In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Jesus’ Ignobility

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.


Jesus’ Ignobility

Darkness blanked the fields close to Bethlehem. Shepherds kept watch over their flocks by the light of stars and moon, their eyes having grown accustomed to the sight granted by the distant luminaries. The night, like the men, was unremarkable. There was no static in the air hinting at events to come. Anticipation was absent. Somewhere in Bethlehem town a young woman was crying out in the anguish of child birth but the only sounds that reached the ears of the shepherds were the bleating of sheep, the rustling of grass, and the howling of wayward winds.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst
Gerard van Honthorst – Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

Suddenly the sky was alive with an unearthly light and a heavenly figure appeared saying, “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 the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 NIV). As the angel continued the shepherds’ terror turned to wonder, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12 NIV). Without warning this solitary angel was joined by an army of heavenly hosts armed with praise, announcing,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

(Luke 2:14 NIV)

Echoing the words of Isaiah, the shepherds must have wondered as, after finding things just as the angel had told them, they shared the story of what had happened to them this night,

“Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

(Isaiah 53:1 NIV)

Indeed, this seems to have been the consensus among those who heard the shepherds’ tale: “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:18 NIV). Who would believe the word of a shepherd? You can’t trust a shepherd, they’re a disreputable sort. Besides, the Messiah won’t be born in such base circumstances as to necessitate re-appropriating a manger as a makeshift cot. And his birth certainly won’t be announced to the likes of shepherds, and by the angels of heaven in song no less.

What happens in Jesus’ birth narrative sets us up for what is to come: that God is doing something unexpected in Jesus. It wasn’t that God was acting uncharacteristically, rather, he wasn’t acting in exactly the way the Israelites had expected or even hoped he would. They wanted a Messiah with all the frills: a palace, an army, a king who would dash the oppressive Romans with a sword of steel. They wanted him to renew Israel’s religious life freeing it from the tyranny of the Pharisees and the politicking of the Sadducees. They wanted a conquering king riding on a warhorse with a glittering sword in his hand come to make the world right, and establish ethnic Israel in pride of place, by force. What they saw in Jesus was a king, but a king riding on a donkey weeping as he approached the city of the king. No sword, no army, only a lament:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

(Luke 19:41-44 NIV)

When he entered the Temple he brought no religious revival. Instead he interrupted the sacrifices bringing worship to a standstill (cf. Luke 19:45-46) and later prophesied the destruction of the Temple, the very centre of Israel’s worship (cf. Luke 21:5-6, and following), because he himself was replacing the Temple as the centre of worship.

What are we to make of this Messiah? He wasn’t the Messiah Israel was looking for:

“Jesus fitted no ready-made categories… To be sure, the categories were themselves flexible… But, even at their most flexible, Jesus both fitted and didn’t fit… It was as though he filled the existing categories, flexible as they were, so full that they all overflowed, and in that overflow he overwhelmed his followers, his hearers, the enthusiastic and the suspicious alike, and ultimately those who were attempting to put him on trial, both Jews and pagans.

The story, as we have it in the different gospels, is punctuated with moments of clarity, moments that steer the narrative away from the banal attempt that readers have made from time to time to squish Jesus into this or that box. Instead, these moments open the story up to the possibility that maybe, after all, heaven and earth would come together, God’s time and human time would coincide, and the physical reality of this world might indeed become the bearer of the fresh new reality of God’s new creation.”

(Tom Wright, Simply Jesus, pp.164-165)

The world can be an intolerably cruel place to live. But we have a God who cared enough to step down from his heavenly throne in order to take upon himself the entire weight of that cruelty so that he could exhaust it. This is what God was doing in Jesus. Jesus’ message – “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV) – was that in himself God was coming, indeed, had come, to reign on earth as in heaven, and in that process heaven would begin breaking through into earth. Changing it, renewing it, restoring it. God cares enough about this world to enter into it so that through him it will be redeemed from the corruption that has so long festered within (Romans 8:20-21).

Moreover, he invites us to join his restoration project. We do this as we share the gospel story of how God has become King in Jesus: in healings, in exorcisms, in forgiving, in living righteously, in loving even to death. And we must endeavour to live as Jesus lived, not only in our words but by our actions, as we bring the kingdom of God to bear in our spheres of influence. We must live in righteousness – actively seeking to do what is right – and justice – seeking to right wrongs when we find them. But most of all in loving the people we meet, the people we live with, the people we work with, even our enemies. Even when it costs us. God will work unexpectedly in us to bring about his purposes for his people and his world, through his Messiah and through the people of the Messiah. Expect to be surprised.

