Sunday, December 20, 2009

Down a Road Toward Christmas: Bethlehem's Fields - A Place of Decision

We are now ready to complete our journey "Down a Road toward Christmas." Our final destination is an area of pastureland just east of Bethlehem where we witness some men at work herding sheep. Their story is found in Luke 2:1-20. These shepherds represented one of the oldest and most important vocations among the Jews. The very early Hebrews were shepherds. The list is quite impressive: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. Were these shepherds religious men? Not according to the pharisaic standards. They often failed to attend the synagogue services as frequently as they should. They did not keep all the strict laws and traditions imposed by the religious authorities. These were hardly the type of people the message of God's love would ever be given to...well, at least that is what most people would have thought. But God doesn't work according to our plans!

We first notice that these men were fearing men. They had simply been doing their job - watching sheep. It was usually a long, tedious work. When suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared and they became enveloped in the glory of the Lord. This was a glory so radiant that Moses had to veil his face after being in the presence of God. It was a glory so bright that it blinded the eyes of Paul years later. This was no ordinary was the penetrating presence of God.

What was their response? Fear...a totally, wonderfully, natural response. When confronted by God, they did not make excuses. No, they felt they were doomed. Fear hit them hard!

It is only when a man has been broken by the fear of God that God can use him. God could not use Moses until his heart was full of the fear of God. God could not use Isaiah until his heart was full of the fear of God. God could not reveal the future to John until his heart was full of the fear of God. And God cannot use you and me until we have rediscovered that awesome and awful fear of God.

We then notice that these fearing men became inquiring men. After receiving the angelic message that a savior had been born right there in their own village, they asked themselves, "What shall we do with this message?" They had three options: 1) They could ignore it and do nothing. Sadly this is what the majority of people decided to do with the message of Christmas (read Matthew 7:13-14). Or 2) They could delay any action. "Let's think about it until morning and then decide what to do." How dangerous is any delay, for in the delaying your destination is the same as for those who have ignored the message. Or 3) They could act upon it immediately. "Let's not wait any longer! Let's go to Bethlehem...NOW!" They went to discover for themselves Jesus Christ.

As the men left that nativity scene, they were proclaiming what they had heard and seen. They wanted others to know of the message. Isn't that what Christmas is all person telling another where they can discover peace and joy. You couldn't keep these men quiet. They didn't know much about religion, but they did know what they had experienced. They didn't understand it all, but they knew what had happened in their own lives. Maybe people wouldn't believe them, but they had to tell the story anyway. These ordinary shepherds became the first evangelists mentioned in the New Testament.

Our journey down a road toward Christmas is now completed. But the question yet remains - What are you and I going to do with Christ? What Child is this that the wise men and shepherds sought? What Child is this that the scribes ignored and Herod sought to kill? The answer is as old as the foundations of the world and yet as new as the dawning of a day...He is Christ, the Lord; He is Jesus, the Savior of the world!

Here is wishing each of you a Very Merry Christmas filled with the joys of Jesus Christ, and a prayer for His presence and power to be experienced by you as you enter into the New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Down a Road Toward Christmas: Bethlehem - A Place of Destiny

From Jerusalem we hurry down the road to that little village of Bethlehem. It was an old city, having been built by one of the sons of Caleb. It was here that Ruth had met Boaz. It was here that David had watched his father's flocks, and was later anointed as king. The prophet Micah had even predicted that the Messiah would be born here. This small village was to become center stage for the most dramatic event the world had ever known. It was here that God was to clothe Himself in flesh and come as our Savior. This aspect of the story is found in Philippians 2:5-8.

Before Bethlehem, Christ was equal with God; in fact, He was God by His very form. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus constantly emphasized the fact that He was equal with God: "Jesus said to the Pharisees, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM'" (John 8:58). "He who has seen Me has seen the Father also" (John 14:9). "And I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are" (John 17:11).

But Jesus did not cling to this position tenaciously. Christ knew that the glory and honor would be His only as a result of Bethlehem and Calvary.

In this great text, Paul tells us that Christ emptied Himself. He divested Himself of all His privileges and the glory of heaven. He did this for you and for me. As I reflected upon this reality, God asked me a question: "Max, are you willing to give up a position that you might feel is rightly yours to do My will?" Am I willing to be emptied so that I can better serve Jesus Christ?

