13. A Most Remarkable Dream

Focus on Christ Meditations: 13.  A Most Remarkable Dream

Mt 1:20-21   an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. A Kingdom of Impossibilities

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  10. A Kingdom of Impossibilities

Luke 1:26-28  In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Perhaps when you read Scripture regularly there is the danger of it becoming commonplace and our attitude casual. When these verses are read every year in Christmas Services and maybe even at Nativity plays, then there must be that danger of reading the words but losing the impact. Luke, who at the beginning of his book is so careful to explain that he has carefully researched everything and now wants to write an account that is full of integrity, drops this bomb on us and we don’t realise the enormity of it.

There is no room for half-hearted belief here. You either believe it as it stands or evaporate it away by saying – well I don’t know what you would say, but people do manage to overcome their intellects and rubbish the truth! But just look at what he says so simply: God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee.” (v.26). There are three things of note here for sermon constructors.

First, things happen here because God takes the initiative. In fact nothing of the Christmas story will happen unless God is in it. Even before this passage in chapter 1 of Luke, God sends an angel to Zechariah in the Temple and then God enables aging Elizabeth to have a baby. In the verses that follow, God is going to speak to Mary through the angel and then God is going to enable her to conceive without the help of a man. God is going to come to Joseph in a dream, to convince him not to break off his relationship with Mary.  After the baby is born, God is going to send an angel to shepherds on a hillside and God is going to provide guidance for wise men from the East. God is going to warn the family to flee to Egypt and then later to return to Israel. God is in this every step of the way. If you have a trouble with believing in God, this is not a story for you!

Second, note that this God communicates and for this task He uses an angel so that a human figure stands before Mary and holds a conversation with her. Have you noticed in Scripture, it seems that often a word simply comes to someone but sometimes it needs more than a simple word, it needs a conversation, and so in those times God sends an angel. On this occasion quite a lot of information is to be imparted and so Mary has an angel sent to her by God.

Third, in this one simple verse, note the mention of places – “Nazareth, a town in Galilee.”  We have this remarkable supernatural event but it is anchored in time space history in a known geographical location. Again and again in Scripture we find this mix of the supernatural with the down to earth daily life or here and now time-space history. This is not a book of weird and wonderful spiritual goings on and you may find in other religions. This is the record of activity of God here on this earth with very ordinary people in very ordinary circumstances. Mary was an ordinary Jewish girl living an ordinary life there in Nazareth and until this thing happens, she probably had no inkling of her destiny.

But then, as an even greater challenge to the materialistically-fixed-mind-set people, the next verse starts moving us towards an uncomfortable challenge: “to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (v.27)  Twice there Luke seems to almost emphasise the fact that Mary is a virgin. Now there are those who would seek to suggest that the word for virgin can also be used to simply describe a young woman but the account that follows refuses to allow us to go down that path. Mary is going to question the possibility of having a child without a man, and the angel explains it will be the Holy Spirit who will bring about what is otherwise impossible.  You have to go to Matthew’s Gospel to see Joseph’s side of it and see that he has had nothing to do with it.

For the skeptic, the only other possibility is that Mary had a sexual relationship with some other man but in that culture that would have been virtually impossible without it becoming public knowledge but no such thing was suggested. Luke is absolutely sure in his researches that this is just as it says. God intervenes and we have a miracle of a virgin birth. Once you believe in God, this should be no problem.

What are some of the outworkings of this storyFirst, the God we hear of is a communicating God and has no trouble with communicating with us. We may have a problem with hearing (because of our unbelief) but that is another story. It is unlikely that you or I will have an angelic encounter; they seem to be saved for major occasions and so if you do, you’re either in big trouble or God is about to lead you into major life changes.

Second, the God we find in the Bible is no God who stands afar off and leaves us entirely to our own devices. He comes and involves Himself in our lives and from time to time, when the circumstances demand it, He does what we would otherwise consider impossible. How much we hear or see Him in our lives depends, I believe, on how open we are to Him. If we maintain the materialistic mindset that the rest of the world has, we will rarely hear Him and never see a miracle. If we open our hearts to Him and make ourselves available to Him and listen for His quiet voice, and then respond to what we hear, we will find ourselves venturing out on the waters of faith and will find our testimony growing exponentially. When you hear this gem of a story every Christmas, don’t let it pass you by leaving you untouched. When Christmas comes, pray, “Lord open my eyes to see the wonder and the truth of these accounts and may my life be changed for ever because of them.”

