13. Ongoing

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 13: Ongoing

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

(Additional Reading: Mt 2:13-15, 19-23)

And Now? When one form of guidance (dreams here) is made so clear, it presupposes that it isn’t coming from any other source. The point I would make here is that, as we might say today, Mary and Joseph are flying blind. Yes, they have both had angelic guidance over nine months ago, possibly as much as a year ago now, they had received the encouragement from the shepherds and their tale, they had received encouragement in the Temple from Simeon and Anna, and they had received encouragement and resources from the Magi, and now all that is in the past. Now they appear to be living somewhere in Bethlehem and Joseph is possibly earning money as a jobbing carpenter and Mary is settling into the social life of Bethlehem and they no doubt attend the local synagogue. Life just goes on. Perhaps they are wondering if they should return to Nazareth, but beyond that, life just goes on day after day.

What???? And then Joseph has another dream. They are in danger. The arrival of the Magi had alerted Herod that he had competition and as the weeks and months pass and the Magi don’t report back to him, he gets angry and is about to send out an edict for all baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem are to be killed (There actually probably weren’t many, it was such a small place). The fact that he says any boy under two indicates that time has passed. It is now time for them to move on. If they stay in Israel Herod may search them out and kill Jesus. They must leave the country. Go south, go to Egypt. That is the message of the dream.

Egypt??? Later, when recording it, Luke will be reminded (Lk 2:15) that in one of those other ‘breadcrumbs’ Hosea had prophesied about the Messiah, “out of Egypt I called my son,” (Hos 11:1) but most had taken that to mean the Exodus, but it will indeed apply to the Messiah. Jeremiah had also prophesied (Jer 31:15) about a time of weeping that would come to this area. They don’t say God made these things happen but in the affairs of men in this fallen world, they would happen. But for Mary and Joseph at this point of time, probably none of this is clear. But he has a dream and that is enough. We’ve commented before that this righteous young man is also a man of faith, just what was needed to protect the baby.

Life has to go on: So they leave and settle in Egypt for a time until Herod dies and Joseph has another dream (Mt 2:19,20) telling him to return to Israel and then another dream (v.22) telling him to settle back in Galilee in Nazareth. The wheel has gone full circle, and the dreams end.  And so here they are back home with a young child and an uncertain future. Yes, they have had lots of guidance, lots of reassurances and it all seems to have worked out, but what lies ahead? The great unknown. They may have ideas but almost certainly nothing as incredible as the times recorded in the rest of the Gospels.

And so: For us, isn’t this just how it is, this life of faith, a life reliant upon the calling and guidance of God? We’ve had the calling, we’ve responded, and then from time to time (when it’s needed) guidance comes from heaven, but until it does, we are left with a life of reassuring faith and trust. Faith comes from hearing the voice of God – whether through His word as we read it, hear it preached or prophesied, or as it comes in prayer or as that still small inner voice – and we respond. Trust is when we hold on in the absence of the voice. That is the life we are called to, a life where we are also called to be ‘faithful’, true to our calling, true to who He has made us to be and is making us to be, true to the inheritance we are yet awaiting in heaven. This is who I am, this is who we are, and we can be grateful to Mary and Joseph for the examples of all this that they have given us, that we have been reflecting upon over this Christmas period. Now we are called to just keep on keeping on, with hearts set on Him, ears open to Him, eyes watchful for His activity, and to take whatever leading He brings us tomorrow. What a life! Hallelujah!

Let’s Pray: “Father, thank you for the wonder of this plan of yours being worked out that we’ve been remembering over these days. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you left heaven and came and lived among us in the ways we have been reading about. Thank you Lord that you do call us, guide us, direct us, provide for us, protect us. Lord, please just continue to draw my heart to follow you ever more closely. Thank you so much. Amen.”

Addendum: Over the Christmas period, at one point, we were challenged to think up one sentence (only)  that sums up Christmas. In the light of that and in the light of this series, here is my offering (and we weren’t told it had to be short!):

“Christmas is the visible outworking of the will of the One God revealed through the Bible, who expresses Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a will that from before the Creation of the world decided that the only way to deal with the Sin of the World that would come with the free-will of mankind, was to send the Son to earth, to reveal the Father’s love and goodness, and then to die in the place of every human who has ever existed, and will ever exist, to take the punishment for their sin to enable them to be reconciled to the Holy God, and thus the arrival of the Son in the form of a baby born to a virgin, supported by a righteous and faithful husband, heralded by angels, shepherds, wise men and prophets, would be the start of the earthly working out of that will in the period we call Advent and the activities that we call the Nativity that together we call Christmas.”

Time to move on.

