Great! …with child

I opened my calendar and counted the months. Our baby would be born in early January, which meant I would be great with child at Christmas. “Great!” I sighed, wondering if with child was a good thing for Christmas time.

A long time ago, there was another expectant mother, one much younger and more fearful than me. Perhaps she pulled out her calendar when she heard about a census of the entire Roman Empire. Perhaps she counted the months, sighed, and wondered. Continue reading

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Joseph: The Cost of Obedience

How long did it take Joseph to fall asleep that night, after he decided to divorce Mary? I imagine his conscience was clear, but I wonder if his heart still hesitated. Then, in the middle of the night, an angel came, saying, “Don’t do what you were planning to do. Do the exact opposite instead” (my paraphrase). Continue reading

Joseph: Nine Months before Christmas

It was one of those rock-and-a-hard-place moments. On the one hand, he longed to be faithful to the law. On the other hand, he wanted to be faithful—even gracious—to his future wife.

His wife… Would she still be his wife one day? Could he marry an unfaithful woman? Was the wedding off? It was his decision to make, and he felt like Moses, stuck between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. He couldn’t go forward, but there was no way he could go back. Continue reading

The Best Christmas Verses in the Bible

We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas the other night. I love it when Linus walks to center stage, drops his blanket, and recites the Christmas story from Luke 2. Sometimes, I say it along with him.

But this year, as I stood in a special night of worship, singing mostly Christmas carols, a different set of verses unexpectedly rang through my heart:

Christ Jesus…being in very nature God,
Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
Rather, he made himself nothing
By taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
By becoming obedient to death—
Even death on a cross!  -Philippians 2:5b-8

Is this not the essence of Christmas? It’s not Jesus’ coming as a baby that saves us for His glory. It’s His death. It’s not the peacefulness of the manger scene that informs our daily lives. It’s His life-long attitude of humility.

Consider…

Made himself nothing  A stable, some animals, a carpenter, and a teen-aged girl: an out-of-wedlock baby in an out-of-the-way town. On the surface, he’s the opposite of special.

The very nature of a servant  Excluded from the inn, He was equal only to some shepherds.

Made in human likeness  Crying, hungry, wholly dependent on others for every need…yes, He really was a real baby.

Found in appearance as a man  Jesus grew up like any other boy, experiencing all human life has to offer for someone in His station.

He humbled himself  As an adult, He wandered the countryside with no home. He touched the untouchable. He washed His own disciples’ feet.

Obedient to death—even death on a cross  To cap it all off, He willingly underwent the basest and cruelest form of capital punishment when he hung bleeding and naked on a wooden cross.

God’s purpose in Christ’s
presence culminates in
the cross.

Yes, the baby in Bethlehem is already our Savior and Lord, but without “the rest of the story,” we wouldn’t know how to follow Him. These verses encapsulate the events and the purpose of not only His arrival but His life. God’s purpose in Christ’s presence on earth doesn’t culminate in the manger but on the cross.

Don’t stop there, though. We still have a celebration!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place 
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth
And every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.     -Philippians 2:9-11

He began in the lowest of places: out behind the only inn in a little backwater town, admired by no one but some shepherds. But He ends in the highest place, with everyone—those who love Him and those who don’t—bowing in the greatest show of honor ever conceived.

Now that’s Christmas!

The best passage about #Christmas isn’t found in Matthew or Luke. What could it be? (click to tweet)

Have you ever noticed the Christmas-ness of a passage we don’t usually associate with the holiday? I would really love to hear about it! Please bless us all by sharing below.

The Cast of Christmas: Wise Men

The holiday season is over, the decorations and leftover wrapping paper stored away for next year (except that one dishtowel that just got washed. Every year, there’s something left out!). Our nativity scene Mary and Joseph have moved back into their storage box, while the real Mary and Joseph moved out of the stable into a less drafty and more appropriate home. They will still receive one very interesting set of visitors, however. The final characters in our cast of Christmas are the Wise Men.

