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.

10. Anticipation – the Magi

Focus on Christ Meditations: 10.  Anticipation – the Magi

Mt 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 in the east and have come to worship him.”

As I have started into this series, and slightly to my surprise, I have found my focus being directed to the mystery of the coming of Jesus Christ. We saw just a few examples of that in the prophecies of the Old Testament and as we come into the New, the more I think about it, the more I realise that there are major question marks, or even an air of mystery, over some of the things we so often take for granted in this story. And that is my biggest concern: that because the Nativity story has become so familiar to many of us, we lose the significance or mystery of what was going on.

To recap a little bit, if you had been around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth (and of course you would probably know nothing of his birth) you might have noticed this old man, probably thought of as a bit of an eccentric by many, who saw him hobble in (he’s an old man!!) each day and just sit around the temple courts. We would probably have written him off as an old man with nothing better to do than just sit and watch the crowds. Yes, there had also been that freaky prophetess, Anna, a long-term widow who was also there daily, praying and prophesying and obviously fasting most of the time (no doubt, thin as a rake, we might say today).

Oh yes, the temple attracted the weirdoes, but that is all they are. And then we had the story of the shepherds. Well that was a bit farfetched, we might have thought if we had heard it third hand, a bit weird to say the least. But nothing has changed; life carries on as normal. If these characters were God’s PR people, there to spread the word, He might have chosen more credible people, and a lot more people for all that. So this couple with a baby came to the temple and went again and rumour has it that they have settled temporarily down there in Bethlehem. Life carries on in the Temple and in the local synagogues, focusing on Israel’s past, with the scrolls being brought out and read every Saturday. Life carries on as normal.

And then a camel train turns up in Jerusalem. Traders it might appear from the east. But no, these aren’t just ordinary traders, they appear philosophers, or astronomers or even astrologers; they are a bit weird. And they start asking around, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”  What? This is odd on various levels. A child-king has been born? Has Herod being keeping something to himself? But no, he seems as surprised as the rest of us. But then everyone jumps to a major conclusion: “King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.” (v.3,4) If there is an unheralded ‘Coming One’ is this the one our teachers have been identifying in the scrolls all these years, the Messiah or Christ?

The second strange thing about this is that claim to have been led here by a star in the sky? What? A star or a meteorite? Did they use other things to confirm this because they certainly believe what they are saying because they wouldn’t have clearly traveled hundreds of miles to get here if they didn’t!  But then there is a third strange thing about this. They are talking about wanting to worship this child. Look, we don’t worship Herod and as good Jews we don’t ‘worship’ anyone other than God, the I AM of Moses’ day. So what are you saying? In the eyes of these strange men, is this child a ‘god’ like the Romans have or the Greeks had? Surely not in Jerusalem of all places???? This is the city on the heart of the ’I AM’ and He wouldn’t tolerate anything like that. So when you come to worship a child, who or what are you saying this child is? But no one wants to speak out loud the logical answer to that because even though we have the Immanuel prophecy, the thought of divinity being in our midst is too much.

I have written on this before and every time I struggle as I write because I believe to those living at the time, this was mysterious, and we lose the mystery in familiarity. But everything about the coming of this child is strange, but then if he is God (somehow?) then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that God communicated this by His Holy Spirit, by Angels and now by strange (scientific?) seekers from the east.

But why all this ‘cloak and dagger’ stuff, this half hidden playing with us? Why not have a seriously scary meeting with Herod or the Chief Priest and scare them into submission as He tells them what He is doing? I was going to say that God doesn’t do scary but the angel scared the shepherds and we’ll see some more fear before we are finished with this Part. But mostly God doesn’t do scary, most of the time He wants to win our hearts with His love and He looks for honest responses, responses of the individual will, responses that are simple and open, responding to the wonder of His love, not His might. Relationships are built on love and that is what God wants.

These ‘wise men’, like Simeon, are those who have caught something in their spirits. God is up to something and they need to be in on the ground floor, that’s what their gut says, “I need to be there!”  In the case of both Simeon and the Magi, there is no letter from heaven to be read by the eyes and understood by the mind; no, this is down-in-my-spirit stuff that scares many of us. For some of us anything to do with the Spirit is scary because it sometimes challenges the intellect (As when Jesus said to Peter on the lake in the night, “Come”.)  If Simeon hadn’t responded to the Spirit, he would have missed seeing the baby. If the wise men had looked at their star and possibly other portents and said, “Yes, but it’s a long way,” they too would have missed seeing the baby. Would that have mattered? Not to the baby, maybe, but in their spirits, both Simeon and the Magi went away utterly satisfied, knowing who it as they had seen, and all around them were thousands of other people who couldn’t say that! There are some serious challenges here. Dare we face them?

17. Strange Seekers

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 17. Strange Seekers

Mt 2:1,2    After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, 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 in the east and have come to worship him.”

Just when everything is settling down and Mary and Joseph might be forgiven for thinking it might be an idea to think about going home to Nazareth, a camel train turns up with three strangers. They are ‘magicians’ or wise men, possibly astronomers, possibly astrologers, not Jews. They are definitely foreigners and they have come from the east. They first turn up in Jerusalem and there they enquire after one who is the newly born king of the Jews. For the present ruler, Herod, this is disturbing (v.3) because he knows nothing of this but, as it seems to fall within the ambit of Jewish folklore or Biblical law, he questions the religious leaders who say that ‘the Coming One’, the Christ or Messiah, will come from Bethlehem (v.4-6). Herod sends them on there with a request to come back and tell what they have found (v.7,8).

