9. To Us????

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

9. Insider information…. To who??? To Us?????

Lk 2:10-12   the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

 Go slowly: The more and more one looks into the Christmas story the more amazing it becomes and the more challenging it also becomes. It is possible that some will look at the title of this series and say, so where are all the impossible things? I can see the thing about Mary conceiving, but what other impossible things are there? Well stop and think about this word ‘impossible’. It means ‘not able to be or to happen’. One dictionary says, ‘something that cannot be expected to happen or exist.’ If you are one of these wonderers I suspect you don’t have any friends who are atheists. Ask an atheist what they think about the Christmas story and stand by and get ready for the blast. Why do we think that? Because they see all these things happening as simply impossible. Virgin births? Rubbish? Old women having babies beyond the menopause? Rubbish!  A Roman emperor affecting the lives of ordinary people by his thoughtless edicts? Possible – but not planned by God! Wise men coming from afar? Yes, well there are always weirdos in the world! Put the whole lot together as the plan of God – you’ve got to be joking!  The point we are making, piece by piece, is that this story is incredible, every bit of it and it is the story of God stepping down into this broken world to bring healing to it.

The Angels again: We haven’t finished with the angels that we started considering yesterday. In fact we’ve hardly started, really. The angel has arrived and the glory of God shines around them. They are now all wide awake and in this world that often is so predictable I will add one more thing of which I am sure: that none of them would have guessed in a million years what was coming. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (v.10-12) End of Message. That’s it.

Perplexed response: Now stop and think about this. Imagine. A bit later they might have been saying, “Hang on, what did he say? He’s got good news for us but, hold on, not just for us, for everyone…. er…. down in Bethlehem – they call it the town of David don’t they? – a saviour has just been born, the Messiah the scribes and religious people are always going on about…. er…  a baby in a stable it’s got to be because he said he was lying in a manger. But why is he telling us? We’re not religious, so why would we be interested? A saviour? From what? We’re OK out here on the hillside; the Romans don’t bother us, and in fact our boss probably sells to them. They’ll no doubt get fed up and leave one of these years, but in the meantime, who cares, we’re all right out here in the hills. You what? No, I don’t know why he should have told us. What? No, I don’t know why it is supposed to be good news for us. I guess there is more in this than meets the eye. You what? Yes, I think you’re right, we’d better get down there and see.”

Additional Motivation: Now I think that some sort of conversation like that followed but I suspect it was slightly more animated in the light of what followed the angel’s message: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (v.13,14) Forgive me if you are, but I’m not a great fan of choral works, but I can only believe that this was likely to have been THE most spectacular of choral works. A ‘great company’, i.e. lots and lots and lots! Awesome! I don’t think there is any other such earthly visitation recorded in the Bible; this was unique. Now I and many others of us may have misinterpreted this because it doesn’t actually say they were singing, it just simply says it was an incredible praise party. Angels’ primary role is to serve and extol God. Their role here is not to distract us with lovely singing (though it might have been that) but to glorify God by their praises – and the message they convey within it.

Good news? Now the first angel started out by talking about ‘good news’ which somehow or other is linked to a baby born down there in Bethlehem. Has the angelic host added anything to that? Well they are glorifying God and they are talking about peace on earth on those on whom his favour rests. Who does that apply to? It can’t be us, we’re just outcast shepherds, God wouldn’t be bothered with us, he’s religious and we’re not. Questions. Questions that might have had them just sitting around the fire for the rest of the night, except for one thing! The whole experience. The glory of God around this one being and then (presumably) around the whole heavenly host, the message and the declarations (?song). All this amounts to one amazing experience, and then they are gone, and it is dark and silent again, and I would guess after their brightness it now seems doubly dark and after their voices it now seems doubly silent. And they stand there (do you remain sitting when an incredible Air Show takes place?) and in the dark with shadows cast by the low burning fire all you can hear are occasional words from occasional shepherds. Wow. Awesome. Amazing. Incredible. Awesome. I said that already! Oh yes, marvellous. Until eventually one ventures, “You do realise there is only one thing left to do?” And without another word they are all pelting down the hillside towards Bethlehem. “Hey, what about the sheep.” “Oh God will look after the sheep, we’ve got more important things to do.” “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (Lk 2:16)

Now I want to imagine (bear with me) a committee who have been called by God to talk through the events leading up to and surrounding the arrival of His Son on earth. People or angels if you like, I don’t think it matters. Here’s the conversation:

“Ladies and gentlemen, (clearly not angels!) God has called on us to make suggestions.

“What do we know?

“Well, He says He’s sorted out the preliminaries and so the Son will arrive in Bethlehem.

“OK, so we want a welcoming committee, yes?

“That sounds a good idea. As it’s near Jerusalem, we should probably invite Herod, the High Priest, and for that matter most of the other priests at the temple and … is there a mayor of Jerusalem or of Bethlehem?