19. Young Men

Meditations in 1 John : 19 : Young Men

1 John  2:13,14    I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one…..I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

So we have thought a little about children and then about fathers, and so now we come to the third group in these strange verses in John’s letter, young men. Before we get to the two verses themselves, what do we know about young men? Let’s put aside some of the features of modern Western males and just consider them worldwide. What do we tend to see? We see young people pushing boundaries. They have life and vitality and are bursting to be themselves, unique individuals not in the mould of their parents. They dare things others would not dare. They dream dreams that have not yet been tempered by life. They have enormous optimism and self-confidence, and these days they often travel the globe in search of adventure. They are also often compassionate and caring and get angry over lacks of justice. The want to change the world!

So let’s look at what John says; “I write to you, young men.”  He could have written to girls, to husbands, to wives and so on, i.e. anyone else, but he chooses young men in the church (it is a letter to believers probably read out in church congregations).  Imagine them sitting among the larger crowd as a local leader reads out John’s letter. It’s a letter for adults and then, suddenly, no it’s not, it’s for us! What is he saying about us? “We have overcome the evil one”.

So what does that mean and why does he say it to young men? Hasn’t every believer actually overcome the evil one (Satan) when we turned to Christ and God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son.”? (Col 1:13) Yes, but perhaps sometimes the battle to overcome doubts, fears etc., is greater in some to come through to Christ than it is in others.   Young people, and especially young men are a classic example. We said the young man naturally has self confidence and so much more that they are easy prey for Satan to play on all those things and keep them from coming to Christ. But these young men in the church have overcome his wiles and his temptations and have come through to a place of surrender to Christ, despite all else they naturally feel.

It is interesting to observe different people in different groups or professions or whatever else it may be, battle through the ways of the world and the wiles of the enemy to come to faith and what is especially interesting is that so often those who have come out of certain backgrounds are particularly strong in their faith once they have broken through. Oh yes, they were still sinners who needed the Holy Spirit to bring conviction, but nevertheless there are certain people who once they have come through appear to be more all-out for God. Perhaps this is the reason that John now says to these young men, “I write to you because you are strong.”  For a young man to break free from his culture and his friends and all his natural instincts, and surrender his life to Christ, it does require a certain sort of determination. This is the human aspect of the human plus divine parts of the equation that bring about salvation.

The apostle Paul might be an example of this. He had been a young man who was all-out for God in a religious way and had everything going for him religiously, but then he had his encounter with Jesus and was then as equally all out for God as a committed Christian – and was he committed!  Read 2 Cor 11:23-27 to see this!

These young men are commendable, and if we have them in our midst we need to commend and encourage them. “You are strong.” Yes of course they are; they had to be to have overcome the world and to now stand for Christ. “The word of God lives in you.” Yes it does; yes he does!  The word of God and the Spirit of Jesus living in them makes them strong. I’m sure John, if he had been with them, would have balanced it with, be careful not to get over confident: “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.” (1 Cor 10:12,13) but we don’t have to dot every I and cross every T; we can just be encouraging and John is being that for these young men. Do we do that for our young men or do we worry about their vulnerability all the time? Encourage them, bless them!

12. To Solomon (1)

“God turned up” Meditations: 12 :  To Solomon (1)

1 Kings 3:5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

I sometimes think we have such shallow understanding of Scripture.  We read and even study Scripture but it is only when we meditate on it that some of the deeper meaning comes out.  I think I have this feeling about this famous incident in the Bible, involving Solomon.  He has recently become king of Israel after David died, and is now established.  He’s ninety per cent of the way to being a good guy (see v.3).  There’s a little bit of clearing up in his life to do yet, he’s not perfect.  He goes to Gibeon to offer sacrifices to the Lord – lots of them.  While he is there, he has this dream where the Lord comes (‘turns up’) and makes this amazing offer.

Now I wonder how most of us might respond to such an offer?  Please give me promotion at work?  Please bring peace to my family?  Please bless my children?  Well, yes, they are possibly all good things but they are small things.  Solomon has just become king after his father David and David was a hard act to follow.  Like many young people Solomon doesn’t feel very secure in himself – but that is a good thing if it is directed in the right direction, towards the Lord!

