Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Joy


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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Stories for Christmas: Simeon

I must tell you this story before I die, for I have lived a very long time and it will not be long before I am gone.

Not long ago, the Lord spoke to me while I was worshiping in the temple...

Wait, let me go back a bit and start at the beginning. I live in Jerusalem and have all of my life. My father was a merchant and taught the business to me so that I could take it over when he was old and needed to be cared for. He also taught me to love the Lord and every week he took me with him to the Temple to worship. My faith grew as I did and I have seen God’s hand of blessing on me and my family. In time, I married and had children of my own. I too taught my own son to be a merchant and to worship the Lord. In time he took over the business and now cares for me in the same way I cared for my father.

Now that I am old, I spend most of my day here at the Temple. I come here right after breakfast and only leave when it is time to return home for the evening meal. My daughter-in-law is a good woman and cares for me as she would her own father. She always prepares a mid-day meal for me to take since she doesn’t approve of the food that can be purchased at the Temple gates.

One day, not long after I retired from the business world and began spending my time at the Temple, God spoke to me. I was seated against a column deep in prayer when I heard him as clearly as if he was seated next to me. I know it was him because it was early in the morning when there are only a few of us in the Temple that early and no one else was close. It could only have been the Lord.

Following the example of the prophet Samuel I said, “Speak, I am listening.” The Lord spoke to me again saying that I would not die until I had seen the Messiah. I was overwhelmed with amazement and relief. My father had fervently prayed that the prophesies would be fulfilled and that the promised Messiah would come. He understood that the Messiah was not for the military freedom of our people, but for the spiritual freedom of the world. He studied the scriptures that were recorded by the prophets about the Messiah and his coming and he passed that passion on to me. So when the Lord told me that the Messiah would come and that I would see him before I died, I was so overwhelmed with joy that I could not speak, only weep and pray for the remainder of the day.

We, as the nation of Israel, have longed for our Messiah for so long that many no longer believe. This was so with my daughter-in-law. When I went home that evening, I told my son and his family what God had told me, but they were skeptical. They were respectful as I spoke, but I could see in their faces that they did not quite believe me. On another morning when my daughter-in-law thought I had already left for the Temple, I heard her confide in a friend that she believed that I was beginning to show signs of senility because I believed that the Lord had spoken to me. However, from then on, I made sure that I was at the Temple early and I watched the young families as they came there for the circumcision and naming of their sons.

The day they arrived God’s Holy Spirit sent me to the Temple even earlier than usual and drew me to a young, poor couple, with their small son. The young man was carrying their offering of pigeons and the woman followed him close behind, holding the child close to her heart.

I walked to them and greeted them with respect. I think they were taken aback that a man like myself, dressed in the robes of a merchant would greet them, a poor couple, with such respect. When I asked the young woman if I could hold her son, she gently gave the child to my arms, still regarding me with wonder.

As I held that small body, I knew for certain that he was the Messiah. I prayed at that moment, looking in the child’s eyes saying, “Lord, I can now be at peace! You kept your promise and I have now seen the Savior. He will show God to the nations, and is the glory of your people Israel”

As I was praying, I could see his parents looking at each other in amazement. I imagine God had told them who their child was and they were wondering how I could know. I handed that little boy back to his mother, then I placed my hands on their heads and blessed them and told them that this child would fulfill the prophesies, be rejected by many in our nation, and that it would be their undoing. That the deepest thoughts of our hearts would be revealed and that her heart would be pierced with such great pain it would cut like a sword.

After I had blessed them, I realized that a woman named Anna had come to stand behind me. She was another person, like myself, who spent a great deal of time in the Temple. I often wondered if she ever left since several times I saw one of her grandchildren bringing food to her. When I finished my blessing, she too knew who the child was. She continued on by going to everyone who came into the Temple, that the Messiah had been born. Sadly, most looked at her with scorn. Just like my daughter-in-law, they had waited so long that they no longer believed.

When I went home that evening, I told everyone of what God had shown me that day. I don’t think that my daughter-in-law believed, but my son did. After the evening meal, as we sat on the roof watching the light of the sun fade away, we talked of it and of what might come.

Now it is up to him to look for the Messiah and what God’s plan for Israel is. For the child must grow to adulthood before he will accomplish the salvation of the world. I will be gone, but my son will be here along with his son to see the prophesies fulfilled.