“I’m not sure. Hold on, He’s just sent down a memo. He’s suggesting that He sends some angels down to the shepherds outside Bethlehem so they can be the welcoming committee.

(Stunned silence).

“That’s what the memo says.

“But shepherds….?


“But why? Why not all the top people? Why the lowest of the low? They’re outcasts!

“I don’t know. Hold on, another memo has just arrived. It simply says, “Because then no one will ever feel left out”. I’m not sure what that means. We’ll have to think about that.And us? Who would you have chosen to welcome the little family in the stable? If you can be really honest, I suspect shepherds would be the last ones to come to mind. It’s like saying, go around to one of the run-down areas of town and tell the teenage gangsters or druggies, and maybe a prostitute or two. I told you this is an uncomfortable story – when you really think about it. No, it wasn’t the nice and respectable synagogue goers of Bethlehem that God told and invited to go and be the first to visit the maternity ward round the back of the local pub or wine bar. It was common shepherds with nothing to commend them than that they were simple, they were poor, and they were scruffy. Isn’t it funny, God likes the simple, the poor and the scruffy. (Just see who Jesus rubbed shoulders with!) I wonder how many of them He finds in our churches? I did warn you! That’s what the story of the shepherds all about. Just in case you are feeling an outcast, I have a message from God for you: “Oh, there you are, I’ve been looking for you. Would you like to join me as I ….” On Christmas Day, enjoy Him, enjoy His company. Whatever else is going on this day, make sure you worship and celebrate him and give thanks for what he has made you. In God’s eyes you are no outcast. Accept that and rejoice in it because this is what his day is all about.

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.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isa 9:6,7)

27. Enemies Disarmed

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 27. Enemies Disarmed

Col 2:15   And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

More mystery. “Powers and Principalities”? Intriguingly the Bible says more about this than most realise. Isaiah prophesied about God at the end: “In that day the Lord will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below.” (Isa 24:21) ‘Powers’ and ‘kings’ -both rulers. Similarly, Daniel: He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.” (Dan 4:35) Whatever they are they are part of God’s creation: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him,” (Col 1:16) and they are all under Jesus’ rule: “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (1 Pet 3:22)

Now the only other ‘beings; apart from the Godhead and mankind that are mentioned in the Bible are angels, some of whom are fallen and follow Satan (see Mt 25:41 & Rev 12:9), all of whom are spirits (Heb 1:7,14) and when they are fallen we refer to them as demons. The leader of them is Satan: “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray …. the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night….” (Rev 12:9,10) and it is there we see one of the primary things he does – accuse people.

It is legitimate to suppose that ‘powers’ are angelic beings and there is a hierarchy (see Dan 10:12-14). Paul confirms these are our enemies: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12)

And yet to the Colossian Paul said Jesus has disarmed them. How? Well, we’ve seen one of Satan’s primary tactics is to accuse God’s people (e.g. Zech 3:1). How does he accuse us? He points out our guilt and demands that justice be seen and we be condemned and punished. But now Jesus has come and died for us, the apostle John was able to write, “if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:1,2) Thus when Satan comes to accuse us, it is like Jesus steps up and says, “Father, I died for this one. Their sins are dealt with,” and so Satan and his followers are disarmed. It is only the unknowing who go down under his accusations. Our answer should always be, “Yes, I fell, I sinned, and I am sorry, but Jesus died for that sin, so I rest in his forgiveness. Satan go away.”  See James 4:7 and rejoice.

9. Anticipation – the Shepherds

Focus on Christ Meditations: 9.  Anticipation – the Shepherds

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, and they were terrified.

We have moved from the Old Testament into the New and are observing the different ways that God communicates in His revealing the coming of His Christ. In the previous study we saw how He communicated with Simeon via the Holy Spirit. Two of these three studies focus on those who were anticipating the ‘Coming One’ but this study focuses on a most unlikely group who God came to – you’ve guessed it, the shepherds who turn up in every Christmas Nativity with little children with towels around their heads clutching their favourite toy sheep. Now there are two emphases to their story but they, the shepherds, are only one. They are very undramatic, in stark contrast to the angels who form the second and even stronger element to their story.

Most of us are not very good with angels because we’ve never encountered them, but I have heard enough plausible testimonies from very credible people to believe that there is no question but that they exist. I would love to start telling stories here but if I do that we’ll never have enough space or time to write the accounts. But angels appear over the Bible. The first reference to an angel coming to someone is in Gen 16:7 when an angel comes to Hagar in the desert to encourage and reassure her. After her child is born another angel comes to her son in the desert (Gen 21:17). Further we find angels turning up in Gen 22:11,15,  24:7,40, 31:11, 48:16,  Ex 3:2, 14:19 etc. etc. etc. Very often it is clear that the angel comes to convey the will of God and in the text it is often almost impossible to distinguish between God and His angel as far as the communication is concerned.

