6. Threads

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

6. Threads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6. The Impossible is Possible

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

Reading 5: Luke 1:26–35;38

Luke 1:26,27  God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Jesus who sees

Jesus in John’s Gospel : 15 : Jesus, who sees all

Jn 1:47,48     When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you”

It’s quite disconcerting when people can see right through you. Have you ever encountered anyone who seems to be able to read you mind and know exactly what you’re thinking? Supposing it was a complete stranger who started talking about what you’d been doing earlier in the day, or even yesterday, that would be scary, wouldn’t it?  Many years ago, my wife and I had a running conversation that picked up and went on over about four days, about whether we could possibly feel as God feels. We didn’t come to any conclusion, but we happened to be at a prayer meeting in our church, when suddenly in a gap between prayers, one of the ladies in the group spoke out a prophetic word in which the Lord spoke about whether we could feel as He felt and then concluded with an answer. If that wasn’t amazing enough, what was really incredible was that she (He!) literally quoted things we’d said over the course of that four day conversation. God watches and sees and listens and knows.

A classic instance of this is the Lord showing Ezekiel what was happening inside the temple many miles away from where he was (Ezek 8:3,7-18). Another instance was Elisha being given sight of what Gehazi was doing (2 Kings 5:21-27). Oh yes, God watches and sees and listens and knows!

Now our two verses today don’t do justice to the situation. As we saw yesterday, Philip found Nathaniel and told him they’d found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Now in Nathaniel’s understanding Nazareth was a nowhere place and it didn’t seem to fit in with his understanding of the Messiah. He was derogatory. Then Jesus comes and says this to him. “Here’s a very open, straight forward Jew,” is what Jesus basically says, and the implication is that he knows Nathaniel. Nathaniel is still cagy. “How do you know me?” he asks, almost challenging Jesus. The intent is more like, “You don’t know me!”  Jesus’ reply is completely disarming: I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” There was something about that which completely rocked Nathaniel for his reply is, Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (v.49)  Was it that he had just been praying in a closed garden where no one else could have seen him, that made Jesus’ words have such an effect?

Up until that moment Nathaniel had been doubtful, but now, suddenly, he has been revealed by this teacher, and thus the teacher is revealed!  This Jesus sees behind walls, and he doesn’t even have to be in the vicinity!  Yes, God watches and sees and listens and then, sometimes, just lets us know what He’s been doing, just so we appreciate who He is. And Jesus is His Son!  Does that mean that Jesus’ mind was filled with all the thoughts and pictures of everyone in the area or the world – because that is God’s capability? No, it simply means that when the Father knows it is useful for him, He gives him the insight, the revelation of a person or situation. Today, back in heaven, Jesus sees all things. Do we think we can hide things from God’s eyes?  If we do we are foolish, for He sees and knows all things, so when you talk to Him, be completely honest, for he already knows!

32. God’s Time

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.32

32. In God’s Time

Matt 2:19,20 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel , for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

Have you ever had a time in life when everything seemed to go wrong and you were left wondering whether you even had any future at all? Life is full of upheavals that sometimes we would prefer to call catastrophes. One minute everything was going fine, and then either gradually bit by bit, or even perhaps suddenly, it all started changing and you were left alone and in despair.

Well, the Bible is full of such incidents. Moses, the Prince of Egypt, was one such person. There he was; his future certain, as an adopted prince of the king of Egypt . But he’s aware that he’s different; he’s aware he’s an Israelite by birth, and one day he tries to help his birth-people and ends up killing an Egyptian. He has to flee the country and for the next forty years he is looking after sheep in the wilderness hundreds of miles away. Without doubt he must have given up any hope of any meaningful future. He would simply die as an unknown shepherd miles from anywhere. And then God turned up, and he became one of the most significant men in history!

But it doesn’t have to be forty years to feel you have no future. After the pain of personal failure, any period is too long. We don’t know for sure just how long Joseph and Mary and their baby were in Egypt, but they must have been wondering about the future, wondering what had happened. A year ago they were happily engaged in Nazareth, and now here they are hundreds of miles away in a foreign land with a tiny baby to look after. The visit of the angel to Mary was probably now over a year back and in a year your memory begins to dull, and when everything has not worked out as you expected, you can be left wondering was it all a dream – but then there is the baby!