5. The Mysteries of God (3)

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 5: The Mysteries of God (3)

Isaiah 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

(Additional Reading: Isa 9:1,2, Mic 5:1-4)

Recap:  We are following some of the ‘breadcrumb trails’ in the Old Testament, not because it is just fun to do so, but because each of these ‘breadcrumbs’, these prophetic clues that we find there, are highly significant when it comes to examining the Nativity, and without them just reiterating the Nativity story misses some of the key aspects of it all. The two breadcrumbs we are going to consider in this study are both to do with location. Each of the places have great significance.

Location breadcrumbs – Galilee: Our first of the two we are going to consider here, and seen in our two starter-verses above, comes from Isaiah. Being one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, it is not surprising that his book is littered with these ‘breadcrumbs’. Chapter 9 starts with, “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations.” (9:1) Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the tribal areas in the north of the land, both tribes of which had failed to completely oust the Canaanites in the original taking of the land. Perhaps because of this or perhaps because they were simply first in line to encounter enemies coming from the north, they had suffered through the years; it had been a dark area, so often in conflict.

Isaiah, referring to this darkness, speaking in the prophetic future, speaks of “a great light” coming to light up this darkness. In their history, what light came to that land? Only that of Jesus. It should not be surprising, therefore, to note that both Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, located in the centre of lower Galilee, (Lk 1:26) and it was to there they returned after their stay in Egypt after Jesus was born. It was to Galilee that Jesus returned after being baptized and where he carried out most of his ministry.

It was indeed like a great light coming into the land. Why Galilee, perhaps because it was furthest away from Jerusalem in Judah in the south, with the buffer of Samaria in between so that the interference from the religious authorities from Jerusalem was strictly limited. So Mary and Joseph start out from Galilee and return there in order that Jesus be raised there and so that he may start his ministry there.

Location Breadcrumbs – Bethlehem: The second ‘location breadcrumb’ comes from Micah:  “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”  (Micah 5:2) That had the Jewish scholars scratching their head and yet when the Wise Men, the Magi, turned up it was the verse the scholars of Jerusalem turned to in the Greek Septuagint version, ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler  who will shepherd my people Israel. (Mt 2:6 quoting Mic 5:2 & 4) There it was, a ruler to shepherd Israel, who would come from Bethlehem.

Now what is intriguing about this is that Bethlehem was king David’s home (see 1 Sam 16:1) but David lived long before Micah prophesied so Micah prophetically had another in mind and so, yes, this prophecy was added to the many others that the scholars pondered over in the writings of the scrolls that we now call the Old Testament. And then, of course, we find Jesus being referred to as the Son of David (Mt 9:27, 15:22, 20:30, 21:9) but we’ll have to wait for the next study to see more of that.

And so to prayer: “Lord, thank you for the wonder of your word, thank you that you dropped all these clues, referring to the coming of your Son that had been agreed there in heaven even before You created this world. Thank you that we see your wisdom in the way you set him up in the north to reveal your love to us through his incredible ministry, away from the political and religious pressures of Jerusalem. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you blessed your people in Galilee, revealing yourself and your Father’s love through those three amazing years. Thank you that all of this flows from that amazing episode we call the Nativity that reveals the way you came in humility to bring all this about. Thank you so much. Amen.”

4. The Mysteries of God (2)

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 4: The Mysteries of God (2)

Gen 22:18  through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

(Additional Readings: Gen 12:1-3,22:12-18)

Recap:  We are tracking just a few of what I have referred to as the ‘breadcrumbs’ of the Old Testament that lead us to Advent and the events that follow. These are simply the clues God gives in that half of the book that reveal the plan on His heart for His Son.

Breadcrumb No.2 A Family Line: There is a breadcrumb, as small as it may be, in a prophecy that Noah gave, in the form of a curse and blessings, after the flood, after the incident of him getting drunk, lying naked and being mocked by his youngest son, Ham (who was father of Canaan), but covered and respected by his other two sons, Shem and Japheth. He curses Ham and brings his blessing on the other two, as he refers to, “the Lord, the God of Shem,”  and Shem is clearly to be the lead family. (see Gen 9:18, 25-27). Following Shem’s family tree (see Gen 11:10-27) we eventually come to a son named Abram, later Abraham. The next big breadcrumb (and remember, that clues in a good mystery novel are rarely obvious) comes in a record of a prophecy in Gen 12:1-3 where God promises Abram, “I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 

Reasons for this family line: Abraham is traditionally seen as the father of Israel, the first of the Patriarchs, followed by Isaac and then Jacob who is renamed Israel and whose family grows into a nation we know by that name. Much of the time we take these verses in Gen 12 to refer to the father of faith, who showed that a relationship with God is possible, but I suggest there are three other highly significant reasons for the purpose behind the existence of Israel. First, Israel are to reveal God to the rest of the world. Second, as we look at their history throughout the Old Testament, we see they reveal the sinfulness of mankind, so that even those who purport to have a relationship with God by following the rules (the Law) need something more, need some other form of salvation.

