“But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2
Being raised in the church, I have always appreciated the sacrifice Jesus made for me at the cross. Until my trip to Israel this past summer, though, I never truly understood the significance of what Jesus gave up to come to earth in such humility out of absolute love for me.
Bethlehem is portrayed in Christmas carols and on cards as a quaint, pretty little hillside village.
At the risk of spoiling your Christmas visions, it’s not quaint or pretty. It is on a hillside.
Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, but today there are some challenges in getting from one place to the other. Visitors from Israel wanting to go to the birth town of Jesus are required to pass through checkpoints complete with barbed wire and young military men and women carrying machine guns.
It’s not exactly the picture of a silent and holy night. But that is reality in the West Bank today.
Our tour group visited the Church of the Nativity. This huge, ornate cathedral is built above and around the small cave where it is believed the king of kings was born. The accuracy of the location is up for discussion depending on whom you ask. Our tour guide was Greek Orthodox, therefore in his mind this is the real place. The Church of the Nativity is cared for by all of the Orthodox religions as well as the Catholic Church.
According to their tradition, this spot was the earliest place recognized as the birth place of Jesus, perhaps even told to the disciples by Mary herself. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Romans built a pagan temple over the spot to keep pilgrims from coming to worship.
Many years later when Constantine sent his mother Helene to Israel to reestablish the Christian holy places, the faithful pointed out this spot because of the pagan temple.
Many of our “western” traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus aren’t culturally accurate. The Greek word for “inn” probably is more closely translated as a guest room in a home. In those days it was very common for animals owned by families to be brought into a part of the home or in a section attached to the home at the back or under the main living quarters. It was most likely a cave, rather than a barn where sheep were kept.
While this may change the way we look at our Nativity sets, it doesn’t take away from the humble circumstances of the birth of our Savior.
Jesus was and is and will always be God Incarnate. Imagine the most luxurious, pampered palace on earth and multiple that by 1,000. That would only begin to give us an idea of heaven that Jesus left to come to earth. And He wasn’t born to royalty or even wealthy or well-respected parents. He humbled himself to be born to peasants, as an infant, in a cave.
One speaker I heard not long ago put this in perspective–just being a baby with poopy diapers is about as humble as anyone can get!
In preparation for our trip I read Kathie Lee Gifford’s book “The Road, The Rock and the Rabbi”. Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel co-authored the book and offers more historical and cultural insights. The shepherds who were watching the sheep were most likely guarding sacrificial lambs. These special lambs had to be protected from injuring themselves so they could be unblemished for sacrifice. Shepherds would use clothes to wrap the lambs. These clothes usually came from old robes that had been worn by priests.
These details add to the symbolism of Jesus, our sacrificial, unblemished lamb who became our high priest.
The fields where angels appeared to the shepherds could have most likely belonged to Boaz, the Old Testament ancestor of Jesus, where Ruth gleaned. Boaz was a relative redeemer to Ruth and Naomi and the great-grandfather of King David. In the same way, Jesus became our relative redeemer.
In another part of the Church of the Nativity is an altar to The Innocents, those children who were murdered by King Herod after the birth ofJesus. This is a reminder of the struggle between good and evil, the reason for Jesus coming to earth.
All that I saw and learned in Bethlehem shows how much God loves me and you, that Jesus left splendor of heaven and His righteousness not only to die for us but to be humbled in the lowliest of births with no place to lay his head in birth or later in life.
It truly is amazing grace and unbelievable love.
Dear Jesus–thank you for loving us so much that you were willing to leave the splendor of heaven to come to our dark and fallen world. Help us to carry the spirit of Christmas love and joy with us every day of the year and to shine Your light brightly in our world until you return again in glory. In your name we ask these things. Amen.
Monthly Archives: December 2018
What Israel Taught Me About Christmas0
Joy > Happiness2
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” Luke 2:10
When the angel came to the shepherds, the first thing he said was “Don’t be afraid.” That always seems to be the first thing angels say throughout the Bible!
Then the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy.”
Shepherds were the lowest on the class totem pole in Israel. Because they worked with animals, they were considered “ceremonially unclean” to enter the temple. They lived in the fields and caves with the sheep. (Have you ever smelled sheep? And no hot showers available in a cave? That might be another reason they were shunned by common folk!) They may have wondered what could bring them great joy and why were they singled out for this message?
The angel Gabriel also said to Mary, “Don’t be afraid.” Then he said, “You have found favor with God.” Notice he didn’t say “favor that will make your life amazing and easy.” He didn’t show up with a balloon bouquet from the prize patrol.
We know that Mary’s life wasn’t easy. She may have had happy moments but the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and life could not have been conducive to happiness for His mother. Being pregnant before she and Joseph were married was a dangerous position in which to be. It could have cost her her life. Seeing Jesus hated and shunned by the Pharisees and rejected by the people of His own hometown of Nazareth had to be heartbreaking. And then to be at the foot of His cross watching His suffering, wondering why, if He was God’s Son, God didn’t save Him? That would have been almost more than any mother could bear.
But we know that Mary did have great joy.
Happiness is different than joy. Happiness is dependent on our circumstances. It’s superficial. Joy is deeper than happiness. We can be filled with joy in spite of our circumstances. Mary was filled with joy in spite of being an unwed mom and giving birth in a cave. The shepherds also rejoiced after the angel’s message and went to see the baby Jesus.
I am blessed to witness this type of joy twice each month. My golden doodle, Ellie and I visit the residents at Country View county home every other week. Ellie enjoys our visits because she gets lots of petting and treats. The residents love the visits because she brings them joy
Many of the residents have extreme physical challenges–amputations, lack of mobility and other hardships. Mental illness is common. All of their earthly possessions are housed in an area smaller than my master bathroom.
