Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Haggai--Rebuilding the Temple

Yesterday, the Wednesday night group went back to Haggai after a Christmas themed break. We were able to make it to one of my favorite passages in the Minor Prophets, found in ch. 2.

To open the chapter, God brings up the despair of the people who remember the greatness of Solomon’s Temple, destroyed roughly 68 years ago—“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?”

David, while not allowed to build the Temple, got things ready to build it—and he spared no expense. Solomon continued the example, drawing upon the resources of a wealthy kingdom to use the best wood, the best stone, lots of gold, silver, bronze and the best craftsmen. From the best of our estimations, it was one of the most beautiful and impressive buildings, especially for the day.

When the Temple was destroyed in 586 BC, most Jews assumed God had abandoned them and they didn’t know how to get Him back. Maybe a new Temple would please Him and His favor would return.

But now, what the people were working on paled in comparison to the previous Temple. Even looking at the foundation told them it wasn’t going to be as big or magnificent. They didn’t have the resources of a great kingdom to finance it or use the best materials or workmen. There’s no way God would come back to something so much less than what was before. After all, He abandoned us when we had that great Temple, why would He come back to a shabby Temple?

Here’s a modern parallel. On September 11th, 2001, the 2 most prominent buildings of the World Trade Center were destroyed. There’s been a lot of arguing and complaining about the proposals for rebuilding on the site. It’s very emotional, the general sentiment is that we’ve got to put something up that will be as memorable and striking as the originals if not surpassing.

But imagine if the NY Port Authority came out and announced a plan that due to a lack of funds and interest would be exact replicas of the towers but only about 1/3rd the scale. The previous towers were 110 stories tall, whereas the new ones would only be 40 stories tall. Everyone who remembered the former would be very disappointed when they saw the new.

For the Israelites, God wanted them to know that He had not abandoned them. That in fact, they should Be Strong because His “Spirit remains among you.” Vs. 5.

It was never David’s gold, silver, stones & cedar that made the Temple great and glorious. It was the presence of God. And since God was with them in this new project—it didn’t depend upon size, splendor or beauty—the only thing that would make it glorious and worthwhile was God’s presence—and He promised to be there.

In fact, God made a great promise—vs. 7-9—He, the heart of all nations and peoples, would come and fill even this new, not as impressive house with Glory!. What’s more, God promises that this lesser house will have even greater glory than the former. Vs. 9—“The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,” says the LORD Almighty.

God’s Presence and desire is what gives something or someone glory. I can preach the best sermon, I can ensure the best and most engaging worship service but without the Spirit of God guiding and directing, without pleasing Him as the goal, then any glory of that service will be eclipsed by the service down the street with a piano player who hits the right note only ½ the time, and the preacher who struggles with reading Scripture our loud. So long as the Spirit of God is there and is moving in His Word and His people—the glory of that service will be greater than any construction I can make.

So Lord, please fill my heart with your glory, fill UBC with your glory and truly grant us the peace that comes from knowing You and making You known. Let us not get distracted by appearances or discouraged by “results” but trust completely that Your Presence makes all the difference.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sermon 12/24/06--The Call to Bethlehem

The Beta on Blogger is messing up my formatting from Word--anyone know why or how I can fix it? Thanks.

The Call to Bethlehem

At airports around the country, many people are carefully listening for flight numbers, flight times, even names. As soon as they one they want is mentioned, they perk up, pay special attention and if need be, move as fast as they can to get to the counter and be the first in line. The difference between a flight in an hour and one tomorrow night is a matter of how quickly anyone obeys the call over the PA System. When the voice comes, they jump.

If only we would respond to the voice of God with as much quickness and desire as He gives out. Because there were several Calls going on during the days of the birth of Jesus

1. The Call to Bethlehem is a Call to Come Home—Matthew 2:1-2

a. After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

b. Look at the Magi—they were willing to travel a great distance just to meet this newborn King. They put in miles that puts to shame most if not all traveling done in America today—and they did it essentially on foot. That required some serious motivation and determination. To pick up and go for 1000 miles based solely on an observation of the heavens.

c. Whey would they care so much about seeing a new king in Jerusalem? In many ways, I am becoming more and more convinced that these men’s hearts were ignited within them because of a call to come home.

d. Many speculate about these men—who are they, what are their beliefs. Some say they are simply pagan astrologers, some Zoroastrians. But it is important to understand WHERE these men are from.

e. They are from “the east” which is generally understood to be Mesopotamia—in the regions held by great kingdoms like Assyria, Babylonia and Persia. You probably recognize those names from reading the Old Testament. You should also know that this general territory is where many of the Jews of the captivity were taken in their exile, where they experienced great estrangement and separation from God and the practice of their faith.

