Posts Tagged ‘Angels’

Why We Celebrate Christmas

Why We Celebrate Christmas

© C. O. Bishop

(Explication of a Hymn) Luke 1, 2; Matthew 1, 2

 

The Christmas Song

by Don Francisco

The center of the ages, and the Lord talks with a girl
And by the words He speaks He gives a Savior to the world
The fullness of the time has come, and Mary’s Son is born;
The promise’s fulfillment lies asleep now in her arms.

He didn’t come to terrify, to judge or condescend–
To call us all His servants, but to lift us as His friends
To save us all from Satan’s power, to reign at His right hand
In the little town of Bethlehem, when God became a man.

Today the God of Majesty has given to the Earth
A gift of such magnificence we could never plumb its worth
And the rudeness of the setting just ignites the jewel’s fire
A pearl beyond the greatest price, the joy of man’s desire.

He didn’t come to terrify, to judge or condescend
To call us all His servants but to lift us as His friends
To save us all from certain death, to reign at His right hand
When, once for all eternity, God became a man.

Introduction:

 In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we read the account of the birth of our Savior, and there is little question why we celebrate that birth, as it was the fulfillment of promises dating back thousands of years, all the way to the Fall of Man…and a plan from before the Creation.

We have all watched Christmas pageants, heard sermons, sung songs, and have read the scriptures, until we may become complacent about the facts of the Gospel. So, let’s review:

The Center of the Ages, and the Lord Talked with a Girl;

God actually could have chosen to carry out the crucifixion prior to the Creation, but it would have made no sense from our perspective, as we are locked in the sequence of time, though He himself is not. In fact, one of the pedigrees of the Gospel, in the Old Testament, is that God tells us the end from the beginning. No one else can do this. He let us know where, when and how, and by whom, the Savior was to be born, as well as what would characterize His life. The determination was made before the Creation, but the fulfillment had to wait.

So the first promise of the Savior was actually made the day the Human race fell into sin, in Genesis 3:15. And the fulfillment of that promise, along with hundreds of other, later promises regarding the Messiah, came about in the “Center of the Ages”, as the song says.

But the fulfillment began with a conversation between God (via the angel Gabriel) and Mary, a young girl in Nazareth; a small town in Galilee. It is interesting to read through the scriptures, looking to see how the spoken Word of God has affected our lives and our History. As it turns out, the creation itself was by the Word…the world was spoken into existence. All that we see around us was initially the creative act of the Word of God. So, it seems fitting that the spoken promise should give way to the Person called the Word of God, who would later assure His disciples that they were already cleansed through the Word He had spoken to them. By the Word of God, the Savior was given.

Mary was betrothed to a man (apparently much older, as was common) named Joseph. But when Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing that she had been chosen by God to bear the Savior, she was initially shocked and probably a little dismayed, as to how it was going to affect her betrothal. As it turned out, she would have been right to be worried, but she had quickly recovered, and blessed God for the privilege. She accepted the assignment with joy, looking forward by faith to the fulfillment of the Promise.

Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for a while, as she, too, was bearing her firstborn, but in her old age (another miracle-child: John the Baptist), and the angel Gabriel had told Mary about it. Elizabeth was already six months into her pregnancy. When Mary arrived at the home of Elizabeth, she herself was evidently only a few weeks pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blessed her, and recognized that she was the mother of her Lord, and revealed that as soon as she had heard Mary’s voice, the baby in her own womb had leaped for joy.

When Joseph discovered that his fiancée was pregnant, he had sadly determined to quietly divorce her, not wanting any public disgrace to come on her. It did require a divorce to break a betrothal, in that culture and time, and he thought she had been unfaithful, so he was planning to break the betrothal. But the angel Gabriel appeared to him, as well, in a dream, and assured him that Mary had been completely chaste, and faithful, and that the child she bore was literally the Son of God. Joseph was instructed to carry on with the marriage. He arose in the morning, and did as he was told, but did not consummate the marriage until after her firstborn son was born.

