Monday, March 30, 2009

Whodunit (Mark 14:40-43) (Easter Series)

WHODUNIT (MARK 14:40-43)
Nobody could have predicted the controversy that erupted over the Aramaic-speaking, English-subtitled movie “The Passion of the Christ.” Months before the film’s release, rabbis went on the offensive and questioned publicly the appropriateness of such a movie. It seems that every year in Europe past when Passion plays were staged around Easter, many Jews would suffer mindless persecution and be called Christ killers.

Polls that surfaced subsequently were divided if the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death. ABCNEWS asked 1,011 adults the question “Are Jews today responsible for the death of Jesus?” Overall, 8% believed so.

The Pew Research Center, however, in its poll of 1,703 adults, found a higher 26 percent of respondents believe Jews were to blame for the Crucifixion. The greatest increase was among young people and blacks. 34% of those under 30 believes Jews were responsible, whereas 42 percent of blacks hold that view. The survey did not ask whether respondents believe Jews today should be blamed for the Crucifixion.

The Greek word for “kill” (apokteino) occurs 76 times in the Bible – 49 times in the gospels alone. So who killed Jesus, according to the Bible? Were the Jews or the Romans the bad guys? Was Judas Iscariot or Pontius Pilate ultimately responsible?

The Jews Sought to Kill Jesus
For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)
After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. (John 7:1)
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matt 16:21)

A fourteen year old Jewish boy asked a rabbi on
Q: “I am a fourteen year old Jew. I have a lot of Christian friends, and I have one certain friend that has a very strong opinion of Judaism and Jews. He keeps telling me that the Jews killed Jesus, and I am going to hell if I don't let him in my heart. What really bothers me is the thing about the Jews killing Jesus…Did the Jews kill Jesus?”

A: “Your friend certainly has a “old-fashioned” view of things, since official Christian doctrine, which once spread that lie about the Jews, no longer does. Of course, it was a disciple, Judas, who betrayed him to the Roman authorities, and all the disciples were Jews. Some of the Christian sources depict a scene in which “the Jews,” given the choice of saving Barabbas or Jesus from crucifixion, chose Barrabas…So, even here, some Jews had indirect responsibility for his death. Finally, from a political point of view, we know that some Jewish leaders - appointed by the Romans - may have wanted Jesus out of the way because he seems to have been a political threat. After all, if indeed he claimed to be “king of the Jews,” the Romans would have wanted him silenced, and Jewish leaders may have been “under the gun” to silence him. The final decision, of course, lay with the Romans, who alone used crucifixion as a means of killing criminals and who alone had authority to impose the death penalty. Now, even if Jews were involved in Jesus' death, I might add that that was then, and this is now. Certainly, no Jews since Jesus died played a role in his death. Furthermore -- and most importantly -- since it was Jesus' resurrection that began Christianity, if anything we should be praised for having him killed!”

To supplement what the rabbi said, verse after verse, chapter to chapter, and gospel after gospel say that the Jews merely sought to kill Jesus, but not that they actually killed Jesus. They were guilty of plotting and seeking to kill Jesus, but not the very act itself. “The Passion of the Christ” was supposedly adapted from the gospel of John, but John was most explicit in saying that the Jews “sought” to kill Jesus, but not the job itself. The apostle records that the Jews tried all the harder to kill Jesus for breaking the Sabbath, calling God his own Father, and making himself equal with God (John 5:18). Jesus stayed away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life (John 7:1). People in Jerusalem were aware the Jews were trying to kill him (John 7:25), but they never concluded the Jews killed Jesus. Jesus, unapologetically, also accused the Jews of seeking to kill him (John 8:37, John 8:40). The NIV said they were ready and determined to kill him. By John 11, the chief priests and the Pharisees even called a meeting of the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus (John 11:47, 53). Again, the attitude and aim of the Jews were firm and clear, but not the act itself.

Not only John, but Matthew (Matt 26:4) and Mark concur with John’s assertion. Matthew claims that “the chief priests and the elders of the people…plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him,” and Mark (14:1) says that the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him.

The Synoptic gospels, however, add a twist to the word “kill” not found in John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke note that Jesus did not name the Jews, or even their religious leaders, as his killers. In Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, as recorded by Matthew (Matt 16:21), he explained to them that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he “must be killed” and on the third day be raised to life. Jesus predicted his “suffering” at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, but not “death” at their hands. He said that “he must be killed” but he did not identify who the killers were. Matthew was not alone; Mark (8:31) and Luke (9:21) echo Matthew’s assertion that he “must be killed,” using the passive voice. Language experts discourage the use of the passive voice and use it sparingly but usefully to emphasize an object (“he” must be killed), to de-emphasize an unknown subject/actor when the actor is unknown and if the readers need not know who's responsible for the action.

The Gentile were the Christ Killers
33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”(Mark 10:33-34)
32 He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33 On the third day he will rise again.” (Luke 18:32)

One of the most sympathetic figures in the movie “The Passion of the Christ” was Pontius Pilate, who comes across as unwilling to kill or crucify Jesus due to the positive influence of his wife, Claudia, who was cast as sweet like Mom and apple pie. She comforted Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene in the movie when Jesus was arrested and flogged. Even though evangelicals are rock solid in their support for Mel Gibson’s movie, Mel Gibson is still a traditionalist Catholic at heart and in belief.

According to Matthew 27:19, the only thing the unnamed wife of Pilate ever did was to send her husband a message not to have anything to do with Jesus, whom she called innocent, for she had suffered a great deal that day in a dream because of him. Unlike the gospel account, in the movie, Pilate’s wife has a name, is a believer and is good, godly and generous. The kind portrayal of Pilate as an innocent governor caught up in the crowd’s demand has nothing to do with Scripture but everything to do with Catholicism.

According to Christianity Today, Mel Gibson had read the works of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a late-18th, early-19th-century nun who had visions of the events of the Passion. The movie reflects Ememrich’s account from her book “Dolorous Passion of Our Lord”: “After the flagellation, I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present. … I soon after saw Mary and Magdalen approach the pillar where Jesus had been scourged; … they knelt down on the ground near the pillar, and wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent.” (“The Passion of Mel Gibson” Christianity Today March 2004)

Unfortunately, the Jews have been erroneously called “Christ killers” for as long as Christianity exists. According to the Bible, the Gentiles were the real Christ killers. Most notable and notorious of all involved was Pilate’s role. Luke the Gentile (23:4, 14, 22) reports that three times Pilate found no fault with Jesus. The first time, Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4). The next announcement, after Jesus returned from Herod, was: “I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death (Luke 23:14-15), and finally he said, “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him” (Luke 23:22).

The angelic or saintly deeds of Pilate’s wife are unknown to the Bible. Her contact with or attention to the two Marys was straight out of Hollywood. Her concern was primarily for her own and her husband’s interests, and not for Jesus or the women’s wellbeing.

Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew did not charge the Gentiles with killing Jesus; he used another word – they “crucified” Him (Matt 20:19). Both the words “kill” and “crucify” resolved the Jews from blame. Jesus predicted his crucifixion but he never blamed the Jews. Nowhere in the Bible did the gospel writers charge that the Jew crucified Jesus. Matthew and Mark were similar in their account of the series of events happening and who to blame for the crucifixion. Matthew asserts that Pilate had Jesus flogged and handed him over to his soldiers, who then led him away to crucify him (Matt 27:26, 31, 35). Mark records that Pilate released Barabbas to satisfy the crowd, had Jesus flogged (Mark 15:15) and then handed him over to the soldiers, who led him out to crucify him (Mark 15:20). The Greek text in both Matthew and Mark, however, records Pilate doing the flogging. Instead of the NIV rendering of “he had Jesus flogged,” the Greek directly says “he flogged Jesus” in both Matthew and Mark (Matt 27:26, Mark 15:15).

The Hands of Men Killed Jesus
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief. (Matt 17:22-23)
He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:31-32)

What does “betrayed into the hands of men” (Matt 17:22) mean? Who are the men? The angels reminded the women after His resurrection, in Luke 24:7: “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'“

Who are the sinful men? They refer to Jews , Samaritans and Gentiles; Romans and Greeks; Judas who sold him for 30 pieces of silver and Peter who denied Him three times; Pilate and Barabbas; the soldiers and the fishermen; the ruling Sanhedrin, the rulers of the synagogue and the unruly mob; the disciples who strayed and the women that stayed; the Pharisees, the Herodians (Mk 12:3) and the Sadducees (Mk 12:18); the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law; the outcast, the beggar, the sick, the leper, the paralytic, the poor, the hungry, the blind, the deaf, the prisoner, the oppressed, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the widowed, the demon-possessed, the shepherds, the Magi, the zealots, ordinary people, the little man, the working people,

The song “Mystery Of Mercy: by gospel group Caedmon's Call has the same theological understanding:
“I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed

My God, my God, why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God, why hast though accepted me?
It's a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
And I am the nine that never came.”

