Peace on Earth?

I’ve been exploring some of the themes related to the Advent. But what happened afterwards? There is a curious and violent story related to the visit of the Wise Men– before they found Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they visited the palace of the ruling King of the Jews, Herod. Herod was intensely curious about the baby– when and where the prophets said Messiah should be born. But unlike the worshipful wise men, Herod wanted to destroy this heaven-sent King; one who could pose a threat to his own power and rule.

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Jesus escaped Herod’s plot. Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. The Wise Men, also warned in a dream, had failed to report back to Herod the information he wanted. In his anger and fear, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in the region, up to two years old. This “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as the event is known, seems to come in direct repudiation of the message of the angels at Christ’s birth. There was no peace in Bethlehem as soldiers dragged innocent babies from their mothers’ arms and killed them. There was wailing and anguish, instead.

How could a loving and wise God allow this to happen? It was no unforeseen accident, either. This event had been predicted by the prophets hundreds of years before it happened, just the same as the prophecies about Jesus’ birth. God could have sent angels to protect Jesus from this slaughter; He could have confounded Herod’s plans and stopped the soldiers from reaching Bethlehem; He could have struck Herod dead before the plot could be carried out…so why did He let it all happen?

I don’t have any definitive answers. But I can share some opinions, based on what I’ve learned of God’s character. I don’t think God was in any way indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this tragedy. But I think there are a few lessons we can take from this strange and disturbing incident:

  • First, Jesus came to share a very human fate. Jesus was not spared the indignity of being born in a cattle shed and laid in a manger. His life was not supernaturally easy or safe or comfortable. It was God’s perfect will that Jesus was vulnerable to attack, and in need of protection– even when it meant fleeing His home.
  • At the same time, He WAS fully God, and as such, posed a danger to men like Herod. Jesus, even from birth, had an authority greater than any king or emperor who ever lived. But He did not come to earth to exercise that power over other people. Instead, He came to serve and to pour out His life for others. It was not His mission to overthrow the existing government, or to challenge rulers like Herod. It was His mission to fulfill the Law, set an example of obedience, preach the Gospel, and offer Himself as atonement for Sin.
  • Herod had the earthly power to do good or evil as a ruler. He had the unique opportunity to join the Wise Men in worshiping the arrival of God’s chosen one– an event that had been anticipated for hundreds of years. Yes, God could have forced Herod to bow before the Newborn King, but Herod could also have chosen wisdom over fear. We have the same opportunity to welcome Jesus as our Savior– or to wage war against Him. Jesus invites us to follow Him, but He doesn’t stop us from making the same destructive choices that Herod made.
  • Jesus did not come to bring a worldly peace, but an eternal “Peace that passes understanding.” Even now, after His death and resurrection, there is still war and slaughter, crime and injustice in our world. But, because of all Jesus did, and is doing in and through those who follow Him, we see that tragedies can be redeemed; hope can survive where there seems to be no hope; and death is not the final victor. I don’t understand why these particular families had to face the tragic consequences of Herod’s rage and fear and ambition. But I understand that God is bigger than Herod; and more powerful than all the chaos and pain that he caused.
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The world is not at peace today. Innocent people– even babies–are hurt and killed in our world. God knows. He aches for our grief and pain. But He also knows His plans. He knows how the story ends– He knows all that has happened, and all that is happening, and all that will happen. Even in the glory of Christmas, He wants us to know that reality. Someday, Jesus will return in all of His authority and power. He won’t just end the reign of evil rulers like Herod– He will render their legacies useless. He will redeem injustices– even genocide and slaughter–and wipe out even the memory of their grief and terror.

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years..

My paternal grandmother was born in Shanghai. But not the Shanghai most people think of. Not a great Eastern city of importance, but a tiny settlement called Shanghai (or Shanghai Corners) in southwestern Michigan. It doesn’t have a post office; it’s not even listed on most maps. And it wasn’t named directly after the great Chinese city– it was named after a breed of chicken (most likely the breed now known as Cochin)!

Jesus wasn’t born in Jerusalem. He wasn’t born in Rome or Athens, or New York City or London or Johannesburg or Tokyo. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It wasn’t as small as Shanghai Corners, Michigan, but it wasn’t a city of great importance, wealth, or industry. And yet, it was the place where history would be reshaped. Our modern calendar divides into what happened before that night in Bethlehem and what came after. More than two thousand years later, no event has been able to displace it as the pivotal event of recorded history.

