Books: 10 Ideas

This week is a great time to pay some attention to your books. Whether you have books for ministry or for personal benefit, it doesn’t matter. Here are 10 quick ideas about books that might be helpful if you get an hour or two to consider your books (and your reading in the coming months!)

1. Books are a blessing – thank God for what you have! You probably know someone with a more impressive library than yours. Great, now get back to saying thank you for what you have! If we aren’t thankful, then we will tend to take them for granted and whether you have 20 books or 20,000 books, they will most likely sit dormant on your shelf.

2. Books are a blessing – join the elite club of book givers! It seems like there are fewer and fewer book givers left in the world. But what a strategic ministry they have! What was the book that helped you most in 2020? Perhaps it was Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund. Why not buy five or ten copies and pray about who to give them to in the next couple of months. Then do it again with another book that you have appreciated. You might change some lives and you will enjoy the prayer and the process. (And since you’re being generous, feel free to use our affiliate link with 10ofthose to order your books in the UK or in the USA – thanks!)

3. Books are a blessing – but they don’t have to fill your shelves forever. It is usually possible to find another cheap bookcase on Facebook Marketplace, but even if you have maxed out your space for adding shelves, that should not stop you adding books. Why not do a purge? Maybe some books could be sold. Others could be given away. Perhaps some would really be best dedicated to recycling. If you haven’t touched it in years and can’t imagine touching it in the future, why is it still there?

4. Books are a blessing – but an unfinished book should never make you feel guilty. I have lost count of the number of people who say, “I love the look of this book, but I must not buy it because I have too many I haven’t finished yet.” We need to dismiss this crazy thinking once and for all. If you aren’t motivated to finish a book you’ve started, you almost certainly won’t. If you are motivated to read something else, you should get hold of it. My approach is to treat an unfinished book not as a burden, but a book that I was glad to read part of. Perhaps I paid £5 or £10 for chapters 1-3. Chapters 4-8 were free and I might read them later! Read what you want to read in a book, don’t let the dead weight of unfinished sections hinder your spiritual life, your ministry or your joy!

5. Books are a blessing – but if they are disorganised . . . not so much. If you can’t find a book when you need it, why have it?

6. Books are a blessing – but some are worth less than others. C.S.Lewis wrote that the test of good literature comes when you pick it up, start reading and realise you’ve read it before. If it is junk literature, you will feel like putting it down. If it is good literature, then you will want to keep going. That might be helpful. Some books are reference tools that are worth their weight in gold. Others are one-exposure pieces that, once read, are not worth the investment of shelf space (lots of bestsellers are really disposable!) Discern the difference. Discard or deliberately shelve accordingly.

7. Books are a blessing – make time to read. We live in a time when the urgent pressures of email, social media, internet news, etc., are all conspiring to get us away from books. I find an hour with a book is always an investment, even when compared to spending an hour reading the same author online – and the time with a book is always more enriching than frittering time on YouTube or wherever. If we are going to read, we need to make plans and carve out the time.

8. Books are a blessing – plan how to use each book. If it is an immersive page turner, great, grab a drink and curl up with the book. But if it is not a novel, but rather a book on a specific subject, what should you do? Take a few moments to plan your approach. Time spent on the table of contents, reading conclusions, etc., will make the rest of your time so much more productive. Perhaps you really need to jump into section 2, or maybe one chapter is all you need in this visit?

9. Books are a blessing – plan what kinds of books you need to spend time in. As a preacher I need to read directly related biblical and theological books, but I also need to read for cultural insight (The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray has been disturbing but so helpful recently, for instance). I also benefit from investing indirectly in my ministry by reading someone from church history (Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man is due another read) or a book about Greek Grammar. And then there is the purely relaxing (I am enjoying The Body by Bill Bryson at the moment, when I choose to take a few minutes.)

10. Books are a blessing – who can you share the journey with? It is great to give a book away, but it is also great to read a book with a friend and meet up to chat about it. I have had some wonderful conversations with a good friend this past year as we read through a John Eldredge book, and then Dane Ortlund’s Gentle & Lowly.

