December 18th: The Magi

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The MagiNow after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2

It is commonly accepted that the visit of the ‘wise men from the east’ known as ‘Magi’ did not take place immediately after Jesus’ birth but sometime within two years of it, yet perhaps because of its positioning in Matthew’s gospel it has become to us a fundamental part of the Christmas story. Magi were astrologers who would have acted as advisers to kings in many eastern states and who derived their knowledge from a combination of calculated astronomical observations and an ‘interpretation’ like that we might expect from present-day horoscopes. We know that their status was significant enough to gain them an audience with King Herod.

What is interesting is that in Matthew’s gospel, where we see a particular concern with showing Christ’s fulfilment of Jewish prophecy, these foreign dignitaries were better equipped to spot the fulfilment of the prophecy concerning the star than many Jews as Jewish people did not commonly practice astrology. Indeed, it seems that King Herod and the people of Jerusalem were pretty oblivious to these cosmic movements prior to the Magi’s visit. In the journey of the wise men we see clearly God’s intention that the birth of Christ would be good news not only for Jews but also for those outside of Israel, who were known as Gentiles. The grafting in of all people into God’s kingdom was not a mere after thought but another important part of God’s plan that existed in the detail of ancient prophecy.

Not only that, but the desire of the Magi not to miss out on this important event but to participate in worshiping the child whose star they had seen was so strong that they had been willing to travel very far from home and at considerable cost of time and money. As we consider the sacrifice that they made we might ask ourselves what lengths we are willing to go to in order to seek and pursue God in our lives. The Magi on the basis of simply a single star in the sky had been willing to take the risk. How far will we go and what level of discomfort are we willing to endure when we now have the privilege of knowing the abundant riches to be had in Christ?

Lord, thank you that the birth of Jesus is good news for all people, no matter who they are or where they are from; there is no distinctions of race, gender or status for you, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Help us to be diligent as the wise men were in seeking you. Show us what sacrifices we need to make in our lives to create space to worship and adore you. Amen.

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December 17th: A baby in a manger

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MangerAnd she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:7

In the intimate details of Christ’s birth, Luke emphasizes the total humanity and quite unremarkable beginnings of our Lord and Saviour. This child, who was King of Kings, the son of the Most High God himself, enters the world like any other person. There may have been armies of angels appearing on the hillsides and cosmic movements in the stars overhead, but from what we are told, the actual physical birth of Christ itself was nothing but very normal and usual.

The swaddling of a baby is still a common practice for every newborn, although in ancient times it was done with the specific objective of keeping the weak spine of an infant straight. This reminds us of the infant Jesus’ utter helplessness, relying on the tender care of his human mother. The manger functions for the very ordinary purpose of acting as a sign to the shepherds to let them know that they had come to the right place. And even though we know that there was no room for the little family at the inn, we perhaps have been guilty of sometimes over dramatizing this detail- there is no mention of an angry innkeeper refusing to help a desperate Mary and Joseph, and in the context of families flocking into Bethlehem to be registered, who knows how many other families were forced to seek alternative lodgings that night.

Sometimes in our excitement over the miraculous nature of so much of the Christmas story, there is a risk that it becomes to us like a fairy tale, divorced from the reality of everyday life. If we portray it like this to others we may inadvertently confine it to a place alongside Christmas traditions like those of Santa Claus- nice for children, but much harder to swallow as an adult. Well here is something that requires no great leap of the imagination; a young woman giving birth to her firstborn son and caring for him to the best of her ability with the resources that she has available to her. Make no mistake, God is as much at work in the mundane details of ordinary human existence as he is in the mysterious and the extraordinary.

Lord, thank you that you are at work in our familiar human experiences and that we can encounter you in the common occurrences that take place every day. We invite you to be a part of our daily routines and we pray that we would see you working in the apparently ordinary details of our lives where we might least expect. Amen.

December 16th: Bethlehem

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BethlehemAnd you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel. Matthew 2:6

The fact that Bethlehem was the place of Jesus’ birth is corroborated not only by Matthew and Luke’s gospels but also by other historical sources, such as those from the Jewish Christian community of Palestine. It has been debated whether the exact location was a cave or a house, but early tradition is unanimous that somewhere in the little town of Bethlehem, this momentous event in world history took place.

Although Bethlehem was known as the ‘city of David’ because it was the location of the birth of this great king of Israel, it was also a small and pretty inconsequential place, so that the people of the town may well have considered it the ‘least among the rulers of Judah’. In Joshua 15:33-60 it is considered of such little importance that it is omitted from the extensive list of Judah’s towns. What the focus on Bethlehem highlights most of all to me is that places, any place no matter how small, are important to God. Here was God doing such a great work in sending a shepherd for His people that we personally might question whether it really mattered where it happened. On the contrary it was so important to God that He gave a prophesy about it long before it took place and this little town that served as the birthplace of Christ became not only one of the most substantiated historical facts in the Christmas story, but also a place of acclaim throughout the world.

