Archive for December, 2021

Merry Christmas!

Today we celebrate the wonderful miracle of our Savior’s birth, called Christmas. May your celebration contain time to pause and say “Thank you Lord.”

This post is brief to allow time for togetherness, if possible.

In there is no one with you for this celebration, you are really not alone for He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you, I will be with you always.” He is there. Rejoice and read the following which is from Luke 2:1 – 20.

“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.”

May you currently glorify and praise God to insure it is a MERRY CHRISTMAS

The Joy Was Worth the Journey

The celebration of Christmas as a religious event is based on the Bible narrative of the events associated with the birth of Jesus. Extra-biblical insight gives a fuller understanding.  I have traveled the reputed route more than 25 times and marvel that a teenage girl, nine months pregnant, could make the 90 mile trip in approximately six or seven days. This is the customary route and conditions of the era for travel from the Galilee to Bethlehem and/or Jerusalem. These  two latter cities  were only about 13 miles apart.

Ancestors of Mary and Joseph had been moved from Bethlehem to the area of Nazareth by the government years earlier. That is why the two villages are associated, causing some people confusion as to where Jesus was born.

First, the method of travel. There would have been no donkey. Donkeys were small animals employed for village and urban use, not long journeys. Camels were for commerce, horses for wealthy Romans. If there was an animal used in their travels, it would have been the more popular mule. However, it is highly unlikely there was an animal involved. The poor young couple could not have afforded one. They would have likely walked.

For this same reason the Wise Men would not have ridden camels, Such a commercial animal would have been beneath their dignity, Again donkeys would not have been the choice. They probably traveled on mules. Camels had only been domesticated for a short time.

Mary and Joseph would have left Nazareth and rendezvoused with a group at the south end of the Sea of Galilee. Robbers and predators made it essential to travel in groups. Small militias were paid to escort groups.

One day out from the Sea of Galilee they would have camped outside the pagan city of Beit She’an. They would not have spent time in the city because of its pagan nature.

Here they would have crossed to the east bank of the Jordan River and walked four days through the area of Perea, governed by Antipas. This part of the journey to Jericho would have brought them to the place known as Bethabara, “Place of Crossing,” where they could cross the Jordan back to the west bank. Here they would have encountered the hostility of the people of Judea who detested Galileans. 

Roman soldiers were always at the crossing searching for travelers and Zealots who despised Romans. Mary and Joseph would have made efforts to avoid the Romans in that they were pagans and contact would have defiled them, making them ceremonially unclean.

This was the area where John would later have baptized Jesus as an adult.

The site is today known as Qasr el Yahud.

From here they would have experienced the two hardest days of the journey.

On this section of the journey they would encounter many Roman soldiers.

They would have ascended nearly 2,000 feet through the Wilderness of Judea to Bethlehem. Years earlier David referred to the valley in the 23rd Psalm as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Today it is known as Wadi (valley) Kelt and runs from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Now reflect, mules, distance, terrain, robbers, predators, Romans, detesting Judeans, and Mary’s condition made for a challenging journey requiring  a hearty and determined couple. Seems like an unplanned trip. Reality is it had been planned and prophetically written of years in advance to have a MERRY CHRISTMAS.

The Grotto Where Jesus Was Born

Come with me to Bethlehem and take this virtual Christmas visit. I have been there approximately 50 times so let me have the joy of being your guide. Let’s start this surreal tour in Nativity Square, the center of the old city, and the courtyard to the church that stands over the sight of the birth of Jesus Christ.  

The massive church when viewed from above is shaped like a cross. 

Originally the entrance was much larger. During one period of occupancy horsemen and horse drawn wagons mockingly entered and degraded the building. Under the cover of night villagers used large blocks of stone to make the entrance so small you have to bow to enter. It is now considered an appropriate way to show humility approaching the building.

Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.

The cavernous basilica has massive red limestone columns, many of which have paintings left by the Crusaders. The walls are adorned with 12th century mosaics depicting Church councils, angels, and saints. Sections of the current false wooden floors are removed to reveal the original tile floors from the time of Constantine. There are no pews.

The iconostasis, a large carved screen adorned with icons, draws interest to the altar. To the right of it are steps leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity which is immediately below the altar. This is the long reputed sight of the birth of Jesus. It is marked with a silver star around which is inscribed, “Jesus Christ was born here to the virgin Mary.”

In the cave is a small area representing the sight where the Wise Men met the Christ child.

Instead of quibbling over whether these are the actual spots of the historical events, this is a meaningful place to commemorate the events.

Don’t expect a private visit. They are few. We have had such at off hours. We have worshiped in the church on Christmas eve with the basilica packed body to body. The grotto is always compacted with groups of tourists.

On Christmas Eve the square outside is filled with tourists and choirs from all over the world singing. We once carried a 108-voice youth choir to sing there. My favorite Christmas Eve visit resulted in the youth group leaving Bethlehem late at night and driving into Shepherds Field where an olive wood campfire awaited us. By the light of the full moon we watched as an old shepherd led his sheep nearby. This proved for us shepherds are in the fields watching over their flocks by night in December.

From our vantage point we could see Bethlehem silhouetted on the hill and hear a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus.

It was about as ideal a Christmas Eve setting as could be designed.