I want to make more of my time as far as reading is concerned in the coming year. A lot of that motivation has come from taking a couple of hours to organise my shelves over the Christmas break. Go for it, while you have the chance!

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And since we are talking about books: here is one you can easily add to your shelves (or give away!)

Asking Better Questions

As preachers we often think in terms of giving answers. After all, we are the ones who need to study for hours in order to communicate God’s Word in a way that emphasizes its relevance to the people in front of us. Here are a few quick thoughts, not about answers, but about questions.

1. Every unit of thought in the Bible is answering a discernible question. In preaching terms, this would be the Subject-Question – that is, what is the passage about? We need to discern that question in order to then identify the answer being given – the Complement-Answer, that is, what is it saying about that? We will always help people with our preaching more effectively if we discern the implicit question being answered by the text we are preaching.

2. Every listener of a sermon has questions. Some may be technical theological questions stirred by hearing the Bible passage read. Most will be more mundane, but critical: why should I listen to you? Is this message relevant to my life? Is there any hope for someone like me? We need to make sure we are not so soaked in academic thinking that we preach only answers to questions that most will not be asking.

3. Our culture is training us to be controlled by certain questions. Take the situation we find ourselves in today. Our culture has proactively shaped the question that dominates our thinking and therefore our lives. Where the question maybe used to be, “how can I be happy?” or “what will satisfy me?” or whatever variation of self-concerned worldviews were dominant, now the question seems to be: “what must we do to stay safe?” In just a few months our culture has made this question absolutely dominate the thoughts of the people in our church.

4. The questions controlling our minds must be questioned. Identify what is driving the people you speak to each Sunday. Then question it. Overtly. In fact, let the Bible’s values offer a transformative interrogation of assumptions that nobody dares to question in our culture. For example, how many biblical passages would support something different driving us in these days? Surely there is more to life than just trying to stay alive? Merely articulating that query could stir significant change in people. Yesterday I preached the final message in our Christmas series and we landed on Simeon and his “Now dismiss me…” prayer. His eyes had seen God’s incarnate, controversial, global salvation and he was ready to die. In a time when all are overwhelmingly concerned about staying alive, it was very timely to ask a Simeon-shaped question: “are you ready to die?” and the other side of that same coin: “what does it mean to really live?”

5. As preachers we must continually grow in our ability to ask questions. We need to question the biblical text. We must question the values and thoughts of our listeners. We should be asking lots of questions about the paradigms and agenda driving our culture. We would do well to question our own assumptions, influences, etc. And when we preach, let’s look to not only prepare using better questions ourselves, but also help our listeners to also ask better questions too.

Preparing to Preach in 2021

We don’t know what 2021 will bring, but we can guess. We can guess there will be more to the COVID story. We can guess there will be further political and social tensions in various parts of the world. We can guess that it won’t feel like preaching during a honeymoon period of stability and global contentment.

As we leave Christmas behind and start to move towards a new year that we know won’t be simple, what can we do to prepare? The simple answer would be to pray, but what should we pray about, specifically related to preaching? Here are seven things to pray about, just to get you started:

1. Love. Pray that your love for God and your love for your listeners will not be neglected in the coming months. Difficult times can helpfully toughen us, but they can also unhelpfully distract us from ultimate priorities. Pray for the love of God poured into your heart to flow out in devotion to Him, and Christlike selflessness towards others – including in your preaching.

2. Wisdom. Pray that your ministry will be marked by a profoundly biblical discernment in the coming months. We live in a swirl of contradictory information and sometimes the most affirmed realities are the most worthy of profound questioning. We cannot minister with our heads only in our Bibles, we also need to spend some time in the “newspapers” too – but be wary of simply parroting cultural values driven by the media of our time. It is easy to offer a slightly sanctified culture-shaped spin. Pray for wisdom to be able to know and speak God’s truth clearly in a time of great confusion.

