Advent Reflections #16 – THE Logos

Of the four gospels of the New Testament, John’s gospel stands apart from the other three in approach, content and style. John includes an account of Jesus coming into the world but approaches it in a very different way to the other gospels.

This is a quick summary of how John describes the story of Jesus coming into this world:
“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2 ESV)
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9 ESV)
“And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 ESV)
“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18 ESV)

John approaches the story of Jesus entering the world by connecting Him to the idea of “Logos”. Most Bibles translate this Greek word as “Word”… “In the beginning was the Word“. This idea of a Word becoming flesh feels a bit too abstract for it to make sense to us. We don’t have a framework in our thinking that can easily translate a ‘word’ into a person. But this is not a problem with John’s approach, but more a limitation of translation.

It isn’t in any way inaccurate to translate the word ‘logos’ as ‘word’ but in doing so it misses the key understanding of what John’s mainly Greek audience would have understood by ‘logos’, and especially when referring to THE Logos.
John’s audience would have understood him to be referring to the underlying, underpinning, foundational basis of everything; the life, power and wisdom of everything and behind everything.
We can get closer to this way of understanding if we consider terms we encounter everyday: biology, anthropology, archaeology, technology, theology…
The ‘logy’ part comes from the root word ‘logos’. These words refer to a study of something through which we discover the underlying principles – the ‘word’ on the subject – and attain knowledge of it through study, analysis and experimentation.

So when John describes Jesus as THE Logos, he is saying that Jesus is the ‘logy’ behind all other ‘logies’.
John is describing to his Greek audience that the mystical source of all things – THE Logos – is none other than a man, Jesus of Nazareth. The Logos has taken on flesh and come to live amongst us!

All other ‘logies’ root themselves in what we can discover and learn through scientific analysis, rigour and experimentation.
But God cannot be approached in this way, and so even ‘theology’ becomes somewhat redundant because God can’t be defined by systems or systematics, however good a job we’ve done in trying.
To have any hope of understanding God, science and thought must give way to the simple reality of THE Logos Himself coming into the world. ‘What’ must give way to ‘who’.

A simple scanning of the stories and words of Jesus in the gospels would show that he was less interested in talking about doctrine and analysis and more interested in establishing relationships. John, the beloved disciple, got this and so his gospel is built around a series of conversations which address matters of the heart and relationships.
In John’s gospel the ‘signs’ (miracles) are much more than a display of Jesus’ power. Every sign challenges our understanding of the world AND of God.
Jesus has come as THE Logos to bring to us the power, wisdom and life behind all things, but He has brought these things in Himself; NOT as a philosophy or science or even religion. Jesus never set out to establish a new religion but to invite people into a relationship; to follow him wherever they are, whatever they’ve done, and whoever they think they are.
John’s gospel shows us this in a number of ways.

In one of Jesus’ conversation in John’s gospel He is speaking to Nicodemus, a religious leader who had the equivalent of several PhD doctorates attached to his position.
They are conversing Jew to Jew, Rabbi to Rabbi, and whilst Nicodemus is looking for some form of validation or sign-up from Jesus to his pharisaic religious persuasion, Jesus responds out of left field with a completely different paradigm.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV)

The thing about love is it doesn’t sit well in the mind and it’s almost impossible to approach scientifically. You may be able to understand certain principles and observable patterns relating to it, but there’s no way that love can be fully understood apart from in an exchange of giving and receiving it. Love is intrinsically and essentially relational; not rational, and rarely reasonable.

If Jesus is revealing his ‘theology’ then it’s no more complicated than “God is love” and Jesus has come to show us this and to invite us to know – as an experience, not intellectually – that God loves you with an everlasting love.
No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. No pre- or post- conditions. God loves you because He is love, and because you were made for that love and to experience it.

This Advent may your ‘logies’ give way to THE Logos.
May you know that THE Logos has come into the world to transcend our knowledge, science and reason with his everlasting love.
May you know that he has come to have a relationship with you and to bring you home to be with the Father.

Advent Reflections #15 – Always pain before a child is born

In U2’s song “Yahweh”, Bono sings this beautiful refrain:
“Yahweh, Yahweh,
Always pain before a child is born”

If you’ve spent any time in a Church, or read certain translations of the Bible then you’ll be aware that Yahweh is the personal ‘name’ God gives to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-15). It’s often written as The LORD in most English Bibles.

