Saturday, 30 December 2017

A good Jewish boy

After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it... from Luke 2:41-52

When our two boys were still very small we went one day to look around a garden centre. It was a big, bustling place, set on a busy main road. What happened, all in the space of a few seconds, was every parent’s worst nightmare... “Where’s Christopher?” “I thought he was with you!” “No - I thought he was with you...” Aaaargh!!!

That first note of panic quickly gave way to frenzied searching, and, mercifully, the top of a little head was soon spotted bobbing merrily along through the crowds on the other side of the place. Nina went one way, I went another, and we managed to head him off and round him up before anything disastrous happened. Massive relief all round.

Joseph and Mary knew something of that feeling - though their son was rather older than ours. Having visited Jerusalem for the Passover festival with the twelve-year old Jesus, they were heading back to Galilee with friends and neighbours when they became aware that Jesus didn’t seem to be around. They had assumed that he was in the Nazareth party (a perfectly reasonable assumption to make in the kind of society in which they lived). 

But no. So back they hurry to Jerusalem. And, sure enough, there they find him. What is he doing? He is “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46). When they tell him off for causing them anxiety he seems remarkably relaxed: “Surely you must have realised I would be in my father’s house? Where else did you imagine I might be?” 

I wonder what it did to Joseph and Mary to hear him speak about “my father” - and to realise that it wasn’t Joseph he was talking about? Suddenly those long-ago events in Bethlehem took on a new and deeper meaning, and no doubt quite a painful one too. Did it bring especially to Mary’s mind the words of Simeon: “... a sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35)? No wonder she “stored all these things away in her heart” (verse 51).

This memorable story, given to us by Luke, stands alone in the gospel narrative; it’s a full twelve years after the Christmas accounts, and some eighteen years before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s just a tiny glimpse - though certainly a very vivid one - into Jesus’ early life. 

Have you ever stopped to imagine what Jesus must have been like as a small boy? as a teenager? as a pupil in the local synagogue school? as the eldest child playing with his brothers and sisters? as an apprentice in the carpenter’s workshop? 

Of course, we have only our imaginations to work with, for the Bible doesn’t give us any detailed information. We must be content with speculation.

But various thoughts spring to mind. Two particularly strike me. I’ll mention one now, and come back next time to the other.

First, then: Jesus had to learn, just like any ordinary child.

We need to resist the idea that from birth Jesus knew everything - that he was miraculously endowed with supernatural knowledge. The young boy in that circle of wise teachers in the temple showed, it seems, remarkable understanding; but Luke describes him “listening” and “asking questions”. Even as a full-grown man later there was a famous incident when he declared his own ignorance on a particular matter. (Look up Matthew 24:36 if that’s got you scratching your head.)

Putting it another way, Jesus was human as well as divine

Over two thousand years the church has never fully succeeded in explaining how that can be. But it is the clear teaching of the Bible, and we need to grasp it, especially at times when we feel most keenly our own weaknesses, limitations and humanity. Jesus the man doesn’t only help us from a lofty distance. No: to quote Stuart Townend’s lovely hymn, “he walked my road and he felt my pain,/Joys and sorrows that I know so well.” Is that a truth you need to take to heart as a comfort today?

We mustn’t, of course, put ourselves on the same level as Jesus, but as we think about his human limitations, an important question arises: How eager am I to learn and to grow? Do I, like him, have an appetite for God and his word? Am I prepared to take the time and trouble to get to know the Bible, to listen to reliable teachers, to try and mature in my understanding and knowledge? 

Luke explicitly tells us later (verse 52) that “Jesus grew in wisdom”. Could that be said also of me? 

Perhaps there’s a new year resolution there just pleading to be adopted...?

Father, thank you that the Lord Jesus Christ was fully human as well as fully divine. Thank you that at times he was, like me, weary and tired, troubled and distressed. Thank you that there were things he didn’t know, and that he had to grow in wisdom. As I think about my own many weaknesses and limitations, help me to find comfort and strength in his humanity. Amen.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Not dead yet!

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout... There was also a prophet, Anna... She was very old... She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying... Luke 2:25, 36-37

Thank God, I say, for Simeon and Anna!

Of course, all our focus over the last few days has been on the baby Jesus, on Joseph and Mary, on the shepherds and the wise men (with perhaps just a sad, frowning nod towards King Herod?). And quite right too. But now - here they come, these two, slowly and quietly bringing up the rear, so to speak, and beautifully rounding off the Christmas story.

An old man and an old woman. Where do they fit in? Well, why not read through the story again? - just those few verses in Luke 2:22-38.

The essence is this. After a baby boy was circumcised “on the eighth day”, there were various “purification rites” required by the Jewish law for both the baby and the mother. These might not be completed for over a month, so it seems as if Joseph and Mary were in the vicinity of Jerusalem for some time.

