Happy Christmas!

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nativityFor unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11

Thank you so much for following along with me on this journey into the main characters and themes of the Christmas story.

I am rejoicing today that it is a story that is not only wonderful in its content, but is also something that we can truly have confidence in. I am rejoicing for its basis in historical fact and the revelation it contains of God’s master plan; a plan to send to us a Saviour who was, and still is, Christ the Lord.

We have seen how it is a story in which God uses all kinds of people from many walks of life; the young and the old, the rich and the poor, both foreigners and people in their native land. We have seen how God uses many miraculous signs and methods to communicate to them, from ancient prophecy to message-bearing angels, from stars in the sky to dreams while people sleep. We have seen some glimpses of what God considers important; the places where we are born and live and the names that people are called. And we have seen how God can use the ordinary details of human existence for His purposes, whether as intimate as the birth of a child or as public and powerful as huge political empires.

It is a story that confirms over and over to us, in its many intricate details, that this child born to us is divine God in human flesh. It compels us to respond with praise and wonder.

May you have a very blessed Christmas and a wonderful year as you continue to walk with the awesome God whose story it is.

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December 24th: Praise

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praiseAnd the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:20

The overwhelming response to the news of the birth of Christ throughout the Christmas story is one of praise. It is in Mary’s Magnificat (the Latin verb for ‘glorifies’) in which Mary gives a shout of exultation followed by a series of reasons why God is to be praised. It is in Zechariah’s prophecy which has become known as the Benedictus (the Latin word for ‘praise be’). It is in the Gloria that the angels sing to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest”. It is in the way that the powerful Magi fall down in front of the tiny infant and worship him. It is in the way that the shepherds return ‘glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen’.

And honestly, there is plenty to be praised! These worshippers tells us, each in their own unique and individual ways, that this baby means justice for the oppressed, a Saviour from sin, the reconciliation of God to his people, the possibility of serving God by living holy and righteous lives, light for those in darkness and death, peace on a troubled earth, good news for all people, a King whose reign is eternal and a Shepherd to protect and provide for his flock. And these are just a few things; if you read through the Magnificat or the Benedictus you will find more. Read through the Bible you will find even more!

It is a strong reminder that the only appropriate response to this overwhelming news of what God has done is our praise and worship. As we turn our praises to God, worship also has a way of transforming the worshipper; it takes us away from our current troubles and concerns and focusses our minds on the bigger picture. For the people in the Christmas story, this was not the end. Yet the challenges ahead, whether the safety of their new baby, the return to a dark and unwelcoming hillside or a long journey home, must have paled to insignificance as they praised God for what they had just seen and witnessed.

Father, we worship and adore you for this amazing story of how your Son entered our world, how He took on human flesh to be with us and to save us. May we sing with full and glad hearts of what you did all those years ago and for its continuing truth and relevance for us today. This Christmas, as we celebrate with family and friends, we acknowledge that our greatest celebration is in what you have done for us. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

December 23rd: The Shepherds

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ShepherdAnd in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Luke 2:8

Of all the people that God could have sent Jesus’ first birth announcement to it was to a bunch of shepherds on a hillside. At first glance it seems to make sense if only for the fact that it was night time and most other people were probably asleep (I‘m sure that’s what I thought was the reason as a child)! On further examination, the inclusion of these locally based shepherds always seems a clever counterbalance with that of the wise men from the east; in contrast to the Magi’s wealth, status and extravagant gifts, the appearance of a heavenly host (literally an army of God’s angels) to these poor, smelly shepherds really does demonstrate that this birth was to be good news to everyone, regardless of origins or status.

However, there is an even deeper meaning in the presence of the shepherds in the Christmas story. While the wise men highlight Christ’s divinity and kingship, the shepherds are a reminder to us that Jesus was to be our ‘chief Shepherd’. We see these two ideas combined in Matthew 2:6 in the prophecy concerning Bethlehem as the place of Christ’s birth. Matthew brings together the prophecy in Micah that indicates Jesus’ status as a coming ruler, born in the city of David, but he also weaves in the words of 2 Samuel 5:2- that this mighty ruler would also be a caring shepherd to the people of Israel.

