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About three months after Elizabeth gave birth to John, the emperor, Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that he was taking a census, and everyone needed to go to their ancestral territory to be registered. (Luke 2:1-2) Caesar Augustus was the kind of man who liked to have everything controlled and orderly. He could very likely have used this registration for many purposes, not least of which was taxation. So, Joseph, being a descendant of David, had to go to Bethlehem to register. (Luke 2:3-5) It is not clear whether Mary had to register separately or not. It is possible that Joseph could have registered for both of them, but there are probably several other reasons why Mary accompanied him on his journey, even though it would have been long (a little longer than three marathons) and arduous (through hilly countryside and rough terrain). Mary may not have wanted to be alone at this late stage in her pregnancy, she may have wanted to avoid the risks of public scorn for being in her condition before her wedding ceremony, but I think there is another reason too. Mary knew that she was carrying the Messiah, and she knew that it would soon be time to deliver Him. She also knew that the prophet Micah had said that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) Perhaps for that reason she knew that she had to go to Bethlehem with Joseph whether Caesar required it or not.

The time came for her to have her baby, and there was no room in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7) I don’t know what your concept of an inn is, but mine is a lovely big, perhaps Victorian, home with lots of rooms. That was certainly not the case for Mary and Joseph. More likely it was an open, walled area that would provide a safe resting spot for animals and people, and would have a well to provide water for them. And it was full. So they had to find somewhere else. It is very likely that they found a cave that was used to corral and shelter animals. We don’t know that there were any animals there at the time of the birth, because the Bible doesn’t specify, but we do know that there was a feeding trough, which would have been the best place in that situation to lay an infant. Unlike most Christmas plays that you have seen over the years, the manger was probably made of stone, and it would have been left in the cave whether animals were there or not. Mary wrapped her baby in strips of cloth to protect Him, and to keep Him warm and comforted. That is pretty common practice even today for babies who have just left the safety of their mother’s womb.

In the meantime, the rest of the world was going about its business not paying much attention to this poor mother who was giving birth without the benefit of a midwife or a birthing couch. And yet, this was a momentous occasion, so God sent angels to declare it. (Luke 2:8-14) It’s interesting who God chose to tell. Shepherds. Shepherds weren’t considered the upper crust of society by any means. They were more like the outcasts. Because of their profession they were considered to be ceremonially unclean and unreliable. Their testimony was not even accepted in a court of law. And this is who God chose to tell?! By doing so, God demonstrated that this good news of great joy truly was for all people. (Luke 2:10) And He also showed that He does not look at the outward appearance of a man, but at his heart. (I Samuel 16:7)

The shepherds didn’t hesitate. (Luke 2:15) They didn’t question. They set out immediately to find this baby that the angels told them would be lying in a manger. They probably had a good idea where most of those were, but the word translated as found (Luke 2:16) means that they found Him after a search. Then they began to share the news. (Luke 2:17) Think about it. A heavenly host of angels showing up in the field where there were few people around, telling you about a baby who would be the King of Kings. And you find that what they said was true. And you have been waiting for this Messiah for hundreds of years. They found it hard to keep the news to themselves. But they were still shepherds and still considered unreliable, so it’s not surprising that people would be astonished at the news. (Luke 2:18) I wonder how many believed and how many didn’t. Some might have thought they were crazy. It has always taken some amount of faith to believe God. (Hebrews 11:6)

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart, and the shepherds went on their way praising God because everything was just as they had been told. (Luke 2:19-20) Remember that the purpose of Luke’s recording these events was to show his readers that what they had been taught is true. Just as it was their choice, it is also our choice whether or not to believe.

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I’m not sure exactly when or why it happened, but somehow since the time I was young an overarching societal attitude has changed. So many people today have a feeling of entitlement. I deserve…. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth felt that way. Both wondered why God had chosen them to fulfill such an important part of His plan. (Luke 1:43, Luke 1:52) They wondered what they had done to deserve such blessing, and they both came to the same conclusion. They had done nothing to deserve the honour that God was giving to them. It was all a gift of His grace.

When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to give her the news that she would give birth to God’s son, he also told her that her relative Elizabeth was going to give birth in her old age. (Luke 1:36) So Mary’s first priority became to go and see Elizabeth. We are told that she went hurriedly. She was doing the journey on foot though, and we know that she was going into the hill country, so it wouldn’t have been an easy stroll. It has been estimated to have taken three days. We are not given the reason why Mary went to Elizabeth right away, but I suspect that she was bursting to talk to someone about all that had just happened to her, and since she got news about Elizabeth from Gabriel, she knew that Elizabeth would understand and would share in her joy. Keep in mind that once Mary’s condition was obvious, there would be a lot of unjoyful reactions towards her. Talking things over with Elizabeth would certainly be a much more pleasant experience.

