Christmas Eve

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Between bowls and bowls of washing up and waiting for the baking to finish in the oven I’ve caught up on some blog reading today and put together a Happy Christmas blog post with some great links of a festive kind.

I spent eight hours solid in the kitchen today, finishing the baking and the pies and supervising the family around the table in some collaborative cooking that helps me feel more Christmassy. I made a huge roasting tin of whole food mincemeat slice, two dozen Christmas cookies, a lamb stew and a couple of fine raised pork pies. When it came to icing the cookies Lucy and I found that it was harder than it looks and regretted the time we spent on Pinterest looking for unrealistic inspiration. But Instagram saved the day and I am reliably informed they taste good. Which is the point, I guess.

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I think there are some plans tonight for a meal around the table, the lighting of candles and the wrapping of gifts. There is wine to drink and beers in the cool box in the garden (no room in the fridge).  In the little sitting room there awaits a pile of movies eager to be watched, whilst in the upstair sitting room there are board games and reading for anyone who wants to join in.

Thank you so much for reading my blog. I love to write and still feel surprised that anyone would open the page and read. The blog is a year old in a few days time; 5000 views and 100 comments. Thanks for participating!

Here is some holiday reading:

In diagram form Holy Week Timeline Visualisation from Bible Gateway

Frank Viola, Separating Fact from Fiction in the Nativity Story

Milton Jones, How about we agree on taking Christ out of  Christmas?

Giles Fraser in today’s Guardian, The Bethlehem story takes us deeper into what it means to be human

Brian Zahnd on Plato’s Cave: A Christmas Story

Ann Voskamp on What to do when you have no idea how to get ready for Christmas on time

Sarah Bessey, In which heaven breaks through

Peter J. Leithart, How N.T. Wright Stole Christmas

Michael Spencer (Internet Monk), on Frederick Buechner: “Christmas Itself is by Grace”

Brennan Manning, Shipwrecked at the stable

The Work of the People, it is impossible for me to choose my favourite video from this vast resource but for starters you might try, Parker Palmer, William P. Young (author of The Shack) or one of the Advent reflections.

Christmas poems from Wendy Cope, John Donne and Laurie Lee. And some Christmas songs …

You can also catch up with my own Christmas blog posts, herehere and here. Finally spare a thought for troubles at home and troubles afar; the poor on our own door step, the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the unfolding situation in South Sudan.

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A walk one winter night

Now the holidays have come there will be slow days at home, the wrapping of presents and the lighting of candles whilst all around the house we breath in the aromas of Christmas baking: cinnamon, brown sugar and almond paste. There will be a little more time lying in bed on cold mornings and we will share the preparation of food around the kitchen table. In the afternoons we will choose which films we want to watch and talk about articles we read online and which Youtube videos we have all watched. And there will be music from the kitchen as we bake and in the sitting room where we read and the near constant strumming of the ukulele and banjo in the rooms up above. Piled on the coffee table we have the Christmas books, Dickens, Narnia and travelogues of the Middle East. This is a huge book time for us: we give books, receive books, we read books and discuss books. In our home we never tire of stories, our own and those of others.

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I found this video-ed storytelling treat on the storyline blog this morning and hope that at some point today you will find time to listen. Everyone loves being read to, but we forget the pleasure in old age or busyness or in our surrender to the louder demands of TV and internet. It’s fifteen minutes long; so make yourself a milky coffee and choose something baked from the cake tin before you sit down to watch.

In the distance I saw a warm glow coming from a small wooden stable in a yard down the street, sheltering something inside that was older than the stars and bigger than the whole wide world, and it was real.

from Al Andrews, A Walk One Winter Night

You can purchase, Al Andrews, A Walk One Winter Night:A Real Christmas Story at a real bookshop or online.

Something lovely for the weekend before Christmas

Today we finished school at lunchtime for Christmas. So the holidays have begun and I am really not one of those Christians who is especially fanatical about putting Jesus back into Christmas. I think Christmas is just fine as a family holiday time with gift giving, all the best food and some sparkly decorations. The season gives us some especially good opportunities for sharing the message about Jesus but I’m too much of an all year round kind of Christians to get upset about the secularisation of Christmas. I guess the message here is that Jesus is for every day, not just for Christmas.

So please forgive me this shameless sharing of a puting-Jesus-back-into-Christmas video message that I can not resist sharing.

Believing the wrong things about God can be quite a problem for believers and unbelievers alike.

 

Santa gives things then goes away,

Jesus shows up to befriend and to stay.

Santa rewards those for good behaviour,

Jesus draws near to the broken as Saviour.

If you don’t like God I think I know why,

Your probably think he’s Saint Nick in the sky.

You’re right to reject that far away stranger,

This Christmas look down to the God in the manger.

This video was made by Glen Scrivener an evangelist working in the South of England. You can read his blog here.

The ‘to do’ list

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It’s that time of year again and I’m at the mercy of the ‘to do’ list.