3. Courage. Pray for courage in your ministry. It will be harder to speak the truth boldly in this decade than in the last. We may be able to anticipate where the pressures will be coming from, but we do not yet know how great those pressures will become. Your church does not need a bulldog in the pulpit, but neither does it need a wimp being pushed around by the increasingly brazen demands of the world. Pray for courage to speak God’s truth incisively in the coming year.

4. Patience. Pray for patience in your ministry. Someone said we can easily over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but should never under-estimate what can be achieved through a steady diet of solid biblical preaching. Pray for patience to keep on in your biblical ministry.

5. Endurance. Pray for the endurance that you will need in your preaching in the next year. This year has been draining. Take COVID – it is tiring to minister during uncertainty, with continual changes of government rules and guidelines, with uncertainty hanging over everyone, with different perspectives on the situation throughout the congregation, with the need to continually adapt and re-create church momentum, etc. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge that 2020 was difficult and tiring. And pray for endurance as we head into 2021.

6. Growth. Of course we should pray for the growth of our listeners, but pray for your own growth too. Pray for God to help you grow in your handling of Scripture, your theological insight, your pastoral sensitivity, your communicative ability, etc. Pray that you will become a better preacher this year.

7. Fruit. Don’t forget to pray for fruit. It would be easy to allow global events, national lockdowns, family struggles or even personal issues to distract you from the obvious. Pray for fruit in your ministry. Pray that people will come to faith in Christ this year. Pray that believers will grow closer to Christ this year. Pray for marriages to be healed this year. Pray for lives to be transformed deeper and further this year. Fruit doesn’t ultimately depend on your love, your wisdom, your courage, your patience or even your growth. Fruit depends on God’s kindness, so pray for Him to be powerfully at work whether you are “preaching well” or not, whether your church is meeting in person or not, whether your country is falling apart or not.

What would you add to the list?

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The First Christmas and This Christmas

How does the first Christmas have anything to do with this Christmas?  This Christmas feels strange.  In some ways it feels strained.  How can a quaint tale of a collection of slightly random characters and a message of joy and peace make any difference today?  After all, this year we are pondering a global pandemic, political upheaval, racial tensions, social justice struggles and economic collapse.  Surely the first Christmas feels more irrelevant than ever this year, doesn’t it?

The Bible tells us what happened that first Christmas.  The stories are written in the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke’s documents.  All the promises written in the earlier part of the Bible, the Old Testament, seemed very long ago.  In fact, for over four hundred years, the people of Israel had lived through political upheaval, but had not heard a peep from heaven.  No prophets had stood up to declare a message from God for centuries.  Instead, foreign armies had taken turns occupying their land and forcing change upon them.

Then it felt like heaven was stirring into action.  An angel was dispatched to the hill country of Judea and then the nothing town of Nazareth.  Elderly Elizabeth was going to have a son who would grow up to be John the Baptist – a man sent by God to prepare the way for God’s entrance.  Young virgin Mary was going to have a miracle son who was truly human, but also truly divine – this was God making his entrance into our world!

Joseph also got to see the angel.  Once he found out his young bride-to-be was pregnant his world would have fallen apart.  He was a young carpenter, an unusually godly man in a godless town.  He had been betrothed (imagine an engagement bound by contract) to the one godly teenage girl who was so different from everyone else in Nazareth.  Now she was pregnant.  Every dream was shattered.  But then the angel came to Joseph and explained the pregnancy.  This child was there by God’s placement and was to be called Jesus, which means “the Lord saves,” because this Jesus was the Lord, come to save his people from their sins.

Joseph knew how the baby got there, what he was coming into the world to do, and that somehow, in this child, God was with us.  What Joseph didn’t know was how they were supposed to live life.  What would his family think?  What would Mary’s parents say?  How brutal would the gossip and judgment be from a nasty town watching the “godly” couple now morally compromised?  How would Mary cope with going into the market with nasty tongues wagging?  How would anyone in Nazareth ever trust his word in business dealings?  So many unanswered questions, but somehow, this boy Jesus was coming to save his people from their sins.