However short or long your time in a particular place might be, never think that it is inconsequential to God. Acts 17:26 reminds us that He has determined allotted periods and the boundaries of our dwelling places. I have been astounded by God’s purposes for me in the places where I have lived; sometimes seemingly random events that have led me to make somewhere my home have brought me to places of healing, growth and work for the kingdom and put me in the path of some of the most influential people in my life. The settings for His activity in our lives are always carefully and meticulously chosen.

Lord, we praise you that out of Bethlehem you sent a ruler to shepherd your people and that there is nowhere too small or unimportant that you can’t make amazing things happen in that place. As we think about the places where we spend our time, our homes and our workplaces, we ask that you would show to us your purpose for us in each one of them and we thank you for all that you have planned in advance. Amen.

December 15th: Caesar Augustus

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Caesar AugustusIn those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. Luke 2:2

Well surely no-one has ever opened their advent calendar and seen a nice little picture of Caesar Augustus, yet this Roman ruler who reigned from 31 BC- AD 14 certainly deserves a mention in our exploration of the Christmas story. Not only does God use Caesar to fulfil his purposes, as the call for registration is one of the main reasons why Christ’s birth takes place in Bethlehem and hence fulfils the prophecy, but he is also responsible for the backdrop and culture into which Jesus comes and which places his rule, which we considered yesterday, into sharp relief.

At this point in history, money and goods were pouring into Rome from all over the world and Rome’s main preoccupation was with how to keep it that way. Any dissension was quickly silenced; crime was often punished by a quick execution without a hearing, often by brutal means of crucifixion, and there was no popular voting. Ironically, the purpose of the registration was Caesar’s way of establishing ‘peace on earth’ which meant absolute control over any disturbances, rebellions and threats to Roman rule. It extended to ‘all the world’, and would be used for the purposes of taxation, showing the enormous power, wealth and coverage of the Roman empire at that time.

Caesar saw himself not only as a savior, promoting Roman law, order and security, but also like a deity as the title ‘Augustus’ was given to him by the senate and meant ‘venerable’ or ‘worthy of worship’. His desire for control certainly did not extend to a concern for the people; even in the Christmas story we see that the registration had been called with little care for the long, arduous journey that would need to be made by many, even pregnant women, or for where people would stay on reaching their destination as clearly there was not even enough room to house everyone.

It was in this atmosphere of terror that Jesus was born, a true Savior and a true God, who would establish real peace on earth and who would be interested in the intimate details of peoples’ lives. It is simply astonishing that in bringing His will to pass, God should at once use both a poor young Jewish couple and also a powerful world ruler, and that He should accomplish through a tiny infant what all the military powers of an empire could not, a Kingdom without an end that would extend across the far corners of the earth.

Lord, we marvel at the way that you use the seemingly weak and foolish things of this world to shame the wise and the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27). Thank you that you are in control and there is nothing that you cannot use or turnaround for your purposes, not even the control of an empire. May we have greater faith and trust in you to accomplish your purposes in our own lives. Amen.

December 14th: Son of the Most High

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CrownHe will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Luke 1:32-33

In Daniel 4:34, the pagan king Nebuchadnezzer refers to God as the Most High and says of him, ‘His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation’. Even Nebuchadnezzer could recognize that while earthly kings reign for a time, and while other pagan gods may come in and out of fashion, there is one true God who reigns forever. The title, ‘Son of the Most High’, reminds us that Jesus, although human, is also the divine heir to the throne of a kingdom without end.

To help us understand what Jesus’ rule would look like, Luke reminds us that we can look to the type of king that David was. David was anointed by God to rule over Israel; it is this seat of authority over all of God’s people that Jesus is sent to occupy once and for all. Like Jesus, David too came from very humble beginnings in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16). When the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint the young David as king, he did not even find him among his brothers in his father’s house. As the youngest child in the family, he was out tending the sheep and no one thought it was important for him to be present for the visit of this powerful prophet. But God tells Samuel not to be distracted by the strong appearance of the older children because he is interested not in appearance but in the heart. David goes on to fight and slay the Philistine giant Goliath, not with military prowess but because he is a man who knows the power of the armies of the living God (1 Samuel 17:26). This is the heart of a ruler whose kingdom lasts forever; he does not rely on his own strength but on God’s. In the same way, Jesus places his confidence in his relational intimacy with the Father and the Holy Spirit as he knows that this where true strength lies.