His biggest challenge in life is how to be a good king to follow David.  If he can crack that, everything else follows.  So what does he really need to achieve that?  Wisdom! O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (v.7-9). Within this there is humility – and wisdom!

His answer clearly pleases the Lord: “The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for–both riches and honor–so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” (v.10-14) What an amazing bunch of promises – wisdom, fame, riches, long life!  Only the last thing was conditional; the rest were unconditional promises, won by the wise and humble request.

So what does this say?  It says that Solomon already had wisdom although perhaps he didn’t recognise it.  All that is going to happen is that the Lord is going to multiply it greatly.  What did Jesus say? “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.” (Mt 13:12)  Solomon had some wisdom and more was given to him.  Is it that the Lord made this incredible offer to him because He knew that with the wisdom Solomon already had, he would ask rightly?

That poses a challenge.  Would the Lord be able to put such an offer on the table infront of us?  Does He see in me a person who already has sufficient of His character, sufficient of His Spirit, that He can make such an offer?  But where, we might ask, does it start within us?  Why did Solomon have wisdom to start with?  Where do I get the grace to start from?  Is it something to do with that mysterious element of our lives that the Bible refers to when it speaks about ‘the heart’?  It certainly doesn’t mean that the muscle that pumps blood around within us is the thing that determines how we will act and feel and think?  No ‘heart’ seems to refer, as a dictionary puts it, to the hidden springs of personal life, the motivation of our mental and moral activity, rational and emotional.

And at this point we come up against a brick wall of mystery.  What is it that makes one person easily open to the Lord and another fiercely resistant? Solomon’s father had been described as a man after God’s own heart’.(1 Sam 13:14).  Why was David like that?  Was it genetic?  Was it upbringing?  Was it encounters with God?  Possibly all or none of those things!  In the Proverbs, Solomon was to write, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart.” (Prov 3:1) and yet watching his leading son after he died, it is clear that this son did not follow in his wisdom.  It isn’t something that is inherited. It seems to be more something we seek.  Somewhere Solomon had picked up some wisdom in his early years. Suddenly the Lord turns up to test it, and check it out. Is it as it seems?  Yes, so he can have some more so that the nation can be blessed and the world can see it.  James encourages us to ask for wisdom (Jas 1:5) and the promise is clearly that God will give it.  Perhaps the starting place, as with Solomon, is to see our need of it.

4. To Joseph

“God turned up” Meditations: 4 :  To Joseph

Gen 37:5-7 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

A question I am often asked is, “How can you know it is God speaking to you?” and I think the truth is that initially at least you don’t. If one of our biggest problems is that God is invisible, I think one of God’s problems is that we so often appear so hard of hearing. It just isn’t clear sometimes that it is the Lord speaking. Very often our immaturity or ignorance or naivety, are the reasons we don’t realise it is God speaking.  Again, I suspect that with a heading about God turning up, we also have preconceived ideas about how He will turn up. Very often His ‘turning up’ is just simply a few words spoken into our minds; that can be the start of it, or perhaps it’s a dream!

Joseph was a spoilt brat. Being one of the youngest sons of Israel (Jacob renamed), because of who his mother was, he was especially loved by his father, but when one child gets more attention from the parent that just leads to trouble. Jacob spoiled Joseph and that didn’t go down well with the other brothers; in fact they hated him. When you spoil a child you also tend to spoil their character as well. Joseph is spoilt and that means he is self-centred and self-centred people are insensitive to other people, and that, here, causes problems. The story of Joseph is fascinating because it starts with God turning up with a dream. It’s a good dream as far as he is concerned but bad as far as the brothers are concerned. It had them bowing down before him.

Now you have to wonder why the Lord gave him this dream – and the one that follows, just to make sure they get the message!   I mean, if this was going to be the outcome, why say something which the Lord surely knew would provoke the brothers?  But perhaps that is the very reason He gave Joseph the dream; He knew how Joseph would blurt it out and He knew how the brothers would respond.

It’s very like what happened with Jesus.  On the day of Pentecost, speaking about Jesus, Peter said, This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 2:23,24) God knew how the Jewish authorities would react if Jesus was given into their hands, He knew that they would crucify His Son and He knew He would have to raise Him from the dead, all in the process of taking the Sin of the world and revealing His Son as Saviour.  A while later the disciples prayed, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” (Acts 4:27,28)  God knew what He wanted to achieve and knew that He would use the wrong motives and bad reactions of the various people involved.