Most of the Jews never returned to the land of Israel when they were given the opportunity. Instead, they stayed and had great influence—Daniel rose to become one of the greatest wise men in Babylon and Persia. Nehemiah was the chief cupbearer to the king. Esther became queen of Persia and her cousin Mordecai became King Xerxes’ 2nd in command. There was a strong Jewish presence and influence in the region. They carried with them their faith, their scriptures, their culture. It didn’t just disappear. Some of these nations today, I believe still have a small Jewish population.

g. If nothing else, these Magi would have had access or familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures—the psalms and the laments, the prophets—all talking about the glory of Jerusalem, the Temple and the place of God’s presence on earth.

h. But if everything else lined up right—in a way that God has a tendency to do—the Magi could themselves be Jewish or partially Jewish. Part of a faith community that always wondered what it would have been like if they had gone home with Ezra, Nehemiah and the others. It’s as if God still sees them as part of the Remnant that He had promised to call home.

i. Bethlehem had called them home—and they knew the reason—“we saw his star in the east and we have come to worship him.”

j. They were called home to True Worship—to be the kind of worshippers Jesus said God wanted all along—John 4:22-23—“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

k. This is the first part of the call to Bethlehem--a Truly Restored Relationship with God even after a lifetime or even centuries of distance. A restored relationship makes True Worship possible. They came to bring gifts for this new King, and giving is a part of our worship of God--but what they were witnessing in the Call to Bethlehem was the Gift that God was willing to give them in order to call them home.

l. God called them home to True Worship just as He calls us Home to a restored relationship with Him—God calls you and me to Bethlehem so we can come and worship Him.

2. The Call to Bethlehem is a Call to Witness His Grace & Testify to His Love--:Luke 2:8-18

a. Instead of being in a far off country—this call came to those who were close-by. There’s a sense of urgency—that God wants them there—to not miss a moment of what He is doing.

b. These Shepherds—outside the mainstream, considered unreliable, unpredictable, untrustworthy, were exactly the kind of people that God wanted to Witness His Grace made alive in this child—

c. They were exactly what He wanted to testify to anyone who would listen to the power of His Love.

d. They were the last ones a normal Israelite would choose—but they were God’s first choice. They were the reminders of where the nation of Israel had come from—a reminder of their roots. The Patriarchs had all been shepherds—Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. Moses was a shepherd of sheep & goats long before he shepherded Israel out of Egypt. Even the great King David, first became known as a young Shepherd boy.

e. These shepherds saw it firsthand—they heard who the Baby was supposed to be—a Savior in David’s Line—maybe a shepherd just like them—a better one—the Good Shepherd. Bethlehem calls to you and me—to witness God’s Grace, His Power & Love.

f. After you are called home & reminded of who you really are—a special creation of God—you are then invited to Witness His power and tell others about what you have seen and heard.

g. In other words—God calls you home so you will fulfill His purpose and Plan.

3. The Call to Bethlehem is a Call to Fulfill God’s Plan—Matthew 1:18-24

a. Imagine all those God could have chosen to bring His Son into the world. There were great and powerful men and women. Great Kingdoms and Empires—and yet none of them were qualified for this plan.

b. There was nothing special about Joseph & Mary. If you were to pass them on the street today, or if they were sitting in the pew next to you, you’d probably never know. They didn’t earn the role, they didn’t deserve the roll, they didn’t buy it, try out for it, or sign up.

c. No human process would have chosen a young girl like Mary in such an important role—they would have surveyed the globe, gone to all the beauty pageants, done a Hollywood star search, pulled all the Rhodes Scholar’s or Who’s Who

d. By all the world’s standards, Joseph and Mary were not qualified for the role God wanted them to fulfill. God does not call the qualified—He qualifies the called. More than anything, they desired to please God. More than anything, they were willing to follow Him. When the call arrived—they obeyed—Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant—may it be to me as you have said.”. When Joseph woke up from his dream, “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”

e. They merely lived the life God had called them to. One day, things were going along normally, and the next morning, the course of their life changed. God called them to Bethlehem as integral parts of fulfilling His plan.

f. God also desires to use you and me for His Glory. When you wake up in the morning to a moment in history that divides time—God may call you—He has the right, He has the desire—He has a part for you to fulfill His plan in this world, in someone’s life.