Then we read about them having to transfer to Bethlehem for the census.  They were probably relieved to get a break from the nastiness of Nazareth!  So, the young couple arrived in Bethlehem.  The guest rooms were filled, the town was busy, but the time came for Jesus to be born.  He was laid humbly in a manger and the gathering of characters for later nativities and Christmas cards began.

Some shepherds, some of the lowest people in society, were tending their flocks nearby.  All of a sudden they received a heavenly wake-up call to go and look for the new baby who was born to be the promised Saviour, the new king bringing peace into a tumultuous world.

Some foreign dignitaries, star-gazing sages from the East, arrived in Jerusalem causing quite the stir.  Once they had been directed to Bethlehem, they arrived, bringing some much needed resources for the young couple who were embarking on a greater adventure than just giving birth to the long-awaited Saviour of the world.

Not too long after, some murderous soldiers arrived intent on killing all the new boys of Bethlehem.  Paranoid King Herod would never let anyone threaten his position as king in the land.  Thankfully, the angel had warned Joseph and he had quickly taken Mary and Jesus to head south into Egypt for a while.

The first Christmas was intense.  Political turmoil as a Roman census forced occupied peoples to make difficult journeys and interrupt their businesses and normal lives.  Racial tensions as people mingled against their will.  Antagonistic authorities ready to kill innocent infants to protect their power.  It wasn’t as quaint as a Christmas card image!

The first Christmas changes everything.  Just because the story is familiar, it does not change that the facts are thrilling.  God was at work.  God was entering into our world in the form of a vulnerable little baby. 

The heavenly army of angels scared the shepherds to death, but then announced a message of life.  The poorest, most disenfranchised segment of society was being invited to see this baby Jesus for themselves.  Jesus came for everyone, including poor Jewish shepherds.

The foreigners on their camels showed up, showing that this Jesus was not just for the Jews, but for all the peoples of the Earth.  Jesus came for everyone, rich and poor, Jewish and foreign.

The evil king was thwarted in his plan to destroy Jesus.  In fact, everyone would be thwarted, until it was time for Jesus to voluntarily give himself up to death on the cross in Jerusalem thirty-odd years later.  Jesus was born in order not only to live, but also to die.  He was, as the Christmas story tells us, God with us, the Lord coming to rescue his people from their sins. 

If we will look more closely at that first Christmas, we will find that it isn’t so far removed from Christmas 2020 as we might have assumed.  In fact, in the child born that first Christmas we can find hope in our darkness, life in our world of death, and the relationship with God that we were created for in the first place.

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Real Darkness Requires Real Hope

Christmas Day gives us a break from normal life.  Maybe you associate it with family, food and presents.  The darker and heavier realities of normal life can be left for at least one day.  Enjoy another mince pie, watch some festive broadcast, and tip your hat to the ancient Christmas story.  Even that story offers a pleasant counterpoint to everyday burdens.  There is a young couple, some shepherds, a few travelling wise men, and at the centre, the baby who brings hope into the world.  Christmas tidings of joy and peace fits nicely with our shared good wishes, even if it is a little quaint.

What if Christmas in 2020 needs something more?  The darkness does feel more pressing this year, doesn’t it?  We have the global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political turmoil, racial tensions – it is a dark, dark world.  So do we jettison the quaint tales of the first Christmas and try to muster some hope from inside ourselves that can steel us for the year ahead?  Or do we look more closely at Jesus and see if he really does bring the light of genuine hope into our dark world?

Here are four reasons that the birth of Jesus can give us a hope bright enough to counter the darkness of 2020.

1. Because he reveals God.  When Jesus became one of us and was born in Bethlehem, he came to show us something important.  It wasn’t just a good example to copy, or some helpful tips for living life.  Jesus came to show us God.  We cannot accurately guess what God is like, so God came to us all wrapped up in humanity.  When we consider Jesus, we get a unique glimpse into the very character of God.  If God is a distant killjoy, or a well-meaning but impotent figure, then we are very much alone.  But if God is like Jesus, then maybe there is hope for us.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of revelation.