Matthew 2:1-12.

Sorry, Mr. Hopkins

The wise men would have brought an entourage and created a spectacle as they walked through Jerusalem.

As much as I love “We Three Kings,” it’s not a very accurate song. (No offense, descendants of John Henry Hopkins, Jr..) These so-called “kings” were wise men or astrologers, sometimes called magi (Latin for ‘magicians’), along the lines of Daniel in the Old Testament (e.g. Daniel 2:2). Also, we have no documentation that there were three of them. That number is assumed because of the three gifts listed by Matthew. It’s reasonable to think that Matthew simply listed a few example gifts after saying the men “opened their treasures” (2:11). It’s also reasonable to assume these men didn’t travel alone. Probably well-respected officials in a king (or kings) court(s), they would have brought an entourage and created a spectacle as they walked through Jerusalem.

Where did they come from? We don’t actually know. It wasn’t the Orient (back to the inaccurate carol) as we think of it today, meaning Eastern Asia. By “Orient” Mr. Hopkins meant the Near East: Persia, Babylon (where Daniel most certainly left a legacy), or the Arabian Peninsula. I know that frankincense is produced in Oman and Yemen, so they could have come from there.

Wise, Yes, but Neither Subtle nor Sophisticated

We can’t give the wise men any points for subtlety. Look what they did! They just waltzed into Jerusalem and started asking around about a new king. Herod was the king. He liked being king. He liked it so much that he killed anyone who threatened him. Then some foreigners in fancy clothes showed up and started looking for another king. Word got back to him quickly. (The text doesn’t say they went straight to Herod. Verse one just says they came to Jerusalem.)

To be wise men, it seems to me that these guys were rather unsophisticated, at least regarding how things worked in Jerusalem. They thought people would know about this new “king of the Jews” when Jesus had been born in a stable, cast aside by the world. They also thought Herod would be interested, if not excited. Well, he was interested…in a way. When Herod heard “the word on the street,” he held a conference with his own wise men to get the backstory. Then, he secretly (Had you noticed that before? I hadn’t. Matthew 2:7) called in the wise men and pointed them in the right direction. Look how Jim Key portrays Herod in Cotton Patch Gospel by Harry Chapin. (Watch the first thirty seconds, or watch the full five minutes to learn the repercussions of this situation.)

Undaunted by Obstacles

The wise men arrived in Jerusalem only to learn that no one had even heard about a new king. In fact, they had still further to travel; their only lead was that one verse from Micah, so they couldn’t be certain of an answer when they got there. Yet they didn’t give up. (Okay, so it’s only five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but this is still a good point!)

How many people give up just short of the finish line? In my life, I’ve been tempted to give up writing (as a career) several times in the last few months, but I keep thinking that results/answers may be really close! Compared to 1000 miles (the distance from Babylon to Jerusalem), five miles is easy. I’ve run five miles before. It’s not that far.

The wise men also didn’t give up when the star stopped above a humble house in a humble town in what many considered the armpit of the Roman Empire.  Look at verse 11.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.

Walking into that little house wasn’t what they expected, but it was what they sought.

They went to Jerusalem, the capital city, expecting to find an honored king. He was born King of the Jews, after all (2:2). So walking into that little house in Bethlehem wasn’t what they expected to be the culmination of their journey. But it was what they sought.

IMG_6866
This is frankincense. Ask me sometime, and I’ll tell you how I know so much about it.  (c) Carole Sparks

How often do we seek God’s will with expectations or assumptions already in our minds? How often do we reject His provision because it doesn’t look right in our eyes? Oh friends! If the Holy Spirit has been leading me like the star led the wise men, then the answer is correct even if it looks paltry! I’m tempted to use more exclamation points here because this is BIG! And it just came to me right now as I was writing!! Cry with me at how often we think we have a better idea than God…how often we reject His perfection for our predictions!

