Tuesday, December 25, 2012

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.

Introduction

Those lines paint a very sentimental picture don’t they? What could be a more peaceful picture? What could be more the picture of peace than the Baby Jesus asleep? Every year at this time millions of people reflect upon the birth scene or Nativity as they call it. Mary and Joseph are depicted as being in a stable with lots of hay around the place. There are some animals in the stable too, and there are three wise men with presents. And there’s the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, in a feeding trough.

I wonder how accurate this picture really is? The Nativity Scene is a kind of conglomeration, isn’t it? It’s got everything that happened happening all at once! Anyway, I’m not going to huff and puff like a big bad wolf and try to blow the Nativity Scene down, or parts of it! That would be to try to destroy one of the last vestiges of the true meaning of Christmas. For, hasn’t the true meaning of Christmas to do with the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior? And that being the case, in the following I’d like to reflect on the birth of Jesus. However, I’d like to do so with this question in mind: Did the Baby Jesus really lay down His sweet head in an animal’s feeding trough, i.e., a manger as we call it?

The Stable

Let us begin by asking the question: Where was Jesus born? Well, we’ll start with the general and then we’ll move to the particular. Jesus was born on the planet earth, wasn’t He? So this makes the planet earth the most special planet in all the universe, doesn’t it? The planet earth might look like some insignificant speck of dust in relation to the galaxy. But Almighty God, the Creator, the Maker of all the heavens and the earth, in the Person of the 2nd or Middle Person of the Trinity became flesh on this speck of dust. The Son of God became also the Son of Man on the planet earth. Therefore even though this planet revolves around the sun, the planet earth is the center of the universe! And Jesus Christ really was born here some 2000 years ago. And He was born in the usual way like any other child, just as the Scriptures say. For example, Luke 2:6-7, “The days were completed for her [i.e., Mary] to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

We see in Luke 2:4 that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. We might ask why Jesus wasn’t born in Glasgow, Scotland? Why wasn’t He born in Winnipeg, Manitoba or Hobart, Tasmania? Well, later in His life Jesus would encounter a crowd of people who were wondering the same thing about Galilee. John 7:41-42, “Will the Christ come out of Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that Christ comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem, where David was?” So, the reason why Christ wasn’t born in Glasgow or Hobart or Galilee is because of Scripture. For example, Matthew in his Gospel quotes the Scripture which was written some 700 years BC. Matthew 2:6, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.” So, the Scriptures cannot be broken. Only Bethlehem in Judah will do as the birthplace of Christ.

Now, we’re told that Bethlehem in Judea is actually the City of King David. David as a boy tended his father’s flocks there. Therefore, David was a shepherd king. And he lived about 1000 years before the birth of Christ. Was it not David’s throne that Jesus was to inherit as Ruler? We see this in the well known verses of Isaiah where he says, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulderOf the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom.” So, Jesus, the Son of David as He’s sometimes called, has come to claim the everlasting throne of David the shepherd king. It makes sense then that Jesus would be born in the City of David, even Bethlehem. And it just so happened that Joseph the husband of Mary hailed from Bethlehem. And it just so happened that they had to go there for the Roman census. And it just so happened that Mary was about to give birth to Jesus.

There are many reasons why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But they’re all summed up in the fact that God planned and directed it to happen that way. However, here comes the next question: Why was Jesus born in a stable?
Shouldn’t Jesus, the King of Kings, have been born in the king’s palace? Shouldn’t He have been born surrounded by angels, cherubim and seraphim, singing at the top of their voices?  Shouldn’t Jesus have been born in the best Maternity Hospital that money could pay for? What’s God thinking about, having His Son being born in a stable? Why a stable? I thought long and hard about this. Oh sure, we can talk about the great humility that surrounds the humble birth of Christ.

