Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Christmas

The strange sign

Wedding car 400pxAt a recent wedding the bridal party arrived at the church in a Lamborghini and stretch limousine. And they arrived at the Reception to fireworks and frenetic music and drumming. It was a grand entry. In contrast, although Jesus was announced by angels, His was a humble entry.

At Christmas we remember the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. This was announced when an angel told some shepherds that the Jewish Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. That’s amazing because shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder. And Bethlehem was only a small town. But how would the shepherds find him? And how would they recognize him? So they were given a sign from God to help them.

What’s a sign?

The Greek word semeion (Strongs #4592) means a “sign”. In this context it’s the means by which a person is distinguished from someone else. For example, Judas Iscariot identified Jesus by kissing him (Mt. 26:48). And circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites (Rom. 4:11). Miracles signified an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12). And Paul’s handwriting showed that his letters were authentic (2 Th. 3:17).

The sign

They were given an unusual sign to identify the Messiah. Important people like royalty, and a President or Prime Minister are usually characterized by pomp, ceremony, security and publicity. That’s the kind of sign we would expect for the Messiah.

But the angel said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:12NIV). So the sign was a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough! What a humble birth.

So the shepherds were to look for a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough. Although there would have been other babies in Bethlehem, it would be unusual for one to be lying in a cattle feeding-trough. It was a strange sign.

A baby

Jesus was born into the world just like all of us. It was a normal birth (following a supernatural conception). He was a tiny helpless baby. Nothing would have seemed supernatural. Why did God choose to enter the human race like this? So that He could provide for our salvation. Jesus had to be fully human so He could die for our sins (Heb. 2:14-17). He had to become like us in order to save us.

Jesus manger 400pxA baby lying in a cattle feed trough

The reason that baby Jesus was lying in a manger was “because there was no guest room available for them” (Lk. 2:7). The last supper was held in the guest room of a house in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:14; Lk. 22:11). According to scholars, the most likely place for a manger in Bethlehem was in a one-roomed peasant house with two levels. People occupied the upper level (Arab. mastaba) and animals the lower one (ka’ al-bet). The animals are housed overnight and fed from mangers built into the floor of the upper terrace or mounted to the walls near the lower level. Presumably there was no cradle in the house, but a manger could perform the same function.

The shepherds were told that they would find the baby in a manger. Shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder and in many homes they would feel their poverty and be ashamed of their low position in society. But in this case, they faced no humiliation because it was probably a simple peasant house like their own with mangers for the animals. That’s why they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Lk. 2:15). And they hurried off to find Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus.

What a strange way for a Messiah and Savior to enter the world. Even the poorest child would not be found in a manger.

Lessons for us

The Bible says that Jesus gave up His divine glory when He came to earth “by taking the very nature of a servant (slave), being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). And “that though He was rich (in heaven), yet for your sake He became poor (on earth)” (2 Cor. 8:9). He did this (was born, lived, died and rose again) in order to die the death that we deserve. Through what Jesus has done, we “might become rich”. The promise is not for physical earthly riches, but spiritual heavenly riches. It’s forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. What Jesus did was like an “indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15). As a gift, it has not benefit to us unless we accept it. That’s why the Bible says. “might become rich”, not “will become rich”. Have you accepted God’s gift? Not many Jews recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. Why not recognize Him as your Savior?

Those who follow Jesus are to imitate His humility (Phil. 2:1-8). Our attitude is to be one of unity. mutual love, harmony, humility, sacrifice, and service, rather than being self-centered. Saul was recognized for being tall, Zacchaeus for being short and Jesus for being humble (1 Sam. 9:2; Lk. 19:1-4). But what is our characteristic attitude?


When Santa learned the gospel

santa gospel 3 400pxA poem by Simon Camilleri

When Santa learned the gospel, he first heard it from an elf.
This tiny Santa’s helper had just learnt of it himself.