The wise men got it. They humbled themselves. “They bowed down and worshiped him,” and then they responded exactly as we should. They opened their treasure chests—their valuable possessions—and gave Him the best gifts they had. Giving is a natural part of worship. They didn’t skimp or stutter. In those days, frankincense was more expensive than gold.

What about the gifts?

IMG_6872
This is myrrh.  (c) Carole Sparks

Here’s a random question: What did Mary and Joseph do with those weird gifts? Did they keep them forever? Maybe…just maybe…those gifts funded their trip to Egypt and their resettlement costs. It’s expensive to move. Mary and Joseph fled in the middle of the night (Matthew 2:14). They didn’t have time for a yard sale, and they couldn’t post a bunch of furniture on Craigslist. Maybe they sold those expensive things along the way. Isn’t that a beautiful idea? I have no clue, really, but this would have been a beautiful expression of God’s provision. The day before they have to move, a bunch of strangers load them down with relatively useless but very expensive gifts. Praise God!

Alpha and Omega

And now, one of the most beautiful parts of the story…and a great way to close this series.

In calling wise men, through the special star, God reached out to the highest level of society. In calling the shepherds, through an angel, He reached out to the dregs of society. The wise men were Gentiles. The shepherds were Jews. The wise men travelled a long way, spending much money to see Jesus. The shepherds walked into town. Do you see how broad God’s love is? When God says, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 22:13), He is using a literary device. It means that He is the ends and everything in between, like we say, “From A to Z.” This is what we have with the nativity visitors! Through Jesus’ coming, God reached out to the rich and the poor, the important and the overlooked, the near and the far, the fast-tracked and the outliers…and everyone in between. That means he reached out to you.

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The Cast of Christmas: Simeon

The days after Christmas are some of my favorite days in the year. If the weeks leading up to Christmas are a continual intake of air, culminating in an explosion of wrapping paper, cookies, and candle-lit Silent Nights, the days after Christmas are a long, slow exhale filled with reflection on the closing year and anticipation of the year to come. Maybe that’s why I like to ruminate on Simeon and Anna (although she’s not in this post), those ancient players in the closing scene of our Christmas tableau.

Luke 2:22-35.

Identifying with I AM

We know so little about Simeon. We don’t know what tribe he claimed, what sort of family he had, or how old he was. But what we do know is the most important thing about him. He was righteous and devout. His identity (at least from this distance) is wrapped up in his relationship with God.

Story Break: What is the first thing people say about you? I pray that people say of me, “She loves Jesus” before they say anything about my career, my family, or my status in society.

Living with Expectancy

Simeon’s faithfulness over the years had created an enviable intimacy with God. Here we are, thirty-three years before Jesus sends the Comforter (a.k.a. the Holy Spirit; John 14:16-17, 26), and Luke says the Holy Spirit was already on Simeon. That means he operated in God’s will on a daily basis as he heard from the Holy Spirit and obeyed. As a result (and maybe as a reward), God promised him that he would see the Messiah before he died. In faith, Simeon believed the Lord before it ever happened and, like Abraham, God credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

Mary wasn’t the only expectant one
in the Christmas story.

When Simeon got the impression that he should go to the temple that particular day (2:27), he knew something was going on. Perhaps it wasn’t the first time God had called him there. Perhaps on other days he had ministered to the needy, counseled the hurting, or just spent the day in worship. Regardless, he knew there was a purpose in the calling, and he entered with expectancy.

Story Break: I used to think such a relationship with God/the Holy Spirit was a New Testament thing, some remarkable outpouring of the Spirit meant for that time. As I’ve grown in understanding how God works in the world, however, I have personally experienced that kind of leading…that urge to go to a certain place or speak to a certain person. It’s not mysticism or mental instability. It’s a clear impulse of the Holy Spirit that’s distinguishable from your own good ideas. There’s no “ought to” guilt or “have to” compulsion, just an impression or an implanted knowledge which results in obedience. When that happens (which is not as often as I would like), I automatically start looking around for what God is doing in that place or with that person. The prayer is, “Okay God, you brought me here. What now?” I expect something to happen because God is clearly at work.

