6. Confusing God or Confused Us?

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 6.  Confusing God or Confused Us

Isa 9:6     For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We may sing these words and we certainly tend to read them out in Christmas services  but they are words, I would suggest, along with a lot of others, that are simply confusing to the human mind. In the Jewish culture it was accepted that prophets throughout the Old Testament spoke God’s direct words.  Isaiah was one of the ‘big’ prophets  and a variety of his ‘words’ were taken to refer to ‘the Coming One’, the Messiah, the Christ, but they left the scholars scratching their heads. Contradictory things seemed to be said – a ruler yet a servant, victorious yet beaten, and in this one verse above the most explosive prophetic words ever written – and yet we so often take them for granted as we hear them read every year.

The context is a word to what became Galilee, the northern third of Israel. A land of darkness, spiritual and emotional, a land that was always first to take a hit from northern invading armies. And then Isaiah prophesies about a great light coming to this land of darkness (Isa 9:2), a day when war will cease and peace will come (Isa 9:3-5).

It is in this context that he brings what surely must be intended to be a word of encouragement: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”  That is simple and straight forward. The implication is that the light-bringer is about to be born, no problem.

“and the government will be on his shoulders.” An old fashioned way of saying he will be a ruler.  OK, no problem with that either but it is what follows that is confusing. There are four descriptions of this baby to be born who will become a ruler. The first and the last could be taken without too much difficulty: “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor…. Prince of Peace.” The word ‘peace’ so often means wholeness so we might take this to mean that this coming ruler is coming to bring great wisdom and insight and wholeness of living. So far, so good. But the middle two descriptions?

“Mighty God…. Everlasting Father.”  There is no way to read those words and not interpret them as saying, “This child will be God.”  Now for the Jews, aware of their history, aware of God’s holiness, aware that the Law told them not to make images of God, aware of His ‘otherness’, being so awesome that they would not even use His full name as it came through Moses, this was a bridge too far. This must mean he, the Coming One, will just do the works of God.

But the words don’t say that, they say something that is so mind blowing that virtually every religion the world has ever known would deny this suggestion. It seems that this prophecy is utterly confusing, but the truth is that we are the confused ones. On one hand we say that, yes, philosophically, by definition, God must be unlimited and able to do anything – and then our minds stumble – except come in human form.

The point I would make is ultra-simple, so simple in fact that you might wonder why I write about it: it is that all of the aspects of the advent story are so mind blowing to the human, materialistic mind, that they must be impossible – angels, immaculate conception, incarnation – all beyond us. But that is our confusion, because God by definition can do anything. But is this – and remember, this is all about reality – how we view all of our ‘spiritual world’ – OK as long as I can understand it? Do we, I wonder as I watch the Christian world today, need to pray, “Lord, please deliver me from the materialistic prison I have allowed my mind to be limited by, when I think of you, and when I think of what you want to do in and through me”? Advent is about God pushing our boundaries.

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5. The Surprise Element

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 5.  The Surprise Element

Luke 1:5   In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.

I said as I opened this series that I wanted to confront the realities behind the Christmas story and one of the things I don’t think I have ever heard anyone mention in preaching is the surprise element of the story. Our verse above indicates this story is grounded in Jewish culture, two thousand years ago – there is king Herod, the mention of Judea, a priest and the priestly establishment, descendants of Aaron. All very Jewish. I expect there are a few other cultures of that period as well documented but this one stands out and it does so in the form of the Old Testament and its dealings with God.

Except here is a problem: those dealings appear to have ceased. Over four hundred years have gone by since the prophetic voice brought the word of God to the nation. There have been a number of political upheavals over that period but nothing from God. Heaven seems silent for nearly half a millennia.

And then a priest in the temple in Jerusalem appears to have had an angelic visitation, the result of which he is now dumb and has had to try to convey what happened by sign language and possibly writing some words. Very strange. And then it all goes quiet and, as far as the world is concerned, nothing more happens.

Now we live in an age of great communication and perhaps because of that everything seems instant. Those who use Facebook or other forms of social media are rarely without their mobile phone (cell phone) and so a day never passes without some notification coming of some friend who has added some photo or piece of news about their life mostly – and forgive the realistic cynicism – of little consequence. But the trouble is we don’t know what is of consequence. I mean what significance is there of this elderly priest indicating he has met an angel? Had he actually fallen asleep in there and had a dream or was it real, and why? What was all that about?

