Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from a Jacobite and Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Themes: Murder of Innocents, Christmas, Childhood of Jesus
Volume 7 No. 453 December 25, 2017
 
V. Supplement: Christmas

The Problem with Christmas

by impactplayer (Vanity)

The problem is that the Christmas story starts at the beginning of the end of an epic drama. It's like picking up a 700 page novel and starting on page 650. You see the ending, but there is no context - no character development - no drama - no power. And as a story it just does not work. This was demonstrated in glaring fashion a couple of hundred years ago when the Gospel was introduced into Korea and Japan. The entire Bible was available in Korean, but only the New Testament in Japanese - Korea became Christian, while the Japanese grew to only 3% Christian. You see, the story just does not work when you start at the end.

As with any "mythical-type" epic drama, the story really begins not on earth, but in Heaven. God is Love, and He loves His creatures (angels). And the most beloved - and beautiful - of His creations was Lucifer. At some point (and this is where I fill in some blanks of the story just a bit) Lucifer gets just a little full of himself and how special he is, and leads a rebellion among the angels. They are defeated and cast out of Heaven, which causes a couple of new "issues" (God does not have "problems"). The God of Love has lost His "close friend", and there is no place outside of Heaven - so where does Lucifer go? God "begats" from Himself a divine "partner" (Son), truly worthy of His Love, and bestows upon Him the privilege of the creation of worlds and time. (I'm now through filling in some blanks - now back to the "real" story).

Jesus (the Son of God) speaks the word and all of time and space are created - and Lucifer (Satan) and his rebellion now have a place to go. Satan is now locked in time - outside of eternity.

Jesus, however, does not just create time and space - He creates a proliferation of life. And chief among them is Man. But man must now co-exist with Satan. Jesus provides all man's needs, along with a couple of warnings. He tells this first man, Adam, to stay away from the tree of Knowledge (of good and evil), and of the tree of Life (eternity). But Satan is wily, and convinces Man that he can become like God (which is what Satan always wanted for himself) if he would just eat from the tree of Knowledge. So man defies God and falls from His Grace. Now God must protect man from the tree of Life or he will be eternally locked in a fallen state. So man is driven from God's garden and into the world.

Man proves himself helpless against Satan - and the created order becomes one of total disorder. Jesus is ready to destroy all of it and start over, but one man (Noah) is found to be righteous and to walk with God. So he and his family - along with each type of the created animal - is instructed to get into a large ship where they are all saved from a massive flood, destroying all the men infected by evil. But it pains Him to see His creatures destroyed, so He makes a promise to man - sealed with a rainbow - never to do that again.

Evil returns to the heart of man but - once again - God finds one man (Abram). And He calls him to move with his family to a new land and makes a "promise" that He will be their God and they will be his people, and they shall prosper and fill the land and show the nations who God is and how to live in His grace. Abram is given a new name - Abraham - to go with this promise. In his old age Abraham has a son by his wife Sarah. God then asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son - and heir to God's promise. Abraham makes all of the preparations, then God spares the Abraham's son and the promise is fulfilled.

God's protection of His people included using other "pagan" nations to help out. God saw a great famine coming and used Abraham's great grandson - Joseph - to protect His future nation. Joseph, the youngest and favorite son, was beaten and sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Joseph ended up in prison in Egypt, were he gained favor through the interpretation of dreams. God revealed to him the coming famine, and Joseph convinced the King of Egypt to spend the next seven years storing grain. Joseph was put in charge of the entire operation, and eventually moved his family - God's people - to share in this abundance amidst regional tragedy. The people grew in size and influence until a future "pharaoh" - afraid of their growing numbers - turned them into slaves and called for the death of all new-borne males.