Crucial for Advent: Third, and most significantly I believe for this season of the year, the existence of Israel meant the existence of what I call a ‘God environment’ into which the Son of God would be born. How we take this for granted!  When Jesus arrived, he came to a God-orientated nation, a nation with history with God – lots of it – a nation with a temple and a priesthood and the Law of Moses, and synagogues in which it was taught on a weekly basis. Imagine Jesus stepping into some other country in the world where all that was absent. Imagine the work he would have to do simply to prepare the ground to be understood for who he was. But instead, he steps into an environment that is expecting a Messiah, a people who have been following the breadcrumbs for centuries, trying to work out what it all meant, a people whose minds were full of it. It was into this that Jesus spoke and acted.

Advent is the season observed as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, the birth of Jesus, at what we call Christmas. It all takes place in this prepared environment that is so crucial to all that follows, an environment that started to be created back with Seth, then down the tree to Abram, and then on until Israel became a nation. This is the context these breadcrumbs create for us into which the Son of God will be born as a baby.

And so the prayer: “Father, how incredible this story is, that having the plan to send your Son to redeem us, you started paving the way by creating this family tree that formed a nation into which he could be born. Thank you for the long-term wonder of all this, thank you that you did it to redeem us – me! Lord, please open my eyes that I may understand more fully that even today I am a player in this plan that originated before Creation, was revealed through the coming of your Son, and is still being worked out – even today! Thank you so much, Lord. Amen.”

3. The Mysteries of God (1)

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 3: The Mysteries of God (1)

Gen 3:15   I will put enmity  between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel

Mixing Metaphors:  I’m afraid I’m going to be mixing metaphors in this study, having started out talking about threads of a tapestry, I want to suggest that the next thread is the idea of the trail of breadcrumbs, because it seems to me that that is exactly what we find in the Old Testament. The idea of a trail of breadcrumbs comes from the children’s story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the two children drop breadcrumbs to form a trail to guide them back to their home. In modern website design, designers refer to a breadcrumb trail being a navigation tool to allow users to see where the user’s current location is in the whole website. In detection books, authors carefully drop breadcrumbs along the way, little clues that give the reader speculative thoughts towards who the murderer is.

The Mystery: In some senses the Old Testament is as much a mystery drama as any modern writing. When Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27), it was a mystery that had been there for centuries but was now being made known: the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.” (Rom 15:25,26)

The truth is that there are numerous prophetic words in the Old Testament about the coming of the Son, but they are dropped into the text like breadcrumbs to lead us ‘home’ and home is the arrival of Jesus. All of these ‘breadcrumbs’ show us that, as we saw in Thread No.1, God had a plan from before the foundation of the world and that plan involved His Son leaving heaven and being born on earth, i.e. Advent is the door into the execution of that plan. Each of these ‘breadcrumbs’ points to that truth in some way or another.

Breadcrumb No.1. Conflict: There in the Garden of Eden, following the Fall, before the couple are banished from the Garden, God addresses Satan and says, “I will put enmity  between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15) or, as the Message paraphrase puts it, “I’m declaring war between you and the Woman, between your offspring and hers.” This is strange talk. Who is the woman? Is it Eve, all women, or Mary, the mother of Jesus? Perhaps it is wise not to be too specific but certainly the protective heart of every woman is to desire the best for her child and to protect it from harm. In this sense every woman would be against Satan’s intents to harm. His offspring would be everyone who surrenders to his leadership (every unbeliever according to 1 Jn 5:19).

But her offspring? Surely not every human who follows, surely it must be one specific one? There is coming one who will war against Satan, crushing his ability over humans, but in the process will himself be harmed? Who else can this be (we say with the insight of hindsight) but Jesus? The Son of God will leave heaven, come to earth, battle with Satan, and triumph over him through the Cross. And there it is in the third chapter of the Bible, this clue for the avid reader of detective fiction, the follower of breadcrumbs, the seeker of the mysteries found throughout the Old Testament.  But before we pray, just one final thought here about this verse. Even in declaring this, how do you think the Father felt? He is saying, ‘My Son will come to the earth to wage warfare against you, Satan, and he will disarm (Col 2:15) you, but in the process, I know he will have to die, to give up that wonderful life he will have on earth that will bless thousands, in order that he might save millions.’   As necessary as it was, how would you feel as a father, facing the fact that that had to happen?

