Advent (Day 14)

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:8-11 ESV). We are just a week away from Christmas Eve. How did the time slip away so quickly! Today we begin to look at the announcement of the birth to the shepherds. It must not be overlooked that these men were generally seen as having little value in the general socio-economic strata of the day. They were typically ostracized by the general community. These shepherds were probably raising broad tailed sheep. They often had lambs in the autumn and winter, rather than in the spring with most sheep in western countries. There was nothing special about this band of shepherds; they simply were chosen by God to receive the birth announcement as they were quietly doing their jobs. Isn’t it strange that God often does just that with us? We simply go about our day and suddenly he breaks into our routine with an incredible moment of His presence. There are only two times in the Scripture that a “host” of angels appear. We don’t know the names of the angels or how many there were of them; however, it must have been an incredible experience. It is no wonder they were “afraid.” Their fears were quickly turned to joy. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. Today I want to mention a theory that Jesus might have been born a couple of miles outside of Bethlehem and may have actually been born in the company of the shepherds. While I don’t subscribe to this theory, it does have some interesting points. Just outside Bethlehem there was a special watch tower called the Migdal Eder, or “The Tower of the Flock.” It’s thought that sheep born here were used as sacrificial animals in Jerusalem. According to some sources, the lambs at Migdal Eder had their health checked by resting them in a manger and were even wrapped in swaddling clothes to show they were special. Regardless, these men were the recipients of “good news of a great joy.” The real sacrificial Lamb had now been born for all people in all lands. Again God reminds us that the entire birth of Jesus was to finalize the atonement for His children. He loved us so much that He was willing to give His only begotten Son to save us (cf. John 3:16). That’s good news! That’s the gospel! Celebrate your freedom today by remembering the life we gain by His...

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Advent (Day 13)

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And is mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55 ESV). The angel had told Zechariah in verse 15 that John the Baptist would be filled with the Spirit even from his mother’s womb. That is, the Spirit of God would exercise a unique control on this man from the time he is in his mother’s womb until he completes his ministry as a grown man. Then Luke gives evidence of this. As Mary approaches, carrying the Son of God in her womb, little John gives Elizabeth a good kick in the diaphragm. Then Luke says that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries out: “Mary, my child is leaping for joy. The Holy Spirit has helped him before he can even speak to bear witness to the Lord in your womb.” (Luke 1:42). That’s all the confirmation Mary needs. She sees clearly a most remarkable thing about God. He is about to change the course of all human history; the most important three decades in all of time are about to begin. And where is God? Occupying himself with two obscure, humble women, one old and barren, one young and virginal. And Mary is so moved by this vision of God, the lover of the lowly, that she breaks out in song, a song that has come to be known as the Magnificat. We will spend a few days in this marvelous psalm as Mary extols the greatness of God; however, there is another point that is essential for us to understand. Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful heroines in Luke’s account. He loves the faith of these women. The thing that impresses him most, it appears, and the thing he wants to impress on Theophilus, his noble reader, is the lowliness and cheerful humility of Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth says: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me?” (Luke 1:43). And Mary says: “The Lord has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” (Luke 1:48). The truth is that the only people whose soul can truly magnify the Lord are people like Elizabeth and Mary. These are those who acknowledge their lowly estate and are overwhelmed by the condescension of the magnificent God. Until we can grasp even the smallest bit of the grace of God in this magnificent act of selflessness on our behalf, we cannot be blessed with any other thing of God. Paul remembers this well: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6 ESV). What a gift! When we were at our worst, God was at His best! Celebrate that...

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Advent (Day 12)

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:10-12 ESV). We know very little about the wise men. Millions of Christmas cards show three kings presenting gifts to a tiny child in a manger. People sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” But we do not know that there were three wise men who brought the gifts. We are not told that they were kings, or even when they arrived in Bethlehem. It is likely, actually, in view of their long journey and of Herod’s command that all children under two years of age be killed, that they arrived when the infant Jesus had already become a young child. The fact that so little information is given about the wise men clearly shows that Matthew’s interest was not focused upon the wise men themselves. Rather, he was interested in the fact that Gentiles came to worship the Jewish Messiah, and in the gifts they bore. The gifts are a central point in the narrative. So, let’s spend a little time looking at each of them. First, we see gold. It is easy to see why gold is an appropriate gift for Jesus. Gold is the metal of kings. When gold was presented to Jesus, it acknowledged his right to rule. The wise men knew Jesus was the King of kings. Second, we see the frankincense. Incense was also a significant gift. It was used in the temple worship. It was mixed with the oil that was used to anoint the priests of Israel. It was part of the meal offerings that were offerings of thanksgiving and praise to God. In presenting this gift the wise men pointed to Christ as our great High Priest, the one whose whole life was acceptable and well pleasing to his Father. Third, we see the myrrh. Myrrh was used for embalming. By any human measure it would be odd, if not offensive, to present to the infant Christ a spice used for embalming. But it was not offensive in this case, nor was it odd. It was a gift of faith. We do not know precisely what the wise men may have known or guessed about Christ’s ministry, but we do know that the Old Testament again and again foretold his suffering. Matthew looks back and prepares the rest of his story with this point of Jesus’ death. That is the heart of the gospel. We can be sure that though Jesus being a King of kings is important and He being a High Priest is essential, nothing is more important than His atoning death on our behalf. There we are fully and finally forgiven! The comfort and joy we can have this Christmas is in our celebration that we are...

