Category Archives: Feature Presentations

FEAR ITSELF: The Man of Galilee

But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
Mark 16:6,7

“…and Peter.”
Those words kept ringing in the Galilean fisherman’s ears all night, filling him with both excitement and dread as his boat bobbed on the waters of the Sea of Tiberias. The salty scent of the sea and the cool breeze had been commonplace to him for much of his life, but after a three-year stint away from the trade, he realized that he’d missed it. The familiarity of the scenery was probably what he needed right about now.
Simon and his brother Andrew had left their fishing business to follow their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Oh, but he was so much more. This miracle-working rabbi had changed their lives with his message of bringing God’s kingdom to the world, and showing that it starts in the hearts of men. Simon – or ‘Peter’ as Jesus called him, the unshakeable stone – and his friends were convinced that he was sent of God and was, indeed, the son of God. Those last three years had changed their lives forever. Most especially, those three days at Passover.
Jesus was killed by the people. It was a spectacle that ruined Passover for the whole nation gathered at Jerusalem. His followers had all gone into hiding in the days that followed, afraid they would be next. And then on the third day, Jesus suddenly was not dead anymore. The grave was empty.
He was alive. Again, it filled Simon with both joy and dread.
…and Peter…
The past few days had been filled with some of the most extraordinary events. The women had seen an angel at the tomb, telling them that Jesus had risen. And, sure enough, Jesus appeared to the disciples and spoke with them. He had since been seen at different places, interacting with the people, walking with some as they travelled, coming and going as he pleased, encouraging them. These were truly exciting times to be alive.
But for Simon, as excited as he was, he needed a return to some normalcy. He had decided to go fishing when some of the others asked to come along.
“Ugh, how you folk do this is beyond me,” Thomas said from the stern. He had not been a fisherman before and had come along just to be among his friends.
“For starters, by not making comments like that,” Andrew came back.
“We’ve been here all night!
John smiled. “We’d make a fisherman of you yet. Like my Pa used to say, no fishin’, no eatin’, no sleepin’. We die here.”
Thomas blinked. “Well, looks like we really don’t have to die anymore, eh?”
James shook his head. “It was just an expression. An anachronism, really—“
“I mean, I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but I put my finger in the nail hole of His hand, man.”
“We were there,” Andrew said over his shoulder.
“We should be out there, showing Him to the world. It’s nothing short of incredible. One moment he’s dead and we think we’re goners, the next he’s right there, standing in front of us.”
John chuckled. “You’ve been going over the same thing all night.”
“I mean, I didn’t believe you guys before. It was going to be the last time I allowed myself to accept the supernatural. But then He called me by name. As if He knew.”
“He always did know,” Nathanael said. “Things men weren’t supposed to know, He knew. Like the time he first met me, he told me where I had been earlier that day …”
And on and on they kept recounting events from their times with Jesus. Words he had spoken before suddenly made more sense in hindsight.
But for Simon, memories were what he was running from. The particular memory of that night. The night he denied knowing Jesus.
He had always known himself to be courageous, strong and always ready to take risks for a worthy cause. Maybe that’s why he had stuck out here all night, to once again prove to himself that he was strong and rugged. Because that one night, in the face of something he should have stood for, he had cowered like a rat.
Jesus had known beforehand too, and warned him.
The night Jesus was arrested Simon was ready to die for him, or to even rescue him. He had even snuck around the high priest’s house during the hearings. But then he was found out.
First it was the servant-girl that recognised him as one of his disciples. Sharply, without giving it a second thought, he retorted, “No way! I’m not!”
It was just strategy, he had thought. Soon enough he would be able to get in and get Jesus out of there.
Then as he warmed himself by the fire, someone asked again. “I am not one His disciples!”
But his accent gave him away. And then he found himself believing what he was trying to say. For that moment, swearing and cursing, he yelled, “I have no idea who you’re talking about! I don’t know this Jesus! I have nothing to do with Him!”
And the cock crowed, just as Jesus had said.
He was Peter, the unshakeable stone, the courageous disciple. The one who had always been with Jesus. The one who had seen Moses and Elijah appear to speak with Jesus. The one they all looked to. But when it really mattered, all of that was gone. For the first time, he saw the weakling that he was. That he had always been. He felt nothing like a Peter anymore. Beneath the unshakeable stone that Jesus had thought he was, he was simply Simon, son of Jonah.
But now Jesus was alive.
The angel had told the women, “Go tell His disciples, and Peter…” Jesus had not rejected him despite his denial. He should feel loved, grateful, thankful … but it made Simon feel small. Weak. Helpless. He did not deserve this.
Jesus had appeared to them, but He’d not mentioned the denials. Would He ever?
Simon turned to his friends and caught John’s stare. The younger man had been there that night, but he had not mentioned that bit to the others. No one knew of his denial of Jesus. They would never believe it.
Just as they never would have believed Judas would betray the Master.
“Got new orders for us, Captain?” John asked.
Simon was about to respond when a voice called from the beach. “Shalom aleichem, young men! Got any fish?”
“This would be embarrassing,” Thomas muttered.
“Not yet!” James called. “But we will! Shalom!”
“Way to keep the faith…”
“How ‘bout you cast your nets to the right of your vessel?”
“Just as well. The spectator thinks he knows how to fish better than us —“
“THOMAS!” they all turned to him, weary of his sarcastic banter.
“What?!”
Simon grunted, pulling up the nets. “We might as well. Don’t make no difference, anywhichways.”
“You know what this reminds me of?” Andrew piped.
“Don’t,” Simon said under his breath.
“We all know this story,” John added. “When you first met Jesus!”
“Don’t need to recount it,” Simon said.
“What’s your deal?” Andrew said. “Why are you so down when we’re all… whoa, didn’t expect that.” He pulled harder at the net. “Guys, are you seeing this?”
Simon was feeling it more than seeing it. The nets were suddenly getting tauter by the second. And heavier. It could be anything … but he knew it couldn’t be just anything except…
“Ah!” Thomas yelped as a fish splashed on his face and down on the deck, to the amusement of the others. And more fish came up. The net was tipping the boat on its side as it filled with more fishes, piling and squirming in.
“Is this really happening?”
“Good Golan Heights, put your backs into it!” Simon yelled. “We’ve hit the mother lode, boys.”
“Oi, again with the anachronisms,” James muttered between pants.
Simon felt a nudge. It was John, looking back to shore. “Isn’t this the kind of thing He’d do?”
Simon followed his gaze. The stranger on the beach was still standing there, a smile barely visible from this distance. Barely familiar, if Simon allowed himself to go that far.
John turned to him. “It’s Him! It’s the Master!”
Simon knew. Like in a dream, he realised he had really always known. He knew with all his heart that—
“Whoa! Hold on!”
But Simon had already grabbed his coat and leaped into the sea. He came up for air. “I’m OK! Tie the nets to the stern and drag it to shore.” And with that he swam, hurrying towards shore. Hurrying towards Jesus.
The Master stood on the shore, grinning. A fire of coals lay by his feet, and sure enough fish was roasting on it. He had bread in his hands. Wait, if He already had fish why was He asking for fish? And He still grinned, a twinkle in His eye.
“Master…” Simon ran into His embrace, still wet and cold.
“It’s about time, My friend.”
The others arrived by the boat, the net dragging behind them. If sight were any judge Peter guessed there were over a hundred fish caught. If he were still in the business this would have been a windfall. Amazingly, the net had not broken. But the Master was here. The disciples hurried over to him.
“You guys have been at sea all night,” He rubbed his palms. “Join me. Let’s have breakfast.”
It was just like old times. After they had laid out the fish to dry they sat with the Master as they caught up on everything that had been going on. Nothing else felt wrong in the world when they were with the Master, even though they could not keep their eyes off the holes in His hands no matter how hard they tried. Even Simon’s fears seemed to hang somewhere in the back of his mind now.
When they were done, Jesus turned to him. “Simon bar Jonah. Do you love me more than these?”
“Without question, Master.” He felt the gazes of the others bore into him. He felt John’s the one who had been there that night. He had once felt like the Master’s most loyal follower. Not anymore. But he wanted Jesus to know that he did love him. “You know that I love you, Master.”
Jesus nodded. “My lambs, I want you to feed them. Feed my lambs.”
So Jesus still trusted him with responsibility, just like always.
But He wasn’t done. “Simon bar Jonah. Do you love me?”
He had not put the comparison with the others this time. Simon’s response was less confident. “Yes, Master. You know that I do. Love you.” He gulped. “You know that I love you, Master.”
Jesus nodded. “Feed my sheep.” He sidled closer. “Simon bar Jonah. Do you love me?”
It was the third time.
Just like the three times he denied Jesus.
He knows! And He’s telling me that He does.
“Lord, you know all things. You know that I really do love you.”
I am sorry, Lord.