Jerome waxes eloquent on Christ’s humble birth where he says, “Christ found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk and silver. He is not born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable where our sins were filthier than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it: ‘From the dunghill he lifts up the poor’ (Ps 113:7)” (Jerome, On the Nativity of the Lord, ACCSNT 3:39).
We could talk about God choosing the so called foolish  things of the world to put to shame the so-called wise. We could talk about God choosing the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty. We could talk about God choosing the base or lowly things of the world, things despised. We could talk about all of these things, for they are all relevant to what we’re looking at. And while doing so we could learn a great deal about our God and the ways of our God. But, it’s the job of the preacher first and foremost to bring out to you the immediate meaning of any text of Scripture BEFORE he tries to find its applications. 

So, our question is: Why was Jesus born in a stable? Well, we’re given a direct answer to that question in Luke 2:7b. Jesus was born in a stable “because there was no room for them at the inn.” In today’s terms Jesus was born in the motel parking lot, perhaps the underground parking of a hotel. For, the stable would be the place where travellers parked their horses or camels in those days. Though there is not one animal mentioned, we can imagine that there would be horses, donkeys, camels and the likes in this stable. Perhaps there would be a few hens for eggs and chicken to feed travellers lodging at the inn. Perhaps there would have been a couple of sheep or goats and one or two cows for milk and meat. We don’t know any of these things for definite – the Scriptures don’t say. However, I don’t think we could be accused of speculation or conjecture by suggesting these things. For, what else would you expect to see in a stable attached to an inn?

So, thus far we see that the inn people had a place to stay at the inn. And we see that even their animals had a place to stay at the inn’s stable. But what about the Baby Jesus? Well, as He Himself went on to say, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” Luke 9:58. He had to make do with a stable. But, here’s something perhaps you’ve never really thought about. We get the whole Nativity Scene we see depicted at Christmas from that word “manger.” “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

What is a “manger” exactly? When we sing,

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 – what are we thinking of? We’re thinking of a stable with animals and a little baby asleep in a feeding trough, aren’t we? For, isn’t this the picture portrayed in the Nativity Scene every Christmas? But does Luke here mean the “manger” to be the feeding trough or the stable? For, the original New Testament Greek word for it can mean both a feeding trough or a stall for animals. If you’ll excuse the illustration, it’s kind of like the word “toilet.” Toilet can mean the room, or the white porcelain object in the room. However, it seems to me, that we have the correct picture which is the Baby Jesus lying in feed trough in a stable.

The Sign

Here’s the reason for my answer. We asked the question, Why was Jesus born in a stable? – a stable being the place where you’d find a feed trough. And we saw that it was because there was no room at the inn. However, Jesus wasn’t born in an animal feed trough, was He? No, we’re told that Mary “laid Him in a manger, i.e., reclined Him in a manger. And we do know that Jesus was not born in the inn. And we do know He was born in a place where there was an animal feed trough, a manger. Therefore it’s looking good that the Baby Jesus was actually placed in a feed trough in a stable.

Next, we have to take into consideration the fact that a bunch of shepherds are on their way to visit the Baby Jesus. For, didn’t an angel talk to these shepherds while they were tending their flock at night? And what did that angel say to them? Luke 2:12, “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” So, we see then that Mary laid the wrapped up Baby Jesus in a feed trough. And yet it was God who had her do this as a sign for a bunch of shepherds. The wrapped up Baby lying in the feeding trough was to signify to the shepherds that this Baby is the Baby the angel was talking about. It was to signify to the shepherds that this Baby was the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. For, how many newborn babies would you expect to see lying in a manger in a stable?