Our sin and His love nailed Jesus to the cross. We were dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph 2:1), but His death on the cross was meant to:
“Save” his people from their sins (Matt 1:21 - sozo)
“Forgive” sins (Matt 9:6 - aphiemi)
“Take away” or “take up” the sin of the world (John 1:29, 1 John 3:5 - airo)
“Wipe out” sins (Acts 3:19 - exaleipho)
“Wash away” sins (Acts 22:16 - apolouo)
“Cover” sin (Rom 4:7 - epikalupto)
Not “count” sin against him (Rom 4:8 - logizomai)
“Do away” with sin (Rom 6:6 - katargeo)
“Free” man from sin (Rom 6:7 - dikaioo)
“Take away” or “remove” sins (Rom 11:27 - aphaireo)
“Die” for our sins (1 Cor 15:3 - apothnesko)
“Gave” himself for our sins (Gal 1:4 - didomi)
“Provided purification” for sins (Heb 1:3 - katharismo)
“Atone” for sins (Heb 2:17, 1 John 1:7 - hilaskomai)
“Remember” sins no more (Heb 8:12, 10:17 - mimnesko)
“Do away” with or “cancel” sin (Heb 9:26 - athetesis)
“Bear” sin (Heb 9:28, 1 Peter 2:24 - anaphero)
“Died” for sins (1 Peter 3:18 - pascho)
“Free” us from sins (Rev 1:5 - luo)

The only person who claimed that the Jews killed Jesus was not a gospel writer, but Paul the apostle, who claimed that the Jews killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets (1 Thess 2:15). How do we reconcile the writings of Paul with the gospel writer’s? It really doesn’t conflict with the New Testament as a whole. Paul asserted the Jews killed Jesus, but the gospel writers asserted the Greeks both killed and crucified Him (Mark 10:33-34, Luke 18:32, Matt 20:19). The collective guilt was not on Jews or Gentiles, but mankind.

Conclusion: It’s been said, “He paid a debt He did not owe because I owed a debt I could not pay.” He is a sufferer but not a victim. Jesus made the choice to come to earth, he chose to die for our sins, and he chose to do so before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4). Peter says in Acts 2:23: “This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

However, don’t miss the forest for the trees. The good news is not that He died, but that He died and arose again. The Jews, the Gentiles, the disciples missed the most critical piece of Jesus’ prediction. On three occasions Mark clearly told the disciples the greatest miracle will happen after his horrific suffering and death - in Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27), passing through Galilee (Mark 9:30) and on the way to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Jesus was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God's power. (2 Cor 13:4)

Do you know the crucified Jesus is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), the Lord of glory
(1 Cor 2:8)? Are you living by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and gave himself for you (Gal 2:20)? Have you crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24)?







Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Christmas, Pt. 1: "Silence is Golden"

Middle Age is the last laugh before old age is no laughing matter. People in middle-age can identify with his piece of humor titled “Middle Age”:
Maybe it's true that life begins at fifty, but everything else starts to wear out, fall out or spread out.
There are three signs of old age. The first is your loss of memory, the other two I forget.
You're getting old when you don't care where your spouse goes, just as long as you don't have to go along.
Middle age is when work is a lot less fun - and fun a lot more work.
Statistics show that at the age of seventy, there are five women to every man. Isn't that the darndest time for a guy to get those odds?
You know you're getting on in years when the girls at the office start confiding in you.
Middle age is when it takes longer to rest than to get tired.
By the time a man is wise enough to watch his step, he's too old to go anywhere.
Middle age is when you have stopped growing at both ends, and have begun to grow in the middle.
Of course I'm against sin. I'm against anything that I'm too old to enjoy.
A man has reached middle age when he is cautioned to slow down by his doctor instead of by the police.
Middle age is having a choice of two temptations and choosing the one that will get you home earlier.
You know you're into middle age when you realize that caution is the only thing you care to exercise.
At my age, “getting a little action” means I don't need to take a laxative.
Don't worry about avoiding temptation. As you grow older, it will avoid you.
The aging process could be slowed down if it had to work its way through Congress.
You're getting old when getting lucky means you find your car in the parking lot.
You're getting old when you're sitting in a rocker and you can't get it started.
You're getting old when you wake up with that morning-after feeling, and you didn't do anything the night before.
The cardiologist's diet: if it tastes good, spit it out.
It's hard to be nostalgic when you can't remember anything.
You know you're getting old when you stop buying green bananas.

The gospel of Luke opened with a dark cloud, a deep sigh and a mood of resignation, the drama increased by the absence of recorded prophetic utterances for about 400 years, the period between the Old and New Testament records. God had not spoken a word for an astounding 400 years! Worse, the king, not the Lord, was in control or in charge. The tyrant Herod the Great had humiliated God's people by placing idols in the temple. The government's sword was louder than the people's protest. Herod's name was feared more than God's. However, God’s presence, power and purpose were evident for all who had eyes of faith, but many people’s faith was turning middle-age – the time when faith is getting worn-out, getting washed out and getting no workout. Luke’s gospel began not with the Messiah’s birth, but with His forerunner’s appearance and family. God’s 400 years of silence between the two testaments was broken by a loud announcement, but it was greeted with strong skepticism and outright disbelief by one of His most faithful servants.

What is middle-age faith? Where did the midlife crisis in faith come from? How can believers become young at heart and fresh in faith again?

God Deserves Our Best
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. (Lk 1:5-7)

Father Joseph went up to Father Fred one afternoon and said, “I am sick of all this clean living. Tonight let's you and me go out and party. We'll carouse, drink, whatever we want.” Fred was shocked. “Are you crazy? This is a small town and everyone knows us. Besides, even if they didn't, they would see our clothes and know we were priests.” Joe was ready for this. “Don't be silly. We won't stay in town, we'll go into the city where nobody knows us and we'll dress just like anyone else.”

In the end, he managed to persuade Fred, and they went out that night and partied like professionals. When they got back home at 5:00 AM, Fred's face became pale. “I just thought of something,” he said. “We have to confess this.” Again, Joe was ready. “Relax, I told you I thought this all out in advance. Tomorrow, you go into church and into the confessional. I will come in my regular clothes and confess, and you absolve me. Then I'll go put on my garments, you come in and confess, and I'll absolve you.” Fred was amazed at Joe's brilliance.

Joseph went in later that morning and said, “Father forgive me, for I have sinned. My friend and I, we're both young men, and last night we went out and caroused. We became drunk, went womanizing, used foul language, and danced to wicked music.” Fred answered, “God is patient and forgiving, and thus shall I be. Do five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, and you will be absolved of your sin.”

A while later, their places were reversed as Fred came in and confessed everything in detail. There was a short pause, and Joseph answered, “I don't believe this. And you dare to call yourself a priest? You will do 500 Our Fathers, 500 Hail Marys, donate all your money to the church and go around the church 500 times on your knees praying for God's forgiveness. Then come back and we'll discuss absolution, but I make no guarantees.” “What?” Father Fred was shocked. “What about our agreement?” Joe replied, “Hey, what I do on my time off is one thing, but I take my job seriously.”

God’s plan of visitation after 400 years of silence couldn’t happen to a more trustworthy, devout and active priest. Zechariah was better, nicer and godlier than most people and priests. Zechariah could boast of the finest stock in priestly lineage. His ancestor was Abijah (v 5), whose forefather Eleazar was the chief leader of the Levites and the son of Aaron, Israel’s first high priest (Num 3:32). His wise choice of a mate also added to his credit among priests, his reputation before men and his standing before God. Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Not one but both were righteous and pious before God. They were complimentary, praised and outstanding. They served hand-in-hand, were of the same mind and had a heart for God. There were not many stable years in Israel, but there was one stable couple - solid citizens - in Israel. The two were the bright lights, the shining stars and the distinguished luminaries in the silent and chaotic period. They were careful to observe all, not part, of God’s commands. A gem of a couple, they were devoted, faithful, obedient and reverent.

Since the couple did not have kids, they gave the best of their time, talents and treasures to serve God. I couldn’t think of a more devout and dignified couple in the Bible. He wasn’t devout just because he was a descendant of Aaron or that he was from the line of Eleazar, the immediate successor of Aaron (Num 20:25-29). Zechariah was a devout man of his own choosing and Elizabeth was a devout woman of her own cognizance. No spouse or family member could push righteousness down another’s throat. It has to come from the heart, from within from inside out.

Zechariah did not need prodding from his wife to attend to his temple duties, to be on his best priestly behavior and to live up to his priestly vocation. No public scandal or troublesome past tailed him, no destructive habits or moral vice gripped him and no petty dispute or ill gossip entangled him. He was as goody two-shoes, as sweet as pie and as prim and proper as one can find or get.

God Demands the Best
8 Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” (Lk 1:8-20)

Two teachers met back on campus during home-coming after having not seen each other for many years. Their conversation was something like this:
A: I have gotten married since we last met.
B: Oh, that's good.

A: I don't know about that. My husband is twice as old as I am.
B: Oh, that's bad.

A: Well, I don't know about that. He's worth a million dollars.
B: Oh, that's good.

A: Well, I don't know about that. He won't give me a cent.
B: Oh, that's bad.

A: Well, I don't know about that. He did build me a $200,000 house.
B: Oh, that's good.

A: Well, I don't know about that. It burned down last week.
B: Oh, that's bad.

A: Well, I don't know about that- he was in it!

The usually dependable Zechariah acted out of character when it counted. Initially, he couldn’t believe his good fortune when his name was chosen by lot out of all the priests in his division to go into the temple and burn incense (v 9). Matthew Henry suggested that a priest could only be chosen once in his lifetime, if ever at all. It was the high point of a priest’s life and the highest honor afforded to a priest. He was the talk of the town, the envy of the priests and the celebrity of the week. To add the topping to the cake, God sent an angel to announce the good news and congratulate him personally – not just any angel, but Gabriel, the legendary great arch-angel. This is the first time the Greek word “evangelize” is used in the Bible (v 19). The first evangelist in the New Testament poured out his heart, but the news did not hit Zechariah hard; in fact, it did not hit him at all. Zechariah was supposed to get down on his knees, thank God for the gift and bow down in humble worship, but his attitude left much to be desired with and was insufferable for an angel’s stomach. Gabriel was jumping with joy but Zechariah didn’t even break into a little jig. Zechariah greeted the heavenly courier, carrier and caller with a ho-hum and bah-humbug, what-else-have-you-got, and what-planet-are-you-from from attitude.