A child had asked for Christmas to receive a Bible book.
This elf had made one in the shop, then paused to have a look.

He read all about Jesus and the call to follow Him.
He learned how Jesus lived and taught and died to pay for sin.

He learned how Jesus rose again and how He will return
And then this elf read how he should respond to all he’d learned.

He shut the book, put down his tools, then closed his eyes and prayed.
Right there and then this little elf trusted in Christ that day.

The next day he told Santa. It was awkward, unprepared.
He knew he didn’t know that much, but what he knew he shared.

He told Santa the gospel. It was simple. It was short.
But a seed was sown in Santa’s heart, which grew into a thought.

Santa reflected on his life and the message he supported,
Then compared it to the gospel that the elf had just reported.

He’d always thought that everyone was naughty or was nice.
He had them all on two big lists. He even checked it twice.

He’d always thought that you got gifts only if you’d been good.
The naughty kids got lumps of coal. That’s what he understood.

They’d all line up in shopping malls and sit upon his knee
And claim that they were always nice. As nice as nice can be.

Of course, he saw them when they slept and knew when they awoke.
He also knew their nice attempts were pretty much a joke.

Their heads were filled not with nice thoughts of kindness, peace and joy,
But with the never-ending list of their desired toys.

He knew their hearts, but he had thought, “They’re trying to be good.
That’s good enough to make the list. Otherwise no one would!”

So every year their “good enough” with toys would be rewarded.
And every year (he realized) this message he supported:

THE “GOOD” WILL GET THE PRESENTS.
THE “BAD” WILL GET THE COAL.
AND TRYING TO BE GOOD ENOUGH
IS GOOD ENOUGH A GOAL.

That was the message that he knew, but now he knew another.
He had just heard the gospel. So he compared them to each other.

The message of the gospel turned his message upside down.
The good, the bad, naughty and nice, it switched it all around.

“There’s no one good but God alone” he’d heard Jesus concluded.
And those who claim they’re “good enough” are simply just deluded.

If there’s a list of who is “good”, the standard we’ve all missed.
And Santa saw that even he was on the naughty list.

That shook his world. That rocked his boat. That gripped him in his soul.
To think that even Santa Claus deserved a lump of coal.

But that was only half of what the gospel message said.
It also flipped what happened to the naughty on its head.

Instead of being written off as just not good enough.
The message to the naughty list was one of grace and love.

The gospel offered mercy to all those deserving coal.
The gospel offered forgiveness and cleansing of your soul.

The gospel told how Jesus died our death to pay the price
To reconcile us all to God – both naughty and the nice.

This offer was a real gift, unlike presents ‘neath the tree.
It was not earned by being good. It was offered for free.

For all his life Santa had claimed that if you had been bad
Then you would not get presents and your Christmas would be sad.

Santa compared his message with this new one he had learned.
His message said you get the presents your good deeds had earned.

The message of the gospel offered something so much greater…
Jesus had come to reconcile the world to their Creator.

When Santa grasped the gospel, he did not know what to do
And so the elf said nervously, “How ’bout I pray with you?”

Then that night at the North Pole, by the fire in his den,
With a simple prayer led by an elf, Santa was born again.

And now, in Christ, forgiven, free – his new life had begun
and Santa had a new message to share with everyone.

© Simon Camelleri

Posted, December 2017


What Jesus wants for Christmas

December-17_AllJesusWantsForChristmas 400pxWhat a precious thing is a baby! The news that a little tiny human has safely made its way into the world is such a miracle, such a cause for celebration. Even when there is mourning or hardship, a new baby can bring hope.

On the first Christmas when baby Jesus arrived there was the usual joy and celebration. But there was so much more than that. Angels sang in the sky, shepherds dropped everything and came, wise men followed a star… all to honor and worship this new baby.

When God sent His Son into the world, in the form of a baby boy, He did it for us. In John’s gospel it says,
For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life“.