Bent low under the oppression of slave driven orders (that I wrote myself), crushed beneath the tyranny of a bitter regime, I’m on a fast track to glory where each rung of the ever onwards ladder of success is a pencil line through the next item, as I strain forwards to accomplish an ever growing list of ‘must do’ tasks. If the the ‘to do’ list is lying I’d like to call out the truth right now. My value and existence are not dependent on what I do, my value is dependent on who I am.

Before this ‘to do’ list lays claim to the whole holiday, I have an announcement to make. Before this calendar is completely full, like the draw under the bed and space on the bottom of the wardrobe, fit to burst with unwrapped gifts. Before the unwritten Christmas cards get up out of the box and wave farewell to the last day of posting and before the amount of home baked goods exceeds the space I have cleared in the deep freeze, I need to pause. For there will be errands to run, for hard-to-come-by herbs to season last minute sausage meat stuffing when Paxo just won’t do.  There will be trips in the fading light of the year’s shortest day, into the copse at the back of my house for ivy and rose hips, when a shop bought wreath has failed to bring the Christmas we have dreamed of into the house and at midnight I will be cutting out a last minute quilt or pincushion for a friends who deserves something hand sewn, if I don’t stop myself now.

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This is a Christmas to be more and do less. A time to just be, because that is enough, because God is enough. Put the ‘to do’ list aside because there is something of Christmas that you can not buy and you can not bake. Take some time, slow down and breathe deep. Look around and give thanks. Laugh, smile, hug. Remember Jesus.

God sent His Son Jesus, in the likeness of a man, flesh, blood, skin, bone and beating heart. And unlike other men before Him and since, this man, this God-man did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. This man was not driven in the relentless pursuit of the recognitions and achievements that other men chase but he took on a humble nature that harnessed the fullness of divine strength without ever taking the upper hand. He died on the cross and there, in a place of punishing shame and degradation, he initiated a miracle of redemption that defied all reasonable possibility. Finally he sealed the work in a breathtaking resurrection that changed the course of history and eternity forever, that changed the course of my history and eternity forever.

Therefore:

Be reconciled

We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5.20-21

Be transformed

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12.2

Be loved

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2.20

Be still

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Psalm 37.7

Be holy

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

Ephesians 1.4-6

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Shepherds

I have four children. They all went to toddler groups, nursery, school and Sunday school and I estimate that over the past twenty years I’ve seen approximately thirty nativity plays. So with such a vast experience of the Christmas story you would expect me to know the tale quite well, but I’m reading Luke’s gospel at the moment and learning some new things about the characters that populate this all too familiar story. With a little extra study and help from some well grounded Biblical scholars I have been reading the first century Jewish context (rather than their tea-towel-on-the-head nativity play context) into the account.

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Some Christians are nervous of too much academic input into our reading of scripture and rightly so where intellectualisation of the Bible has robbed it of the power to speak faith to us. We do not study the historical context of the books of the Bible to fuel our fire with proud arguments, clever reasoning or to distance ourselves from real lives, our own lives and the lived out realities of the everyday people of God. Instead we consider the historical Jewish backgrounds of the people and events in the Bible because the writers were themselves Jewish and their language of faith was layered with centuries of experiences, customs, traditions and language quite different from our own.

The first New Testament readers or even earlier hearers of this Christmas story would have their own particular associations with places, people and events in the story and these associations could be quite different from our own. Even individual word choice had the possibility of opening up whole universes of meaning for the original hearers that would be completely closed to us. For example, when they heard the story of the shepherds and the words of the angel, “Today in the town of David a saviour has been born” the town and the idea of a saviour were not random. Instantly they would have have linked the nativity shepherds to King David, who lived about 1000 years prior to the birth of Christ and to associated ideas of a Messiah and a future kingdom expectation. The biblical King David began life as a shepherd boy in the hills around Bethlehem. He was an unlikely candidate for kingship but went on to become eulogised as Israel’s most glorious and successful king. He united the people of Israel, led them to victory in battle, conquered land and paved the way for his son, Solomon, to build the Temple in Jerusalem. All the Messianic hope of the Jews of that time was focused on the House of David. In short they were expecting a Messiah who would be like David. After the death of Jesus the new theologians of the church began to piece together an understanding of the new covenant that could build a parallel between the life of David, shepherd boy turned king, and the life of Jesus, the Good Shepherd of John 10. It was a parallel that made new sense of the coming kingdom of God. It was the lynch pin in the turning of their hearts from the old covenant with an earthly King, an earthly temple and a written law to a new covenant with a heavenly King, inner worship and a transformed heart.

