6. Handling Expectations

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 6. Handling Expectations

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.”

Handling personal prophecy is a tricky thing. I mean, in the Christmas story that was what both Zechariah and Mary received by an angel. Zechariah didn’t handle it too well, but Mary did. Now, as we continue moving through Genesis we come to Joseph, the last of the big figures in the book and we see how not to handle expectations! How we handle personal prophecy reveals our state of mind, our state of spirituality and our faith level.

Joseph’s Background: To understand Joseph we need to see his family background. He is the youngest but one of the twelve brothers and we read, Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” (Gen 37:3,4) So there we have a disturbed family background that has grown up. Not a good setting for what God is about to do – or is it?

Joseph’s Dreams: So Joseph has two dreams and gets hostile reactions (37:5-7 & 9):  “His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.” (v.8) Even more, “When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” (v.10,11) Old man Israel doesn’t completely write it off but he is upset at the apparent way Joseph brought the dreams.

The trouble with prophecy, whether it comes in a dream or as a conscious word, is that it is about the future and not the present and what the vast majority of people – including Joseph – forget, is that to get from the present to the future, there is invariably change required and that comes about by process. So, in many ways the process is more important to remember, than the end product. So Joseph is going to end up as an important ruler, but he was not told how or why. For that we have to follow his story.

Joseph’s Downward Upward Climb: Because of their hatred for him – stoked by these dreams – the brothers take the opportunity to sell Joseph to slave traders (37:19-28) who take him to Egypt where he is sold on to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.  (39:36) There he prospers under the hand of the Lord (39:2) and is given charge of all of his master’s household. He is learning responsibility with wisdom. A bad situation is made worse when his master’s wife tries to seduce him, but he flees her and ends up being put in prison (see 39:7-20). However, there again the Lord is with him and he prospers (39:20-23). He also finds he can interpret dreams (40:5-22). Subsequently when Pharaoh also starts getting prophetic dreams, it is Joseph who is called for and interprets for him (41:1-38) after which Pharaoh puts him in charge of the whole economy to oversee the coming years of prosperity followed by the years of famine.

Fulfilment & Understanding: It is a long and convoluted story but by the end of it, his brothers come and bow before him, not realizing who he is (at least a dozen years have passed), before he eventually reveals to them his identity. The original dreams have been fulfilled but to bring them about two things had to happen. First, circumstances had to come about that brought Joseph to the royal court in Egypt. Second, by the time he got there he had to be changed into a man of humility and wisdom who is open to the Lord and recognizes His presence which he does (see 40:8, 41:16,25,28,32).  Moreover, by the end of the story Joseph makes that famous statement that reveals his understanding of the sovereign ways of God: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” (50:20) and does his best to put his brothers’ minds at rest and to care for them: “But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? …. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” (50:19,21)

Transformation: It is a remarkable story of how a man within Israel’s family is transformed and used by God, but his transformation comes about through harsh circumstances, circumstances brought about by the sinfulness of his brothers. God uses our sinfulness sometimes to achieve His end purposes. The greatest illustration of that must be that recognized by the apostle Peter under the anointing of the Spirit: “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.” (Acts 2:23) Yes, the Cross was God’s plan, but it came about through the sinfulness of mankind. This so parallels what happened to Joseph, except the big difference is that it was the folly and pride of Joseph at the beginning of the story that opens the way for all else to follow.

The lesson?  God will use our folly, our mistakes etc. to work through His purposes. And what are they ultimately for us? That we become more and morel like Jesus  (2 Cor 3:18). That will underline all that takes place in our lives, the good and the bad, because the more we are formed in the image of Jesus, the more open we will be to receive God’s blessing in our lives and be open to Him to be used to bless His world. Amazing! We may focus our expectations on success and achievement; He focuses on us being changed into the likeness of His Son.

7. Inconvenient Circumstances

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 7. Inconvenient Circumstances

Reading 6: Luke 2:1;3–7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. A Most Remarkable Message

Focus on Christ Meditations: 14.  A Most Remarkable Message

Lk 1:31-33    You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.

