9. Difficult Times

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 9: Difficult Times

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

(Additional Reading: Lk 2:1-5)

Why: How much God was involved in Caesar Augustus issuing a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, which meant that Joseph had to go to the town of David, his ancestral home, is unclear – OK, we aren’t told anything about that – but the end result is, I suspect, a lot of grumbling by a lot of people who had to do a lot of travelling. Mary and Joseph were just caught up in something that perhaps most people in Israel were caught up in, it wasn’t just them. Sometimes God seems to care about the small details and Jesus being born in the ancestral home of King David seems to be one such ‘small detail’. A nuisance detail because it meant they had to travel a 90 mile journey – a little over two hours driving time today, but probably between four and seven days on foot and donkey back then.  Seriously, with a pregnant girl just a few days off birth??? Does God make mistakes? No, but He knows what He can trust us with and knew that Mary would be safe. And us? Yes, us too.

The Good Life: Most of us, if we could be honest, would say that we would like the good life, a life of affluence and comfort, a life free from hassle, angst, worries and concerns. If only!  There are people who don’t like me saying this because they say it is a cop-out, but it is true, we live in a fallen world where because of the presence of Sin stuff goes wrong, the world ‘breaks down’ and basically we are all dysfunctional, we just don’t ‘work’ like were originally designed to. So emperors get high and mighty and inconvenience millions but what does that matter when you are comfortable in your palace! So the good life is marred by the sins of mankind and sometimes that means life gets tough.

Any Alternative? Couldn’t God have made the world different? Well of course He could have made us robots, make us have to do what we are programmed to do but imagine it, one day a super-model robot is designed who looks, feels, acts, and sounds just like a human being. Sex might be on the cards, but not a real relationship, because all the while you will know that you are just getting the responses of a programmer’s amazing work. This isn’t real love, as much as it seems it. Any creativity is just a programme and therefore any work of art can never be called ‘great’. It’s these things that make us human. Remove free will and you remove our humanity. The cost is a fallen world, an emperor who causes great inconvenience, a dangerous journey, no room at the inn, a birth in a stable.

The Value: Now some of us don’t like to face this but hardship builds character. Yes, we’d rather do without the hardship but when it is forced on us, get ready for character building. (More than that it creates some brilliant stories when you get back from the holiday that went disastrously wrong!) But seriously, we would prefer a coddled, comfy life, protected from every ailment, hiccup in life and so on,  but God never promises that, because in the same way that a plant grown in a hothouse can be weak and spindly, so a life devoid of the toughness of life, never matures. If you hide away from the knocks of the world you will end up being good for little. A tough lesson but true.

Let’s Pray: “Lord, I confess I shy away from the thought of discipline, I dodge the idea of the tough aspects of life, but I thank you that I am what I am because of your grace that has flowed to me through those times. Thank you that you trusted Mary and Joseph, who were always under your watchful eye, and you enabled your Son to enter the human scene despite the tough aspects of it all. Thank you that you were there for them and are here for us – in it! Thank you so much. Amen.”

6. The Mysteries of God (4)

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 6: The Mysteries of God (4)

Isa 9:6  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.

(Additional Reading: Isa 9:6,7, 11:1-9)

More from Isaiah: We have already seen how Isaiah dropped the ‘breadcrumb’ showing where the Messiah, the Son of God, would come to reveal the glory of God, a ‘great light’ in dark Galilee. The only trouble was that in the eyes of the scholars at least, some of these things he said seemed contradictory or even unbelievable. Following that Galilee prophecy the prophecy flows on getting more and more incredible until in v.6 we find references to this coming one who will be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” a ruler over the throne of David, a rule that will go on for ever. If you have never heard those words in the crescendo that builds up in Handel’s Messiah, you have never heard anything! But what did they mean? The coming one will be God the everlasting Father? How can that be? Already Isaiah had prophesied in another mysterious way about a child to be born to a virgin, (7:14), a child to be called Immanuel and that name means ‘God with us’. How can this be?

