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.”

7. Threads (2)

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

7. Threads (2)

Lk 2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

Mt 2:1  during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem

 Brief recap: In the previous study I suggested that we find in the Christmas accounts of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, threads coming together to form a tapestry, a tableau, a montage, a picture that forms in our memories. We considered the ‘thread’ of Caesar Augustus and where that led, and I said we would go on to consider the ‘thread’ of the Wise Men.  I also majored on consequences and pondered on how much God might be involved in the initiating actions, as well as where they might lead.

Similarities and Differences: Now we are going to notice both similarities and major differences between these two ‘threads’, that of Caesar and that of the Wise Men. Both start off a long way away, Caesar no doubt in Rome and the Wise Men somewhere in the direction of Babylon, and both have consequences, but that is where the similarities end. Caesar’s activity was not personal, he never had any contact with Mary and Joseph and would never have known of their existence. The Wise Men, as we well know, actually travel to Bethlehem where they meet and bless the little family. And that is the final big difference. Caesar, by his actions, without any thought of this little family, caused them hardship. How much easier it would have been for Mary if they had been able to stay in Nazareth and have her baby at home. The Wise Men on the other hand bless the family with material provision which we will come to later. Having said they brought a blessing, we should also note that they brought trouble with them by going (innocently) to Jerusalem and enquiring about the birth of a new king. That upset Herod the present local king, and in sending them off to Bethlehem to look for the child, he charged them, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Mt 2:8)

Wise men? But who are these ‘Wise Men’? That is what they are called in the text: “About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived.” (Mt 2:1 NLT) but other versions have, Magi from the east came,” (NIV) although they do add a footnote, ‘traditionally wise men’. In the original Greek the word is magoi from which the Latin magi is derived and which is incorporated into some modern versions. I suggested from the area of Babylon earlier but some think the land of the Medes and Persians in the area of modern Iran. Their origins are a little speculative and some suggest a priestly caste, interested in religion but also in various loosely related fields, of which astronomy or even possibly astrology came in.

Why? So many ‘why’ questions here. Why were they there? In the explanation of why they were in Jerusalem they 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.” (Mt 2:2) We saw his star???? Mystery? Three gifts equals three wise men? Could be, but possibly unlikely. Mysterious names given – Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar – but mythical with no scriptural foundation. There is one other slightly worrying suggestion, sometimes made, that magi is linked to magician, one who practices magic, which takes us into occult fields possibly. Thus there is a mystery here that is as deep as the mysterious Melchizedek who Abraham met who, again, is shrouded in mystery and yet brought a blessing to Abraham (see Heb 7:1-3, Gen 14:18-20) around whom the writer to the Hebrews formulated a theology. But even less is known about these ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Magi’ but one thing is very clear: they have got very specific directions – a king has just been born in Israel and they have come to worship him. Wow! Not just to bow down before a sovereign but to worship him, worship a baby! This takes this to a completely new level. Where did all this come from? We just don’t know. Although it doesn’t say it specifically, the answer has got to be God!

Untidy Scenarios: We do tend to like to have everything neatly packaged when it comes to the Bible and unclear areas worry preachers and theologians alike, but we’ve already had to acknowledge that we don’t know why Caesar kicked off in the way he did – unless God was behind it – and we are having to acknowledge yet again, we are adrift without a paddle in respect of the Wise Men. But you know this desire for certainty is a sign of insecurity. I have observed that scientists pontificate about issues of science as if there are no grounds for doubt, but that is far from the truth, and we find it in the realms of theology too.  So it is that we come to the Christmas story year after year and we either give little thought to some of these incredibly strange things, or just simply duck away and pretend they are not strange – but they are!

Impossibilities? I’ve titled this series, ‘Impossibilities of God’ because some of the events are simply impossible to the human mind, impossible in the case of Elizabeth conceiving past the menopause, and certainly Mary conceiving without human male help. Those were practical impossibilities but now we are coming across things that are impossible to understand because we have not been told how God did them, but in each case the end product is startling, dramatic and amazing. Elizabeth bearing John was amazing. Mary bearing Jesus was incredible. The Wise Men turning up from who knows where with means of support for the coming years, is dramatic.

Sorry, we haven’t mentioned that have we? Gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold needs little explanation. Frankincense literally means pure incense, and myrrh was a perfume. The fact is that they were all valuable and although commentators so often try to bring significance to each of them, the basic truth is that each of them were very costly and could be traded in for money that would keep them going, at least in the next few years when they had to flee down to Egypt.   These Wise Men thus come acclaiming the newly born king, declare he is worthy of worship, and bring resources that will enable the family to travel without worry of future provisions. Remarkable! A king, more than a king, and one who we will help support for the days ahead. Yes, amazing!