We have seen the dream that Joseph had in which the angel said,you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” and we commented then that this was shorthand for all we can find in those messianic verses at the beginning of Isa 61 (and which Jesus read in the synagogue – Lk 4:17-19) and we considered what that actually meant as it was rolled out in history. I don’t know, as a child, if you ever did painting by numbers where bit by bit you followed the colours designated by each number and the picture gradually grew. I feel this search is a bit like that.

My intent has been to build up a picture from the verses of the Bible of the mystery from the Old Testament, gradually being revealed in the New, and yet not obvious except to just a few. If each person who came to know what was happening lit up, we would have seen Zechariah light up, then Elizabeth as he communicated in writing with her, then Mary, then Joseph, then the shepherds at about the same time that Simeon was picking it up and to the east some Magi were being alerted – but they are the only ones we are told about (possibly plus Anna in the temple). Half a dozen individual and two groups, and that is it. It is a very low-key happening. But as these people share it with those closest to them – Zechariah and Elizabeth told those near them, no doubt Mary and Joseph told their close families, the shepherds certainly told whoever would listen before they went back to their sheep, and perhaps Simeon told people around in the temple, and the Magi certainly let the cat out of the bag, as we might say today, when they turned up in Jerusalem, asking questions about the Coming One who had arrived!

So yes, there were a growing number of people who were being alerted to what was happening, but whether those hearing it second hand believed it, is another thing. Even more, and this is where I want us to focus at this moment, if you were one of the first people to be told you might feel very much alone.

Imagine you had a brother or sister who worked for the Government in biological warfare research, and one day they came to you and said, “I can’t keep this to myself any longer, I have to tell someone. We have been working on a virus, an incredibly virulent virus that sterilises anyone it meets so they can never bear children. It works. We’ve tried it on all sorts of animals and it works every time – and it has escaped!  Hardly anyone else knows about it yet but the entire population WILL become infected. The world will never be the same again, and unless we can find some antidote – which is very unlikely – within a hundred years the entire population of the world will have gone. But you mustn’t tell anyone, we don’t want there to be widespread panic.” So there you are. You are just one of a very few who know what is going on. It is a lonely place.

So now back to Mary and her encounter with the angel Gabriel. What is strange is that she doesn’t ask, “But why me?” That doesn’t seem to cross her mind. She simply asks how she can fulfil God’s will because she is not married and it’s within marriage that children are conceived. (Oh if only our unrestrained western society could get back to that place!) This particular mystery is only resolved when you consider what we are told about her: she is a virgin pledged to be married (v.27). Apparently she has found favour with God (v.30) and, I suggest, God bestows favour on those He chooses and He chooses according to subsequent availability and openness to Him. This is confirmed by her comments at the close of the conversation: I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.” (v.38)

We can’t pass this by without letting the light of this situation shine back on us. How many of us, confronted with a strange word from God in scary circumstances would have responded with such a depth of faith?

But look at what Gabriel says about her son: “you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.31-33) There it is again, all the things we’ve been seeing in previous studies: Jesus or Joshua which means, ‘the Lord saves’, he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, or ‘the Son of God’.  Now up until that point Mary might have interpreted this as meaning, he will be very godly, but see how it ends – “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” What?

We back in the dilemma of the Isaiah prophecies. Of whom can this be said except God? This child will be God????  Could Mary comprehend that? I doubt it, because even we today, with all the revelation we have, still struggle to understand how Almighty God can inhabit a human body – the Incarnation is still a mystery. And for us it gets worse. I have lost count of the times I have written about the ‘indwelling Holy Spirit’ the Holy Spirit who inhabits every believer. How do we handle the reality of that?

How easily we speak these things and yet the utter reality escapes us. So I have another question mark over this story that is so familiar to us every Christmas and it is this: why did God bother to tell both Mary and Joseph this about Jesus? Did they understand it? Only at a superficial level. Did it change the way they brought him up? I doubt it, they were clearly both righteous people given over to God’s will for their lives. We might ask of us in church life today, why does God give us prophecies today (why did He give to Isaiah and the other prophets?), why, when sometimes the prophecy is simply a declaration of His sovereign activity, doesn’t He just get on and do it regardless, why tell us?

