20. Advent equals a changing Jesus

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 20. Advent equals a changing Jesus

Lk 2:40-42    the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him…. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom.

There is a danger with a series like that reflects on the wonder and reality of Christmas. It is that we only see Jesus as a little baby and get all warm and mushy about him and have nice romantic feelings that fail to develop to see the full picture.

The full picture starts with the glorious Son of God in heaven with his Father. Jesus indicated very clearly that he had come down from heaven where he had lived, full of glory before hand (see Jn 6:33,38,  17:5).  John in his Gospel (Jn 1:1-3) and the writer to the Hebrews (Heb 1:2) reveal Jesus as co-Creator with His Father. That was Jesus before he came as a baby.

But then comes the human stages that we have been observing, coming as a baby born of the virgin Mary, who then grows up (see our verses above). Then about the age of thirty he started his three year ministry culminating in his death on the Cross, followed by the resurrection and then the ascension, his return to heaven where he sits with his Father, ruling in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2)

In those three years of his ministry we see a figure so different from that helpless babe. We see him as master of the wind and the waves, manufacturer of wine and bread, healer of the sick, one who raises the dead, one who fearlessly confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and  religious establishment and who then courageously faces his own impending execution. Oh yes, very different from the ‘meek and mild’ infant we observe in the Christmas story.

But it doesn’t end there. See him as he reveals himself to his servant John on the Isle of Patmos. among the lamp-stands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev 1:13-18)  Unquestionably the description, “I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever,”  must apply to the ascended Jesus who stands before John in his vision as a wise elder-priest but unlike any human. This is the One who is Lord of all, head of the Church, yes, but even more than that, the One who has ultimate say over life and death.

Later John was to see him standing before the throne of God as the Lamb of God, the only one worthy to undo the scroll of end-time history. (See Rev 4). Even later he is revealed as the coming conquering king before whom all will bow (see Rev 19).

This is the same Jesus we have been considering in these reflections on the Christmas story but it is, in reality, only a tiny part of the overall picture, a wonderful and glorious part certainly, a part involving specific human individuals and they (and this is the wonder) contribute to the working out of the overall purposes of God. So, likewise, you and I do the same as we work out, live out, our lives with Him as He uses us to contribute to the working out of His overall purposes. You may read this and Christmas is either past or even long distant, but the truths remain the same. Marvel at the wonder of the plans and purpose of God, worked out in the players of the Christmas story, but remember, He is still doing it today, with you and me. Hallelujah!

19. Christmas equals Change

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 19. Christmas equals Change

Jer 29:11    For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

If we look at the whole Christmas story as recounted by Matthew and Luke, there is one thing above all else that stands out. It is about a series of events that must have stretched out a little over twelve months. In the previous meditation we left the young family escaping to Egypt. After a couple of years they will get the ‘all-clear’ and can return to Nazareth where they will settle and the boy Jesus will grow up.

But a little over twelve months back, none of this had happened and there was no warning of what was about to happen. Zechariah had not seen his angel, Mary had not seen her angel, Joseph had not had his dream, Mary had not conceived, the emperor had not sent them to Bethlehem, the baby had not been born, the shepherds had not come, Simeon and Anna had not greeted them, and the wise men had not come. No, twelve months or so back, none of that had happened.

So here is the thing that stands out – the Christmas story is all about change, change that took place in the lives of many people. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph are the key players and they experience the biggest changes, but then there were the shepherds, Simeon, Anna and the wise men, and none of them would ever be the same either.

Look back over your past twelve months and your life will almost certainly be summed up in the same way – change. Circumstances, things happened, maybe babies being born, maybe people dying, maybe changes in schools or workplaces. Maybe marriages and, tragically, maybe divorces. We are not the same people today that we were twelve months ago.

But if that is the big thing that stands out, there is something else that is equally important but not so obvious, and it is the hand of God working out His plans and purposes as He works to bring about His will on earth. What was that will in the Christmas story? It was to bring Jesus into the lives of all these people. What is His will today? It is to bring Jesus into the midst of all of our lives. For those of us who already know Him, it is to know Him more. For those around us who don’t know Him, His desire is that they do come to know Him.

Within those broad sweeps of His will there may be a myriad of smaller details that are involved in bringing those big sweeps about. He may not bring about the bad things that go on around us – for we live in a fallen world where things go wrong because of the presence of Sin and Satan – but He will work in the midst of them to bring about His primary goals. He may not have prompted the emperor to issue the edict that affected Mary and Joseph, but at the very least He knew it would happen and used it for His bigger purposes. He certainly didn’t prompt Herod to come after all the baby boys, but He certainly knew about it, and was there guarding, protecting and guiding this little family.

