13. God of Encouragement (1)

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 13. God of Encouragement (1)

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

There are two prayers that I know God has answered for me, time and time again. They are, “Lord, please grant me wisdom to know what to do here,” and “Lord, I need your encouragement, please give it.”  And He does.  Sometimes people say, “How can you know that God is for you when sometimes He seems so distant?” My reply? “Yes, there are such times but there are these many other times when I pray like this and He answers very quickly, sometimes straight away and sometimes  within the day.

Mary and Joseph, in this stable out back of the inn would, I suggest, need a fair bit of encouragement. Previously we considered the many uncertainties of their situation, past, present and future, so a little bit of encouragement would go a long way to help here. Now God could have given the innkeeper or his wife a dream and, as clear as it might have been, like “Go and tell that couple in the stable I love them and am with them,” they might not have responded. But I have a bigger reason why God didn’t do that. It is because God is a big God, sometimes a flamboyant God, a God who really pushes the boat of celebration out; you’ve only got to read various passages in the Old Testament to see that, or even the times in Acts when He pours His Holy Spirit out on the Day of Pentecost and in Cornelius’s house. There are mega-blessing times of celebration.

So, no, just a dream isn’t going to do it here. This is a time that is worthy of something far more spectacular. Now if it had been China perhaps He might have used fireworks but I don’t believe Israel had them – I may be wrong, but anyway God has got something far better lined up, and He brings it in stages so He won’t blow away the recipients.  So, who does He come to?

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (v.8) I love this! I love the whole Christmas story but this bit I always think is brilliant! Shepherds, because of their lifestyle, living out on the hillsides with their sheep, guarding them and protecting them and leading them to fresh pasture, were outcasts. They didn’t turn up for Synagogue time every Saturday and their personal hygiene probably lacked something (no hot showers on the hillside). So, yes, they tend to miss out on the life of the community, but God doesn’t miss out on anyone so, yes, in the middle of the night when the baby is born, who else is awake who I can tell? Ah, some of my shepherds on duty warning off the predators of the dark.

So, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Yes, well, there are going to be some downsides. An angel carrying the glory of the Lord is going to be pretty spectacular, so live with it, what’s a little fear, OK a lot of fear, between friends?

Now there is too much here to cover in one short meditation so we’ll continue this in the next one but, hey, here’s the point, here’s the question I want to ask as we try to penetrate the reality of these things. This angel, and the others who follow, comes to bring good news from God.  What sort of God do you and I believe in? Your answer will almost certainly be reflected in the sort of life you live and the sort of church you are part of. If it is a God of rules (er, wasn’t the Law the Old Testament?) you probably live a somber life and go to somber church services that are all about ‘serious’ theology.

Everything I find about Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels is all about celebration. The coming of the kingdom meant, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor,” (Mt 11:5) and Jesus also said, “he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19) Serious? I don’t think so! Celebration? Most definitely! Perhaps we are serious because we don’t have a Jesus who does these things today. Please pray what you dare now.

12. Uncertain Life but a Certain God

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 12. Uncertain Life but a Certain God

Lk 2:6,7   While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

How we take for granted our daily security. If we live in one of the so-called Western nations, we live in a period of history that is more affluent than any time before, and with that affluence comes a measure of security. Yet, having said that, life is still uncertain. We can become unwell, have accidents, lose our jobs, have relational upsets that are not of our making, find ourselves in financial difficulties. That is what life is like in this Fallen World that ‘goes wrong’.

Mary and Joseph are being blown around by the winds of unforeseen circumstances. She is just about to have a baby that it not his. A year ago, he would never have dreamed of a future together like this; neither would she, but God turned up and shared His will for them. And then the emperor started having silly ideas like counting every single person in his empire – including in Israel where they lived, so they are forced to trek to Bethlehem, but we’ve seen that before.  So they get there only to find crowds of others who got there before them, but for the same reason. The only difference is that Mary is about to have her baby.  End result – a manger in a stable or even perhaps a cave out back of the inn.