God saved one - Moses - and caused him to be raised and trained as Pharaoh's own son. Moses was called by God away from this life of luxury to lead His people out of bondage. God caused great pain upon Pharaoh and the nation of Egypt until they finally let God's people go. He opened the sea for their escape, and they were told to enter the "promised" land - the land God had promised to Abraham. But they still felt like slaves and would not go. God spent the next forty years training them into a nation. He spoke to Moses, giving them the rules to live by (including the Ten Commandments) and taught them how to worship. In this they learned that they were unworthy (sinners) and that only death (sacrifice) could provide the holiness required to approach the living God. Once this generation had been replaced with a generation raised upon God's principles they were given victory over the "promised" land - a land flowing with milk and honey. God now had His nation among the nations of the world, and they were to be a "light" to the world - an example for others to follow.

This nation, however, was weak and disorganized. So fourteen generations after Abraham, God selected a new leader - once again the youngest son - to mold His people into a great nation among the nations. And so David - a man after God's own heart (though clearly short of glory in his own right) - became a great ruler and united the people into a great nation. And David's son, Solomon, was commission by God to build a temple for the worship of this "holy" nation.

But it was not yet to be. This "holy" nation took their "rights" as God's people for granted and performed their "worship" as a ritual. Thus, in time, they were conquered, their temple destroyed and the people of God led away into captivity - this time into Babylon.

This is now the second time God's people have been enslaved. Nothing appears to be working out right. Israel is not a light to the nations, they never could keep their end of the grand bargain with God, and each time - even after God delivers them - their worship soon turns into little more than a cultic ritual. The only thing that has really been established is that God's terms are just, and man cannot live up to them. The pattern has been repeating for generations and generations: God establishes a good foundation (creation), man rebels (sins), man reaps the result of his disobedience (judgment), and God saves and restores His people to a right relationship with Him (re-creation) - only to have it all start all over again. Something MUST be done to break this never-ending cycle.

God's solution (remember, God never has a problem) is mind boggling. He will enter the world of man as a man - show man how to live - then save him from Satan's grip so man could live free of his grasp forever. It would be Heaven on Earth! It is a grand plan - a plan that has been in place from the beginning. God has been "saving" his man creature all along. He has longed to resume His intimate relationship with His finest creation which was spoiled by Adams disobedience. It is now time to set the final stage for this world-changing event.

So, once again, God restores His nation to their land and rebuilds His temple (this time using a pagan king to make it happen), then for seven hundred years begins foretelling His grand entrance into His world.

And so it is - God's people are restored to their land and the temple rebuilt, but nothing is the same. The people are subjected to harsh Roman rule, their priests badly compromised through "deals" with Rome, and their temple turned into a "den of thieves". The people have nowhere to turn. Neither the government nor their priests - not even the temple of God - can help. They are in desperate need of a Savior. John the Baptist sees this and the people flock to him, hoping he is the one. He is not, but he gets them ready and prepares the way.

NOW we can start the Christmas story!

It takes nearly 1,500 pages to tell the story right, with all of its full character development and powerful drama. But if you start with Christmas - without any of this preparation - well then - the story just doesn't make much sense. We can see the "how" of the story, but not the "why". We understand the "what" of the story, but not the "Who". It really has a nice ending, but SO WHAT!

And that is the problem with Christmas. It cannot be explained in a sermon, or a parable, or a simile. Power like this requires preparation, background, and study to even begin to grasp it. And in the end, even this is not enough. In the end - in the final moments of grasping at the wind - it is only Jesus who can fill it with meaning. It only makes sense through His eyes - and we can only see it through Him. It is a paradox - it cannot be understood until we know Him - cannot be held until He holds us - is beyond our senses until He makes sense.

Yes, Christmas is a problem. May it fill you with awe and wonder for the rest of your life!

Through and Beyond Suffering: The Joy of Christmas

by Chuck Colson

So often Christians tell each other - and the world - that we can't forget the real "reason for the season," that Christmas is about Christ, not commercialism. And amidst our material abundance and compressed holiday schedules, we try our very best to be joyful - we really do - as we add Jesus to all our holiday activities.