Yahweh is the self-revelation of a God who is wholly personal.
This is a god who transcends names, identities, forms and all the other natural constraints, limitations and definitions which we need to function in life.
And yet this indescribable, indefinable God has revealed Himself in a way we can come to terms with; with a name we can call Him by; in a personal way.

Throughout human history Yahweh has revealed Himself in different shapes and forms (known as a theophany). The medium of each theophany is inseparable from the content of the message which follows. In other words, the medium is the message.

In Jesus, God has given us His most important message through His best possible medium. He has come as Himself in the form of one of us to show us how He loves us and that He has come to live for us, die for us and resurrect for us that we might share the same.
In Jesus we see the God who is so personal that He doesn’t just know everything about us as our creator, but He also knows everything about being like us as a fellow human being.

As followers of Jesus we look to his life to discover and learn the message for our own lives. If the medium is the message then the labour pains which preceded Jesus’ birth are also part of the message. Labour pain is one of the most severe kinds of pain and suffering a woman can experience, yet women continue to give birth and many experience it several times by having several children. This is a mystery. Having witnessed three births the first one was by far the most difficult with the most enduring suffering.
I have experienced something of this mystery by observing that the excruciating, enduring, uncontrolled pain is quickly forgotten when the child is born.
The intensity of labour pains are more than matched by the intensity of joy when the child is born. The suffering is endured but it ultimately gives way to life and joy.
Those who have studied birth as a scientific study say that our own birth is one of the most traumatic experiences of our lives. The act of being born is said to be very traumatic and yet none of us really remembers being born, even though we experienced it.
The trauma and suffering is endured but it ultimately gives way to life and joy.

This is the message God has given us.
He has endured suffering for our sake and shown us that suffering always gives way to life and joy. Choosing this way meant that Mary too had to endure suffering for our sake and that her suffering also gave way to life and joy. Mary’s story is our story too.

In Bono’s lyrics he captures for us this amazing reality. God has revealed Himself personally and has endured suffering so that He might share with us in our suffering.
The rest of the song’s lyrics are a prayer inviting God to take the small, limited things we have and to use them and transform them into something beautiful.
The song brings each one of us to the inevitable truth that for something meaningful and world-changing to be born into this world through us, there is “always pain before a child is born”.
Bono does not make light the reality of suffering but brings it into the light of truth that there is always a purpose in it and if we ask Yahweh to use it then it will change the world.
Read the whole song lyrics here.

God has changed, is changing and will change the world BOTH through His own suffering and through our suffering.
As we endure suffering for the sake of the world, that’s the pain part.
As we show through our own life stories that suffering always gives way to life and joy, that’s the birth part.

This advent may you know that God chose the path of suffering even as he was born into this world in Jesus.
May you know that as you suffer it is always for a purpose and never in vain: there is “always pain before a child is born”.
May you know that as Mary birthed the Kingdom of God into this world in Jesus, so God is continually birthing His Kingdom into this world through your suffering.

Advent Reflections #14 – Tea towels and mince pies

This week has been school nativity play week.
It’s reassuring to see that successive generations are involved at an early age in hearing, discovering and participating in the Christmas story and the school my children attend is unashamedly Christian.

One thing I’ve observed is that between my generation and my children’s generation there has been a shift in how nativity plays are done, not only in new creative ways of reframing the same story but also in the area of costumes.
As a child, being a shepherd consisted of wearing a tea towel on your head and wearing your dressing gown to look like 1st Century robes. Hold a stuffed sheep under your arm and you’re done.
Today what you see are a group of shepherds all dressed in the same costume purchased from the supermarket for a few pounds. The same applies to the angels, and the ‘kings’.
There’s nothing wrong with the costumes; they look good, are low cost and an easy option for those responsible for preparing the costumes.

But at the same time… they’re all the same.
What has inadvertently happened is that the nativity play has started to look very uniform. Characters merge into the group which all look the same and there’s very little uniqueness on show.

Last year my 8 year old daughter was in a play which had all the different traditional icons of Christmas woven into the story culminating in the true meaning of Christmas with Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
She played the part of a mince pie representing the kind of food that is eaten at Christmas.
Supermarkets don’t do mince pie costumes and so one of her uncles made her a spectacular – and very large! – mince pie costume.

