13. Ongoing

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 13: Ongoing

Mt 2:13  When they had gone, 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.”

(Additional Reading: Mt 2:13-15, 19-23)

And Now? When one form of guidance (dreams here) is made so clear, it presupposes that it isn’t coming from any other source. The point I would make here is that, as we might say today, Mary and Joseph are flying blind. Yes, they have both had angelic guidance over nine months ago, possibly as much as a year ago now, they had received the encouragement from the shepherds and their tale, they had received encouragement in the Temple from Simeon and Anna, and they had received encouragement and resources from the Magi, and now all that is in the past. Now they appear to be living somewhere in Bethlehem and Joseph is possibly earning money as a jobbing carpenter and Mary is settling into the social life of Bethlehem and they no doubt attend the local synagogue. Life just goes on. Perhaps they are wondering if they should return to Nazareth, but beyond that, life just goes on day after day.

What???? And then Joseph has another dream. They are in danger. The arrival of the Magi had alerted Herod that he had competition and as the weeks and months pass and the Magi don’t report back to him, he gets angry and is about to send out an edict for all baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem are to be killed (There actually probably weren’t many, it was such a small place). The fact that he says any boy under two indicates that time has passed. It is now time for them to move on. If they stay in Israel Herod may search them out and kill Jesus. They must leave the country. Go south, go to Egypt. That is the message of the dream.

Egypt??? Later, when recording it, Luke will be reminded (Lk 2:15) that in one of those other ‘breadcrumbs’ Hosea had prophesied about the Messiah, “out of Egypt I called my son,” (Hos 11:1) but most had taken that to mean the Exodus, but it will indeed apply to the Messiah. Jeremiah had also prophesied (Jer 31:15) about a time of weeping that would come to this area. They don’t say God made these things happen but in the affairs of men in this fallen world, they would happen. But for Mary and Joseph at this point of time, probably none of this is clear. But he has a dream and that is enough. We’ve commented before that this righteous young man is also a man of faith, just what was needed to protect the baby.

Life has to go on: So they leave and settle in Egypt for a time until Herod dies and Joseph has another dream (Mt 2:19,20) telling him to return to Israel and then another dream (v.22) telling him to settle back in Galilee in Nazareth. The wheel has gone full circle, and the dreams end.  And so here they are back home with a young child and an uncertain future. Yes, they have had lots of guidance, lots of reassurances and it all seems to have worked out, but what lies ahead? The great unknown. They may have ideas but almost certainly nothing as incredible as the times recorded in the rest of the Gospels.

And so: For us, isn’t this just how it is, this life of faith, a life reliant upon the calling and guidance of God? We’ve had the calling, we’ve responded, and then from time to time (when it’s needed) guidance comes from heaven, but until it does, we are left with a life of reassuring faith and trust. Faith comes from hearing the voice of God – whether through His word as we read it, hear it preached or prophesied, or as it comes in prayer or as that still small inner voice – and we respond. Trust is when we hold on in the absence of the voice. That is the life we are called to, a life where we are also called to be ‘faithful’, true to our calling, true to who He has made us to be and is making us to be, true to the inheritance we are yet awaiting in heaven. This is who I am, this is who we are, and we can be grateful to Mary and Joseph for the examples of all this that they have given us, that we have been reflecting upon over this Christmas period. Now we are called to just keep on keeping on, with hearts set on Him, ears open to Him, eyes watchful for His activity, and to take whatever leading He brings us tomorrow. What a life! Hallelujah!

Let’s Pray: “Father, thank you for the wonder of this plan of yours being worked out that we’ve been remembering over these days. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you left heaven and came and lived among us in the ways we have been reading about. Thank you Lord that you do call us, guide us, direct us, provide for us, protect us. Lord, please just continue to draw my heart to follow you ever more closely. Thank you so much. Amen.”

Addendum: Over the Christmas period, at one point, we were challenged to think up one sentence (only)  that sums up Christmas. In the light of that and in the light of this series, here is my offering (and we weren’t told it had to be short!):

“Christmas is the visible outworking of the will of the One God revealed through the Bible, who expresses Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a will that from before the Creation of the world decided that the only way to deal with the Sin of the World that would come with the free-will of mankind, was to send the Son to earth, to reveal the Father’s love and goodness, and then to die in the place of every human who has ever existed, and will ever exist, to take the punishment for their sin to enable them to be reconciled to the Holy God, and thus the arrival of the Son in the form of a baby born to a virgin, supported by a righteous and faithful husband, heralded by angels, shepherds, wise men and prophets, would be the start of the earthly working out of that will in the period we call Advent and the activities that we call the Nativity that together we call Christmas.”

