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Jesus’ Birthday

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And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

In 1992, Carol Cymbala published a song, which brings a tear to my eyes when I hear the sweet, tender voice of a child sing, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” The words are simple and true, and when intoned by a puerile melody, they grip the heart and focus the mind on the real meaning of Christmas.

happy-b-day-jesus

Everyone, I assume, knows that Jesus was not born on December 25. The Bible does not give us a date. Was it Kislev 25, the first day of Chanukah? If that were the case, the date on the western calendar would fluctuate within the months of mid-November to mid-December. Luke recorded the events around the time of His birth thus providing an approximate year for Jesus’ arrival to earth. Augustus was emperor of Rome, and he issued an order for a census “that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1), and “Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2).

From Matthew’s account, we know that Herod the Great was “king” in Judah (Matthew 2:1). If secular history records accurately (and the record is dubious[1]), Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. Matthew reports that Herod, upon hearing of Jesus’ birth and not receiving word from the magi, ordered all the babies in Bethlehem, two years and under, slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). After the magi left, an angel warned Joseph to take the family and flee to Egypt, and Matthew says that they remained there until after the death of Herod. Given that we have no record of the time that elapsed between the family’s flight into Egypt and the death of Herod, Jesus’ birth could have occurred in 6 B.C. or earlier. That creates other chronological problems that distract from the point I am trying to make. (I find it strangely humorous that Jesus would be born “Before Christ.”)

The “time” of year also presents a problem. Luke records that “shepherds [were] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). Late December would not be a good time for shepherds to be out in the field by night. It gets cold in Jerusalem/Bethlehem in December at night! Some attempt to rationalize December 25 by suggesting that it may have been the actual time of the conception, making the delivery sometime around mid-September to mid-October, the Jewish month of Tishri. That is certainly plausible. Some suggest the conception may have been in the Jewish month of Tishri (September-October), and the birth in the Jewish month of Tammuz (June-July), and that the magi arrived on December 25, after the family had moved into a house as recorded by Matthew 2:11. That is also feasible.

Who cares! The point is that the Creator God took human form and presented Himself to His creation as fully one of them – Son of God, Son of Man; fully God, fully man. He came to us because that was the ONLY way He could save us from our sins. God took extreme measures[2] to rescue His fallen creation. That is worthy of commemoration and celebration.

December 25 seems to be a fitting time in other respects. During this time, Chanukah, the “Festival of Lights,” is celebrated. By this time, the winter solstice is past and the days start getting longer. The prophet exhorts, “Arise, shine; for thy light [speaking of Jesus] is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:1-3). Jesus also said, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12, emphasis mine). With all the talk about “light,” December 25 makes as much sense as any other day to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Notes:


[1] It is very probable, and more in line with the biblical account that Herod died in 1 B.C. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/herods-death-jesus-birth-and-a-lunar-eclipse/

[2] “Extreme Measures” https://erniecarrasco.com/2016/12/11/extreme-measures/

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Happy Chanukah!

Hanukkah

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.   (John 1:4-5)

Today, December 24, 2016, begins the Jewish Festival of Lights otherwise known as Chanukah (pronounced (with a guttural “H”) hah-noo-kah). The festival is observed for eight days, and while it is not one of the “Feasts of the Lord” (Leviticus 23) nor is it recorded anywhere in the Old Testament, it is nonetheless an important commemoration of God’s provision. Most Gentiles are vaguely aware of the celebration in that it takes place around Christmastime, but besides that, they really do not know much about it.

Chanukah originated in the second century B.C. during the “silent” period of the Bible – between the Old and New Testaments. It came about as a result of a Jewish rebellion against the Greek (Syrian) ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes for his desecration of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 168 B.C. This act was prehistorically recorded by the prophet Daniel: “Then shall he return into his land with great riches; and his heart shall be against the holy covenant; and he shall do exploits, and return to his own land … And arms shall stand on his part, and they shall pollute the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the abomination that maketh desolate.” (Daniel 11:28, 31, emphasis mine). Antiochus IV defiled the temple by erecting a statue of Zeus in the sanctuary and sacrificing a pig on the altar. This incited the Maccabean Revolt, and, as prophesied by Daniel: “the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits. And they that understand among the people shall instruct many: yet they shall fall by the sword, and by flame, by captivity, and by spoil, many days” (Daniel 11:32-33, emphasis mine).  Two years later, 164 B.C. the Jews managed to expel the Syrians out of Jerusalem and take back their temple.

With the Greeks out of the way, the Temple had to be cleansed and rededicated. Part of the consecration required that the menorah, the “candlestick” or “lampstand,” that stood on the south wall of the Holy Place (Exodus 26:35), remain constantly lighted (Exodus 27:20). The problem was that there was only enough pure oil, i.e. oil that was undefiled, to last for only one day. So, they lit the menorah, and miraculously, the lamp continued to burn for eight days until sufficient oil was produced to replenish the supply from then on. And so, the Temple was dedicated. “Chanukah” means “dedication.”