The unbelievably simple answer has got to be that because He loves us, and He loves to tell us what is on His heart (after all, we’ve got an entire book full of it!) and involve us, in understanding at least, in what He is doing. Sometimes He says it so that we can cooperate with Him and play our specific part – as was the case for Joseph who changed his mind and married Mary. The mystery about The Mystery is resolved in this: God shared the intentions of the Godhead for all who would see in the following centuries and whose hearts would be lifted by what they read. It didn’t happen in their time but they would have rejoiced that it was going to happen and that in turn would have provided fuel for worship.

To reflect upon: when we have read these prophecies (and perhaps when we have received our own personal prophecies), have our hearts lifted with praise and worship and can our response be that of Mary: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

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!!!!

12. Why a Virgin?

Focus on Christ Meditations: 12.  Why a Virgin?

Lk 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.”

We have already touched on the fact of the virgin birth twice already in our examinations of some of the Isaiah prophecies but as we move into the New Testament historical context we need to face this claim within Matthew, a claim that is really very low key in the text of the New Testament. Let’s look at various aspects of this.

Historical struggles: It is interesting to note how the early church clearly struggled with this mystery, in the various Creeds. The earliest of the creeds, the so-called Apostles Creed starts out, “I believe in God almighty And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” whereas the Nicene Creed of AD 325 says, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, ……For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Another well-known ‘creed’ of about 5th/6th centuries, the Athanasian Creed, goes to great lengths to spell out the relationships and origins of the Trinity but is utterly silent on the ‘virgin birth’.

Others in more recent centuries have also obviously struggled with this, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares quite fully but with a noticeable absence, “The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by he power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.”

Practical Exposition: Now Matthew’s Gospel is very specific and he approaches it with several clear refuting arguments that whereas the meaning if ‘virgin’ in the Isaiah prophecy could simply mean a young, unmarried girl, that was not what happened in history.

Overall picture: Then Matthew explains circumstances that deny that: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18) He maintains i) she is only pledged to Joseph, ii) the couple have not come together sexually, and iii) her conception is purely a work of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph’s response: “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) Joseph, is a righteous young man, and i) is sure that the child is not his, and ii) Mary is obviously sticking to her story of the angel Gabriel and iii) there are no other young men who could be candidates for fatherhood here

Joseph’s dream: “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.” (v.20) This dream is so strong and clear that he is utterly convinced and so, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (v.24,25)

This complete turnabout by Joseph cannot be explained by any other way: i) There is no reason for him to change his mind, his righteous approach to life has been affronted, ii) If he had changed his mind there would have been no reason for him to make up some super-spiritual story, he could simply say, ‘I will graciously forgive here and be the father of her child.’ iii) Such a false story would thus be untrue and would ever be on his conscience and we know he is a righteous young man who would not condone such an approach.

It is because Matthew has found out this information that he attaches the Isaiah prophecy to the account as if to say, “Isaiah, speaking into the future meant that the Coming One would be born of a true virgin without any male involvement.”

Why? Here is a mystery which has brought denial from skeptics and questions from church scholars through the ages. Why should it have been like this? The argument about sinlessness is slightly questionable because although Joseph’s sinfulness is excluded, Mary’s isn’t! Unless you can say – and we can’t – that Mary was sinless from birth and therefore a unique human being, we still have human genes at least from one sinful parent. So why a virgin birth?

The answer is so enormous that it passes most of us by. We have seen in the Isa 9 prophecy those incredible words that this being is going to be God incarnate, and in the earlier prophecies this is Immanuel, God with us. If God wasn’t in and part of this baby when it was born, why

  • did Mary tell of her encounter with the angel Gabriel, including the fact that when she maintained she was a virgin, he declared, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35)
  • did the Wise Men want to worship him? (Mt 2;2)
  • should Elizabeth under the anointing of the Holy Spirit speak of the baby Mary was carrying and refer to Mary as, “the mother of my Lord”? (Lk 1:43) She, by revelation, knew who he was!