2. Because in Jesus, God identifies with us.  When Jesus joined humanity at Bethlehem, he was deliberately identifying with us.  He chose poor and insignificant parents, humble surroundings, and the darkest of times.  He came to experience life with all its challenges, uncertainties and disappointments.  He knows what it is like to live in a world wracked with disease, political turmoil, racial tension, and economic hardship.  One result of that identification, according to the Bible, is that Jesus is now able to understand and sympathise with us – he prays for us continually as we experience the new (to us) challenges of 2020 and 2021. Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission of identification.

3. Because he came to give us true hope.  When Jesus came into the world, it was not just a thirty-three excursion into humanity.  He didn’t drop in only to shift into reverse and back out some time later.  Jesus is fully God and fully man – fully one … and that is forever!  Jesus did not become human temporarily.  That massively increases the offer of hope.  Why?  Because we have someone who wants to, and is able to, bring us into the relationship we need to fully experience life and love as God intended.  He didn’t come to hand over a ticket to heaven and then pull back.  He came to give us himself in marriage.  God’s great plan is for the ultimate and perfect marriage union of a rescued humanity with the only one who could rescue us: our creator.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, and it was a mission to create a marriage union.

These first three points speak of three great unions – the wonderful core of the Christian message.  The first union is the beautiful relationship of God with God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in their glorious union, are a wonderfully different God than every other god we have ever imagined.  At the heart and at the start of everything there is a loving relationship.  Amazingly, we are invited to join!  The second union is what happened that first Christmas: God and humanity joined together in the person of Jesus.  This makes possible the third union: God united to a rescued humanity by inviting us to become one with Jesus.  In union with Jesus we discover forgiveness, life, love, joy, peace, and real, powerful, life-changing hope.

4. Because Jesus came to enter and shatter the darkness.  All that I have described so far is a mission that was launched that first Christmas, and confirmed some years later on that first Easter.  Jesus came into this dark world and went to the darkest place: his death on the cross.  He chose to enter the darkness of human sin and separation from God, in order to shatter the darkness.  In its place Jesus offers the warming sunlight of God’s love to any who will accept that his life and death was intended for me.  Jesus came into this world on a mission of hope, a mission to rescue you from the darkness.

Don’t just grit your teeth and press on into 2021.  Discover the real hope that can only be found in relationship with Jesus.

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Nazarene – What a Label!

Would you carry the label, Nazarene?  For some, it is just one of the more obscure labels for Jesus or His followers.  Actually, it should prompt us to consider the One who invested the label with such profound significance.

Matthew’s infancy narrative ends with Joseph taking Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth, “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)  Is this a low-key transition to the rest of the Gospel, or is it a fitting climax for the whole birth narrative?

Moving Back To Nazareth

Joseph’s flight to Egypt was short-lived. The tyrant Herod died shortly after the massacre in Bethlehem. So God directed Joseph back to the land, specifically to Nazareth.  Joseph knew of the challenges facing the family in the town that thought it knew Joseph and Mary all too well.

How could Joseph rebuild his business when everyone doubted his word on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception? How would Mary face the comments as she returned, ‘the virgin’ with her baby boy?

Perhaps Joseph planned a fresh start in Bethlehem, but Herod’s replacement made that difficult.  Maybe Galilee made sense after all. Still, it took divine direction for Joseph to go back to Nazareth.

Joseph was directed to Israel, the land of the Jews. Then he was directed to Galilee. Still Jewish territory, but Galilee had a high number of Gentiles and was scorned by the ‘better Jews’ of Judea. This Messiah was not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too. In fact, by growing up in Nazareth, we will see that He was for all of us.

The Place of No Good Thing: Nazareth

Matthew mentions Nazareth three more times. After a passing reference in 4:13-16, then comes 21:11. Jesus’ triumphal entry so stirred Jerusalem that the locals asked the crowds who He was. The visiting Galilean crowds replied that this was the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth. Probably not what the locals wanted to hear!

Finally, in 26:71, Peter was in the courtyard of Annas’ house when he was identified as an accomplice of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there venom in that label? Probably, since Peter was again confronted due to his Galilean accent. To be from Nazareth was not a positive thing in Judea. In fact, it was not a good thing, even in Galilee!