Time to move on.

11. Shepherds

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 11: Shepherds

Lk 2:11  Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

(Additional Reading: Lk 2:8-18)

Low Life: Jesus once commented, “You will always have the poor with you,” (Mt 26:11) and poor can have different meanings and different causes. Jesus spoke of the ‘poor in spirit’ (Mt 5:3) and simply, ‘the poor’ (Lk 6:20). You can be poor materially and very often that is linked with being poor socially. Shepherds who lived and worked out on the hillsides in the vicinity of Bethlehem, would, at the very least, be considered poor socially. They were virtually outcasts; it was the nature of the job. Their life was with their sheep and so they were unlikely to be synagogue goers each Saturday and for that, no doubt, earned the negative reputation from the pious, of what I have tended to summarize as ‘the low life of society’. If a banquet to welcome the king of kings was put on by the local town elders, it is unlikely that they would have been invited. I mean they are likely to be dirty, scruffy, unkempt, ill-behaved socially, and anyway, they wouldn’t be interested, would they!  But God likes the low life!

Shepherds: The Story of the angel(s) coming to the shepherds is usually set in the memory with the immortal words, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Lk 2:10 AV) For us today, “good tidings of great joy” tend to be something like, “You’ve just won the lottery,” or, “No, the tumor is not malignant,” and even sometimes, “The twins have been born safely Nan.” Whether it was the ‘sore afraid’ of the AV or simply the ‘terrified’ of the NIV or ‘great fear’ of the ESV or ‘terribly afraid’ of the  GNT, the message is the same, the shepherds were scared out of their lives by the arrival of the first angel (v.9) These guys didn’t do ‘religious’ and they certainly didn’t do the supernatural! And a guy who shines so brightly that he even lights up them is seriously scary and I’m not sure if there are any of us who wouldn’t have felt the same in the middle of the night.

Pounded Senses: Now if that wasn’t bad enough when, after he has spoken, ‘a great company’ i.e. lots and lots and lots, of more angels appear in the sky and sing(?) – or at least praise God –  the shepherds could be forgiven if they had forgotten what the angel had said. Their senses were being pounded by one unbelievable thing after another and so, later on perhaps, when they talked among themselves about this message, it only made sense – or at least warranted them to think about it – in the light of being told about the baby, and then finding him down in Bethlehem. (How? What there a light in the stable, the only light in a dark town in the middle of the night?).

Think about it: You are a shepherd, a non-religious low-life outcast of society, and God’s messengers turn up for YOU. Why me? And says he’s bringing me good news. Do I need good news? What sort of good news? What’s the catch? Then comes, “the Messiah has arrived in the form of a baby.” Yes, right. So what? We’re shepherds, we don’t do the religious messiah bit. Why would he be bothered with us? We’re low-life, he’ll only come to the nice religious people who go to synagogue regularly or do the feasts in Jerusalem – I’ve never even been to Jerusalem and I live just a few miles away, I’m too busy looking after sheep.

How do you answer this? You undersell yourself. First, God is concerned about everyone, you included. Second, He’s come especially for the likes of you, all those who put themselves down, not to make you religious but just to let you know that He loves you and His Son has come to help you.  You may not understand it for several decades but perhaps one day you will. In the meantime, go and see him, and then tell everyone what’s happened.  It won’t change the world today but it will in the long run.

Let’s Pray: “Lord Jesus, your life revealed in the Gospels show us that you are concerned for all people, and it doesn’t matter whether they are the so-called ‘low life’ or not, you love them. Thank you that you love me and came for me, as dysfunctional as I can sometimes be. Thank you for the wonderful news that was brought to the shepherds – you had arrived here! Please help me take in the wonder of that. Amen.”

3. Oh help, it’s God!

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

3. Oh help, it’s God!

Lk 1:11,12 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.

 Really?   One of our dangers in the modern church is that we talk about ‘God’ too easily. I have to confess that applies to me as much as anyone else, whether it be in these studies or when I am teaching people to listen to God.  Moreover, I believe when we read the Bible, so often we read through rose-tinted glasses and see ourselves as wise responsive Christians who could never act like some of the clowns we read of in Scripture. Now that may be slightly over-stating it, but we are often not far from that. Take what I was saying at the end of the previous study, that we may be ‘good Christians’ but we don’t always handle ‘God encounters’ well.