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Advent (Day 11)

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:7-12 ESV). So much is to be gained in this next part of the Christmas story from Matthew’s account. I know it is not the next thing to happen chronologically, but it makes sense from Matthew’s perspective. We’ll look at these verses for the next few days in our preparation for Christmas Day. It probably took place three years after Jesus’ actual birth, though we are not sure about the timing. So, sometime after Jesus was born, “Wise Men” came to look for Him, probably from an area which is now in either Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the Yemen. Although they are often called the “Three Kings,” the Bible does not say how many there were, or that they were kings. One theory is that they might have been Kings of the Yemen, as during this time the Kings of Yemen were Jews. “Three” is only a guess because they brought with them three gifts; however, there may have many more in their entourage. They were definitely men of learning. They were certainly men of great learning. The word Magi comes from the Greek word μάγος (where the English word “magic” comes from). Magos itself comes from the old Persian word “magupati.” This was the title given to priests in a sect of the ancient Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism. Today we’d called them astrologers. Back then astronomy and astrology were part of the same overall studies and science, going hand in hand with each other. The magi would have followed the patterns of the stars religiously. They would have also probably been very rich and held high esteem in their own society and by people who weren’t from their country or religion. They had seen an unusual new star in the sky, and knew that it told of the birth of a special king. We’ll look more at this unusual event later, though we can say that no one really knows what the new star in the sky was. There are many theories including comets, supernovas, a conjunctions of planets, or something supernatural. That part they got right. It was supernatural. God was leading them to a very important place. It should not slip by us that this journey was undertaken with a courageous commitment to follow the star regardless of their not knowing the precise directions. That is a wonderful principle for us today as well. Sometimes God gives us merely “the next step” in our journey. It is not important for us to know all the steps, merely the next one! What might be your next...

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Advent (Day 10)

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 ESV). We return to yesterday’s reading today for one little gem of inspiration. The angel said to Joseph, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us)”. There are two incredible messages here. First, the angel reassures him that she has not betrayed him. He calls her “the virgin.” It is an essential message for him to hear. Of course, this helps Mary as Joseph adjust his thought and actions toward her; however, it is just as compassionate for Joseph to hear. It assuages his fears and doubts in the woman he has loved so deeply to take her in marriage. Underlying this act is the revelation of how much God cares for us as individuals. Jesus echoed this principle when he was sending the disciples out on mission: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31 ESV). God is not some uninvolved spectator in our lives. He is intimately and compassionately joined with us at the deepest levels of our lives. Our hurts are his hurts. Our betrayals are his betrayals. And, he ordains and uses very one of them for our good. Second, God gives Joseph an incredible glimpse into the future when he tells him to call the baby “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” God was not merely caring for Joseph and Mary in this incredible event, He was providing for all men a means of redemption. Joseph knew the prophecies. Now he was going to be at the focus of the greatest of them all. Others may have spoken of his shame and sin in taking Mary to be his wife; however, God declares boldly his acceptance and approval. When God looks at us, in our personal failures, he sees the perfect life of His son. That is our acceptance and approval. Believe that! Walk in that knowledge! Bask in that...

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Advent (Day 9)

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 ESV). When Matthew moves from the genealogy to the birth of Jesus it is almost anticlimactic. He recounts the nine months between Gabriel’s announcement and the birth with the use of one event between another heavenly messenger and Joseph. I can imagine that Joseph, like any young man would have been very busy preparing for the wedding. He must have been full of anticipation and joy at the coming culmination of the long process of courtship with this woman whom he obviously loved greatly. However, when Mary became pregnant with Jesus, it was surely a terrible shock to Joseph. Though he and Mary were betrothed, meaning they had given public and binding vows to each other, they had not yet lived together as man and wife. The only logical conclusion Joseph could reach was that Mary was pregnant by another man. For him, he could only come to the conclusion that she had deeply betrayed and rejected him. Yet his love for her prevailed. Remember that adultery was punishable with death by stoning under the Mosaic law. He was a “just man” (v. 19) indicating that he followed and respected the Law. However, he did not want to subject Mary to derision, judgment, and possible death. His decision therefore became to “divorce her quietly.” Joseph intended to dissolve their union with as little legal involvement as possible. It’s clear that he had no desire to see her publicly humiliated or put to death for what he believed to be her transgression. It is at this point that he lays down for a bit of rest, which must have been difficult to attain during this time of stress and anxiety. And, then God breaks into his world with a wonderful message that is so urgently needed in our world today. The angel, or perhaps the preincarnate Christ, comes to him and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. It is a message of forgiveness and mercy. He is to marry her, not to avoid difficulty; it would still be difficult. He is to forgive her and finalize the marriage because God was in control. This child “is from the Holy Spirit.” Do you see it? Every hurt, all our disappointments and challenges are merely tools in the hands of the Holy Spirit to bring our good. That’s...

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