“Feed my sheep.”
Peter blinked. Really? Despite all that You know? You trust me to feed your people?
Jesus looked up at the others, bringing them into the conversation. “You see, when you were younger, you could dress up and go and do whatever it is you wanted to. When you get older, others will help you get there. You will be too frail to.” He looked into their eyes. “Sometimes your spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
He had said the same in the garden, before his crucifixion. Simon remembered this well, because Jesus had said it to him.
“This is the death that would glorify God. The more you grow in My grace, the more you will see My strength aiding you, empowering you in all you need to do. Your dependence on Me, not by your strength. Not the strength you think you have, but the one I give. The arm of flesh will fail.” He turned to Simon. “It always does. This is the death that glorifies God. The death of self, so that My life may flow through you. Without me, you really can do nothing.”
He placed His hand on his shoulder. “Follow me.”
There was something about knowing that Jesus knew every detail of him – his strengths and flaws – and still accepting him that assured Peter that he was in the right place. In the day of adversity, his strength had failed. But this strength that Jesus was promising, this Holy Spirit that He had been promising to send from the Father would help him to be and do all that he needs to. To stand in the face of adversity, to walk in His Master’s footsteps.
To follow Jesus.
And, yes, now he felt like an unshakeable stone. Unshakeable, because he would be held not by his own power, but by the power of God.
Yes, he knew he really was Peter.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,
Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Peter in a letter to the exiles of the dispersion, circa A.D. 65-68 over 30 years after the Resurrection

(1 Peter 1:3-5)

—–

To every one of us, our courage can only carry us so far.
And when our strength fails, it makes us feel less than we thought we were. It makes us doubt our strength.
But God sees that. He does not berate us for acting or being weaker than we ought. No, He comes to our very level to show us His strength and enablement, and by His love brings us to His level. As we grow to trust Him more, our confidence in Him is restored, and we grow in Him. Soon we realise that what made us afraid really is nothing in the face of the Lord who is alive in us.
Like David said, “…when my heart is overwhelmed, ‘Lead me to the rock that is higher than I!’ ” (Psalm 61:2)
God’s perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). His love toward us makes us realise then that He does not come to judge us for our fear. He comes to calm our hearts so we can see Him bigger than our fears, and we can trust in His strength.
And that’s what He delights in. Like a Father, He embraces us and sings in our ears, surrounding us with songs of His deliverance (Psalm 32:7). Telling our hearts of His power to save and deliver. This is how He casts out our fear. Through His words to us.
Therefore, we cannot afford to be distant from God’s Word. It is how He speaks to us, through what He has said as it is written. The Holy Spirit is alive and at work in us to give us understanding and to guide us.

This is the ultimate victory over fear, God’s love for us. He showed this completely in redemption, coming as Man to die and rise for our sake, to make us free from the bonds of sin and death.

Our awareness and acceptance of His love toward us is what frees us from fear.

Everything that could ever defeat you has been defeated by Jesus’ death on the cross. Through His victory over death, He has taken away its sting over you. You need not fear death, or anything else. We are more than conquerors ‘…through Him that loved us!’ (Romans 8:37)
I consistently remind myself of the fact that if God loves me that much, He would not let evil befall me. It is not His nature or desire to. So even if there is an appearance of evil looming, like the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil “For Thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Your victory over fear is not in your confidence in yourself. Rather, it is in your confidence in God’s love for you and His power at work in you. The more you give yourself to His Word, the more your heart receives His songs of deliverance, and the more your mindset is transformed to see your fears as the shadows they simply are in the face of the One Who is in you. Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.
So even if you’ve ever given in to fear, it’s OK. All Jesus asks of you, from wherever you are in your faith walk or lack thereof, is what Jesus has asked of us all. Just as He said to Peter. It’s His Way, the only Way that gives you Life, and Love.
“Follow Me.”

Advertisements

FEAR ITSELF: The Man of Arimathaea

After this, Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus…’

John 19:38

“Prefect of Galilee. Procurator of Judea. It’s a promotion, they said. It will be a breeze, they said. Well, you know what I say? These Jews are impossible! Every month another uprising. But today, today was the worst!” Pontius Pilate trudged down the steps with his servant barely keeping up.
“It’s not the whole council that’s in the court, sire. Just one of them.”
“What more do they want? To get archers to impale the Nazarene while he’s on the cross too? What, a crucifixion’s not enough? Gods, I’m not shouting all of this, am I? Hope he doesn’t get that idea from me. Sounds don’t carry to the court from this stairwell, do they, Gaius?”
“Not that I know of, sire.”
Pilate grunted. “You were never a good liar, Gaius.”
Soldiers stood at attention as Pilate walked into the courtyard. The Jewish council member turned to gaze at him with forlorn eyes, nodding in greeting. “Most excellent Procurator—“
“Yes, yes, we haven’t got all day.”
“I am Joseph, sir. Of Arimathaea. Member of the Sanhedrin.”
“You lot have interrupted my peace twice today over that man. This had better be quick. You’re here to request for the Nazarene’s body.”
“Yes I am, sir.”
“Tell me this, Jacob, tell me this—“
“Joseph.”
“— you Jews are becoming more Roman with your bloodlust. Never more so than this morning. ‘Crucify him,’ the crowd chanted. ‘Crucify him!’ I understand that you hated the man, but what more do you want with his body?”
Joseph had the carriage of a man familiar with the norms of standing and speaking before authority. But his shifting eyes belied his courage.
“Not all of us ‘hate’ him, sir.”
Pilate arched a brow. “You just didn’t agree with his doctrine.”
Joseph winced. “Sir, I want to give the Teacher the good burial he deserves. I own a sepulchre over by Golgotha. A stone’s throw from the crosses. Whatever the cost, I ask for his body.”
Pilate folded his arms. “This is new. Does Caiaphas and his other cronies know about this?”
Joseph nodded slowly. “They will. Eventually.”
Pilate arched his brows. “And you are ready for their vitriol?”
“Better now than never, sir.”
Pilate took a step closer to Joseph. He too had listened to the Nazarene speak. He too had had his own questions about him. Even his wife had been tormented with nightmares on his account. Something about all this did not seem right. “You were on the Council this morning. You sat there as your people called for this man’s death. But you remained silent.”
“Yes, I did. Because I knew there was much to fear from my people. Hate is a terrible thing in the heart of man, sir, especially when he thinks he hates in the name of God.”
“The man claimed to be God, if I recall. A bold claim among your people. Said he had a kingdom not of this world.”
Joseph nodded, the forlorn gaze remaining in his eyes. “Yes. Yes he did.”
“Seemed to think he really was all that, if you can believe it.”
Joseph looked up at him. “I believe he was who he said he was.”
Pilate smirked. “And yet, he dies on a cross like any mortal.”
Joseph stared away. “Yes, he does.”
“Caiaphas wouldn’t take your words lightly. You could lose your place on the Council.”
Joseph shrugged. “I have considered all of this. I know the cost. But to be silent in the face of truth … I can do that no longer. There are worse things than death, sire. This man did not deserve what he got. My position, my standing … the Council, it is nothing in the face of what is true and right and just.”
Everyone who knows the Truth hears my voice, the Nazarene had said juat this morning.
The sound of Marcellus, the centurion, marching into the hall from outside jolted Pilate from his reverie.
Pilate nodded. “Be that as it may, you would have to wait until after he dies. This may take a couple hours, or days—“
“The Nazarene has passed, sir.” Marcellus said, his helmet in the crook of his hands as he saluted. “He’s dead.”
Pilate grunted. “Now that was fortuitous. One could say a deus exit machina, amiright…”
But the horror on the Arimathean’s face silenced him. This man was grieving.
Pilate pursed his lips. “Few things make a man take the risk you have taken. Love, sometimes. Maybe honour. In this particular case, I am not certain they are mutually exclusive.” He nodded. “You will have his body. Go, give him the burial he deserves, Joseph of Arimathaea.”

