The Christmas tradition and the Christian mission – Part 3

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Follow me to ancient Rome; summer was glorious; on the best days the sun shines till 10pm; summer comes with long bright days, and short dark nights. The other day by 5am the sun was up, we had 17hours of sunshine, and just 7hours of darkness. I am not looking forward to the winter months of October to March.

Winter in Rome keeps everyone indoors, burning wood to heat the home. The snow on the road is dirty and smelly with horse poop; nights come early. December is the darkest month, the sun dies completely; by late afternoon it is dark and stays that way till late morning; even when the darkness goes away, we don’t see the sun, its foggy, smoky, grey, dull, sad, and depressing. The good thing is that the sun is born again during the week of December 17-24.

As we approach the week when the sun is reborn, everyone is excited, we are going to celebrate with the big Saturnalia festival, with human sacrifice to Saturn, drink, dance, and flirt. This is why ancient Rome and Europe went wild during their mid-winter celebrations. The sun, the source of life is coming back, and they are grateful to their gods, and thus they celebrated with uncontrolled passion.

I listened to a Bible teacher, who said Constantine and Pope Julius chose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus, as a secret way to celebrate Saturnalia in the Church; and as a way to destroy the Church. If that is true, then they failed; Rome and Europe became more Christian, human sacrifices stopped, public sex parties stopped, and the temples of Saturn, Jupiter, Yule, and other European gods closed down!

As the Christ Mass grew, more people celebrated December 25 calmly reflecting on Jesus as the true son of life. Many Christians opposed celebrating the birth of Christ during the mid-winter season and chose not to celebrate. Things stayed this way for 1500 years until Charles Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol‘ in 1843.

Dickens used the book to condemn Ebenezer Scrooge the rich man, for not helping suffering children during the Christmas season. Ebenezer Scrooge was a caricature of many successful protestant Christian businessmen at that time who refused to celebrate Christmas. Dickens accused them of loving their money more than being compassionate to the needy in a season of need (the winter time). That novel made many protestants to start celebrating Christmas through missions, charity, and other playful (merry) activities for kids.

Jesus did say in Matthew 11:18-19 (New Living Translation): “For John [the Baptist] didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.”

Wisdom is shown to be right by its results! Has celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 destroyed, or contributed to advancing the mission of the Church, in our world for the past 1700 years since Constantine picked that date, and had it validated by Pope Julius? This blog has a comments section, feel free to share your thoughts.

Lord, you own December 25, and every other day of the year, show me how to rejoice and be glad in you everyday, and not just on special days, Amen!

The Christmas tradition and the Christian mission – Part 2

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I was probably 18 or 19, when I read the essay “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus” written by the great C.S. Lewis. In it, Lewis spoke about Niatirb (Britain spelled backward), how they exhaust themselves in buying and other festive traditions during their Xmas Rush, then exhaust themselves more on Xmas day overeating and drinking. He wondered why these Niatirb “should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in.” This was the first time I read a criticism of Xmas and I was curious to learn more.

It was Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity and in 336 AD first celebrated December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus. Then Pope Julius in 350 AD made this an official celebration of the Church. As Christianity became the official religion of all of Europe, the Christ Mass on December 25, in honor of the birth of Christ, became one of the biggest event on the Church calendar.

Why did Constantine pick December 25? This was the day after the Romans ended their 7 day festival of Saturnalia, their biggest party, with eating, drinking, and exchange of gifts; it was a public holiday where even slaves had time off, human sacrifice was presented at the temple of Saturn, and sex parties were organized every day. Constantine and the Church, felt it was their Christian mission, to convert the people from their worship of Saturn (the god of farming), to the worship of Christ.

In Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV) Jesus did say: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.”

December 25 has thus been a high point for Christian missions in the Church calendar. However, the ancient Roman Saturnalia, also celebrated as the Yule festival (Yule-tide) all the way from Germany to Norway, did not die and become extinct. People just carried on their feasting, drinking, gift giving, and sex parties during that period, alongside Church missionary activities – leading to what we observe today, the mixed Christmas and Yuletide celebrations.