To make sure Zechariah get the point, Gabriel assured Zechariah that his prayer was remembered and answered (v 13) but it fell on deaf ears. He was untouched by an angel - unmoved, unimpressed and uninspired. He could at least feign interest or ask, “What prayer?” The contrast of a boy to a girl (Matt 10:37) still did not catch his attention or make him curious. The last straw was the naming of the child still did not break the spell or pique his interest. The specific details, personal visitation and the cheery announcement were all noise, nonsense and nonsensical to him. The angel’s stress of joy, delight/gladness and rejoicing in verse 14 did nothing to wake him from his listlessness or indifference and was not able to break the deadlock and glumness in him. The angel’s rah-rah speech could not shake him out of his sustained self-made state of disbelief.

The angel might as well save his strength, send a letter, fly a bird or shoot an arrow to deliver the message instead, given Zechariah’s poor response. Breaking into song and dance, sending a choir of angels and doing cartwheels in the air would also make no impression on the stoic priest. Zechariah registered a minus on a zero to ten “interest” scale. The angel could shout until he was short of breath, dry in saliva or coarse in speech but the result and response were still the same. Further, Gabriel’s job was to break good news, not break stubborn people. So, doing more to impress and convince Zechariah was out of his realm of responsibility. Zechariah typified the generation that was blindsided and conditioned by 400 years of silence. The priest needed a heart job and a big jolt.

God Delivers His Best
24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:24-25)

An old Indian was arrested and taken into court on charges of running a still (distillery). The judge asked the Indian for his name, but the Indian gave no sign of having heard the question. The judge then asked if the Indian had a lawyer, but this question drew no response.

The judge was a busy man, and since there was no real evidence that the Indian sold what he made, the judge told the D.A. that he was going to dismiss the case. The judge told the Indian he could go and called the next case. The Indian sat motionless while the next defendant was brought in and charged with operating a still.

The defendant's lawyer went into a two-hour defense, and when he was through, the judge sentenced his client to three years' hard labor. The lawyer gathered up his notes and started to leave the courtroom when the old Indian got up, walked over to him, and whispered, “White man talk too much.” (The Toastmaster General's Favorite Jokes 131-32, George Jessel Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 73)

God’s intention from the start was never to punish Zechariah; his intentions were not to slap or strike him, but to shake and sober him. He had always intended to reward and not to rebuke Zechariah and Elizabeth, to bless and not to break the two, to congratulate and not to condemn the faithful couple. Zechariah’s words were pathetic but not poison, tasteless but not tragedy, and inappropriate but not insane. His attitude was disbelief and not unbelief, reservation and not rejection, doubt and not desertion, unfortunate but not unforgivable. He did not say “I do not believe,” but rather the tone was “This is unbelievable.” The priest had always had a good heart, a strong conscience, a godly reverence, a flawless record of impeccable and outstanding service. God was not about to abandon, ostracize or remove the faithful priest. Zechariah was unwise but not unrepentant. His words were ill-mannered, but not ill-conceived.

Further, Zechariah’s cold shoulder, sharp tongue and rare faithlessness could hardly be counted as Elizabeth’s fault or a blemish onto her account. The best gift God had given the priest was his wise and godly wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s attitude was just the opposite of her husband’s. Unlike her husband who had to say something, she hid herself for five months (v 24). She took time to pause amidst confusion, to ponder the meaning and to fathom the unfathomable. It was a time to escape inquiry, to examine oneself and to seek God. The Chinese say: “Speak more, err more.” When she had to say something, unlike her husband, she broke into praise mode and not protest mode. Her joy was unspeakable, unsurpassed and unsurprising. The Greek word “disgrace” or “reproach” (v 25) that occurs only once in the Bible describes the notoriety she suffered for being childless, being taunted at and deemed a disgrace.

The humble and contemplative Elizabeth knew from the start the baby was never about what she deserved, but about what the Lord did. She reflected on and submitted to what the angel said. The baby was from the Lord to them for Israel’s deliverance. He will go on before the Lord bring back the people of Israel to the Lord their God, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (vv 16-17). Eventually, Zechariah came around. God’s ultimate purpose was for him to be stricken and not silenced, not to be a mute but to be a messenger, not to be dumb but to be delivered. God wanted him to learn the lesson of the obedient heart and not to repeat the lesson of the open mouth. In the end, the angel’s prediction that the father will give the name to the son not only came true in good time but it also gave Zechariah the chance to redeem himself.

Conclusion: God wants us to meet the challenge of faith, face head-on the dare to believe and to rise to the occasion of spiritual growth. God is not satisfied with half-hearted, wishy-washy and sweet nothing believers. Have you reached a midlife crisis in your faith? Have you plateau in belief? Are you trapped in disbelief, ensnared by disillusionment and hobbled by disobedience? Have you stopped growing, serving or reflecting? God is not finished with you yet. There is nothing worse than having no self-expectation, nothing to expect from God and nothing to expect in life. Ask God to help you see what new opportunities, fresh challenges and unfinished tasks you need to work on.

Christmas, Pt. 2: "Topsy Turvy"

Christmas spirits are down every five years or so in the 21st century, as typified by the down years of 2002 and 2007. War and more rumors of war are in the air, unemployment is up and stocks are down, hearts are anxious and worried.

In 2002, more than two years of economic insecurity and instability wrecked havoc to many workers and their families. Many churches’ offerings were down 10-20%.

In 2007, fire threatened southern California, housing prices were down across the country and the mortgage crisis was felt throughout the world. Fortune magazine reports that the best minds – top banks and brokers - on Wall Street lost untold millions and billions as a result:
J. P. Morgan Chase - $339 million
Bear Stearns - $450 million
Bank of America - $527 million
Lehman Brothers - $700 million
Credit Suisse – 948 million
Morgan Stanley - $3.4 billion
Merrill Lynch - $7.9 billion
Citigroup - $9.4 billion (‘Wall street’s Money Machine Breaks Down,” Fortune, 11/26/07)

The first Christmas was marked by uncertainty, unease and uprooting. The Jews were unhappy under the new political realignment. The strength and influence of the Greek rule and culture horrified, dismayed and repelled the Jews. The age was as good as any age for the Messiah’s coming, but His coming did not usher in an era of conquest. The Jews’ problems did not end with Jesus the Messiah’s coming. The enemies were not defeated, an army was not raised and an uprising did not occur.

Why not? What characterizes the Messiah’s coming? What kind of Prince is Jesus and what kind of kingdom does He rule?

Christmas is the Advent of God’s Peace.
26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.
(Lk 1:26-30)

A study on ‘worry” was carried out on more than 1,600 men ages 40 to 90. At the start, they were given personality tests. They were tracked for 17 years to see how a trait called neuroticism affected survival. Those who score high in the neurotic trait are “worrywarts” who cope poorly with stress and tend to be highly anxious or depressed, says study leader Daniel Mroczek of Purdue University. “They don't let things roll off their backs.”

Among men who were high in this trait at the start and became even more so over time, half had died 17 years after the study started. Among those who were high in neuroticism at the start but didn't increase - the less neurotic, 75% to 85% were still alive. The good news: “People can change,” Mroczek says. “If you learn to worry or fret less, you may add time to your life.” But the findings apply only to men, he emphasizes.

Women are more likely than men to overthink, says psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of Yale University, who has studied rumination for years. Women brood about things that make them sad or anxious; men are more likely to stew about anger, she says. And you don't have to be an adult to suffer bad health effects. In her latest, four-year study of adolescent girls, she found that girls prone to ruminating were more likely than the others to develop eating disorders, alcohol problems and depression. Future chronic ruminators often were anxious little kids, Nolen-Hoeksema says. “It's not the stress that kills us, it's how we respond to it.” (“Brooding Weighs on Mind and Body,” 5/8/07 USA TODAY)

Peace is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of Christ in times of trouble.

The social implications of the angel’s announcement, without doubt, crossed virgin Mary’s mind. Motherhood seemed to be an insurmountable problem, an unbearable burden and an overwhelming responsibility. The disclosure was way over her head. It was way too much for her, and she was way too young. Her fiancée was about to leave her, the wedding was about to be cancelled and a child out of wedlock was about to be her fame, but her life did not spiral out of control. She did not have a nervous breakdown, cry at her misfortune or ask the angel for time to think, reconsider and decide.

Mary had peace because the Lord’s presence with her (v 28). Christmas does not mean the absence of danger, trouble and adversity but the presence of God’s peace in times of danger, trouble and adversity. The angel could not stop repeating the root word of “grace,” or charis in Greek (v 28). The first greeting from the angel was the word “grace,” (“greetings” in NIV) and the next word in Greek - “highly favored” - is also a modified version of the word “grace.” The first two Greek words are “Grace” and “highly- favored” - the linking verb “you who are” is missing in Greek. She had peace, wonderful peace, because of the presence of Christ our Savior (Titus 1:4, 3:6) and Lord (1 Tim 1:2, Jude 4, 25), the Lord of all (Acts 10:36) and God over all (Rom 9:5), and the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6) in her life. God’s peace transcends all understanding (Phil 4:7) and is perfect to those who trust in Him (Isa 26:3).

Christmas is the Advent of God’s Promise.
31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Lk 1:31-33)

Once upon a time, there was a far-away land that was ruled by a vicious king. His iron hand reached into every corner of his subjects' lives. Every corner - except one. Try as he might, he couldn't destroy their belief in God. In his frustration, he finally summoned his advisors and asked them: “Where can I hide God so the people will end up forgetting about him?”

One suggested hiding God on the dark side of the moon. This idea was (vigorously) debated, but was voted down because the advisors feared that their scientists would one day discover a way to travel into space travel and God would be discovered again.

Another suggested burying God in the deepest part of the ocean. But there was the same problem with this idea, so it was voted down.

One idea after another was suggested and debated and rejected. Until finally the oldest and wisest advisor had a flash of insight. “I know,” he said, “why don't we hide God where no one will ever even think to look?” And he explained, “If we hide God in the ordinary events of people's everyday lives, they'll never find him!” (Thomas McMillen)

Lost to hustling, bustling and unsuspecting folks, the confirmation of God’s promise of the Messiah was to be fulfilled in a strange, unorthodox, but ordinary way.