Christmas Meditation: Immanuel

At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel we read this about the birth of Jesus:

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (1:22-23)

Who is this baby that has been born?  Matthew’s answer: He is God with us.

This is a remarkable statement.  Throughout the Old Testament God makes himself present with his people.  As Israel leave Egypt for the Promised Land God dwells with them – by day he makes his presence visible by a pillar of cloud and by night a pillar of fire.  After the giving of the law on Mount Sinai God’s presence with his people is seen by the Tabernacle (moving tent) and then the Temple where he dwells in the most Holy place.  This is God with his people.

xmas2As we read the opening of the New Testament we soon see that God is with his people in a very different manner.  He has come in the flesh; God very literally is dwelling with his people.  He is born like them, grows up like them, lives like them, eats like them and so on.  God is with his people in the flesh of his son.  This is how Matthew’s Gospel both begins and ends, it begins with naming this baby Immanuel, God with us, and then at the end Immanuel himself says ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (28:20).

Yet, we know that Jesus did not remain with his disciples, and that he is not here today in the flesh.  But what we learn in the book of Acts (and in the Gospel of John) is that God now dwells with his people through his Spirit.  God now dwells in each and every one of his people through his Spirit.

This is not the end though, for one day God will dwell with his people in the new creation.  We will be with our God and he will be with us forever in perfect harmony.

Who is this baby?  He is God with us!

God is with us – as Christians we can be assured of this promise, God is with us, and this truth helps us in all sorts of situations.

In our sorrow and our grief God is with us.  More than that, he knows what it is to suffer, and so is able to sympathise with us as we suffer ourselves.  At Christmas it can be difficult if you are suffering sorrow or grief – Christmas is rightly a celebration and people enjoy this time of year.  But, if you are suffering that can make it worse.  Therefore, know that God is with you in your sorrow and grief.

God is also with us in our temptations.  Christmas brings many temptations – gluttony, materialism, jealousy, anger, drunkenness, bitterness, selfishness.  However, God is with us in them – he has been tempted and tried in every way, just like us, and yet was without sin.  Hence he is able to empathise with those who are struggling, and not only empathise but also help us overcome temptation.

God is always with us!  This is a promise that does not end, he has promised to be with us and that will continue into eternity.  So as we celebrate his first coming, let us remind ourselves that he will come again and when he does, in a very special way he will be with us!

In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Rachel’s Tears

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.


Rachel’s Tears

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

(Matthew 2:2 NIV)

When the Magi asked King Herod this question it is unlikely they envisioned the horrific events that would follow. I wonder if, as outsiders, they understood the full import of what they were asking. Did they know how loaded their question was and its significance concerning the one to whom they asked it.
It is telling that when faced with this question Herod consults the chief priests and the teachers of the law regarding the birth of the Messiah (Matthew 2:3-4). scanner-fear-3-1251133As the renovator of the Temple in Jerusalem Herod harboured aspirations of being the long awaited Messiah. Moreover, as one who had brokered a pseudo-peace with Rome – allowing the Jewish people to retain their distinctive Jewish identity and a certain degree of national autonomy – Herod probably saw himself as something of a liberator. To his credit Herod played the game well and, as history had previously shown, most other Jewish leaders with Messianic ambitions opted for an openly hostile and aggressive approach towards their pagan oppressors in the pursuit of freedom and peace.

For ‘the king of the Jews’ – installed by Rome and accepted by the Jewish people – to be asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” It is unsurprising that “he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3 NIV) because the surest way to threaten a would-be Messiah is with the rightful one. Consequently, Herod hatched a plan to find his rival by turning the good intentions of the Magi to further his own ends and secure his own dynasty. He sent the Magi on their way to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8 NIV).

Eventually enough time elapsed that Herod became convinced he had been betrayed by the Magi. In his jealous rage Herod perpetrated an unspeakably horrific atrocity: “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16 NIV). So great was his need to remain the uncontested Messianic King that he sacrificed the lives of countless innocents.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

(Matthew 2:18 NIV)

It is impossible to imagine the unqualified horror experienced by those in Bethlehem. This was not how a king was supposed to act. The Messiah was to bring righteousness and justice, not infanticide. Herod was no true king; he was a false Messiah.

“In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.”

“I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.”

(Ecclesiastes 3:16; 4:1 NIV)

Before Herod had a chance to enact his heinous plan, Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Herod was denied his prize; the trueborn king and Messiah yet lived (Matthew 2:13-15).