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And this division wasn’t caused by a revolution, or a series of wars. It wasn’t shaped by disaster or plague, victory or catastrophe. It came silently with the birth of a single baby, wrapped in strips of cloth and placed into a makeshift bed. But all the years revolve around that single birth. All the great triumphs of history– the moon landing, the invention of the printing press, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the building of the Sphinx–all are placed in the context of the arrival of God in human form. God stepped into the limits of human history, and the timeline was permanently altered. Before His appearance, prophets and seers looked forward. After His arrival, history looks back. But His birth is the focal point; the period. The end of the Beginning and the beginning of the End.

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The hopes of all the ancients–shrouded in mists and wonder– were given flesh and bones. The fears– dark and amorphous– were blinded by the light of His Presence.

What hopes and fears are we carrying today? Our hopes have a name– Jesus; Emmanuel! Our fears have nowhere to hide from His power. And this wondrous gift, while it first arrived in the little town of Bethlehem, reaches around the entire Earth– to Shanghai, and Shanghai Corners; New Delhi, and St. Petersburg; Dallas and Buenos Aires; Cairo and Caraballo; Los Angeles and Lagos; and thousands of small towns in between.

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“Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in:
Be born in us today.”

The Right Time

But when the right time finally came, God sent his own Son. He came as the son of a human mother and lived under the Jewish Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might become God’s children

Galatians 4:4-5 (Good News Translation– emphasis added)

At just the right time Christ died for ungodly people. He died for us when we had no power of our own.

Romans 5:6 (New International Reader’s Version–emphasis added)

Do you ever wonder at God’s timing throughout the Bible? Why did He take the Israelites up to the edge of the Red Sea and THEN send the entire Egyptian army after them? Why did He allow Haman to trick the king into signing an edict that would wipe out the Jews and THEN send Esther to try to save them? Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus was dead to visit His sick friend? Or God’s timing in our own lives? Why didn’t He make it possible to get the job I wanted when I first applied, instead of nearly a year later? Why is life so stressful all at once? Why does God seem to give me wisdom AFTER I’ve messed up? And yet, God’s timing is perfect. Not that it seems that way–in fact, it often seems like God is not paying attention to timing at all.

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Even in Christ’s birth, it seems like the timing couldn’t have been worse–Joseph and Mary forced to travel far from home, only to find that there was no room anywhere for them to rest. And then– THEN–the labor pains began! It was cold, dark, filthy, lonely, and frightening. And not just that evening: the Romans ruled a significant portion of the world with an iron fist. Jews were not forbidden from worshipping God, but they were heavily taxed, regulated, and watched over by their invaders. This newest census was just another part of the bureaucracy and endless government red tape. It seems like it would be the worst timing ever for Emmanuel to appear.

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And yet, Scripture says it was “just the right time” for Christ to come. So what can we discover about this “right time?”

  • God had been silent for 400 years before this– almost exactly the same amount of time the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to lead them out. Coincidence? I’m not so sure…God uses patterns to illustrate concepts. Just as the Israelites had been slaves to the Egyptians, so all of us were slaves to Sin and Death. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” John 3:14 (New American Standard Bible)
  • The prophets made hundreds of statements about where and how Emmanuel would be born– some seemed completely contradictory; yet they were all fulfilled exactly. Again, this wasn’t a coincidence– God orchestrated events over centuries until it was “the right time” for them to all come to pass. Only God could have coordinated it all–the census, the genealogy of Jesus, Joseph’s hometown, Mary’s contractions coming THAT night in THAT cattle shed, instead of on the road somewhere, or in a private room where the shepherds couldn’t visit…
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  • The Jewish people had been in exile off and on throughout the centuries; under Rome, even though they were conquered, most of the Jews who had returned to their homeland were still living there, much as they had centuries before. That wasn’t the case four or five hundred years before– it isn’t even the case today– more Jewish people live outside of Israel than in it!
  • Rome had established its rule over most of the Western World– and with it, they had established a system of roads, common currency, and a complex legal system. All of this played vital roles in the advent of the Savior– from His birth, through His ministry, and even in His trial, death, and the spreading of the Gospel. Before them, the Greeks had established cities and trading centers that would form the basis of the first missionary trips of the Apostle Paul. And they had created a “common” language in which this Good News was first written and spread. Just a few hundred years earlier, the spread of Christianity through letters and traveling ministers would have been much slower, less efficient, and more dangerous. Just a few hundred years later, the Roman Empire would be in shambles; travel would require going through regions separated by differing languages and governments.
  • To me, one of the most fascinating things to imagine is what it might be like if Christ had not come until our own time. First, there would be no Christianity, and none of the work of Christians over the centuries would have been done. But even if we imagine that all of history had unfolded and the present was much as it is, Christ’s birth would not have happened in the same way. Bethlehem would not be under the rule of Rome. In fact, Israel might not even exist; as it is, it exists in hot contention between the Jews, the Palestinians, and their close neighbors in the Middle East. There would be no census, and no need for Joseph and Mary to travel– and certainly not by donkey! There might be “no room at the inn,” but Joseph and Mary would be sent to a homeless shelter, filled with other hapless travelers. The shepherds, seeing angels, might still be filled with fright– mistaking them for missiles! Even so, it would only take minutes for a team of journalists to arrive with cameras, microphones, and commentary! The message of the angels would be dubbed “false” information or “fake news”, as would most of the prophecies about His arrival. “Fact checkers” would “kill” the story, and Mary, Joseph, and all the shepherds and wise men would be “cancelled” or receive threats.
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Or not–I can only speculate. But I can say with confidence that God’s timing, even when it seems odd or “wrong” by our limited perspective, is perfect and worthy of our praise. All that seems “odd” or “wrong” about Christ’s coming when, where, or how He did, is just our limited perspective, and our tendency to doubt whatever we don’t understand.