When they went up to the temple to do what the law required, Simeon and Anna were there to greet them (though not necessarily together - they weren’t a couple).

Various things are said about Simeon... 

He was “righteous and devout” - a godly man. He was “waiting for the consolation of Jerusalem” - which means he was eager to see God act in some very special way for his people Israel. “The Holy Spirit was on him”: that is, he was a man of deep spirituality. (He is never actually described as old, but his cheerful readiness to die suggests it - verse 29).

He took Jesus in his arms (can you picture him?) and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving over him, rejoicing in the fact that this baby was to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”. And he spoke a word of prophesy, focussing on Jesus’ history-making destiny - but also suggesting dark days to come, not least for Mary herself.

Anna too...

She was certainly very old indeed, and a widow. And she was a prophet. She was seen constantly around the temple precincts, always fasting, always praying, always worshipping. Like Simeon, she had things to say about Jesus, though we aren’t told what they were. And her words were for “all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel”, not just for Joseph and Mary. Yes, she had a prophetic, preaching ministry.

I wonder how Joseph and Mary felt when, whether together or separately, these two striking people approached them, did what they did and said what they said? 

My guess would be: massively encouraged. Remember, they have just come through a wonderful but bewildering few months. The whole thing must sometimes have seemed like a dream: and if the recent past was a roller-coaster, well, what about the immediate, not to mention the more distant, future...!  

How they must have valued these solemn, joyful, radiant, Spirit-filled encounters! How reassured they must have been by the manner and bearing of these two elderly saints. How stabilising, how strengthening, how calming, it must have been to have the mysterious events of recent months confirmed by two such people!

We can only imagine the conversation between Joseph and Mary later that day, as they sat together over Jesus’ bed and as dark fell outside. But it’s inconceivable, surely, that either of them can ever have forgotten this episode.

All sorts of ideas come spinning off the story like lights off a catherine wheel. But apart from anything else it says this: there is a place for old people in the purposes of God. And so two simple questions arise...

First, does the church you belong to value elderly men and women of God? Or are they shunted to one side as “past their use-by date”? In our very natural emphasis on children and young people, are we guilty of neglecting those who, over many years, have gathered the kind of wisdom and experience which come no other way?

And second, a word for those (including me!) who are in, or are getting towards, the Simeon-Anna stage. Are we guilty of writing ourselves off? Have we subconsciously decided that God has nothing more for us to do? Yes? Well, it’s time to think again!

The role of Simeon and Anna was every bit as important in the Christmas story as that of the shepherds and the wise men, though we hear so much more about them. As long as God gives us another day of life, he has work for us to do! So let’s grab hold of that - and keep our sleeves rolled up.

To work, old man! To work, old woman!

Lord God, thank you that you value every type of person - clever and simple, rich and poor, talented and ordinary, young and old. Show me the place you have for me in your unfolding plans, and help me, by your Spirit, to live it out to the full. Amen.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Family values?

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:33-35

… to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… John 1:12

When it comes to Christmas I am not (please believe me!) the “Bah! Humbug!” type. Not at all. A spot of fun and laughter, some nice food and drink, a present or two, not to mention some crackers and silly hats – you can count me in, no problem.

But I must admit that there are one or two things that I get a bit fed up with.
One of them is an over-emphasis on family. Anyone would think that the whole point of Christmas is the big jolly get-together round a table heaving with food, with at least half-a-dozen generations represented. This image is projected on card after card, in advert after advert, and on television show after television show.

Fair enough, Christmas does have a bearing on families. The story in the Bible is precisely the story of one – the family of Jesus. And, fair enough again, there can be great joy in families coming together to share a special time.

But if it gets out of hand, this emphasis is simply wrong. And that’s exactly what often happens. Painful questions arise…

What about people who have no family? I know someone, now in old age, who has never had, so far as she is aware, a single relative. How do people like her feel?

What about families where there is a painful gap, an emptiness? – someone has gone away, or has to be in hospital, or simply has to be at work. Or, of course, someone has died…

What about the single, the divorced, the widowed? – rendered acutely aware of their solitude, their outsider status, in this merry atmosphere.

And what about families which are full of tension and even animosity? I knew a family once who had a door-mat with the message, not “Welcome to our home” or something similar, but “Oh no, not you again!” Only a joke, of course (they were lovely, welcoming people). But isn’t that exactly how many people feel as Christmas draws near and they face the prospect of having to be falsely nice to someone they really don’t like?

And, of course, reality never measures up to expectations. You eat and drink too much, so you get bloated, sluggish and tetchy, someone is felt to have taken the Scrabble game a touch too seriously, that bracing afternoon walk becomes a duty (insisted on by an infuriatingly bright uncle) rather than a pleasure – and the weather is cold and damp anyway. Oh dear…!

In the Bible, families are certainly important. But they are not all-important. Christianity is often mindlessly said to “uphold family values” (whatever they are). But is that really true? Not if we take the words of Jesus seriously – look back at the verses I have quoted from Mark 3.

