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Mary, Bethlehem, French Hens

Mary, Bethlehem

…and French Hens

Second Advent Message 2016

The class of kindergarten students was excited. They had been excited for several weeks as the school’s winter program drew near.

The morning of the performance, excited parents gathered in the school cafeteria, where the program was to be held. The parents sat on chairs. Soon, the students were led into the cafeteria. Each of school’s classes, grades kindergarten through sixth grade, accompanied by their teacher, sat cross-legged on the floor. One by one, each group rose to perform their song.

The school system did not refer to the holiday as Christmas, so the parents expected many of the fun songs about reindeer, Santa Claus, snowflakes, and good cheer.

However, the kindergarten class, according to the program, planned to sing the song Christmas Love. Some of the parents were surprised by the song’s bold title, but each kindergarten student was aglow as the class prepared to sing.

Thirteen of the students in the kindergarten class were in the front row. Their responsibility was to hold up large letters, one by one, to spell out the title of the song. As the class would sing “C is for Christmas,” the first student was to hold up the letter C. When the class sang “H is for Happy,” the second child was to hold up the letter H. On and on it was to go, each child holding up his or her letter to present the complete message - Christmas Love.

Everything went according to plan until the seventh child, who was to hold up the letter M. For some reason, she held her sign upside down, which means she held up, not an M, but a W.

The audience of students and parents snickered at the mistake. Having no idea the laughter was directed at her, the girl stood tall, proudly holding her W.

The teachers tried to shush the children, but the laughter continued. It went on until the last letter was raised. It was then everyone saw it together. A hush came over the audience. Eyes began to widen. In that instant, everyone understood the reason for that program, the reason for the holiday being celebrated, why, even in the chaos of the season, there is a purpose for the  festivities.

When the last letter was held high, the message was loud and clear. Christ Was Love.

It is Christ and His love that we celebrate each Christmas. His love shown in His willingness to leave Heaven and come to earth to be with us and then teach us and then become the perfect sacrifice for our sins. The sacrifice all mankind has needed, does need, and will need to be right with God, which gives those who accept Jesus as the Savior two wonderful gifts. The gifts of blessings now and Heaven when our time on earth is done.

Those gifts are available to us because Jesus is the Savior. They are ours when we accept Jesus as the Savior.

However, it might be asked, how can we know Jesus is the Savior?

We can know because throughout the Old Testament, God’s prophets made predictions about the Savior who was to come. Predictions about what the Savior would be like. Predictions about what He would do when He came. And, as we will discuss in this message, how the Savior would come, including by whom He would come and where He would first appear. 

Since Jesus met every one of the predictions about the Savior - because not a one was missed - He proved over and over and over again that He is the Savior that was predicted by the OT prophets.

As just mentioned, that includes by whom He was born and where He first appeared. That is what we will discuss in this message as we consider two prophecies and how it was that Jesus did fulfill each one.

The two prophecies are found in Isaiah 7 and Micah 5.

In Isaiah 7, verse 14 says, “Behold, a young woman [a virgin] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel, meaning God is with us.”

In Micah 5, verse 2 says, “But you, Bethlehem, who are little among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.”

Consider how strange those two prophecies are.

A virgin was to conceive and give birth. Physically, that is impossible, but that was by whom the Savior was to come.

And the Savior was to come from a small town - the small town of Bethlehem - rather than a big city. That did not make sense. The one who would be the Savior would obviously be important. Why not first appear in the capital city of Jerusalem?

The Savior was to be born of a virgin. That is what Isaiah prophesied. The Savior was to be come from Bethlehem. That is what Micah prophesied.

Guess what. Jesus was born of a virgin. Her name was Mary. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Those two facts prove Jesus is the Savior.

Let’s think about how both those proofs happened.

First, Luke 1 where, in verse 26, we are told that Mary lived in a town in the province of Galilee, the northern part of the Jewish homeland. The town - a small town - was Nazareth.

