Real Christmas (Part 8): Jesus is an Off-shoot

NetserreThe author and prophet Isaiah enjoyed playing with words. He does it plain and simple for all to see. But because we read the Bible in something other than Hebrew, we miss it.

Isaiah 11:1 says, A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

This is prophetic, talking about the coming Messiah. Jesus fulfilled this verse, and it is one of the many ways we know without a doubt he is the Son of God.

The Hebrew word for branch is Netser. But it is more than a branch – it is an offshoot from the base of the tree. It is a new growth, one that brings hope, and new life.

Actually, today’s picture is of a netser from the Mount of Olives.

Matthew 2:23 says, “… and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene”.

There was a town in Galilee named Nazareth. It is where Jesus grew up. So, just like a Bostonian from Boston, or a New Yorker from New York, people from there were called Nazarenes.

When the scriptures say Jesus was a Nazarene, it is because he was from Nazareth. He was the “Netser” from “Nazaret”. However, it also is saying that Jesus is an offshoot – the offshoot – of God coming to us in human form!

Jesus came to offer hope, new life, and a new way of doing things. The Jewish kings before him were gone, and at the time Roman rule was the authority of the day. This offshoot is for a new kingdom, and a new way of doing things.

As we approach January 1, let’s remember the hope and new life we have in Christ. Let’s live accordingly as we grow in the Lord this coming year!

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Real Christmas (Part 7): Meaningful Gifts

myrrh

Myrrh

Matthew 2:11 says, On coming to the house, (the magi) saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Magi brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As we all know, this does not mean three men came, but that there were three different types of gifts.

Before we get to the gifts, lets understand the magi’s journey.

Because the star led them, the only one of Herod’s palaces the Magi would run into coming from the east is Herodium. Remember, they were the ones who alerted him that a king had been born. Herod obviously was on the way, as why would they go out of their way to confer with him if the star wasn’t over his palace?

Herodium is a huge fortress only 6 miles southeast of Bethlehem. You actually can see the mountain the palace is built into from the city.

It was probably from here he decreed the killing of the babies two and under. This is horrible for us to think about, but for Herod, it was just another day at the office.

Herod was a paranoid. In his lifetime he had his wife and his mother in law killed. He also put two of his sons on trial for treason.

Herod built a lot of cool things, but he was not a nice guy. He wasn’t about to have any gifts for this “king”.

But these kings from the east, they had gifts.
Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and Myrrh?

The type of shrub frankincense and myrrh are derived from is only found in the Arabian Peninsula, northeast Africa, and in Southern China.* This gives more weight to the idea that the magi from the east came from the Orient (see here for more).

Culturally, the frankincense and myrrh would have been worth more than the gold. Many spices, resins, and even dyes of the day could trump gold in value, but in our culture, we don’t understand that fact.

In short, the magi brought some serious loot to Jesus.
So what did the gifts symbolize?

Gold is easy. It is the gift to a king. I guess regular neighbors even back then just got casseroles when a baby was born. But not a king!

The magi knew Jesus was a king – THE King – and wanted to honor him properly. Thus, gold was an obvious choice for a gift.

Frankincense was used in worship in the Jewish temple. It was thought to carry prayers to heaven when burned. It also was used for medicinal purposes, but the former use is why I think they chose to bring this gift.

Many kings were worshipped as gods, but this is different. These Magi came from a different country to worship a different king because it was personal to them. Culturally, that was far from normal!

They knew in their hearts this king was more than an earthly one. The bible says, “…they bowed down and worshipped him”.

Frankincense was a gift to be used in worship.

Myrrh is a sticky resin used to treat bruises and bleeding wounds. It was also used to embalm the dead. This is a symbol of the type of death Jesus would die. Not that they knew that – it was just an expensive, really nice gift for a kid who would need something for the bumps and bruises of growing up.

You can’t dismiss the symbolism, especially when paired with the other two gifts. But the magi coming in and of itself was s gift for Mary and Joseph. Why? It was one more amazing thing showing them Jesus was not just a baby, but the God of the universe in human form.

That is better than any other gift that could have been given.

*Got this information from here: http://www.history.com/news/a-wise-mans-cure-frankincense-and-myrrh

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Real Christmas: So, where DID the Magi come from?

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 2.34.36 PMAfter Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2

Have you ever wondered why Magi would come from the East to worship a king that was not their own? Wouldn’t it have been easier to worship royalty in their own country? Why were they searching so hard for someone of a different culture and religion?

They traveled so far because this Jewish King was personal to them.

It’s like someone from Brazil caring about the University of Alabama’s American football team. The probability of that happening is really, really slim.

But it could happen.

Different cultures.
Different environments.
Wouldn’t they have had different gods?

No one knows for sure where the magi came from, except “from the East”. Due to a culture pocket of African’s who have a very similar back-story as the Jewish nation, some think they could have been from Ethiopia. Others think it could have been the orient.