Threads coming together: But here is the point I have been trying to make. God sees what is coming. He wants to bring His Son to earth in disguise and in such humility that he will not be a threat. Enter Mary and Joseph. He wants to set up a forerunner for the future ministry of His Son. Enter Zechariah and Elizabeth six months earlier. He wants His Son to be born in Bethlehem, to be associated with King David. Enter Caesar Augustus miles away. He needs to set up a mobile bank for the family guarding His Son. Enter the Wise Men.

People, different sorts of people, the great and the ordinary, all unknowingly working together as part of the great plan.  I doubt if one of them saw themselves like that, but that is what it was, threads coming together to bring about the end product which, if it was in a modern spy drama, would produce the cryptic message, “The package has been delivered,” or if it was a space-rover might have brought to the world, “The beagle has landed!”  The perfect has arrived on this imperfect world. From our perspective the details are confusing and somewhat chaotic, but only because we don’t have God’s view. From His position, it is all going to plan. OK, let’s celebrate! Which leads us on to tomorrow’s study.

6. Threads

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

6. Threads

Lk 2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

Mt 2:1  during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem

International: Perhaps one of the things we miss in the Christmas story is the truly international flavour that is there in it.  There were things going on that were not in Israel that would have a real impact on the main players of this wonderful little story. As we have seen so far things have been happening in Israel, first in the Temple as Zachariah encounters the angel, and then further north in Nazareth as Mary encounters an angel and Joseph gets a dream. Meanwhile, in the background so to speak, something is happening of mind-blowing proportions, something that still leaves us wondering, was this just the vanity of man on his own or was God in the background nudging this vain emperor into action. Whatever it was, we find in the Christmas accounts of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, threads coming together to form a tapestry, a tableau, a montage, a picture that used to appear on Christmas cards in so many forms.

Consequences: Whichever it was, these actions of men from afar, they had consequences. We live in a world where there are consequences, one thing following on from another. In modern chaos theory the butterfly effect, put most simply, means that a small change in one place can cause a greater changer somewhere else. Just why Caesar Augustus decided to call that a census should be taken across the whole of the Roman Empire is uncertain. We may assume it was pride of an arrogant dictator who liked boasting about how big the Empire was. However, it is said that in his latter years he became a great administrator and so, perhaps to overcome a sense of chaos in the administration of the Empire, he called for a census. The truth is that we just don’t know but decisions by such ‘top men’ can often have far reaching consequences for the ‘small people’.

Fulfilment: As far as the Christmas story is concerned it simply meant that Mic 5:2 would be fulfilled, that Bethlehem would be the place where the Messiah, the Christ, was born, a “ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” At the time there was probably no one taking in the significance of this. Perhaps it would not be until after he was born and the Wise Men turn up that the scribes would observe, In Bethlehem in Judea …for this is what the prophet has written.” (Mt 2:5) So the consequence of this emperor’s whim was, “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.” (Lk 2:4-6) It was left to Matthew who so often picks up on prophetic significance to make the link; Luke simply records what actually happened.

The Hand of God? I couldn’t help wondering earlier if it was God who nudged Caesar to call for a census, God who knows what His prophets have declared in bygone centuries, and what the scribes down through the years have spotted, God who wants to give any onlooker with an open heart, a heads-up of what He is doing. Some of us are a bit chary of attributing the actions of pagans to the moving of God, but Scripture is not so wary. Centuries before the event, probably somewhere between 700 and 680BC Isaiah had prophesied and written and in the midst of his writings, apparently without any present significance we read, speaking of the Lord, “who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd  and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.” (Isa 44:28)

It is left to one of the scribes recording the history of 2 Chronicles, to conclude the book by speaking of how Jeremiah’s word about the restoration of Jerusalem and Israel would follow the Exile, was fulfilled and we find: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: ‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.” (2 Chron 36:22,23) Can you imagine that king, egged on by the faithfulness of Daniel in the court in Babylon, perusing the documents, the scrolls that had been taken decades before from Jerusalem, and he comes across the Isaiah prophecy and is astounded to find his name there, and the Spirit convicts him and he sees it is his role to send Israel back to their land to start rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Oh yes, God speaks to pagans!

Magi: Meanwhile, sometime during the time of Mary’s impending confinement, possibly nearly a thousand miles away, some other interesting characters are starting to talk together, but in order not to reduce our reflections upon them down to an unworthy brevity, we will consider them in the next study – yet they very clearly are ‘distant threads’ worthy of our consideration.

Life in General: There is a big lesson in the midst of all this speculation and it goes back to what we were saying earlier. Yes, we live in a world of consequences. The lives we live we live because of what has happened before us. When we come to national histories there is always a mixture of good and bad. This is not the place to give a history lesson but few countries fare well under the microscope of history because ultimately every history is a history of sinful, fallen men. Most of us have things about which we can feel proud about our nationhood, but the wise man does not elevate one nation above another for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!

