, a Spirit-led man, who had a sense that the time for the coming of the Messiah was near (v.25,26). Moved by the Spirit he goes to the Temple courts and there encounters the little family (v.27) and takes the child in his arms and prays (v.28-32). In it he describes the baby as God’s salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (v.32)

This leaves Mary and Joseph marvelling (v.33) but that is only the beginning for Simeon now prophesies, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (v.34,35) We are then told about an elderly prophetess, Anna, a long-term widow who virtually lived in the Temple courts fasting and praying (v.36,37) and she joins in, giving thanks and telling everyone what God was doing (v.38)

Lessons: Again we are in the big-picture stuff here for there is no specific teaching, just a series of facts about an historical event, but as we look at these verses, as with all Scripture, we must ask ourselves, are there lessons for us, what does God want to say to us through these things.

Ongoing Story: Well, the first and somewhat obvious thing is that this says the usual things picked up in the Nativity story are not all that there is; there is an ongoing story to be followed up. How many children or unbelieving parents (and maybe even Christians) go away at the end of a Nativity play in church or in school and think, “That’s it. Now let’s get on with the real celebrations on Christmas Day.” But it’s not, it’s just the beginning and it is failure to follow on the story that leads so many people’s eternal destiny to be a negative one, and their future lives on earth to be dismal and destructive.

It didn’t finish with the Wise Men, it didn’t finish with Simeon and Anna. They don’t know it yet but this little family are about to have to flee to Egypt for a time, before eventually retuning to Nazareth where we hear nothing more for twelve years (Lk 2:41-52), and then another long gap until Jesus is about thirty, and then it all starts happening. The natural question that must follow on is, do you and I pursue our Christian faith as an ongoing ‘story’ or do we settle with the comfortable bit to which we’ve come. There is more.

Listening and Watching: Simeon, a Spirit-led man, and Anna, a prophetess, were among the few who had a sense the Messiah was about to arrive. The rest of the world was taken up with its daily affairs but these two had their eyes on heaven. The wise Christian has their eyes on heaven asking that question that comes only from the lips of those who are available, “What next, Lord?” God never stands still. The plans and purposes of God are ever rolling out in the flow of history and you and I have a part to play in it.

As I have been praying, I sense that the next series of meditations to follow this one are to be called, “Newness, Expectations and Hope” because that’s what we leave this series with. The new has arrived, the Lord’s Messiah, His own Son. In Mary and Joseph there must have been a wondering about what was now to come, an expectation that if all this had occurred, God must be taking it somewhere. There was a hope for the future that God was going to come and do more. In the incident when he was twelve, we read, his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51) Mary watched and listened – and wondered. What is the future going to hold. What did Simeon mean?

In for the Long Haul: There is a future for this baby and Mary and Joseph are his guardians. Unlike many self-focused parents of today in the West, they were in for the long haul and although it is thought that Joseph died before Jesus started ministering, Mary was there the whole time and was even there at the foot of the Cross where, yes, a sword pierced her heart, figuratively speaking at least.

Whether it be as parents or simply as Christians, we are here for the long haul. This isn’t just for a couple of enthusiastic years, this is right on to the end. I love those verses in Psa 92 that refer to the elderly believer: “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)

You may flag along the way but, with the grace of God, can you pick yourself up and keep going with head held high and heart beating strongly. The Lord may give you a vision for your life, and for a while it may grow dim, but He will renew it again and stir you on; it’s how it works. The story (of your life as a Christian) does not stop here; there’s much more to come and it needs you and me to determine to be faithful to the end. Yes? May it be so! Amen.

Bonus Story 2: Simeon

Sometimes it is fun to try and think yourself into a Bible story. This one tried to sense what it must have been like for Simeon. It’s a bit more basic that the previous one but hopefully catches something how it is when the Spirit moves.

The old man had been praying. He was very conscious of how good it was to live in Jerusalem and be near the Temple. It was an easy walk in each day to this place where the presence of God was supposed to live. It had started some time back in the local synagogue when the scrolls had been brought out and the Rabbi had read one of those enigmatic prophecies from of old that spoke about a coming one. As the words were read, something in him seemed to say, “You’ll see him!” He gently chided himself for his foolishness, “I’m an old man. We’ve waited all these year and there has been no sign. I can’t have long to go. Why should I be special? Why should I see him? It may be centuries before he comes!” But that inner voice seemed to persist, “No, you will see him when he comes to his house.” It was then he decided to move into Jerusalem, to be near the house of God, the Temple. How long would he have to wait, he wondered.

Day after day he had risen early and made his way in to the Temple and sat in the courts in the shade and watched the pilgrims who came, but no special figure appeared. How would he come? Riding on a donkey or riding in on a charger? Would he arrive with an escort or would he make a lone entrance? The pilgrims came and went, but no special figure appeared. Had he come and I missed him, he mused? That morning he woke from a disturbed sleep. He felt tired. Perhaps, just this once I may stay at home. How many days have I been coming here? What’s been the point? Perhaps I just made it up. What had Joel said? Old men will dream dreams. Perhaps it was just a dream of an old man, perhaps it was wishful thinking. Yet there again came that gentle nagging inner voice, “This is the morning. Today he will come.” Oh, what am I on about? This is silly! There’s nothing special about this day! It’s no great feast day! Surely he would come in great glory on a feast day, a day of celebration in his house? “Today he will come.” The inner voice persisted. Very well, I’ll go.