Not only did Elizabeth rejoice with Mary, but the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy when Mary arrived. Elizabeth and her baby were both filled with the Holy Spirit, and therefore knew that the baby that had been conceived by the Holy Spirit had just entered. Elizabeth, whose husband Zechariah had had a lapse of faith, (Luke 1:18) blessed Mary for believing the Lord. (Luke 1:45) And Mary praised God. (Luke 1:46-55)

When the time came for John to be born, the joy was shared even further. For Elizabeth’s family and neighbours heard the news and rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:58) Rejoicing continued as the naming of the baby resulted in Zechariah getting his voice back. (Luke 1:63-64) And Zechariah praised God. (Luke 1:67-75)

Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah were not joyful because they had received blessings that they felt they deserved, and were getting what they were rightfully due. They were joyful because God had kept His promises, blessed them, and made them each an integral part of His plan. That’s joy worth sharing!

How often have you said this to someone? If a friend has helped you out in multiple ways, you may, instead of listing each kindness, say, “Thanks for everything!” You appreciate all of the goodness. In the United States, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. It’s a day to pause and be thankful for the abundance of blessings we have in our lives. (Although I’m Canadian, and we celebrate Thanksgiving in October, many of my readers and some of my friends are American. So this post is in honour of their holiday.)

It’s fairly easy to be thankful for the good things in life. Dealing with the less pleasant things is a little harder. Did you know that the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the people of Thessalonica, instructed them to be thankful in everything? (I Thessalonians 5:18) Notice that it doesn’t say to be thankful for everything, but to be thankful in everything. Things may not always go well. In fact, we know that they will often not go well. (John 16:33) But we must always have an attitude of thankfulness to God. This won’t necessarily be how we feel, but we are instructed to choose to be thankful—thankful to God for His power, His goodness, His love, His sacrifice through Jesus on the cross, His gift of salvation to us, and perhaps most importantly during times of trial on this Earth, the promise of an eternity free of hardship and pain. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

This verse is actually only part of the sentence (I Thessalonians 5:16-18) which is part of the final instructions in the concluding paragraphs of Paul’s letter. (I Thessalonians 5:12-22) In these final instructions, Paul encourages his readers to respect their leaders, to live peacefully with each other and to help their brothers and sisters to live in a way that reflects Christ. The exhortations in verses 16-18 are more individual. They involve our personal relationship with God. No matter what our circumstance, we are to always rejoice. Even when we face trials of many kinds, good can come from the struggle. (James 1:2-4) We are to pray constantly. That doesn’t mean that we need to be on our knees with our head bowed and our eyes closed, although there are times when that kind of concentration in prayer is appropriate and beneficial. However, no matter what we are doing throughout our day, we can have an attitude of communion with God. We can consider Him in all of our decisions; we can pray while we are going about our daily tasks. If we consider and trust Him in all aspects of our lives, it will be much easier to be joyful and to be thankful.

Here we are a week into the new year. Is it really a happy one for you? For some there have been almost inconceivable blessings; for others, it has been one frustration after another. Others are just getting back into the work and school routine after the holidays. Either they are feeling a little let down, or they are thankful to get back to “normal” life. Whatever the circumstances of our lives are, they will almost certainly be affecting our perception of whether or not this is going to be a Happy New Year. And most of us have probably realized by now that we truly have very little control over those circumstances. Sure we can make plans and work hard to try to control our lives, but there will always be events that are beyond our ability to manage and which will influence our degree of happiness.

But what of Jesus’ promise that our joy would be full? (John 15:11) First we need to realize that joy and happiness are not the same thing. Happiness is an emotional reaction to circumstances. According to Kay Warren, author of Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough, “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be all right, and the determined choice to praise God in all things.”

Second, we need to look more closely at the context of that promise. This verse comes very soon after the parable of the vine and the branches, in which Jesus teaches us to abide in Him. It comes directly after Jesus tells us that He loves us just as the Father loves Him, and instructs us to remain in His love. (John 15:9) Then He tells us that the way to remain in His love is to obey His commandments (John 15:10), and that His commandment is to love each other the same way that He loves us. (John 15:12). So many people who don’t know Jesus think that following His commands would make life tedious, and would take all the fun out of living. Jesus promises just the opposite. Abiding in Him, loving Him and each other, this is what will make our joy complete.

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Stress. There are so many circumstances in life to cause us worry or anxiety, from everyday annoyances, like getting the kids to school on time or not burning dinner, to huge tragedies. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan come to mind. So does the Chretien family. (Missing – Al and Rita Chretien) Is there really a way to be stress-free? The Apostle Paul tells us how.

In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul echoes Jesus' words (Matthew 6:25-34) when he tells us not to be anxious about anything. Nothing. But then he tells us what to do instead: In every situation, through prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. One simple sentence is the cure to all our anxiety; let’s look at it closely.