So here we have the same thing happening with Joseph. The Lord knows that in the long-term, quite a few years later, He would be able to use Joseph to save the whole of the Middle East and especially the family of Israel. He knew that the brothers would get so worked up about Joseph that they would sell him to slave traders, He knew the slave traders would sell him to Potiphar who would end up unjustly putting him in prison, and He knew that the end result would be Joseph being taken out of prison and being made Prime Minister of Egypt where he could have such authority that he could save the world against a coming famine.

So this instance of God turning up for Joseph sounds bad news. Well, no, not really. This was God’s training ground that He was leading him into – these years of slavery and prison – training to be able to handle the incredible authority he’s going to be given at the end.  In this training he’s going to be taken from being a spoilt brat to a wise world leader – some transformation! (Oh, by the way, read the story through and you’ll see that the Lord never left him to it; He stayed with him and gave him favour in the eyes of those who had power over him.)

So Joseph gets a dream as God turns up for him and the whole process gets under way – but Joseph really doesn’t have a clue!  But isn’t that how it is so often. The Lord comes with a prophecy and we think how incredible it is. I’m going to make you a mighty warrior. Right! But how are mighty warriors created?  Through much hard exercise and discipline and many battles. Right!  Or perhaps the word from the Lord comes, “I am going to make you a person of great grace to whom many others will come with their problems.” Wow, that’s great!  Well yes, but how are you going to get there?  The Lord is going to allow all your self-strength to be knocked out of you so that all that is left of you is His grace. Oh!  Oh yes, and vulnerable people only feel secure coming to share with people who appear vulnerable, so all your self-confidence is going out the door. Right!

Oh yes, Joseph tells us that when God turns up it’s the start of a life of transformation – for us. Paul knew something of it when he wrote, we…. are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18)  God loves us just like we are, but He also loves us so much He’s got something much better for us, a new ‘me’ in the likeness of Jesus. That’s what the Christian life is about so much of the time, God making sons in the likeness of Jesus. What fun! What glory!

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

32. God’s Time

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.32

32. In God’s Time

Matt 2:19,20 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel , for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

Have you ever had a time in life when everything seemed to go wrong and you were left wondering whether you even had any future at all? Life is full of upheavals that sometimes we would prefer to call catastrophes. One minute everything was going fine, and then either gradually bit by bit, or even perhaps suddenly, it all started changing and you were left alone and in despair.

Well, the Bible is full of such incidents. Moses, the Prince of Egypt, was one such person. There he was; his future certain, as an adopted prince of the king of Egypt . But he’s aware that he’s different; he’s aware he’s an Israelite by birth, and one day he tries to help his birth-people and ends up killing an Egyptian. He has to flee the country and for the next forty years he is looking after sheep in the wilderness hundreds of miles away. Without doubt he must have given up any hope of any meaningful future. He would simply die as an unknown shepherd miles from anywhere. And then God turned up, and he became one of the most significant men in history!

But it doesn’t have to be forty years to feel you have no future. After the pain of personal failure, any period is too long. We don’t know for sure just how long Joseph and Mary and their baby were in Egypt, but they must have been wondering about the future, wondering what had happened. A year ago they were happily engaged in Nazareth, and now here they are hundreds of miles away in a foreign land with a tiny baby to look after. The visit of the angel to Mary was probably now over a year back and in a year your memory begins to dull, and when everything has not worked out as you expected, you can be left wondering was it all a dream – but then there is the baby!

How long will we be here? Will God speak to us again? Will it ever be safe for us to return? Surely these must have been some of the questions going through their minds. One long day followed another. Did Joseph get a job or did they just live off the gifts the wise men had brought them? This is not their land. These are not their people. What are we doing here? And then God spoke. The trouble about this is that we can go weeks or months just wondering and then, it’s as if He came suddenly, and He spoke. There is usually no warning. He just turns up and speaks. A few hours before you might have been wondering if you’ll ever hear from Him again, and then without any fanfare He speaks – and it all starts over again! Is this Him or is it wishful thinking. Joseph has another dream and the angel appears again but now to tell him it is all right to return home; it’s safe now!