He made his way up to the Temple courts. He ached a lot this morning. It hadn’t been a good night. He felt highly unspiritual. I’ll just sit in the shade and watch what happens. He had been there an hour or so, just watching the crowds coming in, when he first saw them, a young man and even younger woman, more a girl really, and she with a bundle in her arms that looked like it could be a baby. His eyes drifted past them to others following them in, but strangely he felt his eyes being drawn back to them. Something inside him leapt. He found himself on his feet and moving towards them. Is this young man the one, but with a girl and a baby? No, it’s the baby! Suddenly he knew! It’s the baby! He ran towards them. They looked startled as this old man with a big smile came panting up to them with his hands out. “Please….” The girl looked up and smiled and handed the tiny bundle over.

As he took the child into his arms his heart seemed to explode with joy. He looked upwards with tears pouring down his face. “Almighty Lord, it’s just as you promised! I can come home now! I’ve seen your glory!” The young couple looked on in wonder. He turned to them, “Dear children, may the Lord bless you! This child of yours will be a measuring stick to determine God’s people. He will reveal their hearts.” He turned to the girl. “Your heart will be pieced before his days are ended, but fear not.” Just then an old lady appeared at his elbow praising God for the tiny child. The old man handed it back to the girl and then slid away while others came up and blessed the little family. With his heart beating so much he felt it would burst, the old man made his way outside and sat down. Still with tears running down his face he looked up. Lord, I can come home now.

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10. God who Talks

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 10. God who talks           

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Reading 9: John 1:1-14

John 1:,1,14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ….. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us

Context: So, as we come to the last of the nine readings, that has a header, “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation”, we move very much back to the big picture to summarise, we might say, the activities of Advent described by those who established this service of carols and readings we have been following this past week, as “the development of the loving purposes of God.” The use of John’s Gospel for this last reading lifts us away from the specific details of the Nativity story, to describe the whole in more philosophical terms that the wider world might understand and appreciate.

The Reading: To fully appreciate the meanings of John’s Prologue covered by these verses, you really need to read the verses in their completeness, so may I suggest on this Christmas morning you take your Bible and read them out loud as a reminder of what this day is really all about.  I will simply take the first five verses and then the end verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:1-5) Then, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (v.14) Having done that, let’s move directly into the lessons we may learn from these verses on this very special day.

Lessons – Statement of Truth: John, as a writer, writes more profoundly than the other three Gospel writers who wrote decades earlier than him, simply laying out the basic facts of what had happened. John, who remembers so vividly and has had many more years to reflect on it all, presents a ‘Gospel of understanding’, a Gospel that brings to light many of the things that Jesus said that so emphasised who he was. John writes, and we need to recognise it as such, a Gospel that is more a declaration of the truth – this IS what happened, and why! These verses in this reading provide meaning and context to the whole Advent and Nativity story, and as such they also provide a foundation of belief for our Faith.

A God who communicates:  The Bible above all, I believe, reveals a God who communicates and Jesus is His ultimate communication. As the writer to the Hebrews put it so clearly, In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb 1:1,2) John describes Jesus as a word, a means of communication, an expression of God, who was with God, (and) was God. …with God in the beginning…. (so) Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  Even in these opening words, John puts Jesus on a par with God. With the Father, yet distinct from the Father. (Various creeds speak of him as not being ‘born’ but ‘begotten’ and that word simply means ‘comes out of’, i.e. came out of God, of the same essence s God the Father.)

A Need to Listen: Surely if God speaks then our duty is to listen. If Jesus is the expression of God, one who was sent from heaven to reveal the Father (see Col 1:15, 2 Cor 4:4, Heb 1:3), when John says, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” (Jn 1:14) it is a foolish and complacent person who ignores the wonders of what we find in the four Gospels of the New Testament. If Jesus reveals the Father, perhaps the biggest challenge to the whole world is to see what the Gospels say, to see the sort of God that exists and is there in the background of every mind on earth.  As much as I am aware of its inadequacies, I would recommend if you haven’t read them yet, you work through the recent series, ‘Focus on Christ’. I am in the process of improving the content by turning it into book form  but the basics are there.

Perhaps a good New Year’s resolution would be to learn more of Jesus and learn more to be aware of his presence. I like what Pete Greig,  who was involved in founding the worldwide 24-7 prayer movement wrote: “The vision is Jesus. Not Christianity. Not prayer, mission and justice. Not worship-leading or church-planting or evangelism. If you love Jesus you’ll do that stuff; you’ll pray and worship and go to church and preach the gospel – but in doing all those things, don’t lose the why.” This is what today is about, about Jesus arriving on the earth in human form, visible to his parents, to shepherds, to wise men, to aged saints and years later to great crowds who saw the loving expression of God in their midst bringing health, life, freedom, goodness and love in abundance.