Christ Mass on December 25 was sober and meditative, in contrast to the merry-mischievious-dark Saturnalia and Yuletide festivals. So how did ‘Merry Christmas’ come about, and what roles did the winter weather and the author Charles Dickens play in all of this? We will look into this next week, don’t go away!

Lord, thank you for the Christ Mass, a light into the world, Amen!

The Christmas tradition and the Christian mission – Part 1

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I was 8 years old when we got our first Christmas tree and decorated it with lights. Did my family do that for the many other Christmas we celebrated when I was a kid? I am sure we did, but I don’t recall the other times as clearly as I recall the first time. The excitement and joy and happiness I felt that first time was never repeated. I would wake up at night when all the lights were off just to look at that Christmas tree with lights – it was glorious!

We say, Jesus is the reason for the season, but my joy and excitement at the Christmas tree and its lights, had nothing to do with Jesus. Think about it this way – say you were walking down the street on a normal day, and you suddenly come upon a party with drinks and food and lights and fun, it is likely that you would get excited and want to join in. We all enjoy colourful lively parties and festivities, and Christmas is one of the biggest party of the year.

We sing the hymn, “The first Noel, the Angels did say, Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay, In fields where they lay keeping their sheep, On a cold winter’s night that was so deep…”, and we paint pictures of baby Jesus born while it was snowing outside. We sing of a white snowy Christmas, its so much fun, and so different from what is in our Bible.

Luke 2:1-11 (NIV) (shortened) says: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken… And everyone went to their own town to register… Joseph also went… to Bethlehem… to register with Mary… and was expecting a child… and she gave birth to… a son… there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared… said to them, “Do not be afraid… Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Jesus was born during a census, when Israel was being counted and everyone had to return to their village. This type of census was not done during the cold winter months; it was done when places were warmer. Secondly, shepherds don’t sleep in the fields watching their sheep in cold winter, they only do this when places are warmer. Bible scholars have shown that Jesus was born around end of September or start of October, during the feast of Tabernacles, when it is warm in Israel, not late December when places are cold.

I could be born in October, but decide to celebrate my 16th or 21st or 50th or 70th birthday in December, because I want to make it a big party on a date when all my guests can make it. What is the reason the Christian Church decided to celebtate the birth of Jesus not during the actual season of his birth, but in a different season? This question will be answered next week. In the meantime, my kids are all excited to put up our Christmas tree.

Lord, help us understand the difference between the traditions and the mission of the Church, Amen!

Moving from Numbers and into Christmas

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When reading a book, any book, the first thing we do is try to know the story, and how it flows from one page to the other, till we get to the end of the book. Later, as we begin to think about the story in the book, we might go back and read certain parts of the book again, to understand a part of the story better, or to understand a person better. The Bible is no different. We have to read the Bible first to know the story.

However, to understand the story deeper, we have to go back often, to learn about the people (characters), and the flow (the plot) of the story. Many know the Bible stories including those who have never read it; to understand the Bible better, we have to understand the characters (including God), and the flow or the plot from Genesis to Revelation. The book study from this blog focuses on understanding one character, God, and the plot of the Bible story. Why the focus on God?

In a book with thousands of characters, with a story that happens over thousands of year, to understand the plot, follow the main character that is constant from the start to finish. In the Bible, the constant character is God. It is important then to follow what God is saying and doing from Genesis to Revelation. When you do that, the Bible stops being a confusing puzzle, instead everything becomes clear and fit nicely together.

In studying Numbers, we see that God wants the people to enter the promised land. There are many characters in the story and many problems, but the mission is to enter the promised land. Why that mission – go back to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and listen to God’s conversation with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses – the answer of course is Jesus as books that come after Numbers make even clearer.

Now that we are done with Numbers, we will turn to the story, meaning, and power of Christmas. We will return to book study of Deuteronomy in the new year. In ancient Europe, December 25 was part of the celebration of the winter solstice, when gifts were offered to their pagan gods. How did this become a Christian festival is a long story. Stay tuned as we dig into that story during this Christmas season.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace’ (Numbers 6:24-26) Amen!