In the Little Town of Bethlehem

Joseph was required by Caesar Augustus to register for a census, along with all the other inhabitants of the Roman world. Bethlehem was his ancestral home, so he had to return there for the census. He took Mary with him to Bethlehem. Remember that Nazareth was home to both Joseph and Mary. That is where they would have expected their child to be born. But the prophecy of Micah 5:2 said that the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem. Caesar “just happened” to make a decision that would force them to temporarily relocate to Bethlehem, about 80 miles away. (Now, that was a strange “coincidence,” wasn’t it?)

The Fullness of Time

But, Mary was far along in her pregnancy by that time, so when they arrived in Bethlehem, along with the crowds of other people in the same circumstances, she was in critical need of a place to lie down and give birth. The only inn was full, and so they found shelter in a stable where animals were fed. The fullness of Mary’s time had come, as well as the fullness of God’s timing. Daniel’s prophecies had spelled out when the Messiah would come. (And here he was!) She gave birth there, in the humblest of circumstances, without a midwife, without her mother or aunts or older sisters to help her. So far as we know, only Joseph and she were there. God was in control. There was no need for other help. The baby was soon safe in her arms, and was subsequently wrapped in cloths, called “swaddling clothes.”

We always make nativity scenes with a variety of animals and the shepherds, and angels, and wise men. But at that moment, it was just Mary, Joseph, and the infant they would call Jesus, in obedience to the angelic messenger who had spoken to each of them separately. Animals very well could have been there, as the manger would indicate that animals were fed there; but the rest is all speculation on our part. Tradition has it that she rode there on a donkey, too, but we don’t even know that, for sure. It would make sense, but it is still just supposition and speculation. The wise men showed up perhaps a year or two later…not that night, for sure.

However, there were shepherds, in the surrounding fields, guarding their flocks by night. They got an astonishing announcement from God, via one angel, initially, soon joined by a multitude of angels, who appeared, telling them about the Savior’s birth, and praising and glorifying God. The shepherds were told to go and see the baby, and that they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Then the angels disappeared into the sky. (By the way; every single time angels appear in scripture, they appear as men… fearsome men at times: not dainty little lady-angels…sorry.)

But why these particular signs? Swaddling clothes were a rather archaic way of clothing an infant, in which the baby was simply wrapped in strips of cloth. It was similar to the way they prepared a body for burial, and it was not terribly common, even in that time, so that was part of the sign, along with the fact that they would find Him lying in a manger—an animal food trough—not a common bed for a child, at any time in history. It was just a plain, elevated food trough, made so that the animals would not step in their food. But it served well as a baby crib, in this case. So, when the shepherds came to look, they found him there, exactly as promised. They told everyone who would listen, and went back to their flocks excited, and praising God for the fulfillment of His promise. In Luke 2:10, it says that the “good tidings” (also called the gospel– that’s what “gospel” means: good tidings–good news) would bring great joy. That was the immediate response of the Shepherds. They didn’t have the day off because it was Christmas; no turkey, no tree, no “stockings, hung by the chimney with care:” just…great joy, because the Lord, the God of Israel, was finally fulfilling the Promise of the Ages. It seems to me that we all could use a dose of that kind of faith and the resulting joy. Remember, these were not parishoners, pumped up by a good sermon. They were common, lowly shepherds, who had just experienced God’s Grace.

But, why did He Come?

Skip forward thirty years in time: Joseph, Mary’s husband, has evidently already passed away, so that the rest of the family (Mary, four half-brothers and at least two half-sisters) now look to Jesus as the head of the household. Jesus begins his earthly ministry, and it is not at all what the Jews were hoping for. They wanted a King, who would destroy the Romans, and elevate Israel to supremacy, as the prophecies in Isaiah seemed to indicate would happen.

They were not at all impressed with a poor, itinerant preacher who persisted in preaching Grace, and Righteousness, and Peace. He healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, and, in general, proved that he was, in fact, the Son of God. But they rejected Him…He wasn’t what they wanted!

