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.

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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.”

8. Open for the Weird?

Lessons from the Nativity: 8:  Open for the Weird?

Matt 2:1,2   After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

There is going to be what in effect will be a second part to this meditation but we’ll have to wait a bit for that. For the moment I want to focus on a particular feature of the Nativity story, the coming of the kings or wise men, call them what you will, and I would just like to observe how we so happily have these men in our Nativity and yet there is something seriously weird about them, something so weird that we would probably not countenance it in any other circumstance.

First of all let’s just note the uncertainty of just who these men were, and indeed for that matter how many of them there were. Our verses above speak of them as Magi but your Bible probably has a footnote saying “traditionally Wise Men”. They are men who have travelled from the east, probably in the direction of Babylonia, historically the land of the Medes and the Persians, and some say they came from the Medes who had a priestly cast who become known for their study of astrology and religion, while others suggest they came from the Persians. The truth is that we do not know.

They came bearing gifts, which we will consider at a later date, but for the moment we will note that the traditional idea that there were three of them comes from the fact that three gifts are mentioned. It is the value of the gifts that has caused some to suggest they were kings, although there is no documentary evidence at all to confirm that.

But note that they come saying, “We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Yes, these were more that astronomers (those who observe the stars in the sky); they must have been astrologers (those to put meaning to the position of stars to foretell the future.) Now astrologers have got to be in the same category as ‘seers’ and not far off being related to ‘mediums’, all in the business of speaking about the future, and yet we know that mediums were expressly spoken against in the  Law of Moses (see Lev 19:31. 20:6.27, Deut 18:10-12) and Isaiah had prophesied, “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” (Isa 8:19,20). Now some might say that seeking the future is not the same as consulting the dead, but there is a very close connection and  so we find that this practice of astrology would have been strictly banned in Israel, yet here come these prominent figures in the Nativity story that we accept so happily!

Somehow or other these men from the east have managed to come up with a conclusion that somewhere out there a great king is about to be born and this ‘star’ in the sky is leading to him. So certain were they about this, and so significant would this king be, one greater than all others, that he would be worthy of their worship, that they (almost certainly) formed a camel train and set out and trekked hundred of miles to find him. It is clear from later on in the story that they did not know their destination but just kept on until some further sign appeared to show them where it was. In the event, they stopped at Jerusalem and enquired there and were told Bethlehem was likely to be the place. How they decided that the star had stopped over Bethlehem is unclear, but this they decide and somehow manage to find where Mary and Joseph are with their baby. It is a strange story with lots of unanswered questions. It is definitely weird but we accept it without question every Christmas. What does it say to us?

I would suggest that it says that God can be in all manner of things that perhaps we don’t have a clue about. We’ve noted previously that for Mary and Joseph the working out of the will of God was almost certainly confusing and certainly inconvenient. We might want to blame Satan for stirring up Caesar Augustus into making a decree that might put Mary’s life at threat, but the prophecies about Bethlehem bring it all back under the will of God saying, at the very least, that God knew it was going to happen and He would use it to link His Son from heaven with the history of David, the man after God’s own heart.

In the Old Testament we see the Lord speaks through His word to Cyrus a pagan ruler to allow God’s people to return to Jerusalem after the Exile. He had previously spoken forcibly to Nebuchadnezzar about his pride. The Lord does have dealings with unbelievers. Let’s face it, Abram probably came from the same area as these ‘wise men’ and when he had originally set out from his home it had been at his father’s instigation and only later did he receive the call to go with God. God called him as a pagan.

God called you while you were still an unbeliever. God speaks with unbelievers – even astrologers.  Perhaps that is the lesson here: God calls unbelievers and draws us into His purposes. Some unbelievers respond and become Christians, others refuse to heed the call and remain unbelievers, but the fact of the matter is that we all start out as unbelievers, and still God calls us. We’ve seen Him call the dregs of society out on the hillside and now we’ve seen Him call those who believe in the weird and the wonderful that is clearly deception – even though on this unique occasion God was behind it.  We’ll see the wonder of the outcome of this call to these astrologers later.