God will call each of us at various times in the same manner

You have a part to play… God is inviting you to truly worship Him and come home to restored and genuine relationship—just like the Magi

You have a part to play…God is inviting you to see, to witness, to testify to what God is doing in your life—just like the Shepherds

You have a part to play… God desires to use you in His Kingdom work—you don’t have to be perfect, the smartest, the prettiest, the wealthiest for Him to use you. In fact, He often chooses the most unexpected to fulfill the most important roles—to shame the wise—

Home First

Testimony Next


Advent--Joy & Jesus


Joy is not determined by location

Joy is not determined by the size of your bank account.

Joy is not defined by circumstances, nor is it manufactured by a sheer act of will.

Joy comes from God—if God were not here, active and present in this world—all joy would cease.

Joy to the World occurs because God gives it in the fact that “The Lord Is Come”

Isaiah 12:6--Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,

for great is the Holy One of Israel among you."

Joy is a gift from God and does not come naturally to us. It is a product of restored relationship and is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit—

Galatians 5:22—“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.”

The Joy of Restored Relationship to God is at the heart of Christmas.

Luke 2:10-11—“But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Jesus came bringing Joy and desires to give it generously to His people. Jesus Himself takes joy at seeing a vibrant and growing faith in us.

John 15:11—“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

Joy to the World, The Lord Is Come

Rejoice in the Lord Always, I say again Rejoice.

JUDE 1:24 To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy-- 25 to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.


Dear Jesus,

Tomorrow we celebrate Your birthday. Your birthday isn’t about receiving, it is about giving. You gave up your claim to omnipotence, Your omnipresence, and accepted the role of a servant, of a lowly human being. You are not ashamed to call us your brothers and sisters.

This wasn’t the end of your giving, it was just the beginning—You willingly gave Your life to purchase our freedom—freedom from sin, freedom from death, freedom from the dominion of evil and darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light.

You have left your throne in heaven and celebrated your birthday with us. Thank you Jesus for accomplishing the task the Father sent you for—saving Your people from their sins.

· Thank You for being my Wonderful Counselor

· Thank You for being my Mighty God,

· Thank You for being my Everlasting Father

· Thank You for being my Prince of Peace.

Friday, December 22, 2006

How Well do you know the First Christmas

The last couple of Wednesdays, our small group has been taking a careful look at the Birth Narratives of Jesus and comparing them to the traditional mental picture we get around Christmas time with the various Manger scenes and other popular depictions. Some of this may be new to you—so I hope it is enlightening. The answers seem to get longer as it goes—and, I still can't figure out how to make this formatting consistent--sorry about that!


How Well Do You Know the First Christmas?

1. What is the traditional biblical story of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem?

The traditional picture has a tired and desperate Mary & Joseph trudging/rushing into Bethlehem. They are all alone, there’s no AAA Roadside Assistance, there’s no hospital, they know no one. All the Inn’s or Motel 6’s have No Vacancy and so thanks to the backhanded generosity of a sour innkeeper, Mary & Joseph are banished to the barn where she is already in labor and almost immediately has the baby Jesus. Then the Shepherds appear following a star because not far behind them are the 3 Kings bearing gifts. They all form a nice little huddle around the Manger and the baby Jesus.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture—it’s the most popular—but is it the most accurate to the biblical texts?

2. Were they traveling alone? What biblical evidence do you have to support this?

We get a few clues to suggest they were not traveling alone.

First, in Luke 2, since everyone had to travel to their own hometown to register—it’s safe to assume that other people had to do some traveling to register as well.

Second, Bethlehem was full of travelers—they had to get there somehow—they would have used the same roads that Mary & Joseph used.

Third has to do with the time of year the events actually occurred which we’ll get to later—let’s just say that in order for them to get to Bethlehem, Mary & Joseph had to pass through Jerusalem (Bethlehem is about 5 miles South of Jerusalem whereas Nazareth is considerably north of Jerusalem)—Jerusalem was the center of political and religious life in Israel so pilgrims of all sorts were on the roads to Jerusalem all the time.