Prayer Time: Thanks & Request: “Father, thank you that you have laid out these ‘breadcrumbs’ throughout the Old Testament to show us the way to Advent and on to the Cross. Lord, please open our eyes to the wonder of this, your heart that just kept overflowing from time to time so that these clues were dropped, all of which pointed to your master plan. Thank you for the plan on your heart from before the foundation of the world to save us, that was fulfilled in these events, for Advent, for the Nativity, Amen.”

10. God who Talks

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 10. God who talks           

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Reading 9: John 1:1-14

John 1:,1,14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ….. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us

Context: So, as we come to the last of the nine readings, that has a header, “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation”, we move very much back to the big picture to summarise, we might say, the activities of Advent described by those who established this service of carols and readings we have been following this past week, as “the development of the loving purposes of God.” The use of John’s Gospel for this last reading lifts us away from the specific details of the Nativity story, to describe the whole in more philosophical terms that the wider world might understand and appreciate.

The Reading: To fully appreciate the meanings of John’s Prologue covered by these verses, you really need to read the verses in their completeness, so may I suggest on this Christmas morning you take your Bible and read them out loud as a reminder of what this day is really all about.  I will simply take the first five verses and then the end verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:1-5) Then, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (v.14) Having done that, let’s move directly into the lessons we may learn from these verses on this very special day.

Lessons – Statement of Truth: John, as a writer, writes more profoundly than the other three Gospel writers who wrote decades earlier than him, simply laying out the basic facts of what had happened. John, who remembers so vividly and has had many more years to reflect on it all, presents a ‘Gospel of understanding’, a Gospel that brings to light many of the things that Jesus said that so emphasised who he was. John writes, and we need to recognise it as such, a Gospel that is more a declaration of the truth – this IS what happened, and why! These verses in this reading provide meaning and context to the whole Advent and Nativity story, and as such they also provide a foundation of belief for our Faith.

A God who communicates:  The Bible above all, I believe, reveals a God who communicates and Jesus is His ultimate communication. As the writer to the Hebrews put it so clearly, In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb 1:1,2) John describes Jesus as a word, a means of communication, an expression of God, who was with God, (and) was God. …with God in the beginning…. (so) Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  Even in these opening words, John puts Jesus on a par with God. With the Father, yet distinct from the Father. (Various creeds speak of him as not being ‘born’ but ‘begotten’ and that word simply means ‘comes out of’, i.e. came out of God, of the same essence s God the Father.)

A Need to Listen: Surely if God speaks then our duty is to listen. If Jesus is the expression of God, one who was sent from heaven to reveal the Father (see Col 1:15, 2 Cor 4:4, Heb 1:3), when John says, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” (Jn 1:14) it is a foolish and complacent person who ignores the wonders of what we find in the four Gospels of the New Testament. If Jesus reveals the Father, perhaps the biggest challenge to the whole world is to see what the Gospels say, to see the sort of God that exists and is there in the background of every mind on earth.  As much as I am aware of its inadequacies, I would recommend if you haven’t read them yet, you work through the recent series, ‘Focus on Christ’. I am in the process of improving the content by turning it into book form  but the basics are there.

Perhaps a good New Year’s resolution would be to learn more of Jesus and learn more to be aware of his presence. I like what Pete Greig,  who was involved in founding the worldwide 24-7 prayer movement wrote: “The vision is Jesus. Not Christianity. Not prayer, mission and justice. Not worship-leading or church-planting or evangelism. If you love Jesus you’ll do that stuff; you’ll pray and worship and go to church and preach the gospel – but in doing all those things, don’t lose the why.” This is what today is about, about Jesus arriving on the earth in human form, visible to his parents, to shepherds, to wise men, to aged saints and years later to great crowds who saw the loving expression of God in their midst bringing health, life, freedom, goodness and love in abundance.

Sometimes we may stop someone, or be stopped by someone – I remember as a child, a policeman stopping a friend and I who, in childish, thoughtless, irresponsibility, living on a hillside had taken up a new game, pulling up the farmers turnips and rolling them down a path on the hillside – and the voice comes, “I want a word with you.” At that time you know it’s not just a single word; there is going to come more than a few words.

It takes far more than just a single word to describe Jesus, which is why we have the whole New Testament which tells about him and his role in the activity of the Godhead, that speaks of “the development of the loving purposes of God.” Unlike the words of the policeman, these words are to be welcomed and rejoiced over. In the midst of all the other activities of today, may we not fail to do that.

Now that completes the ‘nine readings’ but we will add one more study to morrow to round it off. But before we finish, a bonus.

Bonus Story 1: Overview or ‘A Potted Advent’

I sometimes like to try to capture what went on in story form. There is a bit of poetic or rather literary license in this story, but I hope it conveys something that lifts faith. It seeks to put together all the things we’ve seen in the Gospels, in this series.

