6. Threads

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

6. Threads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. God knows how to choose people

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

5. God knows how to choose people

Lk 1:5,11   In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah…. an angel of the Lord appeared to him

Lk 1:26-27  In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, 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.

Fresh Perspective: So often when we think about the Christmas story we focus on people and events, but perhaps a more profitable perspective might be to wonder what was happening in God’s mind. Now that sounds seriously pompous, affected or pretentious, possibly even arrogant, but I want to suggest that by looking at some of the people involved, we may make some reasonable assumptions about the Lord. The greatest sense I have, pondering afresh on the Christmas story and the people we have already mentioned, is that God knows how to choose people. I mean, can you imagine the crazy scenario of the angel Gabriel going from one priest to another before he felt satisfied that Zechariah was the one for the job. Or even worse, turning up in one bedroom after another before he found a girl who would say yes. And as for Joseph – well, it was more about Mary really because he was her fiancé so perhaps in this silly imaginary scenario imagine him going from house to house looking for a girl, not yet married but who has a fiancé in tow who would eventually agree to the job? No, I don’t think it was like that at all. God looked, God saw, and God knew.

What did God know? Well the good things first, the obvious things. Zechariah was described as righteous, a follower of the Law blamelessly (Lk 1:6). All we are told about Mary is that she found favour with the Lord (Lk 1:30). Joseph, we are told was “faithful to the Law” (Mt 1:19) but also that he was clearly compassionate and caring not wanting to expose her to public disgrace. Each of these three are clearly righteous, godly people. When it comes to their futures, Zechariah, I would suggest, has really given up hope of ever being a father and is just living out his days serving in his division of the priesthood without much hope. Mary and Joseph are looking to a future together, as we said in the previous study, looking forward to setting up home together and having a family. A positive expectation, a future full of hope.

But God knows everything. Yes, God knows the past, the present and what will be the future. He also knows how we will respond to each situation so, I would suggest, He is not at all surprised when Zechariah splutters over the thought of becoming a father in his old age. He is not at all surprised when Joseph determines to quietly divorce Mary, i.e. break off their relationship, for that is what a righteous man apparently faced with unfaithfulness would do. He also knows that giving Zechariah a nudge of dumbness would make him a believer and giving Joseph a dream would be all that was necessary to bring him round to take on the responsibility of being a husband and a father to a child that was not his.   And Mary? He knew she would simply acquiesce to His plans for her. Why was Mary an easy-believer, Joseph a bit of a struggler and Zechariah a serious struggler? I want to say that they each have reasons to struggle (Joseph’s righteousness, Zechariah’s childless old age) but the simple truth is that it is a mystery why one person is full of faith and another is a struggler.

Knowing the end result: Now here is the exciting thing, I believe: God knows what He can achieve with each of is, even if He needs to nudge us forward once or twice. Now this is actually monumental when you think about it. You and I look at one another as we are now, and we assess one another on what we are now, and sometimes write one another off on what we see now – and that’s where we differ from God. God knows our capabilities. God knows that Zechariah will struggle to begin with but with nine months of dumbness he will come to a place where he declares his new son’s name in line with God’s will and will then be filled with the Spirit and prophesy. God knows that Joseph will struggle in his righteousness in the face of what the circumstances seem to be telling him, but with just one dream will come around and will join the place of possible shame and being the butt of gossip when Mary has a baby within an unacceptably short period after their wedding – indeed she might have been showing signs of it at the wedding – even more gossip! Mary is just simply a devout child of God who doesn’t need any nudging to accept the will of God for her life, even if it does mean loss of reputation and lots of misunderstanding.

Others? But go back into the Old Testament, as I did in a previous series entitled, ‘Reaching into Redemption’ and see some of the strugglers back there. Abraham, man of faith, friend of God, struggled in the face of threats to his life (Gen 12:12-), and struggled when his wife failed to conceive and gave way to her suggestions (Gen 16:2-) – and that had serious long-term consequences! Yes, he was a man of faith but it was often a struggle. Then there the schemer and twister, Jacob, and all the comings and goings of his life before he ends up being a faithful patriarch who understood the ways of God and prophesied the word of God over his sons. He was followed by Joseph, the spoilt brat who ends up a wise ruler who, again, understands the ways of God (see Gen 50:20). It gets better (or worse depending on how you look at it): Moses, a Hebrew Prince of Egypt who totally blew it and ended up on his own looking after sheep in the desert for forty years before God came and had a long argument with him (Ex 3 & 4) to get him to accept his destiny. All great men – eventually!

