Christmas musings #5

cross-in-mangerWhat was the message from the angel to the Shepherds? (Luke 2:10-11)

Do not be afraid. This is one of the most repeated commands in the Bible, possibly second only to ‘Praise the Lord’. When a powerful celestial being suddenly appears, lighting the sky above you with his presence, terror is an understandable reaction. To witness the glory of the Lord, whatever that might look like, is all the more spectacular. But God was sending these shepherds a message of hope.

“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Good news, of great joy. Not a new set of rules, another philosophy of life, or advice for clean living. Good news. That is what the Church has been given, and it is the source of the word “evangel.” In Old English, the word is “Gospel.”  Good news.
If you’ve heard that Christianity is a list of fun things you can’t do, you’ve heard from someone who’s doing it wrong. The authentic message of the Church is one of freedom, forgiveness, transformation, and eternal life. It’s Good News!

And to make the point as clear as possible, the angel was sent to common shepherds instead of the rich and powerful, with a message for “all the people.”

But the angel had more to say. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” In Bethlehem, the town of David, a Savior – the Christ had been born. The Greek word “Christ” is a translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. The angel was telling the shepherds that the long-awaited Anointed One – God in the flesh – had finally arrived. The Messiah who would save us from our sins.

There is one more phrase in the message that we must not miss. The angel did not merely say that a Savior had been born, but ‘born to you.’ He did not say ‘born to Mary’, or to Mary and Joseph, but ‘to you.’ The concept was not new, but it was – and still is – amazing. We see it many years earlier in the writings of Isaiah, where it was not an angel speaking, but a man. One of us.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”    Isaiah 9:6-7

Did you see it? ‘To us.’ ‘To us – a child is born, to us – a son is given.’ The Bible is clear on this idea. Jesus was a gift from the Father, to us:

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. -John 3:16

Christmas musings #4


We tend to think of everyone in Bible times as a shepherd, but the reality is that it was a job for boys, old men, or those without other options. They were unskilled workers who smelled like they hung out with animals. But while the Magi were led by a star, those common shepherds had an encounter far more profound. Consider this:

Nearly two thousand years earlier, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai, the glory of the LORD covered the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:16)  The people watched from below, terrified.

After setting up the tabernacle in the wilderness, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:35)

And one thousand years before the shepherds, at the dedication of the new temple, “when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the house. And the priests could not enter into the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’S house.” (2 Chronicles 7:1-2)

In each of these significant events in the life of the nation of Israel, we see God’s direct presence in the somewhat mysterious phrase, “the glory of the LORD.” It was an uncommon occurrence, and one that marked an incredibly important point in the history of God’s people.

With that in mind, we come to this:

“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.” (Luke 2:9)

We can hear the passage so many times, and become so familiar with it that we miss the whole point. The glory of the Lord shone around them! Jesus, the Son of God, is worthy of greater honor than Moses (Hebrews 3:3), than the temple (Matthew 12:6), or Solomon (Matthew 12:42)

And so we understand the terror a little better and we understand that something important was happening; something that would, once again, change the course of history.

“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son…” Galatians- 4:4-5

Christmas musings #3

three-treasuresInstead of bibs, pacifiers, and rattles, the Magi brought Jesus strange gifts that don’t make it into the typical diaper bag these days. But their gifts reflect a familiarity with ancient prophecies and an understanding of the One they came to honor:

Gold. Who gives gold to a baby? Who gives gold to anyone? It’s not a typical gift for a carpenter’s son. Gold is given by aristocrats; the wealthy, the powerful, royalty. It is a gift fit for a King, and it was a King they had traveled to honor.

Frankincense.  Surely a stranger gift for a baby than gold. It’s a resin derived from the sap of a tree, and burned as incense. It was used in the special mix of incense used in the temple (Exodus 30:34). It was a gift regularly offered to God, and so we read that they bowed down and worshiped the Christ child.

Myrrh. The strangest gift of all, if it were given to an ordinary baby. It was used to make the holy anointing oil used to consecrate the tabernacle and all of its utensils and set them apart for sacred use(Exodus 30:23ff). The next time we read about myrrh is when it was offered to Jesus while on the cross (Mark 15:23), and then when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus used it to anoint his body for burial (John 19:38ff).

The Magi understood that this child would one day fulfill another important prophecy:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – Isaiah 53:5

The Magi seeking the newborn King remind us that His birth was the fulfillment of thousands of years of predictions, descriptions, and expectations by the ancient wise men and prophets who looked forward to his coming. And as it has been said, wise men still seek him.

Christmas musings #2

3cacc94c12a45bc33683082ec638770e“We Three Kings”, the song says. But we don’t know their number, and the Bible calls them Magi instead of kings. That’s where we get the word magician, but these guys weren’t simply showmen who could pull a rabbit out of their hat. They were the scholars of the day, from the east, descendants of the ancient wise men of Babylon and Persia. And it seems that they arrived in Bethlehem quite a while after Christ’s birth.

But how did a star motivate these scholars to travel to another land to search for a king and give him odd gifts? We read about other wise men from the east – both Babylonian and Persian – being led by the Biblical prophet, Daniel, during the captivity of the Jews there: “Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men.”

And so the Magi knew the ancient prophecies. One in particular – a thousand years earlier, a fellow wise man of the east, a prophet named Balaam, had said, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”  From those words, the Magi would have seen the connection between a new star and the long awaited messiah king in Israel.

From Daniel and others, they would have learned of prophets like Isaiah, who prophesied, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Christmas musings


So what was the first Christmas like? We really don’t know the time of year for certain. But there were no Christmas celebrations, because there wasn’t anything to celebrate yet. No decorations, no carols, no family gatherings, no holiday sales, no crowded malls. The story according to the Bible is really something quite different.
For starters, when Mary submitted to God’s plan, she realized that she would be considered to be a fornicator and a brazen liar for her story about the angel. Not just a liar, but a blasphemer, blaming God for her condition. To make matters worse, Joseph didn’t believe her. How could he?
But an angel visited Joseph, too. He was told to accept this. Joseph would be considered to be either a fornicator or a stupid sucker for believing Mary’s story. Both of them would be mocked for their decision to obey God’s direction in their lives.
That’s not the way we usually think about it, but it’s the reality of their situation. Then it gets worse.
Rome, the foreign occupying government, ordered a census, undoubtedly to levy a tax. Terrific. They would have to walk to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. It would mean at least a week of travel in Mary’s condition. It gets worse.
When they finally arrived, the little town was packed with others who had recently arrived for the same reason. Everyone would be staying until the census was over. The inn was full. There were no rooms available. They would have to stay in a stable. And worse yet… on that night, when everything was going wrong, the baby was born.
This is how the newborn King arrived. Not in a palace, with wealth, luxury, and comfort, but in a stable, with an animal feeding trough for a crib. Surely God could have arranged for a palace. What was He trying to tell us?
Maybe things are not all Jingle Bells and the Most Wonderful Time of the Year for you these days. God understands. And maybe, in the midst of your struggles, God is at work. Maybe someday you will look back and see that, in spite of what now seems like a disaster, God was doing something special, miraculous, and sacred in your life.
Mary and Joseph could not have imagined that two thousand years later, we would celebrate that night and see it as a sacred event; that they would be the figurines on our mantles. For them it must have seemed that everything was going wrong. But God transformed a stable and a manger into something sacred, and turns crosses into empty tombs.