Kiwi Christmas

We Kiwi Christians can be a bit confused when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Easter is easier – Easter bunny is clearly a crock and we find it reasonably easy to claim Easter as a Christian occasion because for the unbelievers around us it is just a long weekend and an excuse to eat chocolate.

Christmas downunder

Christmas, however, has all sorts of cultural baggage and expectations which make us feel quite out of sorts here downunder in a secular society attempting to celebrate what is effectively a northern hemisphere midwinter festival. People hang up lights to decorate their houses despite it still being light at 10pm. We gorge ourselves with food then flop around getting sunburnt. Songs like “Let it Snow”, “Jingle Bells” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” play in shopping malls that are selling bathing suits, camping gear and cricket sets. It really doesn’t work, it’s like some collage of Christmas clutter dumped into a jumbled heap on the beach. Yet we still have plenty to be thankful for in our Kiwi Christmas celebrations.

Pointers to Christ

It is summer, most people are on holiday, and even despite the pre-Christmas madness in a time to relax. Let’s treasure that, Jesus came to give us rest – while flopping around after Christmas dinner too full to move much, enjoy the rest and consider God who came to gain it for us.

Christmas in New Zealand is blessed with fresh fruit and vegetables; cherries, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, new potatoes, baby peas… Jesus is the true vine, He came to bless the earth and make it bountiful, He plants the seeds of the great harvest. For us Christmas is like a harvest festival and we are right to rejoice in the bounty of God’s blessing.

Particularly here in the deep south, Christmas day is long – it gets light at about 5am and stays light until after 10pm. Seventeen hours of glorious light, almost two-thirds of the day! And here under the ozone hole it is bright light, a taste of what dazzled those shepherds and a reminder that He who dwells in unapproachable light came to abide with us. Every time you put on the sunnies and sun hat (and sunscreen) be reminded of the Light who dawned upon the whole earth in the advent.

An element of the nativity story that we obviously can identify with in New Zealand is the sheep (mmm… roast lamb for Christmas dinner!). Now, aside from the obvious anomaly of a lamb being present in the Christmas story if it was mid-winter, we know about sheep here, despite the Fonterra take over. Jesus is the Lamb of God, leading up to Christmas lambs are everywhere you look in this country – we get to remember the Passover, the feast of weeks (harvest) and the Advent all in one!

Christmas is a time when families like to get together, with all the strife this entails. Spare a thought for Mary and Joseph – they had travelled for days to get there, had lousy accommodation, were both isolated and lonely for home yet were in a town full of their relatives and then had a load of complete strangers turn up for supper! So whether lonely for company or overwhelmed by too much of it, you can at least feel for someone in the advent story.

Kiwis often get the barbeque out on Christmas day. Mary and Joseph quite likely cooked in a similar way on the very day Jesus was born. They certainly didn’t microwave last night’s leftovers!

Another way in which Kiwis have an empathetic perspective on the nativity story is our smallness and insignificance on the world stage. God chose to be born as a baby into a poor family in a stable in Bethlehem – an insignificant town. He then grew up in Nazareth, an even more lowly village. God chooses the insignificant place to come as God incarnate. Christ will come to us and dwell even here at the bottom of the world, we can be sure of this because He has already done it before – 2,000 years ago.


Gifts I have noticed recently:

750) Children asleep.
751) Friendly neighbours.
752) Christian work colleagues.
753) Headache forcing me away from the computer.
754) Spring growth (and a lawnmower!).

Did Jesus come to bring peace or not?

During advent we are accustomed to thinking about Christ coming to bring peace on earth (Luke 2:13-14), but what about this:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
(Matthew 10:34-39 ESV)

For me, most of Matthew 10:34–39 is theoretical, aside from the last two sentences it will probably remain so.  I have had disagreements with my non-Christian parents about my faith and that has not been easy, but I could not consider the members of my own family to be my enemies.

However, in some parts of this world, today, right as you are reading this sentence, someone is having their life threatened by a member of their own family because they trust in Jesus Christ. Not only are Christians having their lives threatened, some are being tortured, and some are being killed. As an example, please take the time to read the following news excerpts and let the awful experience of this Somali teenager sink in. I became a Christian myself at the age of eighteen, but I don’t know if my faith would have withstood this:

June 15 — Nurta Mohamed Farah of Bardher, Gedo Region in southern Somalia, has been confined to her home since May 10, when her family found out that she had embraced Christianity, said a Christian leader who visited the area. “When the woman’s family found out that she converted to Christianity, she was beaten badly but insisted on her new-found religion,” said the source on condition of anonymity.