Did God forget His promise of a Messiah to Israel? The promise sometimes seemed to hang by a thread. Centuries, kings and empires had come and gone, and yet the Messiah did not come with his army to rescue the Jews. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians carried away ten tribes, and in 586 C.C., the Babylonians exiled the last two tribes. The promise was alive again when an empire change occurred. Seventy years after the exile, the Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the city. Nothing happened for over the next 500 years. Even the prophets had not spoken for 400 years. The Chinese say, “Wait till the neck is long, the hair is white, or even the mosquitoes sleep.” Many gave up hope, and many missed the point.

But God’s promise never fails. It is perfect, exact and timely. Delay is man’s vocabulary. God’s promise came eventually; yet the Messiah did not bring a sword or an army, but peace on earth and goodwill to man (Lk 2:14). The name of Jesus, meaning salvation or deliverance, was given because the Messiah will save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21) and not from the city of Rome, the Gentiles, or their enemies.

The Messiah’s mother was a perfect choice. Mary was a direct descendant of David, but the Messiah’s hometown was an unlikely choice – Nazareth in Galilee. Nazareth was an obscure place and unloved town 75 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Nathaniel echoed the sentiment of outsiders toward Nazareth when he quipped, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). The town was located in Galilee, the northern region of Palestine that was also dismissed by the Pharisees who said, “No prophet comes out of Galilee” (John 7:52). The gloom, negativity and indifference over Nazareth and Galilee were understandable due to the stigma over its nickname: Galilee of the Gentiles (Isa 9:1, Mt 4:15). Isaiah predicted glory, instead of gloom, for Zebulun and Napthtali: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan (Isa. 9:1).

The Gentile population grew when an appreciative Solomon gave twenty towns in Galilee to Hiram king of Tyre (1 Kings 9:10-12). The presence of Gentiles in Galilee was complete when the Assyrians who captured and deported the northern kingdom to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29). Galilee also bordered Israel’s enemies and so they were often the first casualties of war. Galilee was known for her Gentile people, heathen temples, and pagan idols.

In Jesus’ time, Galilee was home to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Neither Zebulun or Naphtali was an esteemed tribe in Israel or son of Jacob. Zebulun was the youngest of six sons bored by the unloved Leah, Israel’s founder (Gen 35:23), and Naphtali was the youngest son of Rachel's handmaid, Bilhah (Gen 35:25).

Christmas is the Advent of God’s Power.
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.” 38 “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:34-38)

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Lord of the Rings. The main character in the trilogy, Frodo, volunteered to bear the ring to the elves’ stronghold, where the Great Council will decide the ring’s fate. Upon arrival, he learned from the council that the ring could only be destroyed by the fires that made it. When a quarrel broke out over who should return the ring for destruction in enemy territory, Frodo reluctantly volunteered to break up the argument.

At the end of the first part of the trilogy, a lot of lives were lost or sacrificed because of the evil forces’ desire for the ring. Frodo, too, sacrificed a lot to return the ring to its place. To save Shire from attack and destruction by evil forces, Frodo had to leave his beloved Shire, the place where he was born and raised and the only place he had known and lived. Two of his three friends from Shire with him on the trip were captured by the evil forces.

New friends he had made risked and sacrificed their lives to save Frodo. Also, people were not who they were around the ring. Frodo’s mission was to destroy the ring and stop the madness caused not only by freaks, monsters and killers but his own fears, weaknesses, and temptations. At the end of the first part of the trilogy, Frodo regretted his association with the ring, but recalled the advice his friend and mentor Gandalf gave. Frodo pitied himself for the burden he had to carry on behalf of all when he confided to Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me.” Gandalf responded kindly, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you.”

Not enough credit has been given to Mary. Even though God chose Mary, Mary had a choice – not just be a bearer or carrier, but a servant (v 38). She did not just loan her body, but she offered her heart, mind, soul and everything. Not only was she prepared to leave her fiancée, she was prepared to leave her town and life behind. She left for Bethlehem when she was with child (Lk 2:4), fled to Egypt when the child’s life was in danger (Mt 2:13-14) and returned to remote Nazareth only when it was safe (Mt 2:23). G. Campbell Morgan said of Mary: “In our rebound from the false exposition into which the Mother of our Lord has been lifted by the Roman Church, we have too often neglected, we have been unfair to her, we have consigned her almost to oblivion.”

Mary was the first believer and bearer of the good news. The Bible, the disciples, and the early church know her as the mother of Jesus (Matt 1:18, 2:11, 13:55, Luke 2:34). Mary was one of the founders, historians, eyewitness, sponsors and pillars of the early church (Acts 1:10). She was the mother of Jesus and the mentor of the apostles. God chose Mary to be the mother of the Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. But how was that possible, she asked the angel. (v 34) The angel answered, “For nothing is impossible with God.” (v 37)

Having the son of God for one’s child was not the easiest and simplest task. How do you teach, raise or mother someone who is perfect, sinless and holy? The three names describing him (v 35) - the Son of the Most High (Mark 5:7), the Holy One (Luke 4:34), and the Son of God (Mk 8:29) – refer to his authority over demons specifically, but not excluding his authority over man, things, and nature. What could a simple peasant girl offer to the son of God when he was a kindergartner, a teenager or a grown man? The growing pains were unbearable for any sane parent. As Simeon predicted, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

Mary’ and her husband were not among society’s wealthy, prominent or elite. They did not have much. Mary and Joseph could not even afford a lamb sacrifice at the temple, so they sacrificed a pair of doves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24, Lev 5:7). To the eyes of the world, Mary and the likes of her were not to be envied or emulated, but they did not know her strength and power. Of course, a parent’s work is never done. The power of God enabled Mary to be all that was necessary of her – a mother, a servant and a disciple.

Conclusion: Our problems do not go, fly or stay away at Christmas. Christmas means that the presence of Jesus in giving us the peace, promise, and power to face all our problems. Job says, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7) Christmas means that God cares so much that He came down to experience the pain, suffering and life with us.

Christmas, Pt. 3: "The True Blessings of Christmas"

There is supposedly a blessing for everything in Judaism, from food to drink, from people to nature, from illness to danger.

If you have seen Fiddler on the Roof, you may remember that the rabbi of the tiny Jewish community in Russia was asked by a student concerning a blessing for the Tsar of Russia. With the song “Tradition” playing in the background, the student came up to the rabbi, the town’s most important person, and asked him how to pray for the powerful Tsar: “Rabbi, Rabbi, may I ask you a question?” “Of course,” the rabbi replied. “Is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?” The Rabbi said, “Blessing for the Tsar? Of course. May God bless and keep the Tsar…far away from us!”

Around Christmas time, most people, especially kids, ask themselves if they’ve been naughty or nice, bad or good, crying or not.

Christmas, however, is never a difficult or depressing experience. It is first and foremost a blessed experience. The word “blessing” does not quite fit the theme of Christmas. Traditionally, we greet each other at this time of the year “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Christmas is anything but a blessing now; it is a burden or a break, for revelry, recreation or reunion time.

Why is Christmas a blessing to the world and a blessed time of the year? How are we blessed? What do we have to do to receive and experience this blessing?

Count Your Blessing from the Lord
26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29)

A Persian fable says: “One day a wanderer found a pale-looking but sweet-scented lump of clay. Curious at the lump of clay’s fragrant smell, the wanderer asked the clay, “What are you? Are you a beautiful gem?” The clay said, “No, I am not.” “Are you a rare plant?” the wanderer again questioned. The clay again answered, “No, I am not that either.” The wanderer next queried, “Then you must be a costly merchandise?” The clay retorted, “No, I am just a lump of clay.” The frustrated wanderer then asked, “Then, how did you smell so good?” The lump of clay finally confessed, “I smell good because I have been dwelling with the rose.” (7,700 Illustrations # 7143)

Recorded in the KJV but not NIV is the additional but helpful clause in verse 28, repeated in verse 42: “Blessed art thou among women.” The Greek word “eulogeo” (v 28) to describe Mary’s blessing is an unusual greeting, whether used for men or women, the dead or the living. The English equivalent is “eulogy,” a part of a funeral program. To eulogize someone is not merely to talk generally about the person but to speak highly of the person, or “good words” literally, especially at the person’s funeral! Unlike its English usage, the Greek word is a dynamic and living word, not a dead word and a belated honor for the deceased.

Christmas is the best of times despite the worst of times. Soon to be rocked by scandal, reviled by society and rife with questions, Mary understandably was “greatly troubled” (v 29) - shocked, stunned and shaken. The angel’s presence, ironically, did not ease her mind or help things out; it was enough to stress her out. Already an angel’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth’s family, specifically to the husband Zechariah, six months ago (Luke 1:24-26) was the talk of the town, a tall tale at best, a terror even to skeptics. Zechariah was silent and unable to speak (Luke 1:20), remaining speechless since until who knows when.

Christmas is, in fact, the occasion of three “troubles.” The first “trouble” describes how Zechariah was “startled/troubled” and was gripped with fear by an angel’s appearance (Luke 1:12). The last “trouble” sent shock waves, stirred a city, spawned much discontent and stimulated for change, recounting how King Herod, along with all Jerusalem, was “disturbed” by the magi’s news (Matt 2:3).

Sandwiched between two “troubles” is the mother of them all. Half a year after Zechariah’s trouble, Mary was “greatly troubled” (v 29) by an angel’s appearance and announcement. This Greek word (dia-tarasso) makes its first and only occurrence in the Bible, meaning “thorough/throughout” (dia-) and verse 11’s “troubled” (tarasso). Zechariah was troubled (tarasso) (Matt 2:3), but Mary was greatly troubled” (dia-tarasso). No one could imagine the tension, her turmoil and test.