This is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, perhaps because it states so simply the most important things. God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to help us. This is why Christmas is special! It’s a time to celebrate the gift God gave to us long ago that shows how much He wants us to join His family. What we need to do is believe in Him.

There is a beautiful Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti that was put to music and became the carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. It tells of the unlikely and difficult place where the baby Jesus was born, of angels singing praises to welcome the new King, and of shepherds visiting and bowing down and of wise men who traveled a great distance to honor Him.

The author wonders what she could give to Him as a tribute.
“What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part,
Yet what can I give Him,
Give my heart.”

The Wise Men brought gifts fit for a King to honor the newborn Jesus, but there is nothing that we can give that is enough. All Jesus wants for Christmas is YOU!

Bible Verse: John 3:16 For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for loving me so much. Thank you for the precious gift of your Son. Please forgive me and help me to worship and honor you all year long. Amen.

Images and text © Outreach Media 2017

Posted, December 2017


Joy to the world

st-marys-christmas-2016-img_1352-cropped-400pxJoy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

“Joy to the world” was a silly singalong song with a catchy melody released by Three Dog Night in 1971. It’s silly because some of the words are nonsensical. In her 1994 Christmas album Mariah Carey changed the third line of the chorus to “Joy to the people everywhere you see”. Although this song sounds joyful, the only sources of joy and happiness it mentions are drinking and sex, which are fleeting. But at Christmas we remember a source of “great joy”, which is enduring. A hymn writer expressed it as: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” According to the Bible, the joy of Christmas is Jesus.

True joy

On the first Christmas night, an angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). The Greek word translated “joy” chara (Strongs #5479) means joy, gladness, delight, and a source of joy. So the baby Jesus would bring great joy to humanity as the Jewish Messiah who would enable people to have their sins forgiven so that they could be reconciled with God.

This feeling of joy is conveyed in the Christmas carol that’s not a Christmas carol! The words of “Joy to the World” were written in 1719 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). And the melody was derived from portions of Handel’s (1685-1759) Messiah. It’s based on the Psalm 98:4-9, which celebrates Christ’s triumphant second coming, not His humble first coming. Watts published it under the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

In verses 1 and 2 Watts writes of heaven and earth rejoicing at the coming of the King. In Psalm 98 and Psalm 96:11-13, all of creation is called upon to make a joyful noise before God, for the Lord has come to “judge the earth,” and restore His creation. Verse 3 of the song speaks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin. In Genesis 3, a great tragedy occurs when Adam and Eve sin against God, and are banished from the garden as God puts a curse upon the ground (Gen. 3:17-18). Verse 4 of the song celebrates Christ’s rule over the nations.

Psalm 98:4-9 says:
4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 96:11-13 is similar:
11Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for He comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in His faithfulness.

So the Bible associates true joy with both the first and second advents of Christ. True joy comes from God, and not from our circumstances. That’s why the joy of Christmas is Jesus.

Two advents

The distinction between the two advents of Christ was unknown until the New Testament era. For example, Isaiah 9:6a described the first advent, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” and it’s followed by a description of the second advent, “and the government will be on his shoulders …” (Is. 9: 6b-7). And when Jesus read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:16-21), He only read about His first advent (v.1-2a) and not the second advent (v.2b-3). That’s why many Jews failed to recognize their Messiah when He came as a humble servant instead of a powerful king. It’s interesting that the Magi (Wise men) recognized that Jesus was a king (Mt. 2:2). And Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record that the notice on His cross was “The king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:25; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19).

The first advent is when the Savior came to die sacrificially, and the second one is when He comes to reign on earth. The first is the precursor (predecessor; something that happens before something else) of the second. And the second is the consequence of the first. We live in the period in between the two advents when people have the opportunity to have their sins forgiven.