Hullo. My name is Simeon. I have this feeling that I may be writing for those of you in the future and it is just possible you know more of how this story works out than I do at this moment. I also have this sense that I may not be here much longer, so I had better get on and tell you what I know.

I live near Jerusalem and am now in old age. The things I want to tell you about have only happened in this past year, although I think my story goes back a lot further than that. I have always sought to be a servant of Yahweh and in my years of retirement from my business, I have spent much time examining the scrolls in the local synagogue, courtesy of my rabbi. I consulted the teachers of the Law in Jerusalem and they, somewhat condescendingly I felt, guided me into the prophets. Oh, I should explain, I was searching for the Messiah that I had heard about since my youth.

Without doubt there are things there, that are a mystery, in the scrolls. As I have gone where they said, I read of how a child would be born to a young girl, probably in nearby Bethlehem, a child who would come as a great light to the land of the north, our Galilee. I have never been there, but it is often considered a land of darkness and misery, having been the first part of our land that has suffered at the hands of invaders from the north many times in the past. Yet Yahweh is going to bring great light to it, I know not how.

But there are contradictory prophecies about this coming one. For instance, on one hand he is said to be a great ruler, and on the other a servant. On one hand he is spoken of as a mighty ruler while on the other, one who is beaten and despised and rejected. I am not sure how these things can all be tru,e but I have the utmost faith in our prophets that they heard from God.

And then, one day, as I was searching the scrolls, I had this intense feeling that the Coming One was on his way, he would appear soon. I assumed he would appear in Jerusalem, probably at the Temple, that would make sense, so I increasingly spent more time there, watching and waiting.

And then they came, this little family and immediately something in me said, “This is them!”  But who? The baby. The baby is the coming one. I felt words of thanks, words of prophecy welling up inside. I had never known anything quite like it. And then Anna, an old prophetess I had come to know, who also spent most of her time there, came up and carried on where I had finished. Crowds came and looked and then went, and when the fuss had died down, I spoke to this couple and they told me their story, a strange story at that.

The mother was but a young girl really, and yet she had seemed to have aged beyond her years. She told me how, about a year back an angel had come to her and spoke with her. I marveled at the wonder of it. He had said she would bear a son to be the mighty one we were expecting. She confessed she had not known what to think as she and her man were only betrothed and had not come together, but the angel reassured her that this was something Yahweh would bring about. A few weeks later she started feeling sick and then became aware of her body enlarging.

As she recounted those days she looked at her husband, a strong looking young man obviously a little older than she, who stood there in the background remaining silent. I looked at him and eventually he said, “It is true, and I trust my Mary implicitly, although not at first.”  I smiled with understanding, and so he continued. “You must understand, I am a good Jew and her story seemed so far-fetched to me, that I felt the only course open to me was to break off our engagement. I was about to do it when I had the most amazing dream that was so real I had no other course but to believe it. In it I think I saw the same angel that Mary saw, and he told me that what I had been told was true and that she was carrying our Messiah.

It was clear by their accents that they came from the north, so I asked them how they came to be here. They said it was because of Caesar’s census that required Joseph to return to the home of his ancestors, Bethlehem. It had not been an easy experience because when they arrived it was clear that Mary was only days or maybe even hours from delivering her baby, and because there were so many others who had come there to be counted, there was nowhere for them to stay and they ended up in a stable behind an Inn.

Please don’t think me insensitive, but when they told me how the bay was born, my eyes filled with tears of gratefulness to God. They said it had been a strange experience because not much later, when they were still trying to cope with the experience – I think they said the Innkeeper’s wife had come to help with the delivery – suddenly a whole bunch of rough and scruffy shepherds had turned up outside, and you know what they’re like, they are virtually outcasts in our society but they came bursting in, loud with laughter, quite inappropriate for the quiet scene, but telling of how an angel – yes, yet another angel – had come and told them of the baby and then they said it been like heaven opened up and they saw thousands of angels singing and praising Yahweh for the arrival of His son. It was the most strange story but I could not doubt their sincerity and anyway, that quiet inner voice I have heard before, assured me it was right.

After a little while they left, but a few days later I felt I must see them again, so I travelled on my donkey to Bethlehem and sought them out, and found Joseph had been doing jobbing work around the village. To cut a long story short I visited them on a weekly basis; I felt a little like a guardian angel watching over them, but I think they actually had the real things; they needn’t need me, but I went as an aged friend.

And then one time about a month or so later, now a couple of weeks back, when I visited, they told me excitedly how a camel train with very strange men from the east had come and bowed down before their child. They hadn’t known what to say, but then, as the men and their camel train were about to leave, they took out most expensive gifts of gold and most precious ointments and gave them to them. They had been overwhelmed with such riches which would provide for them for years and couldn’t understand why such a thing should happen.