I praise God, for he comes to take away the sins of the world.

Stories for Christmas: The Magi

I will never forget the star that sent us on that incredible journey. I am a court astronomer to the king of Persia and it is an important position with a long and illustrious history. We are not just astronomers, but also translators of dreams and advisers to the king on all important matters. One of our illustrious predecessors was Baltasar, also known as Daniel to his own people.

One evening, when I was very young and new at court, I and my colleagues were on on the roof of the palace observing the movements of the heavens. Then we saw something we had never seen before. It was amazing. A star, telling us by its timing and position that a king had been born in the land of Judea. We observed this star for several days and determined that a small company of us must set out to find this king and take him gifts to celebrate his arrival. We knew he was a very important king. The stars are rarely so specific, so when they are we pay attention.

I and my companions gathered the necessary provisions for our trip and we set out. All along the way we observed the star every evening. And every evening we received confirmation from the stars. Again and again I was reminded of our predecessor, Baltasar. He was a Judean who had been brought to the court of Nebuchadnezzar and eventually became one of the most powerful court advisers of all time. He was sent through many perils but always kept his faith in his God, Yahweh. In a chronicle it is recorded that he interpreted a dream for the king. It was a dream of prophesy that spoke of the future kingdoms of Persia. The last part of the prophesy says that God  will set up a kingdom that won't ever be destroyed or conquered even though all other kingdoms will disappear.

We believed that this new king was going to be the foundation of that kingdom and the stars continually confirmed our belief.

It took us several weeks to reach Judea and when we arrived we went to the capital city, Jerusalem. There we began asking where we would find the king of the Jews. Eventually we were summoned before Herod who asked the teachers of the religion of their one God where we might find this king. After consulting their sacred texts we were told that he would be found in Bethlehem. Herod asked us to return after we had found the king so that he could also pay homage to the king. Little did we know, that was not his true intention.

We went on our way to Bethlehem, still guided by the star to the very house where he lived with his mother and her husband.

Oh, he was a sweet child. And his mother was very wise for a young woman of her age. I wish my own daughter could have had even a portion of her wisdom.

After worshiping the child, the king of the Jews, we presented our gifts. I’m afraid the parents where rather overwhelmed. It was probably more wealth than they had ever seen before. But we could give nothing less than the best to this mighty king who was still a child. It is shown in the stars that his kingdom will last for eternity and will stretch over the whole earth. It will encompass every tribe, people and nation.

That night, as we slept, it was revealed to us in our dreams that Herod wished to kill the child. So when we awoke, we resolved to go home without returning to Jerusalem.

I am a very old man now, but I will never forget that child. A few years ago, I heard about him again. He had become a teacher. They must not have liked what he taught because the Romans executed him. A peculiarly morbid form of execution where the offender is nailed to a cross and left to die a slow, agonizing death. It seemed strange to me, after what the stars had told me, that it should happen to him.

But just a few days ago I was in the marketplace and there were several young men talking about him. When I took them aside to ask them for more information they told me he had risen from the dead three days after his execution.

Then he ascended into heaven and his kingdom goes on in our hearts. It is a divine kingdom rather than an earthly one.

Suddenly it all became clear to me and now his kingdom reigns in my heart as well.

Stories for Christmas: The Shepherd

I’m nobody really. Just the youngest son of a youngest son. Being the youngest it’s my job to watch the sheep and I spend all day, every day, out caring for them. I’m practically a part of the herd. No one pays much attention to us shepherds since they don’t see us much and when they do we are so dirty that they avoid us.

But I know that God cares. You know how I know that? Because my buddies and I were the first to be told about the birth of the Messiah. Let me tell you about it. It’s pretty awesome.

So, we were out sleeping with the sheep. We’d put them all in the pen and had set up camp at the gate and were just getting settled down for the night. One of the other guys was just dousing the small fire that we had cooked our supper on when suddenly the sky was bright with light. We all shaded our eyes it was so bright. It was an angel and he spoke to us! He said that the Messiah had been born, that he was a baby, and he was not far away in a stable. We were to go see him. Then just as our eyes were adjusting to the brightness, it got even brighter. The whole sky was full of angels and they were singing about God’s glory and of peace.