Scripture describes them as ‘ministering spirits’ (Heb 1:14) sent to serve God’s people, usually in human form and who exercise power (2 Pet 2:11) and they come to convey God’s will. They appear a number of times in the early parts of the ‘Jesus story’ on earth, for example it was an angel who came to Zechariah (Lk 1:11-), to Mary (Lk 1:26-), to Joseph in three dreams (Mt 1:20, 2:13,19) as well as to the shepherds in today’s verses.

Not unsurprisingly the shepherds were terrified, no doubt more from the bright light that appeared to shine from and around this individual. Now although these shepherds are quite possibly outcasts from society because they lived in the hills, day and night, seven days a week, it is probable that at least when they were children they would have been told Israel’s history, complete with angelic accounts. However it is a very different thing to be told about such a divine encounter and to have such an encounter.

The angel seeks to allay their fears by telling them he was the bringer of ‘good news’ Now watch this carefully! See what he says: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (v.10,11) He tells them where to find this child (v.12) and then just to make it more dramatic, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (v.13,14)

Now to shatter the complacency that so often accompanies the familiarity of this story, can I say I find this whole episode utterly mystifying! You don’t? Stop and think about it. Suppose you are God and you want to announce the arrival of your Son on the earth. Presumably you want to tell people who will be credible and who will respond well and no doubt go and tell others as well. So you look around the community, not very impressive, so you look wider afield and you come to Jerusalem. Herod is bad news, so he’s out. The chief priest is not known for his political and spiritual integrity so he’s questionable. Is there a local mayor or someone of that ilk who could spread the news? The trouble is that such people so often tend to be unbelieving. An angel, good news, a baby? It’s the middle of the night for goodness sake. Come back in the morning. So yes, it is a difficult job finding suitable people to tell, but shepherds, the great unwashed, the outcasts of society, who is going to believe them? At first sight at least, this is the last bunch of individuals I would choose.

So let’s see what happened: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (v.15) OK, good one guys, they go. They don’t keep talking about what an amazing experience they have just had; they go. They don’t settle by the fireside recounting their individual responses and then gradually fall asleep. No, they go. “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (v.16) We tend to take this for granted but this may have needed a bit of perseverance and it is the middle of the night and the sheep are up there unattended????

And then, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” (v.17) Here we have the first childlike believers who can’t keep it to themselves. Who are they telling? It’s still the middle of the night isn’t it, or has dawn broken or have they made so much noise they’ve woken up half the town? We don’t know, just that they shared it. And the result? “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (v.18) Not outright rejection, amazement. Perhaps shepherd-outcasts were just the right people to tell!

But perhaps also, there is a hint here of the way that God works. Already we have noted a number of times how God only gives part of the picture, almost as if He is wanting only those with seeking hearts to find His revelation. When Jesus came thirty years later it was so often with the poor and outcast sinners that he sat and talked for they were the ones most open to him. It is as true today as it was then, that those who are affluent, those who are ‘somebody’ rarely see their need and so rarely reach out to God.

What have we seen so far in this second part? An old man living on his own (probably), shepherds living on their own, and in the background, that we’ll see in later studies, a young couple and a baby, far from home, with their baby in either a stable or a cave. This is God reaching out to the outsiders, the less comfortable, the not-so-affluent, those who know exactly where they are in the food chain, those who are just ‘more aware of themselves’ and therefore more aware of their need. How about you and me? Are we comfortably well off? Does that make us spiritually lethargic? God reveals Himself to the hungry and thirsty and to the poor (see Mt 5:3,6)  Are we hungry and thirsty for God?

54. And then to Hospitality

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  54.  And then to Hospitality

Heb 13:2   Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

A Climate for Hospitality: I suspect that eastern peoples of old knew more about hospitality than we do today and maybe it is because so many of them lived in inhospitable desert lands. When a stranger arrived, you took pity on him and welcomed him into your home where he could be refreshed and escape for a while at least from the harsh climate. A hospital is a place of recovery and hospitality has at its roots the same idea, that of recovery for the weary traveller in a harsh world. The fact that eastern peoples worked on hospitality because of the harshness of climate and countryside, should not make us think that this is not part of the life of the Christian in a different part of the world that may not appear so hostile. Modern life in the West is, I suggest hostile in other ways and the need for hospitality is just as great as in Middle Eastern countries in New Testament times. Indeed we may have to think even more about how we go about giving hospitality.

Strangers? Our verse from Hebrews 13 is intriguing: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”  Hospitality, it suggests, should be offered to strangers, not necessarily those you know well. Now I would suggest in passing that in many churches, in reality, many people are strangers.  For example, take a random person you see in your church regularly. How much do you know of them? Do you know if they are a Christian? (don’t assume anything).  Do you know when and how they came to the Lord, do you know their Christian experience, do you know their family structure, do you know what jobs they have or the roles they have in life, do you know their gifting or maybe even ministries? If you don’t know these things then I suggest to you that these people are strangers.