One can imagine the “great trouble” and thorough impact of the angel’s sudden appearance had on the young, unmarried woman, especially if relative Zechariah had felt the same and ended up mute (Luke 1:12). It was an uninvited déjà vu moment and an unwanted “oh-oh” and “oh-no” experience. Only when she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1:40) did she receive confirmation that she was blessed and not troubled (v 29) by her baby’s arrival.

You won’t find words like “devoted,” “godly,” or “beautiful” to describe Mary. She wasn’t perfect. She was not the fairest of them all, nor the wisest, or the sweetest. But Mary received the fairest, wisest, and sweetest honor, which is a woman who was blessed by God with God’s favor.

Christ is the Fount of Blessing (Cast All Cares to the Lord)
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:39-44)

David Livingstone, the famous 19th century British doctor, missionary and explorer who had practically gave his heart to Africa, lived his life there, and served the natives, once replied those who glorified his sacrifice and contribution to Africa: “People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending my life in Africa which is simply acknowledging a great debt I owe to our God, which we can never repay. Is that sacrifice which brings its owner reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny? It is emphatically no sacrifice. Rather, it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, danger, foregoing the common conveniences of this life – these may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let his only be for a moment. All these are nothing compared with the glory which shall later be revealed in and through us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk, when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give himself for us.”

Luke’s account differs from Matthew’s account in that Matthew records an angel’s appearance to Joseph, not Mary. Readers of Luke’s gospel are given the scoop that God sent the angel Gabriel (v 26). Gabriel’s assurance to Mary did nothing to convince her to run to the arms of Joseph. Note that Mary did not run to Joseph first, to avoid piling unwanted pressure on him, creating more tension and further alienating Joseph. Also, Mary did not know that Joseph had a vision, albeit much later (Matt 1:20), but the unknown timeline makes the story more dramatic. All kinds of thoughts raced through her mind as she sought her cousin. How am I going to tell Joseph? How will I face my family? How am I going to raise the child by myself? So Elizabeth’s words eased her mind and kept her sane: “Blessed is the child you will bear!”

Already thoughts seized young Mary’s frightened mind (v 29), which the angel tried to calm. Will my child face discrimination? Will he be a freak of nature? Is the world a safe place? Am I good enough to raise him? Would she risk raising a child out of wedlock? Will the child be fatherless? Will he ask about the child’s father? Note Gabriel did not promise her God will work on Joseph, convince her groom and make things right. He did not say “I promise,” “No problem” or “Trust me.” His only calm assurance was the mention of her cousin, not her husband.

Mary knew she could be the biggest fool and the worst example. She did not know how the child would respond to curious seekers. Elizabeth assured her that mother and child were not cursed or doomed, but were both blessed. She was blessed without condition, not because she believed, but because he was the blessing.

Are you carrying a heavy burden today? Is a cloud of darkness boxing you in?
Cast all your anxiety on the Lord because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

Consider Yourself a Channel of Blessing (Choose to Live for the Lord)
38 "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:38)

45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" 46 And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, (Luke 1:45-48)

A hardworking little boy by the name of Theocrite sang the words “Praise God” like no one else. His praises not only kept him in good spirits, but it also brought joy to others, and praise from God. One day, a monk passing by heard him, and suggested: “I am sure God has heard you, but what if you were the Pope of Rome, singing God’s praises in St. Peters Church at Easter time in Rome?”

Theocrite thought that would be a tremendous achievement if he had the opportunity to do so. So the angel Gabriel who heard him, granted it, and he became the next Pope of Rome. Immediately God said, “How is it I do not hear the voice of Theocrite singing at his work?”

The angel, knowing this, became a boy and took Theocrite’s place, but he could do everything except one thing – sing praises to God. God said wistfully, “I hear a voice of praise, but not the way Theocrite sang it. I miss my little human praise.”

The angel then took off his disguise, went to Rome, found Theocrite, the new Pope of Rome, and said to him: “I took you from your work and made you the Pope of Rome, but I was mistaken. You could be a great Pope, but no one could fill your shoes, match your spirit, and take your voice of praise. (The Moral Compass 717-78, William J. Bennett)

The climax of Luke’s account is not the proclamation of Gabriel or the promise of Jesus but the praise of Mary, especially the blessedness of Mary coming from her mouth (v 48). Her head comprehended it, her body conceived it, but her heart must confess it! A conversion and a conviction must happen, and not just a command or commission taking place.

Note that Mary had no choice previously. The angel did not ask her before conception if she was willing to be the mother of Jesus. The first announcement was, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” (vv 30-31). She was speechless until the angel’s second speech, for a reason. Also, Gabriel did not ask for her opinion, her endorsement and her consent. Presently, however, she had a choice on how to live her life - in fear or in faith, believing or begrudging, trust or distrust, hope or hopelessness, joy or judgment.

God had blessed Mary, a Jewish commoner from Nazareth, to be the mother of the Lord (Lk 1:43). Mary knew that she was not necessarily the most qualified, the most resourceful, and the most deserving. The only unique reason why God chose her was that she was a descendant of David.

Before, Mary did not have to say yes and sign off to be a mother. Yet Mary now was more than the bearer and mother (Luke 2:34); she was a servant (v 38), a believer and a leader (Acts 1:14). Mary’s response was short but decisive. She answered the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38) Her life presently was one of confidence in God, cooperation with Him and commitment to Him, as she joyously recounted, testified and agreed later: “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48)

Conclusion: Have you missed out on the blessing of Christmas? Do you know the true blessing of Christmas? Have you experienced the blessedness of Christmas that comes from knowing Jesus Christ our Lord, from obeying Him, praising Him?

Christmas, Pt. 4: "God's Chosen Parents"

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has kept track for many years the cost of raising a child through its survey of 12,880 families and 3,395 single-parent families on the cost of a child’s housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care, education and miscellaneous goods and services, but not including the parent’s time costs, forgone earnings and career opportunities. The estimated expenditure on a child in 1995 for a two-child middle-income couple that makes $33,700-56,700 (before tax) is $7,610 for a 0-2 year-old toddler to $8,710 for a 15-17 year-old teenager.

The expenditure adjusted to 2003 with an annual 3.1% inflation concludes that a middle income married couple with two kids will likely spend $9,510-$10,500 on a child. More interestingly, USDA concludes that a child born in 2003 who will reach 17 in 2020 will likely cost lower income families that make below $25,700 a cool $172,370, middle income families making $25,700-54,800 an arm and a leg at $235,670, and the highest income families making over $54,800 a whopping $344,250! (Funds for a new house!)

Joseph, like any young man his age, had dreams and ambitions of his own but willingly surrendered or relinquished his dreams for a higher calling – to be father of the Messiah. Joseph was the father figure in Jesus’ life but, more often, he was the forgotten important parent figure in Jesus’ life. In fact, he does not have a word to say or a conversation to share in the Bible. His presence at Jesus' birth and the reception of the shepherds or the magi was not stated. Artists and Apocrypha writings have painted the picture of Joseph as an old man marrying the young Mary. It took a long time for scholars and historians to give Joseph his rightful credit.

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, a religious-art specialist affiliated with Washington's Georgetown University notes that early Christian art sometimes omitted Joseph from the Nativity. When present, “he's either disinterested or separate, a doddering old man with a bald head or gray beard, a stock character,” she says. The Rev. Michael Morris, an expert in art and Catholic theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., says Joseph was occasionally painted sleeping through the event. This may have been a nod to his prophetic dreams, but Morris notes that even among Catholic clergy today, “if someone says he's going to take a St. Joseph's meditation, it jokingly means he's taking a nap.” (“Father and Child,” Time 12/19/2005)

Mary’s name looms large in history and in the Bible, but not Joseph’s. Most commentators believe that Joseph had died by the time Jesus made his ministry debut. One can say Joseph did not live to see his dream and the angel’s proclamation come true. His dreams, however, were not as important as God’s role for him and God’s delight with him.

What kind of a father figure is God pleased with? What is the father’s role and responsibility in raising a child? What is one’s position, part and purpose in life? How can you rise to the occasion and fulfill your God-given potential?

Be Trustworthy in Disposition
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matt 1:18-19)

Holiday shopping is a $220 billion dollar industry. USA Today (12/6/04) revealed that the average consumer in 2004 will spend $541.03 on gifts - $406.52 on family gifts, $71.29 on friends and $22.12 on coworkers and others.

The National Retail Federation sponsors a survey interviewing 7,861 respondents on what gifts top their holiday lists (USA Today 12/14/04). 53% wants either books, CDs, DVDs, videos or video games. 51% prefers clothing. 33% has an eye on consumer electronics. Home décor or furnishings is the fancy of 21%. Sporting goods or leisure items is the choice of 13%.

The truth is that riches, money and status had nothing to do with Christmas. God chose Joseph and Mary to be the parents of the Son of God for a reason. They were not perfect, sinless or angels but they were noble, moral and upright. Joseph, in particular, was a righteous man (v 19). God chose an outstanding citizen, a blameless man and a perfect gentleman to be Jesus’ father. Joseph stands in elite company in the New Testament, attested to be “righteous,” afforded such honor along with Jesus (Luke 23:47, Matt 27:19), John the Baptist (Mark 6:20) and his parents (Luke 1:6-7), Simeon (Luke 2:25), Joseph of Arimathea who buried Jesus (Luke 23:50) and Cornelius (Acts 10:22). Joseph had a heart of gold. He was good to the core, kind in his nature and held in high honor. As such, Joseph was a dependable, respected and hardworking man.

