Mary Had a Choice to Make: But Really, Doesn’t Everybody?

Mary was called by God to perform a unique mission. On the surface she did the logical thing and seemed to make the obvious choice; So, a great question is, why Doesn’t Everybody Do it?

It Seems Obvious, NOW

The last woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy is the most obvious one: “and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” (Matthew 1:16, NIV). Mary lived a remarkable life, and was certainly a remarkable young woman. A ton of legend and adulation has grown up around her. With all of the Da Vinci code supposition and mystery, Mary stands as possibly the most revered woman in history. Interestingly enough, when you read about her based on a literal Gospel vantage point, there is not all that much material in the Bible about her. We can read the Gospels to get to know her, but she seems to be a fairly normal, if somewhat more devout girl of her times.

Mary and the Angel
Living in the Real World

She was chosen for a mission that rearranged her life in the most uncomfortable ways possible—pregnant and possibly disgraced on the cusp of her nuptials, targeted by gossips and disapproving eyes, forced to go live with her cousin in the hill country…
Not everything was easy and glorious for Mary. Even years later, the Pharisees, arguing with Jesus about his paternity, sneered, “WE are not illegitimate children!” (John 8:41). Apparently, Mary’s predicament of being pregnant outside of marriage was public knowledge, and the story followed Jesus into adulthood.

It may be hard to see from this side of history, on this side of the veneration and adulation of Mary, but at one time she was a simple village girl from Nazareth who was visited by a messenger who had a word from God. She responded fearfully and a bit skeptically (you can read about it in Luke 1), but after weighing her options and resolving her questions, said to Gabriel: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)

Closer to Home Than You Think

It strikes me that this answer probably contains pretty good clues about attitude for all of us when life throws us a curve ball. First, remember who God is and who we are. Mary calls herself “the Lord’s servant”, meaning that when she calls God, “Lord”, she means it. He is above her, and she is willing and ready to put him first, even in some crazy circumstances. If you think about it, this is a good attitude for us to have when life gives us unexpected difficulties.

Obviously, it helped Mary to have an angel deliver God’s Word, but we aren’t off the hook on that one, since we have the Word at our disposal 24/7. We can whine, “God didn’t give me a message!”—but maybe it’s been available to us all along and we just haven’t read it. Has God sent you a messenger lately? Are you listening?

The Answer All of us Could Give

Second, she is obedient to God. No protest, no argument. She asked a puzzled question about logistics, but that’s it. Mark Lowry sang and shared in our worship service, and humorously suggested that Mary might have asked Gabriel, “Do you think you might stop by my parents’ room on the way out and maybe let them know?”

But she said, “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (I love the King James, “Be it unto me according to Thy Word.”) I’d suggest that if all of us took TODAY, and prayed this little prayer–“May your Word to me be fulfilled”– (and meant it), we’d have a different outlook, and a different kind of day. And if we did it EVERY day, we’d have a different kind of life. Mary certainly lived differently: not by magic, or even by angelic proclamation, but by her obedience and faith. This Christmas day, you are faced with the same opportunity Mary had. Those are the tools. Here is your day.

The Choice

Christmas is a happy time, so full of joy and giving!
It is a time of hope, reminding us that life’s worth living!
We all enjoy the lovely sights of mistletoe and Christmas lights,
And gathering with family to eat our Christmas-time delights.
We watch our favorite Christmas movie features on TV,
And marvel at the stack of presents underneath the tree!
But tell, me as you think of Christmas (maybe with some snow!),
And shop for presents dodging Christmas traffic as you go,
Would there be a Santa, would there be some mistletoe?
What would our world be like today if Mary had just said, “No”?

If Mary said no, this world would be a totally different place,
Without our Christmas giving, and with far less hope and grace.
If she said no, our world would hold more shame and more disgrace.
Well, what if YOU said “No” to God? What difference would there be?
What grace and hope would future generations fail to see?
Which priceless gifts would languish under history’s Christmas tree?
Mary changed the world by saying “Yes” to God’s request;
But what if God called all of us, and ALL of us said yes?
You know how God used Mary’s “yes”; I guess you know the rest…

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

Magi: There’s a Reason Why People Still Call Them “Wise Men”

“After they [ the Magi ] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:9-12, NIV)

Mysterious Visitors

Most Nativity scenes show three wise men at the manger, and Christmas lore is rich with images of and legends about them. The Magi are a fascinating part of the Christmas story, with their camels and trappings and gifts, and they deserve some study because of their place in the series of events spoken of in Matthew. They are mysterious figures, thought by some to be kings of Persia, or possibly Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars as part of their religion.