Angels? The second thing that verse says is that you may be entertaining angels. Abraham had (see Gen 18), as did Gideon (Jdg 6) and also Manoah (Jdg 13), each without realizing initially who they had in their home situation. This says to us, invite in people even without knowing fully who they are and you might end up being pleasantly surprised and blessed by them. (see Jesus’ words to his disciples when he sent them out about leaving a blessing o the home).

Wider Teaching: But does the New Testament say much about this subject or is this a rare teaching?  The apostle Paul instructed the church at Rome to, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Rom 12:13) This may challenge us about crossing social boundaries, reaching out to the poor, but then ‘the needy’ may cover far more than financial hardship. There may be those around us who have recently lost a loved one, or those who have been through trying circumstances, or those who have a sense of guilt or failure. Each of these need a recovery environment.  How can we bless them?

Paul’s Teaching: Paul also spoke about, “Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy,” (Rom 16:23) In other words Gaius was known to bless all around him by practicing hospitality, opening his home to bless any in the church.

When Paul spoke of widows in the church who needed the support of the church, hospitality was one of the markers that indicated they were living good lives, worthy of support by the church: “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality,” (1 Tim 5:9,10) There are two things to note about that. First, hospitality was one of the things the church expected the members of the church to be practicing. Second, a widow may often feel she has little to contribute to the life of the church but these verses suggest otherwise.

Peter’s Contribution: The apostle Peter saw hospitality as one of the expressions of love, as a means of expressing your gifting to bless others: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet 4:8-10)

John’s Contribution: The apostle John also made reference to providing hospitality for those serving the Church: “It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.” (3 Jn 1:7,8) How can we bless one another at all levels of the church, taking no one for granted, thinking that a place of retreat is not what they need.

Practicalities: Whether it is just inviting someone (or a couple) round for coffee, or a meal, or having them to stay, remember the basic ideas that we have noted so far – a place for others to retreat from the harsh world out there, a place of recovery, a place to be blessed. The emphasis is on them, not on us. This means you don’t have to worry about producing food that is the best in the church, and if we care for our guests who may be coming for a meal, it is only courteous and wise to quietly ask them beforehand if there is any food they do not like or that disagrees with them. Your specialist dish may include garlic but if you served it to my wife, she would have a most violent stomach upset that evening and probably the next day. Check people out. If your guest(s) are in the ‘needy’ category that we referred to earlier on, treat them gently, care for them, love them, and bless them. They mayn’t want to talk about their circumstances so don’t force them. If they do share their lives, don’t be critical or judgmental and don’t think you have to have the answers to their difficulties.

Hospitality is about taking people into your home to bless them and provide a place of refreshment and possible restoration. How to do it? Start with prayer and ask the Lord for His wisdom as to how to go about it, how to be sensitive to them and their needs – and then do it and bless people.

51. Two Mountains

Meditations in Hebrews 12:  51.  Two Mountains

Heb 12:18,22  You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…. but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem

The flow: This book is full of analogies and now we come to yet another one. It is difficult at first sight to see the continuation, how this flows on from what he has just said but in the verses we have recently been considering he was speaking about discipline from God which only showed we are sons (v.5-11), then there was a call to strengthen up (v.12,13) and then some practical exhortations (v.14-17), at the heart of which there is the emphasis on the need for God’s grace (v.15) in order to be holy (v.14) and not to demean our spiritual heritage (v.16,17).

Two ways of looking: Now depending on how you think about God, those verses can either appear bad (painful discipline, needing to be holy, hard God who calls you to account) or good (God treating as sons who he loves and for whom He desires strength and blessing in the Christian life.) It depends very much on our starting position, what we think about God, and so perhaps that is why our writer now gives two pictures of how God has been revealed, in the Old and then New Testaments.

Sinai NOT our experience: Verses 18 to 21 remind us of some of the aspects of the experience Israel had with the Lord as an embryonic nation but says that this is NOT what WE have come to: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” There was mount Sinai, scary signs, and a trumpet blast and a warning to not even touch the mountain and even Moses found it scary. But that is NOT our experience. It was their because they were in the early stages of learning about God but in our case we are a long way down the path of revelation with the whole Old Testament, and now much of the New in existence when this writer was writing.

Our Experience, Mount Zion: No, our experience is something quite different: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.22-24)  We need to look at the various elements of this passage.

God’s home: A threefold description of the dwelling place of God which perhaps is more easily understood in reverse: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” (v.22a) The city of the living God – the dwelling place where the heart and life of all existence dwells. It is a heavenly city, a place of fellowship and community, the reality of the dwelling place that had for years been considered to be the temple on one of the hills of earthly Jerusalem, Zion.  But that had been like a temporary stopping place for God’s presence which had slowly departed prior to the Exile, as seen in the book of Ezekiel. But we haven’t come (notice the verb indicates this has already happened  – ‘have come’) to a temporary place but the eternal dwelling or place where God can be found.