Fourth, most people traveled in family groups or with friends whenever possible. You see evidence of Joseph & Mary doing this just a few verses later (Luke 2:41-44) when Jesus was 12 years old. Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem when J & M left for home. They were traveling in such a large group, they couldn’t see Jesus and assumed He was running around with someone else.

3. When was the baby born?

a. Mary barely made it into town

b. The first night

c. Some time later

Luke 2:6 says “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”. The implication of that statement is that M & J arrived in Bethlehem and sometime before they went home, Jesus was born. Luke was a very precise writer—and even though he’s giving a quick summation of some things—if there was a panicked rush to get to Bethlehem, he could have said so. The language is of a much slower series of events. So the idea that she was in labor as they ran into Bethlehem, desperately pounding on doors is not particularly accurate. So they may have been there for a few days or even weeks before she went into labor.

Given the later accounts of the Magi in Matthew—it’s obvious that J & M stayed in Bethlehem for a long time.

4. Does that change the nature of the location of Jesus’ birth if it happened some time later—in other words, couldn’t Joseph had found some other place after a while?

If they had been there for a few days at least, then the likelihood that Joseph couldn’t find any place to stay is a stretch. After some time, he would have been able to find something and they would not have been cast out to the animal pens. Why would they go there then? We’ll talk about that later.

5. Were Mary & Joseph alone while in Bethlehem? What is the likelihood that they knew anyone in town?

The traditional picture is them alone and afraid. But why were they going to Bethlehem in the first place? It was their family home. They both were of the line of David. Not all of the family would have moved away from Bethlehem. Some of them stuck around—and they would have had some good records or tradition of who is related to who and where they are in the line of potential successors for David’s throne. Family relationships and connections were important for that culture and Joseph or Mary probably had relatives that still lived there that they could have gone to and asked for a place to stay or help with the pregnancy.

Yet if that were the case, why would they have to go out to the animals? That would be affected by several things one being the nature of the place they were staying. First, let’s look at something that isn’t obviously related, but it is.

6. Luke 22:10-12—What was this room like?

In this passage, Jesus is preparing for the Passover feast and He sends Peter & John in to find the right place—He says—“He replied, "As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, `The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' 12 He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there."

This “guestroom” was a large room that many houses had for family gatherings, meals, or visiting relatives—it was big, generally open and several families could sleep there at the same time.

If you didn’t know, Luke uses some of the best Greek in the New Testament, fitting for his life as a physician. He is precise in his words and this is important.

7. Back in Luke 2, what is meant by the word “Inn”? Is there any other possible meaning?

Interestingly, the word that Luke uses in ch. 22 translated “guestroom” is the same one used in ch. 2 translated “inn”. The problem is that “inn” carries many different connotations—our mind pictures something like a Motel 6—large building with many small rooms that you can rent for the night. If Joseph was there for an extended stay—at least 33 days according to Leviticus 12 for Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22) this would quickly become an expensive venture.

As shown by their sacrifice of 2 small doves in the temple and not a lamb—they may not have been well off financially—much less able to stay in a Bethlehem motel for several months.

But if the word is not translated “Inn” but guestroom, then the situation changes. If they really had family in town, then that would have been the place they would have gone for lodging. And if the family’s upper room/guest room was full—it was probably full of other family. There’s a reason why all those family members would have been there in Bethlehem, which I’ll get to in just a moment. But it’s very likely that these people were not strangers but cousins, aunts, uncles, and others who would be traveling to Bethlehem.

8. Typically we see Mary & Joseph as being banished to the stable. How could it have been a good thing for them?

They problem wasn’t that they were alone and desperate, or that there were cruel, heartless innkeepers who wouldn’t bother to find them a spot—the greater problem was that there was a lot of people—and even a lot of family and friends is no place to have a baby! How many women do you know that want to have a baby in a crowded room where everybody and their dog could watch. Sure, some have given birth on a plane, in the mall, but certainly that wasn’t their first choice!

So going to the room for animals—likely something built onto the house itself or even under the upper room—was a good thing, a helpful thing, a privacy thing. There, they won’t have to worry about people watching, kids tripping over them or all the other inconveniences a woman in labor would want to avoid. Similarly, since it didn’t happen the moment of arrival, I’m sure they had the opportunity to make sure the place was cleaned up or prepared for Mary to have a baby down there. Going to the stable was a good thing for Mary.

