O little town of Bethlehem

Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”

In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Immanuel – God with us

The birth of Jesus Christ really is a cause for great celebration! His coming into the world has changed the lives of millions of people for the better. His birth was foretold in detail by prophets who lived more than 600 years earlier and their prophecies were fulfilled. The prophet Micah foretold where he would be born and spoke of his greatness. “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus came from heaven to earth with kingly power to do us good.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that he would be born to a young virgin mother. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus reveals God to us. When he came into the world God himself drew near to a troubled world. Throughout history Christians have experienced the presence of God with them, often in very difficult circumstances. One of our greatest needs this Christmas is to know that God is with us.

The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the greatness of the child who would be born, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Jesus came into this world from the presence of his heavenly Father with divine power to execute God’s great plan of salvation for the peoples of this world and to do it as the “Prince of Peace.”

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that is often sung at Christmas and expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free! from our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be. Israel’s strength and consolation, born salvation to impart; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us for ever, now your gracious kingdom bring: By your own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by your all-sufficient merit raise us to your glorious throne.”

Let’s go to Bethlehem

Christmas is a special time of the year. The preparations begin weeks before. There is a long list of things to be done; cards and presents to be bought, decorations and Christmas trees to be put up, school concerts and carol services, food to be bought and cooked, time with the family and, for parents with young children, an early start on Christmas Day! It’s no wonder we can feel very tired. But after its over what remains? When the food has been eaten, the family have gone home and the decorations have been taken down, what stays with us as life returns to normal?

Christmas is about Jesus. The person who is at the very centre of Christmas is the One who remains with us through all the experiences of life. He’s the One who can make a real difference to our lives. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel announced his birth to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.

Like the shepherds why not “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” The birth of Jesus is indeed good news and brings great joy to all who receive him as Saviour. He is the Prince of Peace. Through him we are reconciled to God, and to each other, and know a deep and lasting peace in our hearts.

Special births

Alfie, Connor and Dylan Bateman, who are just 2 years old, are in the Guinness Book of Records. They were born on 31 August and 1 September 2014 and are the smallest and most premature surviving triplets ever. They were born at 23 weeks and their combined weight was less that 3lbs. Early in 2014 their mother, Emma, was told she was carrying triplets. The likelihood of conceiving triplets naturally is one in a million. Thanks to the skills and dedication of the medical team, the boys survived and all arrived home 6 months after they were born, but less than 2 months after their due date. Today they are typical lively toddlers who keep their Mum and Dad very busy. Emma says, “I’m very thankful that, although the boys have some minor issues still to overcome, they don’t have any major health problems – they’re happy, content and cheeky.”

At Christmas, we remember the birth of a very special child. He was conceived in the womb of his young mother, Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the time for him to be born was near, Mary and her husband Joseph had to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. While they were in Bethlehem the time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. This child, born in such humble and ordinary circumstances, has changed the history of the world and the lives of millions of people.

The birth of Jesus was accompanied by some remarkable events. An angel of the Lord announced his birth to shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem. As the glory of the Lord shone around them the shepherds were terrified, but the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

When the angel had left them, the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So, too, why not take time this Christmas to consider the wonderful things God has done in Jesus? He can transform our lives today just as he transformed the lives of those shepherds in Bethlehem.

The Light shines in the darkness

In her Christmas Message the Queen quoted John, Chapter 1, verse 5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” She described it as a verse of great hope. John was speaking of Jesus, God’s Son, who came into the world. John also says of Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In a world where there are an increasing number of what the Queen called “moments of darkness” we need One who brings light into our lives, and who is invincible. Jesus is that Person.

Jesus was born into a violent world. Soon after he was born King Herod tried to kill him. Herod had been appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate more than 30 years before Jesus was born. He was a ruthless tyrant; he murdered his wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others he suspected of treachery. When the Wise Men told him they were seeking the one who had been born King of the Jews, Herod was determined to kill him and ordered his soldiers to kill all the male children under 2 years old in the town and region of Bethlehem.

But Herod’s evil plan failed because God had already warned Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Within a short time Herod was dead and it was safe for Joseph and his family to return to their own town of Nazareth. It was the first example of Jesus, the Light, triumphing over the darkness. Throughout his ministry Jesus faced increasing hostility which culminated in his death on the Cross, yet on the third day he rose from the dead. Once again darkness had been defeated and Jesus had triumphed.

Today Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq are experiencing fierce persecution. Men, women and children are being killed. Many have fled their homes in search of safety. We remember them and pray for them. We are also confident that Jesus is still the Light which shines in the darkness and that he will triumph. Like the mighty Roman Empire, the evil movements of today, which seem so powerful, will all fall and pass away and the evil tyrants who lead them will stand before their Judge. None of them ultimately triumphs because Jesus, the Light of this dark world, will execute perfect justice for those who are poor and powerless.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

This week many people around the world will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three of the people in the world professes to be a Christian and many others will join them in singing carols and hearing Bible readings about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. The message about Jesus is a message for our world today.

The message of Jesus is for all people. The infant Jesus was visited by Wise Men who came from the east. They had travelled hundreds of miles from Mesopotamia, which included modern Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Iran. They had seen a special star which indicated the birth of a great King and were guided to the place where Jesus had been born. When they saw the child they bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The message of Jesus speaks to the peoples of those troubled lands today and to people all over the world.