“He didn’t come to terrify,” as the song says: He didn’t come as a conquering emperor: He came “not to condemn the World, but that the World through Him might be saved.” He did not come to judge, but to offer salvation. He did not call us to be his slaves, but to free us from our slavery to sin, and to elevate us to be on friendly speaking terms with God: He even said “I do not call you my servants, but my friends.” He said of Himself, in Matthew 20:28, “…the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” He has already done what He came to do. He died in our place. And we who believe have already received the gift of eternal life. We have already been raised by Him, to sit with Him in the heavenlies. God says that we believers are already there, even while we are still in our lives here on earth. We have already been resurrected and ascended with Him to sit with him at the right hand of the Father.

The Rudeness of the Setting

Why do we find the story so compelling? Precisely because the setting was so completely plain. Jesus could have been born a royal heir, and lived in luxury, as do the heads of most of the world’s religions, but he chose to come as the son of a very poor girl, with a poor man for his adopted father. He emptied himself of all the trappings of deity and royalty, to become a man, living as a servant, not a king, owning nothing but the clothes he wore, and walking the roads of the tiny nation of Israel, reaching out one last time to a people who had mostly rejected his advances for almost 2,000 years.

His name was “Jesus”, meaning “Jehovah is Savior.” The angel Gabriel told Joseph that they would name the child “Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” His name is “Jehovah is Savior” because He shall save us from our sins! The deity of Christ is made clear, in the scriptures. John 1:1-14 says he is The Word, and that he is the Creator, as well as being God the Son. We can’t hope to understand such things. But all of them are facts!

And the gift God gave to us truly was magnificent beyond our comprehension. The cost was beyond our understanding, too, as we cannot even begin to imagine what it cost the God of Eternity to bind himself in time and space, specifically so that He could be tortured to death by his own creation, and to become sin for them, so as to endure for them the curse of His own wrath toward sin, and save them from certain destruction. 2nd Corinthians 5:21 says that “he who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” It boggles my mind to consider such a thing. We have been saved from our sins, saved from wrath, and delivered from Satan’s dominion over us. We could ask for no greater gift. We are now sons of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, for eternity.

God became a Man

 Philippians 2:5-8 tells us of the “kenosis”—the self-emptying of Christ. He set aside all his prerogatives as God, and chose to be born a human child, in harsh circumstances. He came for a single purpose: to die for our sins. He taught and demonstrated His Grace and Wisdom on the way to the Cross, but he was headed for the Cross from before the World began. Revelation 13:8 says that He was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the Earth.”

And it could only happen when and if…once, for all eternity, God became a Man. And that is the heart of the Christmas story!

Lord Jesus, help us to grasp and value the gift you have given, and to share that gift with those around us. Awaken our hearts to the need, and allow us to be your hands and feet and mouth, so that you will be free to love the World through us.


What Child is This?

What Child is This?

© C. O. Bishop, 12/22/2017 THCF 12/24/2017

(Comparing the lyrics of the hymn to the scriptural promises from which it sprang.)

Introduction:

One of the reason I really love the Christmas hymns is that they so frequently carry a pretty faithful representation of the facts of the Gospel, along with a fairly faithful representation of the facts of Christmas. Certainly, one may protest that there are facts overlaid by legend and mythology. That is true. We go to God’s Word to sort out the truth, and frequently still can see that the intent of the author was to honor God, and to reflect the truth of His Word. And, of course, there are glaring exceptions…but those are not the ones I am drawn to. A year or so ago, we took “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as an example and found that, actually, the original words were quite accurate, and that the only questionable line in the lyrics was changed by a later hand (and, ironically, became the title of the hymn.)

This Christmas I would like to examine some of the core questions posed in a different Hymn: Today people try to recreate and re-invent The Jesus of the Bible. Even in his day, people denied that He was who He said he was, and within the first century, unbelievers were trying to change the Gospel to something more comfortable. It is not comfortable! The uncomfortable portions of the “Good News” of the Gospel are that way because of the unthinkable wickedness of the Human Race…because of our sin.

Today, as then, the appropriate question is “Who is this Jesus?” Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he desperately wanted to see Jesus, “who he was”.  Jesus, himself, asked “but who do you say that I am?”