Joseph was the strong and silent type, a man of few words but his character spoke volumes and did all the talking. Have you noticed everyone speaks but Joseph in the Christmas narrative (and most Christmas plays)? Not even a monosyllabic “yes,” “no” or “huh” reply was attributed him. The mother, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men and the barn animals get all the choicest parts at Christmas, but not Joseph. Joseph was comfortable with his non-speaking, background-hogging part. He did whatever he could to bring stability to the child, the mother and the family. The husband-t0-be had a decent job, not a dream job. He did not come from money nor did he have a government job. Neither was he a physician, a priest, or a poet. The father-to-be was a carpenter, a modest and unassuming job as such. Note that Joseph and Mary could only afford doves for sacrifice in the temple, a small animal was beyond their budget and out of question (Luke 2:24). In today’s world, one could say he could not afford the latest video games, digital cameras, or the plasma, the big-screen or the flat-screen TVs for the family, iPod or Playstation 2.

What defined Joseph were not goods and things, but character and reputation, the greatest and the only criteria God looked at when he chose Joseph out of all of David’s descendants. It’s been said, “Reputation is what people think and say you are, but character is who you really are.” People and neighbors knew Joseph as the quiet, hardworking, honest, who would not give them poor workmanship, supply them rotten wood and charge them exorbitant fees. They did not have to worry about the price he charged, the work he did or the products he hawked.

Be Teachable in Doubt
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”-which means, “God with us.” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matt 1:20-25)

The Los Angeles Times (8/22/02) asked kids what would they want if they were given three wishes. Christina, 10, said, (1) To have a horse so I could go riding anytime; (2) that unicorns and flying horses could be real; (3) to have $1 million so we could live in a bigger house.

9-year-old Ericka answered: (1) To be in medieval times and be a princess (2) to do back handsprings; (3) to be an interior decorator for houses.

Young 8 year-old Oscar was more serious. He wished for: (1) That there will be no crime so people wouldn’t die; (2) that people will have food so they will live longer; (3) that I will get good grades so I can get better at everything.

Fun-loving 9-year-old Jonathan replied: (1) I would wish for a pet alligator. It would be big and nice; (2) that I would have my own tree house and I could paint it Army color; (3) that I could be a famous soccer play.

Antonio, a thoughtful fourth-grader declared: (1) That my family would have eternal life because they are special to me; (2) to become a veterinarian because I love animals; (3) to have peace in the world with no more terrorists destroying our country and no more violence.

Joseph’s faith deserves more praise and attention than his ambition. One might even say God required or expected more from him than from his wife, John the Baptist’s father or the night shepherds in the Advent narratives. Joseph did not have the advantage of a visible angelic manifestation that Mary, Zechariah and the shepherds had. Angel Gabriel appeared to John the Baptist’s father, standing at the right side of the altar of incense (Luke 1:11). God sent the angel Gabriel to visit Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1:26-28), too. An unnamed angel of the Lord also appeared to the shepherds (Luke 2:9).

The angel of God appeared to Joseph on three occasions, but never in angelic form each time but always in a dream. He did not see the angel of the Lord standing cutely at the right side of the altar of incense as Zechariah did (Luke 1:11) and he was not blinded by the glory of the Lord that shone around him like the shepherds were (Luke 2:9). No angels were flapping wings, playing harps, or wearing halos before Joseph. Joseph did not have the advantage of an angelic greeting as Mary did (Lk 1:26). All three angelic instances in Joseph’s narrative were in dreams, not appearances.

The only thing special with the angelic communication in Joseph’s case was supplied by Matthew the author, who dramatized the angelic visitations on three occasions with the “behold” introduction and exclamation that is missing from NIV but found in Greek and KJV (Matt 1:20, 2:13, 2:19). Joseph’s first dream of an angel is in verse 20 of chapter one. The next was after the wise men’s departure, when the angel of the Lord reappeared in a dream to Joseph, urging him to take the child and his mother to escape the murderous Herod and to remain in Egypt (Matt 2:13). After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream again to Joseph in Egypt to inform him that they could return to the land of Israel (Matt 2:19-20).

Joseph did not experience the earth-shaking event associated with the angels’ appearance at Jesus’ the resurrection (Matt 28:2-4). We are not told if he dreamed in black and white, but the words were loud and clear. Joseph acted in faith and did as he was told. Matthew used the Greek word “take” (paralambano) to demonstrate Joseph’s old-fashioned obedience. The word is used 49 times in Greek, but 6 times related to Joseph – the most in any one account or on any one individual. The first two occurrences of the word were when the angel of the Lord commanded Joseph to take Mary as his wife (Matt 1:20), which he promptly did when he woke up and took Mary home as his wife (Matt 1:24). The second two occurrences of the word were when an angel of the Lord commanded Joseph to take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt (Matt 2:13), and Joseph took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt (Matt 2:14). The last two occurrences were when an angel commanded Joseph to take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel after Herod’s death (Matt 2:20), and Joseph obeyed and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel (Matt 2:21).

Be Tenacious in Danger
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matt 2:13-15)
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matt 2:19-23)

Several years ago Reader’s Digest (3/95) reprinted Larry Rent’s article from the book “Child” titled “Things You’d Love to Hear” from your kids:
1. You’re so cool, Dad.
2. Who cares if the TV is broken?
3. Pass the broccoli, please.
4. What! No kiss?
5. No, thanks. It’s too expensive.
6. It’s a hard choice. Everything sounds great.
7. Bored? How could I be bored?
8. I’ve already made my bed.
9. It was my fault.
10. That’s okay. None of my friends are allowed to do it either.

At times Joseph must have felt he was useless as a man, less of a man and not much of a man when he could not find an inn for his wife and child. The truth was that he was very central to the family’s well-being, the lone ranger in decision-making and every inch involved in child-raising. He fought tooth and nail for the family and was extremely devoted to their safety and needs. However, one would have to look hard to track the quiet man’s involvement.

Joseph was the one who gave Jesus His name at His birth (Matt 1:25). The angel had said to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus” (Matt 1:21). When Simeon took baby Jesus in his arms and praised God in the temple courts, both the father and mother, with Joseph’s name mentioned first, marveled at what was said about him (Luke 2:33). The angel again turned to Joseph (Matt 2:13) when the child’s life was in danger at the murderous hands of Herod, who later gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under (Matt 2:16) that were a threat to this throne. There must have been times Joseph pined for a return to Israel, but he kept his family there, pondering if the angel would ever show up again. Just as he had given up on Israel, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph for the third time, this time advising him to return from Egypt to Israel after Herod had died (Matt 2:20). Joseph had a fourth dream, although angels were not specified (Matt 2:22). This time, he decided on his own that it was best for the family to settle in the rural and remote Galilee rather than busy the hustle and bustle of Judea.

Joseph was not an absentee father, a stepfather, as some suggested, or a godfather. Joseph was not the adopted father of Jesus; he was the appointed, assigned or acting father; the legal, the human and the earthly father! Jesus willingly and gladly followed in his kind father’s shoes and took up the carpenter’s trade (Mk 6:3). Joseph did not keep anything from the boy or treat him differently from other children, even though the couple later had four sons – James, Joseph, Judas and Simon – and at least two daughters (Mk 6:3). Joseph had his work cut out for him, but still God entrusted His Son to him without worrying about child abuse, parental neglect, unfair treatment or family dysfunction. Most fathers have enough trouble with their biological kids, never mind being the spiritual father! Most parents would be so out of whack and out of sorts, if not out of here, if they were to care for kids not of their bone and flesh, but not Joseph, who was firm but fair. He was not related by blood, but by belief. The way he handled Mary’s case and treated Mary’s reputation represented the gentleman he was. He was not about to criticize or shame Mary, confront her parents, relatives, and friends, or let his side of the family know he had no choice.

Joseph and Mary were not perfect parents but they were more than good parents; they were outstanding parents. They were not surviving parents; they were super parents. They were not disadvantaged parents, but were devoted parents.

Conclusion: God has given His all when He gave infant Jesus to mankind. Jesus has come to save His people of their sins. God is not looking for gifts and goods in return, but your life and your love in return. Are you the righteous, obedient and strong person God is looking for to do His will? Are you a gentleman to the opposite sex, a fatherly figure to youngsters and a pillar in the family? Have you given your best and your all to Jesus who gave Himself for you?

Christmas, Pt. 5: "Away in a Manger"

The second last day of our 2003 summer vacation in Canada was a disaster. Our plan was to visit Doris’ alma mater in Kingston and then head to Montreal and Quebec, but we had no hotel reservations beyond Toronto. My wife had said, “Let’s not plan. Let’s make it an adventure. Worse come to worst, we can stay at my best friend’s house in Toronto.” And what an adventure it was.

After staying in Toronto for a few days, we headed to Kingston where we bedded at Comfort Inn for $45. After Kingston, we headed to Montreal where we stayed in a local motel for $65. Everything was perfect up till then. The next day in the Quebec island we refused a motel for $120 but even that was gone when we returned after a futile search elsewhere; so we stay the night in a mainland motel for $120.

Our plan was to stop by at the same motel in Kingston on the return trip to Toronto, but the motel was full. So we decided to take the hour and a half drive to Toronto and find motels near Toronto, so that we can leave for the airport the next day. To our disappointment, the motels before and after reaching Toronto were occupied because of a convention in town that Thursday. When we were turned down even for suites, we realized that we have to call her best friend to end the saga. We were tired, hungry, and frustrated. That night I said to Doris, “Now I know how Joseph and Mary must have felt.”

The next day (8/16) the Toronto and East Coast blackout occurred and we had to lengthen our stay to another two more nights at the friend’s place.

Jesus’ birth was not a series of unfortunate events, but a series of unforeseen events. Jesus came on his own terms, in the right fashion, with a timeless message. The Jewish nation expected the arrival of a Conquering King, but He came as a Suffering Servant. People expected Him to testify of himself, but angels and shepherds testified to Him. Israel expected freedom from Rome, but not forgiveness of sins. They wanted prosperity, and not peace and pardon.