Proof of the Promise

When Simeon saw the Baby Jesus, the Holy Spirit worked in his heart so that he recognized Jesus as the Messiah. In Him, Simeon held proof of the long-ago promise: the personal promise to him that he would see the Messiah before he died, and the universal promise that all nations will be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-2).

Simeon’s statement of praise gives us further evidence of this. He was expectant on a universal, for-all-time scale, saying, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel (2:32). He was also expectant on a personal, daily scale; my eyes have seen your salvation (2:30).

As a Christ-follower repeatedly obeys, he or she comes to see more and more of God’s plan unfolded on both scales, and that person begins to expect to see God working.

Obedience generates expectancy.

The Cast of Christmas: Shepherds

God likes shepherds. Just think about it. Moses was a shepherd for forty years. David was a shepherd before he became king. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). Of the twenty-one verses that Luke devotes to Jesus’ birth, thirteen of those are about the shepherds. That’s almost two-thirds.

Why shepherds?

Hired field hands. Unskilled labor. It was one step above unemployment: the graveyard shift, with constant exposure to the weather and meager pay, no education requirements and minimal on-the-job training. It was boring, thankless, and smelly.

So you have to ask, “Why?” (At least I have to ask. Maybe you don’t, but I ask God a lot of questions.) Of all the options God had…of all the population segments he could have chosen (even among the working class)…why choose shepherds? I think the answer is in the question. It’s one of those surprising things God does that is so very far from what we would expect of God, which is why He does it. Can we just delight in that fact for a second?

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29

The shepherds could celebrate
without self-consciousness.

God chose them exactly because they were such an unlikely choice. Because the wise, the strong, the important all try to take some of the glory for themselves. As Paul puts it, they boast in front of Him.  But shepherds? They knew better than to boast. They understood their proper position before the God of the Universe. They could just celebrate without self-consciousness. Oh, that we were all a bit more like the shepherds…except without the stink.

Let’s take a look at a couple of interesting things about the shepherds.

Luke 2:8-20.

They don’t doubt.

The shepherds went to Bethlehem for the spectacle, not because they were skeptical.

After the angels leave, the shepherds don’t sit around and discuss what just happened. They don’t wonder if they hallucinated, neither do they question what the angel really said. In other words, they never doubt the veracity of the angels’ message. When they say, “Let’s go…see this thing” (2:15), they go for the spectacle, not because they are skeptical.

This response demonstrates an already-burgeoning faith because they haven’t actually seen anything yet. Later, Jesus will say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

When they got a word from God, they “hurried off” (2:16).  Yep—hurried.  Not “wandered,” not “made a plan.” Do we hurry to grab a bigger chunk of what God is doing? I know I’m more likely to doubt, then pray, then plan, then get distracted…until the opportunity has slipped by unheeded and I’m found disobedient despite having received a clear word from the Lord.

They start sharing.

As soon as the shepherds see Jesus in Bethlehem, they start spreading the word. I imagine they crowd into the stable (or whatever it is), some peeking in through the windows, some carrying baby lambs, some leaving their shepherd’s crooks outside the door. After a few “oohs” and “ahhs,” it dawns on them that this news is too good to keep to themselves. One by one, they remember someone they know in town, maybe a relative or the guy who runs the candle stand, and they step away to find that person. In a few minutes, they come back half-leading, half-dragging a still-groggy cousin or a grumbling shopkeeper. Those secondary people realize what has happened and are “amazed at what the shepherds said” (2:18). They, in turn, go back to get even more people. Perhaps this is what Mary “treasured up…and pondered in her heart” (2:19).

The shepherds were counted worthy of greeting the Messiah!

Only later do the shepherds return, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (2:20). They were counted worthy of greeting the Messiah and of telling others!  We’ve also been counted worthy, haven’t we?

Welcome to the world that you created, Jesus!

…and Merry Christmas, friends.