If you were making an honest assessment of their circumstances you would have to say their lives are ever so slightly uncertain. Yes, they have both had God-encounters and so behind all the present circumstances, the bigger half at least is down to Him (the emperor is the other ‘smaller half’ of this uncertainty). Now consider their needs, because at its most basic, life is all about human needs and satisfying them. They have, I suggest, a need for mutual trust. All marriages are about that and if it hadn’t been for a dream, Joseph wouldn’t even have been here. As we’ve commented before he’s a pretty spectacular guy. I mean, if your finance tells you she is pregnant and you know it’s not you, then that raises some pretty big trust issues. God turned up? When has that ever happened? In the Isaiah prophecies. Hmmmm. And then the dream that seemed so real but was it just wishful thinking? Quite a remarkable young man.

But then there will be the families back at Nazareth, maybe some of whom are now here in Bethlehem also being counted. How much did they know of these things? How much did they believe? What would they think of this ‘irresponsible’ couple? Only time will tell. And then there is the question of how they will live? Well perhaps Joseph will be able to do carpentry repair work around the place; there is always the need for a good carpenter.  But it’s all a bit uncertain and they don’t live in an era of insurance or state benefits. Perhaps more than any of us have known, life for them is uncertain. The biggest question mark over them must be over what they have been told about this son of theirs who is going to be a deliverer. What does that mean? What will that involve?

Yes, uncertainty in every direction, but then there is God. For some of us He is a big question mark, the great unknown. Does He really exist. For others of us, yes, we are certain He exists and we can sing, “He’s my rock, He’s my fortress” and other similar words, but in the face of the uncertainty of life. is He really here for us?

God chose this couple, I believe, because she “found favour with God” (Lk 1:30 because of the sort of girl she was) and he was righteous (Mt 1:19), but more than that I believe He chose them because He knew they would believe. Why they would believe is always a mystery but He knew they would and, similarly, He chose you because He saw you and knew you would believe. Remember that when the days are uncertain. God knows you have believed and will believe. Hang in there, look to Him and watch the belief grow in you. Hallelujah! You are worth watching! And God is.

11. Sovereign God, Responsible People

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 11. Sovereign God, Responsible People

Mt 1:18   This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

There is one aspect or characteristic of the Christmas story that stands out to me and seems to prevail over all other things in the accounts. It is the balance between sovereign God and the ability of human beings to interact with Him and, when you think about this, it is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the whole Bible and, indeed, our daily lives.

On the one hand we have the sovereignty of God. God is all powerful and can do anything. Indeed we did read the angels words to Mary, nothing is impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37) We see it specifically (in chronological order in the texts) with Zechariah being made dumb for nine months, with Elizabeth being enabled to conceive in old age, with Mary conceiving without the help of a man (and possibly putting the idea of a census in the mind of the emperor). In those we have a disciplinary act that brought dumbness, an act that changes either Zechariah’s or Elizabeth’s bodies to bring about conception, and to enable Mary to conceive. Those are all works of power by God whereby He, if we may put it like this, defies the laws of nature, and changes three people physically. The first two He just did and the third one He asked permission almost of Mary for it to happen, although it was more of a telling of what would happen.

But then the other side of the coin is human responsibility, the ability we have to choose to act in a particular way. Now Zechariah could have gone home and ignored what had happened but instead he communicated with Elizabeth and the end result was John the Baptist, as he eventually became known, the forerunner for Jesus.

There is also, of course, Joseph who, finding out Mary was pregnant, “was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly,”  (Mt 1:19) but then he has a dream in which an angel says, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:20,21) So, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Mt 1:24)  I always find Joseph an enigma is the Christmas story.

He is there as a support for Mary. To guard her, provide for her and protect her, but apart from that he is very much a figure in the background, an ordinary carpenter. It is his ordinariness that strikes me; nothing dramatic happens to him – except he keeps getting dreams that guide him, and he responds to them. They are God’s guidance that keep him with Mary (Mt 1:20-24), send them to Egypt to flee from Herod (Mt 2:13), then later to return to Israel (Mt 2:19,20) and finally to settle in Galilee (Mt 2:22). In some ways Joseph is the hero of the play though that rarely comes across in Nativity plays, because, purely on the basis of dreams he was there for this little family and provided its protection.