It wasn’t that it was home-made (albeit professionally so) that made it memorable, nor was it the huge size of it either. It was that during the performance the braces holding it up came unclipped and the pie had to be dropped for the dance scene.
At the crucial moment in the performance for my daughter she experienced a costume fail, but she took it in her stride and carried on as if nothing had happened. More memorable still was that after the performance the head teacher made a special point of recognising that it hadn’t gone to plan but that she had responded brilliantly. The head teacher made sure that the mishap was redeemed.

For those watching the performance, it was not the nice uniform costumes that stood out, or the story itself, but a moment when a home-made, oversized, unique mince pie costume didn’t work out as planned.

This is the message of Christmas.
God did not create us all uniformly. He built into us huge diversity and gave us all the tools we need to create our own ‘home-made’ lives. He did this knowing that we’d all have our moments when our plans and costumes would fail us and we’d be left exposed.
And inasmuch as we all have our own unique story and our own unique failures we also have a unique saviour in Jesus.

In his gospel, John says these words in the first chapter:
“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18 ESV)
The Greek behind the English words “the only God” says “monogenēs theos”. More literally this means ‘unique child of God’.
Jesus is the unique child of God and he has come to make God known to the rest of us who are also children of God.
Our uniqueness comes from being created as individuals whereas his uniqueness comes from being of the Father and having the perfect union relationship with the Father that we all need. Jesus is uniquely able to form a relationship between us and the Father and he does this person-by-person, situation-by-situation, moment-by-moment.
To Jesus, the ‘mince pie costume fail’ is not a problem; it’s the unique place of meeting where we can both know that it didn’t work out as planned but it’s not spoiled the show. In fact it’s added to the colour and texture of it as he redeems it and values us in it.

This Advent may you know that you are unique and that there is nothing uniform about you.
May you know that the unique Son of God has come into the world to meet you in your uniqueness and redeem you, encourage you and make you shine.
May you be set free from the fear of life’s ‘costume fails’ and rejoice with Jesus in whom he made you to be.

Advent Reflections #13 – Treasure

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19 ESV)

What we keep hold of tells us a lot about what we value, and why.
In our house we’re doing some pre-Christmas sorting to get the house ready for family visiting and we have two large boxes labelled ‘Keepsakes’ which are full of stuff we want to hold on to. We might never look through those things again, or only very occasionally, but we value them as tokens and reminders of important people and events in our lives so we keep them.

In his gospel account Luke includes this little reference to Mary’s response to the shepherds coming to find Jesus. It’s almost a throwaway comment and yet it holds a wealth of meaning for us.

The English word ‘treasure’ used here is not the same as a casket of booty overflowing with gold coins in the original Greek. It’s more like our word ‘keepsake’.
Luke is telling us that Mary held on to the events of that first Christmas night when Jesus was born like a keepsake and pondered them in her heart.
Mary valued that event and so she held onto it in her heart. It had no tangible presence that she could store away in a box like she could with the gold, frankincense and myrrh. It was her personal experience of the overwhelming joy of others that she held onto, and only her heart could keep something that ephemeral safe from being lost.

Mary teaches us something profound through what she kept safe.
She valued the experience of joy that others had when they met Jesus for the first time. She shared their joy and was so moved by it that she stored it away in her heart and pondered it.

Jesus does this to people and he does it to me time and time again when I encounter him.
He breaks the ground of our ordinary lives and causes a fountain of joy to spring forth. Encountering Jesus is always much more than a sense of happiness – in fact I’ve had deep encounters with Jesus in profound suffering. Jesus releases something within us that starts to well up and overflow. That’s joy.

Mary’s response to me would be to treasure my joy and keep it in her heart and ponder it.
Is our response to someone encountering Jesus like that of Mary’s? Do we value it and treasure it and ponder it?

Without Mary’s treasuring we may never have heard the amazing story of that first Christmas night, or maybe it would have mutated in translation into something quite different. But the truth is that some ordinary people had their lives turned upside down when they met Jesus and the fruit of that encounter was joy.