Nazareth was just a town, which means it was not especially important. Galilee? It was the disrespected part of the Jewish homeland. The town and the province were far away from Judea to the south, which was the very important part of the homeland. 

In verse 27 of Luke 1, we are told more about Mary. She was a virgin. She was betrothed, which we would probably call engaged, though betrothals then were more binding than the engagements we have today. She was a virgin who was betrothed to a man named Joseph.

Putting verses 26 and 27 together, we know Mary was young, that she was a common girl, that she lived in the unpopular part of the Jewish homeland. We know she was someone who no one, outside her family and some friends, was likely to ever notice. The only exception was Joseph, to whom she was to be married. However, she was not yet married, which means she was a virgin.

There appeared to be nothing special about Mary, but God noticed her. He decided to favor her with a special assignment. An assignment announced to her by the angel Gabriel.

It is not known what Mary was doing the day Gabriel appeared to Mary. I suppose she was doing some of her normal day-to-day activities. Maybe baking bread. Perhaps doing the laundry. Something like that. 

It appears Mary was, the moment Gabriel appeared, alone. That is important because she was the only one who who going to hear Gabriel’s announcement. No one was going to be able to confirm what she would hear. 

That day, as Mary went about whatever her normal activities were, she was suddenly interrupted. The angel Gabriel - a special messenger from God - suddenly appeared where Mary was. 

Here is how the announcement he gave to her started. “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you.”

“Hail” was a normal greeting. The only shocking part of that word was that Mary had thought she was by herself. Suddenly having someone beside her, talking to her, must have caused her to jump.

But being “favored” and the Lord “being with” her? The Lord being with her was not necessarily shocking news. All Jews, including Mary, were well-aware of the love God has for His people. But favored? That was confusing. What was so favored about being a young woman in a small town in a disrespected Jewish province?

Mary was greatly troubled at what Gabriel said as he began his announcement. The verse also reports Mary considered in her mind what sort of greeting this was. She was trying to figure out what being favored really meant.

But Gabriel continued. He said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. So much favor that you, Mary, have been chosen by God for a special purpose. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus.”

That was certainly interesting news for Mary, especially since, as will become evident, the implication was that she would conceive before she and Joseph would be married.  Conceiving after the wedding? No problem. That would be expected. But before? That did not make sense because Mary had no intention before being married of doing what was necessary to conceive.

And did she hear correctly? The baby had already been named? The name was to be Jesus? That was and is a variation of a name that means God with us. Was Gabriel implying the baby she was going to conceive was going to be someone very special, as in divine?

Apparently that was the message. Gabriel went on to explain, “Mary, the baby you will conceive will be great. He will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever. Of His kingdom there will be no end.”

“The Son of the Most High.” That means the Son of God.

“The throne of David.” That represented the position of ultimate authority over the people of God. It was through the lineage of David that the Savior was to come.

“Reigning” and “kingdom? Those things would not end. The authority of the one to be conceived was to be permanent.

Wow. All that Gabriel announced to Mary indicated the one to be conceived - the one to be conceived in her, a virgin - was to be the Savior she and all other Jews had hoped for for centuries. The Savior Isaiah and Micah and other prophets had predicted would come.

Wow, Mary must have thought. But wait. As mentioned, the implication was that the conceiving was to happen right away. Wait. Mary asked, “How can this be since I have no husband?” 

Gabriel’s response? “Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about how it is going to happen. The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High - the power of God - will overshadow you.”

Each Christmas season, as I think about Mary, I realize I still do not have a clue what those words of Gabriel mean. The Holy Spirit was to come upon Mary” The power of the Most High was to overshadow her?

I do not have a clue what that means. Maybe I am not supposed to know. Maybe I am - maybe we are - to simply take it as a miracle. 