Jesus celebrated Chanukah. We see in John’s Gospel “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22-23, emphasis mine). Just before this, He made the claim “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12, emphasis mine). This He said after forgiving the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Not long after, He healed a man who was blind from birth (John 9) saying, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5, emphasis mine). That light would soon be extinguished, but not for long. In the spring following that Chanukah, Jesus would be nailed to a cross, and for three long days the world would be without the Light. The Sunday before His crucifixion, Jesus prepared His disciples (and us), “Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light” (John 12:35-36).

The menorah in the Temple was permanently extinguished in 70 A.D. when the Romans razed Jerusalem. Now it is only remembered on Chanukah. The Light of the World was temporarily extinguished, but He rose again, and His glory fills the heavenly Temple. Yet on Earth, His light still shines in those who are “the children of light.” “[Y]e are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11, emphasis mine). Since you are “sanctified,” that means you are “dedicated,” and Jesus said, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16, emphasis mine). So, shine!

Happy Chanukah!

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Bethlehem

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. (Micah 5:2)

Bethlehem. The name means “house of bread” and Ephratah means “fruitfulness.” The additional moniker served to distinguish this town from another of the same name in Zebulun (Joshua 19:15). By worldly standards, Bethlehem was a humble and insignificant little hamlet, a home to wheat and sheep farmers. Bethlehem is first mentioned in Genesis 39:19 as the burial place of Jacob’s beloved Rachel. One of Israel’s judges, Ibzan hailed from Bethlehem (Judges 12:8-10). Ruth, the Moabitess, met and married Boaz in Bethlehem and became the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:17-22). Thus Bethlehem gained acclaim as “The City of David,” yet it remained “little among the thousands of Judah.”

Out of the little town of Bethlehem the prophet proclaimed would come forth He “that is to be ruler in Israel.” God promised David, “thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever” (2 Samuel 7:16). That promise was repeated for David’s son, Solomon, with the condition that he continue in that pattern modeled by his father (2 Chronicles 7:17-19), but beginning with Solomon, that condition was unmet until at last Jeconiah (a.k.a. Jehoiachin and Coniah) caused the Lord to curse Solomon’s line saying “Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah” (Jeremiah 22:30). Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, was from this cursed line (Matthew 1:11). But in this, God did not fail in His promise to David, for Mary too was of “the house and lineage of David” through another branch that did not include any of Solomon’s descendants (Luke 3:23-31). Her line was free of the curse, establishing Jesus’ right to the throne both legally and by inheritance.

So it was that in the “House of Bread” the Bread of Life (John 6:48) came into the world – He “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” i.e. He is eternal. He said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). He also compared Himself to the vine and His followers as the branches. “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). Bethlehem Ephratah – the Fruitful House of Bread – birthplace of the Fruitful Bread of Life.

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Extreme Measures

nativity-scene

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The baby in the feeding trough, surrounded by smelly farm animals and adored by a small crowd including a soft-faced young mother, strong bewildered father, common shepherds and majestic kings makes for a sweet, albeit often overlooked, tableau. If noticed at all, its significance evaporates in clouds of sentimentality. How precious!

Do you not see! The Creator of heaven and earth reduced to a helpless, needy, human infant boy. The Owner and Master of all Creation presented to the world through the birth canal of a young virgin girl. The conception itself made an object of ridicule and shame; conceived outside the “knowledge” of a poor carpenter willing to accept the ridicule of the town’s people, and adopt someone else’s child. The engineer and designer of a finely tuned universe born in a dirty cave allotted to animals rather than a fine palace suitable for the King of the Universe. Rather than a reception by kings, dignitaries, and nobles, the first to greet Him were the low-class, detestable shepherds that kept the sheep for the Temple sacrifices.

This was “God With Us,” Emmanuel. God wrapped up in human flesh. Who could conceive of such a thing! The Jews expected a Messiah to turn Israel into a superpower; but Messiah was a man, not God in the flesh even though Isaiah had predicted, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). “And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel” (Isaiah 8:8).

No religion in the world envisions a god condescending to the level of mankind. The Greek gods occasionally mated with humans to produce demigods, yet they remained aloof from humanity. Islam has a god that demands absolute submission of his creation and even perfection (if that were possible) is subject to rejection according to his whim. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism picture god as some nebulous ether of which all the universe is made and of which we are all part, and the human must achieve an unknowable level of perfection in order to be joined to that undefinable “oneness.”