The message of Jesus is a message of of peace. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.” The shepherds heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” Jesus came to bring peace between God and the people of this world. His death for our sins reconciles us to God so that we have peace with God and know his favour resting on us. When we are reconciled to God, we are also at peace with ourselves and with all other people. The message of Jesus speaks peace to our conflict-torn modern world. Jesus changes hearts and reconciles people from all nations to one another.

The message of Jesus is a message of joy. When the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem they were overjoyed to have found the new born King. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Recently some Christians in eastern Ukraine were giving out food at a bus station to people who had fled their homes because of the conflict. There were also a few Bibles on the table. A lady came up to them and asked, “Is that your book of hope?” The Christians said it was and the lady said, “Please could I have one, because there isn’t much hope in Ukraine today!” The coming of King Jesus brings joy and hope to our sad and needy world. His birth really is something to celebrate!

A Saviour has been born

Christmas is a busy time. The season has a momentum of its own as we are swept along with the pressure of getting everything ready for the big day. It is easy in the busyness of it all to lose sight of the things that matter most and, when it is over, to feel a sense of emptiness and anticlimax.

Joseph and Mary were under pressure when they set off from the little village of Nazareth to go to Bethlehem to be registered in the Roman census. They had to walk 80 miles when Mary was in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The journey could have taken nearly a week. When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was overflowing with people and there was nowhere for them to stay. So Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Hardly anyone in Bethlehem noticed Joseph and Mary and the baby boy who was born; yet this child would change the course of history and transform the lives of millions of people.

When Jesus is at the centre of our lives, not only on Christmas Day, but every day of our lives, everything changes. An angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. They were ordinary men doing a tough job who saw the glory of the Lord. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Then an angelic choir appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had gone, the shepherds went to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields and their sheep they were “glorifying and praising God for all things they had heard and seen.” They returned to the same daily routine, but now it was different because they were different. The had seen the One who came into this world that we might have life and have it to the full. He is the One we all need to find this Christmas. He transforms us through his love and promises to be with us when life returns to its normal routine.

Come to me all you who are weary

Jesus is the heart of Christianity. He is the focus for the faith of his people. His life is the inspiration for their lives and his teaching is the light that guides them through the all the perplexing experiences of life. Christian are not adherents of a religion but followers of a divine person, Jesus, who is both God and man. Jesus can identify with us in every part of our lives because he has been where we are. He has been “touched with the feelings of our infirmities.” For this reason people from every nation are drawn to Jesus and find in him the strength and hope they need.

Jesus knew what it was to be an asylum seeker. Soon after he was born his parents had to flee from their own land to Egypt because of the threat from King Herod to kill him. This was no idle threat because Herod did kill all the little boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. This wicked act caused great grief and weeping in the little town where Jesus was born.

Jesus grew up in a working class home in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee at a time when his home country was under enemy occupation. Throughout his ministry he had no home of his own. He said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” At the end of his life he was hated by the religious leaders, betrayed by one of his own disciples, falsely accused and unjustly condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal.

So whatever struggles we may face in life we can find in Jesus the help we need. He understands our needs and is able to give us his grace and strength and to supply our needs. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” A well-known hymn says, “I know not how this saving faith to me he did impart, nor how believing in his Word wrought peace within my heart. But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.”

Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Mary and Joseph lived in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. Joseph had known Mary from a very early age and she had been promised to him in marriage. She was still in her teens and he was the village carpenter. They loved each other very much and were looking forward to being married and making their home in the village. They could not have known that God had wonderful plans for them that would fulfil his promise that through the descendants of Abraham all nations on earth would be blessed.

One day the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her not to be afraid because the Lord was with her. The angel told her that she would supernaturally conceive a child and give birth to a son. He said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary’s humble response to God’s purpose for her life was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

When Joseph realised that Mary was pregnant he was devastated and assumed, very understandably, that she had been unfaithful to him. He did not want to her to be publicly disgraced so planned to end their relationship quietly. Then, one night, God revealed the truth to him in a dream. An angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Joseph married Mary and had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.

This was the beginning of the greatest story ever told. God had promised to provide a saviour and out of love for a sad and sinful world he gave the gift of his only Son to be that Saviour. Jesus was also called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This Christmas, and every day of our lives, each of us needs to know God’s love for us, the forgiveness of our sins and that he is with us. Then we can joyfully sing, “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the new born King: peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies; with the angelic host proclaim ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

As we sat in Bali airport waiting for our flight it was a very pleasant surprise to hear the music of a familiar Christmas carol, “Joy to the world”, being played. The carol joyfully affirms that the coming of Jesus into the world is a reason for all to rejoice. “Joy to the world! The Lord is come, let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing.” Jesus, who was born in lowly circumstances in Bethlehem, is King of kings. “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove, the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

It seems as if two different celebrations are being held at this time of year. For some it is “Winterval”. In the dark days of mid winter this festival offers happiness through spending, feasting and parties. It is very expensive and leaves the headache of paying the bills in January. It is really good, in the busyness of modern life, to take time to be with family and friends and to give and receive presents, but surely there is more.

Jesus is at the heart of Christmas. His birth is a wonderful reason to celebrate because his coming brought true and lasting joy. In the words of another Christmas carol, “O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

There are real similarities between Bethlehem, when Jesus was born, and our 21st century world. The people in Bethlehem that night were busy because their lives had been disrupted by the demands of a Roman census. They had had to travel from their own communities to Bethlehem and many were stressed as they tried to find a place to stay. It wasn’t a good time to pause and take note that a child had been born in a nearby stable who fulfilled the promises made by God from the beginning of history.

God has given us his only Son, whose name is Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins.” “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”