Emmanuel came! He came at “just the right time” to fulfill all the promises and complete His ministry on Earth. Everything happened just as God designed it. And over two thousand years later, we still “Rejoice!” We sing songs, celebrate, and worship. We breathe in Hope, we give gifts, and we cherish the story of Christmas in hundreds of different ways.

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This same God has a plan for us today. Throughout our lives, He sends blessings, allows struggles, and patiently stands by, offering help and hope to each of us. There is not a single detail of our lives that escapes His notice or is beyond His capacity or willingness to restore, transform, redeem, or renew.

Emmanuel– God WITH us–at “just the right time!”

Let No Tongue On Earth Be Silent..

“O ye heights of Heav’n, adore Him,
Angel hosts His praises sing.
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him,
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Ev’ry voice in concert ring,
Evermore and Evermore!”

“Silent night, Holy night…” Tradition has it that Christ was born on a cold and silent night. The Bible doesn’t exactly say when he was born. It does say that the angels appeared to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night; and that the wise men of the East followed a star to find the newborn King. But the Bible doesn’t talk about the night being unnaturally silent or cold– these are details we’ve added to the story that may or may not be accurate.

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But one thing is certain– whatever silence may have settled over Bethlehem near the time of Christ’s arrival; whatever lull in the hustle and bustle of the busy city’s streets–there was no silence among those who heard the good news of His birth. From the singing hosts of Heaven’s angels, to the excited voices of the shepherds, the inquiring whispers among the wise men, and the nervous recitations of the prophecies among Herod’s advisors, Christ’s birth was met with a symphony of reaction.

And so it continues–as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, hymns will be sung, rich with words like “Hallelujah,” “Joy, ” “Blessed,” “Adore,” “Savior,” “Lord,” “Wonder,” “Glory,” “In Excelsis Deo,” “Redeemer,” “King,” and “Emmanuel!” From every nation, and in every language, praise and worship will erupt from homes and churches. And this is in addition to prayer and worship that rises in an unbroken stream around the globe each day, every day.

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It fills me with wonder to think that at any given moment, someone, somewhere, is praying and praising our Wonderful God. But millions of tongues are silent– even on Christmas–in response to God’s Everlasting Love and Grace. There are millions, even billions of tongues that will greet Christmas Day without wonder, without hope, without joy. Billions who will grumble about the weather, or the outcome of a sporting match, or their family relationships.

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Someday, “no tongue on earth” will be able to keep silent in response to the Messiah. “Every knee shall 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.” (Philippians 2:10b-11 NIV)

Can you imagine a choir made up of every single human being–“every voice in concert”– declaring the worth and majesty of God’s Holy Lamb?! This babe born to be the Prince of Peace; this Only Begotten of the Father; our Emmanuel– He is worthy of such a concert! Let NO TONGUE on Earth be silent! Let us Extol Him! How Great Our Joy!!

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We Didn’t Know Who You Were…

Jesus was born in obscurity– yet he was also born during a Census year…

 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.

Luke 2:1-7 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a Census year in the U.S. (something that has largely been forgotten in the wake of the COVID pandemic.) I actually worked for the Census Bureau for a few weeks this year, doing follow-up interviews for addresses which had not responded for various reasons. Census taking is much different now than it was in Jesus’ day. I had a script, and a smart phone, and several different forms to fill out or hand out to explain what we were doing–one form contained information in at least 14 different languages, and all of them had phone numbers and web addresses where people could “respond” electronically without ever leaving the comfort of their living room, let alone traveling over dangerous hills and trying to find room at crowded inns. I was the one who had to travel– mostly around my small town and within a 20-mile radius. One interview required me to travel 100 miles; another required me to utilize my ability to speak and understand Spanish. Otherwise, the interviews were simple and straightforward. Except when they weren’t.