The stable would have given privacy, if they were really around family, then Joseph would not have been the only attendant Mary had, but other related women who had been through the process before themselves. They may even have known a local mid-wife to assist in the delivery.

9. Was Jesus really born on December 25th?

Most of you know that December 25, was a chosen date that co-opted a pagan religious winter festival. If you didn’t know, there you go. The likely time that shepherds would be out in the fields at night is springtime, while the lambs were being born. The shepherds were out to guard and assist their flocks in their deliveries. That would put Jesus’ birth closer to Passover.

In which case—the reason that Bethlehem was crowded would not have been because of the census—but because of all the travelers going to Jerusalem for Passover. It would have made the roads packed with faithful Jewish men and women who were required to go to Jerusalem for the observance. So the image of the lone travelers is even more unlikely.

The census was taken over a period of time (even years from its issuing) so there was not a hard deadline for Joseph to meet—so presumably, he combined his registration in Bethlehem with his regular/annual trip to Jerusalem.

The other interesting imagery is the fact that one of the titles Jesus is given in Scripture is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. To participate in Passover, Jewish family had to sacrifice a year old male lamb. These sacrifices were to Atone for the sins of the family. The sacrifice only covered the sin—the unintentional sins. There was no sacrifice for deliberate sins and they certainly didn’t take away sin or it’s consequence. But that is what Jesus, the Lamb of God was promised to do.

The very lambs that the shepherds were watching born in front of them would be next year’s offering—but they were able to bear witness to an even better Lamb, that could do even more.

10. Why is it unusual for shepherds to be witnesses to this event?

Ironically, even though the shepherds provided the most important element of the festival, by this time, shepherds were not high on the social ladder in Jewish society. They were the fringe elements, not a part of the upscale, city community.

These were the elements called to be the first witnesses and first testifiers to the Messiah. Why them? In many ways, it was a call back to or a reminder of their roots. Shepherds may have been outsiders to the community, but they were the original foundation of the community. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob were all shepherds. As was Moses—as was the great King David.

To reject the shepherds was to reject their roots. The community had not grown past them, they still needed them and in many ways, needed the simplicity of faith and trust in God they represented, which the Jewish community had once had, but had in many ways lost.

11. How did the Shepherds find Mary, Joseph & Jesus?

The traditional nativity scene has M & J, the shepherds and the wise men all gathered around a manger. Often, when you ask this question, many will say the shepherds were guided by the star, just like the wise men. But as we’ll get into in the next question—they didn’t get there on the same night of the birth (for that to happen, the “star” they saw would have to have appeared months before Jesus’ actual birth—God could have done this, btw).

The shepherds were just told about the 2 signs—wrapped in cloths & lying in a manger. They didn’t get an address, a street name, or a general vicinity of where they would actually find the baby. There was no star mentioned in Luke that guided them to the right house.

So, how did they know where to go? At most Bethlehem was a few thousand people—maybe they listened for the cries of a newborn. Maybe they looked for the only ones with a fire still lit. Maybe God picked them on the side of the town that they would reach first. Maybe they tried several places before finding the right one.

Or, speculatively speaking (a possibility I forgot to mention on Wednesday), since this was M & J’s family town—what if these shepherds were relatives and merely went home first, or relatives who already knew they had a visitor who was expecting a baby. Shepherds returning from the fields probably would go into the animal’s room first. Interesting possibility.

12 How many Magi were there?

We sing, “We Three Kings” so it must be three, right? Tradition even gives us names. But Scripture never says how many Magi came, just that they brought 3 different types of gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Ancient depictions, stained glass and such—teaching tools with limited room depicted one person to hold a gift each representing the different types. But again, by custom, most traveled in large groups. These were practically ambassadors and political representatives, as evidenced by the fact that they first went to Jerusalem and sought Herod. A small entourage, would not do for such dignitaries. The amount of their gifts was not necessarily something one man could carry despite the many inescapable pictures that suggest otherwise.

I’m of the mind that there wasn’t only 3 representatives, but more.

13. When did the Magi arrive?

As mentioned, unless the star appeared months before Jesus’ actual birth, there’s no way they could have been there the night of. In the east, the wise men saw a star that pointed them to a King being born to the kingdom of the Jews. They would have to see it, interpret it, decide what to do about it, prepare for the journey and then make the trip up the Euphrates river, west along the fertile crescent, then south through Syria and the coastal territories—a several month long journey.