But sometimes it seems kind of forced, doesn't it? After all, it's difficult to find joy in the season when we feel we have to make another frenzied jaunt to Wal-Mart, or a friend turns up very sick.

The problem with Christmas these days isn't with Jesus; it's with us. More precisely, it's with our "great expectations," to borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens.

Michael Knox Beran talks about the modern "dream of a painless world." Beran calls it the "great illusion" of modern liberalism, "which regards suffering not as something inherent in the very nature of life but as an anomaly to be eradicated by reason and science and social legislation."

Beran, who is a contributing editor for City Journal, quotes President Kennedy: "[M]an holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty." Whew! This utopian delusion, Beran says, persists because "it appeals to our inner egotism and self-conceit. When something painful happens," Beran adds, "one's instinct is to be outraged, as though the universe had made a mistake. ... But there has been no mistake; we have been created to know joy, and also to know misery."

You see, the utopian vision neglects the fact that this is a fallen world. And a fallen world is filled with human suffering. And that's something we don't want to think about, especially at Christmastime.

But you can't understand Christmas if you ignore human suffering. Think of the words of some of the carols we sing: "the hopes and fears of all the years," or "O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here." Think of the pain of Joseph, who first thought that Mary had been unfaithful to him. Think of all the mothers in and around Bethlehem, who saw their young children slaughtered. Think about the words of old Simeon to Mary: "A sword will pierce through your own soul."

Then think about what this Baby came to do - to die on the cross for us. Sure, Christmas is about joy, but it is a joy that is reached through and never loses sight of human suffering in a fallen world. As we sing that glorious carol "Joy to the World" we proclaim that Christ "comes to make his blessings flow/Far as the curse [that is, human suffering] is found."

There is joy in Christmas, even in the midst of the curse.

You see, Christmas joy is for those who hurt. Those who dwell in darkness, Scripture says, will see a great light. As Jesus said, it is the hungry who will be filled, those who mourn who will rejoice. Do you hurt? Then rejoice in the Baby who has redeemed your sin and suffering. Are you in darkness? Look to His light and rejoice in it.

Suffering is the reason for the season. Christ came, amid suffering, because we suffer, to suffer. But our joy lies in the fact that Christ's redemptive suffering points to an eternal weight of glory.

May God bless you and yours this Christmas.

Source: BreakPoint commentary. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

From Mourning to Morning
Scripture: Lamentations 3:19–33

Recommended Reading: Psalm 30:1–12; Luke 24:1–8; Romans 8:18–39

People around the world watched in horror as the video from the attacks of September 11, 2001, played again and again on cable and network news channels. But to those of us who lived in the United States, and particularly in New York City, the reality of these terrorist acts shook us to the core. Never before had a terrorist strike hit so close to home or disrupted so many American lives.

Now imagine a more widespread terrorist attack that painfully and more permanently alters your daily life. This attack destroys federal, state and local government buildings in your community. Somehow, the terrorists seriously damage local utilities, phone lines, cell phone networks and banking services. They murder many government and church leaders. Still worse, the attackers raze your home, rob you of all your possessions and kill your family members. You have no one left.

Welcome to Jerusalem in 586 BC, following the invasion by the Babylonian army.

Of course, we hope we never experience devastation this severe. However, all of us have tasted disappointment, loss, abandonment or the death of a loved one. And during those times we often feel that we've lost everything. Where do we turn when we can no longer feel in control of our surroundings? When we can't fix our problems? When hope seems lost?

Through the prophet Jeremiah God reassured Judah of his great love. God's care for us is greater than any of our current circumstances. He knows our pain and hears our cries. And his mercy and compassion are never far behind. If Jeremiah could attest to this fact even after the violent struggles of his life, then each of us can too.

Because of God's great love we always have hope! We endure difficult struggles not because of our own determination and resolve but because of God's great love. His love can overcome our darkest fear, greatest loss and deepest sorrow. And for every long, dark night of the soul, a new morning ascends on the horizon, bringing a new day. These words aren't empty. They're life-giving promises from God that all of us need during our darkest moments.

