Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Somehow, children and Christmas go together. We all have memories of Christmases when we were children; most of them good, sometimes not so good. But whatever they are like, they are usually a big part of our mental landscape. If we have children, we usually try to give them good Christmas memories. After I moved to California, I was surprised at the Christmas lists some of my friends were working on for their children. I remember getting one nice but moderate gift from my parents, and then a few small stocking stuffers. I don't forget the time an acquaintance--a sister of a friend--asked me if she could borrow $500 so that her "kids could have Christmas." I felt sorry that she had been raised to equate Christmas with going overboard into debt for "stuff", and that she couldn't imagine "having Christmas" otherwise.
I hope that our children are touched by the Christmas story not because of "stuff". but because of a Baby. God created the human race to grow by families bringing children into the world with love. We are created with a "soft spot" for babies; but sometimes that goes bad. A baby is the start of a whole life, and our attitude is colored by our expectations for that life. Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, the shepherds and the Wise Men saw in the baby whose birth became Christmas the Promise of God and the Hope of His People. What Herod saw was a threat to his political position, and his reaction in fear was to order the killing of any child who might be this rival.
Most children are fascinated with babies. Most children gravitate towards other chldren if they can. When God "moved into the neighborhood" as "The Message" translation puts it, He came as a baby; grew up through a normal childhood, and became an amazing young man. We can tell from the story of Jesus' return to Nazareth after He left the woodworking business for His Godly calling, that they remembered Him as having been an ordinary kid. (Mark 6:1-4) The writer of Hebrews tells us that He took on human nature, that He knows what we are like from the inside.
This is part of the miracle of Christmas: that even a child can recognize that this little Baby in a manger was a baby, just as they were, and a kid, as they are. This year we added the song "Little Drummer Boy" to the NCF Choir caroling outreach. We'd had a number of requests for it, and I think one of the reason people resonate with this story is that the little drummer boy was told this was a newborn King, but what he said when he saw the Baby was "I am a poor boy, too". And he offered the only thing he had: he shared what he could play on his drum. His thanks was the only thing a baby has to offer: His sweet smile. And this is what we want our children to appreciate most about Christmas: that this Baby with the sweet smile grew up to be a Savior Who loves them.
Saturday, December 20, 2014
Joseph was a child of his father's hope--but his jealous brothers destroyed this hope, and almost Joseph himself. How often are slave traders the bringers of hope? When they are a piece of a puzzle God is putting together! Judah insisted saving Joseph's life. And, as been said since ancient writers put it, "where there's life, there's hope."
We are told that Joseph knew and served God. Jacob may not have been wise in the way he discriminated among his sons, but he had taught Joseph about his God. Joseph's faith--his knowledge of God--was the bedrock of his hope.
We also see that Joseph's faith and hope were not just lazy, wishful thinking. His actions gave his hope "boots on the ground." He didn't just kick back and do just enough to evade the worst; he proactively used all of his strengths--his faith, his intelligence, what he had learned growing up watching his father run a good-sized family business, his determination.
At one point his character and self-discipline got him into trouble. This is not uncommon; there are people out there that will retaliate if you do not wallow in their muck. (People haven't changed much in 4000 years!) But again, he made this new crop of lemons into lemonade. Patience and hard work fueled his hope, even when he must have felt forgotten.
And it paid off. Not only did he gain the recognition and position beyond his hopes, but he recognized what God was doing all along. We see him telling his brothers that "God sent me here before you, to make sure of survivors in your land, and to save your lives..So it was not you who sent me here but God." (Genesis 45:7-8)
We see the fulfillment of his fondest hope--made possible by his faith and the use of all the strengths God had given him. He was reunited with his whole family--the brothers whom he was able to forgive, and his father and young brother whom he loved.
And the rest of the story: we saw Judah insisting on preserving Joseph when the other brothers talked of killing; and we see Judah also taking the responsibility for Benjamin's safety when they had to take him with them on their next trip back to Egypt. (Genesis 43:8 ) In the subsequent history of the Israelites, it was the tribe of Judah that became the royal tribe of David, and later of the Christ, the hope of mankind.
Friday, December 12, 2014
There was an old man with a hope--his name was Simeon, and his heartfelt prayer was to see the Messiah. One day a family came to the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing their firstborn son to offer the redemption sacrifice commanded in the Law. Simeon was told by the Holy Spirit that his hope was fulfilled--this baby was the Promised One, the Light to the World. He blessed God, and the little family, prophesying that this child would bring both great joy and salvation as well as great sorrow. There was also an old lady there in the Temple that day; her name was Anna, and she also had for many years waited for the One who would bring deliverance to Jerusalem-- praising God with all who shared her hope.*
Babies are little packages of hope. We look at a baby with hope, wondering what life holds for this little person. The celebration of the birth of the greatest Baby ever born has taken over the world-even in places where the full reality of Him is not understood. The enduring image of Christmas is that of the baby with Mary and Joseph, often with shepherds, angels, wise men, and animals. The first known living Nativity scene was the centerpiece of a Christmas Eve service in Greccio, Italy put together by St Francis of Assisi in 1223. The idea spread across Europe and later the Americas--we see it everywhere at this time of year: live; made of every medium and artistic style you can imagine; pictures large and small. Everyone loves a baby!
Thirty-three years later, at the other end of his life, we see the One who had been this baby walking along a road, talking with two men who told of the hopes they had had that Jesus of Nazareth was the one who would set Israel free. They thought their hopes had been dashed by his betrayal and crucifixion, but when they recognized the living Jesus, they were more joyful than ever.** Jesus the Risen Christ is a reality beyond our most fervent hopes!
*Luke 2:22-40 **Luke 24:13-35
Saturday, December 6, 2014
The angel that came to Joseph with an explanation of Mary's impending child described Him first and foremost as the One who would save us from sin, using a word God had given to Isaiah: He shall be called Emmanuel: God with us.* As we see the upcoming Christmas season all around us, we need to thank God for coming to be with us. As we heard last Sunday morning, what is "Christmas" without Jesus?
What does it mean that Jesus is "Emmanuel"? Anytime we see a name with -el in Scripture, we need to know that it refers to "El" , one of the names used for God; this is a person who is intended to show something about God. Isaiah's prophecy describes the child whom God will send as not just a replay of King David but "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Is 9:6-7) This is more than a description of a human being, but of God Himself.
The writings of John unpackage this for us: First, Jesus is the Word of God, who was the creative side of God and the physical universe. When John reports a conversation at the very beginning of His ministry that uses both "Son of God" and "Son of Man", we see Him as being a connecting point between God and Man. We see Jesus defending the sanctity of what He describes as "My Father's House". We see Him describing God sending His Son to save the world. We see Him healing the sick and raising the dead--reversing the normal progression of human life. We see Him claiming to have seen Abraham, and even existing before Abraham, using the God-Name "I AM".
And yet He was fully human; did all those things that we do to live our lives. He even died as human beings did; bloody, in pain. Unlike human beings, though, He didn't stay dead, and as Peter told a festival crowd in Jerusalem: This Jesus, whom you put to death, is both Lord and Christ.
It is interesting that the two human beings who perhaps knew Jesus on earth better than anyone else, Peter and John, both understood Him to be the eternal Son of God. The Church has wrangled with the meaning of this since the beginning; we as human beings cannot fully understand it on this earth. We can know, as we celebrate the birth of a human baby, that it is God Himself showing Himself to us.
*Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23