The first Christmas wasn’t quite so merry. It wasn’t a Hallmark card. Have we really thought about what happened?
It began with old Zacharias and his aged wife Elizabeth. Godly? Yes. Loving God and his people? Yes. But also disappointed. They had no child and their time had passed.
It continued with a young virgin in Nazareth of Galilee. Nazareth? Can any good thing come from Nazareth – a small backward village in the hills of Galilee, never important, never a destination for anyone of note? She received word that she would become the virgin-bearing mother of Messiah, and believed. How wonderful! But not everyone believed.
She told Joseph and his heart broke. How could Mary be unfaithful to him? Discussions with the rabbi, decisions to be made. Should Mary be stoned? His beloved? No, he would quietly send her away, to another Jewish community in the ancient world where she would bear her shame quietly. Mary, helpless, pure, innocent, and completely dependent upon God to vindicate her.
Then, a 75 mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for Roman taxes. Why won’t the Romans just leave them alone and leave the land? Their swords and hunger for hard-earned Jewish money were everywhere.
Shepherds watching their flocks at night. Appearances of angels. A baby’s cry in Bethlehem. Presenting Jesus in the temple with a poor man’s sacrifice of doves. Then words of praise. An old man, Simeon saying, “He is the One.” An old prophetess Anna shouting for joy in the Temple and pointing others to him. It was time to leave Jerusalem. They were too close to Herod’s palace for such things to be said out loud.
Finally, peace and quiet. Things settling down. Perhaps it was time to return to Nazareth – a slow, peaceful leisurely journey back home would be welcome. But then strangers from the east with a different language and thick accents stopping in Jerusalem and asking questions about a new king being born, and Herod is very interested.
Cunning, deception, plots, and preparation for murder. Herod schemes and waits as the worshipers of the East present their gifts to the Child. More deception – the Magi take a different route home and do not return to Herod. He is enraged.
“Mary! Joseph! Quickly! Take the Child and flee!” the angel says.
A journey in the middle of the night. Rumors of soldiers approaching. Hiding in the dark. The long road exile in Egypt for holy family begins. But weeping is in Bethlehem. Mothers weeping for their children who are no more.
This was the first Christmas. Not Hallmark cards, not snow angels, not pretty lights. But appearances of angels, miraculous conceptions, scandalous rumors, surprised shepherds, prophecies in the temple, travelers from a foreign land, deranged tyrants, and staying one step ahead of death.
This is the world into which the Savior was born. It is the greatest story ever told. It is still being told. Its story continues through us as we take his word to a world full of evil and darkness and shine his light upon the darkness. Deranged tyrants still fume and plot and murder. Angels still fight. People still doubt. God uses old men and women, and young men and women. He works in obscure villages like Nazareth and mighty cities like Jerusalem. And through it all he brings his kingdom which will prevail over all the kingdoms of the world.
The victory of the gods of Babylon was complete. The Jews were enslaved and the images of Bel, Marduk, Enlil, and Ishtar stared down in mockery at them and their weak god, Yahweh, who could not stand the onslaught of the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. The gates to the great city slammed shut and God’s beleaguered people were hurried along for processing.
Then, one Jew broke away from the rest – his name was Seriah. He walked with defiance to the River Euphrates which flowed through the heart of the city, pulled a secret scroll he had been hiding in his satchel, and began reading. He started quietly at first. His words seemed ridiculous and the Babylonians howled at the spectacle. But then he remembered the instructions from the prophet Jeremiah.
When you come to the City, go to the River,
And shout the scroll where people drink.
Tie a rock to the parchment, then throw it in,
Just so shall Babylon not rise again,
Just so shall the Queen of cities sink.
With each sentence, the derision and laughter of the Babylonians grew. This foolish Jew must be mad! Were not his people just conquered? Jerusalem lay in ruins, the temple and the great houses burned to the ground, the city gates and walls demolished. Was not mighty Babylon the queen of the world and the power of all powers?
But Seraiah’s faith held fast. With each word his voice grew firmer and more convincing as he read the words Jeremiah had penned and entrusted to him.
“Declare and proclaim among the nations.
Proclaim it and lift up a standard.
Do not conceal it but say,
‘Babylon has been captured,
Bel has been put to shame, Marduk has been shattered;
Her images have been put to shame, her idols have been shattered.’
“In those days and at that time,” declares the Lord, “the sons of Israel will come,
both they and the sons of Judah as well; they will go along weeping as they go,
and it will be the Lord their God they will seek.
They will ask for the way to Zion, turning their faces in its direction;
they will come that they may join themselves to the Lord
in an everlasting covenant that will not be forgotten.”