This Advent may you encounter Jesus and experience that same joy of Jesus Overwhelming You.
May you be like Mary and treasure your joy and the joy of others and ponder it so that these stories of joy might continue to be told.
May you hear Jesus’ words, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11 ESV)

Advent Reflections #12 – 12 days of Christmas

In our Advent series we are 12 days in and halfway through the countdown to Christmas.
So there are 12 days left until Christmas day and after that we start the “12 days of Christmas”.
Hopefully that’s not too confusing!

In keeping with the fascination of today’s peculiar date I’ve been reflecting on the number 12 as it appears many times in the Bible, and especially in relation to people.

Jacob, later Israel, had 12 sons who became the 12 heads and names of the 12 tribes of Israel (Ephraim and Manasseh were 1/2 tribes each of what would have been Joseph’s tribe).
Jesus chose 12 men to be his disciples and he their Rabbi. 1 of these betrayed Jesus and killed himself and was replaced by Matthias to make 12 again. These 12 became the first leaders of the Church and were quickly joined by others, including Paul who wrote most of the New Testament letters.
In John’s Revelation we read a description of the new Jerusalem which has 12 foundations representing the 12 apostles and 12 gates representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The gates of this great city are always open and never shut!
And there are lots more…

But I’ve also been reflecting on how 12 features in our day-to-day lives.
Our lives are lived with the number 12 playing an essential role, especially when it comes to time and days. As creatures who are within time – and limited by it – the regularity of ‘12’ day in, day out becomes a part of the rhythm of our lives and in turn a part of us.
It’s so easy for this rhythm, this pace, to so shape our lives that we forget how to stop and be still. The relentless ticking of the clock acts as a constant pressure to keep going, to keep moving and to never just stop.

It’s interesting that it’s often only in the quiet stillness of a room that a ticking clock can be heard. To perceive the presence of ticking time you have to suspend it and be still.

One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is Silent Night.
The words and music work together like a lullaby to gently calm you into a restful state.

Silent night, Holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in Heavenly peace
Sleep in Heavenly peace

This image of a newborn Jesus in peaceful sleep is a gift to us in this busy, relentless Christmas season. God could have proclaimed peace from heaven and we would know it, yet there’s something much more powerful and tangible about the God of the universe resting in peaceful sleep as a newborn baby which brings it right home for us.
Jesus has come to bring us peace – his “shalom”.
In his final hours with his disciples he said these words:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27 ESV)

This advent may you find time to stop so you can hear time and know that you don’t have to be bound by it.
May you rest in the peace of Jesus which surpasses all understanding and may your troubled hearts be stilled.
May you receive His shalom and be still to know that He is God.

Advent Reflections #11 – What’s the difference?

As a parent of 3 young children Christmas Eve is all about ‘getting ready’ for Christmas day. Our children love it and enter into the excitement of going to sleep with an empty stocking and a bare space at the foot of the Christmas tree in the hope that they’ll wake up to a stocking full of treats like chocolates, socks, bubbles, and… a tangerine! (every year they have the same puzzled look when it comes to the tangerine).
They wake up early and come into our room patiently waiting until we’ve given them ‘permission’ to eat their weight in chocolate before breakfast, which we obligingly do!
Then it’s downstairs to discover a pile of wrapped presents at the bottom of the tree and pleading with us to open at least some before breakfast. Again we obligingly consent.

It’s tricky being a Christian parent at Christmas time. It should be one of the main focal points of the year of our faith and why we believe what we believe, but I can’t help but think that we’ve absorbed the surrounding culture into the meaning of Christmas, and that the spirit of Christmas has become more like the spirit of the age, rather than God’s Spirit.

We have our nativity scene on display in the house and always respond positively to the Christmas cards that have a Christmas theme, and not just a winter theme, but if you walked into our house on Christmas Eve you’d struggle to see the difference between our house and the house of someone who approaches Christmas in an entirely secular way.

Is Christmas really that much different for Christians as it is for those who are indifferent to Jesus and why he came into the world?

As I reflect on the original Christmas story there is much about it which would have been quite ordinary and unremarkable. If you lived in Bethlehem at the time and walked past the house you wouldn’t have noticed anything remarkably different about that family scene or any other.
In other words, it would have been very easy to miss the point of Christmas 2,000 years ago even if you’d seen baby Jesus and Mary as you walked past, just as it is easy to miss the point today.