———-

Joseph of Arimathaea is another figure that pops up on the stage of Scripture in one or two verses, does something, and pops out. But what he did had an effect on history forever. And it wa an act of courage over fear.
Joseph was a wealthy man and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council of leaders. He was a secret follower of Jesus, ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 19:38). He was likely there when Jesus was being tried, but to expose himself as a follower of Jesus would have risked his position and standing in the community, and even his very life.
But later he courageously went to Pilate the governor to request for Jesus’ body. He had a rock-hewn tomb, something only the rich could afford, and he asked to bury Jesus’ body there.
Going to Pilate was an open statement to all, especially to his colleagues who hated Jesus. This same tomb later caused the priests to request for guards to seal it.I do not blame Joseph for hiding the fact that he followed Jesus at the time. But it tells me something about fear.
One thing that fear does is that it makes us silent in the face of what is right. It makes us comfortable with what is wrong as long as we do not take any risks. But this mindset is what allows evil to be perpetrated, especially in these depraved times.
But Joseph took a courageous step and used his tomb.
Apart from the world outside, for ourselves, fear keeps us from reaching out into the much-more that God has prepared for us. If Joseph had done nothing he would most likely have still had a good life. But he did, and he got into something more fulfilling, being a vessel in God’s hands.

To be a part of what God wants to do in us, vessels in His hands, we need to be courageous.
Do you know that Jesus being buried in that kind of tomb was a fulfilment of prophecy, that he would be buried with the rich (Isaiah 53:9) and that his body would not decay (Psalm 16:10). By acting in courage, Joseph became engrafted into a plan God had set in motion long ago.

Courage is not the absence of fear. Rather, it is doing what is right even in the midst of fear.

For a child of God, our courage is rooted in the knowledge and assurance that God is for us and with is and in us, even when we don’t ‘feel’ it, but because God’s Word says so. And that is Truth.It is why when Joshua became the leader of the Israelites to lead them into the Promised Land, God told him over and over to be courageous. He told him to keep on meditating on the Law, the Words of God. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

You know, Joseph of Arimathaea reminds me of another Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. He too had to make a courageous decision, to stick by Mary when she was pregnant, at a time and in a society that would have shunned them. But he trusted in what God said and courageously stayed with her. This was the kind of man God trusted to father his Son.Isn’t it just like God to place two Josephs, one at the beginning and the other at the end, to take care of His Son’s body?

To conceive, bring forth and nurture God’s counsel in our lives and in our world, we need to be courageous. Fear is just an illusion in the face of what God can do through you. Don’t let it limit you.And when we do what He calls us to, then we find our true and best selves.

Trust in His ability.

Be courageous.

Point to consider: What things do you know you ought to do that fear has fear kept you from doing?

FEAR ITSELF

Ever since the Fall, sin and death have held men and women in bondage, so that life becomes a sprint from birth to death. In the space in between, the enemy has used the fear of death to keep humanity in bondage.
Fear keeps us shortsighted, blinding us to the salvation God has provided.
It keeps is stagnant, afraid to venture out and expand into greater things.
It causes us to base our hopes and lives on variable and fickle things that will crumble.
The fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of loss. All rooted in the fear of death.

But Jesus came to change all that. In His death amd resurrection He defeated sin and death, and came to “…deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Hebrews 2:15
He defeated death and turned into into a doorway to the best parts of our eternity, when it is time.
He is ever with us, so we need not fear death.
Yet, in our lives, we encounter fears in one form or the other.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be putting 3 men in the spotlight. These guys were players in the background during the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And each of their stories are pictures of some fears we face. We will look at them and see what we can learn from them, and how they overcame fear (for those who did).
The casualty of fear is a price we need not pay. Jesus did, so we can live boldly and free.
I hope you enjoy this series.
Thanks for coming by.

And, here we go…

The Man of Kerioth

The Man of Arimathaea

The Man of Galilee

The third instalment will be posted on Sunday, April 20, 2019

FACES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY: The Gift of Immanuel

#FacesoftheChristmasStory

Behold, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel–which, when translated, means, God with us.
Matthew 1:23, quoting a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14

Immanuel: God With Us. What a beautiful concept.
It’s out-of-this-world: a Person that is with us, but is also God. Of course, this was fulfilled in Jesus.
But Immanuel encompasses so much … SO MUCH. Imagine that: if God, the Maker of all that exists, was with you what would that really mean?
Let’s take a little look.
God With Us means that God would be among us. He would become a Man like us. He would eat our food, sleep in our human beds, walk our human roads, be involved in our human conversations, and be an all-round human. This is what God did when He became a man. Jesus grew up like a human would and fulfilled the Father’s plan. He was God among us, and He was human in every way. He felt like we feel and knows how we think. He’s been in our shoes, and He knows what we need at every situation.
God With Us also means that God would be, well, with us. Accompanying us. Involved in all of our things. What does that really mean? In Isaiah 41:10 God says, “Don’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you.” God, with you, would give you strength, help you, and hold you steady.
Finally, to those who are saved, we can look back through the lens of the Redemption Work of Jesus to see that Immanuel means God is alive in us. That’s as close as anyone can get. He is at work in us, through His Spirit, to make us will (or want to do) and to make us do what will give Him most pleasure (Philippians 2:13). He is transforming us, making us more like Him, through His Spirit in us.
It’s a refreshing and amazing thing to have such a relationship with the One Who made us and knows us.

The Faces of the Christmas Story Project has shown us a glimpse into the lives of a couple of personalities involved in and affected by the coming of God as a man. The Christmas Story. But beyond and through it all, they also show us what God-With-Us means, for it was Him working behind-the-scenes.
The Prophets showed us that God is with us to fulfil His promises.
The Angels showed us that God is with us to favour us.
Zacharias showed us that God is with us in our doubts, and will not leave us even till we come to believe His Word. He is patient with us in our faith journeys.
Elisabeth showed us that God is with us to do His miracles in our lives, even to the impossible. Nothing is impossible with Him.
Caesar Augustus showed us that God is ruling in the affairs of men, even of those in authority, on our behalf.
King Herod’s story showed us that God is with us to affirm us, and that we need not live with a sense of inferiority, seeking the approval of men.
The Magi showed us that God is with us to make us so highly favoured that others will come to our rising, to receive of His Light shining in us.
The Shepherds showed us that God came for everyone, even to the lowliest.
The Innkeeper who had no room for Jesus to be born showed us that wherever Christ enters (even if it is a stable), He makes into something special.
Joseph showed us the life of a faithful man. God is with us through His Spirit to make us faithful.
Mary showed us that God is with us to make us partakers of His purposing, using us to bring it to pass on the earth.
All of these and more are encapsulated in ‘Immanuel’.
Over the past 11 days we have covered these 11 people. And now we are at the 12th person. The tagline of this Project is ’12 Lives Called to be a part of God’s Story.’ If you noticed, each of the previous articles had names of characters as their titles, but this one doesn’t. We’ve talked about the meaning of Immanuel, but do you get who the final person should be?
Who else is called to be a part of God’s Story?
It’s mostly conditional. Because that person is…
YOU.
The relevance of Immanuel to Christmas is that God has come for you. Not just the world, but you. The story is generally celebrated worldwide, but we must understand it at a personal level.
Immanuel is God with you.
Jesus came to die and rise, to make the way for you to come back to God. The way is still open. But at the personal level, it is completed when you receive His gift, and come into this Way.
This is the comfort and confidence and blessing of the Christmas story. At the personal level, the story is complete when you receive God’s gift of Eternal Life through faith in Jesus Christ.
Immanuel is God’s Promise to us. It may have seemed like He had abandoned us, like we were alone, like we were helpless. But no more. He came to be among us, He is with us, and now He is in us.