Yet, I see joy when we visit.
Not long ago one of our friends at Country View was sitting in the lobby talking to another resident when we walked in. With a loud squeal of delight, her arms flew around my puppy’s neck and she buried her face in Ellie’s soft fur. She repeated over and over in a muffled voice, “I love you Ellie!” When she finally looked up, a wide smile spread across her face and her eyes sparkled.
She told the activities person who was with us, “I was having a bad day, but now Ellie has changed my day!”
Nothing else had changed. She was still in the same living situation. Her mental and physical disadvantages were still part of her life.
She recognized the difference between happiness and joy.
Do we recognize this difference? Are we chasing material things and less-than-satisfying relationships for our happiness?
Only a relationship with Jesus can bring us true joy. His spirit allows us to persevere through difficult circumstances, not with happiness, but with peace and the joy that Mary experienced knowing her son who was also her savior.
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your son Jesus to earth so that we can experience true joy that only comes from walking through life with Him. Help us to reflect the joy of your birth and life and resurrection in our lives, not just at Christmas, but every day of the year. Amen.
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him.’” Mark 1:1-3
It’s not “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” at my house. The only evidence of the approaching holiday is a new Christmas magnet on the fridge along side a beautifully hand-cut red snowflake given to me by a friend’s 5-year-old son.
Several circumstances contributed to this delay. I had great intentions last weekend to get started decorating, but ended up nursing a nasty cold. Tomorrow I leave for a short trip/long weekend to visit dear friends. The new kitty, who obviously doesn’t understand the phrase “curiosity killed the cat,” is creating new challenges!
Frankly, decorating for Christmas is not nearly as heartwarming when the one who shared appreciation of it the most isn’t here.
Don’t worry. I’ll get it done! I’ll figure out how to keep the cat from climbing the trunk of the tree and knocking it over. And on Christmas Eve when the kids and grandgirls come, the house will look like Christmas.
Because of all these things delaying the outward preparations for Christmas, God is helping me find time and space to focus on the spiritual preparations for Christmas this year, to experience a true Advent season.
One of the definitions of the word “Advent” by Merriam Webster is “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event.”
In our secular culture, this definition certainly describes our frantic preparations for all things Christmas. We decorate our homes. We bake goodies. We shop for and wrap presents. We prepare meals and rooms for visiting family.
Advent in the Christian tradition involves a preparation of a different sort. It requires a bit of a history lesson to understand the meaning of Advent.
God had promised a Messiah or savior since the beginning of time all the way back to when sin first broke the relationship between Him and His children. He assured all the people throughout the Old Testament of this coming event and special person for centuries. He sent prophets to remind the people of this excitement.
But like many of us today, the people lost interest. They became bored or got distracted. Some gave up hope that the promise would ever be fulfilled. They stopped looking for signs. They stopped telling their children and grandchildren about the special pledge God made with their ancestors. The prophets even stopped telling the people the stories about the promise. God stopped talking to the people all together. No one heard anything for four hundred years about God’s Messiah.
There were some people who remembered the Promise. They still had hope. They passed the stories along to their children and grandchildren. Others studied the signs in the heavens and the stars.
Then when the time and circumstances were absolutely perfect, God fulfilled His promise, and the long-awaited Messiah of the world was finally born–quietly and unexpectedly.
Just like the promise God made centuries ago to bring a Messiah to earth came true in Jesus’ birth, His promise to return and reign forever will be fulfilled also in His perfect time.
How many of us today believe God’s promise or even look forward to the time of His second coming?
Even if we do know the Christmas story, do we put as much time and consideration into preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration of Jesus’ birth as we do into our secular and family celebrations?
For me, there is always a let-down after the holidays. It’s more fun to put up the decorations rather than take them down. Many times, our expectations of the “perfect” Christmas don’t ever quite live up to the reality. The gift wasn’t the right size. Or our family didn’t make it through Christmas dinner without the same old arguments and resentments showing up. Or the celebration was fine, but the “empty chair” where a loved one sat still breaks our hearts.
This longing in our hearts can’t be completely covered up by our busyness or culture’s glitz and glamour of the “perfect Christmas” that we see on the Hallmark channel.
Scripture shows us how we can prepare our lives to receive Jesus fully this Christmas.
David, the greatest king of all time, prayed a humble prayer. “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and uphold me with thy free spirit.” Psalm 51:10-12
Wouldn’t this be the greatest gift we could ever request? Who of us couldn’t use a clean heart and a right spirit in this time of divisiveness and lack of civility? And I can always use a little more joy in my day!
This gift isn’t hard to receive. It only takes intentional focus on our part in these ways:
- By setting aside quiet time for devotions or reflections on His word.
- By making space in our busy schedules to remember the true meaning of the season.
- By sharing love and joy and hope with family and friends and others who are less blessed than us.
Jesus is the only cure for the hole in our hearts and the aching in our soul for perfect love, joy and peace. He is the long-promised Messiah. He left the glory of heaven out of love for us to come to earth, not only to provide a way of salvation, but to give us hope for today and peace that surpasses all human understanding.
This is my prayer for all of us this year—that our hearts would be prepared to receive the greatest gift of Christmas, that the Babe of Bethlehem would come into our hearts and make His home within us today and all throughout the coming year.
Lord Jesus, thank you that you left the awesomeness of heaven to come to this dark and fallen earth, not as a worldly king, but as a humble, small baby so that you could live a life like us and relate to everything we experience as humans to be able to comfort us. Help us, Lord, to set aside time everyday from now until Christmas day so that our hearts can be ready to truly celebrate and fully accept the best gift we can ever imagine—the gift of your life for us! In your name we pray. Amen