From reading the stories it seems to me that the difference in meaning lies in those who were looking for Jesus. The shepherds ‘searched’ and the magi ‘followed the star of the new king’. They were both looking for Jesus whether they knew precisely whom they were looking for or not. And so Christmas ‘happened’ for them and in both cases the outcome was the real joy of Christmas.
In that first Christmas there were big celebrations and amazing presents, so we’re not missing the mark if we make a big deal out of our Christmas celebrations, but unless we are searching for Jesus at Christmas then we’ll never get the point of it, whatever we do or don’t do with stockings, presents and trees.

This advent may you know that Jesus has come so He might be found.
May you discover the true meaning and purpose of Christmas FOR YOU as you search for Jesus in your own experience of it.
May the true Christmas Spirit be the coming of God’s Spirit into your home and heart.

Advent Reflections #10 – TWO kings

Here’s a great question for a quiz night:
“How many kings are there in the Christmas story, and what were their names?”
Typical answer:
“3 kings – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.”

That would of course be the wrong answer because, like the missing donkey, the ‘3 kings’ were actually referred to in Matthew as “wise men” or “magi” (from the Greek Magos) and not kings at all (Matt 2:1). Also there is no mention of 3 people, only 3 gifts (Matt 2:11).
At some point they became ‘kings’ and were given names.
In Spain, the country of my own birth story, the big celebration and party isn’t so much at Christmas, but on 6th January where they celebrate “La Fiesta de los Reyes Magos” (The Feast of the Magi Kings).
In Spain you have to wait until 6th January to get your Christmas presents, and Santa has no part to play! If, like me, you have a British mum then you get two Christmases 🙂

But just because the magi weren’t kings (perhaps controversially, they were magicians and/or astrologers) doesn’t mean that this story isn’t about kings. It absolutely is.

Here’s that great question for a quiz night again:
“How many kings are there in the Christmas story, and what were their names?”
Right answer:
“2 kings – Herod and Jesus.”

It’s really important that we see that this is a story about two kings; two very different kings.
Herod was a tyrannical ruler and regarded by the Jews as not actually being Jewish at all! He was a vassal king of the Roman Empire who had gifted the emperor Caesar Augustus with huge amounts of high quality Jewish gold which he had sourced dubiously through theft and taxation. He had bought his crown and he ruled extravagantly and wastefully at the expense of his poor ‘subjects’. It was this Herod who rebuilt the temple which was later destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans and which Jesus predicted would not have one stone left standing atop another (Matt 24:1-2).
His successor was the Herod who had John the Baptist’s head cut off and to whom Jesus was sent just prior to his crucifixion and who died of worms.
The whole kingship of the Herods was a polluted line of paganism which was about as far as you could get from the idea of a Godly King of the Jews.
This Herod kept the people enslaved by supporting the Romans and living his lavish lifestyle at their expense.

In Jesus we see the complete opposite.
This ‘king’ was born into poverty and didn’t even have a proper crib to be laid in when he was born. And yet it was clear that he was indeed a king.
The magi were astronomers and astrologers and they’d seen a new star and immediately knew what it meant; a king had been born, and so important and significant was this king that they travelled halfway around the known world to find him, and more than that to worship him (Matt 2:2).
They went to the most obvious place, the palace in Jerusalem and Herod was naturally perplexed and troubled before becoming violently envious and destructively vengeful. The magi must have been surprised when they finally arrived in Bethlehem and the humble ‘palace’ of this king, but Matthew says that when they found Jesus, the king, they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” (Matt 2:10)

Joy upon joy! This is the response that this king brings out in people.
This is the king of joy; the king who is in Himself ‘good news’; the king who dwells amongst the poor and the humble; the king who sets people free to be extravagant worshippers of the Divine; the king whom people pursue because something inside them draws and drives them to seek him out and find him; the king of the unexpected.
He may not be a typical king, yet he is nonetheless a king, and in fact the King of all kings.

This advent may you know that your King has been born and has come to reign.
May you know that He has come to set you free to be extravagant in your joy and your giving and your worship.
May you know Him as the servant King, humble and gentle, yet above all other kings, presidents, prime ministers and political leaders.

Advent Reflections #9 – Just turn up

Last week in our household we celebrated the 8th birthday of our first child. This prompted a flood of memories from the first day when she was born and the joy that she brought into our lives.