Joseph is the classic example, I would suggest, of a believer being led by God. The amazing thing is that God leaves His Son in the care of this simple carpenter who perfectly fulfils his role. An amazing example of faith. There will be others who similarly follow in his wake, but for the moment we’ll leave it with him. Will history record us as people of faith who simply did God’s bidding, even when it came so simply as the prodding of His Holy Spirit, or maybe even dreams?

10. Signposts

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 10.  Signposts

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

I have this feeling that when we get to heaven the Lord might show us the reality of the life we’ve lived and perhaps show us His word and say, “Did you see this? Did you see that?” and all we will be able to say is, “Oh, my goodness, I just didn’t see it.” I say this because there are ‘signposts’ in scripture that point to significance and one of them is this matter of where Jesus was born.

Isaiah prophesied, A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit,” (Isa 11:1) and the long prophecy that followed showed that this ‘Branch’ would be a mighty ruler.  Jesse, of course, was David’s father and they lived in Bethlehem (see 1 Sam 16:1, 17:12 etc.) The Jews were thus expecting their Messiah to come from David’s family.

Now the interesting thing, of course, is that both Joseph and Mary were from the line of David, regardless of where Jesus was born, so he too would be of that lineage, so why having to go to Bethlehem (apart from the fact of the Roman emperor requiring it)? Well this is where the seeker goes a step further and will see an amazingly clear prophetic word that came from the prophet Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (or from days of eternity) (Mic 5:2) Indeed, when the wise men came to Jerusalem looking for the recently born “king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2) when Herod got upset and sent for his religious leaders, and “he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:” (Mt 2:4,5) and they cite this Micah 5:2 reference, so it was clearly well known where they expected their Messiah to come from.

The next interesting thing to note is that throughout the Synoptic Gospels whenever Jesus was referred to, he was called “Jesus of Nazareth” because that was indeed where he had lived throughout his life. For some this was a stumbling block as the apostle John showed: “Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.” (Jn 1:45,46) Later, the Pharisees, arguing with Nicodemus, expressed the same thing: “They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that the Prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (Jn 7:52)

So why this apparent confusion, why was Jesus from Nazareth? Well Joseph took his family back there in Galilee to flee possible persecution when Jesus was still a baby and they were in Egypt. (Mt 2:21-23) That reference concludes, “he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Mt 2:23)  Although this does not appear as a quote from the O.T. some suggest a) ‘Nazarene’ in Jesus’ day was virtually a synonym for ‘despised’  or b) the Hebrew word for it is similar to that for ‘Branch’.

What is the significance of all this? Well it is clear from Scripture that there were all these Old Testament prophecies clearly stating details of the coming Messiah, acting as signposts, but John’s Gospel in particular points out that signs from God are only picked up by those with eyes to see, hearts that are open. We might ask ourselves, do our hearts yearn to know the truth, do we have eyes to pick up the wonders within God’s word, or is the Bible just dry text? If it is the later, perhaps we need to ask yet again, “Lord open my eyes….”

9. All of a Oneness

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 9.  All of a oneness

Lk 1:63,64,67   he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God…. His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

Remember we are trying to touch and regain the reality of Christmas. In the previous meditation we contemplated a sequence of actions. In this one I want to cement together the stories of Mary and Joseph (that we usually focus on at Christmas) with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (who often get left out) and suggest we need to consider the reality of the whole package, if I may out it like that.

We saw Mary go to be with Elizabeth, when Elizabeth was in her sixth month, and Elizabeth was filled with the spirit and prophesied (1:41-45). Note the sense of proclamation about what she said: “In a loud voice she exclaimed….” (v.42)  Then Mary had prayed a prayer that was more prophetic than prayer, again declaring the truths of God. After over four hundred years of silence from heaven, there are two angelic sightings and now two prophetic declarations – from women!

