The Deliverer

I’ve been very lax at posting here lately. Mostly just plain busyness. But this month I want to share a story I wrote years ago. So long ago, in fact, that it took a good deal of editing before I was willing to post it here. I hope it turns your thoughts to the Savior. Have a blessed holiday season!

nativity

The Deliverer

Rebecca collapsed into a chair and heaved a deep sigh. She tucked a few strands of graying hair behind her ears and mopped at the perspiration on her forehead with an edge of her garment. Never could she remember such a week! The town was bustling like a port city, and business was booming!

She allowed herself only a short break before hoisting her ample body from the chair. Supper preparations must begin for those guests taking a meal. She had barely begun when there came yet another knock on her door. Wiping her hands on her apron, she hustled to answer it but saw the stooped figure of her husband already there.

“I’m sorry,” he was saying, “we can’t help you,” and he started to close the door. But someone on the other side pushed it open again.

“Please,” spoke a desperate male voice. “Can’t you offer us anything? I have money. I’ll give you double your price.”

Curiosity piqued, Rebecca glanced around her husband. Before her stood a strong young man, very dark, and covered with dust. He looked like all the others. Then she saw his companion. A woman, a girl really, sat upon a donkey. Her brown hair hung in damp strands around her face, and her shoulders slumped in exhaustion over a very swollen belly. Rebecca clucked her tongue in motherly concern.

“I really am sorry, but I let out my last room days ago. You’ll have to look elsewhere,” her husband said and closed the door firmly.

As he turned to walk away, Rebecca placed the whole of her bulk directly in his path. With hands on her hips, she scowled at him. “Josiah, how could you send that girl away? You know very well there is nowhere else.”

Josiah stood a bit straighter and defended himself. “Where would we put them? We’ve been turning folks away for days.”

“We can at least make them comfortable in the stable. That poor girl is at her wit’s end. Didn’t you see her lip quivering?”

The man stooped again in resignation as his wife pushed past him. He’d grown accustomed to her headstrong ways.

Rebecca opened the door and called to the couple. “We have room in the stable if you don’t mind boarding with the animals.”

Relief flooded their weary faces, and the young man quickly accepted.

Rebecca led them to a small shelter at the rear of the inn, part brick and part rock. “There, there, dear,” she said and patted the girl’s hand. “We’ll soon have you comfortable. I’ll bring blankets and a bucket of water for bathing. Just let me know if you need anything else.”

The girl gave her a tired smile. “We’re very grateful.”

“It’s no bother, dear. No bother.”

Rebecca scurried around gathering the promised items and sent Josiah to the stable with them. Then she returned to her supper preparations, adding enough for two more. The evening passed in a bustle of activity. At last, with her kitchen spotless and all guests settled for the night, she put her feet up before an open window, enjoying the balmy breeze. She sat there long into the darkness, listening to the city put itself to bed, and just as she prepared to do the same, a knock sounded at the door.

“Not again,” she said. She hated turning so many people away. But behind the door stood the young man from the stable, looking extremely uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry to bother you this late, ma’am, but I think my wife’s time has come, and I don’t know the first thing about birthing.”

Rebecca responded instantly. “Don’t you worry, dear. I’ve had six babies myself and presided at more births than I can remember. Go make the girl as comfortable as possible. I’ll set some water on to boil and be along directly. Josiah,” she called, waking her husband. “Fetch some clean linens. Go, go, go,” she said, shooing both men on their way.

The stable was warm and fragrant. The animals made low sounds, and Joseph paced anxiously wherever he found room. Rebecca stayed with the laboring girl, encouraging her and wiping her sweating brow. At last, far into the night, she gave birth to a baby boy.

Rebecca wrapped him in a warm cloth and cradled him in her arms. As she gazed at the tiny face, she felt a familiar fluttering in her chest. “Babies bring such joy,” she smiled as she laid the child in his mother’s arms. “He’s beautiful. What will you call him?”