Nazareth was five miles from Sepphoris, the strongest military centre in Galilee. It was on a branch of the great caravan route to Damascus. For traders, soldiers and travellers, Nazareth was just a rest stop on the way to somewhere better.

Essentially, Jesus grew up in Nowhere, Galilee. Was this the next best thing since God’s plan A (Bethlehem) had been thwarted by troublesome Herodian rulers? Not at all. God directed Joseph so that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. This meant that the Messiah born in Bethlehem would always be called the Nazarene.

The Prophets Fulfilled

Where does the Old Testament say the Messiah will be raised in Nazareth, or be called a Nazarene? Nowhere. Interestingly, Matthew refers to the prophets, plural, when he writes of prophetic fulfillment (2:23). Perhaps several options should be combined to get a composite sense of Matthew’s subtlety here:

Jesus was, perhaps, to be considered a Nazirite (Nazir)—a chosen holy one set apart for God’s service from His mother’s womb.

Furthermore, Jesus was the Messianic ‘branch’ (Neser)—the Davidic branch of Jeremiah 23:5/33:15, who would reign in righteousness; the branch who would be a priest and a king, rebuilding the temple, as in Zechariah 6:12; the branch from Jesse’s stump anticipated in Isaiah 11:1 (part of the great royal Immanuel section).

Maybe we don’t have to choose, perhaps Matthew is making two great themes converge: the deliverer is both priest and king.  Perhaps we have come full circle back to the Immanuel prophecy of 1:22-23.

Joseph called His name Jesus in chapter 1, and by the end of chapter 2 Joseph brings Him to Nazareth so that all would call Him a Nazarene. This child, the son of

Abraham, son of David, son of God, is to be known by all people, forever, as the Nazarene!

Actually, was Matthew pointing to a location, rather than a subtlety in the name? After all, every Old Testament citation in Matthew 2 pointed to a location: Bethlehem, an allusion to ‘the nations’, Egypt, Ramah, and now, Nazareth.

Whether it is a reference to his person, or his hometown, the label is stunningly unimpressive.  This priest-king is exceedingly lowly.

A Reputation Worth Carrying?

Jesus knew what it was to be poor. He was not sheltered in an ivory tower, protected from the ‘dross of society’. He lived in the midst of it all, and He carried it as His label.

Jesus was a very common name at that time, so He needed an identifier. Who was His Dad? That was complicated. What was His job? Again, not easy. So where was He from? Nazareth became the label typically appended to His name.

We see Nazareth mentioned in Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51); as He called His disciples (John 1:45-46) – remember Nathanael’s sarcastic question: ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’; as the location of choice for launching his preaching ministry (Luke 4:16).

His subsequent visit to a synagogue in Capernaum sees Him identified as Jesus of Nazareth by an unclean spirit, who also acknowledges that He is the Holy One of God. Jesus accepts the label, but silences the spirit once His heavenly identity is declared (Mark 1:24-25; Luke 4:34-35).

As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem, blind Bartimaeus recognizes the Nazareth label (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:37-38); then it is used in His arrest, (John 18:5); during Jesus’ trial it is used disparagingly of Peter (see also Mark 14:67); and even in His death, Pilate’s inscription reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

After His resurrection the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus refer to Jesus as being ‘of Nazareth’ (Luke 24:19). Fair enough, their hopes had been dashed.

But even the angel in the tomb used the label! Surely an angel sent from God could come up with something better!? (Mark 16:6)

Even after His ascension Jesus continues to bear the lowly label ‘of Nazareth.’ Peter’s Pentecost sermon climaxes with Jesus as Lord and Christ, but it launches with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22).

The lame man is healed, not in the name of the risen and ascended Christ, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10). Stephen’s accusers use the label (Acts 6:14). Peter tells Gentiles that God anointed and was with the Nazarene (Acts 10:38).

Then we discover that Jesus used the label of Himself when He appeared to Paul at His conversion (Acts 22:8)! This had been the name opposed by Paul in his days of Christian persecution (Acts 26:9), and indeed even Jesus’ followers bore the disparaging label (Acts 24:5).