But, not only did Christ empty Himself of all that was rightly His, He became a bondservant...a volunteer slave...a slave by choice. Just think - Jesus Christ is the only person in the history of this world who was born a slave by choice. For Jesus it was always, "Not My will but Yours be done."

And Jesus knew that this volunteer slavery would lead Him to the cross. The hymn writer has captured this well when he wrote: "Born to die that man might live, Came to earth new life to give." When you and I were born, we were not conscious of death...but not so with Jesus. He was born knowing that before Him lay the agonies of death. He was born knowing that before Him lay the pain of the nails and the thorns. He knew all this and yet He was willing to take that responsibility.

Without Bethlehem...there would be NO HOPE. All would be despair. But Jesus Christ came to give us hope. "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."

Without Bethlehem...there would be NO JOY. All would be hollow amusement. But Jesus Christ came to give us a reason to rejoice. "Joy to the world, the Lord has come!"

Without Bethlehem...there would be NO MEANING FOR LIFE. All would be vanity. But Jesus Christ came to give us a reason to live. In Him we find the true essence of life. And in that essence we proclaim, "O come, let us adore Him...Christ, the Lord."

Friends, Bethlehem is the place where God set into motion His great plan to redeem a lost mankind! Only one destination yet remains on this "Road Toward Christmas." Share with us next week as we sit beside the fires of a group of shepherds who are challenged with the most amazing announcement the world had ever heard.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Down a Road Toward Christmas: Jerusalem - A Place of Danger

Last week we began a very special journey through this time of Advent. I have titled the journey: Down a Road Toward Christmas. Last week we began our journey in the little village called Nazareth; just a little spot in the Galilean hills. Here both a young maiden and a carpenter were called upon to make a decision that would literally change their lives forever. You might remember that their stories were found in Matthew 1 and Luke 1.

Now, we journey down to the capitol city itself - Jerusalem. You will find the foundation for this story in Matthew 2:1-13.

Jerusalem was a city teeming with people. It was a city busy with the business of religion and government. Jerusalem was the hub of the nation. Surely, if anything of worldwide significance was to happen, it would happen here.

It was to this city that a group of travelers came bearing precious treasures to present to a newly born king. We don't know much about these men, except that they were magi or astrologers from the areas of Persia and Mesopotamia. We don't even know how many there were. But they came to the only place they thought was logical in order to find the king of the Jews.

But, in their searching for Christ, they went to the wrong place. What did these "wise men" find in Jerusalem? Why was this place so dangerous to their search?

First, they found a troubled king. A spirit of jealousy troubled him. Herod possessed a "look-out-for-me-only" spirit. He was a man who prided himself in what he had accomplished. No one was ever going to tarnish any of his achievements. No one was ever going to replace him on the throne. Because of this spirit, he became fearful of everyone. History records the many acts of violence and death that Herod perpetrated upon others because of his jealousy.

Herod was also troubled by the truth. He was not the true king of the Jews. In fact, he was not even a Jew himself. He had no lineage with Judah or David. He had captured the title, "King of the Jews," with much political intrigue. Even when the religious authorities agreed that a true king of the Jews was to be born, Herod insisted that people believe the lie rather then the truth. Why? Because he himself believed the lie! Oh the dangers of rejecting the truth. The Christ the wise men were seeking was the full embodiment of truth. Herod knew that truth but refused to accept it.

A second danger greeted the wise men when they arrived in Jerusalem: an apathetic clergy. Now, upon hearing the story of the wise men, these religious leaders should have become very excited. The prophecies of old had now been fulfilled. What great news! Excited...hardly. In fact, the text leads us to believe their response was sort of ho-hum. Now, this must have perplexed these wise men, for they had traveled many miles to see this child and to pay homage to Him, and they were not even Jews. Now they were witnessing Jewish clergy totally apathetic about the message.

One of the greatest dangers of Christmas is that we grow indifferent to the story. There is no longer any spark. It is not that we don't know the facts. It is just that we have no joy any longer. It is time that we pray that God might rekindle our fire for Christmas. It is time that we ask for a new joy for this holy time of the year. It is time that we rediscover the wonder of Christ's birth. Then we can sing, "O come, let us adore Him...Christ, the Lord" with both joy and wonderment.