Sometimes we may stop someone, or be stopped by someone – I remember as a child, a policeman stopping a friend and I who, in childish, thoughtless, irresponsibility, living on a hillside had taken up a new game, pulling up the farmers turnips and rolling them down a path on the hillside – and the voice comes, “I want a word with you.” At that time you know it’s not just a single word; there is going to come more than a few words.

It takes far more than just a single word to describe Jesus, which is why we have the whole New Testament which tells about him and his role in the activity of the Godhead, that speaks of “the development of the loving purposes of God.” Unlike the words of the policeman, these words are to be welcomed and rejoiced over. In the midst of all the other activities of today, may we not fail to do that.

Now that completes the ‘nine readings’ but we will add one more study to morrow to round it off. But before we finish, a bonus.

Bonus Story 1: Overview or ‘A Potted Advent’

I sometimes like to try to capture what went on in story form. There is a bit of poetic or rather literary license in this story, but I hope it conveys something that lifts faith. It seeks to put together all the things we’ve seen in the Gospels, in this series.

Hullo. My name is Simeon. I have this feeling that I may be writing for those of you in the future and it is just possible you know more of how this story works out than I do at this moment. I also have this sense that I may not be here much longer, so I had better get on and tell you what I know.

I live near Jerusalem and am now in old age. The things I want to tell you about have only happened in this past year, although I think my story goes back a lot further than that. I have always sought to be a servant of Yahweh and in my years of retirement from my business, I have spent much time examining the scrolls in the local synagogue, courtesy of my rabbi. I consulted the teachers of the Law in Jerusalem and they, somewhat condescendingly I felt, guided me into the prophets. Oh, I should explain, I was searching for the Messiah that I had heard about since my youth.

Without doubt there are things there, that are a mystery, in the scrolls. As I have gone where they said, I read of how a child would be born to a young girl, probably in nearby Bethlehem, a child who would come as a great light to the land of the north, our Galilee. I have never been there, but it is often considered a land of darkness and misery, having been the first part of our land that has suffered at the hands of invaders from the north many times in the past. Yet Yahweh is going to bring great light to it, I know not how.

But there are contradictory prophecies about this coming one. For instance, on one hand he is said to be a great ruler, and on the other a servant. On one hand he is spoken of as a mighty ruler while on the other, one who is beaten and despised and rejected. I am not sure how these things can all be tru,e but I have the utmost faith in our prophets that they heard from God.

And then, one day, as I was searching the scrolls, I had this intense feeling that the Coming One was on his way, he would appear soon. I assumed he would appear in Jerusalem, probably at the Temple, that would make sense, so I increasingly spent more time there, watching and waiting.

And then they came, this little family and immediately something in me said, “This is them!”  But who? The baby. The baby is the coming one. I felt words of thanks, words of prophecy welling up inside. I had never known anything quite like it. And then Anna, an old prophetess I had come to know, who also spent most of her time there, came up and carried on where I had finished. Crowds came and looked and then went, and when the fuss had died down, I spoke to this couple and they told me their story, a strange story at that.

The mother was but a young girl really, and yet she had seemed to have aged beyond her years. She told me how, about a year back an angel had come to her and spoke with her. I marveled at the wonder of it. He had said she would bear a son to be the mighty one we were expecting. She confessed she had not known what to think as she and her man were only betrothed and had not come together, but the angel reassured her that this was something Yahweh would bring about. A few weeks later she started feeling sick and then became aware of her body enlarging.

As she recounted those days she looked at her husband, a strong looking young man obviously a little older than she, who stood there in the background remaining silent. I looked at him and eventually he said, “It is true, and I trust my Mary implicitly, although not at first.”  I smiled with understanding, and so he continued. “You must understand, I am a good Jew and her story seemed so far-fetched to me, that I felt the only course open to me was to break off our engagement. I was about to do it when I had the most amazing dream that was so real I had no other course but to believe it. In it I think I saw the same angel that Mary saw, and he told me that what I had been told was true and that she was carrying our Messiah.

It was clear by their accents that they came from the north, so I asked them how they came to be here. They said it was because of Caesar’s census that required Joseph to return to the home of his ancestors, Bethlehem. It had not been an easy experience because when they arrived it was clear that Mary was only days or maybe even hours from delivering her baby, and because there were so many others who had come there to be counted, there was nowhere for them to stay and they ended up in a stable behind an Inn.

Please don’t think me insensitive, but when they told me how the bay was born, my eyes filled with tears of gratefulness to God. They said it had been a strange experience because not much later, when they were still trying to cope with the experience – I think they said the Innkeeper’s wife had come to help with the delivery – suddenly a whole bunch of rough and scruffy shepherds had turned up outside, and you know what they’re like, they are virtually outcasts in our society but they came bursting in, loud with laughter, quite inappropriate for the quiet scene, but telling of how an angel – yes, yet another angel – had come and told them of the baby and then they said it been like heaven opened up and they saw thousands of angels singing and praising Yahweh for the arrival of His son. It was the most strange story but I could not doubt their sincerity and anyway, that quiet inner voice I have heard before, assured me it was right.