(a) In every situation. Every situation. That means the small, everyday annoyances as well as the devastating tragedies; God cares about every single detail of your life. (Luke 12:6-7) There is nothing too big or too small to bring to God, for He desires that we trust Him and rely on Him for everything. Nothing will catch Him by surprise, and He invites us to come to Him boldly with any request we have. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

(b) Through prayer and petition. Some versions translate this as “by prayer and supplication”. What are the differences between these three terms? I believe that prayer is a more general term and encompasses all of our conversations with God. As followers of Jesus, we should have an attitude of prayer, or some would say live in an atmosphere of prayer, such that we feel God’s presence with us constantly and we are always in communion with Him. When we petition or supplicate, we are asking more earnestly for our needs to be met. Supplication gives more of a sense of pleading, but both terms include the idea of humility. When we are told not to be anxious, it is not that God expects us to stop caring about the situations in our lives. What He wants is for us to bring our cares to Him, and especially to lay at His feet the responsibility of all those things that are out of our control.

(c) With thanksgiving. I think when we have a lot going on that concerns us, we sometimes forget to be thankful. We focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. God has given us so many blessings, and many of them we take for granted. In I Timothy 6:8, Paul said that he would be content just to have food and shelter. I’m sure that if you are reading this on a computer, you have so much more than that. We need to take time to thank God for our blessings, but we also need to thank Him for all the things we see as hardship as well. Ann Voskamp, author of one thousand gifts, has said, “If I can take everything in my life and see it as grace, a good gift from God’s hand, and give thanks for it, there is joy in this. That joy really is a function of gratitude. And gratitude is a function of perspective. Can I see the things to be grateful for? If I can see the things to be grateful for, I can find joy.”

So, can we be stress-free? Yes. In fact we are commanded to be stress-free, but it is a command with a promise. If we will take all of our cares to God, and if we will be thankful, we will have peace that is beyond our comprehension, peace that comes from knowing that God loves us and has all things in His control. A peace unlike any earthly peace. (John 14:27) This peace will protect our hearts and minds the same way that a sentinel stands on guard to protect the garrison—a way that will keep us free from anxiety.

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I realize that my last post was rather on the serious side. I also realize that in this life you need balance—not that we don’t need to deal with the serious stuff, but sometimes we need to have a little fun too. Studies have shown that laughter is good for your health. Just google “laughter is good for your health”, and you’ll see what I mean. This only confirms what the Bible tells us in Proverbs 17:22. A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. So, in an attempt to improve your health, I am going to share a couple of videos that I hope will cheer your heart.

The first one is especially for anyone who has ever wanted to become more fit.

The second is for anyone who is a mom or has a mom.

Few of us will ever face the kind of trials that David faced. He made a lot of mistakes, (January 11, 2011) and he fought a lot of battles, and illness, and there was frequently someone trying to take his life.

Many of David’s psalms started out as laments. He cried out to God, and asked for mercy, healing or protection from his enemies. Psalm 13 (February 11, 2011) is a good example of this. David starts out by asking “How long, Lord?”, but he ended by trusting in God’s faithfulness, rejoicing in His deliverance and praising God. Somehow in the midst of all David’s trials, he was able to find joy.

In Psalm 30, David was in a similar situation. He had been praying to God for healing. He had asked for mercy and deliverance. In Psalm 30:11-12 David’s prayers were answered. His lament was turned to joy. The reason that David was considered a man after God’s own heart is not because He always did the right thing and never made mistakes. It was because He always turned to God. And whether his prayers were answered the way he wanted them to be or not, David continued to trust in God and praise Him for His faithfulness.

Joy is not the same as happiness; it does not depend on circumstances. If we want to have joy we need to find contentment in whatever we are facing, do the best we can in the situation, and leave the rest to God.

Today's post is written by Rusty Wright.
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Laugh a Little: It's Good For Your Health

Had a good laugh recently? Need one?

Stressful days can invite comic relief. Doctors realize that laughter can enhance physical and mental health. Now it seems even looking forward to laughter can be good for you.

WebMD reports that Lee Berk, MD, a University of California Irvine medical professor, and his associates have for years investigated how moods affect immune systems and illness. They've found laughter has a role in fighting viruses, bacteria, cancer and heart disease.

Stress can hamper your immune system; a good chuckle can help. Berk found earlier that watching a one-hour humorous video reduced stress hormone secretion and helped the immune system counter viruses and bacteria.

But there's more: Berk now says the mere anticipation of laughing can help. He studied ten men, measured their stress signs, and told them that in about three days they would see a humorous video. In each man, spirits lifted before viewing the video.