History may be linear but cruelty is cyclical. We remain plagued by the same evils that have afflicted every generation of humanity because of our two greatest enemies. The two great enemies of humanity, one from without and one from within, are Satan and ourselves. Both have proved insurmountable to us in spite of our very best efforts. We are too weak to defeat our own natures and we are easily dominated by someone stronger than us.

We live in an immeasurably cruel world. But that is only half of the story because history has been irrevocably altered and is heading towards an end where every painful, cruel thing will be undone, where “everything sad is going to come untrue” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King).

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices: Part Ten; The Final Two

Brooks - Precious RedemiesLike X-Factor, we have been on a long journey. And we’ve made it to the final two. Today, we’re going to cover the two remaining devices Brooks identifies. We’re going to skim through the remedies that the gospel offers us. So, without further ado:

Device Nine: Such-and-Such.

Recently, I’ve been reliving 2005 through a TV show called Veronica Mars. It’s a crime-drama, set in the town of Neptune’s high-school. Often, characters justify their actions by comparing themselves to others. Sure, Weevil runs the biker-gang. Sure, Weevil beats-up everyone in his path. But: Weevil is ok. Why? Well, unlike other gangs, Weevil refuses any part in Neptune’s drug trade. Weevil’s criminality is justified because there’s ‘worse’ crime down the street.

Do you justify yourself by “frequent comparing [of yourself and your ways] with those that are reputed to be worse than [yourself]” (89)? Brooks points us to the Pharisee in Luke 18:11. Thank goodness he’s better than the vile tax-collector, right? In this device, Satan points us to the “such-and-suches” of our social circle (89). You only deceive your friend a little; such-and-such keeps deceiving your friend a lot. You only overeat a little; such-and-such won’t stop eating. “You are only a little proud in heart and habit”; such-and-such is proud “in looks and words” (89). We listen to the lie: if you’re just slightly better than such-and-such, then God will accept you.

How does the gospel remedy this? Brooks identifies three key remedies:

Remedy #1: seriously consider that hypocrites are quick-sighted abroad and blind at home.

Jesus helpfully defines hypocrisy as the ability to see a speck of dust in someone else’s eye, while failing to identify the great big log sticking out of, and pressing down on, your own eye (Matthew 7:3-4). If you justify yourself by picking apart other people’s sores, you’re a hypocrite in need of help.

Remedy #2: seriously consider all your actions in light of God’s Word.

“The man that, comparing his self with others that are worse than himself, may seem to himself and others, to be an angel; yet comparing himself with the Word, may see himself to be like the devil”. God’s Word picks apart our self-justifying righteousness. If you hear Satan’s lie – “you’re ok because everyone else is worse” – pick up your Bible, listen to God’s voice, remember that your self-made righteousness is shoddy and filthy and broken, and turn to Christ – our fountain of righteousness.

Remedy #3: seriously consider that without repentance, your sin isn’t dealt with.

Regardless of other people’s lifestyle, all sin is total rebellion against God. All sin demands that we are “shut out [forever] from the glorious presence of God…and shut up in hell forever (91)”. Rather than justify ourselves by looking at such-and-such, our duty is to repent by looking to Christ. “The God of Israel is very merciful…[if you] repent and return, your souls [will] live forever” (91). If we’re listening to this particular lie of Satan, we will not truly repent. Together, we must view all sin as total rebellion against God. Together, we must stop comparing ourselves to each other. Together, we must repent by looking, with great confidence, to Christ.

Device Ten: Error! Error!

In the classic Simpsons episode, “Trilogy of Error”, Lisa builds a robot called Linguo. Linguo is designed to correct error in grammar. Unfortunately, Linguo runs into the Italian Mob (Springfield is a crazy town!). Confronted by split infinitives, incorrect pluralisation, and the misuse of “me” and “I”, Linguo exclaims: “Bad grammar overload! Error! Error!”. He then, promptly, explodes.

Satan seeks to conquer us, not by grammatical error, but by “dangerous errors…that carry the souls of men to all looseness and wickedness” (92). These “Christ-dishonouring and soul-undoing” errors include (92): that the sacraments are low things, better to be lived without; that Scripture is full of logical fallacies and uncertainty; that man doesn’t need Christ-the-Mediator to worship God; that the resurrection has already occurred; that Jesus is simply an allegory; that there is no sin in the saints; that sin and grace are two, equally good, sides of the same coin; “with a hundred other horrid [errors] which [cause] wickedness to break in as a flood among us” (92). How does Christ preserve His people from error?

Remedy #1: seriously receive Christ’s truth and let it affectionately dwell in your souls.