The David Link: But there is more: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit,” (Isa 11:1) and, ““In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it– one from the house of David –one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.” (Isa 16:5) and, “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” (Isa 55:3) We commented yesterday about Bethlehem being David’s home. This coming one is going to linked with David who was a ruler who brought deliverance and peace to Israel.

The Suffering Servant: So, on one hand we have talk about God coming, a ruler coming with a mighty reign, and then we find Isaiah prophesying a number of ‘servant songs’ about the coming one and in chapter 55 we find, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.  Just as there were many who were appalled at him—  his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.”  (Isa 53:13,14) This is the confusing mix of these ‘breadcrumbs’, these clues, these prophetic words that filtered through the other prophecies of Isaiah, that left no other conclusion than One is coming to instigate a new, unique, everlasting reign, an expression of God with us, and yet somehow there is this black cloud hanging over it all with the mention of suffering and rejection. How could it be?

Advent? Now we have to concede that many of these prophetic references do not see their fulfillment until the Son has come, revealed the Father’s love through his ministry, and then suffered and died for us, been raised from the dead and ascended back to heaven. But here is the point: Advent, we said, is a time of waiting and expectation and this expectation, built by an amazing trail of breadcrumbs (it is said there are over 300 prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament) is what was there in those whose hearts sought after God (see Simeon Lk 2:26) and there, probably in not such a strong way but there nevertheless, in the general Jewish population and taught in the synagogues. All of this is the backdrop to the coming of the babe in Bethlehem, but it is no wonder the expectation was so unclear because it had so many different shades that would not become clear for at least another thirty or so years.

And to prayer: “Lord, again, in anticipation we want to say thank you for the wonder of this time that we remember this month, of your coming to earth. Father, thank you for this amazing kaleidoscope of breadcrumbs, so many different aspects of his coming which must have left a quizzical anticipation in your people, wondering how all these things could be. Thank you that we now have the whole picture and so we can see, Lord Jesus, how you fulfilled them all. Help us please, Lord, to handle the aspects of life and our understanding of you and your desires for us, where we don’t yet see it all clearly. Please give us patience to wait your timing, trusting in your goodness that will be revealed in the way you want it to come. Thank you Lord so much. Amen.”

5. The Mysteries of God (3)

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 5: The Mysteries of God (3)

Isaiah 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

(Additional Reading: Isa 9:1,2, Mic 5:1-4)

Recap:  We are following some of the ‘breadcrumb trails’ in the Old Testament, not because it is just fun to do so, but because each of these ‘breadcrumbs’, these prophetic clues that we find there, are highly significant when it comes to examining the Nativity, and without them just reiterating the Nativity story misses some of the key aspects of it all. The two breadcrumbs we are going to consider in this study are both to do with location. Each of the places have great significance.

Location breadcrumbs – Galilee: Our first of the two we are going to consider here, and seen in our two starter-verses above, comes from Isaiah. Being one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, it is not surprising that his book is littered with these ‘breadcrumbs’. Chapter 9 starts with, “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations.” (9:1) Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the tribal areas in the north of the land, both tribes of which had failed to completely oust the Canaanites in the original taking of the land. Perhaps because of this or perhaps because they were simply first in line to encounter enemies coming from the north, they had suffered through the years; it had been a dark area, so often in conflict.

Isaiah, referring to this darkness, speaking in the prophetic future, speaks of “a great light” coming to light up this darkness. In their history, what light came to that land? Only that of Jesus. It should not be surprising, therefore, to note that both Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, located in the centre of lower Galilee, (Lk 1:26) and it was to there they returned after their stay in Egypt after Jesus was born. It was to Galilee that Jesus returned after being baptized and where he carried out most of his ministry.