We can have true joy by looking back at the first advent and looking ahead to the second one. Jesus is the joy of Christmas and the joy of the future peace on earth during Christ’s reign.

st-marys-christmas-lights-2016-img_1347-cropped-400pxChristmas lights

I have just seen The “Lights of Christmas 2016” screened on St Mary’s cathedral in Sydney. This was a spectacular lightshow to “Celebrate the magic of Christmas”.  It was advertised as follows:
“The theme we have chosen this year is Joy to the World and it is revealed through nature. The audience will be taken on a dream-like journey of enchantment and imagined worlds. Fireflies lead us on our expedition through underground caverns, then rising up to the skies and returning to the ocean. Along the way we meet a family of animals, all bringing colour and joy to the world!”

So this show, screened on a gothic church, depicts animals and nature as bringing “joy to the world”! What a comparison! The temporary joy from animals compared to the eternal joy available through Jesus! Secular joy compared to true joy. A person’s idea of joy, compared to God’s idea of joy. But the true joy of Christmas is Jesus, not animals or any other part of the celebration.

God’s Christmas gift

Jesus is God’s gift to humanity. God sacrificed His own Son so that we could have eternal life and be spared from judgment. The coming of the Savior, which we remember at Christmas, brings “great joy” because:
– It’s “good news” for sinners like us – He came to save people from their sins through His death and resurrection. That’s why He was named Jesus (Mt. 1:21).
– It’s true news – fact not fiction, legend, myth or a fairy tale. It was a normal birth in an unusual location.
– It’s about the unique Lord Jesus Christ who reconciled sinful people to God. He was Savior, Messiah and Lord (Lk. 2:11). Messiah (or Christ) means “chosen one” and “Lord” is a synonym for God.
– It was for everyone – “a Savior has been born to you” was initially addressed to the poor uneducated shepherds.
– It has eternal value.

But a gift only brings joy if it is received. Have you received God’s Christmas gift? Do you believe that Jesus came for you?

Summary

We can seek happiness in many ways. But the Bible reveals the source of true lasting joy. At the first Christmas an angel announced that Jesus would bring “Joy to the world”. And the song by Isaac Watts describes the joy associated with Christ’s second advent. The joy of Christmas is Jesus. He came so that we could experience joy. Not always happiness, but an inner contentment of joy. The true joy of Christmas lasts all year long and for a lifetime. Do you know the joy that only Jesus can bring? May you have a joyful Christmas.

Written, December 2016


True Christmas: Sacrifice and Celebration

birthday-jesus-4-400pxAt a birthday party we celebrate a person’s life. But what if a person isn’t mentioned at their birthday party? That would be embarrassing! Christmas can be like that, because Christmas is when our culture chooses to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, but not everyone does this.

We usually celebrate Christmas with family and friends. But I was reminded recently that Christmas is not only a time of celebration. It also involves a lot of sacrifice; because it took sacrifices to get Christ here into this world. A sacrifice is something that’s given up (forfeited or surrendered) for the sake of a better cause. This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.

Christmas is not just holidays, or food, or drinks, or decorations, or Santa Claus or gifts, or greetings. That’s the celebrative part of Christmas, which is an outcome of the real Christmas. But celebrating without recognizing the birthday person (Jesus Christ) is embarrassing and tragic.

The first Christmas

There was a great celebration that first Christmas. When the shepherds were told the good news about the baby Jesus, the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Lk. 2:14-18NIV). And the shepherds were very excited when they saw the baby Jesus.

But what about Mary’s family? Because of their shame, they probably weren’t celebrating. Her pregnancy would have been known in their local community. But no-one would have believed that she was carrying a holy baby. Like everyone else, her family would have thought she was carrying an illegitimate child, which brought shame and disgrace on the family and into the community. Even her fiancé (Joseph) planned to divorce her quietly (Mt. 1:18-25). But he changed his mind when an angel told him that Jesus was indeed a holy baby.

