THE CHRISTMAS STORY

We don’t always deal well with the silence of God. A godly, priestly couple hoped for children. “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly…” (Luke 1:5). If you knew they were not going to have a child for a long time, would you tell them? God was silent. The neighbors were not. They gave her the “b” word, “barren,” as in “barren desert.”

God chose to visit the priest on his turn in the temple, decades later. Gabriel showed up and scared the old man.  He announced the birth of a son  who would be “great before the Lord” (15), would be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, and would be used to bring revival. Had resentment toward heaven set in for hope deferred? We don’t know, but he asks for a sign. Come on, Zach. When was the last time an archangel showed up for church?

He went into a nine-month timeout.  Elizabeth went into seclusion for five months, making it rather quiet in the priestly home. She didn’t want neighbors mocking:  “Elizabeth is hallucinating. Miss Barren thinks she’s pregnant.” Five months would stop brutal tongues.

Then Gabriel pays a return visit up the road about seventy miles. A single young girl is soon to carry the Son of God. She asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (34). No thoughts like, “I had better hurry up and marry my man.” Didn’t have a husband–wouldn’t need one. The Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. She said two things: “I’m the doulos (bondservant) of the Lord.” In other words, no will of my own. I serve the will of the Lord. Then she said, “Let it be…”  Call it total submission!

The angel lets her know that another miracle is taking place in Aunt Elizabeth. Mary wisely decides that she is going to need the counsel of her relative and lets Joseph know she will be gone. Who better could prepare her for a life of rejection? When she returns she will be showing. Ridicule came to Elizabeth for having no baby. It will come to Mary for carrying one.

Elizabeth has been rejoicing in God during her retreat. He lifted the shame. They had been favored, not forgotten. She was so much in the Spirit, that when Mary arrived, her five-month old baby “leaped for joy,” sensing the presence of Jesus less than a centimeter in the womb of Mary. She prophesied, blessing Mary for believing the impossible word of the angel. After five rich months of seclusion, she took three months to pour into the young adult who would raise her Lord.

Elizabeth gave birth a month later. When Zechariah wrote down the name of the son, not Zechariah as tradition anticipated, but the name given by the angel, his speech returned. What was inside came out–praise and prophecy. Resentment, if there was any, had been dealt with. People were stirred when he announced the saving work of God and the contribution this little baby would one day make.

When a prince is born, the world knows. Hardly anyone was stirred when Mary’s boy was born, just a few shepherds, on the low end of the social totem pole, and a massive choir of angels in the sky announcing the birth, maybe a bit baffled by the crowd. Days later as the couple paid their tax, the Roman official said, “Name? Joseph. Married? Yes. Name? Mary. Children? Yes. How many? One. Name?”  Joseph paused: “Jesus!”

DOES GOD HAVE FAVORITES?

God moves comfortably in the realm of the impossible. We, like the old priest, might look for reasons why something can’t happen. God found a girl prepared to sign on without resisting. Her brilliant response: “Let it be.”

Luke sets her story right after Elizabeth’s. Her priestly husband’s response contrasts Mary’s. He received some shocking news with skepticism. God has favorites—people He favors because they favor Him.  

HIGHLY FAVORED

The back-to-back birth stories provide rich contrast. The senior couple prayed many years for a child, while Mary was still a virgin. The shame the elder couple felt in barrenness was lifted with the pregnancy, while shame came upon Mary when she began to show.

Even geography figures into the drama. The priest came from Judea, while Mary lived in Nazareth, a place of questionable reputation. Both participated in a miracle, one because of age, the other bypassing the normal route toward parenthood. A pregnant virgin is an oxymoron is there ever was one.

Both received visits from Gabriel, with five months intervening. Both women marveled at the grace of God shown them. And by divine action, both women carrying children marked for greatness came together at the home of Elizabeth. The young mother-to-be needed the strength her older relative could provide, but she had no idea how that encouragement would come—through prophetic proclamation of pinpoint accuracy.

Favor with God overrides the blessing of man, and that is how Mary towers above others. Elizabeth spoke appropriately and with volume, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear. But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42,43).

She then closed her astounding message with yet more strength-giving words: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (43). This provided a stirring entrance into the song of Mary, words set to music ever since (46-55)..