No, the testimony of both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are in complete harmony. If it didn’t happen at conception when did God take up residence in this male boy in such a way that was unique so there was clearly a oneness that has never been seen to occur in any other human being. In the apostolic writings of the New Testament, there is never any dichotomy of description, there is never any dividing out the physical from the spiritual when the apostles refer to Christ and there is never any record of the making of a new man-God being. Don’t confuse the coming down of the Spirit on Jesus at baptism, because it is clear before that that Jesus knew exactly who he was, the unique Son of God. But why not involve Joseph? Because that was how God wanted to create this new being in which He Himself would reside from the moment of conception, and thus the conception was a miracle that involve both divine and human elements.

To reflect upon: When scripture is not clear at first sight do we find ourselves thinking negative thoughts or do we have a determination to see how it works as it says?

2. Genesis (2)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights:   2.  Genesis (2)

Gen 50:20  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

In the first meditation of this new series I said I hoped to take one or two verses from each book of the Bible, sometimes perhaps two sets of verses, depending on the book.  Well here above we have a second verse from Genesis that stands out like the light from a lighthouse. As with all such verses we need to understand the context, the story from which it flows, to understand the significance of it, and once we see that then we can chew on the truths there.

These are the words spoken by the Joseph of the Old Testament (there is, of course, a Joseph in the New Testament – Jesus’ human father). Joseph had been the spoilt brat, youngest-but-one son of a big family and so, as a result, his brothers had despised him. Then he had started getting prophetic pictures which seemed to suggest that the rest of the family would end up bowing down to him. That really annoyed them and so when, a little while later, the opportunity arose, the brothers sold him off to passing slave traders without, of course, telling his father what they had done.

To cut a long story short, after about fourteen years, we find Joseph in a prison in Egypt, where God is still giving him prophetic pictures for some of the other inmates. One of them is released and when the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, starts having strange dreams, this man eventually suggests seeing if Joseph can help. When Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and hears the dreams, he explains that God will be bringing seven years of plenty in the land but that will be followed by seven years of famine, and the obvious thing to do, therefore, is put food aside during those first seven years to see them through the years of famine. Pharaoh is so impressed by Joseph that he makes him second-in-command in his nation and gives him the job of bringing it about.

When the seven years of famine strike, they seem to affect all the lands of what we might call the Middle East, including Canaan, where his family still live. The word gets out that Egypt has food and so eventually Joseph’s father, old man Jacob (or Israel), sends the brothers to buy food in Egypt. Again, to cut a long story short, the family eventually settle in Egypt under Joseph’s protection but years later when the old man dies, the brothers fear that Joseph will now wreak vengeance on them for what they had done all those years before. This is the context for the words above.

This insight of Joseph’s is amazing. First of all it shows revelation. The spoilt brat has grown into a man of wisdom and insight, and that insight means understanding the purposes of God. Put most simply, it was that God intervenes in the affairs of mankind and speaks to us when we need it, and He has a plan.  There it is again, what we saw in the first meditation. He has a plan!  Second, this shows that the Lord has managed to work grace, mercy and forgiveness into Joseph for he has no desire to harm his brothers. To the contrary, he wants them to understand that this was the working of God.

Now those two things were in respect of Joseph but there are two breathtaking things about God here. First, as we’ve already noted, God has a plan and it is a plan to save His chosen family, but when we trek on four hundred years we see that this plan involves setting the scene for what will become one of the two biggest events in the history of Israel, the Exodus. (the other is the Exile). That is going to be monumental and God had already spoken of it to Abram (Gen 15:13,14).

Now if that isn’t big enough, the second thing is even greater. The clear implication of these words of Joseph now, is that God took the wrong motives and wrong actions of the brothers and used them for His own purposes which was to get Joseph, as His mouthpiece, to Egypt so he could save Egypt and consequently his own family. This is God who uses sinful men for His own purposes. We see it in the Old Testament in the way, centuries later, He would take and use Nebuchadnezzar to discipline Israel and destroy Jerusalem and bring about the Exile. We see it in the New Testament in what happened to Jesus. The apostle Peter explains it under the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost: 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.” (Acts 2:23) This doesn’t say that God made the Jews act like they did to crucify Jesus, but He knew given a certain set of circumstances, that is how sinful men would react.