Us? Don’t you find this encouraging?  Here we are, chosen of God (Eph 1:11) but so often feeling we are spiritual nightmares, tripping over our spiritual feet! You know one of the even bigger and more amazing things about this is that God chooses us, and calls some of us into leadership, even while He knows we are going to make a mess of it. I wonder how many leaders could say with an honest heart they haven’t got it wrong some way along the path, and as for those who have clearly blown it…..   the Lord knew and continues to work to redeem each of us and, as we said at the end of the previous study, the long-term outcome may be more determined by our availability or otherwise, although these stories challenge that belief. If it is our availability it will only be because the Lord presses us forward. I am always challenged by the words the apostle Paul uses, “the faith God has distributed to each of you,” (Rom 12:3) and “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” (Rom 12:6) We do have a part to play without doubt, but the Lord’s impartation of faith and gifting is of major importance and He will be there, knowing exactly what we are like, but encouraging us on.

The supreme example: We’ve been looking at how the Lord ‘encouraged’ on Zechariah and Joseph (not needing to do it with Mary) and pondering how He does it with us, but possibly the best example in the New Testament has to be the apostle Peter. When Jesus renamed him (Jn 1:42) he knew Peter was destined to be changed from ‘a small pebble’ to a ‘big rock’ but it wasn’t going to be without its downsides. The fact that he three times denied Jesus (e.g. Mt 26:69-75) – with Jesus’ prior knowledge (Mt 26:34) – did not disqualify him from the role Jesus had for him, leading his church (see Jn 21:15-19). God knew all about Zechariah before Gabriel left heaven, He knew all about Joseph and He knew all about Peter and He knows all about you and me. Thank goodness, thank God!

4. A Risky Conversation

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

4. A Risky Conversation

Lk 1:26-28  26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’

Really?   Possibly there is no passage among the ‘Christmas stories’ that is as romanticised as this particular one, of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. Let me put before you an imaginary modern scenario. Let’s suppose you are a teenage girl who has fallen for a royal prince or, if you are American, for a son of the President. Preparations are being made for your wedding day. Every ounce of your life is being dissected by the media, but the good news is that you come from a good family, have never had a meaningful boyfriend, have never gone the way of so many of your peers and so have never slept around. You are a good person and a Christian and you regularly attend the most respectable church in town. You are being groomed for public life with this man of your dreams. He thinks you are wonderful, as do his family, and your family likewise are elated at the coming nuptials. And then one night, on your own – and you are sure you are awake – a glowing figure appears as if out of the air and tells you he is an angel of God – and yes, you are sure you are awake – and he tells you that you have been chosen by God to act as an example to the people of your country, of humility and piety, another Mother Teressa. Yes, you can continue to get married but you will forsake riches, affluence and the lifestyle of a princess / lady of the first family, and you will devote your life to caring for the poor. How do you respond?

Mary: I’m afraid I cannot think of a parallel drama to the one facing Mary and the above is the nearest I can get. You, in the above scenario, are being told to enter into a life that is totally contrary to everything you expect and is expected of you. Mary is being told she will enter into a life totally contrary to everything she expects and is expected of her. Mary is a good Jewish girl. She is engaged to be married to a good Jewish boy. It is quite likely it is a marriage that has been agreed between their parents. They will go through all the traditional celebrations that young Jewish people getting married go through. Afterwards they will set up home together, have children and no doubt be pillars of the community. They both live in Nazareth which, although it has now become a city of over seventy-six thousand today was, back then, a mere village of between two and four hundred people. Everyone knows everyone else. In fact, there may only be about twenty (if that) family groupings that have lived there for generations, and everyone knows their place and everyone is respectable. There is no room for disreputable, and disreputable means those who do not keep to the beloved Law of Moses which their rabbi faithfully teaches them. One man, one woman and “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) That is how it is in this traditional community and this is how it must stay. The conversation that follows is, it would appear, from God’s point of view, a risky one. This girl could have screamed and rushed out of the room – but she didn’t.