“His name is Jesus,” said the man hovering at the girl’s side. Love and relief mingled on his weary face.

Rebecca did what she could for the mother, then, with a final, “Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything else,” she slipped from the stable, leaving the new family alone. Exhausted, she crawled into bed beside the snoring Josiah.

Some time later, Rebecca awoke with a start. Loud shouting drifted in the open window from the street below. Looking outside, she saw a handful of men running up the road. They hurried from building to building, pounding on doors and shouting through windows.

“Josiah,” she whispered anxiously. No response. “Josiah!” She poked him hard.

“Wha…?” The man awoke with a start.

“Did they wake you up too?” she asked sweetly. Now she could hear angry curses being thrown down at the men from bedroom windows. “Go see what’s going on.”

Josiah muttered under his breath as he crawled from under the covers. Rebecca waited only a moment before grabbing a wrap and joining him outside the front door. By now, the men were close enough that she could see their ragged clothes.

“It’s just a bunch of drunks who wandered away from their herds,” Josiah said and went back inside. But Rebecca remained.

One of the shepherds rushed forward. “The angels came!” he blurted. “Thousands of them. They told us the Messiah has been born tonight here in Bethlehem. Do you know where we can find him?”

Rebecca’s heart did a tremendous back flip. Could it be? But the notion was ridiculous. She’d seen the baby with her own eyes. There was nothing special about him.

The shepherd grabbed her by both arms. “You know something! Please tell me. The angel said we would find him in a manger.”

Rebecca’s eyes grew round as the moon. “Th-there is a baby…” she stuttered.

The shepherd let out a whoop. “Over here, boys!” he yelled. Suddenly, Rebecca was surrounded by stinking, jostling shepherds, all babbling at once. “Where’s the baby?” “Have you seen him?” “Where can we find him?”

She motioned for silence. “There was a baby born in the stable out back. We didn’t have any rooms available, so we had to—” but nobody was listening. With shouts of joy, the shepherds ran to the stable, leaving her talking to herself.

“Now just a minute!” she admonished, rushing after them as fast as her bulk would allow. “They don’t need you lot disturbing them.”

She entered the stable prepared to do battle, but the scene stopped her short. The baby snuggled on his mother’s lap, waving a tiny fist in the air. Every last one of the men were bowed in reverent silence. The girl wore a tired smile, and her husband laid a protective hand on her shoulder. Someone murmured, “The Messiah.”

The word bounced off the rocky walls, and Rebecca’s mouth dropped open. She gaped at the young mother who nodded with shining eyes.

The Messiah–born in her barn! With tears in her eyes, Rebecca sank to the stable floor and joined the band of ragged, dirty men celebrating the arrival of the One promised so long ago. What an honor God had granted her. She had helped deliver the One born to deliver her!

Peace on Earth: Reflections on Christmas, Newtown, and Heaven

christmas

“Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”

Christmas is the season when our hearts resonate with these words. We long for wars to end, for humans to demonstrate love, friendship, and understanding toward one another. How many wistful songs are written about this? How many poems and greeting cards? Peace is one of our most basic desires. It’s what the angels promised. But this weekend, in the midst of our seasonal celebration of peace, I wept as a young man opened fire on a room full of first graders.

How do we reconcile such a promise with a world full of Adam Lanzas, Charles Mansons, Adolf Hitlers? We can’t. That promise hasn’t taken effect yet. It was given at the first coming of the Prince of Peace, but it’s fulfillment must wait for Christ’s second coming. When he returns, Jesus Christ will rein for a thousand years. It will be a period unlike any this earth has ever know. Imagine an absolutely perfect ruler with perfect judgement, perfect justice, perfect laws. Yet, the millennial kingdom is only a picture of heaven. There will still be a final rebellion. Only after it is put down, after the wicked are judged and the heavens and earth are renewed will the angel’s prophecy reach it’s complete fulfillment.