Did God celebrate at the first Christmas? Probably not. That was when God lost His Son, giving Him to the world as a human being to stand forever with people who were sinners. So behind the scenes there is a sacrificial aspect to the first Christmas.

Christmas was God’s idea

Jesus taught Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). There are four things in this verse: God’s love, God giving, an invitation to believe, and an invitation to live. The first two and the last two are linked together. God so loved that He gave. For God, to love means to give. And He gave the best He could give. That is Himself. And then He says “whoever believes”. Nicodemus is urged to believe that Jesus is the Son of God in order to have eternal life instead perishing. Giving is always sacrificial, while receiving (in this case, believing to receive eternal life) is a reason to celebrate.

At Christmas we remember that God gave Himself, which is a sacrifice. Sending Jesus to earth was God’s idea. In this sense, God invented Christmas. And when we receive God’s gift (of forgiveness, love, joy, peace, and eternal life through Jesus), that’s a reason for celebration. Let’s look at four things that God sacrificed on the first Christmas so that we can celebrate.

The sacrifice of God’s glory

On the night before He was executed, Jesus prayed to God the Father, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (Jn. 17:5). Before Christ came into the world, He lived in heaven with God the Father. He had the glory and splendor of deity. But on the first Christmas Jesus sacrificed (gave up) His glory. Instead of being visible, it was hidden (or veiled). In John 17 Jesus is praying that His visible glory might be restored in heaven.

Paul explains why Jesus sacrificed His glory, “What if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:23-24). God is preparing some people for glory. Jesus had to sacrifice His glory at the first Christmas so that we can regain our glory (which was lost by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden) by trusting in Jesus Christ.

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory; He also sacrificed His riches.

The sacrifice of God’s riches

Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of generosity: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus was enormously rich because He was God. But at the first Christmas, He became poor. So He went from wealth to poverty. Jesus gave up everything so poor sinners like us who were under God’s judgment can become rich in Him. We are rich “in Christ”. This has been expressed in verse as:
Let the weak say “I am strong”,
Let the poor say “I am rich”,
Let the blind say “I can see”,
Because of what the Lord has done in me.

We can’t understand Christmas without reference to the crucifixion and the resurrection, because the incarnation (Christ’s birth) became a saving event through the crucifixion.

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches; He also sacrificed His nature.

The sacrifice of God’s nature

Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of humility: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)

God is a spirit who is immortal, eternal, and beyond our world of time, space, mass, and energy. But on the first Christmas, God shattered Himself and became a human being. The Creator of the universe transformed into a servant. A dependent baby. In this way, His divinity was hidden (or veiled).

Paul said that Christians had “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). God had to shatter Himself at the first Christmas so that sinners like us can be recreated. When we trust in Christ as Savior, we put on a new self, which is created in the image of God (just like God).

On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches and His nature; He also sacrificed His life.

The sacrifice of God’s life

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:15) and “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).

When Jesus came as a baby the first Christmas, He came to sacrifice His life. So Christmas cost God’s life. Why? So that we may have His life. Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). The “life” referred to here is spiritual life. This life is given by God upon trust in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39-40; 1 Jn. 5:11-12). Because we have spiritual life, we can celebrate at Christmas by celebrating Jesus who is the source of spiritual life. Christmas is a time to encounter this life in Christ Jesus. As we saw in John 3:16, He loved to give, and we believe to live (spiritually). But if we are spiritually dead, our Christmas is meaningless.

Summary

True Christmas is not just a time of celebration. It involves much more than celebration. Christmas is a time to:
– Reflect on God’s sacrifice (what He has done for us),
– Recognize Jesus our Savior,
– Reconnect with Christ (God’s Christmas gift to us), and
– Rejoice.

Let’s celebrate Christmas meaningfully by remembering God’s sacrifices. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s glory. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s riches. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s nature. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s life. And let’s be willing to sacrifice for others just as God sacrificed for us.

Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on “True Christmas: Sacrifice and Celebration”. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.