This would put Jesus a year old or more by the time of their arrival—they had to wait for circumcision, they have to wait 30+ days for Mary to be purified so they could offer their sacrifice. When Herod later gave the orders to kill any boy under 2 years—you’ve got to figure that this is an effort to cover His bases and not miss anyone.

14. Why Magi and why would they care what was going on in Jerusalem?

For some reason, these Magi—practicing astrologers, interpreted their signs to point to the Kingdom of the Jews. But why would that sign have sent them off on such a long and uncertain journey? Hey, a new king in Israel… that’s nice… somebody hand me the remote. Why would they care so much about the goings on in Israel that they would go there?

It’s important to remember where they were supposed to be from. It is generally understood that these men from the east were in the Mesopotamian river valleys… between the Tigris & Euphrates rivers. What would have been prominent territories in the biblical kingdoms of Assyria, Babylonia & Persia. In other words, modern day Iraq and Iran

This is the general area and territory where the Jewish exiles were taken by different governments. Most of the Jews never returned home even after they were given special permission by King of Persia. They didn’t leave, but stayed with many keeping their faith, their traditions and even Scriptures. So there was an Old Testament witness and community where these Magi were from. If I’m not mistaken, even today some of these countries have a small Jewish population.

So if nothing else, these Magi would have had access or awareness of Jewish teaching and Scripture—making the homeland important. With the influences of people like Daniel or Esther in high government—some may have begun to take them very seriously.

Of course, another possibility is that these men were themselves Jewish or had some Jewish heritage. In other words, their ancestors had watched other Jews pack up and go back to Jerusalem because they had a desire to be restored to God. I’m sure there were many who talked about it for generations, many who wondered what it would have been like if they had returned. In reading the scriptures, the psalms, the laments, the prophets and their heart for the land, the Temple, the Promise of God—even these Wise Men may have had their hearts wondering about the glory of the Temple.

If they were themselves Jewish—it is an awesome reminder of God’s call to come home. Even though most stayed behind and didn’t return with the remnant, God still found a way to reach out to them—that hope that they had heard of, the promise of a Messiah for their people—was still something God would remind them of.

And so their hearts—longing for the fulfillment of God, longing for the homeland, wondering if God would still be faithful to His promise, wondering if God would still allow them to be a part of it—drove their hearts to make such a long and uncertain Journey.

15. Why did they go to Herod first?

It’s no wonder they went to Jerusalem first. Jerusalem was the center of religious and political power. A future king would more likely be born to the current king. But God doesn’t work the way we think He should—the obvious is rarely what He uses. So they went to Jerusalem, alerted King Herod, gained further specifics from scripture—Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and continued.

But there’s something else interesting here. It seems the star that started their journey did not guide them all along the way. If so, they would never have stopped or turned aside to Jerusalem. Maybe they couldn’t interpret what a stopped guiding star would look like. But in any event, they were asked by Herod to make a careful search for the child. If they were relying on the star at that point, then why would they have to “search”.

But upon leaving Jerusalem, something changed—now the star was much more specific. In fact it led them and hovered over a specific house. This is no longer something high up in the sky unless it is using a powerful spotlight—but gently hovering over the exact place where they were staying.

Again, Mary & Joseph had to stay for a while in Bethlehem. This would be an expensive venture if they had to “rent” or buy a place to stay, but would be easily accommodated by family. But the star directed them directly to their destination. This was the guidance of God they had hoped for.

But I’ve always wondered, were they the only ones who could see the “star”? Wouldn’t Herod or his officials seen it

Which leads me to consider whether, at least this second, localized guidance was not a literal “star” but a manifestation of the Glory of God, perhaps the Holy Spirit alighting on the place like He did later at Jesus’ baptism, or possibly an angel. The original sight that started the journey could easily be too.

Which possibly means that only the Magi saw it. They eyes of faith were needed as well as the choice of God and whom He chooses to reveal it to. Remember, those on the road to Damascus with Paul had a vague sense of something happening, but couldn’t really tell you much about it, whereas Paul’s awareness was very acute and specific.

But the Wise men were called home to Worship just as the Shepherds had been called. Both great and small were bowing before Jesus—God drew both the heritage and the remnant back to their Savior, the Messiah.