Do you see this? So often we just read this story with so little thought. Oh, Joseph had another dream; how nice! Yes, but that was after days and weeks and months of uncertainty. If you think the Christian life is one of daily conversations with God, you are half right. You can talk and talk and talk (it’s called praying) but sometimes it seems like a brick wall and you hear nothing in return. Then – at just the right moment – He speaks. You’d almost given up, but He hadn’t! If you haven’t ever seen how important timing is with God, check it out – Rom 5:6, Gal 4:4, Gal 6:9, Mk 1:15, Matt 10:19, Mt 26:18, Jn 7:6,8. Jn 7:30. Oh yes, it’s all about right timing and God knows when it is, so rest in that knowledge today. Your times are in His hands. Be patient and rejoice in that!

30. Dream On

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.30

30. Dream On!

Matt 2:13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt . Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

There are two forms of belief that are equally bad. There is the belief that there is no God, the belief of atheism that flies in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, but there is also the belief that there is a God but He stands outside of this world and has nothing to do with it. Now although all Christians, hopefully, would deny the latter belief, many in fact live as if it were true. In how many churches, and in how many Christians, is there the belief that God talks to his people? Again, many will say that He does, but live like He doesn’t! That is tragic, so we must look at these verses carefully.

Already we’ve seen dreams as a form of guidance twice in the Christmas story. Joseph is with Mary as the result of a dream. He committed his life to her on the strength of a dream. The wise men didn’t go back home via Herod as the result of a dream. Now Joseph has another dream, warning him to take the family south, out of the country into Egypt, before Herod comes searching for the child.

Now consider this more fully. How easy would it have been for Mary to say to Joseph, “Oh, don’t be silly, you’re just worrying unnecessarily. It’s probably because of what those strange men from the East said. Let’s just go home.” How easy it is to write off or find reasons to counter such things. This is the thing about divine guidance; most of the time there is room to doubt it. That’s what faith is about. It’s about responding simply to what God says, and that requires a belief, first of all, that it was God speaking. This is what makes the Christmas story so uncomfortable – when you stop to think about it. It’s about people who get tenuous guidance and base their lives on that. It reminds us that Christians are called to life by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7) and as one well-known preacher said a number of years ago, “Faith is spelt R-I-S-K!”

As we come near to the end of the year, the challenge that this story brings us, again and again, is will we be like these people in this story, will we simply respond to the simple word from God? In one sense, all else is secondary. It’s come up before in this story, and we need to hear it again – and again! Will we give ourselves to what God says? Sometimes we will hear His fresh word very clearly, and in those times it will be relatively easy to do His will. When we’ve had a ‘mountaintop experience’ and the presence of God has been very real, at that point it seems very easy to say, yes, I’ll go, I’ll do it! But what about those other times, the times that are, realistically, the majority of the times, when we are walking alone in the valley – for that’s what it feels like! At those times will our faith be expressed in keeping on faithfully doing the things He’s spoken in His word, the Bible, or the last thing He spoke to us at the last mountaintop experience?

Jesus once put it very simply: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). What he was saying was, when he returns will he find us full of faith, being who we’re called to be, doing what we’ve been called to do, with an ear open to heaven? Joseph heard God through dreams. That was the way the Lord seemed to use most with him. What is it or what will it be with you? Will you hear through His word, through the preaching, or through the quiet nudge of the Spirit? Dream on, read on, listen on, continue to be sensitive – or learn to hear through one or more of these ways. There’s nothing more important than hearing God – except obeying what you hear!

28. Worshipping Providers

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.28


28. Worshipping Providers

Matt 2:11,12 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

We are almost there. Tomorrow is Christmas Day. For a large percentage of the population it will be a day of presents, large amounts of food and drink, possibly too much TV and, for some, parties into the night. There will be a tiny minority who will totally ignore the day, but in the middle of these two groups will be those of us who want to appreciate the day in the traditional way with Christmas lunch and so on, but who also want to hold onto the truth and wonder if what we believe, according to the Bible, took place on this day slightly more than 2000 years ago. For Christians it’s always an odd sort of day, trying to balance these things, but then the Christmas story is an odd sort of story. Today’s verses are about those who came and worshipped the baby. Can we retain worship in all that happens tomorrow?