It was indeed like a great light coming into the land. Why Galilee, perhaps because it was furthest away from Jerusalem in Judah in the south, with the buffer of Samaria in between so that the interference from the religious authorities from Jerusalem was strictly limited. So Mary and Joseph start out from Galilee and return there in order that Jesus be raised there and so that he may start his ministry there.

Location Breadcrumbs – Bethlehem: The second ‘location breadcrumb’ comes from Micah:  “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”  (Micah 5:2) That had the Jewish scholars scratching their head and yet when the Wise Men, the Magi, turned up it was the verse the scholars of Jerusalem turned to in the Greek Septuagint version, ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler  who will shepherd my people Israel. (Mt 2:6 quoting Mic 5:2 & 4) There it was, a ruler to shepherd Israel, who would come from Bethlehem.

Now what is intriguing about this is that Bethlehem was king David’s home (see 1 Sam 16:1) but David lived long before Micah prophesied so Micah prophetically had another in mind and so, yes, this prophecy was added to the many others that the scholars pondered over in the writings of the scrolls that we now call the Old Testament. And then, of course, we find Jesus being referred to as the Son of David (Mt 9:27, 15:22, 20:30, 21:9) but we’ll have to wait for the next study to see more of that.

And so to prayer: “Lord, thank you for the wonder of your word, thank you that you dropped all these clues, referring to the coming of your Son that had been agreed there in heaven even before You created this world. Thank you that we see your wisdom in the way you set him up in the north to reveal your love to us through his incredible ministry, away from the political and religious pressures of Jerusalem. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you blessed your people in Galilee, revealing yourself and your Father’s love through those three amazing years. Thank you that all of this flows from that amazing episode we call the Nativity that reveals the way you came in humility to bring all this about. Thank you so much. Amen.”

9. Not our People

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 9. Not our People

Reading 8: Matthew 2:1–12

Matthew 2:1,2  Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Context: The leader-heading for these verses reads, “The wise men are led by star to Jesus”. That is nice and simple, but I wonder how many of us ever stop and wonder why these ‘wise men’ or Magi turned up within a couple of months of Jesus’ birth while they are still at Bethlehem?  And even more when we consider the overall intention of these readings – “the development of the loving purposes of God” – and that seen in the light of the big picture concerning the failure of mankind, and God’s plan to redeem us, how does this little episode fit in all that?

The Reading: Jesus has been born in Bethlehem in the days of King Herod (v.1) and these Magi or wise men arrive in Jerusalem enquiring where the newly born king of the Jews is, that their star had led them to (v.2). Herod is clueless (v.3) but, assuming this refers to the long-awaited Messiah, he asks the religious leaders what indications there are of where he would be born (v.4). No problem Micah said it would be Bethlehem (v.5,6). Herod enquires of the Magi and sends them to Bethlehem to check it out and return and tell him (v.7,8). This they do, continuing to follow their star, and there they find Jesus now residing temporarily (presumably) in a house with his parents, (v.9,10) and they bow and worship him and present him with costly gifts (v.10,11) and then, being warned against Herod in a dream, they leave for home avoiding Jerusalem (v.12). An amazing story.

Lessons: Again an historical narrative that we must let speak to us, but it is a narrative that is full of question marks – and we’re not given answers. Who really were these men? Were there just three of them – we assume that because of three gifts? How had they really been led here to Israel? What was this star and how did it seem to be so specifically over the place where they were? Why did they leave them with these gifts? What did the little family do with them? To where did these ‘wise men’ return?

Mystery does not mean blind faith: Confronting these questions – and lack of answers (we may speculate but that is all it will be) the sceptic might say, ‘See, so much of this Christian faith stuff is blind faith!’ Well, no, blind faith suggests you can see nothing. This story says some unknown men turned up with presents, partly guided by prophetic scriptures. It happened, no problem and it was wonderful. The Bible doesn’t give us every answer to the questions we have but it gives sufficient answers to establish a well-founded faith. There IS so much here that does not have questions over it.