After a little while they left, but a few days later I felt I must see them again, so I travelled on my donkey to Bethlehem and sought them out, and found Joseph had been doing jobbing work around the village. To cut a long story short I visited them on a weekly basis; I felt a little like a guardian angel watching over them, but I think they actually had the real things; they needn’t need me, but I went as an aged friend.

And then one time about a month or so later, now a couple of weeks back, when I visited, they told me excitedly how a camel train with very strange men from the east had come and bowed down before their child. They hadn’t known what to say, but then, as the men and their camel train were about to leave, they took out most expensive gifts of gold and most precious ointments and gave them to them. They had been overwhelmed with such riches which would provide for them for years and couldn’t understand why such a thing should happen.

Now this is where it gets strange. I visited just yesterday, but they were gone. I enquired of their neighbour, in the house next door to where they had been staying, and fortunately he recognised me as a friend, and told me an angel in a dream had told them to leave straight away for Egypt. So, they have gone, and I feel a great gap in my life. I don’t know what will become of them but with all the wonderful directions they have received from our God, I am sure they will be back one day in the not too distant future.

By the time you read this, you may know the outcome. I have been privileged to meet this little family for a short while and something in me tells me that this is just the start for them. I am sure I will not be around to see it, but you may, and when we meet in the heavenly throne room one day we can share the wonders we have been permitted to see. I believe I will go there shortly, and I go in peace and with great joy. May you know the same that comes with knowing this wonderful story.

9. Not our People

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 9. Not our People

Reading 8: Matthew 2:1–12

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

Context: The leader-heading for these verses reads, “The wise men are led by star to Jesus”. That is nice and simple, but I wonder how many of us ever stop and wonder why these ‘wise men’ or Magi turned up within a couple of months of Jesus’ birth while they are still at Bethlehem?  And even more when we consider the overall intention of these readings – “the development of the loving purposes of God” – and that seen in the light of the big picture concerning the failure of mankind, and God’s plan to redeem us, how does this little episode fit in all that?

The Reading: Jesus has been born in Bethlehem in the days of King Herod (v.1) and these Magi or wise men arrive in Jerusalem enquiring where the newly born king of the Jews is, that their star had led them to (v.2). Herod is clueless (v.3) but, assuming this refers to the long-awaited Messiah, he asks the religious leaders what indications there are of where he would be born (v.4). No problem Micah said it would be Bethlehem (v.5,6). Herod enquires of the Magi and sends them to Bethlehem to check it out and return and tell him (v.7,8). This they do, continuing to follow their star, and there they find Jesus now residing temporarily (presumably) in a house with his parents, (v.9,10) and they bow and worship him and present him with costly gifts (v.10,11) and then, being warned against Herod in a dream, they leave for home avoiding Jerusalem (v.12). An amazing story.

Lessons: Again an historical narrative that we must let speak to us, but it is a narrative that is full of question marks – and we’re not given answers. Who really were these men? Were there just three of them – we assume that because of three gifts? How had they really been led here to Israel? What was this star and how did it seem to be so specifically over the place where they were? Why did they leave them with these gifts? What did the little family do with them? To where did these ‘wise men’ return?

Mystery does not mean blind faith: Confronting these questions – and lack of answers (we may speculate but that is all it will be) the sceptic might say, ‘See, so much of this Christian faith stuff is blind faith!’ Well, no, blind faith suggests you can see nothing. This story says some unknown men turned up with presents, partly guided by prophetic scriptures. It happened, no problem and it was wonderful. The Bible doesn’t give us every answer to the questions we have but it gives sufficient answers to establish a well-founded faith. There IS so much here that does not have questions over it.

Guidance may come in a variety of ways: In these few verses there are three forms of guidance given. First there is the star over which still hangs a mystery, but what we can say is that somehow these men had an inner certainty that it was leading them – and they homed in on the right destination. Where did that certainty come form? May I suggest God.  Second, there were the prophetic scriptures, the word of God, and again God may speak in a variety of ways to us through His word. Third, there was a dream and the Bible indicates this is not an unusual way He communicates.

Believers may not be “our kind of people”. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very picky about how people should behave and if they didn’t conform, they were looked down on by these religious snobs. These ‘wise men’ were not Jews and I am sure there would have been some mumbling behind closed doors about them and the collective wisdom was probably, “Well they are not our people but they seem to have some kind of mystic guidance. Let them go and see where it sends them and then we can decide what to do about it.”  I cited the other day how some of the British Royal family didn’t take to Billy Graham when he first arrived in the 1950’s.  I’m sure there would have been some more conservative elements of the Church in the USA who was not happy about the Jesus Movement back near the end of the last century, others unhappy about John Wimber, others unhappy about ‘leaders’ of the ‘charismatic movement’ and even more about the goings on of the ‘Toronto Blessing’. And so it goes on through the Christian world; we keep getting confronted by those who are not ‘our people’. The trouble is that God doesn’t seem to have the same social (or spiritual) boundaries that we have!