So what do you say?
Have you received His Gift?
Will you?

And when you do receive God’s Gift, you enter into the line of those who are a part of God’s Story, and He writes the best stories for His characters. He’s with and in every one of them, working things out for their good. In saving us, He has given us His best. And He is still with us.
This way, Christmas for us becomes a celebration of all God is to us and all He gave to us when He came to us. The birth of Jesus was just the beginning.
And now every single day becomes a celebration too, not only Christmas. Because we are never on our own, and never alone.
God has come to be with us.
Immanuel.

Thanks for joining this 12-day journey.
Have a Very Merry Christmas!

FACES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY: Mary

“…In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary.” Luke 1:26,27

 

One thing we do know about Mary is that her surname was definitely not ‘Christmas’! (Blessed are you if you did not get that terrible pun. My sincere apologies if you did)

But what do we know about the girl chosen by God to be the mother of His Son?

Based on the age of betrothal in those times, we can say she was a teenager. Some believe she may have been from David’s line, like Joseph. Some believe she may have been a Levite, like her cousin Elisabeth. But not much attention is given to her heritage in the accounts. It shows the common ground, that the criteria for God using a person to bring forth His purposes is not dependent on their heritage or experience. Could God have used just anyone to bring forth his Son in this world?

But then, Mary was not just anyone. There’s a lot we can learn from her actions and words.

When the angel told her that she would bear the Son, she believed. She asked how it would occur seeing as she was a virgin and unmarried, but when the angel explained she submitted to God’s will. “I am the Lord’s handmaiden,” she said. “Be it unto me according to your word.”

Oh, if we would have such confidence and trust in God’s Word. Usually, the things He wants to birth in us are much bigger than us or our current circumstances. Yet He calls those things out of us, bringing them forth through us. Ours is to believe His Word, His promise, and trust that He will bring it to pass.

We should always remember that God’s Word and instructions also embody the enablement to bring it to pass. When God said to the first man, “Be fruitful and multiply,” it was not just an instruction. It was a blessing that brought the fruitfulness and multiplication into action. He told Abraham, “Walk before me and be perfect.” He determines the terms of His Word and its fulfilment. His Word is spirit and life. And as such, when His word goes forth, there is the enablement and power in it. Actually, His Word is the power itself. The Gospel, for example, is the power of God unto salvation. Anyone who hears and believes it is saved.

Mary responded in faith to God’s Word.

 

But when she heard it, who could she tell? She was going to give birth to the Son of God? It sounded like a poorly constructed fairy tale, like a young girl’s fantasy. Who could understand this? I am sure she had some questions. She probably felt alone.

The angel had said that her older cousin, Elisabeth, was also pregnant. Mary took the trip immediately to meet her. Elisabeth was six months pregnant already when Mary arrived. When she did, Elisabeth’s baby leaped in her womb. And she exclaimed in blessing, confirming what the angel had told Mary, calling her the mother of her Lord. Mary was encouraged.

In bringing God-ordained ideas and visions to reality, the right association is very important. Surround yourself with, and esteem highly the friendship with people who share your faith and values. Stay in the company of those that have gone some way in the path you are just setting out on. What they have learnt will build you up, and what you bring to bear will strengthen them too. This is fellowship, and is what brings forth growth and inspiration. Like Hebrews 10:24 and 25 tells us, “…let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…”

 

Elisabeth’s words sparked a song of praise in Mary. The enormity of what God was doing was impressed greatly on her and she could see how great God is, and how little she was by herself, and the grace in His workings in her. The more we look at what God is doing or has done, the better we will see and know Him, and His love for us expressed in His grace towards us will engulf our hearts and how we view ourselves. She saw herself in God’s eyes. That in the stretch of time and eternity, the Almighty God had chosen her to be His channel to bring forth a blessing to all mankind.

 

She would still have more children – some of which would be instrumental in Christ’s church— but even to this day, Mary is still noteworthy for the Son that came forth from her. He was the one that defined the rest of her life. In the final analysis, only the things we did that were a part of or in alliance with God’s purposes will count. With God as our priority, everything else falls in line. He defines what else false into place. And we can be sure that, if we major on what counts in God’s eyes, we would live as He made us to. And that’s the best we can ever be.

 

Before I round this up, I’d like to highlight something my sister pointed out to me this morning. Mary’s visit with Elisabeth showed that she esteemed family as important. At Christmas, many of us will return home or receive our relatives at home. Family reunions can be really fun in some places, but also awkward at times. There’s the aunt asking why you aren’t married yet, the uncle who only wants to debate about politics, the sibling who you always end up arguing with, the neighbour who always seems to show up when food is served, the brother-in-law or boyfriend still trying to get the family to like him, the grandma giving her grandkids too much sugar and trying to keep their parents from disciplining them too hard … (these are all just stereotypes I picked off the top of my head). No family is the same, so if you were worried that your family does not look like a Hallmark movie family just know that you are not alone. It is the weirdness factor, or difference, that makes family that much more interesting and special. No matter how weird your family might be, value them. God used them to bring you forth into what and where you are now. Value that at least. There is so much treasure in each and every one of those lives, more than you know.

There may be some relatives you might want to avoid because they hurt you in the past, and I understand that. But make sure you pray for them. God’s love through you could mend relationships and make for an even more fruitful reunion.

Still, even beyond Christmas, value family. Both the family of birth and the family of choice: friends, church, colleagues, sparring partners on the basketball court. Every relationship is a chance for something good to spark in the hearts of others by association. The spark could be an idea, a thought, a decision, a lesson, or just plain fun. And if you have Christ in you, He can cause a spark that can turn into a glorious fire.

I’ll leave that to speak for itself.

 

2 days to #Christmas

FACES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY: Joseph

‘Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.’ Matthew 1:19

 

Joseph was a good man. If that’s the only line you read here, it’s enough. I’m going to be gushing about him for the rest of this article.

Every time I read about Joseph in the Bible I am inspired to be a better person. This mostly silent character played a major role in the unfolding of the Christmas Story. Who is this man that God entrusted with the fostering of His Son on earth?

Do you know that, throughout the accounts, we do not hear Joseph’s voice? There was no place where his speech is recorded, as far as I’ve seen. Though of course he was not mute but the writers did not major on his words. His actions, however, spoke so loudly about the substance of this man that though we barely meet him, we feel we know him completely.

He was a descendant of David the king. Growing up, he must have heard that Messiah would come through their lineage. Perhaps some of his relatives thought one of their children would be the promised king. Joseph had long given up on such fairy tales. If he was a king then perhaps it would be king of hammers and nails, being that he spent so much time with them. He was a carpenter.

But when we first meet him he’s just heard that the girl he is betrothed to is pregnant, and there is no way in creation that he is even close to being responsible. She claims it is the Lord that had – and he had to wash his ears for even hearing the blasphemy of it all— ‘conceived’ the baby in her womb. He felt hurt, cheated and taken advantage of. Had he been too nice? It would have been better if she had simply admitted to an affair with one of the other boys that tried to woo her. Or perhaps the deed had occurred during those three months she spent down south with her cousin. Now she wants to spout a ‘miracle baby’ story like her cousin’s?