Now this is where it gets strange. I visited just yesterday, but they were gone. I enquired of their neighbour, in the house next door to where they had been staying, and fortunately he recognised me as a friend, and told me an angel in a dream had told them to leave straight away for Egypt. So, they have gone, and I feel a great gap in my life. I don’t know what will become of them but with all the wonderful directions they have received from our God, I am sure they will be back one day in the not too distant future.

By the time you read this, you may know the outcome. I have been privileged to meet this little family for a short while and something in me tells me that this is just the start for them. I am sure I will not be around to see it, but you may, and when we meet in the heavenly throne room one day we can share the wonders we have been permitted to see. I believe I will go there shortly, and I go in peace and with great joy. May you know the same that comes with knowing this wonderful story.

10. Anticipation – the Magi

Focus on Christ Meditations: 10.  Anticipation – the Magi

Mt 2:1,2   Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Right Time

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 3.  The Right Time

Gal 4:4    when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman,

There are indicators in the New Testament, that God’s timing for the coming of His Son was precise, there was no mistake about it.  The Message version has our verse above as, “when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son,” and the Living Bible puts it, “when the right time came, the time God decided on, he sent his Son,” and the same thought comes through – there was no mistake about God’s timing. There are other indicators around the New Testament.

Pastor, teacher and evangelist, Michael Green, in his book, “Evangelism in the Early Church” suggests there were a number of very specific and very practical reasons why Jesus and the start of the Christian faith came at this specific time in history.  This, in itself, is a contributory factor in being able to say that this was no made up, fairy story; these were events in time-space history, events that perfectly fitted in the records of history that we have subsequent to that time. Luke pounds us with this historical foundation in his Gospel: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)” (Lk 2:1,2) and then a bit later: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.” (Lk 3:1) Historical events, historical people.

Now all this is very well from an intellectual point of view but if your names were Mary and Joseph you might not be quite so happy with this, because as we’ve seen before, “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.” (Lk 2:4,5) Mary is expecting but she and Joseph now have to travel many miles to register their names in his family’s town, Bethlehem, purely at the whim of an emperor who had nothing better to do that show what a great empire he had. Forget the individuals, forget the discomfort and upset he may be causing many of his subjects.

So, as far as the big picture is concerned, it is just the right time; as far as Mary and Joseph are concerned, it is definitely not!  Now here’s the point I would like to make here: we may have relegated the Nativity to the realms of fairy story, folk-lore, or children’s play level, but the details of the story include many profound lessons. In what we have seen here, the main lesson is that God is never casual about timing and does things exactly so they fit the overall big plan. The secondary lesson is that when we look at our own individual personal circumstances we may not see how the circumstances are right for they may appear thoroughly inconvenient to us.

When we look at the Christmas story as it appears in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, it is the story of God but a story that involves people and from their perspective things ‘just happen’ apparently without rhyme or reason. That is so often how it appears at the moment. So this is very real ‘where the rubber hits the road’ of practical reality. It is like it is because God who knows everything doesn’t share that ‘everything’ with us because we probably wouldn’t understand it or even believe it if He did. The underlying message of this story is that we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) So often we have to trust God with only partial understanding and we’ll have a look at that faith part a bit more in the next study. In the meantime, can we pray, “Lord open my eyes to understand the times and until I do, help me to simply trust you with what comes along.”

1. History, a Battle for Reality

(As we come to the last two weeks before Christmas, I would like to take a break from Hebrews – we will come back and complete it in the New Year – and pause to reflect on the wonder of Christmas)

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas:   1. History, a Battle for Reality

Luke 1:1-4  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.

I have at least once in the past written Advent meditations but every year when I approach this time I find I come from a new perspective, it seems, or the Lord seems to be putting a new emphasis before me. From the perspective of a gifts giving, food focused, one day orgy, I do not like Christmas, but when it comes to the Christmas story as found in Matthew and Luke, I find it the most wonderful time. Just how it is celebrated will vary all over the world but, I would like to suggest to you in this short series, how we celebrate it is almost an irrelevancy. How God ‘celebrated’ the coming of His Son to the earth is something else.

Now here is my worry, a concern I have for all of us who are Christians, and it is that we sink Christmas to the level of a romantic fairy story. I don’t know about your part of the world, but where I live in the UK, junior schools still put of ‘Nativity Plays’ by the children which are increasingly dressed up in other guises. It is almost as if teachers think, “Well, we’ve done this old story over and over again. It’s getting boring now. How can we make it something more interesting? How can we make it something that appeals to all people and all faiths?”

So here is my point: this story IS history, it DID happen and if we take the time to think about it, it IS the most amazing story ever written down in history. I always like the start of Luke’s Gospel because it is so down to earth. Yes, it does speak of another culture – how many of us have a friend named Theophilus? But it speaks of truth.