A God of Provision:  Those gifts. They were expensive but they were the currency of the day across borders. Today we have to exchange currency. Then they had expensive products that could be sold for the local currency. That’s what these gifts were. They were God’s method of providing for the material needs of this little family. No doubt Joseph, as a carpenter, found local jobs to do to earn money but, although they don’t know it yet, they are going to have to flee to Egypt, and that means, if it was us, we’d go to the bank and get out some foreign currency, but the Wise Men were their ‘bank’. Wonderful! Now you couldn’t have seen that coming! And that’s what it is like so often when God provides:  it comes but you could never have guessed it was coming or rather from where it was going to come. Wonderful, but faith-stretching sometimes!

It is an amazing part of this story. Yes, it may have question marks over it, but the lessons ring out loud and clear for anyone who has ears to hear. May that be you and me.

8. The Bottom of the Barrel

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 8. The Bottom of the Barrel

Reading 7: Luke 2:8–16

Luke 2:8,9  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them

Context: Whoever it was who set up this service and put headings over each set of verses, really excelled themselves with this one: “The shepherds go to the manger” which sounds as mundane as ‘the hungry person went to the fridge’ but, in fact, covers up a most incredible experience. Now before we get into the  reading itself, we need to recognise there is something slightly different about these  verses. The verses from the Old Testament pointed towards a Coming One, then in the last two studies we have seen the angel coming to Mary and then the baby being born in Bethlehem.  There is a sense with this reading that it is about events that don’t actually change the circumstances of the baby, but maybe simply bring a little encouragement to his parents. Yet, I am going to suggest, there is an amazing lesson here.

The Reading: Luke recounts this incident involving shepherds somewhere out on the hills near Bethlehem (v.8), looking after their sheep, when an angel appears to them. Now I’ve never thought of this before  but quite often when angels turn up they come in simple human form and initially at least, the person they are coming to doesn’t recognise them for what they are. This one turns up with the glory of the Lord shining all round and it scares the life out of the shepherds (v.9). Now forgive me if you don’t like this comment, but it seems to me that the Lord is putting on a show here; it’s like He is making a point – be under no illusion guys, this is my angel, yes from heaven! So when he speaks, you want to listen! So the angel reassures them that he’s come with good news (and by implication, not bad news – you’re not in trouble!) and this news will be for everyone (v.10). In Bethlehem, the Messiah has been born (v.11) and you’ll know this is true if you go down there and look in a stable and see him in a manger – yes a manger! (v.12) Now as if that wasn’t enough, there suddenly appeared an immense crowd of angels all singing and praising God (v.13,14), and then they were gone and it must have gone silent again and dark. So impacting was this that they determined to go and see what God had said (v.15) and when they got there they found it exactly as they had been told (v.16). And that’s it. No explanation, just the story.

Lessons? Now it may be that we have heard this story so many times that the familiarity of it means we’ve lost any sense of wonder. Also, as an account of something that actually happened, it is quite difficult to see any lessons within it that might apply to us. It is unlikely that these events are ever going to be repeated and so we are left scratching our heads and are left pondering, well, what actually happened here? Why did it happen? Why did it happen as it did?

God’s excitement? Again you may not like the idea of God being ‘excited’ but the picture of an angel with the full glory surrounding him, then “a great company of the heavenly host” turning up singing, speaks to me of an air of celebration about all this. It has the feeling that heaven cannot contain itself, there is such excitement that God has come to the earth in human form; it is that incredible.

Now the question that must follow, and this surely must be one of the lessons here, is, do you and I get excited about God, about Jesus, about the Christian faith, about church, about prayer, about the Bible, about evangelism? Are we, I wonder, sober, conservative, unemotional Christians? The other day I saw the portrayal of the British Royal Family back in the 1950’s, when Billy Graham first came to London. The response of some of the ‘top people’ was that this was un-British emotionalism (one has to say that was not the response of her majesty the Queen). British churchmanship did not have room for emotion, but the truth is these things ARE exciting, they are thrilling. This account with the shepherds IS mind blowing! The Bible is wonderful. Prayer is wonderful. God is incredible. Jesus is incredible. The Christian faith is unique. If we remain coldly unemotional we have either lost something or never found it!

Bottom of the barrel: Yes, this is the heading I’ve put at the top of this study, because I have written on this story a number of times in the past and this is the expression that I have this time round. The shepherds of Jesus’ day tended to be outcasts. They lived out in the hills with their sheep or the sheep of their master, and so existed out there and clearly would not be able to participate in any of the religious life of Israel. For that they would be looked down on by the religious leaders. They would not be the best dressed and they probably smelled.  Socially, they were the bottom of the barrel, we might say today. And this is where it gets thrilling. Why should God choose scruffy, outcast shepherds to whom to announce the arrival of His Son on the earth, unless He is sending a subtle message to all similar ‘outcasts’, those who have made a mess of life, those who are excluded by the great and the good, those who don’t turn up at civic receptions, those who aren’t invited to special religious celebrations, and the message is – I see you, I know you, I love you and I don’t reject you. I am here for you and I want you to know the wonder of the salvation I have laid on for whoever will receive it.