So the 18 short verses in the gospel of Luke chapter two that give us the account of how the shepherds came to visit the infant Jesus are much more than an example of God choosing a ragamuffin bunch of semi-vagrant agricultural workers to witness the first facts of the incarnation. In fact, a little study reveals that the social status of the shepherds was unique, complex and in many ways a social and religious contradiction, revealing to us some big picture truths about what God would achieve through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It was unusual in Biblical times for livestock to be raised close to a town. People may have kept a few animals near to where they lived, but large numbers of animals would never have been reared close to human settlements because of the smell and faeces which presented a challenge to the religious laws of the time regarding cleanliness. Bethlehem however was an exception. The lambs raised in the lime stone hills around Bethlehem were destined for sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem, just six miles away and as such they and their keepers had special status. In the month leading up to passover the lambs would be made ready for the festival, for sacrifice or for eating at the passover meal. The shepherds who tended these specifically purposed flocks understood their responsibilities and they worked with the rabbis and priests to ensure that only perfect specimen were sent to the temple. These perfect lambs would be wrapped in swaddling clothes, just like the swaddling clothes of Luke 2.7 that Mary used to wrap her son.

Jewish tradition in the Talmund and Christian tradition in the writings of the early church historian Eusebius identify the area around Bethlehem as Migdal Eder meaning “tower of the flock”. This is the place where Jacob went after Rachel died, “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder” (Genesis 35.21). It is also the place referred to by the prophet Micah when he says, “As for you, O watchtower of the flock (Migdal Eder), O stronghold of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you, kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem”. Archeologists and historians are unable to agree on the exact location of this place though it is reasonable to assume there would actually have been a tower there. This tower could have been for the shepherds to use in their work managing and protecting the flock, but some scholars have suggested it was provided for priests involved in the selection of temple lambs and essential in keeping these holy men separate from the unclean activities of shepherding.

Whatever the procedures it is certain that the shepherds lived firmly outside the city walls because the work they did left them unclean according to Jewish laws. The demands of their job and the time scales that they worked to would make it virtually impossible for them to visit the synagogue or the temple in Jerusalem. This would have isolated them from worship and faith practices that provided for the forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God. Ironically the shepherds whose lives were inexorably bound up in providing the sacrificial lambs that took away sin of the people were unable to personally receive this forgiveness for themselves.

So, when we read, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”, we understand that the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world will be born in Bethlehem because that is where all the sacrificial lambs come from. What an amazing message for anyone who has felt excluded from the loving kindness of God! Furthermore, as the shepherds get up off the ground and make their way to find the child, they are walking out of the old covenant that separated them from God and into the new covenant and a new relationship with God and new possibilities of complete forgiveness for sin and un-hindered access to God.

So if you have ever wondered about the unusual details of the nativity story consider how God likes to show rather than tell. Notice the breadth and depth of what he is able to show us when he has shepherd visit the infant Jesus. Consider the greatness of the kingdom truths and the impossible task of communicating them to fragile minds. He is not a wordy God of long theological explanations but he writes his truths for us in human lives and especially in the human life of his son Jesus.

Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then he sat down right beside God and waited for his enemies to cave in. It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process. The Holy Spirit confirms this:

This new plan I’m making with Israel

isn’t going to be written on paper,

isn’t going to be chiseled in stone;

This time “I’m writing out the plan in them,

carving it on the lining of their hearts.”

He concludes,

I’ll forever wipe the slate clean of their sins.

Hebrews 10.11-18 The Message

You can read more about Migdal Eder on Biblical Geographic.

Some scholars have explored the possibility of Jesus being born at Migdal Eder rather than in Bethlehem. Bill Blankschaen provides a short introduction to their arguments here.

 

Advent

The story of how Jesus was born in Bethlehem told by people who live in Bethlehem now. Mansour a shepherd and Baseel a taxi driver. Ameen a street vendour and Aisha a midwife. Rana a peace activist and Zak an antiques dealer. Issa and Ali, refugees and the believers David and Baseel.

We have heard this story many times and our belief that we know it well is the thing that is about to stop us from hearing it at all.

We have made the story in our own image, taken it and shaped it into something suitable for our Christmas cards and advent calendars, a carol service vignette with snow and gentle animals to soothes our credit card worries and calm our over shopped minds. This is a drawing room saviour in a church car park stable scene. At some juncture in the story this saviour buys us just enough peace and love to make it through the holidays and maybe enough for a happy new year.

But hidden somewhere in the the labyrinth of romanticism and consumerism there lies a gritty human story of political intrigue, religious manoeuvrings, murder, mischief and danger. This story is not for children, or Christmas cards. It is not for anyone who would like things to stay just the way they are.  Suffocating under layers of embellishment, additions and decorations there sweats a christmas story set in the towns and villages of real families: farmers, craftsmen, traders and their women. This is a fighting tale that struggles to break free from our tyrannical grasp and tell the truth about the way things are.

The story defies our ownership of it, however many time we take it and make it into an image of our own. It breaks free wherever its feet touch the ground.  This story can not be held or confined or be made to beg. It does not ask us permission to speak. It does not need our help for it will find its own way into the hearts and minds of the people it is destined to reach. For this is how God chose to change the whole course of eternity as it sped in its tracks, hot out of Eden with the hosts of heaven in its wake.  When God gave His redemptive story feet and legs to run, it raced out of glory faster than time itself and hit the ground running in a stable in Bethlehem.