How long will we be here? Will God speak to us again? Will it ever be safe for us to return? Surely these must have been some of the questions going through their minds. One long day followed another. Did Joseph get a job or did they just live off the gifts the wise men had brought them? This is not their land. These are not their people. What are we doing here? And then God spoke. The trouble about this is that we can go weeks or months just wondering and then, it’s as if He came suddenly, and He spoke. There is usually no warning. He just turns up and speaks. A few hours before you might have been wondering if you’ll ever hear from Him again, and then without any fanfare He speaks – and it all starts over again! Is this Him or is it wishful thinking. Joseph has another dream and the angel appears again but now to tell him it is all right to return home; it’s safe now!

Do you see this? So often we just read this story with so little thought. Oh, Joseph had another dream; how nice! Yes, but that was after days and weeks and months of uncertainty. If you think the Christian life is one of daily conversations with God, you are half right. You can talk and talk and talk (it’s called praying) but sometimes it seems like a brick wall and you hear nothing in return. Then – at just the right moment – He speaks. You’d almost given up, but He hadn’t! If you haven’t ever seen how important timing is with God, check it out – Rom 5:6, Gal 4:4, Gal 6:9, Mk 1:15, Matt 10:19, Mt 26:18, Jn 7:6,8. Jn 7:30. Oh yes, it’s all about right timing and God knows when it is, so rest in that knowledge today. Your times are in His hands. Be patient and rejoice in that!

8. God turn up?

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.8

8. Can God turn up?

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

It’s sometimes difficult to get behind the Christmas story. Many of us know it too well. Take the angel out of the story above and what have we got left? A young teenage girl (because that’s what she would have been) who is engaged, we would say, to a man called Joseph. He’s a good Jewish boy with a pedigree going right back to David, one of the earliest kings of Israel. She is a young girl and so, in the light of the strict culture of that day, would not have had any sexual relations with Joseph (as the later story will very clearly indicate). Yet she is going to conceive, the story is going to tell us, without the help of a man and have the baby Jesus.

Now to cope with this, you can take only one of two possible courses: either what we’ve written above is not true and she got pregnant by Joseph or some other man, or God turned up and we have a miracle of conception. You’ll only take the former option if you’ve set your mind to believe that God can’t turn up and enable Mary to conceive without a man. But if you’re willing to even consider the thought that there is a God, why should you think that He couldn’t do this? If there is a God, then He has to be the Ultimate Being that philosophers go on about and if He is this, as the Bible declares He is, then He IS all powerful and CAN make this sort of thing happen.

Yes, we are running ahead of our verses above, but we need to get this out into the open as early as possible, because it actually affects all of our thinking. Check it again: you either deny that Mary conceived Jesus supernaturally or you accept the story above. In the light of what we’ve just said about God, you either don’t believe in the possibility of this Supreme Being (so why are you reading about Him?) or you do accept the possibility and therefore must accept the possibility of the virgin conception. If you accept that, you won’t have any problems with the appearance of an angel. You may remember we encountered Gabriel two meditations back, but rather took him for granted. Well we’re not taking him for granted now. We’re thinking about the possibility of angels!

If you start out with acceptance of the possibility of a Supreme Being, who is described in the Bible, then talk of heavenly beings called angels is valid as well, even if we personally have never encountered one. Now we say all this because the talk of angels leaves some of us thinking about this story in the same way we think about fairy stories – that it’s just a nice made up story for the children. No it’s not; that’s the point we’re making. We’re talking about down-to-earth space-time history. It happened just like the text says.

Now this is somewhat crucial to our beliefs generally, and the key question is, could God turn up in this girl’s life like this and transform it? The follow-up question must therefore be, can God turn up and bring changes to my life? This is what the Christmas story is all about. This is why it is so important in the Christian calendar. It is all about revealing the God who ‘turns up’ and does things. If He could do it for them, He can surely come and bring changes to our lives today. This is the critical issue under consideration. So, can He turn up for you – today? It was via an angel for Mary, but it could be in a variety of ways for you! Well, can He?