THE REAL FAVORITE

The spotlight now turned from the girl to the God who favored the girl, the God her Savior, whose “mercy extends to those who fear him,” as Mary certainly did, who “has performed mighty deeds with his arm,” who “has helped his servant Israel” through that mercy. It was being shown not just to a small nation but to the world, as the Mighty One sends His Child to be born of a virgin, whose birth will divide history, marshal armies, split up families and nations, and force a decision from every person who will ever live.

How should we honor Mary? Had the apostles wanted to assign her significance beyond what Elizabeth gave her, they would have given her mention in the rest of the New Testament. Their silence is telling. We can say what Elizabeth said and what she said herself.  She is to be honored greatly for her faith and humility and for raising the Son of Man, and yet according to her own words, she is dwarfed by the true hero of heaven. We magnify the person Mary magnifies.

What impossibilities are staring you in the face today, challenging your circumstances, defying your peace, threatening your joy, mocking your future? How is God asking you to respond? The bottom line message from Mary is that she believed God. May you do the same—and walk in God’s favor!

CHRISTMAS QUIZ

Use it with your Christmas family. I put together a Thanksgiving quiz. Great discussion. Trying now with Christmas. I’ll send answers if you want (pa@harvestcommunities.org).

  1. How many miles did Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem a) 50  b) 80  c) 120.  Any idea what route they took? Did Mary ride on a donkey?
  2. What time of year did they travel?  a) Winter  b) Spring  c) summer  d) We don’t know.
  3. What significance do you see in shepherds visiting the newly arrived child? How were shepherds regarded in that day?
  4. Zechariah was a priest. Priests married in Judaism. Was Elizabeth also from a priestly family?
  5. How many angels are identified by name in the Bible?              
  6. Was the baby born to Mary God? Did he give up His Godhood to come to earth?
  7. What do you know about Augustus Caesar? Did Julius Caesar come after or before?  Is the word “caesar” a name or a title?
  8. What was Zechariah doing when the angel Gabriel showed up?
  9. Why do you think Zechariah asked for proof to substantiate the angel’s words?
  10. What did friends of Zechariah and Elizabeth assume at the birth of John and why?
  11. Why do you think Elizabeth went into seclusion for five months after her pregnancy began?
  12. How was the timing of Mary providential in seeing Elizabeth when she did?
  13. Which song has been sung the most down through the centuries–Happy Birthday, Silent Night, or Mary’s song? What is Mary’s song?
  14. How was the announcement to Mary similar to the announcement to Zechariah?
  15. What are swaddling cloths?
  16. What does a manger look like?
  17. Why did Joseph speak about divorcing Mary when they were not married yet?
  18. When was Jesus circumcised? Why then? Where? How far did they have to go from Bethlehem to get Jesus circumcised?
  19. So when did the three kings show up? Were they kings? Why did they give such strange gifts? Were there three?
  20. Who was excited at the birth of John? Who was excited at the birth of Jesus?
  21. What two people gave lengthy prophecies regarding the two births? What was the content of their prophecies? Whose prophecy was first? By how many months?
  22. When do you think Joseph found out about Mary carrying a child? Why?

A MOST REMARKABLE ENCOUNTER!

Two visits by one angel, five month apart. Two people, an old man and a young woman, both devout. Two angelic proclamations about two sons. Good news, miraculous, unbelievable—a child past child-bearing years and a baby without a husband. Never happened before or since. Two opposite responses to the incredible news.

Two sons destined for greatness, one the greatest of the Old Covenant and the other the greatest of the New Covenant, both named by heaven, bypassing traditional names: John (“the Lord is gracious”) and Jesus (“the Lord saves”). Two regions, Judea and Galilee. The priest needed to live near the temple at Jerusalem. Galilee would light up in thirty years like never before: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus was born in the south and ministered in the north.

Two women, one barren, one a virgin. For the first, the news would lift the shame she felt her whole adult life. For the second, the shame would commence when she began carrying a child.

Two impossible pregnancies facilitated by the moving of the Holy Spirit on their bodies, both including prophetic words by the mothers when the sons met in Judea—still in the womb. Both sons would change history, the one serving the other as a forerunner, yet knowing Jesus came before.

During Mary’s angelic visitation, she found out her relative was miraculous carrying a child. She told Joseph she was going to pay her a visit. She needed strength from a motherly figure who would understand. Mary could be stoned for what appeared like adultery. God’s miracles can masquerade behind mistakes. They also hide behind impossibilities. Both women were graced by heaven but disgraced on earth, one before the baby came, the other during and after.