16. What is the significance of the gifts?

While I have seen several possible meanings of the gifts, I have a preference. This doesn’t mean the others are wrong or should be written off—after all, since the Scripture doesn’t itself assign meaning, it’s all an educated guess.

Remembering also that we don’t know the amounts of the gifts involved—the depictions of the men carrying a small box doesn’t seem to fit with travelers from such a great distance. I’m of the mind that 2 of the gifts declare WHO Jesus, and His role is and the third declares What He will do to accomplish the will of God in those roles.

Gold—a gift fit for a King. Jesus is called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the New Testament.

Frankincense—incense in the Old Testament was used in prayer and worship in the Temple—the smoke represented the prayers of the people. The one who administered this incense and smoke was the Priest. This is another aspect of His identity and role in the world. The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus is the Great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek—greater than the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood—and able to enter the very Presence of God and grant us access in His Name.

Myrrh—was a burial spice. Many ancient cultures began preparing for their eventual death very quickly. The Pharaohs of Egypt began building their monuments immediately. But for this gift to Jesus, it signifies the death and burial that is in Jesus’ future in His role as Messiah—He will lay down His life on the Cross, shed His blood, take away our sin, and prepare a place for us in eternity. His death and subsequent resurrection is the fulfillment of God’s plan in sending Jesus in the first place.

There is so much in these birth narratives that we miss or read over because we think we know the story already or because our mind has been so cluttered by the popular depictions that we don’t study carefully what the text actually says. If you’ve made it this far, I hope that you have benefited from this breakdown of the text and related cultures.

May God truly bless you and your family this Christmas.

Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life,

Kelly Reed

Gabriel's Birthday

Cake by Angie

Birthday Twister

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sermon 12-17-06--What was Accomplished in the Incarnation?

Credit must be given to Phillip Yancey and his book, “Disappointment With God”. It was my opinion that many points he made would be helpful in Christmas discussion.

In Don Richardson’s best selling book, Peace Child, he tells of going, accompanied by his wife Carol and 17 month old child to the Sawi, a headhunting tribe in New Guinea. There, savagery was a way of life. The tribesmen considered headhunting, cannibalism, and treachery to be virtues. As these savages heard the story Jesus’ life, they considered Judas—not Jesus—to be the hero. Don reported being extremely frustrated about ever reaching the Sawi.

At last, the warfare and barbarism between the Sawi and their neighbor tribes grew so intense that Don and his family decided to leave. But when the Sawi heard of it, they were deeply disturbed. They had come to love and trust the Richardsons. To prevent their leaving, the Sawi met in a special session and decided to make peace.

The next day as Don watched with growing curiosity, the peace ritual began. Young children from the warring villages were to be exchanged, and as long as any of those children were alive, the peace would continue.

It was an anguishing ritual, for every mother feared that her child would be taken. But after a period of emotional indecision, the chief himself grabbed his only son and rushed toward the enemy tribe, literally giving the future of the tribe to his enemies. In return, he received a son from the other side. Peace descended across the mountains.

As Don pondered the significance of the ceremony, he realized there was a powerful Redemptive Analogy. Shortly afterward, Don gathered the elders together and told them how God, the Heavenly Father sent Jesus to earth as His Peace Child, to make peace between God and man. It was a lesson they understood and embraced at last.

Making the Connection between people who have different cultures can be extremely difficult. That is why the story of Christmas is so vital to the world and what God was hoping to accomplish. God desired to bridge the Gap that separates humanity from Him.

1. God in the Thunder

a. The majority of appearances by God in the Old Testament reflects the pattern found in Exodus 19:16-19 & 20:18-19. He was the God in the Thunder.

b. Exodus 19:16--On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.

c. Exodus 20:18-19--When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."

d. God tries to get closer to the people and His presence engulfs an entire mountain in cloud. His voice rings out in Thunder, lightning & fire rain down. This is the essence of Fire & Brimstone as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah discovered. The people’s reaction was one of fear and trembling. They desired to stay as far away from God as possible. They said, “Hey Moses, why don’t you go and then tell us what He says.” We’re not going any closer.

e. God’s Thunder kept people at a distance and kept them afraid.

f. It is hard to have a personal relationship with someone that you are afraid of. It is difficult for love to truly exist when fear is so prevalent.

g. It’s no wonder that when an angel appears to most people, like Zechariah, like the Shepherds, the first thing he has to say is “Fear Not, do not be afraid”. An appearance by God or even one of His representatives typically blew people away.