For Example: It’s quite likely that many of us have never really had a ‘God encounter’ (except at new birth) because they are relatively few and far between for most. I was around in the days of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ at the back end of the last century, the time when God started turning up and people started laughing a lot and often appearing drunk in the Spirit, and many were falling down in the Spirit. I won’t go into long details of how we, as a church, were first introduced to what was happening, suffice it to say at the end of one Sunday morning, in the early days of it, as a response to what was preached we invited people, who felt the need, to come forward for prayer. Already the manifestations I referred to just now had started to happen and so on this morning the expectation of many was high – but not me. I was struggling with it as the leader of this church. I invited various of our leaders to come and pray over the ones who had come forward and I stood back and watched.

Yes, various stuff started happening and nearest to me two of my guys were praying their hearts out, clearly wanting this person to come under the power of the Spirit. After a few minutes of nothing happening, I was not amused and stepped in and they stepped back to let me pray. Without thinking I stretched out my hand and managed to get out, “Dear Lord, please…..” and the person went straight down under the Spirit. Now I am being completely honest when I say my reaction was to look to heaven and think, “How did you do that, and why?”  For the next six months it continued like that. I felt uncomfortable but I only had to pray a few words and the power of God fell. It took that six months for me to get to, “OK, Lord, if this is what you want to do, use me as you will,” and felt comfortable with it. If my memory is right it lasted for about a year and a half, during which our prayer meetings were always full and our people, young and old, were reading their Bibles like there was no tomorrow and all rejoicing and worshipping like they had never done before.

And Zechariah: Now I mention all this because so often (and I’m just as guilty) we give Zechariah a bad press. What an idiot! Fancy dissing an angel! But this year I find I am looking afresh at this and I find myself thinking more widely across the Bible. Fear of God – or at least mentions of it – appears early in the Bible (see Gen 20:11, 22:12, Ex 1:17 etc.) and especially when God turns up, which is why so often the person has to be reassured (see Ex 3:6, Judg 6:22,23, Isa 6:5, 41:10,13 etc.) When God turns up, it is natural to be afraid: “he was startled and was gripped with fear.”

It is a sign of the lack of God’s presence in the life of Israel at this time when Zechariah went into the Temple, that no one expected to actually meet with God there. Stories of the Tabernacle or the Temple being filled with the glory of the Lord had just been consigned to the distant past of the Old Testament scrolls.  We see the same thing some thirty years later when Jesus enters the local synagogue, teaches and casts out a demon and the people respond, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’” (Mk 1:27) Powerless religion at the hands of the local rabbi was all the people knew – until God turned up in the form of Jesus.

And Us?  We should not pass by on the other side here but stop and face the challenge with which we are presented. Is Christmas for us simply a materialistic time of celebration with food, drink, presents and parties, or perhaps do we go a stage further and attend all the various services the church lays on, mostly services which are essentially an entertainment which we watch, appreciate and can walk away from unchallenged? Do we see Christmas as a time when God invaded the earth in the most low-key invasion ever known, but an invasion never the less?  The heavenly presence starts here with Zechariah and he wasn’t expecting it and so it was scary. Do we see the challenge here, as to how we might have responded if we had been in Zechariah’s shoes? Or even closer to home, are we open to God coming and invading our personal space with fresh challenges to become part of His strategies for the earth today?

Zechariah’s Alternative: For that is all that is happening in this ‘forerunner story’ about Zechariah. God is inviting him to become part of His strategy to bless the earth through the coming of His Son. Put aside Zechariah’s negative response which evokes a disciplinary response from the angel; suppose Zechariah had responded positively and simply said, “Great bring it on.” The only difference would have been that the distraction (which God would use) of his disobedience and subsequent dumbness would have been removed from the story, but the end outcome would have been the same. God was going to enable this elderly couple to have a son anyway!

The funny thing is that all it required was for Zechariah to go home after his time serving in the Temple and persuade his wife that they weren’t too old to make love and leave the rest to God. He needn’t have gone home and said anything but just let nature and God take their course. Now, instead, he is made dumb, just as a little encouragement along the way, and so has to explain by sign language or perhaps in writing, why he is dumb and what God has said. He has been forced out into the open. But doesn’t God do that sometimes, manipulates circumstances so we have to come out into the open and declare our faith?