In this world we are constantly at the mercy of human authorities though we may be more aware of it at some times than others, like when we pay tax. For those living in war torn countries, or under a dictatorship, their awareness is more acute. Yet we have a God who reigns above it all, whose kingdom will never end and whose heavenly militia is greater than all the world’s armies put together.

Jesus, we thank you that all power and authority are yours in heaven and on earth, now and forever. Would you occupy your rightful place in our hearts as the King of Kings that we, like David, would place our confidence in the everlasting power that comes from you, and not rely on temporary human strength. Amen.

December 13th: God With Us

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ImmanuelBehold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:23

Personally, I find the name ‘Immanuel’ meaning ‘God with us’ one of the most beautiful names for Jesus that exists throughout Scripture and for me it captures the very essence of the Christmas story. God ‘s love for us is so powerful, so overwhelming, that He is willing to go to great lengths that we might not be left alone in the sin and squalor of our lives on earth.

We see God’s amazing love for us expressed throughout the life of Jesus. It is in the parables Jesus tells of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the 1 lost sheep, and the father who runs out to fling himself on the returning prodigal son. It is in the compassion with which Jesus heals the sick and has mercy on the most downtrodden and apparently worthless members of society. It is in the suffering and torment that Jesus endures on the cross. But before we see it in any of these things we see it in a God who left the comfort and splendor of heaven to be part of our world and to experience what we experience- a God who, before he does anything else, is prepared simply to be with us. Andrew Wilson in his book Incomparable describes how the Son was willing to lay aside his majesty to become an infant who fell over and vomited and soiled himself and grazed his knees. He comments that Christ’s descent from heaven to dwell on earth must have been like the shock your body gets when it jumps from a hot tub into an icy cold pool.

Christmas is not an easy time for everybody; for many people who have recently lost a loved one, who face trouble at work or difficult life decisions, or those who do not even have a home or enough food, it can be extremely hard to enter into the joyful spirit of the season. The Christmas story is for ones such as these, and even more so, than those of us cozied up before roaring fires enjoying the twinkle of our Christmas lights. God’s love for us is so immense that he came to be with us not only in our celebrations and our comfortable surroundings, but in all the dirtiness and struggles of our everyday lives.

Lord, thank you that you are not a distant God but one who is so interested in the intimate details of our lives that you were willing to experience it for yourself and to enter into it with us. We praise you for counting us as being worth the sacrifice even though we had done nothing to deserve it. Would you draw near to those in need this Christmas, and reveal yourself once again as the God who sees, who hears, and who is with us. Amen. 

December 12th: A Saviour

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SaviourShe will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:21

As we read the Scriptures it is clear that names are very important to God. This was because, in Bible times, names were carefully chosen to represent some aspect of who it was hoped the person would become, so that when God gave a person a new name it was usually to establish in them a new identity. So for example, in the Old Testament God gives Abram the name Abraham meaning ‘father of many nations’ and in the New Testament, Jesus gives Simon the name Peter meaning ‘rock’. In the case of Christ, his identity is unchanging and is made clear from the beginning in the names that the angel gives to Mary and Joseph. Over the next three days I will be reflecting on three of the names given to the infant in the Christmas story that appear to be most prominent.

The first of these is of course the name ‘Jesus’. Jesus was the Greek equivalent of the name ‘Joshua’ in Hebrew and means ‘Saviour’ (or ‘soter’ in Greek). The term ‘soter’ was used a lot in Greek Hellenic writing to designate the beneficent actions of gods and kings. It was therefore an excellent expression of ‘Christ the Lord’ ; ‘Christ’- meaning the child as a messianic king, the promised deliverer of the Jewish people, and ‘Lord’- used to describe the presence of God in the Old Testament. Many people in Jesus’ day expected this saving work by a messianic god king to be dramatic. After many years of oppression under Roman rule, God’s people, Israel, had in mind the kind of political liberation they had experienced when the Joshua of the Old Testament had led them into the Promised Land.

However, we are told that the baby born to Mary is given the name Jesus because he will save the people from their sins. His name reflects this special and unique aspect of his identity and the intention for his life; not a political victory over Roman rule, but instead the victory over sin and death. Many people have the power to liberate us from all kinds of evil in this world, but only Jesus Christ has the power to rescue us from our sinful natures and the things that we do against man and against God that keep us in bondage. Jesus would be our Saviour by bearing the sin of the world; all we have to do is ask him, and our sins are nailed to the cross with him. Take a moment to lay your sin at the foot of the cross today.

Jesus, thank you that we can call on you as our Saviour. We confess our sin to you today and ask that you would forgive us. Thank you that you give us peace not as the world gives, but you give us peace that surpasses understanding, peace with ourselves and with God. Amen.