Important truths:

  • SUFFERING NEEDS TO BE STEWARDED WELL. It will shape our character and release the gifts of the Spirit if we do not allow resentment to color our perception of God. Elizabeth said, “Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” only beginning to grow in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth’s remarkable recognition of Mary’s baby came out of the fires of affliction.
  • HUMILITY RELEASES GRACE that invites the activity of the Spirit. Elizabeth recognized that her task was dwarfed by a far greater assignment of being the mother of the Messiah. Her humility gave her revelation of the purposes of God. She could have made the moment about herself. If you want to prophesy well, suffer well and stay low.
  • GOD HAS CHARGE OF THE WOMB. He works His divine will without checking probabilities. “Against all hope Abraham in hope believed…” With God, it is not as it appears.
  • WE GIVE IT ALL TO JESUS. Mary said, “I am the Lord’s bondservant. Let it be to me according to your word,” another way of saying, “Jesus can use my body. A man who owned a donkey said, “Jesus can use my colt.” A woman said, “He can use my alabaster box.” Another said, “Jesus can use my grave.” What can we offer Jesus? Our car, our home, our gifting, our position? Use us, Jesus!

 

LEARNING TO LISTEN TO GOD

Things were going well for Joseph. Then Mary delivered the news. He would have preferred hearing that she had died. But God intervened. Joseph had already made a good decision by choosing a pure bride. Now he would make the hardest decision of his life.  

“Joseph, son of David…” The angel identified his subject: “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Mary was telling the truth. “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” (Matt. 1:20,21). What looked like shame just turned to honor.

We assume the job of listening rests on our ability to hear. Scripture puts the ball in God’s court. The disturbing news that just destroyed his future had not tampered with God’s. Some truths surface about hearing:

One step at a time.

Don’t expect the entire scenario. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife…” He could do that. If you stand at point A, ask B questions. “The steps of a righteous man are ordered by the Lord.” You need the next step. Nothing more.

God’s will is good.

The angel said, “Do not be afraid,” because Joseph was terrorized by his option: “Divorce the lady.” God’s strategy proved just the opposite: “Marry your beloved and raise the Son of God as your own.” Fitting into the purpose of God does include suffering, but the presence of the Almighty gives purpose to pain.

God speaks with clarity.

“His sheep hear his voice.” The more confident we grow in God’s ability to speak, the more we will hear. By morning, Joseph knew what to do. Those who find themselves paralyzed by indecision need to act. Quit worrying that you might miss His “perfect” will and affirm that He lets you walk in it.  

God’s messages are often counter-intuitive.

They don’t spring up in our minds as if created by interior logic. They sound more like God than us. When Joseph heard from the angel, he didn’t say, “I should have known that the Holy Spirit did this.” Yet those learning to walk in the Spirit find that their intuition begins to track with God’s will.

What God says agrees with what God said.

God proves the present word with a past one. He links destiny with history, making His will verifiable. Matthew adds his commentary: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us’ ” (22,23).

Hearing means heeding.

To hear and not obey is not to hear. “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (24). We desperately need to hear from God—and desperate people do! Those more casual will turn guidance into a technique: “Give me three sure-proof steps,” while men like Joseph know it flows out of relationship. The story could have read, “When Joseph woke up, he divorced Mary.” And he would have missed his God-appointed destiny. He obeyed—and Jesus called him father.

 

DO YOU HAVE THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT?

The spirit of Christmas captures folks. Not sure what it is, but one reading of the Christmas story in Luke tells me that the spirit on that first Christmas was the Holy Spirit.

THE SPIRIT FILLS US.

The announcement came to Zechariah during his course of duty: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son…and many will rejoice at his birth…He will be great…and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:13-15).

God had his eye on John before John had his eye on God. What would make this child great? His diet? Abstinence? Demeanor? No, his filling! It is the Spirit that makes people good—and great!

He would “turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord” (16). How? Persuasive preaching? No. “He will go before him [Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah” (17). The same Spirit empowers you and me. Incredible!

THE SPIRIT MAKES THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE.

Mary received the shocking news that she would have a baby. When she asked about it, the angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…For nothing will be impossible with God” (35,37). Matthew wrote that “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (1:18).