h. A God who elicits this kind of response is exactly what made the Incarnation necessary. It’s what makes what we celebrate in Christmas so much more vital to our faith & the world. Because, after all,

2. Expecting the Grand Entrance

a. Read the story of the First Christmas through the eyes of someone expecting to see a grand entrance from God. Hear the story as if you were someone who only heard the grand entrances from the OT. You’d expect to be blown away by the magnitude and power of God.

b. Read Luke 2:4-7, 16-20

c. Is the Grand Entrance what you see and hear from the Manger? When Joseph and Mary trudge into Bethlehem, do the people around them know they’re about to receive a visit from God Himself?

d. Does the voice of Jesus shake the ground? Does it cause all those around Him to shrink away in fear?

e. No, the ground does not shake, the people of Bethlehem went about their daily lives, and instead of everyone shrinking away in fear from the voice of Jesus, they are drawn closer to the cries of a newborn baby. The type of cries that bring everyone who hears them over to look at the new life that has just made its dramatic entrance. The Shepherds come running to meet this new Savior.

f. In the best possible way, God does not overpower, intimidate or elicit fear. Who can be afraid of a tiny baby and their wiggling arms, eyes that cannot quite focus, their total dependence, their diapers… OK, I know a few guys afraid of the diapers.

g. That is the miracle of the Incarnation.

3. The Incarnation– in the Incarnation, God spanned the vast chasm of fear that distanced Him from His human creation

Paul expresses some of these ideas in the famous passage, Philippians 2:6-8

PHP 2:6 Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!

One philosopher/theologian named Soren Kierkegaard wrote a story that has shared many variations that you are probably familiar with. “Suppose there was a king who was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this king was melted by love for a humble maiden.

How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his very kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist—no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or she would live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind. Would she be happy at his side? How could he know? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross over the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend. He clothed himself as a beggar and approached her in disguise, with a worn cloak fluttering about him. It wasn’t just a disguise, but a whole new identity he took on. He gave up his throne to win her hand.

a. Jesus Shared the nature, essence and being of God, so equality with God was not some prize or award He had to earn or attain.

b. The one who was existing in the form of God took on the form of a servant. The word "taking" (labon) does not imply an exchange, but rather an addition. The "form of God" could not be relinquished, for God cannot cease to be God; but our Lord could and did take on the very form of a lowly servant when he entered human life by the Incarnation.

c. How did Christmas day feel to God? Imagine for a moment becoming a baby again. Giving up language, your muscle coordination, control of your bladder, or the ability to eat solid food. Even that does not truly explain what it was like for God. Instead, try to imagine life as a bacteria or virus. God was willing to go to any length, descend from infinity to humanity, in order to connect personally with you and me.

4. Conclusion—

a. Ironically, while the emptying involved much humiliation and descent, it also involved a kind of freedom. I have spoken of some of the “disadvantages” of infinity and God’s power.

b. A physical body freed Christ to act on a human scale, without those “disadvantages” of infinity. He could say what He wanted without His voice blasting the treetops.

c. He could express anger reaching for a whip and clearing the temple, rather than shaking the earth with His stormy presence. And He could talk to anyone—a prostitute, a blind man, a widow, a leper, a shepherd, you and me—without first having to announce, “Do Not Be Afraid!”

d. But the greatest expression of Jesus’ humanity and what the Incarnation accomplished can be found near the end of His life on earth. We are able to see the Passion and Love of God. Jesus weeps and says…

e. MT 23:37 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

f. We are able to see and hear the passion in Jesus’ voice. This here is a demonstration of why He came and was born among the animals. God longs to gather His children together. He expresses is tenderly, with passion.

g. What Did God Accomplish with the Incarnation

i. Direct Face to Face Communication

ii. Non-Fear Inducing Conversation

iii. A Declaration of Love

iv. Guidance to Serve

v. Invitations to Eternity

h. The voice of God no longer needs to come through the Thunder Cloud. Instead, the Word of God entered this world with the cries of a little baby. Jesus’ voice no longer drives people away in fear. The first Christmas ensured that His voice is tenderly calling to you in order to establish and reconnect you with the source of all life. To my knowledge, the story that I shared earlier about the king who desired to win the love of the peasant does not resolve. We don’t know whether the king was successful in winning the love of the maiden. Has this King, the King of Kings won your love? His voice is calling you.