THINK DEEPLY

“Mary remembered all these things and thought deeply about them”.

Lk 2:19 GNB

When Luke came to write his gospel he was something of an outsider. He was not one of the apostles. He had not been one of the disciples who accompanied Jesus through Galilee and Jerusalem. He came on the scene later during Paul’s missionary Journeys and went to Jerusalem whilst Paul was there awaiting trial. He was a learned man, being a doctor and spent a lot of time researching the stories about Jesus that were floating around in Jerusalem decades after the events. He probably “picked Mary’s brain” for the details about Christ’s birth since she was the only one who would have witnessed some of them. Who else would have known – forty odd years afterwards – that “there was no room for them in the inn”?

She had treasured up the memories of those days. She had known that God was using her – for one of the most profound roles in history. Like the shepherds she was just a poor working girl – was she even working? We are comforted to know that she thought deeply about these things – if she hadn’t would we ever have heard and read about them?

Most of us more or less whiz our way through life – busy about many things. Thinking deeply is something we leave to the scholars. In knowing God, following Christ, becoming a disciple and serving him, we are more likely to be men and women of action rather than thought. But there is a place in the Christian life for deep thought. We need to keep reflecting on who Jesus is for us today. We do well to ask where God is in today’s world. And what is the mission of the church?

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to reflect deeply on the big things of life.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, I pray that your church will become more keenly aware of its mission to all humanity. Make those people who are ambassadors for Jesus in places where Christian believers are scarce to be strong, confident and filled with the Holy Spirit. I ask it in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 3:13–17

SING PRAISES

“The shepherds went back, singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen; it had been just as the angel had told them”.

Lk 2:20 GNB

They must have wondered what in the world was happening to them. They had tended their flocks in the fields outside Bethlehem all their lives. Nothing ever happened. Nothing ever did happen to shepherds, living as they did on the fringes of society. Night after night passed by, slowly, boring, uneventfully. Maybe an occasional wild animal disturbed the emptiness of the night. Their lives were wrapped up in their sheep. Now it had all happened. They must have felt stupefied, dumbfounded – an angel, and more angels, the sky ablaze with light, and angel choirs filling the empty night with glorious sound. And the glory of God – not in the temple but here in their common or garden fields. And the journey they made, asking themselves if they were going mad. And then it was all there – the baby, the mother, the Son of God, the dutiful father. What generations of prophets and priests had longed to see and hear was disclosed to them. And they, humble working men. God – could it be, yes it was – God had visited them and touched their humdrum lives with glory, with truth and with grace. They couldn’t understand – but they did the one thing they could – indeed there was nothing else they wanted to do – they sang. And they sang praise to God. And millions of people, reading their story, have visited Bethlehem, at least in spirit, ever since .

Praise God for Christmas. Praise God for Jesus, for Mary and Joseph. Praise God for all the impact on history, and the influence in your life the whole story has been. And go back to work –
rejoicing!

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, fill my life with praise, thanksgiving and wonder.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray for all for whom Christmas has not been a happy time. If there has been illness or death, comfort and sustain them. Help them to look forward to happier times, renewal and hope. Draw especially near to them with love and strength. I ask it in Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 3:7–12

LET’S GO TO BETHLEHEM

“Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us”.

Lk 2:15 GNB

Christian visitors to Israel all make a visit to the town of Bethlehem, a few short miles from Jerusalem. Today it is Palestinian-controlled and bristles with security guards and military personnel. The Church of the Nativity is the big draw card, the original building having been erected during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century A.D. To access the actual site where Christ was born, underneath the church, you have to bow low, a special low doorway having been made, called “the door of humility”. There is a high degree of probability that this is exactly – or very, very nearly – the spot where Jesus was born. Not all places claimed to be where biblical events happened can be accorded the same level of certainty.

The words of the shepherds have been repeated endlessly down the centuries – “Let us go to Bethlehem”. Not all can make a pilgrimage there. But we want to go to Bethlehem in the sense that we want to worship the new-born child and where we worship on Christmas day will make an excellent substitute for the spot in Israel where the shepherds bowed in awe at the manger. “Let us go to Bethlehem” – and bow in humble adoration of the incarnate Son of God. “Let us go to Bethlehem” and welcome his arrival in our hearts as we ask to be “born again”. “Let us go to Bethlehem” as we acknowledge the spot on planet earth where he made all the earth his own. And let us cherish his humanity, his humility, and his condescending love and grace for all humankind.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to worship Jesus anywhere, anytime.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray today Lord, for those countries where there is civil strife. Guide the leaders of political parties to take steps to put right the wrongs which are at the bottom of all the trouble. Restrain them to avoid bloodshed and to create goodwill to all. I ask it in Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 3:1–6

GOOD NEWS AND GREAT JOY

“The angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people’”.