We won’t know this side of heaven, but I did hear an interesting theory I’d love to share with you.

Let’s go back to the Tower of Babel. Remember how God confused the people and made everyone speak in a different tongue, and afterwards the people dispersed and went all over the world?

At that same time in world history, a god named Shang Di appeared in China.

Shang Di was hailed as the creator of the universe. His creation account is exactly like the judeo-Christian account in Genesis, even down to the serpent and the fall of man. The religion also talked about two brothers identical to the Cain and Abel account. Shang Di was the creator god of the universe, and it was forbidden for an idol to represent him. He was a loving and caring God who desired a high moral standard from his people. There were no cultic forms of worship allowed, but instead had a sacrificial system of bulls and lambs just like the Jews. His followers were looking for the coming “Messiah” who was the “Son of God”.

And, if that’s not enough, here’s a zinger…

When you translate Shang Di into Hebrew, it translates phonetically as
El Shaddai.

Could the worshippers of Shang Di been people who believed in the God of the Universe, just with an oriental name?

Maybe.

The background certainly has merit to give that thought some weight.

Eventually, the Shang Di worshippers started to swing mythical with their beliefs. But the early form was still a pure form of worship to a creator god who was sending a savior to the world.

It would explain why they would come so far to worship another nation’s King. It would explain why they brought the gifts they did to Jesus (come back next blog to read about that!). And, it explains why they believed the angel and avoided Herod when told to do so.

*To learn more about Shang Di, check out the book “Faith of our Fathers: God in Ancient China” by Dr. Chan Kei Thong. You also can go this website (http://tasc-creationscience.org/content/beginning-shang-di) to read more about Shang Di. Both of these gave me info for todays blog.

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Real Christmas (Part 5): The Importance of Shepherds

real Israeli ShepherdWhen the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” Luke 2:15

When God wanted humanity to know about the birth of His son, He sent angels to proclaim the news to shepherds. Out of everyone living on earth at that time, he didn’t choose the grandparents, cousins, someone famous, or even an average Joe to be the first to hear the good news. And understanding the importance of Shepherds hearing the news before anyone can deepen the meaning of the season even more.

Shepherds, due to the very essence of the job, were seen as unclean. I don’t mean they didn’t bathe, although that was part of it. They were ceremonially unclean because they couldn’t follow the purity laws required to enter the Jewish temple.

Shepherds couldn’t take part in religious festivals, or offer sacrifices, because sacrifices were made in the temple – a place they couldn’t go due to their spiritual impurity. They were low on the social totem pole because of their unclean religious status, and to an extent religion was the law of the day.

The Romans also loathed Shepherds, taking them even lower in society. If a shepherd witnessed a crime, their testimony was deemed invalid and not allowed in a court of law… simply because they were a shepherd. But yet the God of the universe chose to bring his message to… THEM.

The unclean.
The shunned.
“THOSE” people.

God’s message of hope through His son was for everyone, no matter if they were clean, unclean, shepherds, or kings. It was earth-shattering that the Glorious, Holy, Mighty God would send His special messengers to such pedestrian types such as these.

Today, God’s message of forgiveness through His Son is not limited to status, gender, race, or nationality. Jesus came – and died – for everyone, everywhere. This Christmas, let’s realize and remember that fact with folks we come into contact with, and treat them accordingly.

*Just a fun fact, today’s picture is of a real shepherd I caught on camera back in 2013. He was herding goats though, not sheep!

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Real Christmas (Part 4): The Speeches of Angels

angelNothing is cuter than a choir of four-year-old angels in a Christmas pageant. It’s just like it was back in Jesus’ day, because “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”, right?

**Sigh**

Read on my friend. This one is a little brutal.

Luke 2:9-12 says, “An angel of the Lord appeared to (the shepherds), and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

As you can see, it never mentions the angels singing.

God’s glory was there, the shepherds were terrified, and a message was given. But we don’t know how it was said – if it was spoken, sung, whispered, or shouted.

Would it have been magnificent had it been sung? Absolutely!
Could it have happened that way? Absolutely!
Does the Bible say they sang?

Nope.

The specific words in the Bible are “… and the angel said to them…” and … “a great heavenly host appeared praising God and saying…”.

When we realize the Christmas story isn’t something that combusted into a singing angelic flash mob, it actually makes it more… real.

God didn’t need a Broadway show for his message to be the greatest news the earth had ever heard. He didn’t need smoke and mirrors or even Handel to make it majestic.

The message proclaiming the coming Savior of the world…
was
music
enough.

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Real Christmas (Part 3): Fields, Flocks, and Fall

sheep in fieldsLuke 2:8 says, “That night, there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

 In our culture, this verse is no big deal.

We read it like, Shepherds….
fields…
flocks…
night.

Got it.

The impact can be easily overlooked if you don’t know the cultural implications stated here, which is a game changer.