So here is the big picture view of Christmas. It is not about presents and parties, about food and drink, it is all about the changes that go on in lives prompted by God as he works out His will on the earth. It says to us that this is how life is, full of constant change, but behind it there is the Lord subtly working out His plans and purposes for the earth, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  That is God’s intent for the earth, for the world and its people who have fallen and turned their back on Him. It is to say, “I am still here, I still love you and I still want to draw you to myself for I have so many good things on my heart for you if you will only receive them.” May we each hear that voice.

18. Pushed around or gently led

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 18. Pushed Around or Gently Led

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

There are various question marks over this part of the Christmas story. Joseph’s dream appears to come before Herod takes action. The Lord clearly knows what Herod is going to do. We might be tempted to ask, why didn’t the Lord kill Herod rather than let Herod order the killing of many young children? An answer might be because He might kill off Herod but another member of Herod’s family would just step into his place and do the same thing. It is the quandary we have about a sovereign God who ‘has’ to allow sinful men their say, although there are clearly times when He does step in and bring judgment. It is an unanswered question, I suggest, in this case. The bigger question is why does God not stop all wars, all violence and all oppression? The answer is found in the reality of free will and God’s desire to respect that even when evil follows. Without free will good things cannot be seen as good things.

But a bigger reality that nags at me in this story is how do Mary and Joseph feel about all this? It almost seems like they are pawns being pushed around a chess board. First the emperor issues an edict that requires them to leave their home at a most inconvenient time and now the local ‘king’ is about to embark on an act of genocide that will require them to flee the land. For the couple chosen to host the coming of the Son of God, this seems tough and they might have expected better.

However, as we have already seen, the act of the emperor simply highlights who Jesus is as far as human genealogy and Old Testament prophecy goes, and that was to help those who had eyes to see. Herod is simply the sinful act of a sinful man, no doubt egged on by Satan, to seek to thwart the will of God as He seeks to bring His Son into the world to start the redeeming process that will follow. But yes, if you were so inclined you might want to grumble at being pushed around the world at the whim of powerful people – but then isn’t life so often so like that in this Fallen World?

On the other hand, as they reflect back on all the communications that have come either directly or indirectly from heaven – angel instructions, Spirit conception, family & Holy Spirit encouragements, angelic and shepherd encouragements, Temple and Holy Spirit encouragements, wise men encouragements and now, finally it seems, dream guidance yet again – all of this is amazing leading. Looking back over the story I can see eight times when God has been involved bringing them guidance or encouragement so far.

Now to be fair, when it comes to seeing how this can be applied to us today, we have to acknowledge that angelic guidance tends to be fairly rare. It does seem that God saves angelic usage for major or serious affairs. Nevertheless, I can see at least four instances of the Holy Spirit’s participation (it may be six) in all of this and there we may be on more familiar ground.

I have sought to ask a question of us with each of these studies or reflections so here is this one: recognising that we are living in a Fallen World, do we have more a sense of being pushed around by the circumstances of this Fallen World and the people in it, or do we have a sense of the hand of God overshadowing our lives, guarding and protecting us, and providing for us, and guiding us? Have we learned to have an open ear to the Lord so that He may speak to us either through His word or by His Spirit, bringing guidance and reassurance? These are to the sort of challenges and encouragements that perhaps should come to us as we near the end of these reflections on the realities of the Christmas story.

17. Strange Seekers

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 17. Strange Seekers

Mt 2:1,2    After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Just when everything is settling down and Mary and Joseph might be forgiven for thinking it might be an idea to think about going home to Nazareth, a camel train turns up with three strangers. They are ‘magicians’ or wise men, possibly astronomers, possibly astrologers, not Jews. They are definitely foreigners and they have come from the east. They first turn up in Jerusalem and there they enquire after one who is the newly born king of the Jews. For the present ruler, Herod, this is disturbing (v.3) because he knows nothing of this but, as it seems to fall within the ambit of Jewish folklore or Biblical law, he questions the religious leaders who say that ‘the Coming One’, the Christ or Messiah, will come from Bethlehem (v.4-6). Herod sends them on there with a request to come back and tell what they have found (v.7,8).

It turns out that these wise men have apparently been following a star (v.7) which appeared in the sky, possibly a meteorite, which has led them to Judea. They leave Herod and follow the star which appears to stop over Bethlehem, confirming the words of the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Somehow, and the text is not specific, they find this little baby: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” (v.11) The fact of the mention of a house seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph had settled there for the time being at least and the fact of the mention of child and mother but no mention of Joseph, may suggest that Joseph was out working.