It has also been suggested that perhaps they descended from Jews who had been exiled to Persia but rose to positions of prominence, (think: Daniel, or perhaps Esther and Mordecai) That possibility seems logical because it might explain their familiarity with OT prophecy about the Messiah.

Stars Weren’t on TV

They also seem to be ancient amateur astronomers, but consider this: We sometimes forget that the ancients had clearer views of the night skies than we do (no city lights to cloud their view), and plenty of time on their hands (no sitcoms or prime time TV to distract them). The average shepherd probably knew as much about the position and movement of the heavens as some current astronomers do, and the Magi grew up studying the stars religiously.

Here are a few quick trivia facts about them: 1. Nowhere does the Bible mention only THREE wise men; it explicitly mentions three gifts, brought by Magi. Tradition has celebrated legends about the three lone travelers, but there is no explicit Biblical reference to justify that limitation.

More Magi Trivia

2. Just based on physical realities and the logistical requirements of that day and age, it is highly unlikely that there were three guys traveling alone through the desert on camels. With gifts of such value, there had to be a group large enough to protect itself, and they probably had some soldiers or cavalry with them… (Possibly the famed “Persian cavalry”. That might be why Matthew cryptically says “Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him”. A large party of armed men made folks nervous in those days.)

real magi

3. In terms of Bible references they didn’t ever make it to the manger, and the timeline doesn’t pinpoint their exact travel itinerary. At the time of Christ’s birth, they were probably approaching Jerusalem to talk to Herod.

4. Lots of folks have tried to associate the star with a known astronomical event, and there may have been one initially; but at the end, since the star rose and led them to the child, it is likely that it was a unique manifestation, such as God’s radiance in the Shekinah, that provided guidance for the last leg of their journey.

5. They saw not a baby, but a young child (clear difference in the original Greek), and came to a house, not a stable. Jesus was weeks if not months old when they presented their gifts…

6. The tradition of our Christmas gift giving comes at least partially from the gifts of the Magi. Like them, we should bring what we have and lay it at the feet of Jesus!

7. Joseph isn’t mentioned here, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t around, just that he wasn’t mentioned. (He is around later when Jesus is 12 and they find him teaching in the temple, but that is our last Biblical reference to Joseph).

So, How Do the Magi Matter?

Finally, after seeing the young boy and worshipping him, they returned home by another route. My BSU Director Glen Norris used to teach the translation of the Bible that said, “They went home another way.” He always maintained that anyone who really meets Jesus, and truly worships Him, will be fundamentally changed by that experience, and “go home another way”.

So, the wise men not only took another route, they became different types of men, fulfilled by faith and encouraged by events. As result, they went home with new perspective, new motivation, and new direction. My Christmas and New Year’s prayer is that our world could open the true gift of Christmas and do the same thing. As you reflect on the origins of Christmas, may you, too, be wise…

(Even though the Magi may have been accompanied by cavalry, there were probably some camels along, and it is entirely possible that the tradition of camel transport being near the baby Jesus still makes sense, even if it wasn’t at the manger. So that is where I got the inspiration for this poem… Not necessarily historically accurate, but I just like the idea)

The Camel

Slow he rises! Hideous, hairy: hollowly he plods his course,
His hump-backed and misshapen body carries its express remorse.
Glaring eyes with bushy eyebrows–stinking, spitting ugly beast!
Of all mankind’s domestic creatures, he must be the very least.
Men for centuries have mocked him: used, abused him without care–
Silently he bears their scorn, ungainly walks the earth aware
Of comfort in his secret: “Fools! These men will never know
That once I heard the baby’s cry, saw where the star did go,
And brought my Magi bearing gifts, and watched them bowing low.”