Guidance may come in a variety of ways: In these few verses there are three forms of guidance given. First there is the star over which still hangs a mystery, but what we can say is that somehow these men had an inner certainty that it was leading them – and they homed in on the right destination. Where did that certainty come form? May I suggest God.  Second, there were the prophetic scriptures, the word of God, and again God may speak in a variety of ways to us through His word. Third, there was a dream and the Bible indicates this is not an unusual way He communicates.

Believers may not be “our kind of people”. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very picky about how people should behave and if they didn’t conform, they were looked down on by these religious snobs. These ‘wise men’ were not Jews and I am sure there would have been some mumbling behind closed doors about them and the collective wisdom was probably, “Well they are not our people but they seem to have some kind of mystic guidance. Let them go and see where it sends them and then we can decide what to do about it.”  I cited the other day how some of the British Royal family didn’t take to Billy Graham when he first arrived in the 1950’s.  I’m sure there would have been some more conservative elements of the Church in the USA who was not happy about the Jesus Movement back near the end of the last century, others unhappy about John Wimber, others unhappy about ‘leaders’ of the ‘charismatic movement’ and even more about the goings on of the ‘Toronto Blessing’. And so it goes on through the Christian world; we keep getting confronted by those who are not ‘our people’. The trouble is that God doesn’t seem to have the same social (or spiritual) boundaries that we have!

A God of Provision:  Those gifts. They were expensive but they were the currency of the day across borders. Today we have to exchange currency. Then they had expensive products that could be sold for the local currency. That’s what these gifts were. They were God’s method of providing for the material needs of this little family. No doubt Joseph, as a carpenter, found local jobs to do to earn money but, although they don’t know it yet, they are going to have to flee to Egypt, and that means, if it was us, we’d go to the bank and get out some foreign currency, but the Wise Men were their ‘bank’. Wonderful! Now you couldn’t have seen that coming! And that’s what it is like so often when God provides:  it comes but you could never have guessed it was coming or rather from where it was going to come. Wonderful, but faith-stretching sometimes!

It is an amazing part of this story. Yes, it may have question marks over it, but the lessons ring out loud and clear for anyone who has ears to hear. May that be you and me.

8. The Bottom of the Barrel

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 8. The Bottom of the Barrel

Reading 7: Luke 2:8–16

Luke 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

Context: Whoever it was who set up this service and put headings over each set of verses, really excelled themselves with this one: “The shepherds go to the manger” which sounds as mundane as ‘the hungry person went to the fridge’ but, in fact, covers up a most incredible experience. Now before we get into the  reading itself, we need to recognise there is something slightly different about these  verses. The verses from the Old Testament pointed towards a Coming One, then in the last two studies we have seen the angel coming to Mary and then the baby being born in Bethlehem.  There is a sense with this reading that it is about events that don’t actually change the circumstances of the baby, but maybe simply bring a little encouragement to his parents. Yet, I am going to suggest, there is an amazing lesson here.

The Reading: Luke recounts this incident involving shepherds somewhere out on the hills near Bethlehem (v.8), looking after their sheep, when an angel appears to them. Now I’ve never thought of this before  but quite often when angels turn up they come in simple human form and initially at least, the person they are coming to doesn’t recognise them for what they are. This one turns up with the glory of the Lord shining all round and it scares the life out of the shepherds (v.9). Now forgive me if you don’t like this comment, but it seems to me that the Lord is putting on a show here; it’s like He is making a point – be under no illusion guys, this is my angel, yes from heaven! So when he speaks, you want to listen! So the angel reassures them that he’s come with good news (and by implication, not bad news – you’re not in trouble!) and this news will be for everyone (v.10). In Bethlehem, the Messiah has been born (v.11) and you’ll know this is true if you go down there and look in a stable and see him in a manger – yes a manger! (v.12) Now as if that wasn’t enough, there suddenly appeared an immense crowd of angels all singing and praising God (v.13,14), and then they were gone and it must have gone silent again and dark. So impacting was this that they determined to go and see what God had said (v.15) and when they got there they found it exactly as they had been told (v.16). And that’s it. No explanation, just the story.