Numbers 26: A new generation is going ahead with the mission

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When reading the life story of a famous person, like Billy Graham, we don’t read one page, or read the book about him for just one day, and believe we know all about him. When we read the Bible, we want to understand all of it, just by reading a little of it. We want to understand all of the Bible the first day we open it.

The Bible teaches us about God’s plan for all of humanity; the revealing of this plan starts in Genesis and continues until the book of Revelation. Understanding the plan requires patient continuous learning one day at a time. As we study the book of Numbers, ask yourself, what do we learn about God’s plan?

Adam and Eve walked away from God in Genesis; God then promised of a son who will walk back to him; Abraham inherited that promise of the son who will heal our relationship with God; Israel as Abraham’s descendants were the people to deliver the son of promise, Jesus. All the laws, rules, blessings, and testing, that Israel experienced, happened because they were the nation to deliver the messiah.

In Numbers Chapter 1, Israel had been delivered from Egypt; they had been at Mt. Sinai in the desert for 1 year; it was time to get organized and march to the promised land. The men able to go to war (20-49 years old) were counted, and Israel was asked to start the move to the promised land (Numbers 10); the mission was to occupy the land. They were so fearful they rebelled; God then passed the mission to their children (Numbers 14). Consequently, the men counted in Numbers Chapter 1, except for Joshua and Caleb, died without entering the promised land.

In Numbers 26, almost 40 years after leaving Egypt, God ask Moses to do a second count, of men able to go to war. The total was 601,730; slightly lower than 603,550 from the first count. Numbers 26:64-65 (NIV) says: “Not one of them was among those counted… when they counted the Israelites in the Desert of Sinai. For the Lord had told those Israelites they would surely die in the wilderness, and not one of them was left except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.”

Christianity moves on because God is persistent in his purpose. We all can be part of the mission for our generation, and like Joshua and Caleb believe that the God who has given the mission has also given the resources to succeed. God is moving on to accomplish his vision laid out from Genesis to Revelation. Don’t end your days on earth without knowing your small part and making it happen.

Lord, show us your vision, and teach us our mission, Amen!

Numbers: rebellions, judgements, mercies, and lessons for us!

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Last Sunday we saw that Israel left Mt. Sinai and were marching to the promised land (Numbers 10). They camped at Sinai for two years and had become comfortable, so the march was difficult. They got to Kadesh-Barnea after three days and sent 12 spies to the land. Two spies, Caleb and Joshua, said they could take the land, the other 10 said it was impossible to do so, the people of the land were giants.

Click on the map on this message and you will see the route taken by the spies, and you will see also that Kadesh-Barnea was the southern tip of the promise land (colored green on the map). This green area was very fertile, the areas to the east after the dead sea, and the River Jordan was not as fertile. This was because there was a long line of mountains that separated the western part (green) from the eastern part. The River Jordan flowed in the valley between the mountains and formed a natural boundary between the western and eastern areas.

So we get to Numbers 14, the people wept all night, and decided to return to Egypt. God judged them in Numbers 14:20-23 (NIV): ‘The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them… Nevertheless, as surely as I live… not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times… will ever see the land I promised… No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.’

Moving on from Numbers Chapters 14 to 20, we read about a series of rebellions. These rebellions follow a similar pattern – the people complain about their living conditions, they say they want to return back the Egypt, the challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron, they are judged, Moses begs for mercy, God shows mercy. Eventually, Moses led the people to take over the land of the Amorites, right up to Bashan, on the eastern side of River Jordan (see the map and read up Numbers Chapters 20 and 21). So the generation that left Egypt did not enter the promised land, but God in his mercy, did not abandon them, they were able to capture the land of the Amorites.

In preparation for the coming of Jesus, the Lord purposed that Israel will occupy a land where they will thrive, prosper, and be secured. The natural barriers of the sea to the left and mountains to the right made the promised land a secure location. The promised land was also the international road between the great empires of Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia in the north (with its big rival cities of Nineveh and Babylon). International trade with these empires made Israel rich. God chose well, the people could not see it, so they rebelled over and over again.