Lk 2:10 GNB

Christmas is good news. In a world filled with turmoil and evil God steps in and gives us a source of joy – Jesus. In a world where disease and illness spoil the beauty of life God sends us a Savior with powers of healing. In a world where sin runs rampant and so often destroys life, God sends a redeemer to save us, forgive us and reconcile us to himself. Because of Jesus we can know peace with God, and that peace can become the element that makes our disordered life worthwhile and whole. Jesus was good news to the shepherds at Bethlehem and he has been good news down all the centuries since because “Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in”.

He is good news because he brings enlightenment in a world shrouded in darkness. The people who became believers in Thessalonica when Paul and the other preachers spoke of Jesus had been living in the darkness of a false religion. But believing in Jesus took them out of their darkness into his light – and his glory. Jesus is good news because he brings truth – truth about God, about life, about the world and about ourselves. Jesus is good news because he gives us hope in a world where despair is so often the predominant theme and mood. Jesus is good news because he calls us to upright and decent living in a society gone mad with immorality and sinfulness. And he is good news to fill us with love and joy. How we need him!

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, come as good news and joy all over again.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, we pray for peace in the world today. Our hearts ache when we hear of wars and rumours of wars wherever they may be happening. Guide rulers with wisdom and hope to make good decisions and to foster prosperity and wholeness globally. I ask it in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 2:19–23

THE GLORY OF THE LORD

“An angel of the Lord appeared to (the shepherds), and the glory of the Lord shone over them”

Lk 2: 9 GNB

So much of our faith is about what we think we need to do – worship, pray, serve, witness, love, express compassion, obey God and so on. We tend to overlook one of the common features in most if not all of the great events of the Bible. If we say that the whole Bible story is about the grace of God, then the glory of God must come a close second.

On the day of Christ’s birth, the glory of God came to and shone around the shepherds. They were probably the last kind of people that people of that time would have expected to be honored with a visit from God, let alone a manifestation of his glory. They were poor. They tended to function on the fringes of Israelite society. They were not renowned for their deep spirituality. They were common – there were lots of them since sheep farming was widely spread.

But one of the features of the Bible is the recurrent theme that God “just happened” to visit the most unlikely people. Moses was in the wilderness, David was minding his father’s sheep, Amos was taken from his shepherding to become a prophet, the disciples of Jesus were by the lake, and Saul of Tarsus who, whilst persecuting the Christians was accosted by Christ and called to preach to the Gentiles. All of these were surprised by God and in some way perceived his glory.

This Christmas day try to catch a glimpse of God’s glory in the Christ-child. Let that glory seize your soul and fill you with glory too.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, let me glimpse and radiate your glory.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Jesus Christ you have become one with all humanity. Born as a child in Bethlehem, you took our nature upon yourself, lived our life, suffered our pains and shared our joys. Thank you for bringing us salvation and lifting us up to God. Fill us with love and peace. In Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 1:18–25

A POINT IN HISTORY

“At that time the Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone, then, went to register himself, each to his own town”.

Lk 2:1, 2, 3 GNB

When “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16 GNB) at Christmas he chose to do it at a specific time in history. The birth of Jesus Christ was not a drama cooked up by a dramatist to give people something to admire, wonder about or sneer at. It happened during the greatest Empire of the ancient world. And one of its greatest Emperors was ruling. Historians were writing about this Empire, its extent, its achievements, its landmark events.

The birth of Jesus was not a philosophical idea that would engage the great academic minds of the day. God’s coming was not a military event that would change the boundaries and the political balance of power of the ancient world. It was not a financial redistribution that would end poverty for all time. It was the arrival of a God-man who would point men and women to God, offer them salvation, extend to them the forgiveness of God for their sins, penetrate deep down into their inmost souls and change them. If they responded God would make them new people, or a “new creation” as the apostle Paul would later call it.

Starting as the birth of a tiny baby, God’s mighty act would ripple on down the centuries, being translated in hundreds of languages, worked into many liturgies and forms of worship. It would penetrate into many cultures and be expressed in a multitude of ways. God’s mighty act continues today – if you respond in faith.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, change my history and make your indelible mark on me.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray, Lord, this Christmas time for all who are lost in any way. Help them to find themselves and to accept themselves. Help them to find you and to sort out their messed-up lives. Prompt them to renew relationships and rediscover love. I ask it in Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 2:7–18

MARY’S SONG

“Mary said, ‘My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my Savior’”.

Lk 1:46, 47 GNB

This is the first line of the praise-song known as the “Magnificat” sung by Mary in response to the message of the angel Gabriel informing her of God’s special mission for her in bearing his Son, Jesus. Many people break forth into song when they achieve something – passing an exam, winning a sporting event, landing a job, getting a promotion, or getting engaged to be married.

However, this song was different to most celebratory songs. Whilst most such songs are exultant about the achievement of the person celebrating, this one begins with – God! Mary does not shout her own prowess from the housetops. She does not sing “Call me great” Nor does she run around shouting “I’m the greatest”. She only refers to herself by drawing attention to the fact that God has called her and that she is “his lowly servant”. She doesn’t “blow her own trumpet”. She blows God’s!