What happened when the shepherds got to their destination? Luke 2:16, “And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” [it should be THE manger not A manger, for that is what is in the original text]. This verse clinches it for me! At first reading it might seem as if Mary and Joseph and Jesus were all lying in the manger. This therefore might suggest that the manger was the stable proper and not a feed trough. For, how can two adults and a child be expected to fit into a feed trough? However, we won’t go too far wrong if we keep in mind the sign the shepherds were to look for. The sign wasn’t to be a man and a woman and a baby in a stable. Nor was the sign to be a baby held in its mother’s arms, smothered with loving kisses. No, the picture God gave these shepherds was a Baby all wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in animal feeding trough. The shepherds of the flocks were to let that picture soak into their minds. God wanted to burn that picture into their hearts. “For there is born to you [shepherds] this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

Being shepherds, they’d be familiar with those Scriptures that mention shepherds. They would be familiar with the likes of the words of the Lord to His prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 34:22-23, “I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will establish one shepherd over them, and He shall feed them – My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Or, Isaiah 1:3, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: ‘I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me; the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib [or manger]; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider.’” Or, Isaiah 40:11, “He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather His lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Or, the Psalm of David, the “Shepherd Psalm”: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”

Therefore you shepherds – behold your Saviour! Behold the Great Shepherd of the sheep, the Son of David, even Christ the Lord! Behold Him lying in the manger – a feeding trough. For, He has come to feed His flock! The shepherds got the picture when they gazed upon the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger. I’m sure we’ve all got the picture too! This Baby in the manger is the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. So, take that picture away with you. Burned into your heart. For, it’s an accurate picture. And when you’ve eaten your Christmas dinner – when you’ve eaten your fill – remember that Jesus has come to feed His flock!

The Shepherds

Shepherds and sheep figure prominently all the way through the Bible. Shepherds and sheep are mentioned all the way from Abel offering the firstborn of his flock in Genesis to great Shepherd of the sheep, as the Lamb of God on His throne in Revelation. Notice what was said by the angel to the shepherds in verse 11, “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” The city of David is Bethlehem. It is called the City of David because that is where David was born. David was shepherd, and Jesus is often referred by the title Son of David. He is also referred to as a Son of Abraham.

Notice that the shepherds are told that the One born this day is a Saviour. The shepherds knew the Old Testament Scriptures. The sheep they were tending were sheep used in Temple sacrifices. They knew exactly what the Saviour promised by God was coming to do. He was coming to set them free from their sins. For every lamb of sacrifice in their fields pointed to the Saviour.

These shepherds belonged to the people of Israel – a people with a history. At one time, the people of Israel were captives in the land of Egypt, in the house of bondage. However, God saved them out of the land of Egypt by a mighty arm. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Did you know that the Israelites in Egypt lived in a place called Goshen? Why did they live in the land of Goshen in Egypt? Well, when Joseph invited Israel to come and live in Egypt he said, “I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and those of my father’s house, who are in the land of Canaan, have come to me. And the men are shepherds, for their occupation has been to feed livestock; and they have brought their flocks, their herds, and all that they have.’ So it shall be, when Pharaoh calls you and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ that you shall say, ‘Your servants’ occupation has been with livestock from our youth even till now, both we and also our fathers,’ that you may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” Genesis 46:31-34.

God’s Old Testament people are shepherds. And shepherds are an abomination to the Egyptians of whom Israel became slaves. And because shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians the Israelites, in the providence of God, lived separate lives from the Egyptians. And the reason they were shepherds was for the same reason the shepherds out in the fields in our text are shepherds. There needed to be a constant supply of animals to sacrifice. And every animal sacrificed and every animal for sacrifice pointed to the One who was born in Bethlehem that day – the Saviour. And because there was no room at the inn the Saviour – the great Shepherd of the sheep – is in His own ‘Goshen’ – a stable! And this time He had come to set His people free, i.e., to save His people from their sins.

So, the significance of the shepherds is that it demonstrates the continuation of the salvation the LORD God wrought for His people by bringing them out of Egypt. It’s all part of the same plan of salvation for His people. It’s a continuation of the same redemptive act. Both the exodus from Egypt and our exodus from sin belong to same covenant plan of God. For, both belong to the ongoing fulfilment of the promise God made to Abraham. The LORD had said to Abraham in his old age, “One from your own body shall be your heir.” Genesis 15:4. He had said to him, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” Genesis 12:3b. Isaac was merely a token of that promise. And king David was another token. However, Jesus Christ is the real thing – He is the true Son of Abraham – the true Son of David. He is the One through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed. And these lowly shepherds are the first to hear that the promise made to Abraham was being fulfilled. For, referring to that promise God had made to Abraham the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11.

Don’t miss the connection between the promise God made to Abraham and the announcement the angel is making to these shepherds. The Lord said to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And the Lord’s angel said to these shepherds, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people." Abraham heard the promise of the Good News and the shepherds are hearing the beginning of the fulfilment of that good tidings promise. The Good news is all about the Lord setting His people free. For, it was Christ the Lord who had set His people free from bondage in Egypt. And it is Christ the Lord who sets His people free from bondage to Satan and sin.

The Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger was the sign the Lord had given these shepherds by which they could identify  the Saviour of the world. Make no mistake. These lowly shepherds saw the glory of the Lord. For, when they saw the baby Jesus lying in that manger they were seeing the glory of the Lord. For, the glory of the Lord is revealed in His humble condescension – His permitting Himself to being born in stable and laid in a feeding trough.

Conclusion

The shepherds? “And when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” And, “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, and was told them.” Let us do likewise! Let us make widely known what we know concerning Christ. And let us glorify and praise God! Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, and was visited by shepherds.

Friday, December 21, 2012

THE SIGN


“And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger” Luke 2:12

Introduction

Apparently if a husband and wife are in the car together and they’re lost, the wife will want to stop and ask for directions but the man won’t! I know there are always exceptions to every rule, but have any of you noticed this strange phenomenon? There you are, hopelessly lost and the wife says, “Let’s ask this person,” but the husband just keeps on driving! Apparently it’s the destruction of a man’s pride for him to admit he’s lost! But on the other hand, there are times when you shouldn’t be too quick to ask for directions.

I remember stopping the car in Washington DC and asking a man on the street for directions how to get to the White House. I wanted to see the Presidential White House. But he wanted to sell me drugs! So I wanted him to get lost!

Anyway, in Luke 2:1-20, we see that a bunch of men were given directions without even asking! These men were busy minding their own business. Or rather they were busy minding their own sheep. Or maybe the sheep belonged to someone else and they were just minding them. Anyhow, they had the living daylights frightened out of them by an angel of the Lord no less. This angel stopped, not to ask them for directions, but rather to give them directions. It’s like you or me stopping our car and giving someone on the street directions. The shepherds? Well, they probably didn’t even know they were lost!

Sign

Let us set the scene here. It is probably dark and the shepherds are out in the field somewhere. The sheep they’re watching possibly might have been those used at the Temple in Jerusalem. For, the sacrificial system was still in place. The Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world had not yet arrived. Correction, that was what the good tidings of the angel were all about. The good tidings of great joy were that the Promised Savior of sinners had finally arrived. For, he proceeded to tell the dumbfounded shepherds, “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is called Christ the Lord.”

The “City of David” was of course Bethlehem - “The House of Bread” And the One who was born that very day was a Savior who was none other than Christ the Lord. The angel said that the Savior was born “to” the shepherds, much in the same way that Isaiah says, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.” The Savior, then, is being given to the shepherds and all who will receive Him. But, the angel appeared to the shepherds, not only to tell them “where” to find the Lord, but also to tell them “how” they would recognize Him. So the angel gave them a “sign.” Now this isn’t a “sign” like a miracle. It’s more like a sign in the sense of, “When you see a big fancy White House that looks like a king’s palace, then you know you’re there!” as in Washington DC. So it was more a sign so they’d recognize they were at the right place looking at the right Person. However, it was more than this. This sign was designed to make a statement they couldn’t miss.

Let us consider the sign to make sure we’re at the right place looking at the right Person. We need to make sure that we haven’t missed the unmistakable statement. They were told that they would find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. So, first off, Where were they going to find a manger? Well, a manger sometimes refers to a stable and sometimes a feeding trough found in a stable. It’s used both ways in the Bible. However, in this instance we believe it refers to an actual animal feed trough. We see in Luke 2:7 that the Savior was placed, i.e., was “laid” in a manger. So, we imagine then that the feed trough was used as a cradle or a crib or cot. So, feed troughs or mangers are found in stables.

Some of the Bible Commentators say that the stable was more like a cave of sorts. A cave in the sense of a hollowed out cavern – or maybe even like a basement of sorts. However, it would seem that the stable was attached to the inn. Possibly the inn was the story above the stable – which would make sense. Because the inn was a place for travelers to stop over. And many of the travelers would need somewhere to park their horses. Perhaps this then was like some underground parking facility of which we’re familiar. So the shepherds were to look for the Shepherd of shepherds in a stable. And of course this stable was to be found in Bethlehem.

Now then, Bethlehem wasn’t a big town. How do we know this? Well, Micah 5:2 tells us, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands in of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” So this is no needle in a haystack expedition! And the sign was quite clear. How many babies would you expect to see lying in a manger in Bethlehem?

Now, it’s true that Bethlehem would have been relatively busy because of the census going on. That’s why Mary and Joseph were there at that time. They were from Bethlehem which is the City of David - in fact they were both descendants of David. However, even though the town of Bethlehem was busy, the sign was clear. The Babe would be lying in a manger – not gift-wrapped in Christmas paper, as God’s gift to mankind, but “wrapped in swaddling cloths.” Now, “swaddling cloths” are strips of linen – like bandages. Apparently in those days they bound their babies up.

What does all of this mean? We know that a sign is something significant – something that stands out. So what is the significance of this sign? A Baby wrapped in strips of linen laying in a manger? Well, it’s the picture of the ultimate in humility, isn’t it? It’s the picture of absolute condescension! You would expect the King of kings, the Lord of Lords to have been born in a palace. But here we have Christ the Lord enter the world in a stable! The One who would call Himself the Bread of Life and invite every one to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:53-56) was laid in a feeding trough for animals! Shepherds were invited to come & feast their eyes on Him. “Come and behold your king – the infant who’s King of the whole World. Born in a stable that’s more like a cave. There He is, wrapped in linen. Feast your eyes on Him while you can!”

He’s the One who would be laid in another cave when He’s older – after His death on the cross. They’ll wrap Him up in strips of linen again as they lay Him in a tomb. He’ll look every bit as helpless then as he does now as a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths. However, then He’ll have laid down His life for the sheep of His pasture. Then He, the Good Shepherd will have purchased His flock with His own precious blood! But for now stop what you are doing, you shepherds, and gaze upon the sign of humility. Look at the picture of pure condescension. Mighty God dressed in baby flesh. The Word become flesh! As one hymn writer wrote of Christ:

Humbled for a season,

To receive a name

From the lips of sinners,

Unto whom He came

(Caroline Maria Noel, 1817-77)

It was God the Father who gave “Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” But here He is in humble surroundings. Mary, Joseph, and no doubt a few horses and donkeys, straw, hay and the filth of horse manure. And some shepherds on their way looking for the sign. And in their hearts they would be singing, “O come! Let us adore Him! Christ the Lord!”

Born in a stable, the One who is able,

To wash all our sins away!

Infinite worth in so humble a birth,

Thank God for the first Christmas Day!

(Author)

The High King left His royal robe in Heaven and came to earth to have rags wrapped around Him, even swaddling cloths! Would you condescend to become a cockroach? How about one of those dung beetles? Dung beetles really break a sweat as they roll those pieces of animal manure. Would you lower yourself and live among the muck and filth of sinful humanity? Well, words fail to express the depth what the King of Glory did for sinners such as you and me! A picture paints a thousand words, so the shepherds were given just that, the sign was: A Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger!

