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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Pharisees and Shepherds.

One of the greatest blessing I ever received from God, other than salvation, and my dearest wife Alex, was the privilege of spending time visiting the Holy Land. And what with Christmas coming round, along with carols such as Come all ye Faithful, In the Bleak Midwinter, and Silent Night Holy Night, together with seasonal songs such as Greg Lake's I believe in Father Christmas, even Chris De Burgh's A Spaceman Came Travelling, and what would have been Mum's favourite - Bing Crosby's White Christmas - having stopped at Bethlehem and crouching over a fourteen-prong star set on the floor of a church crypt, has brought new meaning and fresh life to these and many other Christmas songs - both carols and pop alike.

The star traditionally marks the spot where the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, the long-promised Jewish Messiah, whose mission was to reconcile the world to himself, and redeeming all believers from their sins. Many Christians dispute the authenticity of the site, but I couldn't help feel the presence of God there. I was fortunate to visit the church during the Summer of 1993, and as a lone backpacker rather than one of a group, there was a sense of wonder as I stood for a while alone in the crypt, with both the star and the manger to myself, before a ranger escorted another tour group in, crowding out the small chamber. But furthermore, avoiding Christmas was perhaps the best thing rather than the worst, for it has always been traditional for Christians from all over the world to gather at the large quadrangle outside the church to worship, without having a glimpse of the star inside. The Church of the Nativity has always been, and will be, the most important edifice in Bethlehem, and maybe second in the Holy Land after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. While the church in Bethlehem is all about Christmas and the one in Jerusalem is about Easter, to visit both had a big impact to my soul, allowing me to thank the Lord for such historical evidence of his grace.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

But a far less known edifice sits close to the Nativity Church, and that is the Chapel of the Milk. There is a tradition that Mary was breastfeeding her infant son when the call came to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. A drop of milk fell to the ground, so they say, turning the area around it white. As I stood alone in the chapel, with the gentle instrumental version of the beautiful Roman Catholic song, Ave Maria filling the air with such a peaceful tranquil, I did notice a layer of natural white rock on which the chapel was built. And seeing how the authenticity of the miracle would be discredited by both Science and Protestantism alike, among the paintings and statues of the mother and child, there were also Scriptures on display, exhorting us to feed and grow by the milk of the Word, as found in 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12-13, and 1 Peter 2:2, all seemingly giving the chapel its rights for existence.

However, in this world of troubles, including the Israeli/Palestinian unrest outside, as well as much of the unrest within my own heart caused by relationship grit within the fellowship, there is something soothing about a mother with her newborn. What is it about the tenderness that a mother has for her child as she breastfeed him, as so expressed in this quiet and relatively unknown chapel? If I had a grief or sorrow, the Chapel of the Milk would have been a perfect place for solace, and an opportunity to shed tears, and maybe even to cry my heart out.

In some ways, I can't blame the devotion Catholics have for Mary, as her motherly nature seems much more softer, more compassionate and gentler than the masculine nature of a father God who is prone much more to discipline. Even among the Jews, God was always perceived as a Creator, holy, and the source of all wisdom, but never as a fatherly being. Perhaps this may be the reason why in Southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, far more shrines are seen which are devoted to Mary than to Jesus. In Siracusa, at the Italian island of Sicily, there is a massive, wig-wam of a conical church, la Chiesa della Lacrima, which was built around a comparatively tiny ceramic statuette of the Virgin, as a result that while hanging in an ordinary home, the statue began to shed tears, declared as an authentic miracle by the Bishop of Palermo. Photos of the weeping statuette were displayed in the front foyer the last time my wife and I went to visit in 2006.

Interior of the Church of the Nativity, Greek Orthodox chapel

But little, if anything has ever been spoken about the tears Jesus shed in public, first over the fate of Jerusalem, then at the news of the death of Lazarus. This demonstrates that for a grown up man to shed tears in public is fine, sadly contrary to our stoic British culture, which considers such actions as wimpish. But whether Catholic or non-Catholic, maybe we tend to forget that as God formed Eve from a rib bone taken out of Adam, it was also he who created the character typical of females. In other words, God is equally compassionate and has mother-like affection towards the afflicted, and for a helpless state of the human race enslaved to sin. And what a wonderful demonstration of God's love, so shown to a group of shepherds whose fields were just outside Bethlehem.