One of the things I remember most about that day is that we’d decided that we would only allow family to visit on that first day, but my best friend was desperate to come and visit and meet our new daughter.
I can’t remember whether I eventually gave him permission or if he just turned up anyway, but to make sure he was welcome at this deeply personal family event he brought a gift – a box of expensive chocolates. For some reason he thought that the chocolates would move him from ‘friend’ (albeit best friend) to ‘family’, or maybe he thought that the chocolates would distract us from the fact that he wasn’t really supposed to be there.

When he arrived, for us the gift wasn’t the chocolates at all; it was him. We had rightly decided that it should be just family, but in doing so we hadn’t realised just how happy we would be to share that incredibly special day with him. When he arrived we realised this and thankfully, because he came, we were able to experience that joy.

This is what it’s like with God and us.
That first Christmas day when Joseph and especially Mary would have been overjoyed at Jesus’ birth, it probably wasn’t on their mind that the angels would spread the news and then some random shepherds would turn up. But they did and it says that Mary ‘treasured’ that they came (Luke 2:19).

There is something intrinsic in Mary’s and our experience that tells us that the gift of a baby is in itself God’s message to us that He has come so that we might all share in His joy, and share each other’s joy.
The story in Luke doesn’t mention any specific gift from the shepherds, yet Mary treasured their gift; the gift of themselves coming to share in Mary’s and Joseph’s joy.

I can’t even remember what happened to the chocolates, I’m sure they were very good, but I vividly remember the joy of my best friend holding and loving my first child.
What a profound and precious gift!

This advent may you know that Jesus has come so you might share in His joy.
May you know that His birth is itself a gift to you and all you have to do is receive it.
May you know that your gift to Him is you, and that you would come and see and choose to share in the joy of His birth.

Advent Reflections #8 – Which is it; Jesus or Immanuel?

We all know that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son and she would call him “Jesus” (Luke 1:31).

We also know that an angel of the LORD appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that the child would be a son and that he should call him “Jesus” (Matt 1:21).

So why does Matthew include a prophecy from Isaiah that clearly says that the name of the virgin’s child will be “Immanuel”? (Matt 1:23)
Matthew tells us that Mary conceiving as a virgin is proof that this child is the fulfilment of the prophecy given c.600yrs earlier. Fine.
Except the prophecy is explicit that the child would have a very specific name and that name is “Immanuel”, not “Jesus”. And Matthew is trying to persuade us that this child being called “Jesus” is the same child referred to as “Immanuel” by Isaiah.

So what is Matthew up to?
Is he clutching at straws or is he doing something incredibly clever?
I think he’s doing something incredibly clever… AND subversive.

Matthew makes it clear to us that Immanuel means “God with us”. This is added by Matthew for our benefit as in Isaiah it just says “Immanuel”.
So on the one hand Matthew is saying that this child, whose birth from a virgin was prophesied by Isaiah, is none other than GOD WITH US.
This is massive. To the mainly Jewish audience of Matthew’s gospel the significance of this cannot be overstated. But with it comes certain immediate expectations and associations of what ‘God with us’ means.
Front of mind would be all the times where God made an appearance to their forefathers in the scriptures.
Abraham’s deep sleep and the thick darkness.
The burning bush, the quaking mountain and fire and the passing presence as He showed His back (not face) to Moses.
The thin silence that followed the wind, earthquake and fire with Elijah.
And so on…

To Matthew’s original audience ‘God with us’ evokes something very unlike a vulnerable baby born into poverty in some back-quarter of the Roman Empire.

Which is why on the other hand Matthew emphasises that this child would be called “Jesus”. “Jesus” comes from the Greek “Iesous” (pronounced Yaysoos). Being born into a Hebraic/Aramaic family his name was actually “Yeshua”, which to us would be “Joshua”.
Yeshua was a common name in Jesus’ (or Yeshua’s) day, as it is today. The reason it was popular was probably because of its associations with the Yeshua (Joshua) who succeeded Moses. Joshua was the indomitable military leader of the people of Israel who led them into the promised land. He was a man of faith, courage, valour who set out his stall in the famous words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh 24:15)

And so Matthew starts his gospel by bringing two bits of great news in one announcement.
This child is ‘God with us’ AND this child is a ‘Joshua’. To a people under the yolk of the Roman Empire this is amazing news! For 600 years God had been silent and ‘messiahs’ had come and gone, and Rome was a cruel master if you stepped out of line.
To hear that the promised Messiah has arrived AND is God with us AND is a Joshua would mean an end to Roman rule and an unstoppable military saviour.