Stuck with the Consequences? Some of us may feel bad about our background. Our histories may be littered with misdeeds, wrong-doings, unfaithfulness, adultery, out of wedlock children, and so on. Some of these histories may be very recent and that leaves us feeling damaged. Do we have to remain like that? No, every day is a new day with God and we are what He wants to make us and that is always something more glorious than before.  Perhaps we can look back on miscarriages of justice and other unfairness, of unkind words spoken over us, of situations that have come about because of the thoughtless action of ‘top people’ that have left us feeling abandoned, or feeling we are on our own, wondering what tomorrow will hold. Our answers are found in the Christmas story and particularly in the things on which we have been reflecting today.

A Surreal World? There may be a variety of reasons why we are where we are today, and we may never know what they all are. There is only one stable factor in the bizarre equations of life – God. He was certainly the prime cause of Mary being pregnant; whether He was the direct cause of them ending up having to travel at a most inconvenient time to Bethlehem, we are not sure – but it feels like it! No doubt for them it felt a somewhat surreal world as they are being carried along by events beyond their control, and that is a not uncommon feeling. Yet the truth is, as we know, this is the plan of God and it is just part of His plan to redeem the world. That is a staggeringly big plan and they feel so small – but they are the ones bringing it into being, even if they do not realise it.

And that is you and me again. We have been called and we now call ourselves Christians, children of God. We often feel small and insignificant, we often feel we are the beck and call of circumstances beyond our control. and we are left wondering about our significance. Yet today, your life or mine may impact others, today we may be the fluttering butterfly wings of chaos theory that cause, along the way, major events to be unfurled. Who knows the effect our words will have? Who knows what that effect will have… will have… will have. Small players? Not in God’s economy. That is what this part of the Christmas story leads us to! It may be a fallen world and it may appear chaotic sometimes from our viewpoint, but the God of the impossible is working and weaving His will into our everyday events to redeem them. Hallelujah!

16. Trapped

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.16

16. Trapped by Circumstances

Luke 2:1-4 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.

Throughout history there have been groups of people who have decided that life, the world, is like a great clockwork machine and that everything is interlinked and no one and nothing is free from it. It’s like one great machine and you can’t affect it. Some have even gone as far as to say everything we say or do is determined by what has been. We are locked into a great machine, slaves to yesterday!

Now why do we sometimes feel that? Because governments and authorities decide the rules, the media portrays life as being a series of incidents where so much of it goes wrong and we feel we have little or no say in the destiny of the world. Joseph and Mary could have felt like that. They are part of a small nation, Israel , which has been taken over and ruled by Rome . Rome is all-powerful and so, because the Roman emperor has decided he would like to know exactly who he is ruling over, everyone has to be counted, and they are to be counted at the place of their birth. So, all over the country, people were moving to go to their home town to make sure on census day they were there. There were no doubt severe penalties for those who didn’t! In the case of a married couple, they were to go to the husband’s home town.

So here they are, expecting a baby – which Joseph, no doubt, isn’t feeling too sure about on a bad day – and now they have to travel from Nazareth in the south to Bethlehem in the north, because that’s the town of his family. Cogs in a machine, being driven by forces beyond them! Why Bethlehem? What’s special about Bethlehem? That will become clear later, but for the moment it seems there is little point in it, except the emperor requires it. Isn’t that just how life is so much of the time? We seem carried along by the winds of circumstance and we don’t know why. We wish we could win a million pounds, say, and break free from the daily drudgery and not have to work, perhaps, for work can seem such a part of the ‘machine’ which holds us in place. In such a framework of thinking, it is so easy to feel depressed. What’s the point? Why am I here? Why is this happening? If only I hadn’t… If only I had…. Yes, there are days when it seems that that is all there is.

It’s like what we were thinking about, in respect of Elizabeth and Zechariah, a little while back. She’s pregnant and it’s going to be nine months before anything is going to happen, so it’s a waiting time. We’ve just got to get on with life and wait for the next significant thing to happen. For Mary and Joseph, it’s having to be at Bethlehem. Get the census out of the way and we can get on with life again. Oh really? You don’t know some of the things that are going to happen there, because one thing we’ve forgotten about here, is that God has a plan and God is on the move. That’s so easy to forget in what seems the ordinary mundane day to day working out of life. Oh yes, it may seem that ‘big people’ are moving us around like pawns on a chess board, but actually God is the One who is ruling over it all. Don’t lose sight of that today, or tomorrow, or any other day! Look for Him in it. Remind yourself what He has said or done to get you to today. Get perspective! Get a God perspective, and that will change everything!