Let’s not add anything more to these two ‘lessons’. You may have just thought that this was a nice, if not fascinating, little story in the Nativity play, but it speaks out these two powerful and profound lessons: God was thrilled when the time was right for Jesus to come to the earth to reveal the love of heaven for mankind, and it is a message for ALL mankind and no one is excluded. Whoever you are, wherever you have come from, whatever you have done, whatever has happened to you, this is for you. This is God’s calling card, this is the Lord saying, Hey, I am here, and I am here for you!

7. Inconvenient Circumstances

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 7. Inconvenient Circumstances

Reading 6: Luke 2:1;3–7

Luke 2:3,4  everyone went to their own town to register.  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 

Context: The header for this reading just says, “St. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus” which is about as simple as you can get. This particular reading always feels to me that it is the heart of these readings, the focus of where it is all going. The earth has a problem, there is going to be a future conflict, the one involved is going to come from the family lines of Abraham and David and the previous reading led us to believe there would be a miraculous conception that marks this child out from any other who has been born in the whole of history throughout the earth. Here are the very basic facts of why he was born and why he was born here. This really is big picture stuff, we’ll soon see.

The Reading: If we take it in reverse order, it helps make sense. The baby is born in a stable. Why a stable? Because every other room in town is taken by the time they get there. Why was that and where was it? In Bethlehem, because everyone who could trace their lineage back to David (as Joseph could) had to go there to be counted in a national census, and that meant lots of people many of who had obviously already arrived. Why this census? Because Caesar Augustus, the current Roman emperor had a fit of pride and decided he wanted to know exactly how many people he ruled over in his empire.

The Lessons: Again this is not a passage of Scripture that lays down specific teaching and so we are left looking at what was going on and asking, how do such things happen, do they happen today, and how do they affect us? In other words, what do these sort of circumstances teach us about life, and specifically the Christian life?

Life out of control:  Well the very obvious thing here is that sometimes in life we are driven by circumstances that are beyond our control. If you had asked Mary and Joseph what they thought about what was happening, I think we can be fairly sure that both of them would say they would much rather stay in Nazareth so that Mary can have her baby in her home environment. But that wasn’t to be.

When you start thinking about this and consider the last hundred years or so, various similar examples occur. A hundred years or so, many millions would not have wanted to go to war to be slaughtered at the behest of leaders, first of all those who entered into national pacts that triggered the First World War, and then generals who treated soldiers as meaningless machine gun fodder. Some twenty or so years later, another bunch of millions of soldier would have preferred that a jumped up little corporal wouldn’t have been allowed to become so powerful that he provoked the Second World War. In various communist countries a spectrum of twentieth century dictators made life hell for millions more who lived under their power.

God who permits: Imagine a country where everyone repents and turns to God and becomes a one hundred per cent believing nation who turns every difficulty over to God in prayer. I want to suggest that God would stand up for that nation and protect it, but as that never happens, the Lord allows sinful mankind to be released to exercise its free will as it will so that what follows is judgment. One of the most difficult lessons in the Bible is that God, having allowed mankind to be mankind with free will, mostly does not intervene but allows judgment to come through the hands of sinful men. This sometimes means that believers get swept into heaven prematurely (e.g. Stephen and James in Acts). At other times the Lord acts sovereignly to save his people (e.g. Daniel, Shadrach etc. in the Babylonian court and Peter in Acts 12 although that did not stop him eventually dying as a martyr.)

The story of much of the Bible reflects the reality of living in this Fallen World, with people like Joseph and Mary getting swept along into the most inconvenient of circumstances by the whim of one maniac at the top of the pile!  (see also the end of Jeremiah with the same thing happening, or the experiences of Ezekiel and others in exile). Belief in God, when it faces this freedom of despots to act as they do, also means we have to cope with the thought that God permits these things as disciplinary judgement, even though examples abound in the Bible of Him being there for His people again and again in the midst of it. These are massive truths that bear down and challenge our belief in a God who knows best and can be there for us in the midst of such trials.

The curse of a family name: it is with slight tongue in cheek that we might also suggest there are times when we wish we were free from our family background. If the world events aren’t bad enough, sometimes our family background, even our genes or upbringing are things we wish weren’t part of our experience. Joseph had to go because he was of the family of David. Very often we are dragged into circumstances that are the making of our particular family – and we may wish were weren’t.

Grace is the Answer: It is not obviously here in this story but we will see how God does provide for this little family but we now need to face this truth in the light of these other almost overwhelming lessons. How can we cope in these circumstances that are imposed upon us. Yes, there are times when our own folly brings the sky down on us, so to speak, but we are talking here of things beyond our control. The lesson of the whole Bible is that first and foremost, God is there for His children and so will be working for our good in however bad the circumstances seen to be (see Rom 8:28). That may involve Him working into the circumstances to bring us through or out of them. It may also mean Him simply providing sufficient grace for us to enable us to cope while still being in the midst of those trying circumstances.