Conclusion

God was with this Jesus of Nazareth. And in His willingness to carry this label in ministry up north and down south, in His arrest, His crucifixion, His resurrection and even in His ascension, this Jesus of Nazareth was most assuredly ‘with us.’

Immanuel, God with us. Not just near us, in some nice palace somewhere. But with us, like ‘in Nazareth’ with us. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. He came to be with us, so that He could be for us. And He is forever with us, for He still carries the lowliest of labels. It was all part of God’s plan, that He should be called a Nazarene.

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Adapted from Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation, by Peter Mead (Christian Focus, September 2014).  To get a copy of the book, please click here if you are in the UK, and click here if you are in the USA. [Used with permission from Christian Focus.]

Don’t Lose Jesus at Christmas

If this were a normal year, churches and some schools would be busy preparing for the annual nativity play. Old curtains tied with rope, shiny cardboard crowns, gold-wrapped empty boxes and white sheets with tinsel. If this were a normal year, some groups would be keeping it simple, while others would be driving the event to a whole new level. If this were a normal year, some groups would see guests filing into their seats, only to realize behind the stage that Jessica forgot to bring her doll to be Jesus. This is no normal year.

What happens if you lose Jesus? In a normal year it would mean a parent driving home like he was being chased by the Police (hoping he doesn’t get chased by the Police). This is no normal year. So what does it mean if you lose Jesus, not just from a nativity play, but from Christianity itself?

Some preachers preach with Jesus eerily absent. Their sermons tend to drift towards moral lectures and the policing of church and society. Nobody in the world really cares what we think of its failures, and to be honest, we in the church don’t find this kind of preaching that helpful either.

Some evangelists lose sight of Jesus, too. Their presentations end up offering some sort of moral-change gospel – which is no gospel at all. You have been bad, judgment is coming, God can help you fix yourself . . . uh? The Gospel?

Some Christians accidentally drop Jesus as well. Our personal spirituality gets marked by a distant God, and we then become very “fallen human” again. Everything becomes about me. I must try harder, be more disciplined, behavioural in my focus. Bible reading will tend to focus on “walk worthy,” but my eyes will miss the truths underlying these exhortations.

In John 5, Jesus rebukes the religious elite for being diligent Bible men but at the same time, for ignoring him. They knew their Hebrew Bibles, but they missed how God revealed himself throughout those sacred books. They missed how his call to them was not primarily behavioural, but a call to faith – trusting not only the promises, but also the Promiser who walked amongst them on so many occasions. They had read their Bibles with self-glorifying lenses in their reading spectacles and so had lost sight of the person revealed throughout. Lose him and the relationship becomes a religion.

When we lose Jesus from Christianity, we lose any real sense of relationship with God. We become self-glorifying and we become vigilantes policing those around us. There may be no nativity play to worry about this year, but think about the bigger danger – the danger that we drift from a Christ-at-the-centre Christianity in our personal spirituality, in our evangelism, in our preaching.

Don’t Preach a Christmassy Christmas

It is easy to preach Christmas in a Christmassy way. You know, quaint and familiar cliches that smell a lot like an other-worldly fairy tale. It will have beautiful scenes and an eclectic array of two-dimensional characters. And our listeners will guess where the message is going: kindness to others, unity amidst division, celestial sentiments of goodwill and a few references to eating too much.

The first Christmas was no fairy tale. So we should not preach Christmas to satisfy the nostalgic yearnings of a weary public. Nor should we sprint past the stable to get to a post-Christmas presentation of the Gospel in order to satisfy the more robust preaching critics from pew four.

The birth of Jesus occurred in a context of great confusion and tension. Jesus entered this world to change things. And if we can enter that world, we might better grasp the hope for our world today.

Just think of all that swirled for the characters that first Christmas:

The shepherds were social outcasts who received one of the greatest visions in human history. They were stunned. And they needed the angel to stir them to leave their sheep and dare to follow up on the heavenly announcement. If the angel hadn’t deliberately mentioned the manger, and therefore, the poor surroundings of the newborn king, they would have probably stayed in the fields impressed by their vision.

