8. Difficult Conversations

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 8: Difficult Conversations

Lk 1:26   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.

Mt 1:20  an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife

(Additional Readings: Lk 1:26-38, Mt 1:18-25)

Continuing: We said in the previous meditation that we have arrived at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. Zechariah was the first of the two face to face encounters; Mary is the second. What we said in respect of Zechariah, about life going on without surprises and thus lowering expectations, must surely be true of this young teenage girl, but after that her youthful response is much different from the aged priest.

An Unusual Conversation: When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary he does not ask permission, he tells Mary what WILL happen. Look at all the positive words in what he says: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”  (Lk 1:30-33) We often say God never forces His will on people but this seems a rather straight forward declaration of what He is going to do. Mary’s only question is how this can come about. After he explains how, she simply responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)

God knows His people: I think the answer to my implied question above is very simple: God knows His people and therefore knows how we will respond and He knows Mary’s heart and knows it is open to whatever He has for her. It perhaps raises a further question: does God instruct where there will be rejection or disobedience? Well, looking at the biblical record, clearly yes. Jonah is another example who, like Zechariah needed a nudge from circumstances. There are others in the Old Testament who were told things but refused them (Eve has to be the classic example!).

So yes, God knows our hearts but if Jonah or Zechariah are valid examples, then He also knows that some of us just need a nudge in the right direction to get us there. So why does He persevere like this? Is it that He knows our potential, knows what we are capable of, even if we do need quite of lot of encouragement?  Joseph in the third of the angelic encounters was a righteous young man and that righteousness almost got in the way. It needed a dream – yes, just a dream – to get him on side.  In fact Joseph was so open to the Lord that four times the Lord gave him a dream to guide him. (1:20, 2:13,19,22) What is it, I wonder, that we need to get us on side, into the flow of the ongoing activity of the Lord? Sometimes it is just encouragement from a partner or friend, sometimes it comes when reading His word or hearing it preached, sometimes it comes through circumstances, but however it comes, remember, its goal is to move us on in the will and purposes of God. Let’s make sure we do that.

Let’s Pray: “Lord, yesterday I confessed to you that I find this matter of calling to be scary, but I thank you that you know each one of us uniquely and you know our potential and you know what ‘encouragements’ we each need to reach that potential. Thank you that you have unique plans and purposes for me (Eph 2:10) and, even though I stumble, you see my heart’s desire to serve you and so you will get me there, you will see me through to completion of your plans for me (Phil 1:6). Lord please do it. Amen.”

7. And so it begins

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 7: And so it begins

Lk 1:5  there was a priest named Zechariah

(Additional Reading: Lk 1:5-25)

Preparations: The years have passed and we arrive at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. I once heard someone say if you hear the audible voice of God you are probably in deep trouble if you need that. Reading about Abraham I was surprised to note that years would have passed and there are actually just a few number of times when God spoke to him. For him, we assume he heard God in the quiet thoughts in the mind (it may have been other ways, we just don’t know), but his was a time of building an embryonic relationship with God. Moses, by contrast, knew all about the history his people had with God and perhaps, because he felt so low about himself after all those years in the desert, he needed the audible voice plus the burning bush – and he had a pretty big job ahead, so he really needed that clarity of encounter.

Silent Days: The fact is that for most of us, I suspect the days go by, just like Abram, with hearing little from heaven. We may be those who sit silently before the Lord each day, waiting upon Him, but even then, I guess, if we can be really honest about it, it is a real mix of those days when we just don’t hear anything (most often), the days when He seems to draw near and there is a holy sense of His close presence (rare), and those times when it feels like He is down the other end of the universe (more than we’d like to admit).

And Zechariah:  I think I’ve probably written it before, but I think we often give Zechariah a bad press but, hey, remember he was an old guy, and he’s been a priest for many years and has done the stuff that priests do and lived the life that priests live, for decades, and nothing has happened. In fact God has been silent in Israel for over four hundred years. Now familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly dulls expectations, so if I suggest that Zechariah was seriously surprised when the angel Gabriel turns up that is probably the understatement of the year.