Joseph & the others: But, we said, Mary is engaged to Joseph and Joseph is a good upright boy, a growing pillar of the community, a carpenter following in his father’s footsteps. He is there in the synagogue every week and he understands the Law. Yes, it may appear harsh at times but that is only to preserve the sanctity of marriage within the community and thus bring stability to the community. Infidelity is frowned upon – severely! If Mary heeds and goes along with what this angel is saying – “You will conceive and give birth to a son,” (v.31) and “‘The Holy Spirit will come on 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.” (v35) – she is going to be in serious trouble with her fiancé and with her community. What the angel is saying is humanly impossible and so there is no way that she can expect anyone to believe her. If she goes along with this, she is on her own! Do you remember me saying previously that the Christmas story is often uncomfortable, if not harsh and difficult? I started by saying I believe we romanticise this story because I don’t think I have ever heard a preacher spelling out just how difficult it must have been for Mary.

This Incredible Girl: I suggested at the end of the first introductory study that it is only when we see the impossibilities confronting these people and the harshness and difficulties that they went through, will we truly see the wonder of these events and, I might add, of the people concerned. Nowhere is this truer than in the account of Mary with the angel Gabriel. I have sought, very inadequately I feel, to convey something of the difficulties facing Mary and if we can really take this in, then, and perhaps only then, will we really appreciate the sort of young woman that she is. She is young and she is about to become alone, very alone and she is going to enter into an experience that is common to most women, and yet without the love of a man who took her into that experience. She doesn’t know how what the angel says can be: “How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?” (v.34) and the fact that he explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you,” (v.35) really doesn’t help a lot. Yes, he does seek to bring encouragement by explaining that, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month,” (v.36) but that is probably not going to provide a ‘how’ explanation that most of us would want. Yet we find at the end of this episode before the angel leaves, “I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.” (v.38)

An Incredible Woman: It all happens and miraculously, without the help of Joseph or any other man, she conceives and brings into being the baby Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. Twelve years later, as Jesus comes of age (in Jewish terms) he stays behind in Jerusalem and after he has been found by his concerned parents we read, But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51) She thinks back perhaps to the birth narratives and all she was told by Gabriel and now as Jesus speaks of his father (not Joseph) she wonders. Another eighteen years on she is at a wedding where the wine has run out and she tries to prod Jesus into action to help – she has high expectation of him – but when he holds back, she knows otherwise and simply tells the servants, Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5). Three years later she is at the foot of the Cross watching her son die (Jn 18:25-27) and perhaps she remembered all those thirty-three years ago, the words of the aged Simeon in the Temple, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk 2:35) And so it was. Her walk through life was truly a lonely and often times painful walk – but she was available to God for Him to work out His purposes through her.

Availability: No, there was nothing comfortable or great and glorious about any of this – from a human perspective at least. I mentioned previously I had earlier in this month started writing ‘Micro Advent Thoughts’. This was the one about Mary: Advent Micro Thought no.2. Why would God choose a teenage girl, a good girl, a godly girl, a righteous girl, to carry His Son, without a visible father, so that people would gossip about a girl who no longer looked so good, no longer looked so godly, so righteous? Because God doesn’t worry about gossips, God looks for those who are good and godly and righteous – and available – through which to perform His purposes, even though others will misunderstand, because the uncomprehending gossips will fall away but the will of God will remain for ever, transforming the world. Availability.”

A friend from the States added, “Availability” has been a recurring word this year for me. It’s good to hear it again. Settling into a new area this past year, one of the things we’ve worked at is making ourselves available to serve. I believe that’s where opportunity begins with God. After availability, then comes empowerment and equipping for service.” Wise words which fit perfectly here: “after availability then comes empowerment and equipping for service.” Heed that wisdom.

11. And that’s it?

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 11. And that’s it?