Our next stop will take us to the little village of Bethlehem: The place of destiny. Join us for this adventurous stop next week.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Down a Road Toward Christmas: Nazareth-A Place of Dedication

"Tis the most wonderful time of the year" or so echoes the words of a familiar Christmas song. Many pictures enter our minds when we think about Christmas: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, bells jingling on a one-horse open sleigh, shoppers rushing home with their treasures, Christmas trees aglow with bright lights and glimmering bulbs, and families enjoying each other's presence and presents.

But, what was that very first Christmas like? Journey with me these next few weeks down a road toward Christmas as we reflect upon the realities of that very first Advent. Our first stop is the little community of Nazareth, located in Galilee. It is home to a middle-aged carpenter, named Joseph, and a young maiden, named Mary. Their lives were soon to be forever changed. You will find this story in Matthew 1:18-25 and in Luke 1:26-38. I've entitled this story: Nazareth - A Place of Dedication.

The Bible tells us that Joseph was employed as a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). Perhaps he had inherited this business from his father. Maybe he had started it as his own small business. We do know that it was not a lucrative business because the offering he and Mary brought at the dedication of Jesus was an offering of the poor. But there was enough that he felt he could get married. We don't know how old Joseph was at the time of his engagement, but he was probably between the ages of 25 and 30, as most hard-working Jewish men did not marry until that time.

Both his parents and those of Mary had probably arranged his engagement, with the fathers entering into a covenant binding them together. In those days a betrothal was legally binding. Only divorce could break it. Even though they were not yet married, any act of unfaithfulness would have been punished as adultery. This betrothal was a very serious agreement.

All seemed fine - excitement was building as Joseph thought of his approaching day of marriage. Then one day Mary gave him some startling news...she was pregnant! The Bible does not tell us if Mary told Joseph everything, but his response was natural. He knew he had only three options: 1) He could go ahead and marry her immediately and only hope that people in Nazareth were not very good at counting months; or 2) He could expose her and have her stoned to death as an adulteress; or 3) He could divorce her. It was this last option that he chose.

Why would Joseph make such a choice? He was afraid of the costs of a continued relationship with Mary. It would cause embarrassment to his family's name. It would affect his business. And most certainly it would tarnish his character. How could he, a man of righteous character, become involved with a woman lacking in moral integrity? much as he loved Mary, she had to be sent away, never to enter his life again.

Then, one night as he lay in his bed trying to sleep, an angel of the Lord appeared and informed him as to what was going on. He may not have believed the story Mary had told him, but how could he deny the words of an angel of the Lord? Now Joseph was faced with a decision. He could either dedicate himself to God's plan or he could live for himself. God was not asking him whether he understood God's plan, or whether he approved of it. God was merely asking him, "Joseph, will you take part in the greatest story this world has ever seen?" Joseph was sensitive to the voice of God and was obedient. He was willing to become part of the team God was assembling to bring into this world His Son.

What about Mary? She was probably just a young girl between the ages of 14 and 15. Suddenly, one day an angel greeted her with startling words: "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." I have often wondered if Mary, upon hearing these words, reflected upon past biblical greetings. There was God's greeting to do something impossible (Judges 6:12); His greetings to do something difficult (Genesis 22:1); His greetings to do something frustrating (Jeremiah 1:4-10), and His greetings to do something terrifying (Jonah 1:2). Now, Mary was being so greeted. No wonder the text says that she was troubled and began to wonder what the meaning was. "What does God want from me!"

The angel, noticing the terror in Mary's eyes, continued by saying that she should not be afraid because she had found favor with God. That word "favor" is usually translated "grace" and means "to be pleasing to someone or something." Mary was pleasing to God. God gives great responsibilities to those with whom He is pleased: Noah was favored by God and commanded to build the ark (Genesis 6:8), and Moses found favor with God and was commanded to lead Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 33:17).

What was Mary's decision? She was obedient to God. As with Joseph, she did not understand the magnitude of what God was asking her to do. But she said yes. At times we think we should have all the answers, that God should give us step-by-step directions. All God wants to know is if we are willing to take a risk for Him.

The road toward Christmas always begins in Nazareth - a place of dedication to the plan of God. The act of dedication or surrender is never easy, but the eternal rewards are outstanding.

With both Joseph and Mary committed to God's plan, our next stop is the capitol city itself Jerusalem. Join us there next time.