Matthew sets up his gospel this way because it’s absolutely true that Jesus is God with us, and it’s absolutely true that He is the saviour. But Matthew also shows how God subverts our expectations and refuses to be a put in a box.
In 3 short words, tagged on the end of the sentence, Matthew subverts the idea that Jesus will be a military saviour from the Romans. The 3 words are “from their sins”.
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21 ESV)

Matthew starts his gospel with this vital distinction. He reveals to us that our enslavement is not to an external military power or empire, but to our sins. And so it’s not that we need a saviour from ‘those out there’, but from what is in our own hearts. We lack the power to be free from sin unless God comes to be with us and saves us from our sin.
And the good news is that he has come, and God is with us, and he will save us.

This advent may you know that God is with you and that He has come to save you from your sins.
May He subvert your expectations and challenge you to address the root problem.
May you know that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. (John 8:36)

Advent Reflections #7 – Distracting Donkey

A mainstay of any nativity play is the ‘little donkey’ which carried the heavily pregnant Mary to Bethlehem from Nazareth. It’s even had a Christmas carol written after it which is sung every year, that’s how significant this little donkey is to the Christmas story.

Except there’s absolutely no mention of a donkey in the gospel accounts.
None. Zip. Nada.

So what?
It may seem like an unimportant detail to us that a donkey has found its way into the story, but the implications of this are significant.

To us in our 21C mindset a donkey isn’t considered an important animal, and not one of the ‘top trumps’ of the animal kingdom. The donkey is considered a humble beast and synonymous with stubbornness and stupidity.
But 2,000+ years ago the reverse was true. The donkey was a ‘royal’ animal, ridden by kings and dignitaries. A king travelling with peaceful intentions would ride a donkey and one intent on war would ride a horse. Both creatures were seen as important animals.
When Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for criticising him for healing a man on the Sabbath, his retort refers to rescuing a donkey out of a pit. Jesus’ observation is that they value the donkey more than the crippled man, as a donkey had financial value. He was highlighting that they had conveniently applied Mosaic law in relation to donkeys in pits because it suited their wallets to do so, whereas a helpless crippled beggar offered them no financial incentive. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the donkey is Jesus riding into Jerusalem in his ‘triumphal entry’ on one as the Prince of Peace and the son of David, Israel’s all-time favourite king. The image of the donkey was not lost on the crowds!

So it’s highly unlikely that Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, even though she was pregnant. Joseph was a carpenter and wouldn’t earn a lot of money as Nazareth wasn’t exactly a bustling hub of commerce – quite the opposite. He and Mary were ‘betrothed’ which meant any money he was earning was to prove to his father-in-law-to-be that he could pay the ‘bride price’ for Mary. It’s unlikely he had spare cash for expensive donkeys. In Luke’s gospel, an animal which is mentioned both in the gospels and in a Christmas song is the turtle dove. A pair of these was offered for sacrifice at Jesus’ presentation at the temple in Jerusalem “according to what is said in the law” (Luke 2:22-24). These animals were reserved in sacrifices for very poor people who couldn’t afford a calf, a lamb or a goat. To offer a turtle dove meant you were the poorest of the poor.

So although it may not seem significant, adding a donkey changes an important dynamic of the Christmas story; that Jesus was born into a humble and poor family who could barely scratch together money for a sacrifice. The God of the universe – the Logos – humbled Himself to become the lowest of the low. He not only associated with humanity in the broadest sense, He associated with the ‘least’ of humanity.
For us the donkey may still create that association, but to others around the world even today this would not be the case.

This Advent as you read the stories of Jesus’ birth again may you see the real details of the story and what they teach us about the Logos taking on ‘skin and fat’ (Greek – sarx).
May we be challenged to examine centuries of tradition so that we don’t lose the truth in tradition and miss the important things.
May you know that Jesus came to show us – in person – that God associates closely with the poor and chose to become ‘one of the least of these my brothers’ (Matt 25:40&45).