I’ve been reading a good deal about heaven lately, and the more I learn, the more I long for it. I’m excited to realize it will be here on earth! The earth was created as the perfect habitat for people, with its atmosphere, water supply, temperature, beauty, and seasons, and that plan has never been revoked. Because Christ inserted himself into his own creation and sacrificed himself for that creation, everything he made will be remade. That redemptive work is much more far reaching than we realize. Every effect of sin will be rectified. Every effect! Anything less would be a victory for Satan.

That means earth will again be “very good,” with no sickness, no death, no drought, with food enough for all and people who will no longer even be tempted to sin. Animals, once created as immortal companions to humanity, will be renewed, gentled, and perfected (yes, I believe that means the original animals). My garden will grow without weeds. Stars, mountains, plants, earth’s natural resources, the food chain, all will revert to God’s original plan. The earth will once again be given to humanity to govern–we won’t fail this time–and the New Jerusalem, God’s own city, will come down to us

That, perhaps, is the most thrilling to me. God will not require us to “go to heaven” as some disembodied spirit doing unfamiliar things in some alien realm. God can exist as such. We cannot. We were created as physical beings, we’ll be resurrected as physical beings, and we will do familiar, physical things in the familiar, physical world that was prepared for us. God will enter our world and make himself accessible to us forever. How absolutely amazing is that?!

Since we will be in bodily form on the renewed earth, I think our heavenly existence will be much like the one we now experience. There will be dining, travel, music, work, leisure, friends, outings, sports, and celebrations. But there will be no sin to mar any of it. No disease. No death. All our separations will be temporary. There will be no famine, no war, no school shootings, not even anger. And we will meet Jesus. Finally, the peace we long for will be realized.

I weep for those who lost children and loved ones this weekend. As a mom with a child the same age as the Newtown victims, my heart is heavy. This world sucks. I have not lost a child, but I live with Crohn’s disease. My son has dyslexia. Marriage is a constant struggle. And my dog just lost a leg to cancer. I’ve experienced the effects of sin firsthand, and I long for their removal. But the promise of heaven is only purchased through Christ’s death and resurrection, and only those who accept his sacrifice for the payment of their sin are eligible to experience it.

If you’ve encountered the Child of Bethlehem, this Christmas you can join me in anticipating the day when “Peace on Earth” will become a reality on earth.

When was Jesus really born?

We celebrate Christ’s birth in December. Why? Were the shepherds really watching their sheep out on the hills during the cold, rainy Judean winter? Did Caesar Agustus really require his subjects to travel to their hometowns to register in such a season?

Here’s the most likely story I’ve uncovered for celebrating at such an odd time: In the early centuries, when Christianity was spreading throughout the world via the Roman empire, a popular pagan harvest festival was held on Dec. 25 to worship Saturn, the god of sowing, and the return of the sun following the winter solstice. It was a holiday filled with feasting, singing, drinking, and, well, use your imagination. Supposedly, the leaders of the Christian sect opposed this rowdy celebration and, in an attempt to remake it, interjected the worship of the “Son” instead of the “sun.”

It seems quite likely to me that early Christians would randomly pick a day to celebrate Christ’s birth without consulting Jewish culture or tradition for a more accurate choice. Though Christianity grew out of Judaism, gentiles began to outnumber Jews, and leadership and doctrinal differences arose, particularly on matters of Jewish law. Christianity and Judaism grew apart further as each experienced changing legal statuses under differing Roman emperors.

But what if the Jewish believers had been consulted?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve embarked on a study of the Jewish feasts because they have so much to teach about God and his plan. In fact, some startling events have happened during these feasts. For example, Christ was crucified on Passover; some say he died the very hour in which the lambs were being slaughtered. And the following Sunday just happened to be Sfirat HaOmer, the celebration of the Early First Fruits in which the harvest of wheat is “lifted up” and waved by the priests. Upon his resurrection, Christ became THE First Fruit. Then, the Holy Spirit was given on the feast of Shavuot, the Later First Fruits celebration. Also known as Pentecost, this resulted in the first “harvest” of Jews. So why wouldn’t something as monumental as the birth of the Messiah happen on one of God’s prescribed festivals?