This sinful and disappointing world can't guarantee health, wealth and success. But we do have the promise of God's power and love. When we feel hopeless, we can submit to God's will, wait quietly for his deliverance and rest in the promise that his love will carry us through.

To Take Away

Think back to a time when you felt hopeless. From God's perspective, were you really in a hopeless situation? Why or why not?
What would you do differently if you were to face a similar situation again?
What are some practical ways you can remember God's promises during difficult times in life?

Source: NIV Devotions for Men - December 24, 2015

The Scandal of Jesus' Birth

by Jack Crabtree

At Christmas we celebrate Jesus' birth because no more important human being has ever been born. Jesus is the first-born of all creation, the one individual for whom everything else exists. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, who will rule the coming age as our sovereign ruler. Jesus is more than just a man; he is the translation of the very nature and sovereignty of God Himself into human form - the image of the invisible God, the fullness of God dwelling in human form. Jesus is the supreme prophet, the one whom God sent into the world to reveal to us and explain to us the meaning of our own existence, the purposes and promises of God, and the good news of God's plan to grant Life to undeserving man. Jesus is our true high priest, who alone can enter into the very presence of God and represent us to God, just as he alone can represent God to us. Jesus is our advocate, who will plead with God to extend mercy to us, asking that God not give us what we deserve but instead that He would give us Life in the final age. In this sense, Jesus is Life for us; without him the destiny of every last one of us would be death and destruction. Finally, Jesus is our propitiatory offering, who willingly and heroically allowed God, his Father, to pour upon him the wrath that you and I deserve because of our moral perversity. As Jesus himself put it, he died for our sins. And in so doing, he was giving himself up as a costly offering to God, appealing to God to be merciful toward us who identify with and embrace Jesus' appeal to God for mercy.

All of this became a reality and entered into history when the baby Jesus was born in a shelter for livestock over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. I want to focus here, however, on Jesus' willingness to suffer wrath on our behalf.

Christians speak of the "scandal" of the cross. On the cross, Jesus died the death that a sinner deserves. On the cross, Jesus was presented as unrighteous. On the cross, Jesus was heaped with shame and reproach. On the cross, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Master over the whole universe, became an ordinary, petty, mean, and disgusting sinner. On the cross, the Son of God became me; he got what I deserve. Herein lies the scandal: on the cross, the King of glory became the epitome of shame and disgrace. And it is in the face of Jesus' shame and dishonor that I am to confess, acknowledge, and praise him as the King of glory.

How much easier our faith would be if the Son of God had appeared to be what he was. Why didn't the King of kings come wearing a crown instead of the stitchless, one-piece garment of a peasant? Why didn't the Son of God come from an aristocratic family in Jerusalem? Why did he come from an obscure family in an obscure village in the least respected region of the Jews? Why did he not come from a rich, famous, and powerful family of influence? And most importantly, why didn't the Messiah come in victory? Why was his last fully public act a humiliating defeat at the hands of the power of Rome? This is the scandal of the cross: that the most powerful and exalted creature in God's created reality should appear to end the time of his visit in weakness, shame, and humiliating defeat.

We can only understand such an odd and ironic fact by understanding that our King chose to join us in our shame. The shame of the cross was not Jesus' shame; it was our shame. But he took it on himself. The humiliation he endured was not his humiliation; it was ours. But he took it on himself. The pain, the sorrow, the punishment, the condemnation - none of it was his; it was ours. But he took it on himself to make an appeal to God for mercy on our behalf. As righteous and pure and perfectly good as Jesus was, he willingly shared the shame and dishonor of our unrighteousness in order that God's purpose to save us might be fulfilled.

It is interesting, therefore, that the narrative of Jesus' birth anticipated in a small way Jesus' act of joining us in our shame. Let me explain.