A Little History: In 1865, in Bristol, England, an insurance company employee named William Chatterton Dix fell ill, and became extremely sick. He gradually recovered, and during that period of convalescence he went through some pretty deep depression, during which time, he read his Bible a great deal, possibly for the first time with comprehension. The result was that he went through what he called a “spiritual renewal.” I can’t say whether that was when he first received the Lord Jesus as his personal sacrifice for sins, or whether this is just the time when it deeply impressed him. He wrote a poem during that time, called “the Manger Throne”, from which three stanzas were later lifted when he wrote the Christmas Hymn, “What Child is This?

“Who do the People say that I am?”

Jesus asked the disciples this question, before asking them about their own answer to that question: They said “Some say that you are John the Baptist, and some Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.” We can see that there was great controversy, even at that time, as to who Jesus really was. Each person was to be held accountable for their own answer to the question. Pilate later posed a similar, essential question: “What then shall I do with this Jesus, who is called Christ?” We are each held accountable to the answer to that question, as well.

Every year, for the last several decades, people have gathered for the “Jesus Symposium” or some similar name, where they essentially “reinvent” Jesus, according to their own tastes. But the Jesus of the Bible was a historical person, and is easily proven to have been so. What becomes more difficult is the fact that only the Bible gives us an accurate view of who He really is, because the whole rest of the world has “an axe to grind,” in that, the entire human race is antagonistic toward the holy God of the Bible. We want a God who is more to our taste…so we re-create God in our image, according to Romans 1:21-23.

When William Dix confronted this question from his sick bed, he asked

What Child is This?

We need to address the same question: Who is He really? So let’s look at William Dix’s approach:

What Child is this who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud, The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate, Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh, Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise the song on high, the virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born, The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Where was He to be born? In Bethlehem…fulfilling the prophecy of Micah 5:2. (read it!)

Where was he to be found by the Shepherds? In a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, fulfilling the word of the Angelic messenger to the shepherds as a group. And who were those shepherds told that the baby really was? “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” They were not told that he was the king, in that particular context, but, if they knew the Old Testament prophecies (such as the one in Micah 5:2), they would have known that the Messiah (Christ) was to be the Eternal King, as well. So they left their flocks and they hurried into Bethlehem; they made haste, the scriptures say, to go see the newborn king. And they found him just as the Angel had said, along with Joseph and Mary. They went back to their flocks with Great Joy. Did they understand it all? I doubt it…but, then, I don’t really claim to “understand it all,” either.

But, why was he in a manger, and not in some hospital ward or maybe in a palace? Philippians 2:5-8 sheds some light on this: “…he humbled himself.” He not only became part of His own creation, but he became a man, not an angel. He not only became a man, he became a poor man, in a nation that was already a slave-state to Rome, a cruel, ungodly, polytheistic nation. A place where life was cheap, and righteousness was foreign.

He came, not as a conquering hero, but as a tiny, helpless infant, enduring all the hardships of life with the people he had called his own. Did they bring him honor? Not so you’d notice. The shepherds were the only witnesses. But, in that manger bed, all the Promises of the Ages were being fulfilled. He came to save sinners…and his entire life was poured out to that single end.

Take it Personally!

The hymnist recognized what was happening, there, and it shook Him. He was moved to a Godly fear, and he became a true believer, if he had not been one before then. He pondered the fact that those tiny, curled-up baby hands would be the same ones later pierced by spikes, as he was tortured on the Cross. That this tiny, helpless body, when full grown, was the same one which would be pierced through by the Roman spear, as his blood was poured out at the Cross. And he knew it was for himself, personally. “Nails, spears, shall pierce Him through…His blood be shed for me, for you!” Take it personally!

He also realized that this was the fulfillment of John 1:14, where it said that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory…)” We, too, can either embrace that truth, knowing that the Word, which was God, is also the Word which became flesh…and thus we can see His glory…or we can go back to seeing Jesus the way the World sees him: just another dead Jew…or perhaps a tragic martyr…or, even just a myth.