I want to keep these studies or meditations short, quicker to read in this period which seems to get so full of activity, so let me tell you what worries me about all this. It is that we Christians ‘do’ the Christmas story, year in, year out, and the danger is that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least boredom. I mean we all of us know the Christmas story, so why bother to make it the basis of a set of meditations when there is already one set of such meditations on this site?

Christian revelation involves a constant battle for reality. The enemy would seek to either deride it as utter make-believe, or make it so boring that it becomes irrelevant, or make it so intellectual that it sits in our heads without touching our hearts, or make it so romantic it simply comes with an emotional buzz but no intellectual understanding, or make it so mundane that we cease to worship the one who comes. Can we nail these options on the wall so we are aware of them, and then say, no, I will not let it be like this! Lord please open my eyes afresh to see the wonder of this story, touch my heart with the experiences of the people involved, touch my mind with the reality of the facts before us, touch my spirit to see the glory of the coming one and so be able to worship him in reality.

As a sign that these words mean something as you read them, may I ask you at the end of each of this series to pause and pray something specific? For this one, perhaps words that begin, “Lord, please open my eyes…..”

10. Surprising Provision

Lessons from the Nativity: 10:  Surprising Provision

Matt 2:11   On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh

We thought previously about surprises, for the Nativity story is full of them. The last one we considered was the greeting the young family received when they went to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks for the safe birth of baby Jesus. Now the above events may occur straight after that, which is at least forty days after the birth, or it  may be even later than that. The only clue we have is in the word ‘house’. We can only assume that they have found shelter with a family friend or even rented a house for a short while to carry them through the waiting period after the birth. It may be that as Joseph was a carpenter he earned money by performing carpentry services around Bethlehem, we just don’t know. All we know is that they appear to still be in Bethlehem when the camel train of the Magi, the ‘wise men’, turns up.

Now I don’t know if you have ever wondered just why they came? Yes, they were searchers and seekers and they followed a mysterious star and were then helped on their way by the officials in Jerusalem, and they said they had come to worship the king that had been born, but what was behind it? I would like to make a suggestion: they were God’s financial providers for this little family. They come bearing ‘treasures’.

Now we don’t know just how much of these three commodities they left with this little family but if they had come with a heart to worship this little king, it is unlikely that they would be skimpy in their giving. Now if you go looking in commentaries you will find that from the early church on scholars and teachers have focused on the symbolic meaning of these three sets of gifts and in so doing, I suggest, they miss the most significant thing – these are things of great value and as such could be sold off to provide finances for daily life. This little family is shortly going to have to escape to Egypt where they will have to live before returning later to Nazareth, and once they get back home they will need resources to set up home. Couldn’t Joseph’s carpentry skills be sufficient? Even asking the question suggest we are looking for minimal and forget we are dealing with a God of bounty, a God of generosity.

I was cured of my negative feelings about wealth by reading about Solomon and all the wealth he accumulated by the use of his God-given wisdom. Solomon was the peak of kingly ruler-ship in Israel; no subsequent king ever came near him, and it was God’s wisdom that enabled him to become what was undoubtedly the richest person in the world at that time. Read 1 Kings 10 and the visit of the Queen of Sheba who was almost overwhelmed by what she saw. Now this is not to take away words of caution found in the Bible about making money your god, and so we are to hold these things in balance and see that, according to the Law at least, when the people were living wholeheartedly for God, His promise to them in the blessings of Deut 28 was that The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity.” You cannot escape it, and perhaps we have much to learn here. To say we are a spiritual people and that physical blessings don’t apply, denies the Creator God who has given us all good things to enjoy.

No, the truth is that by these gifts brought from afar, God was leaving Joseph and Mary with resources which would keep them secure for many years to come. The Lord was looking after His Son.

Now even what I have written above may raise issues within you because in a Fallen World where one of the fruits of sin is low self-esteem, that low self-esteem is so often seen in the attitude of “Oh, I can’t do it, I’m no good,” and that produces  an outlook that fails to rise to potential. How many of us settle for being something less than is on the Lord’s heart for us? Even more, how many of us shy away from thoughts of comfortable provision in the material realm because we have been taught that it is ‘worldly’ to think like that. No it isn’t!  Consider the wonderful world God has given us, full of such incredible variety and He has given us five senses – taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight – all of which enable us to experience pleasure. Yes, seeking after these pleasures and putting them before the Lord is a recipe for disaster but when we put Him first, then surely according to His word, we may expect His blessing on our lives that enable us to enter into the enjoyments He has designed us to receive.