Now in the bigger picture of the ‘after the event’ knowledge, we now know that the angel coming to Zechariah was the first of a series of happenings that would conclude with the presence of God on the earth in a new way, but at the time life carried on as usual, and there was no inkling of some big event about to change history for ever.

The reality was, of course, that the Old Testament record had a number of prophets speaking about a ‘Coming One’, a Messiah, a deliverer of Israel, but when that would happen no one knew, so their lives just carried on unchanged.

And that is how it is today; life just carries on as normal. How many of us woke up this morning and thought straight a way, “Ah, today an angel is going to come and speak to me,” or “Oh great, today God is going to come and do something dramatic in our lives.” God appears to delight in surprises.  Moses is one of my favourite Old Testament characters. I like the way that for forty years he looked after sheep on the backside of the desert until one day he saw a burning bush that wasn’t burning. There was no wakeup call that said, “Look for a burning bush today.”

The reality – and Christmas reminds us of this – is that mostly life just carries on, day by day, month by month, but behind the scenes God watches and plans and gets ready. Who knows who we’ll meet today, who knows whether it will be a divine set-up, a divine encounter. Sit quietly before Him at the beginning of this day and submit it to Him and declare your availability, and love, even if nothing spectacular happens. I will be faithful today even if nothing spectacular happens, but if it does…… Lord find me available.

4. The Faith Element

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 4.  The Faith Element

Luke 1:11-13    an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

Faith, the New Testament says, comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17). When God speaks (including through an agent such as an angel) heaven holds its breath to see how we will respond.  I have suggested previously that within the Christmas story are a multitude of lessons but to see those lessons we have to ask questions of the text.

So in one of the earliest parts of the Christmas story an angel comes to an elderly priest, a childless priest named Zechariah, who has found himself being called into the inner part of the temple to perform his duties. Now there is so much about this incident that we could write a dozen studies on it alone but for the moment all I want to do is observe this old man’s response to the angel.  First, we read, he was startled and gripped with fear, i.e. he was scared stiff! The angel reassures him and then goes on to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth will have a baby in her old age. For Zechariah this was one bridge too far. He has prayed and prayed and nothing happened. Years have passed and nothing happened. God could have enabled them to have a child, but He hadn’t. It’s now too late, and so his words are not words of faith:How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Lk 1:18)

Now there some uncomfortable aspects to this story and we usually ignore or forget them. For instance, first, do we believe God stops women conceiving and, even more, that He can make infertile women conceive?  Second, if God was going to give them a child, why wait until so late in their lives? Third, if God knows everything (and He does) why does He tell this old man this, knowing he is going to reject it?  Fourth, if we believe in free will (and we do) why did the angel slap a gagging order on Zechariah and make him dumb until the son was born?  Difficulties!

We’ve got to be brief.  First, yes, God can stop and release conception for our blessing. That statement takes a lot of believing and grace if we are on the receiving end of no conception, especially the ‘for our blessing’ part. We could write a page on that but space prohibits it. IF He has stopped you, ask Him the reason. If it is just part of the effects of the fallen, broken world, ask Him to help you conceive.

Second, why wait for so long? We can only guess at answer sometimes and so I venture to suggest that sometimes a) there will be a right time that fits in with other things in God’s plans and b) sometimes God wants you to see His supernatural hand on your life after all other hope has gone, because He wants to build a high level of faith in you for the future, for the life and ministry He has for you.

Third, God knowing the old man will reject the word.  I think sometimes the Lord looks beyond the immediate present and sees how we will eventually come to faith. Fourth, why the gagging order: I believe the Lord sees that sometimes we just need a serious encouragement to press on through.

