Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lessons from the Nativity Story

The nativity narrative is in the Bible mainly to provide some proofs that Jesus is the Messiah. This is done in two ways.

We see fulfilled prophecies. The story provides proof that Jesus is the Messiah by showing how he fulfilled certain prophecies from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). He was born in Bethlehem of a virgin, and he was of the house of David, for example.

The second way we see proofs that Jesus is the Messiah is by the special occurrences surrounding his birth. We see angels announcing the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds and even Gentile Magi coming from the East to worship the Christ Child.

What We Learn

In addition to providing proofs of Jesus’ messiahship, the nativity story teaches us with some important lessons as well.

I think a major lesson for us is the obedience we see exhibited by Mary, Joseph, and the Magi.

a. Mary’s Obedience. Mary yielded to the will of God when she replied to the angel (Luke 1:38): “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” NRSV

She must have known that her rather “unusual” pregnancy would cause her, Joseph, and their families grief and heartache. There were some unanswered questions as well. Nevertheless, Mary trusted in God and submitted her will to God’s.

b. Joseph’s Obedience. We read in the Gospel of Matthew about his obedience to the angel who appeared to him in a dream (Matthew 1:24): When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife. NRSV

Like Mary, he must have known that this ride wasn’t going to be easy. Given all that had happened up to then, Joseph could have very well said “Forget about it. I don’t need this drama.” Yet he stepped out in faith and took Mary as his wife.

c. Lastly we see the obedience of the Magi to God’s calling of them through the special star to come and worship the King of the Jews. Travel wasn’t easy in those days, but they knew the long and difficult trip would be worth it. They were obedient and were rewarded by being the first Gentiles to see the Jewish Messiah, as far as we know.

At the very beginning of his life these Gentile Magi considered Jesus to be the “King of the Jews”. At the end of his life, another Gentile referred to Jesus as “King of the Jews,” the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. He ordered a sign to be written and put above the cross saying: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in three languages: Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. That’s what the INRI on a crucifix stands for – in Latin it is “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum.” While Pilate’s inscription was more sarcastic than sincere, Jesus the “King of the Jews” did come for all, both Jews and Gentiles.

There Is Often a Cost to Obedience

The last lesson we learn from the nativity story is that often there is a cost to obedience. Mary and Joseph didn’t have it easy. Joseph had been humiliated by Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, Mary was looked down upon as being of questionable virtue, and their families were embarrassed by the whole thing. Then to make matters worse, Mary and Joseph had to take a long trip on foot, thanks to the Romans. She ended up giving birth in a barn in a strange town, surrounded by unfamiliar people. Then they were uprooted once again, and had to flee to Egypt to save the baby’s life.

33 years later, Mary suffered unimaginable heartbreak – just as Simeon had prophesied when he said to her: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35, NIV). She had to watch her son suffer and die a cruel death on a Roman cross. Even when we are in God’s will, we aren’t guaranteed an easy time of it.

But God was with them, as we see in the nativity story. God guided Joseph through visits by angels, and God provided a private place for Mary to give birth, and the gifts of the Magi most likely financed their unplanned trip to Egypt.

I hope this explains why Christmas and the Nativity Story should be important to Christians, and why the holiday goes well beyond gift-giving, Santa Claus, and good cheer.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Thoughts on Christmas

I. Introduction

We often focus on the wrong star. We are so easily distracted by things of this world because we are of this world. The ways of God are mysterious and often hard for us to understand, while the ways of the world appeal to us. Besides, we can’t see God, we can’t hear God, and sometimes we wonder if God is even there.

Maybe God hasn’t answered your prayers as you would have liked, and you feel abandoned or betrayed by God. While God isn’t a genie in a bottle who fulfills our every wish, God does love us and is there for us in times of need. Maybe you can testify to that because you have experienced God’s presence in times of trouble.

Stars that Point to God

How do we know that God loves us so much? Jesus coming to earth is a sure sign of God’s love. Would you leave the comforts of heaven to come to earth, especially knowing what was going to happen to you? I know I wouldn’t.

We also know God loves us because God makes it easy for us to find him. At his birth a special star pointed the way for the Wise Men to find Jesus. Today we don’t have that star, but we have other things pointing the way for “wise men” to follow.

For example, we have the Bible, we have creation shouting out the glory of God, and we have the life stories of believers. At a particular time in history the people of that day could actually see, hear and touch God, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Today we can still see, hear and touch God through prayer, Bible reading, worship, and the people God puts in our lives.

The Magi followed the star because they knew that baby was someone special – they referred to him as the “King of the Jews.” People come to him today because Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Redirect Our Lives

As we begin to understand that, our focus changes.

Worldly things will have less appeal, because we know there is something much better. The things of the earth lead to a dead end – when you’re dead, they end. On the other hand, the things of God last forever.

As we turn our eyes upon Jesus, we will have more of an eternal perspective and less of a worldly viewpoint. As we turn our eyes upon Jesus, we will experience hope, love, peace, joy, and reconciliation. As we turn our eyes upon Jesus, the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.


So which star are you following? The star of success or career? The star of materialism? The star of escapism? (thru busyness, drugs, food, porn, booze, denial) Or are you already following the Star of Bethlehem?