We are then told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for another three months which leads one to suggest that Mary stayed there until the birth of John and maybe witnessed all that happened. Our verses above indicate the crucial things that happened after the birth. At his circumcision on the eighth day after his birth, a question was raised as to what his name should be. First Elizabeth out loud, and then Zechariah in writing, confirmed that it was to be John. As soon as Zechariah confirms the Lord’s will as spoken through the angel nine months earlier, his tongue is released, he starts praising God and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies.

The similarities between what happened to the two couples knits them together. Admittedly Joseph does not appear to have been filled with the Spirit, but the other three clearly were. Moreover, the effect of their being filled meant they all prophesied. And all this after angelic communication. For Zechariah and Mary, it had been direct encounters, with Joseph it was in a dream and with Elizabeth it was via the signing and writing of her husband.  Remember, this is all before the Day of Pentecost, still some thirty-three years off, when the Spirit would be poured out on all the believers, and so it is as if three of these four act as forerunners of what will eventually happen.

For those who struggle with the idea of being filled with the Holy Spirit, please see it as just one of the ingredients that go to make up this amazing story of the coming of the Son of God. It is not the ‘be all and end all’ as we might say, but it is a natural part of the whole package, just another supernatural element of this package, which contains from the outset God’s supernatural intervention to enable Elizabeth to conceive naturally in old age, and Mary to conceive supernaturally without the aid of a man.

Angelic appearances, divine conceptions, outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and prophecy. For those who are locked into a materialistic mentality, these accounts are challenging. But then as the Gospels proceed, if you take out all the divinely supernatural elements, you will be left with virtually nothing. A little over a century ago there came a rise of criticism from so-called scholars, who undermined a generation or more of believers. The only thing is that these men started from the standpoint that the miraculous, or what I have called the divinely supernatural, cannot happen and all their scepticism flowed from that. They had no reason to do that than their sinful unbelief, i.e. they were unbelievers.  It took a number of generations of Christians to pass before some began challenging their original starting points and point out the folly of listening to the opinions of unbelievers over the word of God.

Why not instead start from the view that just maybe all these things written here DID happen exactly as the text says, and see where that leads you? If your life and the life of your church fails to exhibit the divinely supernatural and the clear moving of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it is time to think again as you read these accounts this Christmas and then pray, “Lord, please take away the unbelief that hinders my life,” for even as in these accounts, the Lord is waiting to do great things.

8. Sequence starts with one act

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 8.  Sequence starts with one act

Lk 1:36,37  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.”

You may gather we are not following a chronological sequence but are merely picking up key lessons about the reality of what happened at that time of Jesus’ birth, the first Christmas. So the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she will carry a son to be called Jesus (see Lk 1:26-38) When she asks how this can come about he explains, The Holy Spirit will come upon 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..” (1:35) He also speaks about Elizabeth as in our verses above.  Mary’s response is, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” She accepts and agrees to God’s will for her.

Now what wasn’t made clear in that conversation was that not only would she conceive by the Holy Spirit, but she would also start to move on a completely different plane. Up until then she had been a simple Jewish girl who probably attended synagogue with her family regularly; now watch what happens.

First, “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.” (v.39,40) i.e. she went and visited Elizabeth. These two women were years apart. Mary was probably in her early teens and Elizabeth was in old age, which may have been sixty plus. But they are cousins and clearly relate well together. Whether it is God’s words through the angel or the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we don’t know, but she hurries off to see Elizabeth. Why? Maybe the story of Zechariah and his angel has gone through the family and it seems only right that she goes and shares with them her angel story. Indeed both women are pregnant by miraculous means and perhaps Mary wants to be able to talk to someone who has had a similar experience and receive reassurance from her cousin.

She goes and when she arrives, there is a Holy Spirit recognition of who she is: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (1:41,42) Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit and speaks out a prophetic word of knowledge. She knows Mary is pregnant and she knows who it is she is carrying. What a beautiful affirmation for Mary as she walks through the door. She had wanted encouragement and got it the moment she walked in.