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

Shepherds Were Unclean and Lower Caste: Why Did Angels Appear to THEM?

Surprisingly, the Christmas Nativity story starts with shepherds. It’s surprising because it doesn’t seem logical that the King of Kings would announce his arrival to such a humble, backwater group. Surely, an announcement in Rome or at the Temple in Jerusalem would have made a bigger splash. Yet here we are, twenty-three centuries later, talking about the humble beginning of the Messiah’s amazing arrival.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But, the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:8-10 NIV)

shepherds
The News Nobody Had Heard

Normally if a King was coming into the world, it would have been in a palace, and there would have been great fanfare over the birth of an heir to the throne. In such cases, an announcement of a royal birth would have been sent out from the palace with trumpets and proclamations so that everyone could hear the big news! Royal family members and political insiders would have been the first to hear the news, and it would have spread from there.

However, in Luke’s account about the new-born king, the news did not come from the palace but from the pasture, sent to a group that was more often than not marginalized by religious society. Even in God’s economy, this did not seem like a logical choice. Shepherds were not the first group almost anybody would have picked to receive the good news of Jesus’ birth. (Why not priests or soldiers, or somebody from the palace?) Any Messiah maker with good sense would have proclaimed the news of the Savior’s arrival to the High Priest, or a governor, or someone with influence and a platform; maybe somebody who could get the news on TV.

You Have to Question the Timing

It is easy to wonder, why was Jesus born then and there, before God could take advantage of all of our modern media and technology? Looking back, doesn’t it seem like God used really poor judgment in His timing for the Advent? As a point of fact, because of their remote workplace and pastoral schedule, shepherds were usually ceremonially unclean, and unfit to even enter the Temple. Because of that, they were far down the list that any Hebrew sage or leader would have used to announce something important.

As it was written in “Jesus Christ, Superstar”: “You’d have managed better if you had it planned; why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? If you’d have come today you would have reached a whole nation; Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

Really, Shepherds?

Why was Jesus born in such a primitive time? Why did God choose to send angels out into the countryside to announce the news to mere shepherds? They lived with a bunch of sheep! Consequently, those guys were loners, always out by themselves following sheep around. It was a humble job, far away from the limelight. Students of First Century culture say shepherds were not the most social of guys, maybe not too high on the Bethlehem social ladder. The probably weren’t the first guys you’d invite home to dinner…

These particular shepherds watched over the ceremonial flocks kept outside of Jerusalem near Bethlehem, full of unblemished lambs and goats destined for slaughter at the temple. Ironically, such men were often considered unfit to enter the temple they served…

On the other hand, David was a shepherd, and he developed pretty fair fighting skills, wrote songs and Psalms, and ended up having a pretty notable career. I think the angel appeared to shepherds as a subtle nod to Jesus’ ancestry, and as a reminder that great things can have humble beginnings. If these shepherds indeed watched over the flocks destined for sacrifice, then it’s impossible to overlook the direct connection to the lamb of God.

Telegraph, Telephone, Tell a Shepherd…

As a result, when they heard the announcement, these shepherds carried the “good news that will cause great joy” into town and out to the surrounding areas; out of the hillsides and into history. And you know what? They did not have TV or the internet, but amazingly enough the shepherds’ story is still being told. Most folks in today’s modern media age can repeat it verbatim… Perhaps God knew what He was doing after all by announcing the good news when and where He did!

Two things: does this good news bring you great joy? (I hope so!) And who are you telling about it? Perhaps someone you know is waiting to be carried from the hillsides into history. And into heaven as well.

The Message

There, on the hills near Bethlehem, our plaintive, restless flock
Was destined for Jerusalem as sacrificial stock.
Trying to sleep on a fitful night,
We heard a sound–almost took flight–
Awakened by a glorious light, astounded by the startling sight
Of a messenger whose voice instills
Great fear, and brought us shepherds chills
Out there, alone up in the hills…
He gave us tidings of great joy!
“There is a King! A newborn boy!
They’ll call his name Immanuel!”
With that, a choir began to swell
And sing of glory, peace as well,
As we were captive to its spell:
He told us, then, to go and tell…

Well after that, what could we do?
We went! We found the babe! It’s true!
Of all the things I’ve done, and not done yet,
That is the thing I can’t –I won’t– forget.
Whatever I may do, or men may say,
Say this: I was in Bethlehem that day,
And saw the child, in the manger where he lay…

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
For the Kindle Edition, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Bo-Jackson-ebook/dp/B0

Nativity Scenes are Wonderful. But Are They All WRONG?!