Despite his struggle to believe – and we so often give Zechariah a bad press – the Lord persevered with him so he went home (yes, dumb) but did what was necessary for Elizabeth to conceive and when the child was born, spoke the name out by faith. He got there! Look, if God speaks a word of instruction to you, it is because He knows you are capable of seeing it through. At first sight you may splutter in unbelief but God is bigger than your doubts and he can help you press through to a place of eventual victory. If He instructs, He knows you can do it – eventually. If He gives you a prophetic word and you splutter over it, there’s an easy way (receive it and rejoice over it) or a hard way (splutter your lack of belief and be a Zechariah or a Jonah or a Moses – the ‘Unbelievers’ Club’, who eventually got there!!!!). You’ll get there in the end because God knows you better than you know yourself. Prayer? Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil4:6,7)

3. The Right Time

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 3.  The Right Time

Gal 4:4    when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman,

There are indicators in the New Testament, that God’s timing for the coming of His Son was precise, there was no mistake about it.  The Message version has our verse above as, “when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son,” and the Living Bible puts it, “when the right time came, the time God decided on, he sent his Son,” and the same thought comes through – there was no mistake about God’s timing. There are other indicators around the New Testament.

Pastor, teacher and evangelist, Michael Green, in his book, “Evangelism in the Early Church” suggests there were a number of very specific and very practical reasons why Jesus and the start of the Christian faith came at this specific time in history.  This, in itself, is a contributory factor in being able to say that this was no made up, fairy story; these were events in time-space history, events that perfectly fitted in the records of history that we have subsequent to that time. Luke pounds us with this historical foundation in his Gospel: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)” (Lk 2:1,2) and then a bit later: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.” (Lk 3:1) Historical events, historical people.

Now all this is very well from an intellectual point of view but if your names were Mary and Joseph you might not be quite so happy with this, because as we’ve seen before, “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.” (Lk 2:4,5) Mary is expecting but she and Joseph now have to travel many miles to register their names in his family’s town, Bethlehem, purely at the whim of an emperor who had nothing better to do that show what a great empire he had. Forget the individuals, forget the discomfort and upset he may be causing many of his subjects.

So, as far as the big picture is concerned, it is just the right time; as far as Mary and Joseph are concerned, it is definitely not!  Now here’s the point I would like to make here: we may have relegated the Nativity to the realms of fairy story, folk-lore, or children’s play level, but the details of the story include many profound lessons. In what we have seen here, the main lesson is that God is never casual about timing and does things exactly so they fit the overall big plan. The secondary lesson is that when we look at our own individual personal circumstances we may not see how the circumstances are right for they may appear thoroughly inconvenient to us.

When we look at the Christmas story as it appears in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, it is the story of God but a story that involves people and from their perspective things ‘just happen’ apparently without rhyme or reason. That is so often how it appears at the moment. So this is very real ‘where the rubber hits the road’ of practical reality. It is like it is because God who knows everything doesn’t share that ‘everything’ with us because we probably wouldn’t understand it or even believe it if He did. The underlying message of this story is that we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) So often we have to trust God with only partial understanding and we’ll have a look at that faith part a bit more in the next study. In the meantime, can we pray, “Lord open my eyes to understand the times and until I do, help me to simply trust you with what comes along.”

2. Once upon a time

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas:  2. Once upon a time

1 Pet 1:19,20:   Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.

Many years ago I first did a study of ‘before the creation of the world’ and I discovered that in the New Testament there are seven references to the things that happened before God created anything. The one above tells us that the one who came in the form of a baby some two thousand years ago, was decided upon, not “Once upon a time”, but actually outside of time, in eternity before time came into being (because time only exists where there is a material world, in our understanding.) So back ‘then’ Father, Son and Holy Spirit existed and communicated between their individual beings.

Now if you were a new arrival to the Bible and you read the Christmas story, you might wonder how they went about deciding upon these events we are going to consider. If we didn’t know any better we might imagine God, the Father, turning (figuratively speaking) to the others and saying, “Let’s have some fun with the human being we’re going to create, let’s set up a scenario that is going to blow their minds away. Let’s drop some of the angels into it, that will freak them out. Let’s speak some confusing and contradictory ‘prophecy’ through some before hand who we’ll call ‘prophets’ and, hey, for the fun of it, Son why don’t you drop in on them to show them how superior we are?”  Such a conversation can only come when we are truly clueless about the Bible.