What kind of a Savior was He? What kind of gift did He offer? Who are the beneficiaries?

Jesus is Meek and Lowly
2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

My wife has a Sunday school version of the first Christmas. She imagined the horses, the cows, the pigs, the sheep, the dogs, the cats, and the chickens all bending their limbs, belting a number and bowing in worship. The real version, however, was not as pleasant, peaceful or picturesque. Spiders, mice, lizards, flies, and other creepy crawlies were the real part and parcel of the barn experience.

The real story of Christmas is captured in the first two verses of the Christmas hymn “Away in a Manger”:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! Look down from the sky,
And stay by my side until morning is nigh.

Jesus was born of royalty, but he was born meek and lowly. Meekness is not weakness in response or failure to respond, but strength under control. A friend quipped that meekness means you are a tough person so you can afford to look soft (M Wu). Jesus was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth and he did not come from money. True, he was a descendant of King David, but he was born in a stable, and not a palace or a castle. His delivery was not in a hospital, but a barn. The parents needed to do a lot of work before the baby was born. Joseph and Mary had to sweep the floor, wipe the dust and clean the place. They had to do with what they had, including enduring the noise and smell of animals and coping without the benefit of a kitchen or a bathroom. Even our present-day garages are cleaner than the horse stable, pig-sty or chicken coop that was Jesus’ shelter. No disinfectant or deodorant could sanitize or freshen the place enough.

Doctors and midwives were not there to receive him. Lowly shepherds, and not dignitaries, guards, servants or maids greeted him. The unattractive barn, and not the local inn or clinic, was his delivery room and living quarters. His clothes were not tailor- or custom-made, but homemade.

Tradition has it that Jesus was placed in a trough after he was born, but three times the Bible stated that he was born in a stable or a manger (vv 7, 12, 16), with no mention of a trough for a crib. The only other occurrence of the Greek word “manger” was when Jesus scolded the synagogue ruler and others like him: “You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the ‘stall’ and lead it out to give it water?” (Luke 13:15) The trough makes for good object lessons and pop-up books but the truth is that lowly Jesus was born in a dirty and dusty shack. Matthew Henry said that a manger is a place for cattle to stand when being fed or during feeding time. I suggest that they could not even find an empty trough for him. His bed was solid ground or hard floor; rug, feathers or board was a luxury not afforded him. Mattresses, spring box and headrest were unheard of. Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). The only thing he had was straw, hay and blanket. His parents were unlikely to have a cradle, crib or cot prepared for him.

When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes (v 7), and not in linen, silk or wool. His parents did not shop at the town version of Bed, Bath and Beyond, Linen and Things, or St. Michael’s. No fine fabric, fancy artwork or fashion design adorned his clothes. Leon Morris said that swaddling clothes were long strips that would wrap the child round and round. Baby Jesus wore but torn and ragged strips of cloth around the body, including the legs. His parents never made an expensive or exquisite robe for him.

Jesus is Majestic and Lord
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. (Luke 2:9-18)

Christmas is the busiest shopping time of the year. The malls are crowded, parking is a nightmare and bargains are plenty. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, marks the beginning of the traditional Christmas shopping season. Many retailers open their doors very early that day (typically 5 A.M.) to shoppers camped overnight for the special deals.

Christmas is the biggest stimulus to shopping and spending in the year. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers every shopping mall has 8,758 Santa visits during the busy festive season. The busiest retail shopping day of the year in the United States (in terms of both sales and customer traffic) is usually the Saturday before Christmas. A florist claims that Christmas sales account for about 25 percent of annual sales.

The first Christmas was just as busy. Caesar Augustus had ordered a census, sent everyone packing and made life miserable. Rich or poor, strong or weak, men and women had to return to their hometown to register. Included in the throng was Mary, who was with child. However, the birth of Jesus turned the first Christmas from a gloomy Christmas into a glorious one. He had an invited audience at his birthday party, but His audience was not royalty, diplomats or socialites, but angels, shepherds and the heavenly host (v 13), and what a breath-taking, spine-tingling and eyebrow-raising performance it was.

When the angel appeared before the shepherd (v 9), the glory of the lord “shone around” them. The single Greek word for “shone around” is perilampo, which means to illuminate all around or to shine round about. The Greek word peri is the root word for the English word perimeter, and lampo gives rise to the word lamp. The only other Scriptural record of this word is from Acts 26:13, where Paul testified how he was converted when he saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, “blazing around” him and his companions. Can you imagine the goosebumps, the chills and the pause the angel gave the shepherds? The exact Greek rendition was “they feared (a) great fear.” They were not only terrified; they were very scared. Their hearts were thumping, their hands were cold and their hairs were standing.

If that wasn’t enough, the heavenly host joined in chorus. The Greek record was “a multitude of heavenly host.” The angel was not just joined by a few good angels or a chorus of angels, but a swarm of armies. The word “host” already meant an “army” in Greek. So, “a multitude of heavenly host” is more than just an army, but a multitude or countless armies of celestial beings in dazzling array singing their stirring choruses in the night skies. The only other time the Greek word for “host” occurs describes the heavenly bodies in the skies that are uncountable (Acts 7:42). The birth of Jesus, without doubt, was the hottest ticket, the biggest blockbuster and the grandest premier the world has ever known.

Jesus is Merciful and Love
19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. (Luke 2:19-21)

Peppermint Patty sat under a tree, with her crossed hands on her tummy, sorting out her unrequited feelings from the indifferent and naïve Charlie Brown: “Chuck just doesn't seem to understand a girl’s emotions. In fact, Chuck doesn’t seem to understand girls at all. Chuck is hard to talk to because he doesn’t understand life. He doesn’t understand laughing and crying.”

Then Peppermint Patty continued to mutter to herself as she walked away: “He doesn't understand love and silly talk and touching hands, and things like that. He plays a lot of baseball, but I doubt if he understands baseball.” Before too long, her walking had lead her to Charlie Brown’s house, where she promptly knocked at the door.

When Charlie Brown answered the door, Peppermint Patty barked at him: “I don’t think you understand anything, Chuck.” Getting that off her chest, she turned around and walked away before Charlie Brown had a chance to say anything. As Charlie Brown stood outside his front door by himself, he said, "I don’t even understand what it is I don’t understand.”

Mary treasured up all the things the shepherds said about the child and pondered them in her heart (v 19). The shepherds’ Jesus is Joshua or “salvation” in Hebrew, but He did not come to save His people from Caesar Augustus, the Roman world or the Greek civilization. He has come to save people from their sins (Matt 1:21).

The Bible says that we were dead in sins (Eph 2:1, 5, Col 2:13), darkened in reason (Eph 4:18) and doomed for destruction (1 Tim 6:9), but Jesus came to land a fatal blow to sin. What He had done to sin for our sake in theological terms included forgiving (Mt 9:2), bearing (Jn 1:29, Heb 9:28), erasing (Acts 3:19), purging (Heb 1:3) and canceling (Heb 9:26) the sins of men. He died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3), freed us from sins (Rom 6:22) and remembers them no more (Heb 10:17). Three times the Bible says that He is the atoning sacrifice (Heb 2:17, 1 John 2:2, 4:10) for our sins.

Unlike world powers and rulers, the power in His hands was not the power to coerce lives, but to change lives. He did not come to sentence people, but to save them. The prosperity He brought was not the prosperity of funds, but the prosperity of forgiveness. He brought peace on earth and goodwill to men (v 14) in the hearts of those who accepted Him.

The angel announced the good news of the birth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (v 11). The good news was for all the people (v 10), not just the Jews, but also the Gentiles. Jesus is the Savior; the deliverance or the destruction of the lost sinner is in His hands. He is the Christ; the rise and fall of the Jewish nation is in His hands (Lk 2:34). Jesus is Lord; the fate and destiny of the whole world is in His hands. Life and death are in His hands, justice and judgment are in His hands, redemption and retribution are in His hands.

The Greek phrase “great joy” occurs only four times in the Gospels, but only in Luke and Matthew. Both gospels agreed the presence of great joy were only found on two occasions - at his birth (Luke 2:10, Matt 2:10) and at His resurrection (Luke 24:52, Matt 28:8). One was his incarnation for our sins and the other His death for our sins.

Conclusion: The birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the two constants after the shopping is done, the sales are counted and the season is over. The greatest gift of all is the gift money cannot buy. It is what the Prince of Peace has given to the world: the forgiveness of sins and salvation of sinners. Our responsibility is to receive the free gift and to tell the lost world (vv 18, 20) of the Saviors’ birth, because one day the tiny babe will return as the conquering King.

Christmas, Pt. 6: "Go Tell it on the Mountain"

The two weekends before Christmas are the busiest days of the year for the mall and the stores, for ordering and mailing, and for dining and catering. In Southern California alone, more than 20 million cards and letters and 1.5 million packages are postmarked the usual third Monday of December before Christmas (Los Angeles Times 12/18/01).

The American Express Retail Index, in its survey of consumers in 2001, projected that the average will spend about $1,564 per household for gifts, travel, entertaining, decorations and other expenses this year.

Every year consumers make December the busiest month of the year, and make Christmas the biggest party of the year, all for the wrong reasons. The first Christmas was a busy season. The Christmas shepherds were in a big hurry, too. On a quiet night in the country outside of Bethlehem, an angel appeared to shepherds who were watching their flock to tell them the good news. After hearing what the angels told them, the shepherds then made haste to Bethlehem to find and see and know baby Jesus for themselves.

What did the Christmas angel say? Why were the shepherds in such a rush? What is our thrill and task at this time of the year?

Christmas is the Unveiling of Great Pleasure
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Lk 2:8-12)

Christmas is not all it is made be to be. A lot of people would rather skip the festivities altogether. 63% of respondents to a 1998 Dateline NBC/Prevention Magazine Holiday Stress survey said they felt pressure to do things they did not want to do during the holidays, and 64% reported feeling nervous and stressed about the entire season. The seasonal stress has a name to it: SAD for “seasonal affective disorder,” or what people used to call the “winter blues.”