Addendum: Luke 2:22-38

Luke 2:32  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Context: Well, yes, we did come to the end of the readings yesterday but they left in me a feeling of incompleteness. I realise that those who constructed this ‘service’ had to limit the number of readings and draw a line somewhere and although I always think of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John as part of it, I realise adding in their story might seem a distraction from the main story. However, when it comes to Simeon and Anna, they definitely add to the main story and of course chronologically they come before the wise men. If I was adding a header to this extra ‘reading’ it would be “The story goes on” and with tongue in cheek I might add,  “and that’s just the beginning”.

Reading: The Law required a period of 40 days of ‘purification’ for the woman before she was to take a thank offering to the Temple, so a little over a month passes and they go up to Jerusalem with him (v.22) to comply with the Law (v.23,24). It is then that we are introduced to Simeon, an elderly, righteous and devout man, a Spirit-led man, who had a sense that the time for the coming of the Messiah was near (v.25,26). Moved by the Spirit he goes to the Temple courts and there encounters the little family (v.27) and takes the child in his arms and prays (v.28-32). In it he describes the baby as God’s salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (v.32)

This leaves Mary and Joseph marvelling (v.33) but that is only the beginning for Simeon now prophesies, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (v.34,35) We are then told about an elderly prophetess, Anna, a long-term widow who virtually lived in the Temple courts fasting and praying (v.36,37) and she joins in, giving thanks and telling everyone what God was doing (v.38)

Lessons: Again we are in the big-picture stuff here for there is no specific teaching, just a series of facts about an historical event, but as we look at these verses, as with all Scripture, we must ask ourselves, are there lessons for us, what does God want to say to us through these things.

Ongoing Story: Well, the first and somewhat obvious thing is that this says the usual things picked up in the Nativity story are not all that there is; there is an ongoing story to be followed up. How many children or unbelieving parents (and maybe even Christians) go away at the end of a Nativity play in church or in school and think, “That’s it. Now let’s get on with the real celebrations on Christmas Day.” But it’s not, it’s just the beginning and it is failure to follow on the story that leads so many people’s eternal destiny to be a negative one, and their future lives on earth to be dismal and destructive.

It didn’t finish with the Wise Men, it didn’t finish with Simeon and Anna. They don’t know it yet but this little family are about to have to flee to Egypt for a time, before eventually retuning to Nazareth where we hear nothing more for twelve years (Lk 2:41-52), and then another long gap until Jesus is about thirty, and then it all starts happening. The natural question that must follow on is, do you and I pursue our Christian faith as an ongoing ‘story’ or do we settle with the comfortable bit to which we’ve come. There is more.

Listening and Watching: Simeon, a Spirit-led man, and Anna, a prophetess, were among the few who had a sense the Messiah was about to arrive. The rest of the world was taken up with its daily affairs but these two had their eyes on heaven. The wise Christian has their eyes on heaven asking that question that comes only from the lips of those who are available, “What next, Lord?” God never stands still. The plans and purposes of God are ever rolling out in the flow of history and you and I have a part to play in it.

As I have been praying, I sense that the next series of meditations to follow this one are to be called, “Newness, Expectations and Hope” because that’s what we leave this series with. The new has arrived, the Lord’s Messiah, His own Son. In Mary and Joseph there must have been a wondering about what was now to come, an expectation that if all this had occurred, God must be taking it somewhere. There was a hope for the future that God was going to come and do more. In the incident when he was twelve, we read, his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51) Mary watched and listened – and wondered. What is the future going to hold. What did Simeon mean?

In for the Long Haul: There is a future for this baby and Mary and Joseph are his guardians. Unlike many self-focused parents of today in the West, they were in for the long haul and although it is thought that Joseph died before Jesus started ministering, Mary was there the whole time and was even there at the foot of the Cross where, yes, a sword pierced her heart, figuratively speaking at least.

Whether it be as parents or simply as Christians, we are here for the long haul. This isn’t just for a couple of enthusiastic years, this is right on to the end. I love those verses in Psa 92 that refer to the elderly believer: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 92:12-15)

You may flag along the way but, with the grace of God, can you pick yourself up and keep going with head held high and heart beating strongly. The Lord may give you a vision for your life, and for a while it may grow dim, but He will renew it again and stir you on; it’s how it works. The story (of your life as a Christian) does not stop here; there’s much more to come and it needs you and me to determine to be faithful to the end. Yes? May it be so! Amen.