So why do I say that? Because that little cameo suggests a God who is self absorbed and self-concerned and who plays with mankind and makes fun of us. That sort of God sounds like a figment of the imagination that a Greek or Roman philosopher might come up with, a human god. The only trouble with that, is that everything we learn about God in the Bible says He is nothing like this. He is loving, caring, compassionate, selfless, utterly good and everything He does, He does for our good.

A more likely conversation might include, “Son, there is no other way than this for you to enter the world. It would be very easy for us to put you into the land as you are now, but if we did that they would follow you out of fear and that is not our way. We could put you into the land as one of them, fully grown, but then they would say that you did not know what it was to be truly like one of them, and they would hold you at arms length.” However, such a conversation would not touch on the real need, for as they considered the possibilities of creating a material world with material human beings the problem of giving us free will would crop up, the realisation that free will would almost certainly result in ‘sin’ and absorption with self to the exclusion of God. But enough of the hard realities behind Christmas, let it come a little at a time.

So Joseph also went … to Bethlehem … with Mary…While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.”  A couple and a baby. What a leap from the throne room of heaven in eternity where the plans had been laid in the splendor and glory of the Godhead. Almighty God, all-powerful Holy Spirit, all-glorious Son, utterly beyond our wildest imagination, with wisdom beyond anything we can comprehend, who bring material existence into being, who watch and wait, and wait and wait, until the time is right. And then on earth a child is born named Joseph and then several years later, a girl is born who is named Mary. Time will pass before the Christmas events and all we can be sure of, is that when they were born, no one could guess what would happen with these two. Can you pray, “Lord, please will you open my eyes to see the things going on around me and help me understand how things either fit your purposes or are simply activities of the world and the enemy which you will yet turn for my good.”

1. History, a Battle for Reality

(As we come to the last two weeks before Christmas, I would like to take a break from Hebrews – we will come back and complete it in the New Year – and pause to reflect on the wonder of Christmas)

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas:   1. History, a Battle for Reality

Luke 1:1-4  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.

I have at least once in the past written Advent meditations but every year when I approach this time I find I come from a new perspective, it seems, or the Lord seems to be putting a new emphasis before me. From the perspective of a gifts giving, food focused, one day orgy, I do not like Christmas, but when it comes to the Christmas story as found in Matthew and Luke, I find it the most wonderful time. Just how it is celebrated will vary all over the world but, I would like to suggest to you in this short series, how we celebrate it is almost an irrelevancy. How God ‘celebrated’ the coming of His Son to the earth is something else.

Now here is my worry, a concern I have for all of us who are Christians, and it is that we sink Christmas to the level of a romantic fairy story. I don’t know about your part of the world, but where I live in the UK, junior schools still put of ‘Nativity Plays’ by the children which are increasingly dressed up in other guises. It is almost as if teachers think, “Well, we’ve done this old story over and over again. It’s getting boring now. How can we make it something more interesting? How can we make it something that appeals to all people and all faiths?”

So here is my point: this story IS history, it DID happen and if we take the time to think about it, it IS the most amazing story ever written down in history. I always like the start of Luke’s Gospel because it is so down to earth. Yes, it does speak of another culture – how many of us have a friend named Theophilus? But it speaks of truth.

I want to keep these studies or meditations short, quicker to read in this period which seems to get so full of activity, so let me tell you what worries me about all this. It is that we Christians ‘do’ the Christmas story, year in, year out, and the danger is that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least boredom. I mean we all of us know the Christmas story, so why bother to make it the basis of a set of meditations when there is already one set of such meditations on this site?

Christian revelation involves a constant battle for reality. The enemy would seek to either deride it as utter make-believe, or make it so boring that it becomes irrelevant, or make it so intellectual that it sits in our heads without touching our hearts, or make it so romantic it simply comes with an emotional buzz but no intellectual understanding, or make it so mundane that we cease to worship the one who comes. Can we nail these options on the wall so we are aware of them, and then say, no, I will not let it be like this! Lord please open my eyes afresh to see the wonder of this story, touch my heart with the experiences of the people involved, touch my mind with the reality of the facts before us, touch my spirit to see the glory of the coming one and so be able to worship him in reality.

As a sign that these words mean something as you read them, may I ask you at the end of each of this series to pause and pray something specific? For this one, perhaps words that begin, “Lord, please open my eyes…..”