They were gone as suddenly as they came and we sat there, stunned, sleep forgotten. We were overwhelmed. We knew we hadn’t dreamt it because we all had seen and heard the same thing. Then we all started talking at once. I was all for going to find the child Messiah. My Mom had often told me stories about the longed for Messiah and I wanted to see him. I needed to so that I coudl tell my mother all about him. She would be so excited to know that he had come and would be so proud that the angels had been sent ot tell me, her son.

The pessimists in our group were hesitant. They weren’t too sure that the angels really meant for us  to go find a stable. Surely they meant a much nicer place. Surely the Messiah wouldn’t be poor like us and have to be born in a stable. Besides, people didn’t like having us show up since we stank. And someone should stay and look after the sheep. In the end the rest of us convinced them to come along and after securing the gate to the sheep pen, we went out to seek the Messiah.

While the angel hadn’t given us specific instructions, I had a pretty good idea of where we should look. There’s only one inn and I was certain that’s where they would have gone first. Since the angel said we’d find the baby in a manger, it made sense to start at the inn’s stable. I was right and that’s where we found them.

They were an ordinary family, obviously tired from traveling and her especially tired from having just given birth. There were people camped out all around under the stars and, when asked, one of them had confirmed that there had been the cries of a woman giving birth a while earlier.

When we had explained to the couple why we had come, they were happy to have us draw close. We learned that they were Joseph and Mary from Nazareth and had traveled to Bethlehem especially for the Roman census.

The baby’s name was Jesus. We stayed there awhile then, realizing that they were exhausted, we left them to rest. We were so excited as we picked our way around the camps of travelers that we were rather loud. People snapped at us to keep it down and return to our sheep. We didn’t care about the insults we were so excited. So all we said was “ The Messiah has come! He is here and we have seen him!” Some just rolled over and ignored us. Some were just curious enough to wake up and ask how we knew. However, when we said he’d been born in a stable, most lost interest and rolled over to go back to sleep.

Eventually we made it back to our sheep. They were just as we had left them. Asleep and unharmed. We couldn’t sleep, so we stayed up the rest of the night talking about it.

From then on, we told anyone who would listen about that night. Eventually, I married and had children of my own. My wife puts up with my story of the Messiah but I don’t think that she has ever really believed it. My children certainly got tired of hearing about it.

Except for my youngest son.

Stories for Christmas: Mary

It was many years ago, but I can remember my first pregnancy very well. I’m sure every mother remembers her first pregnancy as if it was just last year, but mine wasn’t exactly a normal one.

An angel appeared to me one day while I was going about my chores and he told me that I would become pregnant by the Spirit of God. He also told me that the child was going to be our prophesied Messiah. I was stunned, but it never occurred to me to question it until he was gone. When God sends an angel, you don’t argue. It wasn’t until I was sure that I was pregnant that I managed to work up the courage to tell Joseph. I have to give him credit. He was upset, very upset, but he didn’t yell at me or break off our engagement.

Yes, we weren’t married yet. Just engaged. Our marriage was an arranged one, but we had known each other all our lives having grown up in the same village. So we had affection, even love, for one another. I was so relieved when he didn’t break off our engagement. We were married, in spite of the fact that I was showing by then and all the gossips were talking behind their hands about me.  It wasn’t until after we were married that I found out that Joseph really had intended to quietly break off our engagement. He didn’t because the same angel that had appeared to me came to him in a dream. The angel told Joseph the same thing that he told me along with the fact that we were to name him Joshua, or Jesus as you know him.

It was a time that really tested my faith in many ways. I was totally reliant on God’s promises through the prophets and the angels, as well as Joseph’s faith in God and faithfulness to me.

There were so many things that, according to the prophets, had to happen and I had no idea how it would all work out. Like the fact that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. We lived in Nazareth in the north. Bethlehem is in the south near Jerusalem.

But God is in control and his will is done. I could never have guessed that a census required by Caesar would be the way that God would use to send us to Bethlehem in time for the birth of my son. My mother was upset, of course. She had never accepted that the child wasn’t Joseph’s and the humiliation of a daughter pregnant before the wedding was mostly overridden by the fact that it was her grandchild. My father and in-laws were not as forgiving and wouldn’t even allow us to travel with them to Bethlehem. My mother never forgave them for that because not only was she prevented from helping me travel, but they weren’t there to help when the child was born.