Chances are that you don’t know too many shepherds; they’re certainly not as numerous as they were in the ancient world. So what did being a shepherd entail? Well, it was an unglamorous job and often the responsibility of the youngest child so that quite possibly most of the shepherds the angels appeared to were children by today’s standards. Shepherds provided food and water for the sheep, protected the flock from danger by fighting off wild animals and human thieves, and they led the sheep in paths that were safe, keeping the flock together and going after sheep that strayed. This degree of vigilance was a full time job; even at night they kept watch over the flock.

This is the type of shepherd that Jesus is to us. Unconcerned about taking on such a demeaning job, He is content to roll up his sleeves and get in among a dirty and stubborn people. His shepherding role tells us that He doesn’t expect us to have all the answers. Instead, He wants to take responsibility for us, protecting us, providing for us, and guiding us. It is a task from which He never rests.

Lord thank you for your faithfulness to us. Even though we are a stubborn and wayward people, you consider us worthy of your constant oversight and involvement in our lives. We invite you to be our shepherd once again this Christmas, leading us in paths of righteousness for your name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). Amen.

December 22nd: Dreams

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DreamsAnd being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Matthew 2:12

A little noticed aspect of the Christmas story is that it is full of revelations imparted by God through dreams. God uses this method to communicate important instructions to people that will ultimately change the course of events. It is in a dream that an angel tells Joseph to marry Mary, who he would otherwise have divorced. It is in a dream that the wise men are warned not to return to Herod and let him know the location of the newborn king of the Jews. Again, it is in three separate dreams that Joseph is given specific instructions after the birth of Christ about where to move his family in order to keep them safe from the massacre of children instigated by Herod.

Dreams were a means of communication that would have been familiar in the culture at the time, and indeed many important dreams are recorded throughout the Old and the New Testament. They were taken seriously in the same way that the wise men saw the stars as a means of communication about important events, and the way in which Herod called on his chief priests and scribes concerning the prophecies that had been given of where the Christ was to be born.

In our age of modern communication and technology we can perhaps become deadened to the way that God is trying to communicate with us, and prayer can become a one-way form of communication where we lay out our requests to God without really listening for or even expecting a response.  Yet Scripture indicates that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we should still expect God to reveal things to us through some of the same means of communication He has always used. In Joel 2:28 it says ‘And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.’ The same God who spoke the earth into creation can speak to us through all manner of things, regardless of whether we are awake or asleep. As you spend time celebrating Christmas this week, and as this year draws to a close, consider putting aside some time for quiet reflection. Ask God what he wants to speak to you about and be ready to receive from him through anything that He chooses to use.

Lord, thank you for the many varied ways in which you communicated with people throughout the Bible and still do today. We ask that you would help us to develop listening hearts, open to what you want to say to us and to those around us. Through your Hoy Spirit would you transform us into a people who are sensitive to the ways in which you are speaking and reveal to us your will. Amen.

December 21st: Gifts

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Gold, Frankincense and MyrrhAnd going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11

The gifts of the wise men have often led us to think that there were three of them, although we actually don’t know the number of travelers from the east, only that out of their treasures there were three things in particular that they offered the Christ child; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Neither does Matthew tell us why these gifts in particular were chosen, or indeed where they ended up, although various theories have been developed based on what we know of their use in the ancient world.

Gold is traditionally thought to represent Christ’s kingship and divinity as it was a very valuable commodity and mentioned throughout the Bible associated with both God and idols. Frankincense is thought to be a symbol of the holiness, righteousness and priestly role of Christ, as it was frequently burnt in worship, releasing a strong fragrance. The gift of myrrh is thought to foretell Christ’s suffering and affliction as He gave himself up to death on the cross, as it was often used in the embalming process. Whether the wise men were aware of these deeper meanings is unknown; the gifts were valuable items that were typically presented to honor a king or deity and could also be used for many medicinal purposes, so they may simply have been what they deemed as appropriate.

What interests me most as I reflect on this afresh is the manner in which these gifts were offered. It seems clear that the wise men were giving the very best of what they had; these were not kings in the sense that they have sometimes been portrayed and had not acquired wealth through military victories or inheritance. These were gifts that that they had likely earned over a period of time through their work studying the stars. They gave to the infant out of their own most valuable treasures, to a baby destined to become the king of another people, with no expectation of return. That is generous giving indeed. As we become embroiled in gift giving once again this Christmas we might reflect on what it is we offer God, not because we hope we might get something back, but because we know He is worthy.