It didn’t look that way. What appeared as an unholy moment of passion proved the quiet work of the Spirit. People looked at her getting bigger and wondered, while she looked at God, who grew bigger in her eyes. When Mary asked, “How?” the angel said, “The Holy Spirit,” the answer to every human impossibility, including yours.

THE SPIRIT GRANTS US GIFTS.

Mary’s visit with an angel was followed by a visit to her relative. When Elizabeth heard her greeting, the Spirit moved upon her, the same Spirit that moved on John, still in her womb. He responded to the presence of Jesus, less than a month along. Elizabeth burst into prophecy. It was likely her first time ever. Nothing strange about a kick in the womb, but it was this time, because it was the Spirit moving, not just John. The Spirit does the same for us, turning a conversation into an encounter.

Meanwhile, Zechariah had a nine-month time-out. But when he opened his mouth after the naming of John, resisting tradition, he “was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied” (Lk. 1:64,67). Before he had doubted; now he spoke powerfully and prophetically. The Spirit that shut him up now welled up—in his body. Trust the Spirit to do the same in you.

THE SPIRIT LEADS US.

Simeon’s timing was right on. He came to the temple “moved by the Spirit” (Luke 2:27). How did that happen? ”The Holy Spirit was upon him” and it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (26).

Were these people superstars? No, just common folks who yielded to the divine Spirit. Do you need the Lord’s leading—toward the right job, the right mate, the right decision. Paul says we prove we’re in the family by the way the Spirit leads us (Rom. 8:14).

The spirit of Christmas is more than a party with good friends. It is the Holy Spirit, filling us to cooperate with God’s redemptive purpose, to speak His truth and recognize His Son! Have a Spirit-filled Christmas!

HOW TO MAKE THIS CHRISTMAS THE BEST EVER

I jumped in with both feet to the Christmas season. I got my lights up this year BEFORE Thanksgiving. Don’t stone me. We had a great Thanksgiving, perhaps the best ever, all 30 plus of us. My kids agree. The lights weren’t a distraction. They simply added to the mood and announced, “Let’s celebrate and be thankful.” We can use two major holidays (literally “holy days”) to our advantage.

I’m doing something new this year; I am keeping the lights on all night. Hey, someone is going to drive by at 3 AM and say, “Look at those beautiful lights.” I just helped with a boring commute to work.

Mary and Joseph announce our Christmas every year by gazing into the feeding trough on the front lawn. (Okay, it’s really a short stool). Their devotion calls me to do the same. I want to meditate again on the Scriptures that might otherwise breed boredom for their familiarity. They are announcing the incredible descent from glory to shame, from the highest place to the lowest, from the throne to the barn out back. Wait a minute. Is that the way it was supposed to be? Couldn’t God have done better with His Firstborn? Yes, but He chose to make a point–He is for the outcast and the downcast.

More lights than ever this time around–inside and out. Light’s a good thing. God said, “Let there be light,” so I follow Him. Light always wins over the darkness. It is a law of physics. Go ahead. Open the closet door. Does darkness invade the bedroom, or does light penetrate the dark closet? I want to be a champion of the light, in my heart, in my home, in my relationships–okay, in my Christmas decorations.

We are playing the Christmas CDs daily. We do not tire of wonderful Christmas hymns that are not sung the rest of the year, tunes with great theology, like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” We also enjoy the lighthearted melodies that help to put us in a merry spirit. What a gift music is to elevate the spirit and draw us into the powerful message of the Creator coming into His creation.

We launched this year’s Christmas celebration on the first Sunday of Advent by attending the Christmas concert at Northcentral University. Good decision. Wonderful and edifying music. You have permission to enjoy this beautiful season to the utmost!

Nate Johnstone’s message Sunday on the incarnation kicked things off for Lydia House in a profound way. The mystery of this truth cannot be overestimated. That “the word became flesh” goes past what the mind can grasp. The heart must receive it first–and marvel. Let’s do it!

How about lighting Advent candles? We do. Just as a season in Lent prepares of for the smashing glory of Easter, so four weeks of Advent get us ready for the powerful day of Christmas. The resurrection story does not grip as much when we haven’t thought about Calvary, about denying ourselves and taking up the cross. Good Friday anticipates brilliant Sunday. And so Advent announces that “the King is coming.” Prepare to meet Him, whether He comes by way of the barn out back or on a horse with fire in His eyes! Come, Lord Jesus!