And we note what makes her happy. It isn’t the new prestige she has gained. She doesn’t tell the other girls how much better she is than them! Her soul is glad because of God. He is the star that shines in her life, the wind that blows in her sails, the sun that blazes in her sky. Her life is wrapped up in God. She lives to fulfil his command. She sings and lives to his glory and she praises him. In the middle of the festive flurry, make time for God. Reflect on Jesus and what he has done in your life. Glorify him and let his glory reflect in your life, your actions, your speech, your lifestyle.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, be the center of my life, thought and actions.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray for all people who will be re-organising their lives at this time. Some will be moving house, others will be starting new jobs, others will be moving on in others ways. Give them courage, energy, and hope to look ahead, plan and do new things. I ask it in Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 2:1–6

SON OF THE MOST HIGH GOD

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God”.

Lk 1:31, 32 GNB

In the Bible there are certain ideas or concepts which enshrine basic, fundamental symbols. One of these is the idea that somehow God is connected with height. So are mountains and hills. Therefore, God and mountains “mesh together” so to speak. Prior to the Israelites conquering Jerusalem there was a religion there that worshiped a God (of the Canaanites) who was called “God Most High”. Despite their contempt for the Canaanites and their religion the idea of a God called God Most High fascinated the Israelites and they adopted this title as an acceptable name for their God as well. This is the origin of the title for Jesus that the angel Gabriel informs Mary about. If God is “The Most High God” there cannot be any other God superior to him. So Jesus will be the Son of the God who is greater and higher than all other gods. This was quite a promise for Mary to receive – and what a child for her to bear!

Let no other god or pseudo-god rival or displace Jesus in your heart. Money is a pseudo-god. So is power, popularity, influence – or any other human element. Jesus, yes a weak, vulnerable, crying baby who was eventually put to death on a cross, was and is still the Son of the Most High God. And finally, he was elevated to a place of pre-eminence at the right hand of God the Father – who was and is God Most High. Let no other idol displace him in your life or worship.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for being the Son of the Most High God.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

Lord, I look forward to hearing the Advent readings from the Bible and the familiar Christmas carols this weekend. Let your church in all the world lift up Christ and remind people that you enter into your world with its evil and its huge problems. I ask it in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Matthew 1:1–17

ALL OF GRACE

“The angel said to her ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you’”.

Lk 1:30 GNB

“During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. ‘What’s the rumpus about?’ he asked and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace’” (P. Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? P45).

If one were to try to sum up the message of the whole Bible in one word that would be it; grace. If one were to try to boil down the whole meaning of Christmas into one word that would be it too: grace. God was gracious to Mary. He has been gracious to all the great heroes of the faith. He has been gracious to the little unknown saints who have worshiped week by week all their lives, said prayers every day and lived simple, upright, godly lives. All have testified to his grace in their lives – redeeming them from sin, hallowing their daily walk, building them up in love, refining their character, bringing them to maturity, enabling and empowering them to serve Jesus.

Christmas is God’s great act of grace. To fumbling, bumbling sinners, tainted, stained and sullied by their own faltering humanity he stoops – to visit, to touch, to heal, to save. In his grace he gives us strength for our weakness, hope for our despair, certainty for our doubt and life for our death. Hallelujah!

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, fill us with your grace – all the year round.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray for your protection for all people going on holiday for Christmas. Keep them free from danger and accident, especially if they are travelling by road. Bring them safely to their journey’s end, and if it means family reunion, let joy abound. I ask it in Christ’s name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Isaiah 40:1–11

THE LORD IS WITH YOU

“The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you”.

Lk 1:28 GNB

So much of the story of the Bible is interspersed with this assurance: “God is with you”. In fact, this promise reverberates throughout the whole Christmas story. And in the end, with his disciples round him, Jesus assures them “I will be with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20 GNB).

We always need to hear this promise. When it seems as if the world has gone mad and we are confused, feeling helpless and fearful this message comes through, “The Lord is with you”. When family life is strained to breaking point or some person has broken down with strain, the message is strong and important, “I am with you”. When accounts have piled up and we don’t know how ever we will pull through, the message comes again, “The Lord is with you”. When a dear one has suffered through crippling illness and the anxiety has come to a tear-filled climax at the graveside, still the promise of God is, “The Lord is with you”. When there are insoluble problems and people are blaming you for mistakes and wanting to create yet more problems and no one is around to help you, the word from God is exactly as it was to Mary before Christmas, “The Lord is with you”.

It was God’s presence at creation that brought a world into being. It was God’s action in the garden of resurrection that brought the miracle of Easter. It was God drawing near that brought the Pentecostal Spirit to empower mere mortals and turn them into courageous gospel-bearers. It was God’s presence that held them in the fires of martyrdom and death. And he is still with us. This Christmas. Always.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, stay with us now and always.

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION

I pray today Lord for people who go round singing carols at this time. Make them conscious that their ministry is to many people who have no deep faith of any sort. Let them feel that they are sent by God and that they will speak of you and your love. I ask it in Jesus’ name. AMEN

I.B.R.A. Readings
Ezekiel 37:1–14