In my reading I’ve come across some very interesting arguments made by a Messianic Jewish rabbi, Barney Kasdan, that Jesus might very well have arrived during the eight-day autumn festival of Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles, which celebrates the phenomenon that God would come dwell among men. Kasdan points out that in the first chapter of his gospel, the apostle John describes Christ’s arrival much in these terms.

He also argues that the huge crowds seeking housing at the time of the birth might point to the feast, one of three which required a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In addition, Kasdan suggests that Caesar Agustus would have held to a Roman tradition of convenience for the citizens of occupied countries. The feast, after the harvest and before winter rains, when everyone was traveling anyway, would have provided a logical time to require registration for his census. Finally, Kasdan finds importance in the chronology of Jesus’ three-and-a-half-year ministry, suggesting it points to a fall birth. (To me, that only suggests he started his ministry in the fall. Culturally, would he start on his thirtieth birthday?)

Of course, this evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s given me food for thought. And as much as I enjoy the traditions of Christmas, Sukkot makes a lot more sense than a random, pagan holiday.

Imagine…

Imagine with me. Imagine a journey, a long journey that might wind over a hundred miles. Imagine traveling paths smoothed not by heavy equipment, but by generations of hooves and sandaled feet. Imagine fording rivers, struggling up steep hills and winding down their far side. Imagine rock and dust. Lots of dust. No shelter from blazing sun or hot wind. No 7-11 with cool drinks and bathroom facilities. Just rocks and trees for privacy, a skin bag or perhaps a stream or a well for refreshment. Imagine camping beside the path, reclining on hard ground. A meal taken from a pack or cooked over a fire. No shelter from dew or errant weather. No protection from thieves or wild beasts except the company of others in your caravan.

Now imagine doing it all nine months pregnant.

Perhaps a ride on a donkey; hours of rocking, trying to draw a breath around an impossibly huge baby, exhaustion, an aching back, relentless Braxton Hicks contractions. Imagine the slow pace, the frequent, awkward potty breaks, the inability to keep up with a caravan intent on their destination. And at journey’s end, imagine no familiar face, no hot bath, no soft hotel bed, only a cow barn with a bit of hay to rest in.

Imagine having to tell a fiance about this pregnancy. Imagine his hurt and anger. Imagine the disappointment of grandparents, the doubful glance of friends, the ridiculous sound of the truth.

Imagine now a night of hard labor. No air conditioning, no medicine, perhaps not even a door to keep out the curious glances of passersby. No doctor, no mother or wise aunt for comfort. Only an inexperienced young man and the nauseating smell of animal dung. Perhaps some help and supplies from the innkeeper’s wife. Perhaps a midwife. Perhaps not.

Imagine the noisy lot of stinking shepherds interrupting an exhausted slumber. Imagine the painful journey to Jerusalem eight days later to present the baby boy to the priests. Imagine the crowds and congestion. Logic and some compelling circumstancial evidence could easily place the Roman census of Luke’s gospel within the 8-day autumn holy festival of Sukkot. Imagine all the pilgrims in the holy city. Imagine the harried priests. Imagine the elation and the apprehension at the words of old Simeon and the prophetess Anna, then a difficult journey home caring for a newborn.

Now imagine a God who could foresee all of this. A God who created the hills and the rock and the dust, the cows and the donkey, the young couple, the priests, even the pilgrims filling the streets of Jerusalem. Imagine this God choosing these circumstances. Imagine him making himself tiny and vunerable, placing himself within a womb he created, like a mighty genie turning itself into a butterfly. Imagine this God growing up in a small village, enduring the scorn and fists that accompany questionable paternity. Imagine the disbelief, the betrayal, the cruel death he would endure. Now imagine the incredible love this God must have for humanity.