Now if I try and apply these two things to my life today, it becomes mind-blowing. Not only does God have a plan for my life, but He will take and use the things of this Fallen World for my ultimate blessing. Those ‘things’ may include my own foolishness, they may include Satan’s activities and they may include the sinful intention and words and deeds of others. Yes, the incredible truth is that God will use all these things for my good. The apostle Paul caught this when he wrote, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) Some modern versions change that to take the emphasis off God: we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (EST) or “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose,” (NKJV) but the implication is the same, God is bringing good into our lives, using WHATEVER is happening and whoever is involved. That brings an immense sense of reassurance to my life, a new confidence in which to live out today. World, you can do what you will, but my God is working in your mess for my good!

That, ultimately was what Joseph got to. Yes, he had been sold into slavery (Gen 37:26-28) where he was sold on in Egypt (Gen 37:36), where he was falsely accused and imprisoned (Gen 39:14-20), yet wherever he was the Lord gave him favour with his captors (Gen 39:2-6, 20-23). In the midst of his trials God blessed him. Can we expect that today? Surely with Jesus seated at his Father’s right hand, ruling in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1,2), and with his Holy Spirit within us, the answer must be, yes! Still the Lord has a plan, still He uses the affairs of this broken world to bring His blessing to His children. Hallelujah!

13. God of Encouragement (1)

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 13. God of Encouragement (1)

Lk 2:8,9  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them

There are two prayers that I know God has answered for me, time and time again. They are, “Lord, please grant me wisdom to know what to do here,” and “Lord, I need your encouragement, please give it.”  And He does.  Sometimes people say, “How can you know that God is for you when sometimes He seems so distant?” My reply? “Yes, there are such times but there are these many other times when I pray like this and He answers very quickly, sometimes straight away and sometimes  within the day.

Mary and Joseph, in this stable out back of the inn would, I suggest, need a fair bit of encouragement. Previously we considered the many uncertainties of their situation, past, present and future, so a little bit of encouragement would go a long way to help here. Now God could have given the innkeeper or his wife a dream and, as clear as it might have been, like “Go and tell that couple in the stable I love them and am with them,” they might not have responded. But I have a bigger reason why God didn’t do that. It is because God is a big God, sometimes a flamboyant God, a God who really pushes the boat of celebration out; you’ve only got to read various passages in the Old Testament to see that, or even the times in Acts when He pours His Holy Spirit out on the Day of Pentecost and in Cornelius’s house. There are mega-blessing times of celebration.

So, no, just a dream isn’t going to do it here. This is a time that is worthy of something far more spectacular. Now if it had been China perhaps He might have used fireworks but I don’t believe Israel had them – I may be wrong, but anyway God has got something far better lined up, and He brings it in stages so He won’t blow away the recipients.  So, who does He come to?

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (v.8) I love this! I love the whole Christmas story but this bit I always think is brilliant! Shepherds, because of their lifestyle, living out on the hillsides with their sheep, guarding them and protecting them and leading them to fresh pasture, were outcasts. They didn’t turn up for Synagogue time every Saturday and their personal hygiene probably lacked something (no hot showers on the hillside). So, yes, they tend to miss out on the life of the community, but God doesn’t miss out on anyone so, yes, in the middle of the night when the baby is born, who else is awake who I can tell? Ah, some of my shepherds on duty warning off the predators of the dark.

So, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Yes, well, there are going to be some downsides. An angel carrying the glory of the Lord is going to be pretty spectacular, so live with it, what’s a little fear, OK a lot of fear, between friends?

Now there is too much here to cover in one short meditation so we’ll continue this in the next one but, hey, here’s the point, here’s the question I want to ask as we try to penetrate the reality of these things. This angel, and the others who follow, comes to bring good news from God.  What sort of God do you and I believe in? Your answer will almost certainly be reflected in the sort of life you live and the sort of church you are part of. If it is a God of rules (er, wasn’t the Law the Old Testament?) you probably live a somber life and go to somber church services that are all about ‘serious’ theology.

Everything I find about Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels is all about celebration. The coming of the kingdom meant, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor,” (Mt 11:5) and Jesus also said, “he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19) Serious? I don’t think so! Celebration? Most definitely! Perhaps we are serious because we don’t have a Jesus who does these things today. Please pray what you dare now.