We said earlier that it was Solomon’s wisdom from God that enabled him to prosper.  Isn’t there a picture for us there?  Do we read James 1:5 – “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him,” – and immediately let our unbelief limit the outworking of that? There is of course the condition that follows that verse which speaks to our unbelief: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.” (v.6,7) So isn’t wisdom a provision of God, a gift enabling other things to follow? Have we become so saturated with the materialistic view of the world that “the Lord our provider” is limited to purely spiritual salvation that makes you a spiritual child of God. Heaven forbid! That is a worldly-cum-spiritual form of godlessness. We push God out of His material world, the world He designed, the world He created, all for our enjoyment.

The lesson of the Wise Men is that God will provide material provision. For some that material provision will be described as adequate or sufficient while for others it will be abundant. It is not to be our goal, God is, but He IS a provider if we let Him. Once we acknowledge that (and this may be a reason we hesitate over this) we see that there must be no limit to what we put under His direction, and so our very jobs, our careers, our very goals in life, may perhaps need to change, for these all come under the ambit of His wisdom and His provision if we will but let Him.

9. Surprising Encouragement

Lessons from the Nativity: 9:  Surprising Encouragement

Luke 2:27,28   When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,

We have commented about how working out the will of God can sometimes be confusing and even requiring much patience, and often life is merely getting on with it and trusting the Lord to work it all out. The Nativity story is full of surprises. Obviously the first surprises were the angelic appearances to Mary and Joseph,, and the fact that Mary is pregnant without any help from Joseph.  You probably can’t get any bigger surprises in life that those which these two young people coped with. I suspect that for many of us who came to the Lord at least from teenage years on, if you asked us did we have any inclination of what was coming several years earlier, we have to acknowledge that for each of us who has been born again, that very series of events came as a surprise. In fact if I think on to all the big milestones in my spiritual life, I have to say they came as a surprise; they were God initiated and as such I didn’t see them coming. I think when you work your way through the main characters of, say, the Old Testament, (true also of the New) – Abram, Joseph, Moses, for example – they all have encounters with God which appear to come as a surprise. Moses at the burning bush has to be the classic on.

The point I think underlines this next incident in the Nativity story and which, as I have indicated above, is that life, and especially the Christian life is never all neatly mapped out for us so we can see exactly where we are going. Yes, in life there are things that are pretty much expected – going to school, going to college or university – yet even within those things there is great opportunity for variety of outcome which often have little to do with our efforts. So for Mary and Joseph they safely reached Bethlehem before Mary’s baby arrived. Then came the surprise of the shepherds turning up telling, no doubt, of their angelic experience, but after they have gone and the days pass life settles down and once the registering for the emperor had taken place (and we don’t know how long that took) they were free agents, but the appearance is that they stayed where they were for the while.

However as good Jewish young people with a child there was one thing they felt they should do, and that was take the child to the Temple in Jerusalem and give thanks fro him them according to the Law: When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, (see Exodus 13:2,12) “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord (see Lev.12:8): “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Lk 2:22-24). The period for purification was 40 days and so Mary would have had to wait 40 days before going to the temple to offer sacrifice for her purification and to offer her firstborn to the Lord (see  Ex 13:12-13).   The distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem was only about six miles, and so being that close they would have remained in Bethlehem a little over a month before taking the opportunity to go up to Jerusalem.  So far, they are simply acting in accordance with the Law without any great expectations. No doubt they would be looking forward to going up to the Temple in Jerusalem  because even though they might have visited there before, now it was for a very personal reason.

What they don’t know is what has been going on in the life of an elderly man who lived in or near Jerusalem: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.” (v.25-27)  This is a man in close relationship with the Lord who had previously received revelation from the Lord and now received a prompting by the Lord to get into the Temple on this particular day. Trying to get inside this man I once wrote a short piece about Simeon and include it following this meditation.

Now I leave you to look up the story and see the things Simeon said to them. They are words of comfort and encouragement and also of warning. He is clearly a messenger of God and at this point in their lives it must have been such a welcome reassurance. No, they were not living in a dream; they are living in the purposes of God, amazing as they are.

Here’s the point: God is good on encouragement and so although all the things I’ve said previously about uncertainty are true, nevertheless the Lord is always there and there to encourage us. I have lost count of how many times, over the years, I have asked the Lord for encouragement over some issue or other, and it has come, often very quickly indeed – but of course you have to be open to recognize it, but it will be there.

The story does not end with Simeon for the Lord often delights to bless with a double blessing and so another of His servants, Anna, is on hand to carry on blessing them (see v.36-38). We are called to walk by faith and not by sight but the Lord knows we need encouragement along the way and He delights in bringing it. Perhaps all we need do is ask for it and then watch out for it, and then give thanks for it. Amen? Amen!

Simeon: a story

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 years 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 had 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 into 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 going there? 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.”