And what about the boy Jesus in the Jerusalem temple? He spoke about “my father’s house” – but it wasn’t Joseph he was referring to. Worst of all (so to speak) are his words in Luke 14:26 – I’ll leave you to look them up; but be warned, the word “hate” appears in the context of family. Family values?

Yes, families matter: marriages matter, parenting matters, the mingling of different generations – all these things matter. But the family the Bible mainly focuses on is of a different kind altogether. It is “the family of God”, to which all who love and trust in Jesus belong. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” as John 1:12 puts it.

Those two words – received and believed – are key. Literally, indeed, they are the key which opens the door into God’s eternal kingdom, God’s family which know no bounds.

So… if you are part of an ordinary human family, I do of course wish you great joy this Christmas. But if your family is far from the kind of ideal portrayed on the cards and in the adverts (and, in fact, even if it is that perfect), I remind you that you have a loving Father in heaven. He wants you to be part of his great family here on earth – and he has sent his own Son to make that possible.

Thank God for happy families! But thank him still more for his own wonderful, world-wide, eternal family.

May you and all yours – yes, including the grumpy ones – know God’s love and peace this Christmastime. Amen!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Ours to enjoy, ours to share

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

Many years ago, when our two boys were quite small, we visited some caves in Derbyshire. We joined a little party of perhaps a dozen, led by a local guide. Once he had got us deep underground (scary!) he asked us if we would like to know what total darkness was like. Of course we all said we’d really love to (ahem).

So he switched off the dim electric lights that were rigged up around the place. And yes - it was dark all right... After a few moments we heard his disembodied voice: it told us that if we had to be in such total blackness for any length of time we would probably go mad. No bearings. No sense of orientation. No idea of what might be going on around us. Creepies and crawlies. You could believe it.

Then we heard the faint, scratchy sound of a match being struck. And what a relief it was. Just that tiny flame, and everything was changed.

The Bible loves the image of light shining in the darkness. What were the first words God is recorded as speaking when, according Genesis1:2, “darkness was over the surface of the deep”? Answer: “Let there be light.” That shows how vital light is.

In general, of course, the Bible doesn’t talk about physical darkness, but spiritual: the darkness of sin, ignorance and falsehood. And so it is that the coming of Jesus at Bethlehem is likened to light coming into the darkness: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

And so it is too that anyone who has repented of their sin and trusted in Jesus has been “called out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

I do hope you can say “Yes, praise God, that’s me!”

What are we to do with this “wonderful light” in our lives? I suggest three things...

First, enjoy it.

The centuries-old “Westminster Catechism” (1647), a statement of basic beliefs, says that the reason we human beings exist is “to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”.

I must admit that when I first heard that I was a little surprised. The people who drew up that document were sometimes known as “puritans”, and in many people’s minds that meant they were dour and stony-faced, severe kill-joys.

But no! They thought of almighty God himself as someone to be enjoyed. This reminds us that it’s good to follow Jesus, even if it isn’t always easy. 

All right, enjoying God is a bit different from enjoying your team scoring a goal or listening to some favourite music - it’s a whole lot deeper. Living in the darkness of sin may promise us shallow enjoyment, the kind that is quickly gone. But living in the light of Jesus is satisfying and fulfilling: deeply and truly enjoyable. 

May I ask: are you living in that light?

Second, reflect it.

I remember my surprise on learning at school that the moon has no light;  it is simply an enormous lump of rock. How come, then, that it shone so brightly? The answer, of course, is that it reflects the light of the sun.

That’s a perfect illustration of how we, hopefully, relate to Jesus. Of ourselves we have no light. But because the light of Jesus has shone on us, that light is reflected by us.

It’s a humbling thought that when people look at us they may see something of Jesus. Not that this happens automatically, because it’s possible for us to quench his light by continuing to live in darkness. But if we take seriously the challenge of holiness and purity, then the wonder is that it really can be so.

May I ask: do you seek and pray to reflect the light of Jesus?

Third, spread it.

The light of Jesus is for us to enjoy: yes. But it is not for us to keep to ourselves; it needs to be spread. Jesus spoke about the absurdity of a lamp being lit - and then placed under a bowl (Matthew 5:15). What would be the point of that?

The people around us need the light just as much as us. So it is our duty - and, of course, our joy - to spread it as far and wide as we can.

We do this by our Christlike living, as we have said. But we also do it by our words. As Christians we have a truth to communicate, and a story to tell. We need to look for opportunities to let people know who Jesus is, what he has done for us in dying and rising again, and how they too can come out of the darkness into his light.

May I ask: is this something you aim to do? 

Why not look for an opportunity as Christmas approaches?

Lord Jesus, you said “I am the light of the world”. But you also said to your followers “You are the light of the world”. Please help me to really grasp that great double truth. Amen.