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.

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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 11th: The Holy Spirit

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Holy SpiritAnd when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit Luke 1:41

Perhaps it is because the Holy Spirit is mentioned so frequently in the Christmas story that it has become so easy to take him for granted. I recently read that many Muslims today mistake the Trinity for the Father, Son and Mary which is simply astonishing when we consider how active the Holy Spirit is throughout the accounts. The Holy Spirit is not just the power behind the conception of Christ, as Mary and Joseph are informed by the angels, but we are also told that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit when she hears the greeting of Mary, and that Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit when he prophesies after the birth of John. It is important then that we recognize that this saving act of God in history is the work of the whole Trinity; it is a team effort of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The mention of the Holy Spirit has particular importance in the gospel of Luke. Luke would go on to write the book of Acts which would tell of how this same Spirit would be poured out on the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2). Luke means to show that this Spirit which was present at the birth of Jesus, and which would be the means by which Jesus’ entire ministry was possible (Luke 4:18-19), would also be poured out on the apostles who would communicate it to the rest of the world. What is truly incredible is that this power which is responsible for the amazing events of the Christmas story is now available to every believer!

In Joel 2:28 God promises to pour out His Spirit on ‘all flesh’, and in Luke 11:13 Jesus indicates that the Spirit will not be withheld from those who ask for it. We too then are intended to be filled with the Spirit just as those at the birth of Christ were. That’s a pretty amazing offer! Today, consider asking God to pour out His Spirit on you, whether for the first time or for a fresh experience of His power.

Holy Spirit, thank you that when Jesus ascended into heaven he did not leave us alone, but went so that we might receive you as our helper. Would you fall upon us as you did on Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and John, that we too might experience the power of the living God in our lives and be filled with boldness to proclaim the truth of your saving work. Amen.

My December devotionals project…

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Copley Square Christmas Tree

Let me just start by saying, I love Christmas. I love Christmas trees, and Christmas carols, and Christmas cookies, and Christmas movies, and pretty much everything about the whole experience. I become visibly excited when December finally arrives and I have a legitimate excuse to indulge in all the treats! But what I love most of all is the Christmas story- for a start, we wouldn’t have Christmas without it, and second, I love the invitation to immerse myself every year in a truly incredible but very real story of how God Himself entered our world. How he became one of us that he might walk among us, talk with us, share life with us. How he came so humbly to meet us where we are, just as we are, and to save us from the very worst of ourselves, the ugly parts that we would rather nobody knew about.

For many of us as adults, myself included, we are so familiar with the story of Christ’s birth that we can listen to it without really hearing it, sitting with glazed eyes as it’s read to us. It has also become so intertwined with dramatized versions, from school nativity plays to full scale movies, and with the images we see in art galleries and on Christmas cards, that we are no longer really clear what is actually contained in the Bible text, compared to what has been imagined or added for the purposes of artistic license over the centuries.

So I have set myself a project this December. I am going to attempt to explore the Christmas story with a fresh pair of eyes. I am going to revisit the key people and themes that we find in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke and ask God to reveal something new to me that I have never noticed before. What I hope will emerge is a series of advent devotionals like the advent calendars I enjoyed opening as a child; daily glimpses or ‘windows’ into the Christmas story.

I invite you to join me and take the opportunity that this wonderful time of year brings to immerse yourself in the magic, and in doing so, draw a little closer to the heart of the God whose story it is.