Prevailing hope

New year usually comes with a mixture of excitement and pain. For some a new year means new prospects. New opportunities. For others it is a fearful unknown and sometimes the pain of the previous year or years looms larger as we draw near the end of the year.

One of the lesser known stories associated with Christ’s nativity is that of Anna.

After forty days Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem so that they could offer the sacrifice for Mary’s purification. While they were there they met two people. One was Simeon and the other was Anna.

Luke 2.36-38 tells us that Anna had been married at one point in her life. After seven years of marriage, her husband had died and she decided to spend the rest of her days praying and worshipping and waiting for Messiah. The Bible tells us that when she met Jesus she was eighty-four years old. That means she had probably been a widow for over sixty years. Sixty years of worshipping. Sixty years of waiting. Sixty years of seeing thousands of families bring their child to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice. And then one day she sees Messiah.

I’m sure as a young woman Anna dreamt of being married and having her own children. Of living to an age when she could enjoy her grandchildren as well. But it was never to be. Tragedy came. How easy it would have been for Anna to become locked into the disappointment and grief of the untimely death of her husband and spend the rest of her life looking back! But she didn’t. Anna turned her pain into prayer – and worship. The loss of her potential future caused her to fix her focus on God’s promised future. And for sixty years she kept looking.

Whatever this last year has brought, good or bad, Anna’s life reminds us that hope can prevail, even when we suffer big setbacks. Even when we experience great pain. Even when our future seems to have been snatched from us. And hope in God and His word can sustain for years and years to come.

As we end one year and begin a new one, may the example of Anna give us encouragement, and, in the words of Paul “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15.13)

Advent Reflections Day 24: The Maker of the stars and sea became a child on earth for me

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2.6-7

Luke is so matter of fact! Mary had a baby – a boy. She wrapped him up and put him in a manger , since there was no room in the inn.

The incarnation, the entry of God to earth is so down to earth. So common. The sort of thing that happens every day all across the globe. A baby that has been growing in its mother’s womb for nine months is brought into the world. The birth of Christ, in that respect was no different from any other birth. And Luke told it in a matter of fact way, because it was just that; a matter of fact.

But it wasn’t just a matter of fact. It was and is also a matter of faith. This baby was God in the flesh. This baby was worshipped by people as diverse as the less than common shepherds and the exotic Magi from the East. This baby was such a threat that His birth triggered King Herod’s paranoia. The reactions of shepherds, Magi and Herod, should have been clues that what seemed such a matter of fact, common occurrence was actually pointing to a matter of faith.

Luke would go on to record the extraordinary story of Jesus and then recount how His disciples spread news of Him all over the Roman empire.
The Son of God was born in Bethlehem. Today above all days we celebrate His birth. We worship, not the baby in the manger but the risen, ascended Son of God.

Sir John Betjeman captured it well in his poem Christmas:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And with faith and conviction we answer “Yes. It is gloriously true”

Advent Reflections Day 23: Christmas for those of all religions and none

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2.1-2

There is an element of mystery that surrounds the Magi from the east. We have very little biographical detail about them. We don’t even know that there were three of them – we just know that they brought three gifts to Jesus.

What we do know is that they probably came from modern day Iraq or Iran. They weren’t Jews. Their religion certainly wasn’t Jewish, in fact their religion was probably Zoroastrianism and it was more akin to astrology than conventional religion. And, judging by their gifts, they must have been quite well to do.

For most Jews of the time, the idea that pagan dignitaries would play such a prominent role in birth stories about the Messiah might have seemed rather strange. When you consider that the only mention of the Jewish religious establishment is rather negative, it raises even more questions.

Once again, the story of the kings is another aspect of the nativity that reveals something of God’s heart. It shows us that God is not locked into any particular religious system – even those which have their roots in divine revelation. His ability to work in the hearts of human beings is not restricted by their religious background.

Secondly, it reminds us that God’s love is for the whole world. He is not a British God. Or a European God. Or an American God. And even though the developing world is where Christianity is currently most vibrant, God is not Asian or Latin American or African.

Thirdly, God meets people where they are. He speaks to them in language they understand. The Magi were stargazers. Observing the stars was their life’s work. Little wonder that God spoke to them through a star to lead them to Jesus.

Finally, God’s aim was to bring them to His Son. Spiritual experience on its own is never enough. Angels filling the skies weren’t enough for the shepherds. A magnificent star was not enough for the Magi. The revelation was incomplete until they had met with Jesus.

God still meets people where they are today. He is not bound by the four walls of what we call church. He is speaking to people in all sorts of ways through all sorts of experiences. However, their experience is lacking and inadequate until they meet with Jesus. It is only when they meet Jesus that they can really understand God’s heart of love and His magnificent purpose for their lives.

Advent Reflections Day 22: Piecing together a picture of God

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2.8-12

I don’t build jigsaw puzzles that often these days. However, when I was a child, there was usually a jigsaw puzzle to piece together on Christmas day.

There are certain things you need to complete a jigsaw puzzle. A picture of what the completed puzzle is like is always helpful. Having all the pieces of the puzzle helps greatly as well. And of course, the expert jigsaw builders usually begin by building the pieces around the edge.

The stories of the shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields and the kings coming from the east have become so familiar that we can fail to recognise their significance in the Christmas story.

Both of those stories help us to construct a picture of the God who is revealing Himself in the person of Christ.

Shepherds in first century Israel didn’t have a very high social standing. In fact it was quite the opposite. They were at the margins of their society. A shepherd’s testimony wasn’t even admissible in court such was the lowliness of his profession.