Probably because of the cultural importance we place on Christmas, seldom do we mention how scandalous the birth of Jesus had to be. Among the many ironies of the incarnation is the irony that the Son of God came into the world in such a way that it could not help but be scandalous. He began his life among us with scandal just as surely as he ended it with scandal. Not only is there the scandal of the cross, but there is also the scandal of the birth.

God did not appear to the whole village of Nazareth - let alone the whole nation of Israel - to announce the miraculous conception of a baby destined to be the Son of God. No, God sent the angel Gabriel with a private message for one young woman's ears only. Surely God understood the implications of what He was doing and how He was doing it. He was setting Mary up for scandal. What rational person would not justifiably conclude that a young pregnant woman who was betrothed but unmarried had been sexually unrighteous? God could have prevented that. He could have let the whole village in on the secret. He could have vindicated Mary by making it clear to everyone that He, the Creator of the universe, was responsible for her pregnancy. But He did not. He left her in a condition where shame and dishonor in the eyes of her neighbors would be the inevitable result. Why did God do that?

I can only speculate, of course. But I have to wonder whether God was not setting up an act that would anticipate what was to come. To understand this, we have to look at the most neglected figure in the Nativity story: Joseph.

The chronology of the events around Jesus' birth is incomplete, and so it is difficult to give an exact, detailed account of what happened when. What follows is my best reconciliation of the accounts in Matthew and Luke.

An angel announces to Zacharias that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son in their old age. Their son will be the forerunner who will prepare the way for the coming Messiah. Six months into Elizabeth's pregnancy with the baby who would become John the Baptist, the angel comes privately to Elizabeth's young cousin Mary and informs her that she will supernaturally conceive a child who will be the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Almost immediately, Mary travels to visit Elizabeth for about three months. Probably after the birth of John, Mary, then three months pregnant, returns to her home in Nazareth where her family and Joseph, the man to whom she is betrothed, await her. In all likelihood, none of the people in Nazareth - including Joseph and her own family - are yet aware that Mary is pregnant.

The next thing we know, Joseph and Mary are required by the census of Caesar Augustus to relocate to Bethlehem. Where this move falls in the chronology of events is not clear. The most likely reading of the gospel accounts is that their journey to Bethlehem happens shortly after Mary's return from Elizabeth's home. If so, then Mary leaves Nazareth with Joseph before any of her family and neighbors know of her pregnancy. And, indeed, it may very well be that Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem before Joseph knows that Mary is pregnant, four or five months before the baby Jesus will be born. This scenario is different from the one our traditional Christmas cards depict, but it seems to be a likely reading of the two gospel accounts.

If my chronology is right, then Bethlehem is the arena for the scandal surrounding Mary and Joseph. Put yourself in the shoes of Mary and Joseph's new neighbors. A young couple, betrothed but not yet married, arrives in Bethlehem for the census. Three to four months later - the couple still unmarried - it becomes obvious that the young woman is pregnant. Whatever one might conclude does not look good for Mary. Perhaps both Mary and Joseph have been sexually immoral, but certainly Mary has played the sinner.

At this point, Joseph's choices and actions become important. We do not know how he learns of Mary's pregnancy. Perhaps he did not know until Mary could no longer hide it. Perhaps, in anticipation, Mary finally had to tell him. However he found out, now he knew; and he was faced with a choice. I assume that Mary would have tried to tell Joseph the truth, but under the circumstances, believing Mary's story that she had supernaturally conceived the Son of God was not a rational option for Joseph. It was far more likely that Mary had been sexually immoral than that such a unique miracle had occurred. So, Joseph was left with three rational options. (1) He could publicly accuse Mary of sexual immorality and make a public scene of releasing her from their betrothal contract. This option would have put Mary in great jeopardy because the penalty for adultery was death by stoning. (2) Joseph could join Mary in her shame and dishonor and simply proceed with the marriage. Everyone would assume that the two of them had been sexually inappropriate, even though Joseph knew that he had not been. But he could choose to protect Mary and keep her from harm by joining her in her shame and dishonor. The problem with this second option is that it did not honor righteousness. It would entail Joseph's winking at sexual immorality, treating it as if it were no big deal, which is something Joseph could not do, for, as Matthew tells us, Joseph was a righteous man. (3) Matthew tells us that Joseph chose the third possible option - namely, he would respect the Law with regard to sexual righteousness while being as kind as possible to Mary. Thus he opted to break his betrothal to a woman who - as far as he knew - had demonstrated herself a Law-breaker; but he opted to do so privately and quietly, in a way that would minimize the negative impact on her.