Behinds this story which is so familiar and is read at this time of the year, year after year, there are some seriously challenging things to be faced and thought through. Many Christians, sadly, do not do that and so when those ‘trying circumstances’ come they are heard complaining and fail to seek the Lord for either the reason or the grace to see it through. The implications of these simple verses call for a new degree of maturity in understanding. May we find that.

6. The Impossible is Possible

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 6. The Impossible is Possible

Reading 5: Luke 1:26–35;38

Luke 1:26,27  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.

Context: When we come to this fifth ‘Lesson’ the service sheet heading is seriously under-whelming: “The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary” for it is perhaps a record of what must be one of the most amazing conversations recorded in history. But before we rush into it, we must pause and realise where we are in this series of nine readings. The first four brought us to the Old Testament records that we have reiterated again and again, but now we turn to the New Testament to the brief records of the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the Son of God. The account links with what has just happened to Elizabeth who now, although in old age beyond child-bearing age and capability, is in fact expecting a baby who, they are told, will be called John (v.26a). It is the sixth month if her confinement.

Reading: An angel, designated by the name Gabriel, is sent by God with a purpose, to convey His plans for this young virgin named Mary, and she is betrothed to a man named Joseph (v.26,27). The angel greets her (v.28) and Mary wonders who she is to be so greeted (v.29).  The angel reassures her and tells her she will conceive and have a son who she is to name Jesus (v.30,31). This son will be “called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.32,33)

To this amazing revelation, Mary’s only concern is how she can conceive because she and Joseph have not come together and (implied) will not come together for some time, until they are formally married. (v.34). A righteous couple! The angel informs her that the Holy Spirit will enable this to happen and so her child will be called “the Son of God” (v.35). Mary’s response is the classic example in the whole of history of availability and openness to God: “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)

Lessons: To look for lessons in this reading is difficult because it is a unique record of a conversation between a specific girl and an angel in a situation never to be repeated. Such lessons as there may be, must focus on our credibility, our willingness to believe the text of a passage that is rarely found on a greeting card at Christmas these days. (In one major store recently, we perused the shelf of Christmas cards and only five out of the whole display gave any reference to the Biblical record!)

To believe or not to believe: This may sound a needless comment, but the fact of the matter is that today in the West, although at Christmas people may tolerate these verses being read in the midst of nice music, the reality is that the majority of our population do not believe the passage we have just recounted. Angels? Maybe, because ‘spiritual’ people go for anything. Virgin birth? Come on! But that is what the record clearly says. If you want to cut this bit out of the records in the Gospels, where do you stop? The who of the accounts in Matthew and Luke, concerning Advent, are full of the divinely supernatural. God is. Angels are. A pregnant virgin is. Shepherds are. Wise men are.

All or nothing and if you dare say, “A load of myths” you have to say the same about the rest of the Gospels, and there you come unstuck because there are clear outside-the-Bible historical records. Remember Luke’s starting words: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:1-4) Surely he interviewed the now middle-aged Mary and found her account utterly convincing. The lesson is a challenge to investigate and to believe.

A God who Intervenes: An alternative title here might be, ‘A God who initiates’ for while mankind is ‘sleeping’ God is at work to bring His Son to earth. Few had any idea of what was going on. Maybe some Magi in the east, maybe the occasional Spirit-led believer (Simeon), but mostly life just carried on as normal, and then angels start turning up with messages from on high. To be precise, one angel, Gabriel, who comes to both Zechariah (Lk 1:19) and now Mary. The timing is precise. One writer has suggested that by the time Jesus started his ministry, thirty years later, and then died and rose again, across the Roman Empire there were at least six factors that made this the very best time for the Gospel to be spread and taken across the world. (Perhaps the next big time would be the nineteenth century when the great missionary movements got under way).

The lesson here surely has to be, never think that the world is set, your life is set, and will not change. The fact is that God does wait for appropriate times when many factors fall in line (e.g. when the movement to abolish slavery mounted up) and that includes our individual lives as much as it does big national movements. One day, we are ‘sleeping’ (a time of inactivity and low expectation)  and then suddenly God moves. Be alert for the moves of God which so often come with no apparent warning.

No impossibilities: Perhaps, again to avoid distractions and focus only on the main issue, this reading purposely leaves out, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (v..36,37) which is a shame because of that amazing declaration, “For nothing is impossible with God.” Here is Mary, a virgin and yet God is going to enable her to conceive and have a son.  When you look, there are a number of women in the Bible who were enabled by God to conceive – admittedly no other virgin, but it is something that happens more than a few times. But the bigger picture is the challenge to say, along with Jesus, “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). When our hearts are yearning in one direction, it just may be that it is the will of God you are sensing. What it now needs are others, full of faith and the Spirit, to come alongside you and pray it into being.