Home of the angels:  “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (v.22b) Wherever there is revelation of the heavenly throne room, there are angels. Be under no illusion, we have access to the heavenly throne room, for the moment purely by the Spirit in prayer or worship, but one day in reality. This is our home, our ultimate destination.

Home of the church: “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (v.23a) Again revelations of heaven in scripture show there are people there. This is the destination for the church, all those born again, known from before the foundation of the world and whose names are recorded there.

Home of God the Judge:  “You have come to God, the judge of all men.”  (v.23b). We’re on a repeat track now, a form of Hebrew parallelism. We’ve already noted that it is God’s home, but it is also the place where He holds court , where He judges and  holds all mankind accountable.

Home of the redeemed:  “to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” (v.23c) But it is not the place of condemnation, it is the place of revealing the saints, all the believers who have received Jesus as their Saviour, who have come to perfection, completion in the work of God. it will be a place of great joy.

Home of the Redeemer:  “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.24) Jesus comes bringing in the new covenant sealed with his own blood, bringing about a completed work.

The blood of Abel?  Abel was slain by Cain and God said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out” (Gen 4:10) i.e. it cries out for justice. Jesus said, “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 50:51) i.e. Abel was the first human being to have his blood shed by violent means, the first to cry out for justice. The Hebrews writer writes of him, he “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4),  and so there is a sense whereby his spilled blood continues to cry out to God for justice to be applied, i.e. it demands for justice to be done, but, we now read, the blood of Christ “speaks a better word”  The Message version puts it well: The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.” And the Living Bible puts it, “ Jesus himself, who has brought us his wonderful new agreement; and to the sprinkled blood, which graciously forgives instead of crying out for vengeance as the blood of Abel did.”  Abel’s blood demanded justice, Jesus blood brought mercy and grace and forgiveness through justice being satisfied.

And so: We started out by saying that it is possible to take some of the earlier verses negatively and so that is why the writer comes with these explanations. Everything about these verses shouts, “God loves us, Jesus died for us, he’s for us, all so we could share eternity with him in the most wonderful of experiences.”  Hallelujah!

11. Greater than Angels

Meditations in Hebrews 1: 11.  Greater than Angels

Heb 1:4  So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

And so we come to the conclusion of this mini-prologue that we have been considering in the first ten studies. I am sure there are some words here that we just skim over and fail to note. For instance, “So he became”. This might almost infer that at some point Jesus was not superior to angels but we have seen a number of things in these verses already that clearly show he always has been. This “So he became”, I suggest means ‘so he became in our understanding.’ Initially we knew nothing of Jesus. Initially even the teaching of the coming Messiah was unclear to the Jews. It was only as we perceived the work of the revealed Christ on earth and listened to his teaching about himself did we start to come to a place of realisation of just who he is.

Now why should it be necessary for the writer to the Hebrews to go to these lengths to elevate Jesus, what is it about angels that creates this need? Well, let’s first acknowledge that need because even the apostle Paul had come across this problem, which is obvious when he wrote, Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you.” (Col 2:18) Clearly he had encountered this in Colosse, this worshipping of angels teaching.

Well, the reality is that angels are mentioned over ninety times in the Bible. They are a very real presence. The writer to the Hebrews himself says, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb 1:14) Angels are seen sometimes as the voice of God, communicating His will to us, hence, “He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.” (Acts 7:38) and the Jewish understanding was that, “The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.” (Gal 3:19). The apostle Peter sheds light on them, “angels, although they are stronger and more powerful…” (2 Pet 2:11)  The psalmist wrote, “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psa 8:4,5) which our present writer soon quotes (Heb 2:7). That indeed is the picture conveyed in the historical sections of the Bible, that they are messengers (e.g. Jud 6:11) and that they are strong and powerful.

So there were these mystic Jews who elevated angels prior to the fuller revelation of the Christ. The knowledge of the Messiah was indeed a mystery as the apostle Paul comments upon a number of times (Rom 16:25,26, Eph 1:9,10, 3:3,4,6,9, 6:19, Col 1:26,27, 2:2, 4:3). Yes, it was unclear until he came, revealed himself and taught on the Father, died and rose again and ascended to heaven. Suddenly, it was clear who he was (with those who had eyes to see).  Now the writer to the Hebrews could write, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Heb 2:9)  Yes, he came in human form – and had been portrayed in the Old Testament prophecies as a human being – and thus had initially appeared as a human being, lower than the might and power that was often seen in angels.  NOW the perspective has been changed, now we see who he is.