2. Once upon a time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Faith and the Past

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 16.  Faith and the Past

Heb 11:21   By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Although this may also be true of Isaac blessing his boys I believe it is much so applicable to Jacob’s situation later in life – that facing death he is faced with the fruit of his life and he still has something to do about it. It is the fact that he is dying that perhaps provokes this action although there may be other factors. Let’s look at the story.

As he is aware that he is reaching the end of his life, Jacob calls his son Joseph to him. You may remember they are living in Egypt and Joseph is the nation’s second leader next to Pharaoh, but old man Jacob (renamed Israel) is still the patriarch of the family. And yet Joseph is the one with the power so Jacob sends for him and gets him to promise that when he dies Joseph will take his bones back to Canaan and not allow him to be buried in Egypt (see Gen 47:29-31).

A little while later Joseph is informed that his father is ill (Gen 48:1a) and so he takes “his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him,” (v.1b) presumably to say goodbye to the old man before he dies. There appears nothing significant about the two boys going along with him and what follows is promoted by Jacob. Jacob was nearly blind (48:10) but he could just see two figures with Joseph and when he is told they are his two grandsons he says, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.” (v.9) He had obviously learnt from his father Isaac something of the significance of a blessing, to be given to the oldest son, but more than that, even as in his own case he had learned that a blessing was to be a prophetic declaration of God’s will, not his.

Thus when Joseph brings the two boys to him and places his hands on their heads the right hand, (the hand of authority) on the older boy expecting him to get the greater blessing, Jacob switches hands and then, intriguingly blessed Joseph as their father but says, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm –may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth” (v.15,16) i.e. may God bless these boys and make them famous and may they increase in number on the earth. Now this switching hands annoyed Joseph but Jacob insists, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.” He blessed them that day and said, “In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing: `May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’ ” So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.” (v.19,20)  The lesson is clear: when you impart a blessing you impart God’s will, not what others think it should be, and the blessing is a truly prophetic word.

Note the time elements in all this. Jacob is old and about to die. Joseph had had two sons, first Manasseh and then Ephraim. The traditional expectation would be that the older son would inherit the family name and business and be better known, and so on. In other words, so often we let the affairs of the past govern what we think about the present. Very often we allow ourselves to be governed by our past but God knows what He wants and what will be and it is NOT determined by the past. You may have had negative things spoken over you in the past and you may be living in the light of those negatives.  When you were born again you entered a new time dimension, a heavenly one, an eternal one and the same rules no longer apply – only God’s will.

Your negatives can be thought of as a curse, things that decree bad for you. The apostle Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” (Gal 3:13,14) Summarize that and you have, Jesus was cursed to take all our curses so that  now we can be inheritors of all the blessings God has for all people of faith.  Jesus has taken all your negatives; you do not have to be bound by them. More than that Jesus has opened the door to heaven for you so that all the blessings of God for His children may flow to you. It doesn’t matter what order in the family you were – you are a child of God. It doesn’t matter if your parents gave up on you, your heavenly Father will never give up on you. It doesn’t mater if you have felt lonely through life (for whatever reason), you have a big brother in Jesus who is totally for you. It doesn’t matter if you have felt utterly weak in your life, you are a container for the Holy Spirit, the very power of God.

Ephraim became probably the most powerful of the northern tribes and indeed the northern kingdom was sometimes referred to as Ephraim. Your future is not to be subservient to the expectations of others, the lies of Satan or whoever else, or even the events of the past or even traditional expectations;  you are a child of God, precious to Him and He has a great future for you. Accept it today, declare it and praise and thank Him for it. Go for it!

14. Are you too righteous

Meditations on “God of Transformation: 14:  Are you too righteous?

Matt 1:18,19   Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 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.

I recently commented, in the series on the Nativity, that God takes risks with us human beings. The fact that He has given us free will means that we do not have to comply with His wishes – and that is a scary thing. It is scary because, first of all, from a practical point of view, we may not be good at hearing God’s voice and thus miss the things He has for us. But it is also scary that we can misunderstand the voice of God and reject it, thinking it is the voice of the enemy for He seems to be saying something that runs counter to our understanding of His general will. The problem is that at any point in life we only have partial understanding and so we settle in to a particular way of thinking and that shapes or moulds everything that is before us, and so we can almost accidentally reject God’s will through misunderstanding – understanding that is not complete.