The divine perspective: The truth is that God has chosen Zechariah knowing, I suggest, all about him, knowing he is righteous, knowing he is religious, knowing he is not expecting divine encounters, know he is not full of faith, knowing he is old and knowing he is childless, and so He is going to take all these things and weave them together into a tapestry that will be clear and obvious for all to see and which will have the neighbours talking, and will remain in the family memory for a long time to come. Whether John’s parents were still alive when John started his ministry or whether they had already passed on, we don’t know, but whatever the truth is of that, John would have been told and John would have that foundation even before the Spirit started to stir him into his ministry in the days to come.

Weaving the Tapestry: Oh yes, this is going to be a beautiful tapestry built upon this man’s righteousness, challenging his religiosity and low expectations and low faith level, provoking him into faithless questioning and receiving a heavenly rebuke in return that meant he would be dumb, which in turn would necessitate him explaining and testifying to what had happened and becoming a sign for all the onlookers. Yes, this is God breaking into the happy experience of an aging, childless, righteous and religious man to completely upset his apple cart as we might say today, as he enjoys his big moment serving in the Temple, completely disturbing his peace and quiet and normality, to make him a figure of history.  I suspect if we ever could meet him in eternity and ask him about it, he would look down and with a smile reply, “Yes, well, I was obviously having a bad day in the Temple. I thought it was a great day but I didn’t realise the challenges that would come with it.” And then looking up would add with an even bigger smile, “But the Lord got me there in the end!”

And so, the Big Picture: Finally note the stages of what happened. Stage 1: Serving in the Temple. Great! Stage 2: Chosen to offer the incense. Wonderful! Stage 3: God turns up. Help!!!!!!   Stage 1 he saw coming. Stage 2 he probably didn’t expect but was delighted about. Stage 3 he definitely didn’t see coming and initially didn’t like, but stage 3 was exactly that, just a further stage in God’s plans for this man, plans that have a much bigger panorama, the first stage of preparing the way for the arrival of His Son. And of course Christmas in itself is just the first stage in the plan of redemption, or perhaps we should say a further stage because the first stage took place before the foundation of the world when the Godhead agreed it, the second stage was it being drip-fed through the prophets, and so what we have been considering today is actually the third stage of the plan. But isn’t that how life with God is? We think the present moment is THE big moment, but it isn’t, it is just a further stage in the ongoing plans of God involving us, so perhaps that can be the last of a variety of lessons that come out of this story. Enjoy your next stage that is today.

28. Confusion

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 28. Confusion

Mt 28:5  The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.

Today is Good Friday, the worst day in human history as mankind rejected the Son of God and put him to death on a wooden cross. When I was younger I found it a confusing day. It was a day of grief and mourning and yet I knew that in two days that would all be turned to praise and thanksgiving and worship. Forgive the analogy, but my wife used to say, “I don’t want to watch the film ‘Titanic’ because I know the ending – it sinks!” And that is a little bit what it is like, for me at least, with Good Friday. It is a horrible day, a day I would rather forget – and then I know the ending and would much rather focus on that!

So I have jumped forward on this day to the events on next Sunday morning, but what do I find? Still confusion! The two Mary’s have gone to the tomb. Face it, they were confused before they got there. They thought they could waltz into the tomb and embalm him properly, but the tomb had been sealed with a massive stone. They get there and an earthquake (angel) has rolled it away. The angel seeks to reassure them because Jesus isn’t there. They pass on a message – you’re to go to Galilee. They turn to go, and Jesus appears to them, and other records tell us they didn’t recognise him.

The truth of the matter is that all the events of this weekend are utterly confusing. Jesus had plainly told his disciples what was going to happen but when it did they fled in terror and hid behind locked doors. Saturday is a no-go day, nothing happens, they hide in misery. Sunday – he’s alive! But still they struggle to believe.

Now here is my main point and perhaps it hangs over this entire series: we as Christians with our Bibles and thousands of sermons have heard it again and again, but in so doing we lose a sense of the reality of it all; we romanticize it. No, the truth is that this weekend blows your mind away in every direction.

It is God bringing about the salvation of the world. It involves the glorious Son of God putting aside all of his glory, all of his power and all of his authority and submitting himself totally to the evil of mankind and dying on a cross as a common criminal. And then, when we have given up all hope because he is dead, the power of God is manifest in a way beyond our comprehension and Jesus is alive again. But then we start thinking back – water into wine, walking on water, raising the dead?

Why are we surprised, this is God? “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” (Isa 55:8).  This is the truth; I am not in the same league as Him. I just need to shut up, bow down, and worship Him. Make this a day of worship.