He winds up his hymn, encouraging the listener to join in worshipping the God-in-flesh Savior. To say “bring Him incense” is a call for worship. The incense burned in the temple was only used for that purpose…it was not used to make the home smell nice, or any other common purpose. It was a picture of the prayers, and praises, and worship being offered by believers. How do I know? God says so! Revelation 5:8 says that the incense (odours, KJV) in the vials of the elders (the church) were “the prayers of saints”; saints are the “holy ones of God”: believers! If you are a child of God, God says you are a saint! You may not feel that way (nor do I), but our feelings are not an accurate reflection of reality. It is a fact. But he says “Bring him incense, gold and myrrh.” Who did that? It was the wise men. Why did they do it? Remember, they weren’t even there, that first night.

Later, within a year or two, the wise men came from the East, and sought “him who is born King of the Jews”. These wise men were not Jews—these were from the area we now call Iraq, most likely, near what was once ancient Babylon, and may possibly have been some of the last surviving disciples of Daniel, the prophet. He had become one of the head wise men (later called Zoroastrian seers) in Babylon, some 500 years earlier, and he had prophesied of the coming Messiah (Daniel 9:26). They did bring him honor, but later…not at his birth. And the things they brought were appropriate: they brought gold, which was an appropriate gift for a king (and which would be needed for their escape into Egypt); they brought frankincense, which was appropriate to a priest and a sacrifice. They brought myrrh, which was a costly resin, used in medicine and in embalming…appropriate to His death. They recognized him for who He was. We need to do the same thing, and not take lightly the story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah.

The hymn-writer says that the way is clear, now, for the lowliest of human slaves, to claim the Savior, as well as for any nobleman willing to humble his or her heart. Queen Victoria was one of those monarchs who humbled her heart and by her own testimony, she was saved. Jesus echoes this, and says, “Whosoever will may come!”

The issue, then, becomes “What will I do with this Jesus, who is called Christ?” That is what Pilate asked, in Matthew 27:22…but then he went on to condemn Jesus to death. He claimed to be innocent, himself, but he was not. He had the authority to do right, and did not do it. God says that is sin (James 4:17). “Therefore, if a man knoweth to do right, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Pilate was guilty. We have to choose, as well, what to do with Jesus, the Messiah.

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

Jesus directed this question to His disciples. Peter answered: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus blessed Peter for that answer. But later, as you remember, Peter denied Jesus…and later still, he went back to commercial fishing…Jesus had to call him again. But God didn’t give up on Peter; He had a use for Peter’s life. And He has a use for yours and for mine.

So… just like Peter, I know who He really is, too …but what am I going to do about it?

The hymn-writer said, “The King of Kings Salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him!” Is that what I will do? Allow him to reign in my heart? Or will I just live life as usual, and let one day follow another for whatever is left of my life, not honoring The King much more than does the World: (“Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!”) But no real thought given to the reason we celebrate. Every day of my life, I wake up with one more chance to serve: one more chance to work with Jesus, offering my body a living sacrifice to His glory. Every day I have to choose how to spend my time, how to spend my money…and whether to serve Him, the King of Kings, or to just go ahead and serve my flesh, just doing what I want, to bring honor to myself. And, too frequently, I choose badly.

“Raise, raise, the Song on High!” When we sing together, do you really hear the words? Do you consider the importance of those teachings? Do you sing the words as a song from your own heart? If you do, then the last line says what should be the result:

“Joy! Joy, for Christ is born, the babe, the Son of Mary!” We can see Him as the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan and all of His promises to Israel and the World! We can see that the perilous times coming are not directed at us, but at the unbelieving world. We can see that our Savior is coming to take us home, to safety and eternal joy! We can experience, every day, the joy of knowing that He is truly in control, and that, regardless of how bad things look, we are headed for a good conclusion.

Lord Jesus, draw us along into Your Joy. Mature us through the teaching of Your Word, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, re-shaping us into Your own likeness, that we can be able ambassadors of Your Grace and Love to a dying world. Please lift us up, as Your tools, Your hands and Your feet, and use us to Your glory.