Here’s a Christmas news flash: Most Nativity Scenes are WRONG! It’s not a deal-breaker, but if you check the Scriptural accounts of the details around Jesus’ birth you’ll find that the traditional Nativity sets depict a scene that never occurred…

Just the Facts, Ma’am…

Luke describes this pastoral scene, out in the fields: “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8, NIV) Matthew, though, refers to the wise men in a different context, here: “And when they [the wise men] had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:11, NIV)

I’ve always loved the nativity scenes, with the animals, shepherds and wise men gathered around the manger honoring the baby Jesus, while an angel hovers over the stable as Joseph and Mary look on… The problem is, that scene never happened.

The traditional nativity scenes are based on a couple of different events that took place at least several months and possibly up to two years apart, each with a different location and set of players. I guess you could say that Nativity scenes are Cliff Notes’ representations that portray both events together… Therefore, the only group who made it to the manger area (which may or may not have been near the over-crowded inn) when Jesus was born were the shepherds.

nativity
Connecting the Dots

Interestingly, the place where the angels appeared to the shepherds is traditionally known as the “Tower of the Flock,” or Migdal Edar, which is very near Bethlehem. That pasture had a birthing place for lambs called the manger, and if that was where Mary delivered her baby, it creates some very interesting connections. Migdal Edar was where lambs were prepared for sacrifice at the Temple.

Therefore the sheep born there were set apart and sanctified according to Jewish law. It stands to reason that these Shepherds would have known a LOT about unblemished lambs and sacrifice, since they were usually guarding lambs who were on their way to be sacrificed at the Temple. (Pretty thoughtful of God to connect those dots for us, isn’t it?)

Second, Luke says the angel appeared to the shepherds out in the fields. Once they got over their fright somewhere out in the Judean countryside, the shepherds did indeed stop by the manger in Bethlehem; but it was shortly AFTER being visited by an angel. (That angel, by the way, was joined by a host of other Angels who sang in celebration.) So, contrary to most Nativity scenes, it wasn’t a single angel, it was many; and the angel(s) didn’t go into town with the Shepherds to the manger.

The Original Manger Scene

It says in Luke 2:15 that the Angels “went back into heaven.” The shepherds went into town on their own, where they found “Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” Obviously, they were pretty fired up when they realized that something pretty big was going on, and that they were part of it! Luke 2:20 says they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

The shepherds, it seems, have a lot in common with us. They are ordinary folks. And, as ordinary folks, they heard some really good news. They had a choice: ignore the news, stay out in the fields, and just go on with their lives as if nothing had happened; or they could believe the message, go and find out more about this baby, and meet him face to face. You have the same information the shepherds did, and the exact same choice. Something pretty big is going on. Be part of it.

Nativity Relativity

Nativity scenes are quite profound,
With shepherds and Magi gathered ’round,
Adoring Jesus, meek and mild…
The angel greets this new-born child
With Mary and Joseph and all the rest.
But it doesn’t pass the Bible test!

Just look at the Nativity:
It isn’t accurate history,
And if you give it scrutiny
You’ll find it’s more of a summary.

And that’s ok, just get it right:
Some history was made that night
And all of those events occurred,
Just not the way you’ve always heard.
The shepherds on the hillside heard
The Angel speak his glorious word,
Then ran to town without delay
To where the baby Jesus lay.
That’s when the angels came to sing
Of Glory to the Newborn King!

The Magi visited later on,
So most Nativity scenes are wrong…
Before your nose gets out of joint,
I’m not being critical; here’s my point:
I’m not saying it’s kinda lame
That the Nativity scene is not the same;
The important thing is, Jesus came!
Although it may lack accuracy,
The scene at the Nativity has elements of history
Presented as a summary.
Nativity scenes may not be totally actual,
But Jesus came. That truth is totally factual.

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread