Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Very Special Night

(Luke 2:1-20)

Around the age of twenty years, a young Gaius Octavius Thurinus was adopted by his great-uncle, the Roman politician Gaius Julius Caesar, and also given the name Gaius Julius Caesar. He later received the honorary title of Augustus, and was then later renamed Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, reigning from 27 BC until his death in AD 14.

In 4 BC, Augustus issued a decree that in every region controlled by the Roman empire, the inhabitants were required to record their names and have their goods rated at a certain value, so that the emperor would understand how rich every country, city, family, and house was. Judea was included in this census--while Herod ruled Judea as king, he did so as a servant of Rome and Augustus. This census was done as a preliminary to taking a poll tax in the provinces, which followed a few years later. This initial census took place during the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria, which he controlled from 4 BC to AD 1. Interestingly enough, the actual taxing took place during his second instance as governor, from AD 6 to AD 11.

The usual Roman method of census was for the individual to enroll from their place of residence. But it was the Jewish custom to enroll by tribes and families. Both Joseph and Mary were of the family line of David, and would have enrolled where the family had its landed inheritance--Bethlehem. The timed journey of the couple from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem was necessary to fulfill the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5:2). Without Mary, Joseph or Augustus being aware, God was able to manipulate people and events so that His Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

It seems that the city of David was overflowing with his descendants that had returned home to be enrolled. It also seems that Mary and Joseph were not the first to arrive, perhaps because Joseph had led their journey at a careful pace out of consideration for Mary’s condition.

The formal lodgings in Bethlehem were filled, but Mary and Joseph managed to find something. Luke says that they found a stable or stall, possibly attached to one of the inns that they visited in search of rooms.

We do not now how long the enrollment process took, but we do know that while the couple was in Bethlehem, the time came for Jesus to be born. Mary closely wrapped the newborn Jesus in a long, narrow cloth in a manner that was done in the Near East during Bible times.

The “manger” where Jesus was laid is thought to have been a feeding trough for animals in the stall or stable. Tradition suggests that because of the numerous rock outcroppings in the region, Jesus was born in a cave. If this was the case, the manger may have been cut out of a rock wall.

God did not announce the joyous event of Jesus' birth to dignitaries in palaces but to lowly shepherds. Along with agriculture, tending flocks formed the basis of the economy of Palestine. What’s more, sheep raised on the hillside around Bethlehem may have been destined for temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, just six miles to the north.

Some of Israel's great heroes were shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. Several passages in Scripture characterize God as a Good Shepherd. And yet, the occupation of shepherd was held in low esteem, especially those who were hirelings rather than owners. Shepherds lived most of the year outside, away from town and townspeople.

When the angel appeared to the shepherds, they were appropriately surprised and frightened. The shepherds were not just impressed by the visible brightness of the scene, but by the radiance of God’s own glory.

The angel told the shepherds not to fear and then explained that he brought Good News, not just for the Jews, but for all people. The angel then tells them the words that Jews had longed for centuries to hear--this was the Christ, or the Messiah, God’s anointed One. But not just the Messiah, but also the Lord God Himself! The angel then gave the shepherds a sign by describing how they would find the baby--not in a palace or even in a grand home, but wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger or stall.

As if the shepherds had not received enough of a shock to their systems, they when beheld a sky filled with angels that praised and gave glory to God. The angels also announced that God wished peace upon those whom God favored.

Once the angels were gone, it did not take the shepherds long to decide that they were going to find this baby. We do not know how long it took, but we know that they found the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph, just as the angel had described.

The excited shepherds told the couple everything about their experience and what the angel had told them. Mary took in everything they said. She treasured it, or held it in high value and considered it often in the years to come.

In the end, the shepherds returned to their flocks and to their lives. But they did so rejoicing. This Christmas, how can you proclaim the birth of God’s Messiah? What can you do to help others know that Jesus has come?

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Joseph Learns About Jesus
(Matthew 1:18-26)

Who was Joseph--God’s choice for the earthly father of Jesus? Why did God choose him? The Bible does not tell us much. However, God must have been confident in Joseph’s faithfulness for God to entrust the paternal care of His beloved Son. It seems pretty certain that God selected both Mary and Joseph carefully. Matthew describes Joseph as a son of David. Luke traced the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38) beginning with His identification as the son of Joseph.

Mary and Joseph was betrothed to be married, similar to a modern-day engagement but was much more serious. That word has a different connotation in today’s language. The relationship of Mary and Joseph was one of pledged commitment with legal and social implications; however, the couple was not yet married, nor had they consummated their union. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he considered how to end the relationship. Joseph could have done it in an embarrassing and public manner, but his righteous and charitable spirit impressed him to dismiss her privately so as not to embarrass her.

Before Joseph could carry out his decision, an angel of the Lord intervened with the truth of Mary’s pregnancy. He told Joseph the baby was the Child of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. God wanted Joseph to have no reservations about Mary, but to take her into his house and care for her. Joseph demonstrated obedience by responding to God’s instructions to accept Mary. Joseph and Mary were given the privilege of naming the child. The angel told Joseph to name the baby Jesus, which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves,” or “the Lord is salvation.” The Child would be named this because He would save His people from their sins.

Scripture does not mention Joseph after Jesus’ childhood. We can only speculate as to Joseph’s life span. Many historians think that Joseph died sometime between Jesus’ visit to the temple and the beginning of His public ministry at age 30. We know that Joseph was chosen by God to impart human influence on the life of Jesus. Whom has God chosen you to influence? Pray that God will use you to build lasting spiritual foundations in the lives of others as you obey His leading in your life.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Mary, God's Servant

(Luke 1:26-56)

Hundreds of years before Jesus' birth, many of God's prophets spoke about the birth and the life of the promised Messiah. The one most quoted at Christmas time may be that of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14), who prophesied specifically that the Messiah would be born to a virgin.

God sent the angel Gabriel to a young woman in the town of Nazareth to tell His plans for the birth of the Messiah. Gabriel told Mary that out of all women, she was chosen to carry the Christ child. Mary was both surprised and humbled at the prospect of being the mother of the Messiah. However, she demonstrated submissiveness to God's will by stating that she was God's servant. A servant does whatever their master says, and does not question the master's motive, authority, or reasoning. Mary accepted her role and asked that God's will be done.

Gabriel also told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was miraculously pregnant in her old age. Immediately after Gabriel departed, Mary traveled to see her cousin. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She cried out and then exclaimed, “Blessed above all other women are you! And blessed is the Fruit of your womb! How am I granted that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

In reaction to Elizabeth’s words, Mary offered praise for the greatness of God and thanksgiving for being used by Him. She proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked upon the low station of His handmaiden. From now on all generations will call me blessed! For He Who is almighty has done great things for me--and holy is His name! And His mercy is on those who fear Him with godly reverence, from generation to generation.”

God could have selected any young virgin, but He chose Mary. She accepted her role in God's plan and asked that God's will be done. Is God calling you into a role that surprises and humbles you--perhaps one that feels too challenging? How will you respond?

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