Lessons? Now it may be that we have heard this story so many times that the familiarity of it means we’ve lost any sense of wonder. Also, as an account of something that actually happened, it is quite difficult to see any lessons within it that might apply to us. It is unlikely that these events are ever going to be repeated and so we are left scratching our heads and are left pondering, well, what actually happened here? Why did it happen? Why did it happen as it did?

God’s excitement? Again you may not like the idea of God being ‘excited’ but the picture of an angel with the full glory surrounding him, then “a great company of the heavenly host” turning up singing, speaks to me of an air of celebration about all this. It has the feeling that heaven cannot contain itself, there is such excitement that God has come to the earth in human form; it is that incredible.

Now the question that must follow, and this surely must be one of the lessons here, is, do you and I get excited about God, about Jesus, about the Christian faith, about church, about prayer, about the Bible, about evangelism? Are we, I wonder, sober, conservative, unemotional Christians? The other day I saw the portrayal of the British Royal Family back in the 1950’s, when Billy Graham first came to London. The response of some of the ‘top people’ was that this was un-British emotionalism (one has to say that was not the response of her majesty the Queen). British churchmanship did not have room for emotion, but the truth is these things ARE exciting, they are thrilling. This account with the shepherds IS mind blowing! The Bible is wonderful. Prayer is wonderful. God is incredible. Jesus is incredible. The Christian faith is unique. If we remain coldly unemotional we have either lost something or never found it!

Bottom of the barrel: Yes, this is the heading I’ve put at the top of this study, because I have written on this story a number of times in the past and this is the expression that I have this time round. The shepherds of Jesus’ day tended to be outcasts. They lived out in the hills with their sheep or the sheep of their master, and so existed out there and clearly would not be able to participate in any of the religious life of Israel. For that they would be looked down on by the religious leaders. They would not be the best dressed and they probably smelled.  Socially, they were the bottom of the barrel, we might say today. And this is where it gets thrilling. Why should God choose scruffy, outcast shepherds to whom to announce the arrival of His Son on the earth, unless He is sending a subtle message to all similar ‘outcasts’, those who have made a mess of life, those who are excluded by the great and the good, those who don’t turn up at civic receptions, those who aren’t invited to special religious celebrations, and the message is – I see you, I know you, I love you and I don’t reject you. I am here for you and I want you to know the wonder of the salvation I have laid on for whoever will receive it.

Let’s not add anything more to these two ‘lessons’. You may have just thought that this was a nice, if not fascinating, little story in the Nativity play, but it speaks out these two powerful and profound lessons: God was thrilled when the time was right for Jesus to come to the earth to reveal the love of heaven for mankind, and it is a message for ALL mankind and no one is excluded. Whoever you are, wherever you have come from, whatever you have done, whatever has happened to you, this is for you. This is God’s calling card, this is the Lord saying, Hey, I am here, and I am here for you!

7. Inconvenient Circumstances

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 7. Inconvenient Circumstances

Reading 6: Luke 2:1;3–7

Luke 2:3,4  everyone went to their own town to register.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David 

Context: The header for this reading just says, “St. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus” which is about as simple as you can get. This particular reading always feels to me that it is the heart of these readings, the focus of where it is all going. The earth has a problem, there is going to be a future conflict, the one involved is going to come from the family lines of Abraham and David and the previous reading led us to believe there would be a miraculous conception that marks this child out from any other who has been born in the whole of history throughout the earth. Here are the very basic facts of why he was born and why he was born here. This really is big picture stuff, we’ll soon see.

The Reading: If we take it in reverse order, it helps make sense. The baby is born in a stable. Why a stable? Because every other room in town is taken by the time they get there. Why was that and where was it? In Bethlehem, because everyone who could trace their lineage back to David (as Joseph could) had to go there to be counted in a national census, and that meant lots of people many of who had obviously already arrived. Why this census? Because Caesar Augustus, the current Roman emperor had a fit of pride and decided he wanted to know exactly how many people he ruled over in his empire.