Yet it was to shepherds that God sent His angels with news that Christ had been born in Bethlehem. And according to Luke 2.17 when they left Mary and her baby they went and spread the word of the birth of the King. How astonishing that God would entrust the great news of the birth of His Son to people whose testimony was usually regarded as wholly unreliable!

As we join together the various pieces of the nativity, we begin to build up a picture of a God who works beyond the social and religious boundaries of the day.

Like the pieces around the edge of a jigsaw puzzle, they create a context in which we begin to understand something about the God who is revealing Himself in Christ. A God who includes some of the most unlikely people in the story of redemption.

Advent Reflections Day 21: Joseph – Best Supporting Actor

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” Luke 2.4

It’s probably not the dream of every aspiring actor or actress to win the Best Supporting Actor award. Great award though it is, it’s not quite the same as the Best Actor award. However, there are probably few, if any, great films, without great supporting actors.

In some ways, Joseph was a supporting actor in the drama of Christmas. Up until this point in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, Joseph has only been mentioned as being pledged to be married to Mary (Luke 1.27). Joseph might have felt a like a bit part player at the outset. Mary informs him of her pregnancy and he’s – understandably – not convinced by her explanation and decides to quietly divorce her. At that point God intervenes and reveals to him that Mary’s condition is part of the divine plan (Matthew 1.17-19).

In today’s verse, we can begin to see that Joseph plays a far more crucial role in the birth of Jesus than perhaps he had anticipated. It is his ancestry that compels them to go to Bethlehem. In Matthew’s account it is Joseph who is warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem for Egypt because of Herod’s murderous intentions. And it is Joseph whom God instructs to leave Egypt for Nazareth (Matthew 2.13, 19-23).

Mary might have physically brought Christ into the world, but the whole project was a team effort. God works in team. In fact one noted theologian says that we might think of God as a team – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The incarnation is a good reminder of that: the Father sends the Son, the Son becomes flesh, and the Holy Spirit’s power causes Mary to conceive.

Mary and Joseph worked as a team. Joseph might often be depicted as meekly looking on or leading a donkey, but he played a bigger role than that.

God still calls us to work with others to bring His kingdom to earth. For some of us, that might mean having a very prominent, even celebrated role, like Mary. For others, our role is one like Joseph’s. Not so celebrated. Sometimes overlooked. However, even though his role wasn’t very prominent, it was no less significant.

Our significance is found in following the script that God has written for us. Whether we get much credit for it or not, our role is absolutely crucial. After all, what would the Christmas story have looked like if there had been no Joseph? Like great films, God’s great drama needs great supporting actors.

Advent Reflections Day 20: God uses some very unlikely people

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” Luke 2.1-4

For Joseph and Mary the timing of Caesar Augustus’ census couldn’t have been worse. Awaiting the arrival of your first baby can be a tense, if exciting, time. To have to move seventy miles away in an era before mass communications and some sort of comfortable form of transport isn’t exactly desirable.

Such was this first Christmas for Mary and Joseph. I wonder what they were thinking as they journeyed down the road to Bethlehem? There they were travelling to Bethlehem at the behest of a foreign emperor with Mary carrying in her womb the King of Kings.

We don’t know how conscious they were that in obeying the edict of Augustus Caesar they were fulfilling prophetic words about the Messiah spoken hundreds of years previously:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. ” Micah 5.2

My hunch is that they were aware of Bethlehem’s significance. John 7.41 indicates Bethlehem was recognised as the expected birthplace of the Messiah. Perhaps before the decree was issued they wondered how they would get there.

However aware or unaware they were of Bethlehem’s place in the Christmas story, they arrived there because, on a human level, a pagan emperor compelled them to be there.

One of the things that the Christmas story reminds us of is God’s providence in human history. He uses all sorts of people to bring about His will.

Oddly enough, Caesar Augustus himself was considered a messianic figure by the Romans. He had effectively saved the Roman republic from meltdown and the Roman poet Virgil had written about him in a way that some early Christian apologists thought seemed like a prophecy pointing to Jesus.

How ironic – or fitting! – that the most powerful man in the world of that time should pave the way for the King of Kings to be born where the ancient prophets had said He would be born!

Sometimes God uses the most unlikely people to make a way for His purposes and His people. He still works in that way today. He is still the God who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1.11).

Advent Reflections Day 19: Nurturing the work of God

“Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.” Luke 1.56

Christmas is one of those times of the year when you want to have all your friends around you. Catching up on a year that’s gone by and thinking about the year ahead or even just a bit of general chit chat that has no particular agenda – nor does it need one.

There is something about having around you people you are close to, whether friends or family.

Mary had Elizabeth. Gabriel had already informed Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, after a life time of barrenness. The bond that already existed between Mary and Elizabeth was further strengthened and deepened by their surprise pregnancies.

Mary visited Elizabeth and stayed with her for three months. Their excitement for each other and for themselves spilled over into prophetic encouragement. We are not told why Mary visited Elizabeth. It was a fair distance for Mary to travel, since Elizabeth lived in the Judean hill country – a journey she would make once again some months later.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth and their three months together remind us of the part that true fellowship and friendship plays in helping us to nurture what God is doing in us.

We need people around us with whom we have a deep sense of connection. We need to give plenty of time to those relationships. And we need the spirit of prophecy that flows as we invest in each other’s lives and ultimately in what God is doing in us.

This Christmas, why not reflect on the quality of your relationships and determine to invest time in them in the new year that lies before you? Relationships that will provide encouragement. Relationships that will attract the presence and blessing of God’s Spirit. Relationships that will help to nurture what God is doing within you.