He didn’t know what to think.

It made no difference, either way. By law, she should be stoned. In public. By the townspeople. By him.

But Joseph could not and would not let that fly, for her sake. He chose to live above his lawful right of vengeance. He chose to let the situation pass quietly, breaking the betrothal in secret. The girl’s pleading parents could not express their gratitude enough. But he was still hurt.

You know the rest of the story. An angel appears in his dream telling him not to walk out on Mary, because the child in her womb is really of God. Didn’t God just need Mary’s womb alone for a virgin birth? Why was Joseph so important to this plan? What was Joseph needed for? As the story unfolds further, we would see as this man supports his betrothed. In choosing to stay, Joseph risked all kinds of ridicule. But in all that time he did not expose her. He supported her all the way to the baby’s delivery and beyond, for a baby he did not sire. This was a just man.

There is nothing like having faithful people supporting you when you’re birthing something that is of God.

Another striking thing about Joseph is the ministry of angels in his life. God gave him instruction and direction through angels in his dreams, and he did not despise or discard them. These happened at least four times. First, when the angel told him to stay with Mary. When Herod’s men were coming to kill the baby, an angel told him in a dream to leave the country. When Herod was dead, an angels told him in a dream to return. When he found that Herod’s son was in power, an angel told him in a dream to go round to stay in Nazareth. Dreams, dreams, dreams. He was impressionable to God, and this is the kind of heart that God works with, guiding and protecting. This is the kind of person that God can trust with His instructions, because they will listen and obey.

Joseph was also devout, obedient to the law of God. Throughout Mary’s pregnancy, he did not have intercourse with her until the baby was born and they were married. We read of him taking the baby to the temple to be dedicated, along with sacrifices. We later read of him taking a 12-year-old Jesus to the temple and, when Jesus goes missing, he begins looking for him along with his wife. When they do find Jesus, the boy is conversing with the leading scholars of that day.

And when they tell Jesus they’ve been looking for him, Jesus replies, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you realize that I had to be in my Father’s house?”

And here’s the fourth thing I learnt about Joseph. He was aware he was raising a boy that did not come from his loins. Jesus was Someone else’s Son. Joseph was just a caretaker for this boy, though he loved him as his own. How do you think he felt when Jesus referred to his real Father to Joseph’s face?

Stewardship, servanthood— these are undesirable qualities in the me-first world of today, though they are desperately needed. To take care of another man’s property and value it like your own is faithfulness in action. That is the best path to sustainability of anything. Joseph did that, serving God by raising His Son like his own.

God could trust this man.

He raised Jesus and must have loved him like his own. He would still have other children, and his qualities would definitely rub off on them as well. But by the time Jesus begins His ministry, Joseph is no longer in the story. He had most likely died by then, but he had played his role.

There is a lot to learn from and about Joseph, but one is enough for now.

Jesus said to His disciples, “…whosoever would become great among you, shall be your servant; and whosoever would be first among you, shall be servant of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)

Even Jesus came to serve. In God’s Kingdom, service is not ‘just’ a step to greatness. In God’s kingdom, greatness is shown in service. Greatness serves. Service is greatness. Joseph portrayed this.

 

Jesus came so that as many as believe on Him can have the Life of God in them. With God’s Spirit in us, we have the ability to be faithful (Galatians 5:22). Such is the kind of person that He can entrust with the responsibility of being co-labourers in His reconciliation project, bringing men back to life in Himself. He can entrust these people with ideas and assignments that will bless many, feed many, lift many, and help people better see the love He has for them.

This is God’s intent.

These people have angels sent to do service for them (Hebrews 1:14). They are sons of God and are led by His Spirit (Romans 8:14). They follow Jesus daily and learn from Him to serve.

 

This Christmas, allow yourself to be used of God. Learn to serve.

3 days to #Christmas

FACES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY: The Inn Keeper

The Inn Keeper
“…there was no room or place for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7
 
“Sorry, we’re closed.”
The people in line groaned. Some muttered about having to go stay with some nosy relatives they were hoping to avoid.
The inn keeper rubbed his eyes, holding in a yawn. It had been a long day, what with checking in all these visitors. They had been coming in all week, none wanting to be far from their hometown when Caesar’s deadline arrived. Everyone under Rome’s jurisdiction had to return to their hometowns to be registered, per the imperial order. They would need a place to stay, and that meant big business for people like him. He had even cleared the storage rooms to make more bedding space. Bethlehem had not seen this large a crowd in years, But now, he was surprised how many claimed the town as theirs. Now, the last of the spaces had been taken, and even the lobby was full of people lying on their robes on the bare floor.
It had been a good day for business. He called for his servant as he prepared to close for the day.
A young man bustled in, frantically scanning faces. His gaze fell on the inn keeper. “Sir, please, we need a room.”
“You and every other person,” someone yelled.
“You don’t understand—“
“Sorry, we’re closed,” the inn keeper chimed in. “All the rooms are taken—“
“No, no, wait. It’s m-my wife, she’s with child. She’ll soon be in labour.” The accent was probably Galilean. The innkeeper had gotten used to distinguishing these accents over the past few days.
He looked out over the filled room. This young man’s ruckus was already drawing curious stares, some of which were not too pleased. He leaned in to whisper. “I wish I could help you, sir, but there’s no more space. Not even on the floor.”
“What about the roof?”
“Like I said, there is no space. You could try other inns. I could get Oved to show you a suitable one.” Oved, his servant, hurried over. His reddened eyes showed his need for rest as well. As soon as some of these guests registered with the government tomorrow, they would leave, more space would be available and work would continue. The sooner they got rid of this man the better.
The Galilean stared back out the doorway. “The other inns were closed. You’re my only hope right now. I’ll pay anything.” He was already reaching into his bag.
“Hey!” one of the visitors called out. “The man said there’s no more room! You deaf?”
Oved stepped in before the frantic father-to-be could respond. “Perhaps we should discuss it outside.” He also knew there was nothing he could do to help, but he needed to at least let him down easy. He stole a glance at his master as he tried to lead the Galilean toward the door.
“No, sir, please help us—“
A cry rang out from outside, drawing stares. The Galilean hurried out the door, Oved on his tail. The inn keeper was closing his desk when his servant peeked in at him through the doorway, concern etched on his face. The inn keeper sighed as he stomped over, making a mental note to remind Oved that this was a business, not charity. Sure enough, the Galilean sat holding his young wife by the doorway as she moaned. Oved still stared at his master with pleading eyes, but the inn keeper refused to budge.
“She needs help!” the Galilean cried.
“Sir?” Oved’s voice broke in. “What about the stable?”
He had not expected that. “There’s no way they’ll want to use that—“
“We’ll take it!” the Galilean said. “A stable would be fine.”
So they were desperate, willing to deliver her of this baby just feet away from the cow dung and sheep dip. Desperation was good for business. This was the part where he usually negotiated prices, but while he was a businessman he was no monster. He shrugged. “Oved, you handle this. I’m turning in.”
And with that he went in and took the stairs. What a day. A good night’s rest was what he needed.
Making his way past the lying bodies, he walked into his room on the corner of the roof where it always had been. His bed still sat in the middle, stately and rough. If Kezia was still around it would have been neater and he would have eaten a decent meal.
Kezia. Anytime he turned in for the night, the mostly empty room reminded him of her death last summer.
He fell onto his bed and groaned. A thought popped in his head, of how this would have been a perfect place for a woman in labor to give birth.
But just as swiftly, he shoved the thought as he plunged into dreamland. He had just about enough space for others and he had rented it out, but this was his room. His only lasting memory of her. There was no way he was going to lease it to some strangers.
This was their bed. His bed.
His heart.
 