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“Everyone Counts,” the Census Bureau told us, and I did my best to get names and ages for everyone at every address I visited. But many of the addresses were abandoned buildings– even demolished. Others were summer homes or vacation rentals–I had to be careful not to count the same people twice! Often, I could tell that people were living at the residence, but either they weren’t home at that time or they would not come to the door. Some houses required several attempts before I got any response, and it wasn’t always positive or cooperative.

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I imagine the scene in Bethlehem, though lacking the technology and ease of travel of our modern age, wasn’t so very different. There were people who wanted to do their civic duty; those who were annoyed at the inconvenience and general bureaucratic chaos; those who hated the Roman Government and everything it represented; and some who just wanted to get it all over with and go back to “normal life.”

We know that Joseph was called up to go to Bethlehem because is was his ancestral home. And we know that Joseph would have been counted as the head of the household. But is it possible that Jesus was counted in that census? That he was numbered among his people and with his family? That the God of all creation became a simple hash mark among thousands of others that year? “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.” “Infant son.” “Male child.” Jesus was counted. But He was also lost in the shuffle; discounted and ignored.

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10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

John 1:10-11 (KJV via biblegateway.com)

This season, it’s easy to feel left out, discounted, passed over. This year, especially, it can be lonely and discouraging as we look out on the world from lockdown, or look at faces covered by masks, unknown or unrecognizable. It’s easy to feel that no one sees us. Rest assured, Jesus knows what it is like to get lost in the numbers. He knows what it is to be discounted and misunderstood, rejected, and scorned.

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And He knows exactly who you are and who I am– better than we know ourselves! We count! Not because of who we are, but because He is the creator and author of all life. No matter where you are, no matter who has rejected you in the past, no matter how dark and grim things look– God sees you; God loves you; God has taken you into His count. He doesn’t need a census count to find you, and you can’t get “lost” or hide in the crowd.

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He knows you– Do you know Him?

The Long and Winding Road

Joseph and Mary traveled dark and dangerous roads to reach Bethlehem before the birth of the Baby Jesus. The wise men made a long journey to see the newborn king. The entire nation of Israel spent more than 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Abraham, Jacob, Jonah, the Apostle Paul…there are many tales in the Bible of long journeys to unknown destinations and unknown outcomes.

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Traveling can be exciting and adventurous, but it can also be filled with detours, setbacks, and hardships. Traveling means being away from our comfort zone, our “safe” place– even if our “safe” place isn’t really safe. Travel often means going into the unknown, especially if we travel alone or travel against our own will. Where does this road lead? Who will I meet along the way? Where will I stay at night? Will I get lost? Will I get delayed? What if I get sick or hurt or attacked? Will I find my way back home? Can I feel safe in a new home, among unknown people and circumstances?

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Jesus was born “away from home.” The first people to greet him were not grandparents or giddy relatives or neighbors, but shepherds– unnamed in scripture, unknown to his parents. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say much about Jesus being close to an extended family– his own small family always seemed to be on the move! Later, Joseph was told to take Mary and the child to Egypt; another long and unexpected journey, another long and winding road.

As an adult, Jesus was also “on the road” for much of his ministry. Long dusty roads leading to Galilee, or Jerusalem, Jericho, or Bethany.

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At times, it can seem like our “roads” in life are long, winding, dusty paths leading to strange new places– lonely, rambling trails or busy superhighways taking us where we don’t always want to go. But we don’t need to fear traveling– even if we have to walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” God is always with us. Just as He was with Mary and Joseph on the long road to Bethlehem, where there was no room for them in the inn. Just as He was with Jesus on the lonely path in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the big fish!

As we await the Advent of the Christ Child this year, it is likely that most of us have been on a long and winding road. Though many of us have been prevented from physical travel to foreign lands, we’ve traveled on an emotionally and even spiritually exhausting road in 2020. Chaos, corruption, COVID, elections, “executive orders”, economic collapse, lock-downs, lawlessness, and loneliness–we seem to have traveled a lot of miles, and most of them have been perilous and unfamiliar. But God has a plan, and a destination. The journey may not make sense right now; it is not the journey we would have planned; not the journey we would have chosen. But let us follow it to Bethlehem– to the Manger– to the Cross– and finally, HOME!

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.

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Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.

Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.

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He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.

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In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.

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Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

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