Seriah finished Jeremiah’s words. He rolled up the scroll, tied a rock to it and flung it to the Euphrates, the scroll and rock rising high and far in a perfect arch, then descending toward the water with great speed. Everyone watched as the scroll, for a moment rested on the river, and then the weight of the rock carried it to the depths never to be seen or read from again. Seriah turned and looked at the people of Babylon who had become quiet, and then he returned to his people to await the fulfillment of the word of the Lord.
Against all odds, 47 years later, the Queen of the earth, Babylon, was destroyed, and the little band of people made their way back to Jerusalem, to rebuild and to wait for the Messiah.
Against all odds! Is this not what it means to walk by faith? To trust God’s word when everything around says something else? Is this not what the prophets, the apostles, and our Lord supremely, did – to keep walking forward, trusting in God’s word when everyone and everything else was screaming the opposite?
Against all odds Jesus came when the mightiest empire of them all, Rome, ruled the land. Against all odds he proclaimed God’s empire. Against all odds, he entrusted himself to his Father as he descended into death. Against all odds he rose again from the dead and against all odds he was enthroned at the right hand of God, the rightful ruler of heaven and earth, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus said.
You and I are to walk by faith, just like Jeremiah wrote his scroll by faith and Seriah read it by faith by the banks of the Euphrates River and in the face of its false gods. You and I are called to walk by faith like the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus.
Against all odds you and I are called to write, to read, to live, to love, to serve the kingdom of God in the face of mighty empires and mighty movements that array themselves against the Lord and his Anointed.
Whether your problem is big or small, whether it pertains to reaching people with the Gospel of the Kingdom in countries where it is dangerous to name the name of Jesus or just getting through today’s challenges in our country, you and I are called to walk by faith against all odds.
And if your faith begins to falter, remember Seraiah’s Secret Scroll and the river into which it descended. God’s words do come true.
Word of God, Speak!
The story of Seraiah’s Secret Scroll can be read in Jeremiah 51:59-64. Jeremiah’s words against Babylon can be read in their entirety in Jeremiah 50:1-51:58.
I came home from a storytelling workshop last night not knowing that a play with an important point for God’s people would be enacted right in front of me. The actors in this great play – my cat – Lucy, my dog – Nigel, my wife wife – Kathy, and me!
I had just settled onto the couch by Kathy, expecting a peaceful ending to what had been a pleasant evening. I shared about the workshop and we talked about our day, but the cries, the yelling, of our cat Lucy at the window would not stop.
“Kathy, did you feed Lucy tonight?”
“Yes I fed her. I don’t know what her problem is.”
On and on it went. Finally, our ever vigilant Nigel asked to go outside to investigate and in a few minutes we heard him growling and yelling in the same area. Kathy thought he might be yelling at a possum and ran out to protect him only to discover he was standing at Lucy’s food dish and yelling at the cat who had been yelling at me!
“Nigel, stop that. That’s your sister Lucy. That’s her food.”
She picked him up and brought him in scolding him for his selfishness. But the yelling in my house didn’t stop. Lucy was soon at the window again, yelling. Nigel went to the window and yelled back and this time I decided to investigate.
I looked at Lucy’s dish. Something was wrong. The food pellets were too big. Then I yelled, with laughter. “Kathy, you gave Lucy the wrong food! You gave her Nigel’s food!”
Lucy had been yelling at me because she wanted her food. Nigel had been yelling at Lucy because she had his food. Kathy had been yelling at Nigel for yelling at Lucy but he was protecting his own. And then we yelled with delight and fun at what we had just lived, all because of the wrong food.
The wrong food – it produces yelling – and a lot of other unhealthy practices and consequences in our lives and in our churches. God told Jeremiah, “The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has my word speak my word in truth. What does straw have in common with grain, says the Lord.”
Indeed, what does straw have in common with grain? Man’s words and dreams are straw. God’s word and his vision for the world is wholesome grain. What are we putting in our spiritual food dishes? What are we pastors giving our flocks? What are we consuming each day – straw or grain? Are we eating the wrong food, or the true food that God provides?
Word of God, Speak!
Today is a historic day for the Heaven & Home Hour. We are beginning our first international broadcast in the country of Albania! Several months ago we began our weekly broadcast Stories of the Master in Albania. Today our daily broadcast begins.
Albania is a country of 3.1 million people. The country was ravaged by the policies of communism in the 20th century and is still in recovery. The country is also close to 60% Muslim. Please pray that God would use our broadcast mightily to build up the Church, reach the lost for Christ, and bring healing to this needy land.
None of this would have been possible without partners like you and the generous gifts from listeners around the world. We are humbled and grateful you chose to be part of this exciting project.
Listen for yourself to this amazing expansion for the Heaven & Home Hour.
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