The Lessons: Again this is not a passage of Scripture that lays down specific teaching and so we are left looking at what was going on and asking, how do such things happen, do they happen today, and how do they affect us? In other words, what do these sort of circumstances teach us about life, and specifically the Christian life?

Life out of control:  Well the very obvious thing here is that sometimes in life we are driven by circumstances that are beyond our control. If you had asked Mary and Joseph what they thought about what was happening, I think we can be fairly sure that both of them would say they would much rather stay in Nazareth so that Mary can have her baby in her home environment. But that wasn’t to be.

When you start thinking about this and consider the last hundred years or so, various similar examples occur. A hundred years or so, many millions would not have wanted to go to war to be slaughtered at the behest of leaders, first of all those who entered into national pacts that triggered the First World War, and then generals who treated soldiers as meaningless machine gun fodder. Some twenty or so years later, another bunch of millions of soldier would have preferred that a jumped up little corporal wouldn’t have been allowed to become so powerful that he provoked the Second World War. In various communist countries a spectrum of twentieth century dictators made life hell for millions more who lived under their power.

God who permits: Imagine a country where everyone repents and turns to God and becomes a one hundred per cent believing nation who turns every difficulty over to God in prayer. I want to suggest that God would stand up for that nation and protect it, but as that never happens, the Lord allows sinful mankind to be released to exercise its free will as it will so that what follows is judgment. One of the most difficult lessons in the Bible is that God, having allowed mankind to be mankind with free will, mostly does not intervene but allows judgment to come through the hands of sinful men. This sometimes means that believers get swept into heaven prematurely (e.g. Stephen and James in Acts). At other times the Lord acts sovereignly to save his people (e.g. Daniel, Shadrach etc. in the Babylonian court and Peter in Acts 12 although that did not stop him eventually dying as a martyr.)

The story of much of the Bible reflects the reality of living in this Fallen World, with people like Joseph and Mary getting swept along into the most inconvenient of circumstances by the whim of one maniac at the top of the pile!  (see also the end of Jeremiah with the same thing happening, or the experiences of Ezekiel and others in exile). Belief in God, when it faces this freedom of despots to act as they do, also means we have to cope with the thought that God permits these things as disciplinary judgement, even though examples abound in the Bible of Him being there for His people again and again in the midst of it. These are massive truths that bear down and challenge our belief in a God who knows best and can be there for us in the midst of such trials.

The curse of a family name: it is with slight tongue in cheek that we might also suggest there are times when we wish we were free from our family background. If the world events aren’t bad enough, sometimes our family background, even our genes or upbringing are things we wish weren’t part of our experience. Joseph had to go because he was of the family of David. Very often we are dragged into circumstances that are the making of our particular family – and we may wish were weren’t.

Grace is the Answer: It is not obviously here in this story but we will see how God does provide for this little family but we now need to face this truth in the light of these other almost overwhelming lessons. How can we cope in these circumstances that are imposed upon us. Yes, there are times when our own folly brings the sky down on us, so to speak, but we are talking here of things beyond our control. The lesson of the whole Bible is that first and foremost, God is there for His children and so will be working for our good in however bad the circumstances seen to be (see Rom 8:28). That may involve Him working into the circumstances to bring us through or out of them. It may also mean Him simply providing sufficient grace for us to enable us to cope while still being in the midst of those trying circumstances.

Behinds this story which is so familiar and is read at this time of the year, year after year, there are some seriously challenging things to be faced and thought through. Many Christians, sadly, do not do that and so when those ‘trying circumstances’ come they are heard complaining and fail to seek the Lord for either the reason or the grace to see it through. The implications of these simple verses call for a new degree of maturity in understanding. May we find that.