Like Israel I also complain, then I remember that God chose well for Israel, but the generation that left Egypt could not see it. Their immediate discomfort with life in the camp, blinded them to the great blessings awaiting them in their final destination just ahead. They rebelled and treated God with contempt (scorn, disrespect, disregard). Will I, will you, allow discomforts today, rob you of blessings prepared for you?

Lord, open my eyes to see your good plans for me, Amen!

Numbers: don’t give up all hope like Israel!

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Imagine yourself as part of Israel camped at Mt. Sinai for two years. The trumpet has finally sounded that it is time to move to the promise land. Goodness me, the excitement in the camp is overwhelming! Men are beating their chest for the amount of land they will occupy, farms they will establish, and homes they will build. The women are relieved that finally they will live in a proper house with a proper kitchen not this camp life cooking outside.

Unlike when they left Egypt in a hurry, disorganized, chaotic, unsure – now they leave Mt. Sinai super organized as we see in Numbers 10. As they marched to the promise land, we are told that “Judah’s troops led the way. They marched behind their banner [the Lion], and their leader was Nahshon son of Amminadab” (Numbers 10:14). They were folloed by the tribe of Issachar, then Zebulun, then the Levites (the Priests) carrying the Ark of the Covenant and other Temple furniture. Then others followed in an orderly beautiful pattern.

Numbers 10:33-36 (New Living Translation) states: “They marched for three days after leaving the mountain of the Lord, with the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant moving ahead of them to show them where to stop and rest. As they moved on each day, the cloud of the Lord hovered over them. And whenever the Ark set out, Moses would shout, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered! Let them flee before you!” And when the Ark was set down, he would say, “Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel!”

The divine presence was so powerfully visible to all the people. Soon the excitement faded, legs grew tired, stomachs were more hungry, bodies were tired. Remember they had been camped for two years and had entered into a daily routine settled life. This massive movement was exciting but tiring, would be better if they just disappeared from Sinai and re-appeared in the promise land. So the people started complaining – Moses, this is too much, you want to kill us! In their immediate discomfort, they lost sight of the big objective, vision, and mission.

So we get to Numbers 13 and 14; I find the crucifixion of Jesus painful to read, I also find Numbers 13 and 14 painful. Moses sends 12 spies to Canaan, they come back and all agree the land is flowing with milk and honey. Joshua and Caleb said we can take the land, the other 10 spies convinced the 600,000 men fit to go to war that they can’t take the land. These men get so angry and mad, and wanted to kill Moses. The cloud of God by day and the fire by night that protected them is still there, yet they were so fearful, and angry, and decided to kill Moses.

Two years after leaving Egypt, we are told in Numbers 14:1-4 (NLT): “Then the whole community began weeping aloud, and they cried all night. Their voices rose in a great chorus of protest against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” Then they plotted among themselves, “Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!”

In their immediate discomfort, they lost sight of God’s big plans. One of the great hymns says “Count your blessings, name them one by one…”. I am afraid that even after we have counted our blessings, we could still turn around and say “God, you are not welcome here”. When we hit bad times, let’s be patient a little more with God. Let us not give up all hope like this people did in Numbers 14:1-4.

Great God, help us not to lose all hope in this troubled world, Amen!

Numbers: divine masterpiece and epic human tragedy!

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Numbers Chapter 1 starts with the counting of the men in Israel, who were 20 years and above, who are able to go to war. This took place in the camp at Mt. Sinai, one year after they had left Egypt. Mt. Sinai was in the arabian desert, a place where God brought Israel so they could spend quality time with him; the desert was a place of intimacy between God and Israel. God changed Israel from dressing, eating, living, and worshipping like Egyptians during this period. The next step was for them to march to the land of Canaan, a 2 weeks journey, and take it by war.

In Numbers Chapter 2 the camp was re-organized, in such a way that the tribes were arranged around the tabernacle (the temple); 3 tribes were on the east side facing the entrance to the tabernacle, 3 on the west side (the back), 3 on the north side, and 3 on the south side. Based on the population of the tribes, some Bible scholars have noted that the arrangement of the camp formed the shape of the cross when viewed from above (click on the image on this blog to see how this looked).

