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.

A love that forgives and forgets

Last week someone broke into a small valley church in Abersychan in South Wales. They stole £60 in cash that had been collected by the Mother and Toddlers’ group to provide toys, books, biscuits, drinks and snacks for the children. There were also plans to hold a Christmas party. When people in the community heard what had happened there was a wonderful response. A local councillor set up a crowdfund page inviting people to raise £200 to replace the money that had been stolen and to repair the damage to the church building. He wrote, “Ove the past few years, Noddfa, under the direction of Pastor John, has worked hard within the community to help the youth and residents. Please help to replace their loss to show what a caring community we are.” So far nearly £800 has been donated!

On his Facebook, Pastor John thanked the people for their generous support of the church. He said, “As a church we love everyone in our valley just as Christ loved us. We long for opportunities to show this love by sacrificially giving and supporting the community we have been called by God to serve.” He expressed grief that someone was so desperate at Christmas time to risk so much for such a small amount adding, “If they had simply come to see us, we would have rallied around them and supported as best we could. If they are reading this, we have a number of events going on over Christmas and they are most welcome to come and join us to find out more about a love that they will not receive anywhere else, a love that can forgive and forget.”

This story wonderfully illustrates the great themes of the Christmas message. Christmas is about forgiveness. Whether we attend a church or not, we all break God’s commands and need to experience God’s forgiveness. Before Jesus was born Joseph was told that Mary would give birth to a son and that he was to give him the name Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins.” Each of us needs a Saviour and through Jesus all our sins can be forgiven.

Christmas is also about giving. At Christmas we remember the amazing gift God gave to the people of the world – his beloved Son. In John’s Gospel we read, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

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.

Forgive us our debts

Christmas is a distant memory, but the arrival of credit card bills this month reminds us of how much we spent and how much we owe. At the end of November 2015, people in Britain owed £1.458 trillion. This is £708 more for each adult than in November 2014. By the end of 2016 the average household will owe almost £10,000 in personal loans, credit cards and overdrafts.

Debt can become overwhelming and destructive. I remember visiting Bob. He had gone through the pain of divorce and had also lost his job. He was in serious debt. He hated the sound of the postman putting letters through his door because many of them were final warnings. If he didn’t pay what he owed his electricity, gas, and telephone would be cut off. He had no money to pay and had reached his overdraft limit at the bank.

One Friday he had gone to his bank hoping to draw our £20 to get some food. The cashier told him he couldn’t give him the money. Bob’s desperation must have been obvious to the cashier because, later that day, after the bank had closed, the bank manager brought some money to his house! I talked with Bob and discovered the full extent of his debts. Then I went with him to talk to the bank manager and, together, we agreed a way for his debts to be paid and for him to move to a smaller property which he could afford. The crushing burden of debt had been lifted from Bob and, now, he had hope for the future.

The Bible speaks about another debt we all owe. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God “to forgive us our debts.” Every day we all break God’s commands and our debt to him accumulates. Sometimes our sense of guilt becomes overwhelming as we realise how our sinful patterns of behaviour are destroying our lives, and the lives of those we love. At such times we feel utterly helpless, as Bob did when faced with his debts. The good news is that Jesus came into the world to provide a way of escape and to give us hope. By his death on the cross he paid the debt of our sins and we can experience forgiveness through him. One hymn says, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

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.

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.”

To us a Son is given

The birth of a baby is always special. At Christmas we remember the birth of very special son to Mary and Joseph, a young couple living in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. Mary was probably a teenager and Joseph a little older. They had fallen in love with each other and had been pledged to be married. However, before they were married something amazing happened. Mary was told by an angel that she would supernaturally conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. When she told Joseph she was pregnant he, understandably, assumed she had been unfaithful to him and planned to divorce her quietly. Then in a dream God told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and to give the son who would be born the name Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.”

Mary and Joseph were a godly couple who wholeheartedly embraced God’s plan for their lives, even though this had very big implications for them. They knew that their son was the long promised Messiah for whom the Jewish people had been waiting. More than 600 years earlier the prophet Isaiah had said, “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.” Now, in the birth of Jesus, God’s promise was fulfilled.

Because of a Roman census Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which was the town of King David, from whom Joseph was descended. It was there that Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. Shepherds caring for the sheep on a cold Judean night were told by an angel, “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.” Later the wise men from the East also came to see the child.

Jesus has transformed the lives of millions of people from all nations as they have responded to him in simple faith and trust. One well known carol says, “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.”

He was Mary’s Son

In the birth of Jesus God broke into history and drew near to us all. He is Immanuel, “God with us.” Then, as now, many people wanted to keep God out of their lives. They didn’t want their lives to change and to submit to his authority and rule. But Jesus still came from heaven to earth. As one Christmas carol puts it, “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.” He came into this world in an amazing way when he was supernaturally conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb. He was Mary’s Son.

Mary humbly accepted the amazing privilege which God gave her. She responded to the angel who came to tell her the news of what was going to happen to her by saying, “I am the Lord’s servant, and am willing to accept whatever he wants.” She was willing to accept the stigma of being thought to be immoral, and even of Joseph thinking that she had been unfaithful to him. When King Herod tried to kill her son, she accepted having to flee into exile in Egypt where the family became asylum seekers in a foreign country. She stood at the foot of the Cross as her son died and experienced the piercing grief of bereavement. He was Mary’s son.

Mary’s son was also her Saviour. Mary was not a sinless person, she was like us all. She was, however, someone who wanted to really know God in a deep way. She responded to the angel Gabriel by saying, “Oh, how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God, my Saviour!” She was a thoughtful person who reflected on everything that happened to her son. After the shepherds came to visit the baby Jesus “Mary quietly treasured these things in her heart and thought about them often.” After the cross and resurrection, like the disciples, Mary fully realised why they had been told to call him Jesus. He was indeed her Saviour as well as her son. She had carried him in her womb and cared for him through his life. Now by his death and resurrection he had saved his people, including his mother, from their sins.

What will this Christmas be like for you? What do want most for Christmas? We all need to find what Mary found. Mary’s Son came to save us from our sins. He came to be “God with us”, not only at Christmas but always, in this life and forever.