3. The Mystery – a small town

Focus on Christ Meditations: 3.  The Mystery – a small town

Matt 2:4-6  he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ” `But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”

The circumstances surrounding the coming of the Son of God to his earth are indeed mysterious, complex, many and varied. On the one hand there will be, as we shall see in coming studies, matters of immense importance and on the other, there appear details that leave the learned scratching their heads. The detail we focus on now, is one of those latter details. We run across it every year in the Nativity story and I wonder how many thousands of children (and teachers as well, for that matter) have heard these words with little understanding.

The verses above come in the story of the coming of the Magi or Wise Men and occur probably several months after Jesus was born, but they focus us very sharply on something very significant – the place of God’s choosing for the ‘birth’ of His Son. Now I place the word ‘birth’ in inverted commas because the physical birth which is spoken of in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke is just that, a physical birth in the human dimension, and yet the Scriptural record, as we will see in a later study no doubt, is that Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God existed from before the Creation of the world and was, in fact, involved in the very beginning, bringing Creation into being.  He was, as various Creeds put it “begotten of the Father” and ‘begotten’ simply means ‘out of’ so thus Jesus, who was and is God, came out of the Father, an expression of the Father, before anything material existed. More of that at a later date.

Back to Bethlehem. It was the prophet Micah who prophesied, But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (or ‘from days of eternity’) (Mic 5:2) Ephrathah was a region in which Bethlehem was located (see Ruth 1:2; 4:11; 1Sam 17:12). Both Ephrathah (or its shorter version, Ephrath) and Bethlehem are identified as early as Gen 35:15 and are referred to a number of times before we find it is the home of Jesse and his sons, including David (1 Sam 16:1)

Now Isaiah was to prophesy of the Coming One, “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.” (Isa 9:7) and it is no surprise that Jesus was often identified (and his human family tree did have this link) with David (e.g. Mt 9:27). The fact is that Jesus was taken, two years after his birth, back to Nazareth where his parents came from, and lived there until the start of his ministry in Galilee. This brought confusion to the religious authorities of his day: “Still others asked, “How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.” (Jn 7:41-43)

So we have to ask, in this somewhat convoluted story of the birth and early years of Jesus, why did God go to the trouble of having Jesus born in Bethlehem when his parents came from Nazareth? Well first we have to see what happened: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Lk 2:1-7) Again it is a story read at every Nativity play in schools and churches at Christmas, and again, perhaps familiarity has taken away something of the wonder of what took place.

So Joseph, Jesus’ human father, comes from the family line of David and his ancestral home, therefore, is Bethlehem. All well and good and we might never have noticed that if it hadn’t been for the ungodly Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, having a fit of pride (or perhaps of insecurity), perhaps prompted by God (no, surely prompted by God), and who decided to have every single person in his empire recorded and so Israel, being part of that empire, was included. It is that simple and that astounding, this reason for Jesus ending up being born in Bethlehem. We might also notice the timing – it came at the end of Mary’s confinement so that her baby was born (most inconveniently) while they were in Bethlehem.  When the Wise Men came later looking for the baby, they assumed that royalty would be born in Jerusalem and therefore went there first. King Herod is clueless as to this sort of thing and so send for the experts who clearly know all about the Micah prophecy.

So back to our original verses above. The Micah prophecy was clearly known to the Jews AND was seen to identify the place where the coming Messiah would be born, a Messiah who would be a ruler of God’s people, Israel. It is no wonder that self-centred and godless Herod is upset at the news of a competitor for the throne. The place and the time are exact. The place is identified in the Scriptures and the timing is a combination of Mary conceiving and the emperor setting in motion a census that made sure Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. What is interesting about this story is that neither Mary nor Joseph appear to have been given any warning by God that the birth would end up being in Bethlehem; He left it to the circumstances to unroll for them to find out! But why so much emphasis on Bethlehem? Because it was David’s city and this child is going to be closely identified with David. This is God, as we might say today, dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s. Nothing to do with the coming of the Son of God was left to chance.