Santa

One of the good things about Christmas is that the Lord, as it were, is stopping the spinning world, not to ask for directions, but rather to give them. As a Christian you might not like the way Christmas seems to have been hi-jacked. You might not like all the Christmas trees and glitter. Santa Claus seems to have taken on divine attributes!

He knows when you are sleeping,

He knows when you’re awake,

He knows when you’ve been bad or good,

So be good for goodness sake

(John Frederick Coots & Haven Gillespie)

This is to speak of Santa’s Omniscience. And how does he manage to climb down every chimney of every house, even houses that don’t have chimneys – with his big bag of presents? This is to speak of Santa’s omnipresence – honest, no pun intended!

There was a story about a department store in Japan that was interested in Santa Claus. Apparently Christmas isn’t really celebrated in Japan. Anyway, the story goes that this particular department store was attempting to cash in on the West’s Christmas shopping phenomenon. However, the trouble was that they hadn’t done enough research into Christmas. The story goes that they had a crucified Santa! They had Santa on a cross! Now, I know that many Christians see Santa as an imposter to Christmas and would like to see the back of him – but putting him on a cross is not the way to do it. People may grant Santa attributes which belong only to God, which is blasphemous enough. But to replace the crucified Christ with Santa on a cross is downright diabolical! For, it was Christ, not Santa, who died to save lost sinners. But before you get too flustered, let me say that I’m not convinced that this is a true story. But I am convinced that it’s quite possible. Let’s say you were a Japanese department store owner in Japan. Let’s say you were wanting to cash into the Christmas phenomenon. What kind of sign would you put in your shop window to let your customers know about Christmas? Would you choose Santa? Or would you choose Jesus? That is the $64,000 question, isn’t it?

DO YOU WANT THE THINGS OF THIS WORLD? Then follow Santa! OR DO YOU WANT THE THINGS OF HEAVEN? Then follow Jesus! Do you want only the world’s riches? or do you want the riches of the Kingdom of heaven? Each year at Christmas the West is asked to make up its mind. For each year at this time God reminds Australia to: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you.” For each year the Lord has His messengers who are traveling on their way to heaven stop, not to ask the Western World for directions, but rather to give the Western World directions! But the trouble is, How many people in the West actually know how lost they really are? All we can do is take the opportunity the Lord gives each Christmas. Let’s direct everyone, whether they’re too proud to admit they’re lost or not, whether they admit they’re lost – let’s direct everyone to look at the sign. You can’t miss it. It’s here every Christmas. “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

The sign is a sign of your lost-ness and my lost-ness. The Lord of Glory had to leave His heavenly mansion to be born in a stable. Why? Because all mankind has lost its way, all we like sheep have gone astray. And here’s one of the ways we’ve all gone astray, You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why… We think we can get to heaven by hitching a lift on the back of Santa’s sled! We think God’s making a list and checking it twice, He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice!  We think that God will save us from Hell and give us the gift of everlasting life if we try to be nice! Well, if that’s the case, if God will let us into heaven for our trying to be good, what is the Babe doing lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloths? Why would he have bothered leaving His glory in Heaven to be born in the shame of a horse’s stable if all we needed to do was try to be good to be right with God? Don’t you think God would have told us if this was the way of salvation?

We have to stop thinking of God as if He were Santa Claus, as if He would be pleased with our not being naughty but nice. No, the shepherds were given directions where to find the Savior who is Christ the Lord. Like the shepherds, all of us need to find the Savior who is Christ the Lord. Why? Because a Savior saves! And what does the Savior who is Christ the Lord save us from? He saves us, e.g., from the punishment we deserve from treating God as if He were Santa Claus!

Conclusion

You’d better watch out! These shepherds weren’t asking for directions. Perhaps you aren’t either. But the Lord, by His grace had one His messengers stop and give them directions. Each Christmas He has His messengers stop and point the West – even the whole world to the sign. The sign is still here. The street might be a bit cluttered with bill boards advertising their wares. However, you can’t miss this sign. It’s right in front of your nose every Christmas.