Chapters 3 to 9 records various instructions to the Levites (the priests), about their job caring for the tabernacle; and instructions on lifestyle for the people. While these might seem much, remember that Israel was a new nation without laws, culture, and tradition; God had to start from scratch. Note that in our countries today, though we have laws, our governments continue to make new laws.

We then get to amazing Chapter 10; after two years camping at Mt. Sinai, God told them to move. Now, the men counted in Chapter 1 were a total of 603,550; when women and children are included, the camp had at least 2 million people. Moving such a large number of people could cause confusion and chaos, but God had given them sufficient instructions on how to move in a very orderly manner like an army. This is a masterpiece on how to organize a people to work together in unity.

However, God’s beautiful plan, for them to take over the promised land after 2 weeks of travel, would very quickly meet with murmurings, complaints, doubts, and rebellion from the people. We get into a tragic period in the story of Israel. The events during this period told from Numbers Chapters 11 to 25, took 38 years, at the end of which 603,548 of those men counted in Chapter 1 all died in the wilderness.

Paul referenced this epic tragedy in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 (New Living Translation) (shortened): “I don’t want you to forget… about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them… Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did… These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age.”

Dear God, give us grace and strength to go all the way with you, Amen!

The deep and powerful book of Numbers

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Why do countries count their population? Knowing the numbers of men, women, children, elderly, and foreigners helps the government to plan. Knowing the numbers of the different groups in a country determines where housing, roads, markets, schools, and hospitals are built; it also determines the size of the police and the army.

The book of Numbers is about counting and organizing Israel, while they were in the desert, in preparation for taking over the promised land of Canaan. At the start of the book, God asked Moses to count the men who were 20 years and older, and who were able to go to war (Chapter 1). This was repeated again towards the end of the book (Chapter 26). The second count took place almost forty years after the first.

As we study Numbers, we will learn about what happened between the first count and the second. We will see God fulfilling His plans. We will see the wisdom of God as He takes a disorganized group of people out of Egypt and turns them into an organized country in the desert, then leads them as an army into the promised land.

In addition to nation building, Numbers shows God keeping his promise to make Abraham the father of a mighty nation and the ancestor of Jesus (Genesis Chapters 12, 15, and 17). We will study Numbers with the mindset we applied to Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus – these books help us understand how much God invested into establishing Israel because they were the road to the messiah.

Apostle Paul said in Romans 15:4 (God’s Word Translation): “Everything written long ago was written to teach us so that we would have confidence through the endurance and encouragement which the Scriptures give us.” Think about this, God promised Adam and Eve a son to crush the head of the serpent, Abraham inherited the promise, Israel lived in the promise, and Jesus fulfilled the promise.

Great God, give us light as we study the book of Numbers together, Amen!

The rich young ruler, blind Bartimaeus, and Jesus

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The books of the gospel, provide not only insights about Jesus, but insights about how different people responded to Jesus. The response of these individuals help us to also understand our response to Jesus too.

We have been in Mark for the past six weeks; two Sundays ago we learnt about Jesus and the rich young ruler, last Sunday we saw how blind Bartimaeus responded to Jesus. Both encounters are from Chapter 10 of Mark; they happened as Jesus was on his way from Capernaum in the north to Jerusalem in the south.

Mark had made us understand that Jesus went about his mission with urgency. Jesus was also very popular; the biggest celebrity around. The rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22 thus approached Jesus in public, hoping that in front of the crowd, he will receive praise and become a celebrity too. He came to Jesus not as a follower but to win additional trophy for his cabinet.

Compare this to blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52; he was blind a beggar but he had heard about Jesus – the man of the moment. Miracles of miracles, this Jesus was passing his way, wow, wow, wow! There is a noisy crowd, ok, I am going to shout and scream “Son of David, have mercy on me!”. The rich man was independent and did not need a savior, Bartimaeus was dependent.

When I come to Jesus, do I come as an equal, a colleague, a fellow VIP, or do I come accepting that I am meeting divine greatness (Son of David)? The rich man came to meet a fellow VIP for recognition; Bartimaeus came to meet divine greatness for healing. What is your mindset toward Jesus?

Mark 8:27-28 (NIV) answers it best: “Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us, Amen!