And would you have been fearful when an angel turned up? Quite possibly, because such an encounter is so out of the ordinary, and sometimes we’re not very good with ‘out of the ordinary’!  But it gets worse because he is told that his aging wife (past it!) is going to have a baby. Right! That is really beyond a bridge too far when it comes to belief!  That also suggests a tricky conversation when he gets home. So was the angel Gabriel being unkind when he made him dumb for nine months? I don’t think so really. The Lord wanted Elizabeth to be pregnant and an encouragement to her niece Mary soon, and so Zechariah (and perhaps Elizabeth too) needed a little nudge forward and that certainly did it!

We must pray! “Lord, I have to confess when I think about Zechariah it leaves me feeling vulnerable. I would like to think I would have responded more positively but I think I may be kidding myself. Lord, if I am honest, those seriously pious individuals who go on about ‘total commitment’ feel a bit unreal. Lord Jesus, you said that, “apart from me you can do nothing,” (Jn 15:5) and you know I really want to be available to you and be used by you so that I will “still bear fruit in old age,” (Psa 92:14) and so, Lord, I really need your help to achieve that.  Please help me Lord. Thank you. Amen.”

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. Mary Considers

5. Mary Considers

(Warning: In this little series of ‘meditations’ there are simply wonderings about what actually some of the people in the Christmas story felt. They are obviously based on Scripture but they are only wonderings, for we do not know. Yet, if they help us really think into the wonder of what happened two thousand years ago at the time we call Christmas, that will be good.)

I am a mother! I really am a mother! It’s strange, I knew I was pregnant, there was no doubt about it, but somehow I almost didn’t believe it until he arrived last night, and now here I am, a mother! And I have a son!

And here we are, the three of us. Three of us! We’re a family! Me, my Joseph and now our baby, Jesus.

I almost feel that I have been living in a dream this past year. Did the angel Gabriel really come to me? Oh yes, it was so real, so vivid, I’ll remember it until the day I die. I’ll never forget his words to me. Initially he scared me for I wondered why God should send an angel to me, a twelve year old girl. What had I done? Was he about to tell me off? But no, it had been exactly the opposite for he said I had found favour with God. I remember being taught in synagogue about Noah, and he had found favour with God. I wasn’t sure that ‘finding favour with God’ was a good thing, but when he told me I would have a special baby I was overjoyed. And yet I wasn’t yet married so how could such a thing be? That’s when he told me it would because God would enable it to happen. How could such a thing happen? I had never heard of it happening to any other girl. Was this just a dream, a silly dream? But no, it was so real and I was wide awake. And then I started feeling sick and I realised it had happened, I was expecting a baby.

After the initial shock, Joseph was wonderful – with a little help from God, he told me.

Then I had gone to Elizabeth and stayed with her until she had her baby.  That was an amazing time as well. It was clear that I was not the only one who had had dealings with God. But it was still all very dreamlike.

The reality hit when I returned home and tongues were wagging when they saw me, for it was quite clear what my condition was. I knew why, but few others would believe it when I told them.

Then came the orders from the Romans to go to the town of your family and so Joseph had to come here to Bethlehem to be counted like sheep. Then we ended up in this stable and my Jesus was born. Why does that expression ‘a little lamb’ stay with me? How very appropriate that a lamb was born in a stable. But he’s not a lamb, he’s going to be a leader, a ruler, the angel said.

Oh dear, what is the future going to hold for us? How are we going to live? I assume Joseph will carry on his father’s carpentry business and we would expect Jesus to follow in his father’s footsteps, so I don’t know where all this stuff about him being a ruler comes in. Carpenters aren’t rulers.

I don’t know how long we’re going to have to stay here for the census. I don’t know what we do about that. I suppose there must be a census house somewhere here in Bethlehem that we’ll have to go to and be registered.

It’s convenient that we’re near Jerusalem though. We’ll be able to go and make an offering for our little one as the Law requires, before we return home.

Yes, it all seems a bit dreamlike, but those men turning up last night were very real. I couldn’t get to sleep for some time after they left, wondering about all they said. More angels? Angels telling them to come and see my Jesus? There’s more in all this than we realise. What is the future going to hold for us? What will it hold for my son? I really don’t know and yet one thing seems very clear: with all of these angels appearing – to Zechariah, to me, to Joseph, and now to the shepherds – it seems like God is closer than we’ve ever known before. Somehow it feels like He’s really with us.

Reading for today’s story: Luke 2:19