Written, December 2016


Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises

Bethlehem 3 400pxWhat do you associate with each place: Gettysburg, New York, Las Vegas, Hiroshima, Hollywood, London, Salt Lake City, Paris, Yosemite, and Bethlehem? For most of us each place name arouses particular connotations, connections and feelings.

You may say that Bethlehem was the birth place of Jesus Christ. But what did the word “Bethlehem” mean to those who lived before Christ was born?

Let’s look at what the Old Testament says about Bethlehem, a town which is about 10 km south of Jerusalem. Both of these towns are on a north-south range of hard limestone hills rising midway between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan rift valley. Bethlehem is 775 metres above sea level, 30 metres higher than Jerusalem. It was previously known as Ephrath(ah), a name that refers to that area of Judea (Gen. 35:19; 48:7, Ruth 1:2; 4:11; Mic. 5:2).

A family crisis

In about 1300 BC, Elimelek and his wife Naomi lived in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1). Because of a famine in Israel, Elimelek’s family migrated to Moab, which was south-east of the Dead Sea. In Moab, Naomi’s husband and two sons died. She was left alone and destitute. It was a family crisis. It looked like the end of the family line. So she decided to return to Bethlehem, her husband’s home town. Her daughter-in-law Ruth, went with her. Now we have two destitute women, one of them a foreigner.

God provided a solution to this crisis when Boaz let Ruth glean in the barley fields, by gathering stalks of grain left behind by the harvesters. So they had food to eat. But they were helped even more when Boaz married Ruth. This preserved the family name and the family property through Boaz, the kinsman-redeemer. Also, both women were sustained in the long term. Naomi was cared for in her old age and she had a grandson called Obed whose grandson was David.

So at Bethlehem God provided a solution to a family crisis.

A national crisis

This family lived in Bethlehem for the next few hundred years. Because the Israelites hadn’t driven out all the inhabitants of Canaan, they faced constant opposition from the Philistines who lived on the coastal plain. During the reign of the first king, Saul, a national crisis arose. The Philistine army penetrated into Israelite territory and was gathered in the valley of Elah. And they had a giant called Goliath who terrorised the Israelites. Because the valley of Elah extends from the coastal plain eastwards towards Bethlehem, this threatened Bethlehem and after that Jerusalem (1 Sam. 17).

God provided a solution when David killed Goliath with a stone. David lived in Bethlehem where he was a shepherd. He was sent to the valley of Elah by his father to take provisions for his brothers in the Israelite army. When their hero was killed, the Philistines turned and ran back to Gath. David saved his nation from the enemy and became a national hero. So from Bethlehem, God provided a solution to a national crisis.

Another national crisis arose soon afterwards when Saul changed from being a godly king to an evil tyrant. God provided another solution when he sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David privately to be the next king (1 Sam. 16:1-13). So at Bethlehem, God once again provided a solution to a national crisis. Later David was publicly anointed as king of the tribe of Judah and king of the whole nation (2 Sam. 2:1-4; 5:1-5). David established the kingdom of Israel. So he was the most famous person to live in Bethlehem.

Next in the 7th century BC, Micah predicted that the Jewish Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). This was known by the Jewish religious leaders after the birth of Christ, because it was in their Scriptures (Mt. 2:4-6). Also some of the Jews thought that the Messiah would be a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 89:3-4; Isa. 9:7) born at Bethlehem (Jn. 7:42). So it’s not surprising that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which was called the “town of David” (Lk. 2:4, 11NIV) because David lived here before he became the king. Jesus was also a descendant of David (Lk. 4:23, 31; Rom. 1:3).

But although Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, His mission was to the whole world.