 
While this is fiction, I really don’t blame the inn keeper. The real one, anyway. He really did not have any more room, so he let them use the animal stable. He had no way of knowing that the Son of God was about to be born as a man, and he had just let Him be born in an animal outhouse. If He had known, what do you think he might have done differently? He possibly would have herded the occupants of the best suite in his inn out the door and refurbished it to the best of tastes. He would have brought them to his own room, deeming it fit to sleep by the door than to let God’s Son be born in his stable. He would have made room because God was coming to his house. But he did not know.
Even today, it is easy to miss out on God’s gift because of how ordinary it may look. God’s help may come to us in the form of a person, or an idea, or even a message sent to us. All of that was encapsulated in the Word, God that became flesh, and many still do not know the Person born that day and what He came to do for us.
Sometimes we may be like the Inn Keeper of the story. For the right reasons, our hearts might be filled with a lot of things. Thoughts on how to pay the mortgage, plans for the next year, decisions to be made. All important things of our lives that we need to organise and plan.
Sometimes, what fills our hearts are pain and hurts that we find hard to let go of. Memories of times we were cheated, memories of times we were wronged, memories of times we made mistakes, memories of times we treated others unfair. Naturally, these memories shape who we become and how we think, for better or worse. A lady who has been cheated may find it hard to trust in another man. A person who failed an exam may find it hard to believe that he/she can ace it the next time. A man may hold on to the memories of lost loved ones at the expense of the comfort and healing the rest of his family and friends are willing to offer. Subconsciously, we hold on to these things believing that we have a right to them. They are our memories, a piece of our identity.
In the midst of all this, God wants to have room in our hearts, and we just don’t see how that could work.
But the truth is that we really do have room for Him. We just don’t realise it. He knocks on the door of our hearts and, if we let Him, He will help us clean house. Baggage we have carried with us for so long, he will carry out. Burdens that have driven us to the ground, he will lift off because He cares for us. With Him as our priority, He helps us to properly prioritise. He gives us wisdom in our daily living and endeavors.
The thing is that, many times, we feel we have to make room before He can come in and, in a sense, that is true. But the only way we make room is by actually opening the door and letting Him come in. We cannot deal with the mess by ourselves.
He sees the mess, and only He can take it out.
Trust Him with all of it. He can handle it.
He will amaze you and comfort you as he turns what was a hurtful memory into a testimony of His faithfulness. He will build you up and enrich your heart so that you can actually think about others, for good. Soon you will find yourself comforting others in need too, as He has comforted you.
Like an inn keeper making room for others to find rest.
But first, we must make room for Him, so that we also will find the rest we need.
 
Christmas reminds us that Christ came so that we can find rest for our souls in Him. Make room for Him to do what He will in your life. He gives healing, and fullness, and joy. And with His love abound in us, we too can make room for others. Give someone a gift, send someone an encouraging message, tell someone the Good News of God’s salvation, be willing to listen.
Make room.
 
 
 
‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears and listens to and heeds My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will eat with him, and he [will eat] with Me.’
Jesus speaking in Revelation 3:20
 
4 days to #Christmas

FACES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY: The Shepherds

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…’ Luke 2:8

 

While others slept in the comfort of their beds, the shepherds were out in the fields at night, taking care of their sheep.

The work of a shepherd was serious business in those days. He practically placed his life on the line for each and every one of his sheep. He would lead them to suitable grazing grounds and protect them at all times. If he needed to sleep, he would herd the sheep into a pen and lie on the ground, across the entrance. If any wolf or predator tried to come in to get some mutton, the shepherd would be the first line of defence. He valued the lives of his sheep, possibly because of the income he would get from their wool or from their sale. But the more time he spent with them, the more he got to know each and every one of them, so that if one got missing he would know, he would search for it, and he would rescue it.

But the shepherds of Luke 2 were more than one, so the flock was probably much larger than a usual flock. While they could have been shepherds of different flocks in the same area, some believe that this particular flock belonged to the temple, a flock out of which the relevant sheep and lambs would be selected for the necessary sacrifices. Away from the bustling streets of Jerusalem, the hill country of Bethlehem was perfect grazing grounds for these sheep. The account does not ascertain if they were temple sheep or not, as the sheep weren’t the focus of the story. The shepherds were. Because that very night God gave them a front row seat at the 3DHD premiere of His salvation plan: God had been born as a human baby that day.

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and God’s glory shone around them. They were scared at the sudden ‘close encounter of the third kind’ … or maybe of the ‘God’ kind. The angel, bursting with joy, said to them, “Do not be afraid; for look, I’ve got good news, great news for you, and it will bring you and all people great joy! For to you, this day in the town of David, a Saviour has been born. He is Messiah, the Lord! Here’s the sign: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger—“

And suddenly, as if one alien invasion wasn’t enough for one day, the night sky was suddenly lit even more as thousands of angels filled the horizon. They were screaming and leaping and shouting their praises to God, filling the air with music and laughter and rejoicing. Their words were summarised as “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.”

It lasted a while, but soon the angels retreated through their portal to continue the after-party in heaven.

(P.S.: We looked into why the angels were so joyful a couple days ago. You could check it out, using the #FacesoftheChristmasStory hashtag)

The shepherds exchanged glances. Had they all seen the same thing? They had? So it … really was true? And soon the amazement at the angelic visit led to the realization of what they had said: Messiah had been born, in David’s town! Just down there!

And they hurried to Bethlehem to find this Baby. When they, they left to announce to anyone in town who listen, the wonderful things they had heard about this child.

Ever wondered what happened to their sheep? These guys prized the angel’s news over whatever advantage they could obtain from their flock. Nothing else could have drawn them away. Maybe they locked the pen before leaving. Personally, I think the sheep would’ve been fine either way.

The shepherds remind us that God came for us, even to the lowest of us all. They had no offices of governance or priesthood. They were just the working-class everyman, the man that worked day to day to put food on the table. But God called them to be the first to see the Baby, the One Who would be their salvation. God prized them, valued them, just as He values us all. He wants us to be a part of what He is doing, to receive the gift that He’s offered to us.

It is also significant because through Scripture, God had led His people like a shepherd. He had rescued them from their messes and protected them. He promised them that He would give them a shepherd who would feed them and be their shepherd (Ezekiel 34:23). He came to be that shepherd.

Since the prophecies came to Israel, Jesus even said in Matthew 15:24 that He had come “…for the lost sheep of Israel.” But now He had come to be a shepherd for the whole world, for as many as would come to His fold. Jesus would later tell us that He is the Good Shepherd. He would say of the Gentiles, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

God had come to lead us to a better place. And the first people He told were shepherds.

He came to be one of us, like one of His sheep, so He knows how we feel and why we do the things we do. And that leads to the even more interesting part of this.

Jesus came to be God’s Lamb on our behalf. (John 1:29)

In the Jewish tradition, a lamb was a very important part of the ceremony for an offering for sin. A lamb without spots or blemishes would be selected and sacrificed as an offering for the sins of the nation. The high priest would sprinkle its blood on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of God’s throne, and the sins of the nation would be covered for that year. There were many other sacrifices for sin that involved lambs. God gave them this tradition as a picture of what He was going to do.

And in the fullness of time, Jesus came to be the Perfect Lamb for us all. He alone was without sin, so He gave His life to be that sacrifice for us. When He rose, He ascended to God’s throne where He is now seated, as the One with all authority and as the One who has completed the sacrifice. Just like the blood on the Ark, Jesus is on the Throne. Now the sins of all who believe in Him are forgiven, because He stood (or sits?) in the gap for us. This is the perfect sacrifice.

God did that for our sakes, when we couldn’t. Like the Good Shepherd that He is. He did it in Himself and by Himself, because He loves us.