We very often focus on the three gifts but the easiest thing to say is that here were three gifts, expensive gifts, that could be easily sold and converted into money to keep them going in their travels, in the near future at least. These three men are God’s material provision for this little family. Now let’s note various thing about their coming and going. (We assume three men because of three gifts, but there may have been more).

First, they are foreigners. This shatters the Jewish illusion that they were the only people God speaks to. God is concerned for all of His world, people of every nationality.

Second, their means of guidance is somewhat strange to say the least. As good Christians, we might think that the Bible is God’s only way of communicating with people. It is not. It is our primary and essential source of our knowledge of Him and His purposes but this does not stop Him communicating with people through other means. Next to the Bible we would say the Holy Spirit is the second primary source of God’s communication and as critical as He is to our relationship with the Lord, He is not the only other way God speaks. God’s word – Old Testament prophecy – was involved here, but these seekers from the east also used signs – the star – and inevitably the sense that God gave each of them about this quest – maybe by direct communication that we might say was the Holy Spirit. The Lord speaks through many ways and the important thing is that we be open to hear what He wants to say to us, however He chooses to speak to us

Third, they come confirming the message heard previously, this child is a king and one worthy of worship – more than a mere human king, for only God deserves worship.

Fourth, they are sent on their way with a warning dream, a dream that says avoid Herod, so they obey it and do. These are men of faith, people who hear God, respond to God and worship God. May that be said of us as well.

16. Life Threads

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 16. Life Threads

Lk 2:22    Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

Human life is like millions of threads growing, intertwining, reacting and responding, each life a thread unaware of the other threads until they cross. Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem and Mary has just had her baby. Several miles away in the temple in Jerusalem an old woman worships and nearby and elderly man looks heavenward. It is likely that these last two know each other but Mary and Joseph know nothing of them. Their lives continue but do not yet interact.

Time is an important factor in the Jewish faith. On the eighth day Jesus was circumcised. That means they would have sought out the local rabbi and made arrangements for this to happen. Then there is a period of waiting. According to the Law the mother had to wait forty days before going to the temple to offer her sacrifice for her firstborn son. The time passes and eventually, to conform to the Law, the young couple make their way on the six-mile journey to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile the elderly man named Simeon, a righteous and devout man, a man led by the Spirit, suddenly senses today is the day and gathers himself up and makes his way to the temple. Already in the temple is aging Anna, a widow of many years who spends her life there, praying and fasting.  She has become part of the background there. Figures converging.

The young couple arrive at the temple. Maybe they have been there before, brought by their parents. They enter the precincts of the temple and find themselves stopped by an old man. He takes the baby in his arms and prays out loud. He pauses, turns to Mary and prophesies, This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk 2:34,35) or as the Living Bible puts it, A sword shall pierce your soul, for this child shall be rejected by many in Israel, and this to their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy of many others. And the deepest thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed.”

Yet again this child is heralded on earth and his parents have been witness to it. First it had been by the angelic encounters. To Mary: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Lk 1:32,33). To Joseph: “he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) Then the angels via the shepherds: “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:11) The message rings loud and clear, God’s Saviour is here, this is him, this little baby!

Then up steps the old lady, Anna, a fourth heralding: “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem,” (Lk 2:38) or, as the Living Bible puts it, she also began thanking God and telling everyone in Jerusalem who had been awaiting the coming of the Saviour that the Messiah had finally arrived.”

Threads coming together, pieces of the puzzle falling into place, people converging, the plan of God being revealed. There is more to come, much more, as the divine jigsaw maker brings together piece after piece and the picture becomes clearer and clearer – for those with eyes to see, for those who bother to read the accounts, for those who bother to think through the reality of these things – the Son of God has arrived and we can never be the same again! Give thanks.

15. Is that it?

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 15. Is that it?

Lk 2:19   But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

In our search for the reality of that first Christmas, I believe one of the things that hinders us is the fact that we actually have the whole story before in the Gospels and so we lose the sense at any one point of the wonders or questions that confronted this little family, now in Bethlehem.

The baby has been born, the shepherds have come with their excited talk of angels in the sky and the news of this new baby, and then they had gone, and all would have been quiet again. It is the middle of the night and Joseph and Mary and their tiny baby are alone in this stable, alone with their thoughts. We aren’t told about Joseph because it is thought that one of Luke’s sources was Mary and she tells how it had been, Joseph, it is assumed, having died before Jesus’ final years (because there is no mention of him later in the Gospels). But Mary held on to these things and pondered on them.