The ‘Wise Men’ are a great example of worshippers. They worship the newly arrived Son of God by bowing down and by giving to him. It is a faith that expresses itself by far more than just words or certain spiritual actions. It is a faith that provides for him. Now isn’t that strange! God arrives on the earth in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby, complete with all the limitations of a baby. He’s going to grow, this baby, and when he’s fully grown, the power of God is going to flow through him as never seen before or since; he is God on earth. But, for the time being he is reliant upon Mary and Joseph to care for him and now, for the wise men to provide for him. Yes, God can do miracles, like providing life where there is none, but having done that He so often wants to use us as the means of further provision. The Christian life is a life of partnership with God (1 Cor 3:9. 2 Cor 6:1). Thus we’re told to work out our salvation, because God is also working in us (Phil 2:12,13).

So these worshippers come and provide for the child. They provide Gold, currency in any day. This is God’s immediate bank account for this little family. Frankincense is a pure incense used for worship offerings and for wedding processions in the Bible. Myrrh, another perfume was used as a perfume for bridal processions, and for funerals. Whether the two perfumes were given as symbols of what would be involved in this child’s life or whether they were just given as alternative forms of currency, things that could be sold for money, is not clear. They are however, clearly expensive gifts, lavish gifts, gifts what could be purely ornamental, but also very practical.

Some say the practice of giving gifts at Christmas (which is not done by Christians all over the world) derived from the Wise Men. Giving is a practice very much at the heart of love for God. For the Christian it is not just a ritual done to appease God, for He doesn’t need appeasing. It is a response of a freed-up heart that sees need and gladly rises up to meet it. In a world where so many charities clamour for our attention we need to learn to respond to God’s prompting to give, not the emotional pressures of advertising agencies working for such charities. Giving starts with those closest to us in need. Giving comes with a heart of love, a love that is moved by compassion and moved by relationship. John picked this up in his letter (1 Jn 3:17) as did James (Jas 2:15,16). We become providers for others, knowing God will provide for us (Phil 4:19).

Having come as worshippers, these men find a new form of guidance, as they too move into the realm of guidance by dreams! Yes, there is a truth here: true worshippers come into a new closeness with God where they can hear His guidance more clearly. May we each know it! May we bow before him today and tomorrow and every day and may we let nothing detract from our worship and become a people guided and directed by God for ever more.

14. Challenge of Revelation

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.14

14. The Challenge of Revelation

Matt 1:20-21 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Ignorance of the Law, they say, is no excuse. What they mean is that everyone is expected to have a reasonable understanding of the laws of the country. It gets worse though, because if it can be shown that you definitely knew about a law and blatantly disregarded it, you are doubly guilty. Jesus said, From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Lk 12:48) I simply remind us of this, because an interesting challenge arises behind what was happening here.

The challenge is, if God has spoken to me, dare I disregard what He has said? You see, here is Joseph who, as we said yesterday, is a good man, a righteous man, who desires to do the right thing before God, and now he’s being told to take Mary as his wife. Does he have to do this? No, there are choices before him, because he does have a free will. Will he disregard this dream when he wakes in the morning, putting it down to a guilty conscience over Mary, or even the cheese he ate last night? Or will he simply do what he was told in the dream by God.

Ah! Now there’s another question that might arise in his mind. Was that really God speaking through that dream? Does God speak through dreams? Does God ask me to do things that I feel uncomfortable about? Does God speak? There’s a whole issue here about the possibility of God speaking. Well, the Old Testament gives hundreds of examples of God speaking to people, so the last question is answered. Does God speak through dreams? Well, why shouldn’t he?

The truth is that God speaks through a whole variety of ways. He can speak through dreams, He can speak through the circumstances of your life, He can speak through the words of the Bible as you read it, He can speak through other people to you, He can speak through your conscience, and He can speak by a quiet whisper in your mind. Nevertheless the question so often arises in us, was this really God speaking? One check is to ask, does it conform to what we learn of Him and His will in the Bible, but that does mean we need to know it quite well. We can also ask about the fruit or the effect of it: does it bring, love or peace to us, does it draw us closer to God? Are we left with a sense of God’s love for us and does it leave us in a closer walk with Him? Having answered all those questions positively, we’re still left with a response of faith. We can’t be one hundred per cent sure, and so we have to step out, trusting it was God. That is faith.

That’s what confronts Joseph here. This is the challenge of revelation. Is this really God and will I trust Him and respond positively to it? For Joseph it was a major life turnaround if he was going to do that. This wasn’t just a quiet intellectual assent; this meant a total change in life, but then that’s what God’s after for us. When we step out like this we find we’re plugged in to a completely new world, the world of God, the world of goodness, the world of blessing. That’s what is at stake here!