Bonus Story 2: Simeon

Sometimes it is fun to try and think yourself into a Bible story. This one tried to sense what it must have been like for Simeon. It’s a bit more basic that the previous one but hopefully catches something how it is when the Spirit moves.

The old man had been praying. He was very conscious of how good it was to live in Jerusalem and be near the Temple. It was an easy walk in each day to this place where the presence of God was supposed to live. It had started some time back in the local synagogue when the scrolls had been brought out and the Rabbi had read one of those enigmatic prophecies from of old that spoke about a coming one. As the words were read, something in him seemed to say, “You’ll see him!” He gently chided himself for his foolishness, “I’m an old man. We’ve waited all these year and there has been no sign. I can’t have long to go. Why should I be special? Why should I see him? It may be centuries before he comes!” But that inner voice seemed to persist, “No, you will see him when he comes to his house.” It was then he decided to move into Jerusalem, to be near the house of God, the Temple. How long would he have to wait, he wondered.

Day after day he had risen early and made his way in to the Temple and sat in the courts in the shade and watched the pilgrims who came, but no special figure appeared. How would he come? Riding on a donkey or riding in on a charger? Would he arrive with an escort or would he make a lone entrance? The pilgrims came and went, but no special figure appeared. Had he come and I missed him, he mused? That morning he woke from a disturbed sleep. He felt tired. Perhaps, just this once I may stay at home. How many days have I been coming here? What’s been the point? Perhaps I just made it up. What had Joel said? Old men will dream dreams. Perhaps it was just a dream of an old man, perhaps it was wishful thinking. Yet there again came that gentle nagging inner voice, “This is the morning. Today he will come.” Oh, what am I on about? This is silly! There’s nothing special about this day! It’s no great feast day! Surely he would come in great glory on a feast day, a day of celebration in his house? “Today he will come.” The inner voice persisted. Very well, I’ll go.

He made his way up to the Temple courts. He ached a lot this morning. It hadn’t been a good night. He felt highly unspiritual. I’ll just sit in the shade and watch what happens. He had been there an hour or so, just watching the crowds coming in, when he first saw them, a young man and even younger woman, more a girl really, and she with a bundle in her arms that looked like it could be a baby. His eyes drifted past them to others following them in, but strangely he felt his eyes being drawn back to them. Something inside him leapt. He found himself on his feet and moving towards them. Is this young man the one, but with a girl and a baby? No, it’s the baby! Suddenly he knew! It’s the baby! He ran towards them. They looked startled as this old man with a big smile came panting up to them with his hands out. “Please….” The girl looked up and smiled and handed the tiny bundle over.

As he took the child into his arms his heart seemed to explode with joy. He looked upwards with tears pouring down his face. “Almighty Lord, it’s just as you promised! I can come home now! I’ve seen your glory!” The young couple looked on in wonder. He turned to them, “Dear children, may the Lord bless you! This child of yours will be a measuring stick to determine God’s people. He will reveal their hearts.” He turned to the girl. “Your heart will be pieced before his days are ended, but fear not.” Just then an old lady appeared at his elbow praising God for the tiny child. The old man handed it back to the girl and then slid away while others came up and blessed the little family. With his heart beating so much he felt it would burst, the old man made his way outside and sat down. Still with tears running down his face he looked up. Lord, I can come home now.

8. The Bottom of the Barrel

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

Reading 7: Luke 2:8–16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The Impossible is Possible

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 6. The Impossible is Possible

Reading 5: Luke 1:26–35;38

Luke 1:26,27  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.

Context: When we come to this fifth ‘Lesson’ the service sheet heading is seriously under-whelming: “The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary” for it is perhaps a record of what must be one of the most amazing conversations recorded in history. But before we rush into it, we must pause and realise where we are in this series of nine readings. The first four brought us to the Old Testament records that we have reiterated again and again, but now we turn to the New Testament to the brief records of the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the Son of God. The account links with what has just happened to Elizabeth who now, although in old age beyond child-bearing age and capability, is in fact expecting a baby who, they are told, will be called John (v.26a). It is the sixth month if her confinement.