How amazing it had all been: an angel visit, a miraculous conception, a dream-guided Joseph, a journey south, the arrival of her baby, more angels and the coming and going of shepherd messengers. We obviously don’t know what went through her mind at that point but I think it is fair to suggest that one thought might have been, “Is that it? Can we go back to Nazareth now and just live ordinary lives?”  Now you and I know that there are at least three significant events yet to come in this story – going to the temple, the arrival of the wise men and fleeing to Egypt – but this is what I meant about the thing that hinders us in seeking the reality of the day, the fact that we know these things. Mary didn’t. The future was a blank page as far as she and Joseph were concerned.

I don’t know if you have ever thought about this but there are two amazing apparently contradictory things about God that come through in the Bible. The first is that He is a communicator. The fact is He DOES communicate with us. If you look at the story of Abram, for instance, stretched out over the chapters of Genesis, you see God communicating again and again with the father of faith. The second thing is that although God does communicate with us, so much of the time He keeps us in the dark; He does not spell out in detail what is coming. In Abram’s story, we may marvel at the number of times that the Lord speaks with Abram, who became Abraham, but then when we look more closely we realise those times were probably stretched over a period of possibly thirty years and so the reality of the story is that there would have been years passing without a word being said between God and His man.

And so we come to Mary and Joseph. The Lord could have sent an angel, following the departure of the shepherds, to say, “In a week’s time when you go to the temple, I will give you a double encouragement. After that you can settle here and find a house to rent while you wait for my private financiers to arrive, after which you’ll have to go and stay in Egypt for a couple of years, but don’t worry you can come back later and resettle back in Nazareth.” But He didn’t. Why? Perhaps, very simply, He knew these things were going to roll out before this couple anyway, and He trusted them to handle the unknown nature of their future together. I think that is a reasonable hypothesis, although there may be other things as well.

But isn’t that how it is so often with the Lord? We come to Him and find we have a New Testament full of guidance to take on board, and then from time to time there are special occasions when He seems to speak very clearly, but for most of the time it is just a matter of remaining faithful while life rolls out around us. He is there, we can speak to Him and He does speak to us, but mostly it is a matter of living by faith and not by sight. It’s like night and day. Much of the time we walk in the light, but then come periods where all is still and silent, like we are being kept in the dark, and it is in those times that we prove ourselves, that we are truly children of God. Rejoice in your present circumstances, that He is there, whether you are going through a light or darkness period; He is there guarding over you, providing for you, and watching you with pleasure.

14. God of Encouragement (2)

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 14. God of Encouragement (2)

Lk 2:10,11  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

In the previous meditation I suggested that Mary and Joseph needed some encouragement and the coming of the shepherds was just that, but we have first to see what happened to them. We got to the point where the lone angel appeared in all his glory and scared the shepherds witless.  But he encourages them: But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”  (v.10).

How we take some of these familiar things for granted!  Remember, I concluded the previous thoughts asking about the sort of God we have. It is a very real question for many Christians have a ‘hard’ God (see Jesus’ parable Lk 19:21), a God who seeks to chastise, tell off and generally beat up on His children. No, the angel comes bringing GOOD news that will bring GREAT joy and it will be for ALL the people. Do you see the strength in those words? Do they make you feel uncomfortable or do you have childlike faith that leaps with joy over them?

The trouble is we know what comes next and somehow the fact of a baby seems to diminish the power of the words I have just emphasized: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (v.11,12)  i.e. you will know my words are true when we actually find him down there in a manger, which is not where you would normally expect to find a baby.

Now don’t get me wrong because without doubt our hearts lift when we read the account, but the truth is that I often find there is a chasm between the words of Scripture and a person’s everyday experience. Note the last of the words I emphasized – ALL the people. There are no exceptions so if you have low self-esteem and write yourself off, I have to tell you that God’s plans include you and they are GOOD News that is designed to bring you GREAT joy. Did we have that great joy once but it got covered over by the requirements of pharisaical religion, or even just the hard knocks of life? Have we never known that great joy? If you answer affirmatively, don’t feel bad but just realise that God has a lot more for you to come.

See what follows: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (v.13,14) Now I don’t know whether this was singing or just an awesome declaration but one way or another this was incredible. These shepherds would never forget this. The sky was full of angelic beings and the message was clear: God is almighty and His plans and purposes are for peace for whoever will come to Him and receive it because on them His favour will rest, His intent to bless them and bless them again.

Now the end of this part of the story is rather good: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (v.20) They found the baby (v.16) went out and told others about him (v.17) but now they return to their hillside, as believers, but not just any old believers, believers who glorify and praise God. They cannot hold in what had happened it was so wonderful. Yes, I suspect Mary and Joseph were encouraged by all this but then so were the shepherds; they were no longer outcasts but those who knew God had come to them – and they mattered. We matter to God! Worship Him today.