Joseph is an example of this, of what might been a wrong course of action through misunderstanding. He knows that he is not the father of Mary’s child and that leaves only one logical conclusion – she has been unfaithful to him and there is another man who is obviously the father of the baby she is carrying. But he’s a righteous man and so he doesn’t want to do anything unkind or spiteful and so he decides the only course to take is to divorce her (break off the engagement) quietly. If that had happened Jesus would not have had a physical father to be there to provide protection and security from the human standpoint at least. He is about to do what is reasonable at least and it is only a dream with an angel in it that persuades him otherwise. Thank goodness he took note of the dream. God trusted him to respond positively to the dream. What a risk!

But as I look around the Christian world, I realise that you often see these situations where people are set in a particular way of thinking, which they consider right; they consider they are righteous. They are good, solid, faithful Christians – but set in a particular way of thinking. Now I am about to shoot myself in the foot by doing what I am about to complain about – people who complain and critically write off other Christians. I don’t want to do that because I want to emphasise that so often this is the Achilles heel of good Christians, good righteous Christians.

I was given a book for my birthday by a friend who is obviously worried about keeping me on the straight and narrow, a book about how the church has gone off the rails in respect of truth. Now I am sure, as I hear things (mostly from America I have to say) from various corners of the Christian world that there are some weird and wonderful things being said or done in some quarters that are being attributed to the Holy Spirit, but which I suspect may be blown away within three years. I may be wrong and I want to recognise that the people concerned are good hearted and well-intentioned, just like Joseph and only time will tell whether what is happening is of God. But the book slates and denigrates these people and I have come across more than one or two such books in the past that seek to pull down other Christian groups. The writer may be right, but I always remember Dr. Francis Schaeffer warning about how we should disagree with one another – in genuine love.  So there is the writer AND the people he writes about, all good Christian people, all believing their outlook is right – but opposite. Someone isn’t right.

We can all have our personal perspective which may or may not be right. For instance I was talking with some old friends recently who go to a growing church and their complaint was that it was becoming completely impersonal and that was sad. We talked about the difficulty of maintaining meaningful relationships in such churches and indeed what the point of the church is. This is a really fertile ground for conflicting opinions. I come from a perspective that says church is not spectator sport, it is where Jesus wants to involve every person in body ministry.

I confess I occasionally watch Christian TV or ‘God channels’ and cringe at the sight of massive auditoriums where people sit as spectators with their personal issues only being dealt with at the preaching level and rarely by persona interaction. Are all these nicely dressed people laughing at the preacher’s jokes actively interacting with their local community and ministering the love of God to individuals with good works and spiritual gifts? Whether we like it or not we make our TV preachers ‘stars’ and we elevate them beyond what is healthy. All preaching is, in a measure, a performance, but I struggle with big performers on the platform. I look back, with immense thankfulness to a heritage of preachers who exuded humility as well as incredibly insightful and anointed preaching. I struggle with preachers who have a salary as big as that of the CEO of a large company. I struggle with preachers who have to have body guards and managers. This seems a far cry from the Christianity that Jesus’ modelled.

But here is the danger in being critical of these things because God uses them all! We can seek to be righteous in all we say or do – and yet still misunderstand the will of God and be wrong, and we’ll probably only find that out when we get to heaven! Joseph found it out through a dream and I would hope that we are each sufficiently open to the Lord to be able to comprehend His will through such a tenuous communication.

The simple lesson here? Check out how you feel about other Christians and other churches and, yes, check out not only WHAT you think about them, but how you feel about that. I will write books about theological understanding but not about how different people think differently from me, for if I do I will be in danger of using my righteousness as a cloak to cover a judgmental heart.  The simple lesson is to hold our ‘opinions’ lightly and be open to the Lord for Him to bring us greater understanding, while at the same time seeking to be careful to find the truth but doing it without a judgmental spirit. A difficult area! Is my righteousness fixed, unbending, legalistic and/or judgmental? As I said, a difficult area.