Available for the New: God was coming to do something completely new – His Son was coming to the earth. He shared it with Mary whose response is, “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” The simple question has to be, are you and I open to the Lord, even when we do not fully understand what He is saying? His heart has been caught by something in the Church or in the world; He knew it was coming, but it’s just that now is the time for it, so He shares it into your heart. You hear it and question it. But it prevails. Will we be His instruments in His hands to bring it into being?

This reading may have no direct instructions for us, but it certainly does raise some important challenges. Will we respond to them this Christmas?

5. A Bringer of Peace

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 5. A Bringer of Peace

Reading 4: Isaiah 11: 1–3a, 4a, 6–9

Isa 11:6     The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together; and a little child will lead them

Context: The Lesson header reads, “A peace that Christ will bring is foreshown” which is a good summary of the second half of these verses, but they must be seen in the context of the first four verses. So remember what has gone before in the first three readings – the Fallen world with a problem, a problem that God has in mind from the start. And then there was a person who would ‘fight’ Satan and his works and overcome, a person in the family tree of Abraham, a person who will become a ruler over a kingdom without end, a ruler called God. We must not forget this context, part of “the development of the loving purposes of God” being rolled out in these none readings.

The Reading: We should note in the reading that it leaves out v.3b  ‘how’ this man works – not by human intellect – and also v.4b the judgment aspect of his work. We assume this is because those who set up these verses wanted to emphasise the key element in the light of all that had gone before, the light that this one will bring that was referred to before, will result in him bringing peace to the tumultuous earth.

The Man – his nature: This fourth reading starts, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (v.1) Jesse was the father of David and his family referred to as a tree stump, will bring forth a branch. Then comes the nature of this one referred to as a Branch: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.” (v.2,3a) Perhaps we may summarise this as ‘this person will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord in every way, with a heart that is all out for God’.

The Man – his activity: So much for his nature, what about his activity? “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (v.4a) This person is going to be concerned for the needy and the poor and all his actions will be right in God’s sight (righteous) and justice (what is right and fair) will be the basis on which he makes decisions. Now this passage does not speak about him being a ruler but the fact that he will come doing these things implies he is a ruler bringing his will upon the earth, his will which is to care for the poor and needy who are suffering because it is a fallen world. Isn’t that why people are poor and needy? Because it is a fallen world whereby individuals make a mess of their own lives or other people oppress their lives or, at the very least, do not help when they see needs.

The Man – his fruit: Now verse 1 concluded with “a Branch will bear fruit”. The fruit of this work of ministering to the poor and bringing justice is shown in the following very graphic description: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.” (v.6-8) In the previous prophecies in Isaiah, there has been mention of a child and that continues twice here. Whether this is figurative or will literally come about with the advent of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1) only time will tell. If it is figurative it is still a beautiful picture of peace and harmony as we might imagine it was when God first created the earth. It is all summed up in the final verse of the reading, “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (v.9) It is a place of peace and security, filled with the presence of God.

The Lessons: Again we must remind ourselves, the object of these studies is to ask what these readings teach us. If we fail to do this, we leave these ‘Lessons’ as romanticised words jammed in between a lot of carols, the packing to build up this beautiful composition – but it will be no more than that!

Something More: The first thing these verses tell us is that on God’s heart, God’s plan if you like, there is a strategy that is working towards an end goal. What we experience at the moment is not it; it is merely the vehicle that carries us towards the end goal. In the big picture there are three stages: Creation – which was perfect, the Fall – which we experience now and is far from perfect because of our sin, and the Restoration of all things, the new heaven and new earth which will be made perfect again.

Brought by a Man: The second thing these verses tell us is that God was going to use a man to bring change to the life on earth, that will eventually culminate in the winding up of the present and bringing in of the new. Linked to that, or flowing on from that, is the teaching that we have picked up before, that God will now use you and me, individuals within His plan, that He is working out towards that end goal. It is an amazing truth that, although on occasion God does intervene in the affairs of mankind sovereignly, much of the time He prefers to involve us.

The classic case of this has to be Moses, where the Lord says He had seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land”, which all sounded wonderful until He said, “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Ex 3:7-10) He uses US as part of the answer to the problem.

Historic Context: We might also add a third thing here, that it is clear than the Messiah was not only merely a human being (Gen 3), not merely a member of Abraham’s family (Gen 22) but also a member of Jesse’s family tree, through David. There is a strong family tree context here which says to us, that today you and I live in a stream of history. The world around us is like it is because of history, what has already happened (which, I suggest, behooves us to learn about it, how we got to this point!) and in a large measure we are like we are because of a) our family genes and b) our upbringing and experiences. Having said that we have a free will and these things do not MAKE us behave like we do, they only prod us in that direction, but we can choose with the grace and power of God to be different.  Serious lessons!

Goal determining Process: A fourth lesson: we are living out a life-process but we’ve just been shown God’s end goal – peace on earth – and so while living in the process, although we’re not at the end, nevertheless, working for peace should be within our present goals (Mt 5:9), bringing peace within our families, peace in our colleges, peace in our workplace, peace wherever we are, and that will require a lot of prayer, grace and wisdom, but all those are available with His help. He wants it, so let’s work for it.