A global crisis

In 2015 terrorist incidents occurred in Cameroon, Philippines, Tunisia, Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, France, Lebanon, China, Ukraine, Israel, Libya, Niger, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, Tunisia, India, Somalia, Kenya, Thailand, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, United States, Chad, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Germany, Australia, and United Kingdom. Today terrorism is an international crisis that threatens peace across the world. Countries and airlines now have anti-terrorism measures. Terrorism is an extreme symptom of humanity’s rebellion against God (also called “sin”) and failure to respect one another.

God provided a solution when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and He later died in Jerusalem for the sin of mankind and then rose again to give new life to all who put their faith and trust in Him. Jesus is the source of peace with God (Lk. 2:14). When Jesus was born at Bethlehem, it was the beginning of His mission on earth to demonstrate God’s love and give up His life to free us from the penalty and power of sin. He came for everyone. His coming was welcomed by lowly shepherds and the wealthy Magi. The shepherds were Jews and the Magi were Gentiles.

So from Bethlehem, God provided a solution to a global crisis.

Our crisis

What about us? You may think, I’m not destitute like Naomi and Ruth, or threatened like the nation of Israel. I’m not a terrorist! But what about ignoring the God who created our universe to whom we owe so much ?

This Christmas, let’s recognize our personal crisis and accept God’s solution that was revealed at Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Let’s celebrate by praising Him like the shepherds (Lk. 2:20), and worshiping Jesus like the Magi (Mt. 2:11).

Written, December 2015

Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt


Jesus is better than Santa

Australia SantaBoth Jesus Christ and Santa Claus feature in many Christmas celebrations. Everyone likes Santa because he is jolly man who brings gifts to children around the world. But why is Jesus better than Santa?

Fact or myth?

Four separate eyewitness biographies are given of Jesus in the Bible by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Three of these were written about 30 years after most of the events they describe. And the first-century Jewish historian Josephus called James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. These historical records confirm that Jesus was a man who lived in Israel between about 5 BC and AD 30. He was an historical character and not a mythical figure.

Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop, who was known for his generosity and kindness. Saint Nicholas lived in Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). There are many legends about him, but we don’t know if any of them are true! He is said to have used his inheritance to help the poor and sick, giving secret gifts to people who needed them. In particular there are stories about helping three poor sisters and saving three men from death. Because of his kindness Nicholas was made a saint and he was a popular saint in Europe until the Reformation in the 1550s. After this time, the Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of St Nicholas on 6th December when children put out their shoes the night before and the next morning they would discover gifts left by St Nicholas. In the 19th century this story was transformed to Santa Claus leaving gifts at Christmas time. He was now described as a jolly, heavy man wearing a red suit with white fur trim who comes down the chimney to leave presents for deserving children and drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Santa is only a mythical figure.

So, Jesus Christ is an historical character while Santa Claus is only a legendary character.

The best gift

In the song “Santa Claus is coming to town”, Santa makes a list of those who are naughty and bad (who miss out on presents) and a list of those who are nice and good (who get presents). So Santa only comes for good people. He asks, “Have you been good?”.

On the other hand, Jesus came for sinners, and not for those who thought they were good – He said “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Mt. 9:13; Mk. 2:17; Lk. 5:32NLT). After the conversion of Zacchaeus, a well know sinner, Jesus said that He “came to seek and to save those who are lost” (Lk. 19:10). As the Bible says we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23), this means He came for everyone!

Recently when cleaning out a family home that had been occupied for three generations, we found some things that had been Christmas presents. However, as many of these were no longer useful or significant, they were thrown out as rubbish. Christmas presents eventually finish up in the garbage (trash) dump. Santa’s gifts only have a finite lifetime.

By comparison, Jesus offered the gift of forgiveness and of eternal life, which goes on forever! He asks, “Do you want to be forgiven?”. Also, the gift was Himself, not something that had been made by a person or a machine. Jesus is the best gift! He is God’s greatest gift. Paul called it “indescribable” (2 Cor. 9:15). “This is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Let’s remember this as we give gifts to each other this Christmas.

Jesus gave the best gift – it lasts longer and is for everyone.

Written, December 2014