It turns out that these wise men have apparently been following a star (v.7) which appeared in the sky, possibly a meteorite, which has led them to Judea. They leave Herod and follow the star which appears to stop over Bethlehem, confirming the words of the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Somehow, and the text is not specific, they find this little baby: “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.” (v.11) The fact of the mention of a house seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph had settled there for the time being at least and the fact of the mention of child and mother but no mention of Joseph, may suggest that Joseph was out working.

We very often focus on the three gifts but the easiest thing to say is that here were three gifts, expensive gifts, that could be easily sold and converted into money to keep them going in their travels, in the near future at least. These three men are God’s material provision for this little family. Now let’s note various thing about their coming and going. (We assume three men because of three gifts, but there may have been more).

First, they are foreigners. This shatters the Jewish illusion that they were the only people God speaks to. God is concerned for all of His world, people of every nationality.

Second, their means of guidance is somewhat strange to say the least. As good Christians, we might think that the Bible is God’s only way of communicating with people. It is not. It is our primary and essential source of our knowledge of Him and His purposes but this does not stop Him communicating with people through other means. Next to the Bible we would say the Holy Spirit is the second primary source of God’s communication and as critical as He is to our relationship with the Lord, He is not the only other way God speaks. God’s word – Old Testament prophecy – was involved here, but these seekers from the east also used signs – the star – and inevitably the sense that God gave each of them about this quest – maybe by direct communication that we might say was the Holy Spirit. The Lord speaks through many ways and the important thing is that we be open to hear what He wants to say to us, however He chooses to speak to us

Third, they come confirming the message heard previously, this child is a king and one worthy of worship – more than a mere human king, for only God deserves worship.

Fourth, they are sent on their way with a warning dream, a dream that says avoid Herod, so they obey it and do. These are men of faith, people who hear God, respond to God and worship God. May that be said of us as well.

114. A Can of Worms

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 114. A Can of Worms

Mk 6:16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

When something unexpected happens in our lives, it often acts as a catalyst to reveal what goes on in us. A crisis brings out both the best and the worst in us. Herod has heard about Jesus. There is a man in the land – his land – who raises questions, and they have been asked and answers given. One of the answers was that Jesus was a resurrected John. Immediately in Herod, his guilt rises to the surface and the worst nightmare possible pours out – it is John come to confront him for his appalling behaviour. Suddenly his mind is pouring out fears like a can of worms. He is guilty! Has this man come back to haunt him?

We will deal with all the following verses in that terrible story in this one quick meditation. We will not give Herod any more space. John had preached against things going on in Herod’s family and people had been upset. Herod had John put in prison – but that was all. Then came the evening of that fateful meal and Herod drunk too much and, as drunken men so often do, he lost control of himself and started saying foolish things. As a result of that, to avoid appearing even more foolish before his guests, he had given way and allowed John to be executed. We will say no more of the episode for it is a scandalous one.

What we can observe is that a good and godly man was put to death by an unrighteous and foolish man who abused his power. We might question, could God not have stopped this happening?  The bigger picture is that our time here on earth is but a drop in the ocean of eternity. We see the present as so important and we want to cling on to it but there is a whole eternity yet to be enjoyed.

What we have here is a challenge to our perception of reality. So often we hear preachers preaching about heaven and the wonders of the world to come, but the moment death is mentioned, especially in respect of ourselves, we fear and show that all our talk of eternity is but words.

Sometimes God does step in and deliver His saints (e.g. Peter in Acts 12) but other times He allows the present evil circumstances to prevail to act simply as a doorway into eternity and we witness the death of one of His saints (e.g. Stephen Acts 7:59,60) or James (Acts 12:2). we must learn to rest in His sovereign decisions.

 

11. Changeover

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 11. Changeover

Mk 1:14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

If we were first time readers of this Gospel we might, at this point, be somewhat startled by the abruptness of what we read: “After John was put in prison.” Pardon? How did that suddenly happen? Where did that come from? Why was John put in prison? Peter, who we believe is the source behind Mark, has this somewhat abrupt style. Often we find the word ‘suddenly’ being used by him. It was all a bit of a rush in his eyes, a surprise. I’m sure if you were a disciple of Jesus, life was like that. You got up in the morning never knowing what the day was going to bring, and when it did come, it was a surprise. Perhaps that is one of the reasons behind Peter’s style.

We have to wait until chapter 6 to see what happened with John and so for now we’ll simply note it happened and move on. But it is necessary to say that he was imprisoned and killed at the hands of a sinful Herod and his family. It wasn’t a good thing. So, we might have thought that Jesus starting his ministry, waiting until John was gone, was a planned thing, but the events that remove John are really out of his hands.

We might wonder what might have happened if John hadn’t gone to prison. Would he have just stopped preaching and let Jesus take centre stage? Of course we don’t know. It just happened. That’s how life is so often. It just seems to happen and so we have to take the circumstances and get on with them. So John, who has been preaching in Judea in the south, is off the scene and so Jesus starts his preaching as a continuation, it seems, but he moves north to Galilee where he spends most of the next three years exercising his ministry.

Why Galilee? Perhaps because it was furthest from Jerusalem and possible interference from the religious authorities based there. God certainly knew that this is what would happen: in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan– The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isa 9:1,2). The light has now arrived, just like Isaiah had prophesied!

Lord, thank you for coming into this world and revealing yourself. Thank you for the light you bring us. Lord, help me to just take the circumstances that I find facing me today, and live with your love and grace – whatever!

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!