Joseph and I set out for Bethlehem one morning. We couldn’t afford a donkey to help carry our few belongings, so Joseph carried most of our things. I carried the few items that we would need for the baby when he arrived. My mother had managed to make and give me a blanket without my father knowing. At first we traveled quite quickly. I was young, strong, and fit. However, as we drew near to Bethlehem, we went a little more slowly. My back ached and my feet were swollen. We were just outside town when the labor pains started. Joseph really started to worry then. He wanted to stop, but I knew (and hoped) it would probably be a few hours before I gave birth, so I insisted we press on. We kept going with the hope that there would be a warm bed in an inn where we could rest and prepare. Also, there would be other women around to help.

However, when we got to Bethlehem, the place was overrun with people. We finally found a little space in a barn that was out in a field owned by one of the innkeepers. By the time we got there, the labor pains were coming in ernest. All I could do was sit and gasp while Joseph prepared a corner for us as best he could. He delivered the baby himself. We were both relieved that it wasn’t a complicated delivery. That was surely by the grace of God.

I was exhausted, so Joseph cleaned up little Joshua and wrapped him in the clothes and blanket that we had brought. The cleanest place to lay him was in the trough used to feed the oxen. I dozed on and off for quite a while, until some visitors arrived.

It was utterly amazing. These shepherds showed up with the most incredible story. Angels, a whole host of them, appeared to them out in the field beyond the barn. These angels had told them that Joshua had been born and that he was the prophesied Messiah. I will never forget that visit. It was a confirmation to me that what Joseph and I had experienced and endured was all according to God’s plan. God had taken care of us and would continue to do so because we were his children as well as the parents of his son, the Messiah.

Yes, it was a hard time for us, but after the census was over we continued to live in Bethlehem. Joseph joined one of his cousins in a carpentry shop and was able to make a good living. Gradually our relatives became more accepting of me and our situation and so it was easier and more economical to stay than to try and return to Nazareth. About a year or two later we had some more unusual visitors. Persians showed up looking for the King of the Jews. It was rather surprising to have them appear on our door step because we hadn’t really told any of our neighbors about who Joshua was and the family didn’t talk about it. It was rather a relief to escape the scorn we had experienced in Nazareth and we certainly didn’t want to invite the same thing in Bethlehem. Besides, with a man like Herod on the throne with the backing of the Roman emperor, you don’t want to claim that a poor carpenter’s boy who’s not even two years old is the King of the Jews.

I invited them in and we shared our small supper with them. They paid homage to my little boy and gave him such expensive gifts. Gold, myrrh, and frankincense from Egypt. When we went to bed that night I commented to Joseph that I didn’t know what we were going to do with these gifts. People would think we had stolen them. Although, they were probably already talking about the foreign courtiers who had visited us. I wasn’t sure how we were going to explain that. Joseph reminded me that God had taken care of us so far and would continue to do so. Besides, we could hide the gifts away for a rainy day.  No one would need to know.

Little did we know that night that we would be fleeing Bethlehem for Egypt the very next day. Apparently the Persians had come looking for Joshua by way of Jerusalem. The star they had been following led them there and they cannot be blamed for assuming that the King of the Jews would be born in a palace in the capital city. From the description they gave to King Herod, the scribes determined that they were looking for the Messiah. So, quoting the prophet Micah, they sent these travelers off to Bethlehem with Herod’s request that they return to tell him where this king could be found. God revealed to them what Herod’s true intention was to use their information to kill Joshua, and so they returned home without going through Jerusalem.

God sent an angel to Joseph at the same time. The angel told him that Herod wanted to kill my son, so he was to take us and flee to Egypt. Talk about a rainy day. We could not have made the trip to Egypt, let alone paid off our debts in Bethlehem or even set up Joseph’s business in Egypt without the gifts that the Persians had brought.

Later we heard the horrible news about what Herod did to the children of Bethlehem. It makes my heart ache for all those mothers just thinking about it. He had every boy under the age of two slaughtered. I thank God for his mercy and am reminded of his grace toward us every time I think of it.

Later, after we heard that Herod had died, we returned home to Nazareth. We had a couple more children when we moved back there and quite a few more after that. Joseph rejoined his family carpentry business and, of course, passed his skills on to our sons. When my daughters married, I realized how difficult it must have been for my mother to deal with my pregnancy and the subsequent events that took us far from home and far from her. A mother holds her children close to her heart regardless of what they do or where they go. Little did I know at the time, the anguish that was in store for me. I could guess at it, but I never imagined…but that is another story for another day.