Christmas reminds us that God has come to lead us out of the dreary existence we were doomed to, and into a good and fruitful place where He can be with us and we can be with Him. He has come to save us, and He has!

Christmas reminds us that He is always with us, guiding us, leading us, feeding us and protecting us. He knows us all by name, our respective stories, our failures and our triumphs. He is here to bring out His best in all of us.

We don’t have to wander anymore. We don’t have to live without direction or purpose. We don’t have to be slaves to fear anymore.

We do have a Good Shepherd.

 

‘All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has made to light upon Him the guilt and iniquity of us all…’

Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 53:6

 

5 days to #Christmas

FACES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY: The Magi

 

The Magi

‘…behold, there came Wise Men from the East to Jerusalem saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Matthew 2:1-2

OK, let’s get the controversies out of the way so that we can focus on the really important stuff. First, yes, the Bible doesn’t say there were THREE Wise Men, just that the Wise Men gave gifts of three kinds. They could have been more than 3 men, or even less. Second, it’s possible they met Mary and Jesus sometime after they had moved out of the stable, because it was recorded that Wise Men entered their ‘house’ and met the ‘young child’ (Matthew 2:11), as opposed to the ‘babe’ the shepherds met in a manger earlier (Luke 2:16). This explains why Herod killed boys ‘two years and under’, according to the time the Wise Men had said they first saw the star (Matthew 2:16). But, really, who cares? Just as we don’t know for certain that Jesus was born on December 25, it does not take away from the joy and excitement and meaning of it all, or from the Person we are celebrating. It is a time set aside to celebrate all that He means to us. If your church drama team puts all the characters in the same scene, it still matches with much of church tradition and is OK. It’s the meaning that counts. So don’t let the controversies distract you. We good? Happy now? Great.

Let’s roll.

The Greek word translated as ‘wise men’ is the word ‘magos’, which refers to The Magi. They were a priestly order of astrologers that navigated the stars as guides to tell the future or discern events. They were respected scholars, knowledgeable in the mystic arts and sciences, and even served as advisors to the kings of their lands. We see examples of them in Babylon in the Book of Daniel, trying to interpret the king’s dream and the strange writing on the wall. We see King Ahasuerus of Persia seeking their advice in Esther 1:13. Another ‘magos’ turns up in Cyprus named Elymas, an adviser to the Roman proconsul there in Acts 13:7. In those days, kings held the advice of such men in high esteem, as they seemed to have an in with the universe.

Magi did not worship the God of Israel, and the Lord had even discouraged his people from trusting in divination from stars (Deut. 18:10, or Isaiah 47:13,14). The stars, and all of the heavens, declare the glory of God, telling and showing us how awesome He is (Psalm 19:1). He wants us to trust in Him for direction, not in the stars. Or we might as well be trusting a loaf of bread to teach us how to bake, while the baker is standing right beside us.

But something invaded the world of the Magi. A new star unlike any they had ever seen appeared in the sky. It was not unusual for them to consider stars to represent kings and regimes, but they understood this one to be different. Further study showed them that it told of the birth of a new king, the King of the Jews. Whoever they thought this king would be, it was enough for them to leave their lands to journey all the way to Judea, because of a star in the sky.

And when they met the child they bowed to worship him. Men whose words shook the countenances of kings were worshipping a little child. To the casual eye it was strange, but they submitted their dignity and station for Someone who transcended the reaches of their scholarship and divination. God had invaded their field of knowledge.

They gave gifts to the child. Gifts of gold, frankincense… “But wait!” One reaches into his bag. “There’s ‘myrrh’!”

The symbolism of these gifts makes them extra special, though I don’t know if they knew.

Gold signifies royalty, as they recognised Jesus as a King. Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God on Earth, but would first establish it in the hearts of men. In the end, all will recognise Him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. A King who brings justice and righteousness to all in His charge.

Frankincense is an aromatic substance used in religious ceremonies (to be ‘frank’, most just call it ‘incense’), and it represented that Jesus was a priest or worthy of worship. He would be the High Priest that would enter into heaven’s holy place to offer a sacrifice for the sins of all, and this High Priest is also God Almighty.

Myrrh, the third, seems a little more awkward. It is also an aromatic substance, but while it was used in religious ceremonies for anointing (Exodus 30:23) it was also used as an ointment in the embalming of dead bodies (John 19:39). In case you don’t get it yet, when criminals were crucified they were given a cocktail of wine mixed with myrrh to numb their senses. Jesus was presented this on the cross, but he rejected it (Mark 15:23). Do you get it yet? The myrrh signified that Messiah, the anointed one of God, would offer Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of others as our High Priest, and would die.

Looking over these, I don’t know if they all understood the significance of these gifts. But looking back we can have more understanding to the fact that even from the beginning, God was here on a mission to save our souls.

 

The Magi represent the Gentile world, a people who were presumed to be exempted from the plan of God for centuries. But Jesus came for all men to come to Life, to Jews and Gentiles alike. God used that star to draw them to see Jesus. It had been prophesied to Israel in Isaiah 49:6, “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that My salvation may extend to the end of the earth.”

The Magi also represent the worlds of religion and academia, both coming to worship the One that supersedes them all.

Through religions, men have tried to reach out to God for favour and help. But in Christ, God has come to men to bring them to Himself. To bring them to Light, to Life, and to His favor.

Through the academia we seek to understand the world around us, its principles and the laws that undergird the cause of nature. God made the world and all that is in it. He holds the secrets to all knowledge. We have discovered so much of His creation, but there is so much more – SO MUCH MORE — for us to discover.

The thing about religion and knowledge is that we can hold on to them so much that we reject Jesus, the One Who is the wisdom of God. Like the man who couldn’t see the forest because of the tree right before him. All that mankind has discovered and known is like a drop in a bucket. Do you know that the Earth is just one of many planets in a solar system, which is one of billions of solar systems in a 100 000-lightyear-wide galaxy called the Milky Way, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the ‘known universe’? There is so much beyond what we have discovered, but the more we do, the more we find that it is not about us. It is about the One who is greater, who made all of creation to declare His glory.

Despite all the academic knowledge we have gathered, and despite all the religious convictions we hold dear, to submit to Jesus would require giving up something. It is why many academics settle for atheism, and why some religions are either apathetic or antagonistic to the message of Christ.

But the Magi, for all their religious status and academic station, took the journey to Jesus and worshipped Him. To this day, it is still wisdom when a man lets go and submits to Christ’s Lordship.

And when we do, we see that the best of ourselves is not up to the least of Him. But He became the least of us so that He could give us His best. He did that in Christ.

Did you see how God spoke to them in the language they were conversant with? A star? He calls to each and every man, woman and child, coming to their level. Like He did when He came as a man. God has come to us and for us all.

That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.

 

