December 23rd: The Shepherds

Standard

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 20th: The Star

Standard

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 16th: Bethlehem

Standard

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

Standard

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.