But it didn’t end there. “And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (1:46,47) Read through verses 46 to 55 and you find a spectacular declaration, now sometimes called the Ave Maria or Angelic Salutation. It is unquestionably more than a prayer, it is prophecy, declaring the glory of the Lord and it comes pouring out of her, clearly an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Both these women are moving in a new Holy Spirit supernatural dimension. There is a sequence of events here – acceptance, going to see Elizabeth, greeting, Elizabeth speaking God’s revelation, Mary prophesying the glory of the Lord – and they all occur because God nudged and people responded.

I have said before I love the story of Moses at the burning bush, but if he had not bothered to stop and look, the Exodus story would not have followed. Simple actions, simple agreements, amazing outworkings. There are many stories like this in the Bible. One little matter of guidance leads to big things. Can we perhaps pray today, “Lord, please open my ears and my mind to hear your prompting that I may step out to do your bidding”?  It may not be an enormous thing, it may be quite small and simple, but one thing leads to another. You wonder, perhaps, why you haven’t been filled with the Spirit when you asked? Maybe because the Lord is waiting to hear in some other small issue, your words, “Yes, Lord.”

7. A Unique Happening

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 7.  A Unique Happening

Lk 1:26,27  In the sixth month, 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.

We read things many times and they can remain common. A child is taken into a shop and is shown a stone that shines like glass and they see it as glass – except it is a most amazing diamond.  A child walks into an art gallery and smiles in front of a painting of sunflowers. How nice. But the painting is by one of the great masters and worth over a million. We can read things and be unmoved. We can read them, be moved and then read them again and again so they become ordinary.

I do not speak about the baby who arrived from heaven but the fact of a conception that had no man involved. Certain parts of the Church make much of Mary but in reality there is little special about her, and yet for reasons beyond our understanding she was chosen by God to hold a seed that was the Son of God. One moment she was just Mary, the next she was Mary with child. If you had been an observer you would probably have seen no change, nothing happened in the room. In fact we don’t know when it happened. Was it when the angel Gabriel was with her or did it happen later?  The answer is irrelevant. What is relevant is that one moment she was alone, the next moment Immanuel, God is with us, or at least the seed to make that happened.

However hard we try to understand it, it still remains as simple as I have described it. One minute she is Mary, the next she is changed. God has done something to her and she is different. Philosophers struggle with miracles which, by definition, are humanly impossible happenings. The incredible thing is that, as we hinted at in a previous meditation, God could have spoken and in some unobserved place a God-man appeared, fully grown, but He didn’t do it like that. He followed the pattern or the way that every other baby is conceived and then born, except in this case there was no man involved.

This is the struggle to cope with the very idea of the Incarnation – God in child. The One who was the Son of God grew as a tiny baby, with limitations, grew as a small boy, with limitations, grew into a young man with (fewer) limitations, all the while experiencing everything that we experience. He got hungry, he got cold, he washed, he went to the toilet, he got tired and he went to sleep.

I don’t know if you have ever watched a film of a crystal growing on a glass dish in a laboratory, stretching and stretching until it becomes as wonderful as a snowflake. There is a growth there that is beautiful to behold.  So the Son of God grew in human form. How could God do this? I don’t know, it defies my imagination.

But the only thing about every miracle is that it is a God thing. One minute it is ordinary and the next, change! One minute there is water, the next it is wine. One minute a few loaves, the next enough to feel a multitude. One minute there is a deaf mute,  the next a hearing speaking man or woman. One minute there is a body riddled with cancer, the next it is all gone. All these things are inexplicable, all of them are miracles, all of them are humanly impossible and yet the Scriptural testimony and the testimony of millions over the last two thousand years is that one minute, ordinariness, the next, transformation.

The spectrum of belief, I have come to see, produces Christians of all shades; there will be those who believe in new birth, and they stop there, there will be those who believe miracles happened two thousand years ago, but they stopped there. There will be those who believed that the Holy Spirit worked two thousand years ago, but he stopped there. Why do we limit our beliefs, when it comes to God, because if He did it then, why shouldn’t He now? If He took ordinary people in the days of the Biblical accounts, why can’t He take you and me now? He, after all, is unchanging, and so if He doesn’t do these things in and around me, do I need to change? “Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)