6 days to #Christmas

FACES OF THE CHRISTMAS STORY: King Herod

KING HEROD
“When Herod the king heard this, he was disturbed and troubled, and the whole of Jerusalem with him…” Matthew 2:3
Herod the Great was the designated king of Judea in the days when Jesus was born. Judea was already a client state of Rome and Herod was once a governor of one of its territories, the Galilee territory. When a conflict arose he hurried over to Rome to obtain favour with Caesar and, when Rome responded to quench the uprising and end the status quo hitherto, he was placed as ‘king of the Jews’, sent to rule over the entire country. He is largely remembered for his very ambitious and very expensive building projects such as the building of the cities of Caesarea, provision of water supply to Jerusalem, building of about five fortresses, and most especially the expansion of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, a portion of which still stands today as the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall). He sought to make Judea befitting to the standards of the world of his day. He also enriched and gifted other nations, creating a name for himself. These projects brought much employment to the people of Judea.
Son of an Idumean (or Edomite) father and a Nabatean (Arab) mother, his family was circumcised and converted to Judaism. But his decadent lifestyle undermined any religious identification he sought to portray.
The building of the Temple, and his marriage to a Jewess named Mariamne, was all a lobby for the favour of the Jews. But he didn’t stop there. He still lobbied for favour from the pagan population of his land and from Caesar, constructing a Roman Eagle statue over the very gate of the Jewish Temple (an abomination to the Jews), and also building the cities of Caesarea and Sebaste (formerly Samaria) in Caesar’s honour with many pagan idols and shrines. All his building projects were funded by a very severe taxing system that weighed heavy on the people. So while he transformed much of Judea, his motives were anything but selfless, and the people weren’t fooled.
He knew he was ruling a nation that resented him, so he was very paranoid for much of his reign. He had a secret police to monitor and report the general feelings of the populace, a bodyguard of about 2000 soldiers among other units, and he had his opponents forcefully dealt with. He actually had his Jewish wife and her sons for him executed on charges of unfaithfulness and incitement of revolt. So much for Jewish favour there, Herod.
For all his achievements, scholars report that he suffered through depression and paranoia throughout his lifetime. It was in these days that a contingent of Magi, a priestly order of astrologers and royal advisers from the lands of the East, came to visit him. Prepared to host such dignified guests, he was shocked when they declared that they were seeking someone who had been born ‘King of the Jews’, as they had seen his star rising all the way from their lands, and that they had come to ‘worship’ him!
“King of the Jews? I am king of the Jews!” He sent for them and when they had come, he confirmed their quest. It was clear they were seeking someone, and it was definitely not him.
It was all he could do to mask his terror behind a pasty smile. Of course he knew about the expectation in the Jewish conscious of a Messiah that was to come and deliver them from their ‘oppressors’, a term Herod knew many would call him. He mostly dismissed it as the superstitions of a weary people, but the possibility had always stood out in his mind.
Could it be true? Or had these men just come based on the rumors of another possible uprising? News of his turmoil spread to the rest of the city, and everyone else was troubled. They knew that, when Herod fears an uprising, there’s going to be blood in the streets.
Meanwhile, as his people entertained the Magi in an adjoining room, Herod paced. He had to tell them something, or these guys would consider him an uneducated idiot. He had to show these Magi that he was in the know of everything going on in his land. He wanted to find favour in the eyes of these men too. So he sent for the chief priests and learned men in Jerusalem. “So … about this Messiah you all keep talking about…” he began. “Where do the Scriptures say he will be … born, so to say?”
Without missing a beat, they replied him. “In Bethlehem of Judea, your majesty. For so it is written by the prophet Micah, ‘And you Bethlehem…’ ”
But Herod’s mind was already blanking out. He could see the priest’s mouth moving but his pulse thumped in his ears. He rubbed his beard. “Bethlehem, you say?”
His mind was in overdrive. He knew what he must do, but he had to be discrete.
With the priests dismissed he met the Magi privately. “How long ago exactly did you see this star rising?”
“About two years.” They even gave him the exact date, but much of their astrological jargon was gibberish to him.
Could he be late already? He directed them to Bethlehem, telling them to return when they’ve found the child, “…so that I too can come and … worship him.” He felt sick just uttering those words.
That night he stared out into the sky. It looked as normal as any other night sky. He had so much, he had accomplished so much, yet he felt so alone in the universe. No matter how much he tried, he much he acted, he never fully felt appreciated. Now someone else had been chosen to be king of the Jews. A child?! It brought a bitter taste to his mouth. He needed to end this.
But the days passed. And the Magi never returned. Herod was furious. The rejection and flouting of his orders stung. He ordered his soldiers to invade Bethlehem and its surrounding hills, to kill every boy two-years-old and under. Surely that would be his boot to squash this ant before it became a problem (spoiler alert: God sent angels in an undercover mission, i.e. while Joseph was asleep ‘under covers’ ;), to warn him to escape with the child and his mother to Egypt before the soldiers arrived)
But the massacre never brought Herod the satisfaction he craved. He died not much longer, but his last days were wrought with much turmoil and political intrigue. Quarrels with his eastern neighbours brought him into displeasure with Caesar Augustus, a relationship he had laboured to build for years. His health dwindled into a ferocious temper as his insides withered. He felt so much excruciating pain that he even attempted suicide. He is recorded to have said to his sister and her husband, “I shall die in a little time, so great are my pains; which death ought to be cheerfully borne, and to be welcomed by all men; but what principally troubles me is this, that I shall die without being lamented, and without such mourning as men usually expect at a king’s death.”* He ordered that a multitude of distinguished men be invited and, upon his death, they should be killed so that there would, at least, be some mourning in the land. Thankfully, upon his death, his son cancelled that order.
He lived his life seeking the favour of men and died that way. He even tried to kill the One who had come to give him a full and abundant life. He didn’t know.
Herod’s story is a picture of many today. We live in a self-conscious culture where everyone wants to be affirmed and appreciated by others. It is a human desire which, in itself, is not bad, but is also sad. On the social media, for example, it is easy to judge our relevance and fulfilment by the number of likes and retweets on our posts and selfies, to feel hurt or that we did something wrong when we don’t get enough or any, to try to please men so that they can favour us. And this has been translated to how we live our lives. If we could, we would even want to know how many people would mourn us if we died!
It is why many are suicidal today. And it is not a joke.
We all want to be affirmed, because no matter how much we try, there is a void inside that cries for more.
And, as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. Our desire for affirmation tends to lead to selfish disregard for the well-being of others as we crush them in order to obtain some acceptance. We may not all execute those that hate us, but it has become the base evil of humanity. It was the root of the first murder, when Cain killed Abel because he didn’t get the favour he desired. It is the core of every villain, both in fiction and in reality. At their core, everyone, be they heroes or villains, wants fulfilment. How we go about obtaining that fulfilment tells on our very natures. The hero obtains fulfilment in helping others, while the villain obtains fulfilment in hurting others.
It is why people cheat, slander, betray … assuming that putting others down automatically lifts us up. But all it does is send us all sinking into miry clay (or quicksand). It ruins relationships and marriages too, when each person is seeking their own gain, focused on receiving from the other instead of giving, and judging them based on personal needs.
The void in man is a form of death, and it is a consequence of the sinful nature. There is nothing we can do to fill it, and it always cries out for more. Only Jesus can fill it, and that is what He came to do. God came that we may be whole, complete in Him, fulfilled and full-filled. He came so that we can have Life and live it to the full (John 10:10).
He fills our hearts with His love (Romans 5:5) and lets us know that we are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10), lacking nothing. In Him, we see our true selves: beautiful, loved, accepted, affirmed. We are His own, and He is ours. The more we grow in Him the less we will base our fulfilment on the approval of others. Rather we will realise more and more, and it will be more real in our mindsets, how He fills and surrounds us with His everlasting and boundless love. We have never really been alone, and we never will be.
Immanuel.
Herod did not realise that he had a front row seat on God’s plan to answer the cry of his heart. Don’t miss out on the opportunity God has presented before you too. Call to Him. He is closer than near, and He hears. He wants you to know Him much more than you think. He’s got so much for you.
And, from this place of affirmation in Him, we can more effectively be a blessing to others. This is the kind of life that can give to others without expecting appreciation or reward, and would not be hurt if it doesn’t come. It is the kind of heart that can be slapped (or cheated), and will turn the other cheek. It is the confidence that will put out its best foot forward in love, knowing that it might be stepped on but not minding. It is the life that can break through cold hearts, and warm and comfort them with love.
It is the life Jesus spoke about. It is bizarre and crazy, like walking on water. But it is also supernatural and amazing, just like walking on water.
He showed us what it’s like, dying for us when we were still ungodly, sinners, in enmity with God and without a promise or care of responding to His love. He rose to make the way that we may be united with God in Him, by believing in Him. The way is still open today.
Remember that, this Christmas.
You are loved, and can love.
#7DaystoChristmas
*Source of Herod’s dying quote: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 6, note 5 (translated by William Whiston)