Jesus, just as frankincense rose before you in ancient worship, may our prayers also be set before you like incense (Psalm 141:2). Would you find our worship of you equal to that of the wise men; may we give it wholeheartedly and without bringing our own agenda. You alone are worthy of our praise. Amen.

December 20th: The Star

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The starAfter listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  Matthew 2:9-10

The star in the Christmas story has become iconic, appearing in various forms on the tops of our trees and on numerous cards. Many different theories have been offered about the star that the Magi were following, so here is your very short guide to the star of Bethlehem.

Some suggest that the star was a supernatural apparition, or perhaps even an angel, a theory which is predominantly based on the unusual movement of the star described in Matthew 2:9. However, Matthew doesn’t indicate to us anything of the supernatural about it; he doesn’t say for instance that it was ‘sent’ in the way the angels were and he definitely calls it something different. This leaves a few natural explanations:

  • It could have been a comet, which would have been visible ‘wandering’ across the night’s sky for weeks or even months. People in Roman times tended to fear comets as they were thought to indicate a coming disaster, often the death of the king, which might explain why Herod was so disturbed about the news.
  • It could have been a nova or supernova which suddenly appears in the sky as if by magic and slowly fades to obscurity over a few weeks or months. This would fit with the idea of a single bright star in the sky.
  • It could alternatively have been a planetary conjunction. There was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7BC which would have suggested to Babylonian astrologers the idea of a king in ‘the Westland’, their name for Palestine.

Whatever the explanation, the star in the Christmas story reminds me of the all-powerful nature of God who is the creator and controller of all things, even beyond our own planet. As he was ensuring that each star was accounted for at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:16), he must also have been planning them so that, at exactly the right time, one would appear to mark His greatest work of all, the sending of His Son. At the end of a long journey it says that the Magi were not just a little happy to see this star come to rest at the place of Christ’s birth. They rejoiced exceedingly. However awesome the star was, it was but a sign of something even more amazing.

Lord, we worship you because you are a powerful God who brings out each and every star in the sky, calling them all by name, ensuring that not one is missing (Isaiah 40:26). Every time we look at the stars in the sky may we be reminded of your great works, and, like the wise men, may we be filled with great joy. Amen.

December 19th: King Herod

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HerodWhen Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him Matthew 2:3

King Herod was probably about 70 years old when the Magi visited him. A puppet of the Roman government, he lived in a fortress and palace called ‘Herodium’ that he had built for himself out of his great wealth. Lying in plain view of Bethlehem, this was one of his most prominent military centers which offered him protection from the aggressive tax revolts that were often frequent around the time of registration. We are told that this powerful king was troubled by the news of a star that heralded the birth of the king of the Jews. Why, we might ask, would someone at the end of his life (he died a few years later), who had enjoyed all the comforts that this world had to offer, be concerned about the birth of a baby who one day might be king?

Even though some think that Herod was a practicing Jew himself, it seems the he was troubled by the thought that the legacy he had built in his strong allegiance with Rome would be undermined by this new arrival. In contrast to Mary, who was troubled by the news of a Saviour because of her humility and feeling of unworthiness, Herod was troubled out of his sense of wounded pride. His thirst for power and control, which would extend even beyond this life and make his name immortal, was so great that it would lead to the massacre of hundreds of male children under the age of two in his attempt to stop what God was doing. He was desperate that his entire life’s work would not be compromised by this baby.

It is easy for us to make Herod into a sort of pantomime villain in the Christmas story- in a story involving so many wonderful, God-fearing people, he is the one person who just doesn’t seem to get it. However, what is even more chilling is that Matthew tells us that it wasn’t just Herod who was troubled, but ‘all Jerusalem with him’. This is not the first rejection that Jesus would encounter among his own people; it is a reoccurring theme in his life and death (John 1:11). Herod and all Jerusalem with him are a reminder that there are many who miss the good news of Christ’s birth, and who fear and reject God in favor of holding on to their own way of doing things.

Lord, help us to relinquish power and control over our own lives and surrender them to you, acknowledging that your ways are always better than ours. May we never stand in defiance of your plans because they interrupt or compromise our own, but instead may we be willing to lay our own plans down for the sake of joining you in yours. Amen.