Yes, let’s check back to note the things this writer has said to us in the opening three verses of his book:

  1. “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”
  • Yes this messenger is the very Son of God
  1. “whom he appointed heir of all things”
  • Everything in all of Creation is for him (to rule over)
  1. “through whom he made the universe”
  • He was with the Father creating all that now exists
  1. “the radiance of God’s glory”
  • He reveals the very glory of God Himself
  1. “the exact representation of his being,”
  • He does this as he exactly reveals the Father
  1. “sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
  • He keeps the present existence going
  1. “provided purification for sins,”
  • His work on the Cross enabled forgiveness and cleansing for us
  1. “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
  • He now reigns over his Father’s kingdom beside Him.

None of these things could be applied to angels. Indeed, as we have commented before, they could not be applied to any other person in history. Without question the unanimous record of the New Testament is that he is the unique Son of God, supreme over any other being, sitting next to his Father in heaven today. Hallelujah!

2. Believe what you hear

Lessons from the Nativity: 2:  Believe what you hear

Luke 1:11,12   Then 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.

I said in the first meditation in this short series that I will not do verse by verse studies here but will focus on one particular lesson from one particular verse each time. Yesterday we pondered on breaking free from a ‘settled’ mentality where nothing changes from year to year and our expectations are low or even non-existent. We saw Zechariah, an old man and childless, serving twice a year in the Temple.

But the story goes on and an angel appears to him. Now I don’t know how this happened because some scholars of Jewish practice tell us that he would have gone into the main part of the Temple to light the candles, accompanied by two attendants. Now whether they had left him or they also saw the angel we don’t know but we are simply told “an angel of the Lord appeared to him.” Now we have possibly read or heard this account at Christmas so many times that we now take it for granted but suppose you had never read this account before and suddenly you read of an angel appearing. Now what makes this all the more startling is that at the beginning of this book, the writer Luke speaks in such down to earth ways about his writing:I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you,” (Lk 1:3) and so here now we find this scholar talking to us about an angel; not angels up in heaven but an angel here on earth, talking to a particular human being.

Now I emphasise the strangeness of this (because, in the light of the normal everyday materialistic world, this is strange)  because I suspect if you are a believer you have come to accept the existence of angels and that this happened just like this in this account from Luke.  Now  I will say from the outset that there are a variety of ways God seems to speak to us and if you either get an audible voice or an angel turns up to communicate to you, you are either in big trouble or God is about to communicate to you major life changing information. Most of us don’t get angels – but we do get God talking to us and this, as they say, is where the rubber hits the road! It is so common in the Bible that we probably take it for granted that God communicates, God speaks, God is a communicator and people are the recipients of His words.

Now I put it like that in such a general way but in the light of this account and in the light of so much of what we find in the New Testament, I have to sharpen or focus that last sentence and say, and we are the recipients of His words. You see, this is what this is all about. God spoke to Zechariah. That is it in a nutshell, but Zechariah struggled to believe what he was hearing. Why?  We’ll go on tomorrow to see one reason  but generally, never having had this experience before and having in his mind that God sent angels to special people, he must have actually been struggling to believe the entire episode, struggling to believe that this is a real angel and an angel from God with a personal message for him!

This is all about believing that God can speak to us and does speak to us. There are many good Christians who accept all the basic beliefs they find in their Bible but when it comes to it coming up close and personal, they baulk at that. Consider the various ways that God speaks to us and then see where it is that you draw the line. If you exclude any of these four things I am going to put before you, I suggest you need to read your Bible again and ask God for faith to believe it. The biggest and most repetitive question I have from people when we are talking about these things is, “How can you know it is God?” and when people ask that they are expressing their uncertainty and lack of security in God’s love for them. If it conflicts with the Bible or doesn’t bring you into a closer relationship with Him, it is unlikely to be Him speaking to you. But how does God speak?

Have you ever noticed how verses from the Bible sometimes leap out at you? This does assume you read it regularly but have you ever noticed that? God speaking to you. Have you ever sat utterly convicted at the end of a sermon? God speaking to you. Now I suspect that most Christians are happy with those thoughts, even those who illogically say God stopped speaking at the close of the New Testament canon – and it is illogical because if God did stop speaking this cannot be Him speaking to us today.

To be honest those two ways of God communicating don’t require much faith. We’ve had the experience and we know what we feel at the end of it. But then comes the third way He communicates, personal prophecy. Unless you want to tear out the various New Testament references to personal prophecy, you’re stuck with it. Your only questions are likely to be, how does this work and how do I know it is God and not man’s ideas. Good questions. Can I answer by a statement and a testimony. First the statement: prophecy is when one person catches a word from God for another that encourages, comforts and builds up; for how it works see the next one in a moment or two. Second, the testimony: I could give you dozens upon dozens of illustrations of things that God has said to me or that I have had for others, that are basic fundamental comforting, strengthening and building (see 1 Cor 14), which have sometimes been predictive and have always been fulfilled. Dare you be open to the possibility.