Her parents also took her to a doctor who prescribed medication for a “mental illness,” he said. Alarmed by her determination to keep her faith, her father, Hassan Kafi Ilmi, and mother, Hawo Godane Haf, decided she had gone crazy and forced her to take the prescribed medication, but it had no effect in swaying her from her faith, the source said.  …. “The girl is very sick and undergoing intense suffering,” he said.

Her suffering began after she declined her family’s offer of forgiveness in exchange for renouncing Christianity, the source said. The confinement began after the medication and punishments failed.

The tiny, shaken Christian community in Gedo Region reports that the girl is shackled to a tree by day and is put in a small, dark room at night, he said. Compass Direct News.

That was back in June this year, I remember praying for her at the time I read this report and being shocked at her suffering. Today I read a follow-up story:

December 3 — A 17-year-old girl in Somalia who converted to Christianity from Islam was shot to death last week in an apparent “honor killing,” area sources said.

Nurta Mohamed Farah, who had fled her village of Bardher, Gedo Region to Galgadud Region to live with relatives after her parents tortured her for leaving Islam, died on November 25. Area sources said they strongly suspected that the two unidentified men in Galgadud Region who shot her in the chest and head with a pistol were relatives or acting on their behest.

Reports reached the relatives in Galgadud that Nurta Farah had converted to Christianity,” one source said. “The suspicion that the family is responsible is a solid one. The sister was killed in Abudwaq, a district in Galgadud Region, and the place where the incident took place is about 200 meters from where the sister was staying with relatives.Compass Direct News.

It is true that Somalia is a strongly Islamic nation and my initial reaction was to blame Islam for the brutal treatment of this girl and her murder. However, while I do consider Islam to be a major barrier to the spread of the Gospel, it was actually sinful men and women who persecuted and killed Nurta Mohamed Farah. They may have used their Islamic beliefs as an excuse, but it was family pride and a misguided concept of honour that caused them to behave as they did. Faith in Christ does not spread as an ideology, it spreads from the heart of a believer to the heart of a sinner. The people who persecuted and killed Nurta Mohamed Farah are sinners, this makes them perfect candidates to become believers in Jesus Christ. Please pray.

Comfort my people

The comfort offered to Israel is that God Himself will come to them, and God Himself comes to each of us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

comfort-my-people

Comfort, comfort my people says your God.(Isaiah 40:1 ESV)

God directs tender words to be spoken to His people, words of hope and pardon. There is a message of preparation, “Get ready for God’s visitation.” There is a message of enduring hope, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” And there is the message of God’s arrival, “Behold your God!”

Could anything be more glorious? “Behold, God is at the gates!” He has forgiven, He comes to gently lead and to justly rule. The all-surpassing joy of such a proclamation! As someone who is not descended from Israel, I read  Isaiah 40:1–9 rejoicing for them and yearning to be part of the celebration of God’s coming to His people. God is coming to abide with His people and how I long to be part of that people with whom God dwells!

Paul reckons there is a chance for me:

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
(Romans 9:25 ESV)

God is going to name people who were not His people as His people, even His beloved!

For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in [Jesus Christ] will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
(Romans 10:11-13 ESV)

So I can rejoice with Israel that God is coming to His people – has already come and will come again. The comfort offered to Israel is that God Himself will come to them, and God Himself comes to each of us in the Person of Jesus Christ. He came, to purchase our redemption with His life. He comes, calling each of us to follow Him. He is coming, to receive His beloved at the end of all things.

My comfort comes in beholding my God; His majesty, His mercy, and His meekness.

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
(Matthew 21:5 ESV)

The anticipated one

We are familiar with Hollywood’s hype and the careful cultivation of anticipation by Apple for their latest gadget. Some of us even remember the eager anticipation and excitement surrounding the wedding of Charles and Diana. The magnificence and pomp and ceremony of the royal wedding had much of the world riveted to their TV screens on July 29, 1981. There had been a massive build up to the wedding, the media reported every detail they could discover about the preparations and plans, whether fact or rumour.

A similar sense of anticipation existed in Palestine around A.D. 30. The Jewish Scriptures were replete with prophecies anticipating the messiah (Christ) and the nation was desperate for a leader who would overthrow the Roman tyranny and lead them into the glorious promised inheritance.

So, when the camel-hair-clad, locust-and-honey-eating, wild prophet John burst onto the scene and was confronted with the question, “who are you?” He knew they were expecting the messiah (John 1:19-27). John told the people bluntly that he was just the herald, then when he did meet Jesus he told everyone who would listen who Jesus really was (John 1:29-36).