In those days, shepherds were considered pariahs of society, on the lowest rung of the social ladder. As a result, they were most likely looked down upon and treated with disdain. But they were loyal to their work and fully committed to it, as their sheep were about to give birth to their lambs. As discussed by the elder in our recent church service, with the climate of the Middle East being different from that of the British Isles, the lambing season was more likely in December rather than in March or April as it is here in the UK. Hence being out on the watch at night at that time of the year. When the first lamb was born, it was taken to a nearby manger to be inspected by a priest. If it's found without blemish, then it is allowed to dwell with its mother until Passover, four months later, when the lamb is killed and roasted. Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) who was placed in the manger soon after birth, first to be inspected at the Temple (Luke 2:25-35) and then to be sacrificed some thirty years later, on the very same day all the Passover lambs were slain right across Israel.

But while the child lay in the manger, a group of angels held a party within sight of the shepherds, and announced to them that their Messiah had just been born and was lying in the manger. One of the wonders of this story was that the very first people to see the newborn were not the priests, nor the Pharisees, nor even the equivalent of a middle class citizen, but a group of lowly, despised shepherds. When they heard the message, they must have instantly believed in their hearts, because they did not hesitate to go over to the manger in Bethlehem to see the child for themselves, and to leave with their lives changed forever. Were they saved at that instant? Indeed, and the fruit of their salvation was to make the decision to visit the manger.

Bethlehem today, a far cry from "a little town" of the shepherd's era.

There was no hint that they could lose their salvation later in life, as taught today. Those shepherds believed and were regenerated, and basically resumed their living as shepherds. Their status in society may not have changed but their imputation of God's righteousness remains in them forever. What a wonderful demonstration of God's love, which not even the most compassionate mother could match! It s as simple as that. They received a revelation, they believed that revelation and were saved. Exactly the same as Abraham. God told him that he will have children, he believed, and he was acquitted. At present I was told that Jesus Christ was crucified to atone for our sin, was buried, and on the third day rose physically from the grave (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). As a result of this revelation I was saved, saved eternally - and so was you. You were saved by believing a revelation, in this case, the Gospel. It did not involve works, merit, or the need to "hang on" to remain saved. So enough of this Cambridge Don culture spewing garbage as discussed in my last blog!

I have found it a temptation to believe that the shepherds lived in a different location in a very different era to us at present, and they had no Cambridge Dons to pester them about not holding out faithful. But actually, they were not that far from Jerusalem, the heart of Israeli worship, and home to a crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees who I see as the Cambridge Dons of the day. These men weren't ignorant, but highly educated scholars at that time. But they would not have allowed the shepherds to come near them, let alone touch them, for fear of "becoming unclean". Their hope of eternal life was bound up in the future physical resurrection on the last day of human history. But only by observing both the Law and the multitude of customs and traditions they dreamt up and imposed on others. They believed that they were successful in obeying every law and custom, therefore they saw themselves as righteous before God, while all others were in their sins. And for the shepherds? To them there was no hope. The average Jewish citizen would bow to the teachings of the Pharisees over above the testimony of the shepherds, with most likely the poor and the down-and-outs, the outcasts, and the decrepit believing the revelation and rejoicing at the good news.

As discussed already, I live in a land and environment where the preaching and teaching of Cambridge Don will always hold sway over my testimony, teaching or blogging. But by reading the testimony of the shepherds, of Abraham, and even the testimony of the wise men, who saw a bright star and believed in their hearts that a King of Israel was born, I feel confident that I too can approach the Throne of God boldly, now the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The wise men saw the star and believed, and acted on their believing by undertaking a long journey and bringing gifts. They travelled because they were already saved through faith, and not working hard to hold on to their faith. Furthermore, they were not Jews, but Gentiles - a proof that salvation is open to everyone who believes.

In the little town of Bethlehem Jesus was born to us that Christmas day. Indeed, Christmas is a time for celebration, for thanksgiving, for rejoicing, and for giving each other gifts. A gift is a good symbol of the grace of God. It is given to the one loved without earning it or meriting the gift. The giver of the present gives it to the one loved. But the recipient has to receive it, and not refuse it. Salvation is a free gift given by God to all who will receive it in faith. And the wonder of it is that it is irrespective of who the recipient is. Whether a shepherd, or a wise man, a Pharisee or a Canaanite woman, one who is highly educated such as Paul the Apostle, or a manual worker such as the Apostle John, who was a fisherman, or one born blind who most likely had no higher level of education than a shepherd. The gift of salvation is given to all who will receive it. It is the very best Christmas gift one could ever receive.

I wish all my readers a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year ahead. God bless you.

1 comment:

  1. Amen, frank.

    So much of what we accept tends to be based on what our culture believes rather than what God says, resulting in our missing out on seeing his love and power.