The final way that I am going to mention is a personal sense of words or a phrase or sentence or even a picture that comes into our mind out of the blue, but which has clarity of meaning and understanding about it. God’s Spirit communicates with our spirit through the receptor we call our mind. We think, we ‘see’, we imagine, we ‘hear’ in our mind. How do we know it is God? Does it bring clarity, does it bring us closer to Him, does it bring peace, does it bring hope, does it release faith?  Those are all good signs that it was Him speaking to us. Who could say (read that list of questions again) that any of those things were bad? Even worse, for those foolish people who attribute good to Satan, would Satan bring those good things into your life so you walk more strongly with the Lord? (Jesus also had to counter the same thinking – Mt 12:24-28).

Zechariah struggled to believe what was happening and specifically what he was hearing. It is probable that he was set in his thinking about his life and he struggled to believe that it was God saying the amazing things that were being said to him when the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” This was God! Do not have the unbelief that Zechariah exhibited. Jesus often, it seems, chided his followers for their lack of faith. Don’t be one he has to chide.

7. Joseph

7. Joseph

(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.)

The young man awoke with a start. He lay there thinking for a few moments. “It’s happened again!”

He reflected back to that first dream. He remembered it so well even though it had been a year ago.

He had been grieving over Mary. She had let him down; she had let the family down. And then the dream came. It was one of those dreams that stay with you when you woke. In fact it wouldn’t go away. At the time he had thought, “Am I dreaming? Of course I am; it’s a dream! No, have I made it up?”

But it wouldn’t go away and he found the message of the angel in the dream reassuring. But was it real? Was it God speaking to him: “It’s all right; I gave Mary her child; marry her.”  Throughout the day, wherever he went, the dream stayed with him. It didn’t fade away like dreams tend to do. By the end of the second day, he dared utter a prayer: “Lord, I believe you. I will marry her.”

But that had been a year ago.

Since then they had had to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the census and there Mary had had their child. ‘Their’ child! He didn’t understand it but her story matched his dream and he had come to the place of seeing himself as the guardian of the baby she was carrying.

Then that same night had come the shepherds with their tale of angels. Perhaps I am right after all.

They had found a distant family member who let them have a room in their house and they stayed in Bethlehem until they had been able to go up to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice. It had been there that the old man and woman and heralded them and prophesied over the child. Again reassurance!

They had intended to return to Nazareth but the family had encouraged them to stay and Joseph had been given some work and so before they knew it several months had passed.

And then, just yesterday this caravan of strange travellers had arrived looking for them. He didn’t know how but as soon as the men saw them and their baby, they knew them and, to Joseph’s embarrassment, had bowed down before the baby. Then they presented them with gifts. What gifts! If they sold off these things they would be provided for, for years! When they had left it seemed like life was rather empty. But these men had spoken of their son in glowing terms. Angels, shepherds, people in the temple, and now men from the East; it all pointed the same way. This son of theirs was someone great. But what did that mean? Joseph wasn’t from a great family – well yes he could trace it right back to the great King David, but that meant nothing today, surely. They were an oppressed people under the boot of the mighty Roman army. Nothing was going to change that!

And then came another dream, another angel with a message. It was as vivid as the first one. “Go to Egypt, Herod will try to kill the child!” There was no doubt about it; he was quite clear.

Where would they end up? Mary roused from sleep and smiled at him. I’m going to have to tell her. Here we go again! Where’s it all going to lead?

Reading for today’s story: Matt  2:13,14

4. Inn-Keeper’s Wife

4. The Inn Keeper’s Wife

(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.)

The woman gently settled on the bed with a quiet sigh.

“Have they gone yet?” came her husband’s voice.

“Yes,” she replied with a smile that was swallowed up in the darkness.

“Noisy bunch of hooligans, disturbing the sleep of good people!” and with a further “Hummph!” she heard the sounds of him turning over and a few minutes later, gentle snoring.

She lay there in the darkness thinking back over the past hours.

How vulnerable they had appeared when they arrived at the door of the inn an hour or so after dark. The young man looked tired out; no, exhausted. There was an air of desperation about him as he pleaded for a room for he and his young wife. She too looked like it was very much the end of a hard day.

Her heart had gone out to them as she realised that the young girl was obviously in the final hours of her confinement. She wished she had a room left for them but the last one had gone earlier in the day. It was all these poor people pouring into the town to be counted.

One part of her had just wanted to send them away because she was already so busy coping with the crowded inn and yet, something in her seemed to say, take them in. She wondered if any of the neighbours might be able to take them but she knew already that that was a hopeless thought, for every spare room in the town was being let out to the returning crowds.

“All I can suggest is that you use our stable round the back. You can put your donkey there if you like, and if you want to bed down in the straw I’m sure my husband wouldn’t mind.”

As the young man helped the girl down off the donkey she gave a groan. “Please help us, Mary is about to have our baby.”