Our witness to the identity of Jesus is a bit more difficult due to the fact we don’t have a physical, walking, talking man to point to when we say, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” What we do have is actually superior — the risen and glorified Lamb of God. It requires faith to behold Him, but we still need to tell people who it is they are confronted with.

A few of the prophecies anticipating the messiah:
  • Genesis 12:2, see Matthew 1:1 and Galatians 3:16
  • Genesis 49:10, see Matthew 1:2
  • 2 Samuel 7:12-16, see Matthew 1:1
  • Isaiah 7:14, see Matthew 1:23
  • Micah 5:2, see Matthew 2:6
  • Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1, see Matthew 3:3
  • Numbers 24:17 and Psalm 2:6, see Matthew 21:5
  • Deuteronomy 18:15-18, see Acts 3:22-23
  • Psalm 110:4, see Hebrews 5:6-10
  • Psalm 22:1, see Matthew 27:46
  • Psalm 22:7-8, see Matthew 27:39; 43
  • Psalm 22:16, see John 20:25
  • Psalm 22:17, see John 19:33-36
  • Psalm 22:18, see John 19:24
  • Psalm 22:24, see Matthew 26:39 and Hebrews 5:7
  • Isaiah 52:14, see John 19:1
  • Isaiah 53:5, see John 19:1; 18
  • Psalm 16:10 and Psalm 22:22, see Matthew 28:6 and Acts 2:27-28
  • Psalm 68:18, see Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:9-11

The hidden light

Pondering the curious situation in which Jesus, who is the “light of the world”, needs John the Baptist to go ahead of Him as a witness to the light.

Is it not strange that the one who is the light of the world, who dwells in unapproachable light, would need a witness to confirm who he is? Surely the light of men would shine so brightly as to be unmistakable?

John 1:5-12 begins by proclaiming the triumph of Jesus over darkness. But don’t jump to victory too quickly — where does the light shine? That’s right, the light shines in the darkness. When it is dark people don’t see very well and so God sent a witness to alert folks that the light was coming. He (the light) came to his own, but his own did not receive him. They either didn’t recognize who he was, or didn’t want him even if they did recognize him.

Here is tragedy, those who do not receive Jesus forfeit an astonishing gift — to become children of God. What is required is so simple:

to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
(John 1:12)

To all who believe in Jesus, he gives the right to become children of God. What is given is astonishing, and who it is given to is astonishing.

This blessing from God is given to those who are in darkness yet believe because a witness was sent from God to testify about the light. If the witness had not been sent (by God) then none would have believed and been given the right to inherit God’s kingdom. This is grace.


Photo of solar eclipse: Luc Viatour

Anticipation

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:15).

Remember what Christmas felt like when you were a child: the excited expectation of presents and food and treats and people you love coming to visit. For children Christmas is all joy in the anticipation, it just happens, seemingly by magic – the only anxiety is over whether you will really get the present you’ve been eagerly hoping for.

This is an example to us of what Advent is all about, the anticipation of the coming of God. For the Jews in 1 B.C. and earlier the yearning was for the promised messiah, in about A.D. 30 the anticipation reached fever pitch as the wild prophet John strode from the desert proclaiming the immanent arrival of the messiah.

Then the anticlimax of the messiah as a man, a very ordinary looking man at that, one who even ate and drank with sinners! This is not what they were expecting, should they be looking for another? (Matthew 11:3).

We also are looking forward to the coming of Jesus (again). Do you have the childlike faith and excitement for this that Christmas should elicit is all children?

This post was inspired by Noel Piper’s post ‘If Not Santa, What?‘ at the Desiring God blog.

Advent

Nativity

I’m actually a little late beginning this, Advent is the four Sundays prior to Christmas and obviously I have missed the first one. However, my excuse is that I don’t like to go into ‘Christmas mode’ before the start of December. But ‘Christmas mode’ in our society and Advent are two very different things:

The point of Advent is to consider the incarnation of Jesus Christ the Son of God and prepare our hearts for His return at the second coming. I find that Paul’s reflection upon this in Philippians 2:5-11 is especially helpful, God all sufficient making Himself nothing on a mission to die for the sins I commit in making my will of more importance than His. Then glory, Jesus Christ exalted above everything, above created beings so exalted as to blow my mind, above the entire universe that we know, above every human strength, plan and achievement, and I get to join in the worship of Him!