So, what do you do when you see the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger? Do you just keep on driving to beat the Christmas rush hour? Do you just keep on pushing your Christmas shopping trolley? Do you just rush to church on Sunday morning or Christmas morning and then rush home again? At Christmas, are you more interested in the turkey wrapped in tinfoil sitting in the oven than the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger? Perhaps you might be too slow in asking for directions. Perhaps you might too quick. However, the real question is this: How good are you at receiving directions? This Christmas let’s all take the time to stop and tell others about the sign we’ve seen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

EXERCISE!


Have you ever heard it said that someone was a waste of space? It is a not very nice comment sometimes made about a not very nice person. Recently the doctor informed me I was taking up too much space! I needed to lose some weight. I now find myself doing push-ups and sit-ups and running between three and five kilometres most mornings! After a workout my wife reminded me of what someone once said, ‘Sweat is fat crying!’ But, what does the Bible have to say about it all? Well, some would point to those Scriptures that speak of the body needing to be taken care of because it is the temple of God. Fair enough! However, for me there are two main but related things going on in the Bible They are to do with the mind and the body. Both need to be exercised. Solomon says, ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh’ Ecclesiastes 12:12b. The word ‘study’ as used here means intense mental application (Strong’s). And the word ‘flesh,’ by way of extension, means the (naked) ‘body.’ Therefore, mental exercise causes physical weariness. However, let us exercise our minds by delving a bit deeper.

The Apostle cheers on the Christian where he says, ‘Exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things…’1 Timothy 4:7b-8a. The original Greek word translated ‘exercise’ here comes from a word meaning to practice naked (Strong’s), from which we derive the words gymnasium and gymnast etc. Exercising toward godliness is a mental exercise. It is a running to God. It is to do the opposite of what Adam and Eve did when they sinned against God. ‘Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden’ Genesis 3:7-8. Here the word ‘naked’ has more to do with being made bare and less to do with being without clothes. It denotes a loss of innocence, as in a loss of ‘godliness.’ Adam and Eve had become like the Devil, i.e., subtle, cunning, crafty – as described in Genesis 3:1. ‘Seductive’ might be an apt description. For, in the original, ‘cunning’ and ‘naked’ are from the same source.

Scripture describes Adam and Eve before they fell, ‘And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed’ Genesis 2:25. A different word is used for ‘naked’ here than what Adam and Eve became after the rebelled against God. If you will, the former is to be naked without shame and the latter is to be naked with shame (i.e., trying to hide your shame). Do not miss the subtlety of what is going on here. Think of the proverbial ‘Used Car Salesman.’ When he shows us a car we wonder what he is trying to hide! He needs to be subtle, cunning or crafty if he is going to succeed in selling a dud! When Adam and Eve fell they were trying to cover their shame. They were trying to sell God a dud! All mankind is like this until the Holy Spirit working with the Word in our hearts exposes us for what we really are – naked and in need of being clothed by God. ‘Also for Adam and his wife the LORD God made tunics of skin, and clothed them’ Genesis 3:21. Though practical, this ‘clothing’ was also a symbolic gesture of God’s part. It pointed to the One promised in Genesis 3:15, i.e., to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Next, notice one of the things the LORD God said to Adam after he had lost his godliness, ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground’ Genesis 3:19. The word ‘sweat’ is used three time in the Bible, a) Here in the Garden of Eden, b) Priests ministering in the Temple were not to wear anything that would cause them to sweat (Ezekiel 44:18), and c) Our Great High Priest in the Garden of Gethsemane sweat ‘great drops of blood’ (Luke 22:44b).

Let us add it all together: Christians are to exercise toward godliness. Mental and physical exercise causes us to sweat. Sweat reminds us of our fallen or sinful condition. Our sins need to be washed away. God needs to clothe us. ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ’ Galatians 3:27.  Also, ‘To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood’ Revelation 1:5b.