If you are, then you are fulfilling your God-given purpose in life – to be in relationship with God. That’s why you and I were created – to know, love, and serve God, and to be with him forever. If you are following a different star, then why not pray the words of the fourth stanza of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. I’ll personalize it by using the first person:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin, and enter in, be born in me today.
I hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to me, abide with me, my Lord Emmanuel!

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas

As we approach Christmas Day, people talk about the “spirit of Christmas” and “good cheer”. Most of these sentiments have little to do with the true meaning of Christmas. The day is one of the “high holy days” on the Christian calendar, and it commemorates the birth of Jesus. Of course we don’t know the exact date of his birth, but that is relatively unimportant.

Calling Christmas the “birthday of Jesus” is good for kids to grasp the basic meaning of the holiday, but it sort of trivializes the day for adults. That’s because Christmas goes much deeper and is more significant than simply a birthday.

To Christians, Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah (the “Christ” from the Greek), but he is also God in a man. God came to earth in the form of a man, born of a woman (John 1:14):
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (NIV)

This coming to earth of God in a human body is called The Incarnation (from the Latin) or the enfleshment of God (from the German). God had, from time to time in the past, been a physical presence among his people Israel, such as in the cloud and pillar of fire to guide them in the wilderness (Exodus 13:21-22):
The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. (NRSV)

But God never came to earth as a human being and lived as one of us for a period of time. So the Incarnation is unique in human history. God, in the form of Jesus, came for a specific purpose, which is outlined in Philippians 2:5-11:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

So as we celebrate Christmas, let us remember the true meaning of the day – not gifts, but the greatest Gift.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Seventieth Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

Sunday, December 7, 1941, was a date that will live in infamy, in the words of President Roosevelt in his speech to Congress on December 8. On December 7, 2011, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of that attack by the Japanese on our military facilities in Hawaii.

Comparisons to 9/11

Sixty years after Pearl Harbor, on 9/11/2001, we were once again attacked on our own soil by foreign forces hostile to us. At that time comparisons were drawn between Pearl Harbor and 9/11:

•Both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were unprovoked, and both caught the US by surprise.

•Both took place in the morning, and both involved aircraft. The first bomb at Pearl Harbor fell at 7:55 and the first plane hit the WTC at 8:45.

•Both involved substantial property loss. At Pearl, 18 ships were sunk or seriously damaged, plus there was damage to 300 aircraft and to various facilities. In NYC, the entire WTC complex and some nearby buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged.

•Both involved a substantial loss of life. At Pearl, 2,403 men and women lost their lives, all but 68 were military. Over 3,000 were killed on 9/11, and most of those deaths were civilians.

•Both attacks were personal to Americans. Hawaii was an American territory and the attack was against our military installations there. Many knew servicemen who lost their lives or were in Hawaii at the time.

The attack on 9/11 was even closer to home, and involved ordinary people at work, like any one of us. Many people, particularly in the New York metropolitan area, were personally touched by these attacks, knowing people on the airplanes or in the buildings.

•Evil as it was, the Japanese had a strategic objective in attacking Pearl Harbor. The Japanese saw us as an obstacle to further expansion into the Philippines, Australia, and elsewhere. The US had become increasing hostile to Japan and had initiated trade and oil embargoes against it. Their objective was to neutralize our Pacific fleet so it would be out of commission for several years. This would allow the Japanese to continue their conquests in Asia without US interference.

Regarding 9/11, I can not find any strategic objective to an attack on civilian buildings such as we saw on that terrible day. That’s what makes those attacks senseless and diabolical.

Pearl Harbor Strategic Failure

Interestingly, from a strategic point of view, the Pearl Harbor attack was a failure.
It failed in four ways:

1.The most important naval weapon, the aircraft carrier, was untouched in the attack. Not a single carrier was in port at the time. Within a few months our carriers had engaged the enemy in significant naval battles.

2.The second most important naval weapon, the submarine, was also untouched by the attack. The sub base at Pearl was only moderately damaged and was soon back in operation. US subs were attacking Japanese shipping all over the Pacific.

3.The enormous fuel depot at Pearl was completely untouched. Even if no ships had been sunk but the fuel depot had been destroyed, our fleet would have soon been rendered useless for a substantial period of time.

4.The Pearl Harbor attack united Americans as never before. I suspect the Japanese wanted to demoralize us, but the effect was just the opposite. We were resolved to defeat an enemy that was devastating Asia and had now hit our home shores.

Why was it that Pearl Harbor was a failure to the Japanese? I believe it was because God protected us so that we could be instrumental in defeating the evil of Nazi and Japanese expansionism. Without the involvement of the US in the war, I don’t believe these evil expansionist empires could have been stopped. Because of US involvement in the war, Europe was eventually liberated and large parts of Asia were freed from the harsh rule of the Japanese Empire.

So rather than excluding God from our society and our individual lives, let us give thanks for God’s divine protection. Yes, we did have to fight a terrible war with a significant loss of life, but God was with us in that war and gave us the victory.

You may say, “It was the bomb that gave us victory over the Japanese, not God.” Remember, both the Germans and the Japanese were working on atomic bombs, but we were the only ones who succeeded in developing the right technology – that was God’s provision in my opinion.