Two days before the viewing, depression was down 51 percent, confusion 36 percent, anger 19 percent, fatigue 15 percent and tension 9 percent. Right after the viewing, depression and anger were both down 98 percent, fatigue 87 percent, confusion 75 percent and tension 61 percent.

Berk feels anticipating humor brightens life and affects health. He calls this influence the "biology of hope." Berk says, "Positive anticipation of humor starts the ball rolling in a sense, in which moods begin to change in ways that help the body fight illness. We believe this shows that even anticipation can be used to help patients recover from a wide range of disorders."

Moral: Planning humor can benefit your health. Watch a funny movie, spend time with humorous people. Tell your boss, professor, clergy or club chairperson to liven up their speeches a bit if they want healthy employees, students, or members. Put laugh-breaks on your calendar, since anticipation is part of the therapy.

A Jewish proverb observes, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." [Proverbs 17:22] Paul, a first-Century follower of Jesus, emphasized hope: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope. . ." [Romans 15:13] Those biblical writers have some good advice now and then, practical stuff for everyday life.

So, laugh more. You'll like it. And say, have you heard the one about. . .?
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Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

A lot of kids grow up without knowing that their father loves them. Sometimes it’s because he doesn’t live with the family. Sometimes he’s there, but is either too busy, or just doesn’t know how to show his love to his children. Other children grow up having the great benefit of a father who loves them and knows how to show it. What a wonderful example they are of God’s love for us.

I am convinced, however, that God loves us more than our human minds can comprehend. Throughout the Old Testament we see the Israelites constantly messing up when they should have been trusting and honouring God. He would get angry with them, but would always forgive them when they repented of their foolish ways. (II Chronicles 7:14) He never completely rejected or disowned them. Instead He said that He would remove the judgement against them and protect them from their enemies. (Zephaniah 3:15-16) In the New Testament, God showed His remarkable love for us by sending His son to take all the punishment for our sins so that we could be made righteous enough to come into His presence and enjoy eternal life with Him. (John 3:16) Throughout the Bible God’s love is demonstrated. (Romans 5:8, John 14:21, John 15:9, John 16:27, I John 3:1, I John 4:10, Titus 3:3-7, Ephesians 2:4-5, Ephesians 5:1-2, Luke 15, Psalm 136:2, Jeremiah 31:3)

I suppose there are some who would say that parents have to love you because they are your parents, and they may feel the same way about God. The amazing thing is that God not only loves us, but He likes us too! Zephaniah 3:17 says that He takes great delight in you and shouts for joy over you. The New International Version says that He rejoices over you with singing. Now seriously, how many people burst into song when they think of you? God does.

Do you read the tabloid headlines while you’re standing in the check-out line? They entice us to buy their publications by telling us about all the ways in which celebrities have messed up. Sometimes it’s as minor a thing as going out in public without make-up, but that’s generally only on a slow news day. More often it’s about more foolish things that they have done, or perhaps even a crime that they’ve committed. Many of us have probably done similar things; they just don’t make the papers. How can we keep from stumbling and instead do the right thing?

In Jude’s letter to Christians, Jude recalls how Enoch prophesied judgement against the ungodly. (Jude 1:14-16) Then, Jude 1:17 starts with a “but”, indicating an opposite alternative, and goes on to tell us (Jude 1:17-23) that God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, is the one who is able to keep us from stumbling. Jude’s final blessing (Jude 1:24-25) attributes all the glory, majesty, power and authority to God and indicates that He is the one who will enable us to stand and rejoice, and to be an acceptable offering to Him. In Old Testament times, only animals that were without blemish were an acceptable sacrifice. In order for us to be an acceptable gift to God, we, too, must be without blemish.

So what do we need to do to have this privilege, this good standing? First, we need to realize that it is a gift from God—He is the one who is able to make it happen (Jude 1:24); so we need to put our trust in Him. Second, we need to do our part, which is to stay strong in our faith. Jude says to recall what the apostles said. (Jude 1:17) At the time of Jude, what the apostles said, and the letters they had written were as close as they had to a New Testament. Now, of course, we have the benefit of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, which includes the words of the apostles, all neatly bound in one book or on our computer screen. It is so much more accessible to us than it has been to any generation before. It is the Word of God; one of the best things we can do is to read it and study it. Third, we need to pray. Jude says to pray in the Holy Spirit. It is because of the gift of the Holy Spirit living within us that we can come to God in prayer. Fourth, we need to be merciful to those who are seeking the truth, but resist the evil of those who reject God and are controlled by their own selfish desires.

By staying in close communication with God, by reading His Word, and trusting Him, we will be able to avoid stumbling. We will be able to defend our faith and help others. (Jude 1:17-23) In the end, because of God’s mercy, we will be able to stand before Him, an acceptable offering, rejoicing in His presence. May He alone be praised. (Jude 1:24-25)