You and I are not a waste of space! A new Adam represents us. In mental anguish He sweated as He prayed for us. He was hung naked upon a tree that God might clothe us in His skin, in His righteousness. Thus, He makes the ungodly godly.

Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to Thy Cross I cling / Naked, come to Thee for dress / Helpless, look to Thee for grace / Foul, I to the fountain fly / Wash me, Saviour, or I die. Augustus Toplady, 1740-78.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

WELCOME

(Photo taken by author in Tasmania)

The birth of Jesus was welcomed by angels, one of whom said to shepherds in a field, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people’ Luke 2:10. The angel then told them where to find the Saviour. Then a multitude of the heavenly host appeared to them, saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, and goodwill toward men!’ Luke 2:14. Notice that the ‘heavenly host’ echoed to the shepherds what the first angel had said. The birth of Jesus was going to be good news to mankind, God’s ‘goodwill toward men.’ What does this mean? Well, it cannot mean that the birth of Jesus (and everything that that entailed, including His resurrection) is going to be believed on by every single human being. The proliferation of anti-Christian books testifies that not everyone welcomes Jesus. Indeed, even in Jesus’s day the people who should have been expecting Him to visit were rejecting Him, ‘He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him’ John 1:11. It is as Paul says, ‘As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “LORD, who has believed our report?”’ Romans 10:15-16. However, the shepherds to whom the angels appeared welcomed the report and made widely known the good news of Jesus’s birth.

Now, some claim to be ‘agnostic’ when it comes to God, His angels, and His Good News. They claim not to believe in things they, as individuals, cannot see. Regardless, God’s Word says they ‘supress the truth in unrighteousness,’ and ‘what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them’ Romans 1:18-19. To cut the long story short, there are three interconnected ways in which God makes Himself known to every single human being: a) By the things He has made (Romans 1:20). b) By His written Word (2 Timothy 3:16). And, c) By your conscience (Romans 2:14-15).

Let us look at each of these in reverse order: 1. What is the conscience? A dictionary definition is, ‘[That] faculty by which distinctions are made between moral right and wrong.’ This concurs with God’s Word which says the conscience is that which bears witness, either accusing or excusing us (see Romans 2:15). Richard Sibbes sums it up well, ‘The conscience is the soul reflecting upon itself.’ Keep this picture in mind, the picture of your soul looking into a mirror. Your soul is who you are. 2. What is God’s Word? God’s Word is the mirror. Let me explain. Every human being comes into this world with God’s Word stamped on their heart, which is to say that each of us is the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27; James 3:9). Our conscience is the faculty that tells us that there is something wrong with the image. That is why, at times, we have an accusing conscience! Our conscience accuses when we fail to measure up to our own set of morals. Our own set of morals is what remains in us of God’s image. If you will, sin has shattered us as God’s perfect image, but there are shards remaining by which our soul can see a true reflection of what we are supposed to be. 3. What are the things God has made? Everything in creation (including ourselves). These serve to remind us of the Creator and that we, along with everything else, are creatures of His creation. If we were to add it all together we might say that our consciences, God’s Word, and creation are three witnesses that testify who God is and who we are. We are God’s little mirrors. Our own soul constantly looks into our own mirror. What do we see? We tend to see other people’s imperfections and sin far better than we see our own! But what does God see when He looks at you? ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’ and ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ Romans 2:10&23.

Let us return to where we started, i.e., with a group of lowly shepherds welcoming the good news about the arrival on earth of the Saviour. Who is the Saviour? He is the God the Word, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ John 1:14a. ‘[God] has in these last days spoken to us by His Son … who being the brightness of His glory [is] the express image of His person’  Hebrews 1:2-3a. We all fall short of God’s glory, but He is the brightness of God’s glory. We are a distorted image of God, but He is the express image.

What do you see when you look at the Jesus revealed in Scripture? Peter, as he began to realise who Jesus is, in a moment of rashness, said, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’ Luke 5:8b. Jesus welcomes sinners! Do you welcome Him?