12. Reality versus Possibility

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 12. Reality versus Possibility

Judg 6:11  The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites.

The Judges Context: We’re about to consider another of my favourite incidents in the Old Testament, that has so much of significance about it. The context is clearly stated: Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help.” (Judg 6:1-6)

Now I’ve titled this study ‘Reality versus Possibility’ and the verses above are the reality of life in Israel at that moment. They were a people that had turned from the Lord and so the Lord lifted off His hand of protection from over them, so that the Midianites invaded the land and oppressed Israel. That is why there is such irony in our starting verse: Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press which, in those days, was a dip in the ground and he’s doing it there because he is hiding from the Midianites of whom he is afraid. Yes, that is the reality of this situation.

Parallels Today?  What is the reality for the Christian living in the West today? Well in most of the advanced Western nations Christianity appears in the decline and the world about largely derides Christians and their voice is muted. In America, much of its voice is associated with a particular political party and because of that has lost much of its uniqueness and is far from the pattern of the New Testament. In the UK it is such a minority that even where it is thriving, it is a battle against the world around it. In Western nations Christians are struggling to cope with materialism and relativistic morality that permits things that the Bible calls unrighteous and ungodly. Both the USA and the UK are struggling with changes that have come from changes in thinking and the outcomes are unclear and perhaps even questionable (that may bring the clear judgment of God). In many places the Church is inward looking and the majority in society continue with little or no Bible knowledge or knowledge of God. The quality of church life is so often far from the New Testament standards. That again is reality; you may disagree if your experience is different but the picture I have painted is largely true across both nations.

God chooses a Nobody: Now here’s the question: does it have to stay like that? Israel had started crying out to the Lord and so we find, first of all, a prophet coming to the land with a message of confrontation of their sin (see v.7-10) and you might have thought that that was the end of it – this reality would continue as it was – but the Lord deals in possibilities. So, he sends an angel to Gideon and this is where it starts getting funny. Here is this little man hiding away in fear and the angel says, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” (v.12) Gideon splutters over this and says, look at the reality of our situation, how can you say God is with us? But the Lord just turns to him and says, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (v.14) This is a little like Moses at the burning bush. “Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (v.15)  i.e. I’m a nobody! The Lord replies, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.” (v.16) and so it turns out.

Basic Facts: Notice the characteristics of this: 1. Gideon IS a nobody but 2. The Lord obviously knows his potential, what He can do with him, and so 3. Sends him to deliver Israel, but 4. Says He will be with him and will be part of it. We have moved from the reality of the situation to consider the possibilities of the situation. If God says He’s going to sort the Midianites – and use Gideon to do it – He WILL do it.

And Today? So what does God feel about our situation today? Well certainly He must be angry with two nations who have known His blessing in the past in such measure, but there are also signs, despite how we have described the overall picture, that He IS moving in His Church where they are open to Him. And that seems to be the key issue – are the people of God open to His leading.

With some encouragement, Gideon did get on with it and Israel were delivered. It happened in stages, but it did happen. First of all it needs a people who will look at their situation and say, “This is NOT how God wants it!”  Does God want a little church that huddles fearfully making no impact on society? No. Does He want a mega-church where people get spiritually fat, sitting and listening to affluent preachers whose lifestyles are the exact opposite of Jesus of Nazareth, who run church like a corporate business? Definitely not!

A New Testament Church: So what are the signs of a church that is operating on New Testament lines?  Yes, they will study the Bible, and yes, they will pray and worship, but they will not be pew-fodder. They will be Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered people who are able to minister revelation and power to one another – and to the world outside. They will be serving the community and opening the hearts of the community to receive the love and the word of the Lord and His salvation.

And in case you wonder when I say ‘they’ that is not just leaders, that is the whole congregation. Now if your church is not like that, face the reality of where it is but see the possibility of where God wants it to be, and pray and seek His grace and His wisdom and declare your availability to be used to help bring it from the present reality into the glorious possibility that the New Testament reveals.

If you find yourself making excuses why you can’t be part of that, then you are in the place of Gideon –  but the Lord IS with you. Listen to Him and follow what he says. He will have specific instructions for you in your particular life circle and when you follow them, get ready for change! Hallelujah!

14. A Most Remarkable Message

Focus on Christ Meditations: 14.  A Most Remarkable Message

Lk 1:31-33    You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 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.

We have seen the dream that Joseph had in which the angel said,you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” and we commented then that this was shorthand for all we can find in those messianic verses at the beginning of Isa 61 (and which Jesus read in the synagogue – Lk 4:17-19) and we considered what that actually meant as it was rolled out in history. I don’t know, as a child, if you ever did painting by numbers where bit by bit you followed the colours designated by each number and the picture gradually grew. I feel this search is a bit like that.

My intent has been to build up a picture from the verses of the Bible of the mystery from the Old Testament, gradually being revealed in the New, and yet not obvious except to just a few. If each person who came to know what was happening lit up, we would have seen Zechariah light up, then Elizabeth as he communicated in writing with her, then Mary, then Joseph, then the shepherds at about the same time that Simeon was picking it up and to the east some Magi were being alerted – but they are the only ones we are told about (possibly plus Anna in the temple). Half a dozen individual and two groups, and that is it. It is a very low-key happening. But as these people share it with those closest to them – Zechariah and Elizabeth told those near them, no doubt Mary and Joseph told their close families, the shepherds certainly told whoever would listen before they went back to their sheep, and perhaps Simeon told people around in the temple, and the Magi certainly let the cat out of the bag, as we might say today, when they turned up in Jerusalem, asking questions about the Coming One who had arrived!

So yes, there were a growing number of people who were being alerted to what was happening, but whether those hearing it second hand believed it, is another thing. Even more, and this is where I want us to focus at this moment, if you were one of the first people to be told you might feel very much alone.

Imagine you had a brother or sister who worked for the Government in biological warfare research, and one day they came to you and said, “I can’t keep this to myself any longer, I have to tell someone. We have been working on a virus, an incredibly virulent virus that sterilises anyone it meets so they can never bear children. It works. We’ve tried it on all sorts of animals and it works every time – and it has escaped!  Hardly anyone else knows about it yet but the entire population WILL become infected. The world will never be the same again, and unless we can find some antidote – which is very unlikely – within a hundred years the entire population of the world will have gone. But you mustn’t tell anyone, we don’t want there to be widespread panic.” So there you are. You are just one of a very few who know what is going on. It is a lonely place.

So now back to Mary and her encounter with the angel Gabriel. What is strange is that she doesn’t ask, “But why me?” That doesn’t seem to cross her mind. She simply asks how she can fulfil God’s will because she is not married and it’s within marriage that children are conceived. (Oh if only our unrestrained western society could get back to that place!) This particular mystery is only resolved when you consider what we are told about her: she is a virgin pledged to be married (v.27). Apparently she has found favour with God (v.30) and, I suggest, God bestows favour on those He chooses and He chooses according to subsequent availability and openness to Him. This is confirmed by her comments at the close of the conversation: I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.” (v.38)

We can’t pass this by without letting the light of this situation shine back on us. How many of us, confronted with a strange word from God in scary circumstances would have responded with such a depth of faith?

But look at what Gabriel says about her son: “you are to give him the name Jesus. 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.” (v.31-33) There it is again, all the things we’ve been seeing in previous studies: Jesus or Joshua which means, ‘the Lord saves’, he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, or ‘the Son of God’.  Now up until that point Mary might have interpreted this as meaning, he will be very godly, but see how it ends – “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” What?

We back in the dilemma of the Isaiah prophecies. Of whom can this be said except God? This child will be God????  Could Mary comprehend that? I doubt it, because even we today, with all the revelation we have, still struggle to understand how Almighty God can inhabit a human body – the Incarnation is still a mystery. And for us it gets worse. I have lost count of the times I have written about the ‘indwelling Holy Spirit’ the Holy Spirit who inhabits every believer. How do we handle the reality of that?

How easily we speak these things and yet the utter reality escapes us. So I have another question mark over this story that is so familiar to us every Christmas and it is this: why did God bother to tell both Mary and Joseph this about Jesus? Did they understand it? Only at a superficial level. Did it change the way they brought him up? I doubt it, they were clearly both righteous people given over to God’s will for their lives. We might ask of us in church life today, why does God give us prophecies today (why did He give to Isaiah and the other prophets?), why, when sometimes the prophecy is simply a declaration of His sovereign activity, doesn’t He just get on and do it regardless, why tell us?

The unbelievably simple answer has got to be that because He loves us, and He loves to tell us what is on His heart (after all, we’ve got an entire book full of it!) and involve us, in understanding at least, in what He is doing. Sometimes He says it so that we can cooperate with Him and play our specific part – as was the case for Joseph who changed his mind and married Mary. The mystery about The Mystery is resolved in this: God shared the intentions of the Godhead for all who would see in the following centuries and whose hearts would be lifted by what they read. It didn’t happen in their time but they would have rejoiced that it was going to happen and that in turn would have provided fuel for worship.

To reflect upon: when we have read these prophecies (and perhaps when we have received our own personal prophecies), have our hearts lifted with praise and worship and can our response be that of Mary: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

13. A Most Remarkable Dream

Focus on Christ Meditations: 13.  A Most Remarkable Dream

Mt 1:20-21   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, 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.”

We have been pursuing the sense of mystery that is there in Scripture about the coming, the person, the life, and the work of Christ. This started with the apostle Paul’s use of this word mystery as applied to Christ and to the Gospel and I have suggested from the outset that familiarity in many of us means we have lost the sense or awareness of this mystery, and so I have been seeking to regain it in these studies. We started with some of the prophecies from the Old Testament which was, I suggest, what Paul was mostly referring to when he spoke of the mystery. However, as we moved into the New Testament I have suggested that when we look with fresh eyes we will catch a similar sense in respect of all of the things we find there in the early accounts of his coming.

We did this with Simeon and the Magi, who were the earliest of those who were aware of his coming, and then we considered the mystery of choosing shepherds to announce the news of his coming. From that we pondered on why God should choose Zechariah knowing he was likely to respond negatively as he did, and then finally considered the subject of why a virgin birth. It is with the same approach in mind that we now consider the nature and content of Joseph’s dream.

To do this properly we need to first note the historical context, if we may put it like that, what was going on before the dream came. Basic facts. 1. Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” (v.18a)  2. “Before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18b)  3. “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (v.19) That’s where we have got to and we’ve already considered bits of this as we considered the ‘virgin birth’ question.

When the angel appears to Joseph in the dream it is obviously so vivid that he sees it as the message from God that it is, and follows the instructions within it. Now a dream with an angel in isn’t particularly mysterious; it is what is in the angelic communication that we so often take for granted. He first of all reassures Joseph (v.20) that, no, she hasn’t been with another man, it truly is a miracle, the fact that she is carrying a baby, it is a sovereign work of God, enabled by the Holy Spirit. OK, end of reassurance, he could have stopped there, but he doesn’t.

See the all-important v.21: “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.” Now in your Bible there will probably be a footnote after the word ‘Jesus’ that explains, ‘Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the LORD saves.’   Now we find a shorthand version of what we saw in the Isa 61 prophecy, fulfilled in Lk 4 that we saw in study 7 on the Anointed Servant. The purpose of the one we have referred to simply as ‘the Coming One’ is to save people, but now we stumble over yet another mystery. In the Isa 61 prophecy the ‘saving’ was in respect of the poor… the brokenhearted…. the captives and … the prisoners. The angel now says he will save his people from their sins. What does that actually mean?

How easily we hear it when we hear this story read at Christmas, but what does it actually mean? Were the descriptions in Isa 61 descriptions about sin? Are we captive to Sin, prisoners or Sin? Is the result that we are poor (spiritually) and brokenhearted (in the anguish that the life of sin brings with it)? Here is the mystery of the words of the dream and purpose of the Coming One.

In retrospect, with the whole canon of Scripture before us we can venture answers to this question, what does it mean that the Christ saves us from our sins? The starting point has to be that since the Fall every single human being (except Jesus) is tainted with this thing called Sin, this propensity to be self-centred and godless which leads to unrighteousness. This unrighteousness is expressed as sins, individual wrong thoughts, wrong words or wrong deeds. We were, before we came to Christ, a prisoner to this Sin, hence the apostle Paul’s words in Rom 7, leading to the conclusion that we were helpless (unable to change ourselves) and hopeless (there was no hope of a different future). That was our state from which Christ came to save us.

How did he do that? Let’s be as simple as possible and for the sake of space forgive me if I don’t justify these three declarations with lots of verses; they are there. First because of our state (in Sin) and our actions (sins) we inherently feel guilty. There is a question of our guilt and shame needing to be dealt with. Second, there is the fact of our guilt; we don’t only feel guilty deep down, we are guilty. That needs dealing with. Third, we are powerless to change; we are as we said, helpless and hopeless, and that needs dealing with. So how does Jesus death on the Cross deal with these three things?

The divine plan was that his death was to be seen as punishment satisfying justice for each and every sin we have ever and will ever commit. All God asks of us initially is to believe that. It is the means of dealing with the second of those three issues – our guilt. As far as justice is now concerned everything we have ever done or will ever do wrong, has been resolved, the punishment has been taken. When we come to God in repentance we are instantly ‘justified’, declared right in the eyes of heaven. As part of the whole process we are also adopted by God into His family, we have a new status, children of God, and as such all our shame and guilt, the first issue, are gone. As part of the whole process God puts His Holy Spirit into our lives, we become indwelt by the Spirit and He within us is the new power source (see end of Rom 7 and beginning of Rom 8), so together the new identity that we have and the new power source within, release us to live new God-directed and God-blessed lives, with an eternal future. We ARE saved! Hallelujah!

THIS is what was wrapped up in those few simple but utterly dramatic words of mystery that Joseph received in his dream – he will save his people from their sins. That was why he came, this is what he has done and this is what we are now experiencing. Hallelujah! How wonderful this mystery now revealed! Is there any point in continuing this series? Oh yes, now we will start seeing how it was all worked out in time-space history, now we will go on to see more of who this Coming One really is, and what he came to do.  Yes!!!!

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.

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)

47. The End Game

Meditations in Exodus: 47. The End Game

Ex 14:13-14   Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Whenever you are faced with a block of Scripture, it is important to our understanding to see how it is made up. In the remainder of this chapter we see Moses encouraging the people (v.13,14), the Lord declaring His intent (v.15-18), the Lord’s protection of Israel (v.19,20), Israel crossing the sea dry (21,22), the Lord confusing the pursuing Egyptians (v.23-25), Moses releasing the water to destroy the Egyptians (v.26-38)  and a final summary (v.29-31). That is the breakdown of what is here.

But before we cover those verses let’s remember that this is the end game, if we may put it like that, of a long play on God’s behalf which He spoke of right at the beginning but it is interesting to note that He had spoken from the beginning about the death of the first born, but never about Pharaoh’s death. It is almost as if the Lord was reticent to declare terminal judgment upon him, almost as if the Lord was keeping the door open to the possibility of Pharaoh eventually relenting. Yet we see that never happened and in fact Pharaoh still has pride bubbling in him so that a simple suggestion from the Lord’s emissary has him charging off after Israel.

So, first of all Moses’ encouragement of his people: Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (v.13,14) It is a threefold declaration of faith:

  1. i) “you WILL see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today,”
  2. ii) “the Egyptians you see today you will never see again,”

iii) “The Lord WILL fight for you.”

And from this there are two consequences:

  1. i) “do not be afraid”, i.e. you need not be afraid.
  2. ii) “stand firm” i.e. stay where you are and God will act – “be still”

Second, see the Lord declaring His intent. This comes in three parts. Part 1: a call to get moving: “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.”  Then Part 2: How to cross the water: “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” Part 3: What He will do with the Egyptians: “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”  (v.17,18) Note He doesn’t actually say at this point what He will do, only the result.

Third, we see the Lord’s protection of Israel: “Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.” (v.19,20) The pillar of cloud comes between the two groups and thus prevents Pharaoh from reaching the Israelites.

Fourth, we see Israel crossing the sea dry:“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.” (v.21,22) Again it is to be something with Moses at its heart, so his staff stretched out over the sea enables the Lord to divide the waters and Israel pass through this miraculous divide.

Fifth, we then see the Lord confusing the pursuing Egyptians: “The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He made the wheels of their chariots come off so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”(v.23-25) As the Egyptian army follow Israel what may be a combination of mud and rocks perhaps, cause big problems for the chariots and the charioteers soon see the impossibility of the situation and basically cry, “Let’s go back, let’s get out of this!”

Then, sixth, the destruction of the Egyptian army: “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen–the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.” (v.26-28) Again note it is the combination of the work of Moses (with his staff)  and the Lord that brings about the death of Pharaoh and his army.

Finally, seventh, there is a final summary: “But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” (v.29-31) Israel saved, the Egyptians destroyed, resulting in a new level of faith in the Lord in Israel.

Just a final point to conclude this part of the story of the Exodus. The judgment was a judgment of God. It was God who destroyed the first born and then it was God who destroyed the Egyptian army and Pharaoh. BUT Moses had a part to play even if it was merely holding his hand out again and again. He was God’s signpost to the watching world that this was an act of God. Everything appeared to hinge on him. Now the Lord delights in using His people and in the New Testament the teaching about “the body of Christ” has you and me as members of this body, members who God uses to achieve things. If we refuse to be used, little will happen. We are to be God’s signposts to the watching world, a means for them to come to belief. May that we so.