Israel is called “The Land of Milk and Honey” for a reason. “Milk” represents the livestock that grazed on the rolling, green hills. “Honey” represents nectar from the fruits and vegetables grown on the verdant plains. Animals were on hillsides to make room for produce to thrive in flat areas where food would grow best. This was simply how it was, and worked great for both herdsman and farmers.

During the “off” season, between harvest and the next planting time, farmers would invite shepherds to bring their flocks down into the fields to fertilize the area.

This immediately lets us know Jesus’ birth did not happen in December due to their planting times, but either in the spring or the fall.

So why do we celebrate Christmas in December? In the year 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine (kind of) converted to Christianity. This was great news for Christians, who had been persecuted pretty much from the start. Instead of celebrating Jesus’ birth in the spring or the fall (there is no historical evidence Christ followers celebrated his birthday until after this time), Constantine chose December 25 to correspond with two other pagan holidays.

Both Saturn, the Roman god of Agriculture, and Mithras, the Persian god of light, had celebrations in late December. Putting Jesus’ birth with other pagan god celebrations brought several religions together. And, from the very beginning, Christmas was a time where gifts were exchanged, families cooked extravagantly, and a birth was celebrated. Just like the Persians and Roman festivities did for their gods at that same time.

As much as we like snow at Christmas, to be more culturally accurate we should be putting spring flowers or fall leaves around the crèche. And, we can thank Constantine for “starting” the Christmas holidays in the first place.

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Real Christmas: Not So Stable

manger sceneYou can’t really have a proper Nativity set without the one sided barn structure. There is usually at least one angel on top, and many times, a star.

It’s standard.
Solid.
Unquestioned.

But my first trip to Israel made me throw that picture out the window…

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that Mary should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7).

There was no room in the Inn because there wasn’t an Inn. The concept of a Best Western, Motel Six, or The Waldorf wasn’t around yet.

Culturally, hospitality ruled the day. The idea of not opening your home to a stranger in the Jewish culture was abhorrent. Bethlehem was packed because of the census. Every male alive and his family who came from the lineage of David was there. All of the homes would have been full, even somewhat overflowing.

The Greek word translated “Inn” is “kataluma”. It is used in one other story in the Bible, and it describes the upper room of a house where the last supper was held. The best translation for this word is “guest room”,

…because it is a room
…in a house.

Mary and Joseph most likely stayed with a relative who owned a house in Bethlehem. However, the house was full of aunts, uncles, cousins, and various other kin that packed the place out.

Mary and Joseph weren’t put in a barn, or even in an area that would have been offensive. The area where the animals were kept was the most secure room of the house, because the animals were some of the most expensive possessions a person could own.

Think of it as the family vault room.

Many of the houses at that time were attached to caves. The caves were warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. One would walk through the house to get to the cave. It helped the house stay safe from the elements, and served as one room they didn’t have to build. If you’ve ever been to Israel, you know caves are everywhere. It is simply a part of the lay of the land. There aren’t now and weren’t then a lot of trees – why do you think King David had them shipped in from so far away when he was preparing to build the temple?

One-sided wooden barn structures simply didn’t exist.

So as you picture Mary and Joseph, arriving with a group of people from Nazareth to Bethlehem (see the first blog here if you missed it), put them in a safe, large cave attached to a house.

They weren’t alone, and there wasn’t an inn keeper. They were however about to become a family of three with the God of the Universe as their son…

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Real Christmas: The Journey

travelersOn my first trip to Israel, my eyes were opened to a different version of Christmas.

Seeing it through a first century perspective rather than a twenty-first century viewpoint makes it more meaningful somehow. I want to share what I learned with you.

My December blogs will take little things from the Christmas story and put it back into the culture that it occurred. This knowledge has deepened what Christmas means to me, and I hope it does the same for you.

We will start off easy, with something small. Let’s read Luke 2:1-5…

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

Nazareth is located 65 miles from Bethlehem. Today it is easily driven in an hour. If someone walked the journey, he or she would cover on average 12 – 15 miles a day. That means the trek would take about four days.

Now the movie was awesome, and the scenes were amazing, even heart wrenching… but no one in Mary and Joseph’s culture would travel alone for four days.

There were marauders who would take advantage of the king’s order that everyone must return to his hometown, lying in wait for any travelers who could be easily overtaken.

As the saying goes, there was safety in numbers.

Culturally, they traveled in groups with anyone else who was from the house and lineage of David to be safe. After all, everyone had to go. Mary’s family, along with the rest of Joseph’s, could also be traced back to David.

And don’t forget the little nugget that Mary was pregnant. Why wouldn’t family travel with the young couple? In the first century, the family was the birthing crew. Mary wouldn’t have had distant relatives deliver her firstborn, especially when her own family was in the same town reporting for the census just as they were.

The gospels of Matthew and Mark don’t tell us anything about the trip, and the book of Luke simply states that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem from Nazareth for the census. But we know, due to historical studies from the day, Mary and Joseph were most likely surrounded by family and friends as they went to the City of David.

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