At least, that is what Joseph had opted to do before God came to him in a dream and verified Mary's story. Mary had not broken the Law. Mary had not been sexually immoral. God had chosen Mary for a unique and special role: to conceive and give birth to the King of kings while she was still a virgin. The divine instruction to Joseph was to take Mary as his wife. We have to understand, however, what God was asking of Joseph. In effect, God was asking Joseph to join Mary in her shame. She was not to bear the inevitable shame and dishonor alone; he was to join her in bearing it. He was to take Mary as his wife with the inevitable result that their Bethlehem neighbors would believe that the stigma of sexual immorality rested on them both. Joseph had not been sexually immoral; no stigma should justly fall on him. But God asked him to volunteer willingly to bear the perceived sin of Mary on himself, even though it was not his sin. Joseph did just as God instructed. His act was kind, gracious, and heroic. He could have chosen to put his own honor ahead of compassion and separated himself from Mary's shame. But he did not. He chose to bear willingly and heroically Mary's shame along with her, even though it did not justly belong to him.

Note how interestingly Joseph's choice anticipated one of the most heroic choices that Jesus would perform. The father, Joseph, heroically joined Mary in her shame. The son, Jesus, would one day heroically join every one of us in our shame, when he voluntarily chose his death on the cross. God so orchestrated the events surrounding Jesus' birth that Joseph's act, in its own small way, anticipated the heroic act that his son would be called upon to perform. In order for God's saving purposes to be fulfilled, Joseph mercifully had to join a sinner in her shame; he had to bear her shame along with her. Joseph's act is exactly analogous to the central act of God's saving purposes in world history: Jesus mercifully joined us sinners in our shame; he bore our shame along with us.

Without Jesus' heroic act, there would be no salvation. But at the first Christmas, in his own small way, Joseph had to make that same heroic choice first. That is the glory of this season. For at Christmas we celebrate the scandal-shrouded birth of the hero whom God sent into the world to join us in the scandal of our sin so that we might Live and not be destroyed.

Copyright December 2007 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

The Christmas Light That Shines for You Today

by Dr. Jack Graham

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
- John 8:12

For many years of my life, I was a late-riser. I never liked getting up early if it wasn't absolutely necessary. In fact, the idea of waking up before the sun rose was almost nauseating to me.

But then we moved to Florida, and I kept hearing about the beautiful sunrises over the ocean. So one morning, I woke up to watch the sun rise. It was spectacular! From that time on, I got up to see the sun rise. And one of my favorite things about watching the sun rise was how slow it was.

You see, when the sun rises, it doesn't just appear in the sky. No, it starts with darkness… then colors of light begin to appear on the horizon. Soon, the world becomes illuminated with reds and oranges. And then, you begin to see that big yellow ball peaking over the water, rising slowly until its circle appears fully on the water. It's amazing!

When heaven touched earth and God came into the world, it was like the dawning of the day. He could've just appeared, but instead He smiled on the world and His light began to slowly shine. On that silent night so long ago, the light began to dawn.

Thank God for that light today. And Merry Christmas!

SPEND TODAY REFLECTING ON HOW GOD CAME INTO THE WORLD. THANK HIM FOR THE LIGHT HE SHINED THEN AND THE LIGHT HE SHINES IN OUR HEARTS TODAY!

Source: PowerPoint Ministries

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