The truth of the gospel fires up our hearts. Truth fuels our affections. Truth increases our love for Christ. We’re called to seriously receive Christ’s truth and allow it to fuel our soul’s affections. We receive truth when we gather together to hear God’s truth preached, and to share God’s truth around the Table. We receive truth when we gather together in our families for worship. We receive truth when we privately study God’s Word and pray. Let truth fuel your affections. “There are no men on earth so fenced against error as those that receive the truth in the love of it” (93). As truth impacts our hearts, our joy in that truth guards us from error.

Remedy #2: seriously keep humble.

“Humility will keep the soul free from many darts of Satan’s casting and the erroneous snares of his spreading” (97). The God of all truth delights to dwell with His humble people. God “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). Pride weakens our hearts to make room for error. Pride refuses to recognise the Creator-creature distinction. Pride craves knowledge above its capacity; pride blames God for its incapacity to comprehend this truth. Therefore, pride takes its limited deductions and claims understanding. So: in humility, we accept the Creator-creature distinction. In humility, we recognise our finitude. In humility, we ask that the God of all light and truth exposes our hearts to His truth and light. In humility, we ask that God fills us to the fullness of our capacity. In humility, we are utterly dependent on God and His revelation; a revelation that is supremely visible in Christ, and brought to us by His Spirit. Humility before God guards us from error.

So: we’ve made it. We’ve considered ten of Satan’s Devices, according to Brooks. We’ve considered oodles of remedies. So, the question stands: will I be committed to fighting my sin? Will you be committed to standing against Satan? May the gospel be thoroughly be applied to every aspect of our lives.

In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Mary’s Scandal

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.


Mary’s Scandal

This year I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time. When it’s kind of – but not quite – sequel Go Set A Watchman was released I quickly bought a copy. Both books take place in Maycomb (a fictionalised Monroeville), Alabama, where the author Harper Lee was born and grew up, during the 1930s (TKAM) and the 1950s (GSAW). While both of these books were enjoyable there were a number of occasions of culture shock that were slightly disorienting for someone not familiar with the time period. One of these occasions pertained to how enormously scandalous the pregnancy of an unwed woman was; the shame was of such magnitude that the poor woman felt she had to leave town to lessen the disrepute that would ever after attach itself to her family.

Image by Cristiano Galbiati
Image by Cristiano Galbiati

To modern readers like ourselves the real scandal is not in the pregnancy of the unwed woman but in the culture of shame that compelled her to leave her hometown, her family and friends, everything familiar to her for a strange place with strange new people but the same abiding culture of shame. However, what this story does is remind us that at a different time in history from our own to be unwed and pregnant was a great scandal. And this was certainly the case in and around the year 4 BC when Mary found out she was all of a sudden with child while still a virgin.

Yet in spite of all this Mary displayed incredible courage and faith in God: “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:28 NIV). It is really quite shocking when we consider that she would have a social stigma attached to her for the rest of her days, not to mention what people would whisper about her future husband, Joseph, after hearing that he was still going to marry her. To say nothing of how her firstborn might be treated even by his immediate family. And then she bursts into song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

(Luke 1:46-55 NIV)

Even though she faced a life coloured by scandal Mary was able to face it with confidence because of who God was for her. He is the Might One who performs mighty deeds; yet not so mighty as to look down upon the humble who trust him, except to lift them up.

Mary is inspiring, her response to her unique situation is incredible, and her song sublime. She reminds us how God really is for us and how we can be confident in his care. Moreover, she was a human being just like us and that gives us hope that no matter what comes our way it is possible to respond to life’s circumstances in ways that incarnate our faith in God.

A Prayer for Marriages

Last week I had the privilege of praying for my sister-in-law and her fiancée as they got married.  The below prayer for marriages is based heavily on the prayer I prayed for them:

Let us speak to God, let us pray.

Our great and glorious God, our loving Father in heaven, we only dare speak with you today because we know you to be full of grace, full of righteousness and full of mercy (Ps. 116:5).  At this time of year we think of Jesus’ birth, and we are told in Scripture that His life on earth is the ultimate demonstration of your grace, righteousness and mercy (Col. 1:19).  So we ask that above all else that we will truly adore Jesus Christ the Lord.  For Scripture is also clear that marriage is the one human relationship which displays your love for your people – husbands reflecting the self-giving love of Jesus Christ and wives reflecting the devotion shown by one who is greatly loved, the church (Eph. 5:22-33).  With this in mind, and as we celebrate marriage, we bring married couples before you now.

Father, we seek your blessing for husbands.  By the power of your Spirit: aid us as providers for the needs of those we love, and sustain us in all our struggles in the contest of life.  May our strength be our wives protection, our character their joy and our love their assurance.  May husbands live in such a way that wives may find in them the shelter for which their hearts truly long.