The Magi were trusting in obscure information passed down to them and what they saw in the night sky. Prophecies from foreign documents, long and dangerous travel, no guarantee of fruit from their journey. We can only imagine how bizarre it must have seemed to them (as well as how bizarre they felt as they arrived at their destination!)

Mary and Joseph got their life-changing information from Gabriel – it was truly momentous news, but so much was left unsaid. What would they say to others? How would they explain this? Would they even be able to live in their home town? How would family react? Who would trust Joseph’s word in business now? Lots of questions about the little stuff of real life.

But as they all lived that first Christmas, God did give them what they needed. They heard or discovered God’s kindness, God’s faithfulness, God’s timing, God’s plan to deliver people from their sins, even what God would look like if he came in human flesh to be with us!

As we preach Christmas this Christmas, let’s not sound too Christmassy. Instead, let’s invite people back into that world, so that they can discover how Jesus came into our world, for real people, with real issues, real fears, real doubts, and real questions. Let’s stand next to an unnamed shepherd or Joseph, not knowing what the next years will bring, but knowing that God has cared enough to do something about it! Life was complex before 2020. They didn’t used to live two-dimensional cartoon lives. Preach the real Christmas, and give real hope, this Christmas.

Home for Christmas?

There is something poignant and powerful about the word “home” at Christmas. Maybe this year it will be even more so. With government imposed lockdowns and this year’s coronavirus making life complicated, we may not be able to be home for Christmas. Or we may not be able to be together, at home, for Christmas. For some this is true every year – there are empty places at Christmas.

The Christmas story as it is told usually includes some reference to the wonder of God the Son leaving his heavenly home to come down to earth. His welcome? Not a stunning palace and well dressed attendants. No, humble shepherds, gathered around an animal feeding trough. There wasn’t even place in the inn, so it all happened in a lowly stable.

At the risk of stomping on your nativity set, can I point out that reality may be even better than folklore? What actually happened is slightly different than what we tend to hear each year. Luke 2 tells us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

What was it really like? The “inn” was not a reference to a public inn as in the story of the Good Samaritan, an Israeli motel offering rough accommodation for traveling Jews. Rather the word used by Luke refers to the guest room attached to the back or the top of a single room family home. Joseph, with his family heritage would have received a welcome in the little city of David. And we do a disservice to Middle Eastern folks if we think young pregnant Mary wouldn’t have been looked after.

They didn’t get the guest room, because other visitors were already there. Instead they were probably brought into the single room residence of this humble family in Bethlehem. At the front end of the room there would have been a drop down to the area where the animals would be kept at night (for the animal’s security and for their central heating benefits). The sheep would have a wooden or stone manger, the family cow and the donkey would eat from the trough cut into the floor at the end of the human living space. It isn’t probably what we would choose, but it has a certain charm, nonetheless.

This was typical of the homes then, and culturally this would have been the situation. Perhaps not quite the quaint stable, but what a gripping image! The Messiah wasn’t born in a palace, but in a humble home.

Incidentally, the reference to the manger would have been important in the message of the angels to motivate the shepherds to come for their visit. After all, why would they leave their fields to go looking for a baby with a heavenly fanfare announcing his birth? Maybe if they knew he would be in a humble home like their own? Furthermore, if he was actually born in a stable, the shepherds would have insisted on a transfer to their humble homes – again, Middle Eastern hospitality! The young family didn’t even get the guest room, but the special little one came in the family home, with the women of the home helping Mary, then the men coming in to gaze in wonder at the new boy.

Maybe this is a good year to make something of the stable correction. Maybe this year we should help people to understand that the stable image may be humble, but it probably isn’t accurate. And actually, the living room of a poor peasant family is just as humble. We may not be able to gather people together in our homes this Christmas, but we know that Jesus would come into a home like ours. He was born into a more humble home that first Christmas!

Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn toward home. What a truly glorious thought, that Christ left his home to come and be born in a humble human home. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. Our God, with us!