Money was the biggest stress factor, of course: 72 percent worry about money at least some time during the holidays. Even though a good 15 percent always dread the holiday season, 9 percent end up having a good time anyway. Just 6 percent of participants manage to hang on to that dread right through the New Year's celebrations. Naturally holiday stress is more prevalent the farther north you go, with 1 percent to 5 percent of those living in middle to northern latitudes reporting SAD symptoms. Women, particularly young adults, account for 60 percent to 90 percent of those affected by this seasonal pattern of depression. (“Dear Data Dog,” American Demographics, Dec. 2000)

The angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and the glory of the Lord “shone around” (peri-lampo) them (v 9), terrifying the shepherds. This Greek word for “shone around” occurs only twice in the Bible, the other time describing Paul’s experience on the road when he saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, “blazing around” him (Acts 26:13). The first New Testament evangelist, technically, was not John the Baptist (Lk 3:18), but the Christmas angel. This is the first time the verb “euaggelizo” or “evangelize” (v 10) appears in the New Testament. NIV clumsily translated the word as “I bring you good news.”

The Greek text used the word fear twice to describe how the shepherds felt at the angel’s sudden appearance: The shepherds “feared” (phobeo) a great fear (phobos megas)!” (v 9) But the angel did not come to strike great fear, but in contrast, to spread great joy or “chara megas” (v 10). Christmas is the proclamation of not just joy, but great joy, one of only two great joys associated with Christ - great joy at his birth (Luke 2:10, Matt 2:10) and great joy at his resurrection (Luke 24:52, Matt 28:8).

The great joy of Christmas is the birth of the baby Jesus, the Savior, the Christ, the Lord. He is the Christ, the Promise, the Anointed One, or the Coming Messiah, whose birth was prophesied in the Old Testament. In Micah 5:2, the promise of a ruler in Israel would come from Bethlehem. The word Lord is a recurring word in this passage (vv 9, 9, 11, 15). He is our Lord, the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8), Lord Almighty (2 Cor 6:18), the Lord of lords (Rev 17:14).

This great joy is for all the peoples of the world – Jews and Gentiles, shepherds and Magi (Matt 2:10), angels and men. It is cause for true celebration among the Chosen Ones and the Goyim, the rich and the poor, heaven and earth.

I love the story of the Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The Grinch was a mean, ugly, lonely make-believe creature who hated Christmas and decided to put an end to it after enduring the merry-making villagers’ noise and nonsense for fifty three years.

On Christmas Eve, he put on a Santa Clause hat and coat, stole into the village, climbed into the chimneys and quietly took all the presents for himself while the villagers were sleeping. He took everything that would resemble Christmas, including tree, stocking, and decoration, and gloated anticipating the villagers’ reaction when they discovered that all their presents were gone on Christmas morning itself.

The next morning the Grinch woke up to the singing he had heard for over half a century at this time of the year. He looked out his window saw that he had failed to dampen the villagers’ Christmas spirit. He waited for people to the declare Christmas season a disaster or a letdown, but instead the people started singing. “Why?” the Grinch asked. Because Christmas is the celebration of what’s inside, not outside. The great joy and the real joy of Christmas is the birth of Jesus that can never be taken away. The Grinch had stolen all the presents, toys and decorations but the villagers did not miss them. They were still standing together, holding hands and singing joyfully. Happiness is fleeting, but joy is lasting. Parties do not last. The Chinese say, “There is no party under heaven that never ends.”

Christmas is the Unveiling of Glorious Praise
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. (Lk 2:13-18)

A man rushed up to a policeman yelling, “Help! Help! I’ve been robbed.” “Take it easy, Mac,” replied the policeman, taking out his notebook. “Tell me, what did the guy look like?” What guy?” said the man. “The guy who robbed you,” explained the policemen. “Give me a description.”

The exasperated man said, “There wasn’t any guy. I was robbed by an elephant.” The astonished cop exclaimed, “Okay, then give me a description of the elephant.” The man answered impatiently, “Are you kidding? It was an elephant. A big gray elephant with four legs and a trunk.”

The cop warned, “Don’t get touchy with me. Elephants have characteristics which identified them. For instance, if the elephant that robbed you had big ears, he was an African elephant. If he had smaller ears, he was an Asian elephant. So which was he – African or Asian?”

“How should I know?” cried the distressed victim. “He had a stocking pulled over his face.” (Adapted, George Jessel, Toastmaster General’s Favorite Jokes (Secaucus: Castle Books, 1973), pp. 94-95.)

The shepherds were ecstatic they were included in the infant’s welcoming pronouncement, festivity and committee by the angels of the Lord. God has left clear clues, straight line tracks, a direct map to the infant for the shepherds, for all the people of the world - and for you and I - to find him. The shepherds were given such privileged information (Luke 2:15), they had seen such a heavenly sight (Luke 2:17, 20), they were told such joyous news (Luke 2:17), and they had heard such glorious singing (Luke 2:20).

Further, the angel clearly evangelized everything to them in two short verses (2:10-11), or the 5 W’s and 1 H’s: what to announce - “great joy”; who it was for - “for all the people”; when the event happened - “today;” where it was located - “in the town of David”; why - “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord;” and how -”you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The angel’s revelation and accompanying remarks were complete for all ages.

When the shepherds finally saw the child for themselves, they returned to the country, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told to them. Previously the shepherds were poor, cold, tired and frightened, taking over the graveyard shift and working at night, but now they were rich, joyous, energized and inspired, basically taking over the angels’ work and working non-stop to spread the word concerning what had been told them about the child. The Christmas angel who was joined by a host of angels in a slew of choruses to praise God had left, but the praises did not stop. The shepherds now shouted for joy, sang in unison, gave glory, honor and praise to God that the plan for the redemption of mankind had come at the right time.

The rotten world, with its bitter suffering and bleak future, was a thing of the past. God came down from His glory. The Word became flesh and dwelt among men (Jn 1:14) – full of grace and truth. The time had fully come for God to send his Son, born of a woman, born under the curse of the law (Gal 3:13), to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (Gal 4:4-5). God's secret wisdom has been revealed, a wisdom that was hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began (1 Cor 2:7).

The shepherds were the first believers of the gospel. They decided to check out the baby by night. They believed the words of the Christmas angel, left the country for the city of Bethlehem, hurrying in the middle of the night to look for the baby in a manger. The word “tell” is an inescapable key word in this passage. The angels told the shepherd (2:17), and the shepherds told others (2:18) what they were told (2:20). Praise the Lord, the greatest event in history was shared with shepherds who passed the good news to others. God did not come down in a palace, surrounded with servants, shrouded in secrecy.

Christmas is the Unveiling of Gracious Peace
The angels said, “Peace on earth to men on whom his favor rests.”

The year 2001 is supposed to be a significant year for commemorating world peace. One hundred years ago, the United Nations began awarding prize money in memory of Alfred Nobel to individuals or groups that have done the most to promote peace between nations. The Nobel Peace Prize, worth about a million US dollars, is the most coveted international prize.

Nobel was the Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite and held more than 350 patents, which made him very rich. At his death in 1895, the bachelor left a sizable fortune to a foundation dedicated to recognizing excellence in science, medicine, literature, and peace efforts.

However, no individual or group, not even the United Nations, can do anything to bring lasting peace. 250 wars have been fought in the 20th century alone and more than 110 million people, including 63 million civilians, died in the conflicts, according to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, said, “If the criterion for success is the Nobel Peace Prize’s ability to put an end to wars, then the prize is certainly a failure. And it will remain a failure.” The twentieth century was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind, and the new century is not getting any better.

World peace, personal peace and or relational peace are precarious and are hanging by a thread. God’s peace is different. If you notice, NIV does not use the phrase “goodwill to men” anymore. The word goodwill or “eu-dokia” in the Greek text is a combination of two words, “eu-” as in eulogy or saying good things and “dokia” or thinking. So goodwill means thinking good or having a good mindset. The whole translation means peace on earth and a good mindset to men. That’s the gift of Christmas – the gift of a peaceful mind.

God’s gift of peace of mind is not a feeling or a drug, a legislation of the court or a treaty of nations, a surplus of money or an absence of war. It is not an extra piece of cake, a set of formulas or a recitation of chants. It is a peaceful mindset knowing God’s unchanging gift of salvation; it is not tied to external factors or changing circumstances. Peace in the modern world is overrated and suspicious. Personal peace can be easily shattered by an emergency call, a traffic accident, or a crime scene, but God’s peace is secured by Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

The Americans were taught a difficult age-old lesson on September 11: Power cannot buy peace of mind. Being on top is a blessing and a curse. The Chinese said, “Big trees invite winds.” This Christmas, our nerves are frayed more than ever. We will not experience peace of mind until we receive and embrace the gift of peace in Christ Jesus, which is priceless. By our own efforts we fail. Others disappoint us. Only the most powerful - the Omnipotent God, only the most knowledgeable - the Omniscient God, and only the most attending - the Omnipresent God - can give us peace.

The message of Christmas is simple. When you look outside of Christ, you will find unending misery. Look to Christ and you will find abiding peace.

Conclusion: Do you have the peace of God, which transcends all understanding? Do you desire God’s peace to guard your hearts and your minds? (Phil 4:7) Do you have Jesus in your heart and the peace that the world can’t give and the world can’t take it away? Christmas does not mean eating, shopping, or traveling. Make haste and don’t hesitate. Pursue, discover and experience Christ for yourself. Are you a quiet, passive and ignorant observer, listener and believer? The Christmas angel appeared to make believers, eyewitnesses and evangelists out of unsuspecting shepherds. Do you tell others what you know and believe, and what you have seen and heard?