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 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 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.

December 8th: The Virgin Birth

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Baby in wombAnd Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” Luke 1:34-35

Today’s devotional focusses on the virgin birth- now you don’t see that represented too often on an advent calendar! It’s an unusual topic that’s normally skirted around but is actually of vital importance to the Christmas story. Both Matthew and Luke affirm in their accounts that the child that Mary bears is not from a human father but is conceived of the Holy Spirit.

In his excellent book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem outlines three reasons why the virgin birth is doctrinally significant. First, it reminds us that salvation ultimately comes from God and not by any human effort; it is the work of the Holy Spirit by the initiation of the Father that our world receives its Saviour. Second, that it made it possible for Jesus to be both fully divine and fully human. To illustrate this point he suggests that we imagine two other possibilities in which Jesus could have entered this world; either he could have been created as a complete human being and then descended from heaven without a human parent at all, or he could have had two human parents and had his full divine nature miraculously united to his human nature at some point early in his life. Grudem writes that when we think of these two alternatives it helps us to understand God’s choice; Christ’s full humanity is made evident to us from his human birth from a human mother, while his full divinity is clear from his conception by the Holy Spirit. Finally, the virgin birth makes it possible for Jesus to be truly human but without inherited sin; the guilt and moral corruption that descends to all of us through Adam did not belong to Jesus because the line of descent from Adam was partially interrupted. This is why, as todays verses indicate, the child to be born could be called ‘holy’.

We cannot read and believe in the Christmas story without accepting the supernatural work of God in it; it is not a human story, its author is divine. It may seem impossible to us, too great a stretch for our imaginations. Even Mary, full of faith as she was, asks but one recorded question to Gabriel; ‘How can this be?’ Gabriel’s response to her is God’s response to us; “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

Lord, thank you that you are an almighty God for whom nothing is impossible. Help us when we struggle with disbelief, and find ourselves doubting that you can move in situations in our lives. Help us to trust your timing and your plans knowing that they are infinitely better than anything that we could do ourselves. Amen.

December 5th: John

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John…and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared Luke 1:17

There is no doubt that the baby born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would become known as John the Baptist, was very special. For a start, the birth of a child to someone previously barren was thought to be a sign that great blessing would come to the people through the child (think Isaac, Gideon and Samuel). Second, the fact that Zechariah gave his son the name the angel told him and not his own name is significant; taking over the naming of the child was a sign that God himself was taking responsibility for him. Finally, there are the words that the angel says about the child; specifically that he would come in the spirit and power of Elijah preparing the way for the coming of God. Four hundred years after Malachi’s prophecy of the return of Elijah, John not only came wearing the same distinctive garments of camel hair and leather belt, but like Elijah he would also condemn sin and call people to repentance. In Luke 7:28, Jesus says of John, ‘I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John.’ High praise indeed!

However, what Jesus goes on to say is even more incredible; ‘Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ You see, John coming when he did had not experienced the newness of life that would come through the cross- he lived on the brink of it, but did not experience the blessings of Christ’s death and resurrection in the way that we now can. If you follow Christ today, you live in the truth that you are considered greater in the kingdom of God than even this most precious child, named by God and considered the greatest prophet of all time. That is the power of Christ in us!

One other observation. As I reflected on the words of the angel, that John was ‘to make ready for the Lord a people prepared’, it struck me as such a relevant phrase for the Christmas season. We spend so much time in preparation this month, consumed with preparing gifts and food and fun events, yet God invites us to make our hearts ready for Christ.

Lord, thank you for the privilege we have of living in the fullness of life that could only come through the cross. This Christmas season we invite you to make us once again a people prepared for you. Would you reveal to us areas in our lives where we need to repent, and allow you to refine us, that we might be transformed even more into the image of your Son. Amen.