Only the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – brings the Creator down to the lowest level of humankind in order to elevate humanity to a place near equal to God Himself. (The created thing can NEVER be equal to its creator.) The thought is incomprehensible. The method seems too extreme. If God is so great – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. – could He not come up with a more sensible plan? Surely, some kind of merit system to earn a place at His side would be more appropriate. At least, that is what every other world religion offers. Man must do certain things – pray five times a day while facing Mecca, crawl ten miles over sharp rocks to light a candle for a saint, disassociate oneself from all worldly things, etc. – to appease the gods. However, that is not what the God of the Bible does (or did). He took extreme measures to rescue His fallen creation.

Man severed the intimate bond he had with his Creator at the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6-7). Love is an act of the will. It is always an act of the will. It cannot be imposed. It cannot be coerced. It must be offered and accepted freely and willingly, otherwise it is not love. Therefore, God placed only one stipulation on the man He created. “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:16-17, emphasis mine). The man chose wrongly, and all of mankind, along with the whole of creation, suffered the curse of that choice. God introduced temporary measures to cover for human shortcomings – He shed the blood of innocent animals to cover (atone) their nakedness (Genesis 3:21), He accepted the sacrifice of innocent animals for the sins of man (Genesis 4:4; 8:20-21), and He institutionalized the sacrificial system shedding innocent animal blood to atone for sins (Exodus 12) – but this was insufficient. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Animals, while innocent of any wrongdoing, are not responsible for the fall of man. The sentence for the infraction was death for the guilty party – the man. Therefore, the only reasonable and adequate sacrifice must be that of an innocent man, but there are none. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

What then! God took extreme measures to resolve the problem. God, Himself, put on human flesh. Through an act possible only for the omniscient, omnipotent, Creator God created a single-cell human zygote, in the pure virgin womb of a young Jewish maiden that developed as a normal human embryo. “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Galatians 4:4). God was born like any normal human baby. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8, emphasis mine).

Only the blood of a perfectly sinless, innocent man could suffice to pay the “wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). God took extreme measures to buy back His fallen creation. There was no other way to solve the sin problem. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6, emphasis mine).

The next time you view a nativity scene, look beyond the sweet baby in the manger and see the cross. Two trees still grow in God’s garden, the Tree of Life, i.e. the Cross of Christ, and the worldly tree of man’s perverted “knowledge of good and evil.” One tree gives eternal life, the other eternal death, i.e. eternal separation from the Creator. The choice is yours.

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WHERE IS THE LAMB?

The reflection shining in the night sky above the tree tops was nothing short of a thousand-watts of brilliance. I crossed the little bridge and rounded the curve where acres of pastureland opened …

Source: WHERE IS THE LAMB?

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

I sang this last night as part of a men’s choir at my church last night. I am as gentile as can be, but the message of this hymn never fails to bring a tear to my eye, because I know the meaning of the message, and I know the main subject of the song – Emmanuel – God, the Creator, with us! Amen!

Source: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

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Christmas Trees

Cross Christmas Ornament on tree

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.    (Galatians 3:13)

For most of my adult life I have bemoaned the blatant commercialization of Christmas. Long before the satanic observance of Halloween, Christmas displays start showing up in stores enticing consumers to bring their offerings to the god of mammon. Featured in every display is a wide assortment of Christmas trees in all shapes, sizes, and styles all professionally adorned to put the buyer in the Christmas spirit. Who cares if it is still 90° outside in Texas! What would Christmas be without a Christmas tree!

What does a Christmas tree have to do with Christmas anyway? Google is a wonderful thing and a great resource for information on a number of things, including Christmas trees. Generally speaking, the Christmas tree has pagan origins typically associated with the winter solstice and the lengthening of daylight. The evergreen tree symbolizes life, and the arrival of longer days shows the triumph of life over death and darkness. One can easily see the association of the evergreen with eternal life and the coming of the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). However, it is doubtful that the “Sun of Righteousness,” whom we celebrate, arrived during the winter solstice.

Not long ago I discovered a sweet story about Christmas trees. It is “The Legend of the Three Trees.” The story tells of three young trees and their dreams of what they wanted to be when they grew up. The first wanted be made into a beautiful chest and hold a wealth of treasure. The second wanted to be made into a great ship that would carry kings. The third just wanted to stay atop its high hill and point men to God. As the story concludes, the first tree was made into a feed trough which held the greatest treasure ever – the Christ child. The second was made into a simple fishing boat that carried the King of King and Lord of Lords. Finally the third was made into a despicable cross on which the Lamb of God was sacrificed. Atop that lonely hill, that ugly tree pointed the way to God.

Perhaps that is the best image of a Christmas tree – the old rugged cross with God’s greatest gift hung on it. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-16). No brightly lit and decorated tree could be more beautiful than God’s Christmas tree!

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