Father, we seek your blessing for wives.  By the power of your Spirit: give them a tenderness that makes them great; develop in them a deeper understanding of you in all your glory; strengthen their faith in you; and give them the inner beauty of soul that Proverbs 31 speaks of; a beauty that never fades, an eternal youth that is found in holding fast to the truths that never age.  May wives live in such a way that husbands may be pleased to always cherish and admire them.

wedding ring heart bible
Image by Ella’s Dad

We also pray that married couples never make the mistake of merely living for each other.  Teach us that marriage is not living for each other; rather it is two individuals uniting and joining hands to serve you, the living God.  We desire that our spiritual purpose in life may be to seek first your kingdom, and its righteousness, so that all other things may be added unto us (Mt. 6:33).  We ask this because, only in loving you best can we love each other all the more; and only in being faithful to you, will we remain faithful to one another.

Although marriage is often begun with high expectations, we pray that married couples may not expect perfection of each other, as that belongs to you alone.  Help us minimize each other’s weaknesses, being swift to praise and highlight each other’s strengths and beauty, and to look on each other through a lover’s kind and patient eyes – never taking each other’s love for granted.  Help us grow in the grace of long-suffering love, forgiving each other often, and developing our character as we walk life’s road together.  Our kind God, give us enough tears to keep us tender, enough hurts to keep us humane, enough failure to keep our hands clenched tightly in yours, and enough success to make us sure we belong to you.

When life is done, and the sun is setting, our prayer today is that we may be found, then as now, still hand in hand, thanking you so very much for each other.  And after having served you happily, faithfully, and together, may we at last find ourselves in your perfect presence.

We request all of these things through Jesus Christ, the greatest lover of souls.  Amen.

Editor’s Note: This prayer is inspired, and borrows many phrases from this prayer.

In a World of Cruelty: A God Who Cares ~ Elizabeth’s Infertility

When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.


Elizabeth’s Infertility
The opening narrative of Luke’s Gospel brings a painful experience, both in the ancient and modern world, to centre stage; a hardship often relegated to a shadowy corner, left to steep in its own shame, is suddenly brought into the light of God’s redemptive purposes.alone-1431667 Before Luke mentions the infertility of Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, he makes the point of telling us how God sees them. They are not primarily Elizabeth and Zechariah the infertile couple, which is probably how many people viewed them, whether sympathetically or otherwise. Rather, they were Elizabeth and Zechariah “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6 NIV). Would this alleviate entirely the pain they felt at being unable to conceive? Did it mean they were unfeelingly stoic regarding their cruel circumstances? Had they simply given up hope and given in to bitterness? Of course not. Their pain was very real and immediately present. It was something they mourned as a great evil upon God’s good creation, a cruel oppression of God’s image bearers. And bitterness did not consume their hope because they refused to be defined by their circumstances. In a world marred by cruelty they had faith in a God who cared for them beyond their understanding. We know this because “both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Their hope in God gave birth to lives marked by the kind of obedience unattainable by those who wish to put God in their debt.

“But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” (Luke 1:7 NIV). It is entirely plausible that Elizabeth and Zechariah knew other couples who were experiencing infertility, who likewise put their hope in God and resisted the temptation to define themselves by their circumstances. Moreover, it is just as plausible they knew couples who had died with their hopes of having children unfulfilled but whose hope in God remained unwavering. Like many couples before them Elizabeth and Zechariah embodied the yet unwritten words of the Apostle Peter, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19 NIV). In their suffering they learned something that often eludes most of us. What they came to understand was that God owes us nothing. Suffering has a way of throwing this truth into sharp, heart-piercing relief. It is like being awakened by the shock of having a bucket of ice water poured on us. And when this happens we are faced with a choice: if God owes us nothing will we pay him back in kind or will we, in hope, trust that even though he owes us nothing believe his promise that he has already begun to freely give us all things, along with the one who is most precious in his sight (Romans 8:32 NIV)?

It is this kind of hope – humble and confident all at once – in the God who not only reveals himself to us but also freely gives himself to us in Jesus the Messiah that emboldens us to ask for the seemingly impossible as Elizabeth and Zechariah did (cf. Luke 1:13) while also leaving the answer, whatever it is, firmly in the lovingly faithful hands of our Creator:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

(Romans 8:31-39 NIV)

We are not to be defined by our circumstances. We belong to God as sons and daughters, freely adopted into his family, lovingly accepted – never to be rejected – because of Jesus. Because of this we can ask God for anything and know he will give us what he knows to be the very best for us because no one loves us more than he does.