“I can see that, young man,” she had replied, “come on then, quickly, bring her round the back. The offer still stands; it’s the best I can do for you.”

And so it was that the young couple had settled in the stable at the back of their inn. From time to time she had gone round to check on them. The young man hadn’t wanted her to leave them but the call of duties in the inn meant she had to be coming and going.

But then the contractions had started to come more quickly. “Please, don’t leave her,” the young man had begged. She had stayed and within minutes it had seemed, the stable had a third occupant. She had hurried back into the inn to find some cloth to wrap him in and now he lay beside his exhausted mother. Peace had descended on the stable and she had just been about to leave them for the night when there came this hullabaloo from outside. There was noisy talking and laughing. Whatever next, it’s the middle of the night!

She had gone out to see the cause of the noise, and there they were. There must have been about fifteen of them – all men of course, giving no thought to the rest of the world trying to sleep.

“What do you lot want?” she had demanded.

“Do you have a new born baby here?” one of them asked.

“Yes, but what’s that to you?”

“We’ve been told to come and see him,” came the answer.

“Told? Who told you to come?”

“Angels,” another one cried loudly. There was a chorus of assent.

“Angels?” she had replied? “Whatever are you on about?”

“There were angels, missus, hundreds of them in the sky. They sung to us.”

“And they told us to come because a saviour had been born.” another chipped in.

“But it was so wonderful we just had to come,” a third added.

Her mind had been in a whirl. “You’d better come in then, here, round the back in the stable.”

Still chattering excitedly the motley band of shepherds had followed her round to the back of the inn.

It was only as she had pulled open the big door of the barn that a hush fell over the group.

The single lamp hanging from a beam allowed them to see a startled couple protectively clutching their baby.

They filed in silently and, as if by command, knelt down around the little family.

For some reason tears ran down a number of their faces.

“Oh, the little lamb,” one of the onlookers whispered.

The young mother smiled, “Yes.”

“What’s his name?” another one ventured.

“Jesus,” the young father answered.

“Doesn’t that mean deliverer?” another asked. “I mean I remember that from when I was young,” he added with embarrassment.

“Of course, you idiot, the angel said he would be a saviour.” came from another, who then shut his mouth firmly for it seemed that harsh words were out of place here.

“Thank you mistress,” one of the older shepherds whispered to Mary and turning to the others, “Come on you lot, we’ve done what we were told to do. Let’s leave them in peace.”
And then they had gone and silence ruled the night again. She had returned to bed at last. These had been strange happenings. As she lay there, with tiredness gradually easing her into sleep she thought to herself, “Well I don’t know what has been going on her tonight, but I was a part of it, not that anyone will remember me though.” And she slept.

Passage covered by the story above:  Luke 2:4-20

33. Into Waiting


33. Into Waiting

Matt 2:21-23 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel . But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.

We’ve seen over these past weeks that it’s all about God communicating with ordinary people and doing extraordinary things with them, as He brings His Son onto the earth. We’ve commented on how it’s so easy to become over familiar with the story and lose the wonder of what was happening. It’s a story of angels and of miracles of conception, of movement around the country at the whim of an emperor, and then out of the country by the guidance of God. Yes, we saw all the preamble, the birth, the shepherds, the wise men, the welcoming team in the temple and the flight to Egypt.

It’s like we’ve come to the closing scene of an epic film. All the big events have happened and now it’s anti-climax at the end. If you saw the Lord of the Rings films, you may remember at the end of the first film, after all the fighting, the hero and his helper slip quietly away in a little boat. After all the things that had gone before, it’s now a quiet, low-key ending – but we all knew there were lots more to come! That’s how it is at the end of what we refer to as ‘The Christmas Story’.

Joseph’s had his dream with an angel and starts to take the little family home. When he gets back to Israel he hears that the Herod dynasty still continues and so keeps on going, back up north to Galilee, to Nazareth. There’s mention of a dream – whether it’s the original one saying go home, or another one, is not clear. The fact is they reach home in the north and that’s where they settle. For us, in a few days time, Christmas and all its activities will be a past memory, and we look forward to just getting back on with life after the holidays, back to normality. That’s possibly how it was with Mary and Joseph. The great adventure, all the travelling, has come to an end, and so now they can settle down to normal life as a family. That’s how it will be for twelve years, until Jesus gives his mother cause to wonder some more (see Lk 2:41-52). It will be about thirty years before it all really starts to happen and until then it’s just a time of waiting, although they might not have been very sure about that. But that’s how life with God is: exciting one day, unsure the next.

Well, the year is almost at an end; in a day or so it will be New Year’s Day, and another year awaits us. What will it hold? We don’t know. What we do know though, is that God is there working out His purposes in perfect precision – which often means slowly – and so the call on us as we come to the end of this Advent series, is to remember the truths we have learned and to so remain faithful to the revelation we’ve had so far, and to watch and wait and be obedient as He leads us out in His purposes.