The fact none of us are there this season does not mean the spirit engendered by what happened there that first Christmas can’t be enjoyed here as fully as we enjoyed it there. Focus not on the place, but the one whose birth there makes this possible as a Merry Christmas.

Christmas Is a Time of Commitment

In an era when naturalism prevails our universe is considered a closed system. Anything that can’t be explained naturalistically is discredited.

Part of what naturalism advocates is that if something can’t be seen, heard, tasted, felt, experienced, or proven it doesn’t exist and isn’t logical. To the naturalist the human mind must be able to understand a thing for it to be real. Naturalistic philosophy advocates reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing supernatural. Then God said —- “Surprise.”

God made natural laws to provide for us a comfort zone. By utilizing them wisely we gain confidence. Gravity prevents fear of falling off the earth.

He did not make natural laws as a straight jacket for Himself. He has chosen on occasion to abrogate a natural law and pull back the veil of the unknown. It is His way of saying “I am here.”

In a rare employment of this method the laws of natural procuration were amended. Laws of biogenesis were given a reprieve and a virgin conceived. That is the foundation of the Christmas celebration. 

It takes faith to believe that. That means it is believable because we live by faith. Every time you drive in the rain, fly on a plane, buy or sell on credit, go on a date or get married faith is exercised. Every time you drive a car it is an exercise of faith. There is no way you can tell in advance the brakes will work the next time you apply them. Yet, you have faith enough to tailgate going 75 miles an hour.

The issue is what we are willing to make an object of our faith.

Mary believed she was a virgin. When told she would conceive she asked, “How can this be since I do not know a man?” The expression means I have not been sexually active. The angel assured her, “With God nothing is impossible.”

She responded, “Let it be to me according to your word.” That is faith.

Joseph believed she was a virgin. According to their law a woman pregnant out of wedlock was to be stoned. He had such confidence in her he protected her and suffered the indignity. That was faith.

Nazareth was a little settlement about 100 yards wide and 300 yards long. The folks there obviously believed her and not any of the community’s gossips or they would have stoned her. A child of “illegitimate birth” could not enter the synagogue, but when Jesus went back to Nazareth “As was His custom, He went into the synagogue.” That was an act of faith.

Dr. Luke, who wrote one of the four gospels, was called a “beloved physician.” That means he was a good doctor. He interviewed Mary and wrote of her “…those things which are most surely believed among us.” He concluded she was a virgin. That was an act of faith.

Because of the virgin birth Jesus is called Emmanuel, “God with us.”

For naturalists who don’t believe this it is an act of faith also.

For those reading this who are not of the Christians faith, it is hoped this will help your understanding of why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and wish for you as for all a MERRY CHRISTMAS. This is a great season to establish and confirm faith in the Christ child.

The Star They Followed

Some stories related to a certain faith are so remarkable that even persons not of that faith are aware of them basically. Such is the story of the Wise Men visiting Bethlehem. It began with a distinctive star shining over the little village of Bethlehem, attracting scholars who traveled a great distance to view the objective of its veneration, one known to them as “the King of the Jews.”

How did they know that? 

In 605 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem. As was the custom of the time, he carried the best and brightest back to Babylon. This strengthened his country and left the conquered remnant in their homeland without leadership and therefore being no future threat. Among those carried back to Babylon was a small group with exceptional ability. Foremost among them was Daniel, who quickly gained favor with the king and rose in leadership among a group known as Magi. They were not kings, but known as Wise Men, who were king makers. Among Daniel’s writings was a prophecy which centuries later became the source of information and inspiration for the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem. They were guided by prophecy made over 600 years earlier.

In that time historically astronomy was called astrology without the modern connotation. As astronomers they gave spiritual significance to the stars and their alignment. Thus this celestial sentinel was given special attention.

They would not have traveled on camels which were used for commerce like 18-wheelers today.  Horses were taboo in that they were used by Romans and donkeys were for local use and not long journeys. Mules were used for such trips as they were made. They would have traveled by night to avoid the daytime heat. This also made it easier to follow the star.

We speak of the star being in the east. Bethlehem was west of Babylon; Babylon was in the east. It is written “we saw his star in the east.” The meaning of the statement was, “we have seen the star (while we were) in the east.”

How can the star be explained? Some say it was a supernova, some a star in retrograde, others it was three stars in conjunction looking like one large star. No one knows how to explain the appearance. We want to look for natural answers to miracles. The fact it can’t be explained and that in part is what a miracle is. If it could be explained, it would not have been a miracle. Scripture says God created the stars. It is estimated there are two hundred billion in our galaxy and “He counts the stars, He calls them all by name” (Psalm 148:3).

The number in the small traveling band is not noted, but assumed to be three because there were three gifts. There would have been a significant entourage accompanying them to carry provisions for the party including the animals. Magi would have also merited security guards.

They were not kings, but Magi, priests. Had they been kings Herod would not have treated them as he did. Any self-respecting king of the era would have welcomed other kings with a feast. Neither would he have ordered them to go to Bethlehem and come back and bring him news. 

In reality they brought him four gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh, and additionally they gave him their worship.

In light of all this, it is little question why it is said, “Wise men still follow Him.”

Make the resolve to do the same. It will make for a Merry Christmas.