Reading: An angel, designated by the name Gabriel, is sent by God with a purpose, to convey His plans for this young virgin named Mary, and she is betrothed to a man named Joseph (v.26,27). The angel greets her (v.28) and Mary wonders who she is to be so greeted (v.29).  The angel reassures her and tells her she will conceive and have a son who she is to name Jesus (v.30,31). This son 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 Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.32,33)

To this amazing revelation, Mary’s only concern is how she can conceive because she and Joseph have not come together and (implied) will not come together for some time, until they are formally married. (v.34). A righteous couple! The angel informs her that the Holy Spirit will enable this to happen and so her child will be called “the Son of God” (v.35). Mary’s response is the classic example in the whole of history of availability and openness to God: “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)

Lessons: To look for lessons in this reading is difficult because it is a unique record of a conversation between a specific girl and an angel in a situation never to be repeated. Such lessons as there may be, must focus on our credibility, our willingness to believe the text of a passage that is rarely found on a greeting card at Christmas these days. (In one major store recently, we perused the shelf of Christmas cards and only five out of the whole display gave any reference to the Biblical record!)

To believe or not to believe: This may sound a needless comment, but the fact of the matter is that today in the West, although at Christmas people may tolerate these verses being read in the midst of nice music, the reality is that the majority of our population do not believe the passage we have just recounted. Angels? Maybe, because ‘spiritual’ people go for anything. Virgin birth? Come on! But that is what the record clearly says. If you want to cut this bit out of the records in the Gospels, where do you stop? The who of the accounts in Matthew and Luke, concerning Advent, are full of the divinely supernatural. God is. Angels are. A pregnant virgin is. Shepherds are. Wise men are.

All or nothing and if you dare say, “A load of myths” you have to say the same about the rest of the Gospels, and there you come unstuck because there are clear outside-the-Bible historical records. Remember Luke’s starting words: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:1-4) Surely he interviewed the now middle-aged Mary and found her account utterly convincing. The lesson is a challenge to investigate and to believe.

A God who Intervenes: An alternative title here might be, ‘A God who initiates’ for while mankind is ‘sleeping’ God is at work to bring His Son to earth. Few had any idea of what was going on. Maybe some Magi in the east, maybe the occasional Spirit-led believer (Simeon), but mostly life just carried on as normal, and then angels start turning up with messages from on high. To be precise, one angel, Gabriel, who comes to both Zechariah (Lk 1:19) and now Mary. The timing is precise. One writer has suggested that by the time Jesus started his ministry, thirty years later, and then died and rose again, across the Roman Empire there were at least six factors that made this the very best time for the Gospel to be spread and taken across the world. (Perhaps the next big time would be the nineteenth century when the great missionary movements got under way).

The lesson here surely has to be, never think that the world is set, your life is set, and will not change. The fact is that God does wait for appropriate times when many factors fall in line (e.g. when the movement to abolish slavery mounted up) and that includes our individual lives as much as it does big national movements. One day, we are ‘sleeping’ (a time of inactivity and low expectation)  and then suddenly God moves. Be alert for the moves of God which so often come with no apparent warning.

No impossibilities: Perhaps, again to avoid distractions and focus only on the main issue, this reading purposely leaves out, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (v..36,37) which is a shame because of that amazing declaration, “For nothing is impossible with God.” Here is Mary, a virgin and yet God is going to enable her to conceive and have a son.  When you look, there are a number of women in the Bible who were enabled by God to conceive – admittedly no other virgin, but it is something that happens more than a few times. But the bigger picture is the challenge to say, along with Jesus, “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). When our hearts are yearning in one direction, it just may be that it is the will of God you are sensing. What it now needs are others, full of faith and the Spirit, to come alongside you and pray it into being.

Available for the New: God was coming to do something completely new – His Son was coming to the earth. He shared it with Mary whose response is, “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” The simple question has to be, are you and I open to the Lord, even when we do not fully understand what He is saying? His heart has been caught by something in the Church or in the world; He knew it was coming, but it’s just that now is the time for it, so He shares it into your heart. You hear it and question it. But it prevails. Will we be His instruments in His hands to bring it into being?

This reading may have no direct instructions for us, but it certainly does raise some important challenges. Will we respond to them this Christmas?

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.”