To reflect upon: have you ever realised the significance of places in your personal history? Have you, realizing this, been able to say with the psalmist, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Psa 16:6)

2. Once upon a time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. To David

“God turned up” Meditations: 9 :  To David

1 Sam 16:1,12 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” …. So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one.”

Sometimes life just carries on. The soap operas on TV convey it well, if only they didn’t focus on the seamy side of life. But life does just carry on. We are part of a family, we have a job or part to play in life and life just carries on without anything special happening. And then God turns up and everything is changed.

It must have been like that for David. He was the youngest of a big family and his job was to look after his father’s sheep. From things that happen later, there is a sense that he’s been doing it for some time. Again from things that occur later it seems that perhaps he wasn’t the only one looking after the sheep and so perhaps they took it in turns and now, at the moment we break in to the story, it’s his turn.

The first anyone has any inkling that today is going to be a different day is when the present judge and seer, Samuel, turns up. He’s quite an old man now but everyone has at least heard of him so when he arrives in Bethlehem and seeks out the elders of the town and reveals who he is, there is great consternation. Why should the judge turn up here? Have we done something wrong? No, it’s all right, I’ve come to hold a solemn sacrifice here. Oh, right, it’s the religious thing. Now whether Jesse was one of the town elders who he just happened to be there is unclear but old Samuel picks on him and sets him apart to take part in the ritual (that’s what consecrate means): Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.” (v.5). Yes, not only that, he tells Jesse (I’m supposing) that he’ll give his sons the privilege of being part of it and so will set them apart to take part in ‘the service’ as well – if you’ll just get them all here please.

Which is why it comes about that Jesse lines up all the sons before Samuel, for him to do whatever judge-seers do to set people apart to serve God. So the old prophet carries out a parade ground inspection. “When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.” (v.6) He looked good. A big guy who looks like he could take over the leadership, but the Lord has other ideas and we find Him making a most important declaration: “But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (v.7) Oooops! OK, so this isn’t the right one. He moves down the line and doesn’t get the go ahead from the Lord to do anything. He gets to the end of the line. There must e a mistake, for the Lord hasn’t approved any of them. He pauses and thinks and then turns to Jesse. There can only be one other possibility: “So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” (v.11)

Jesse reveals that he’s got one more, the youngest who is out looking after the sheep, so they send for him and thus we meet David for the first time, and Samuel promptly pours oil all over his head. Wow! What’s this? What is happening? Think! This is what priests did of old when they anointed a new priest. Is that what is happening here? Is David a new priest – or what? And we are told, “from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power.” (v.13) That’s it, end of story! Well for the time being at least. The old prophet departs and all the brothers look at David and wonder, but that’s all that is said. It all seems a bit open ended and unclear and we have to wait for the unfolding of events before it gets any clearer.

Yes, given the passing of time it is clear that God had anointed David to be king but it would be some years before Saul is killed and the way is open for David to step up to the plate. In the meantime there are a load of odd things that are going to happen to him but he’s never the same since God turned up.

This account tells us that sometimes when the Lord turns up He doesn’t make it abundantly clear what He is saying and why He’s saying it. Yes, from the outset of chapter 16, Samuel is told what is happening but basically he’s keeping it quiet in case Saul hears and comes and kills them all!  In the meantime, there’s a new kid on the spiritual block, who’s been anointed by the prophet and only time will tell why.

When God first turns up and draws us to Himself and we are saved, it is rare that He explains what He’s got on his heart for us and when He does share things they’re not always terribly clear. Yet Paul, speaking of our lives says, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) Oh yes, God knows what he can do with us, so He’s got a whole agenda lined up for us. He’ll drop hints along the way, but that is probably all you’re going to get. We’re just called to be faithful and He’ll do the rest as we walk it out with Him, so don’t be put off by the fact that you aren’t very clear about where it is that God is taking you – He knows!

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