I am not sure Mary understood it either, but the Holy Spirit and God were to be involved in the conceiving, not in a physical sense, but in a supernatural, miraculous way. That was the plan so, as Gabriel continued, the baby to be born would be able to be called “holy,” as in pure, and truly “the Son,” not of Joseph or any other man, but “of God.”

To help Mary accept the announcement, Gabriel reminded her of a miracle she knew about. The miracle was that a relative named Elizabeth was, at that time, pregnant, despite the fact she and her husband were both very old. “Think of Elizabeth,” Gabriel said. “Her conceiving a baby was considered impossible, but she conceived.” Elizabeth was, the day Gabriel appeared to Mary, six months into her pregnancy. “If it happened with Elizabeth, it can happen with you,” Gabriel told Mary.

Gabriel added, “For with God, nothing will be impossible.”

Mary had a choice.

Would she forget Gabriel’s message, thinking she was dreaming or hallucinating?

Would she reject Gabriel’s message, choosing to remain a common girl and then a woman in an unimportant town in an unimportant part of the country?

Or would she accept the mission Gabriel announced. The mission Gabriel said God had for her.

Mary might have thought about those choices for a minute or two, but before Gabriel departed, she gave her answer. Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it me to me according to your word.” 

With that answer, Mary accepted God’s mission. She expressed her willingness to submit to God’s authority. It was her way of saying, “Lord, I am Your servant. I am at  Your service.” Whatever God said, Mary would do.

Mary said “yes” to God’s plan. A short time later, Mary did conceive. And no, she had not been intimate with Joseph or with any other man. At the moment she conceived, she was still a virgin. She stayed a virgin until after Jesus was born.

You know what that means? It means Jesus was born of a virgin, which is what Isaiah had prophesied about the coming Savior. The fact Jesus was born of a virgin is a very important proof that He is the Savior.

However, the fact Jesus was born of a virgin is just one of the Old Testament prophecies about the Savior. There were more, including the one in Micah about the Savior being born in Bethlehem, which means that to have continuing proof Jesus is the Savior, God had to somehow get Mary from Nazareth in the north, where the conceiving happened, to Bethlehem, a town south of Jerusalem. A town, as the crow flies, almost 75 miles from Nazareth. He had to get Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem in time for the baby to be named Jesus to be born.

Here is what happened with that, as recorded in chapter 2 of Luke. 

One day, Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the Roman Empire, announced that everyone in all the Empire, including the residents of the Jewish homeland, had to go to the home cities of their ancestors so a census could be taken, the purposes of which were to discover the population of the Empire, where people eligible for military service lived,  and how much each person should be taxed.

Joseph, to whom Mary was still betrothed - he had agreed to stay with Mary, despite her pregnancy - was, by Caesar’s announced decree, required to travel from Nazareth to - guess where - Bethlehem. Bethlehem was his ancestral home. 

And listen. The timing of the census was such that Joseph had to make the journey to Bethlehem just a little before the due date of Mary’s baby. I doubt Caesar Augustus knew the spiritual importance of the timing, but that is how God worked it out.

And consider this. Only men had to report to their ancestral homes. Women did not have to follow the decree. But Mary went with Joseph.

Why? Remember Mary was pregnant before marriage. That was humiliating for her family, who might have disowned her. Probably all her friends had deserted her when her condition became known. I am sure just about everyone in Nazareth turned away when she walked by, or maybe they snickered over what they thought was her immorality.

Very likely the only one who was still Mary’s friend was Joseph. When he left, Mary went with him.

Mary was very pregnant when she and Joseph left. Again, the straight line distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is almost 75 miles. Much of the route was over rugged terrain. It must have been a very difficult journey for Mary, but she went with Joseph. Together, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. They arrived just before Jesus was to be born - to be born exactly where Micah had predicted the Savior would be born.

While Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, perhaps as soon as they arrived, the time came for Jesus - remember He had already been named, the name announced by Gabriel nine months earlier - to be born.

Again, Gabriel had said Jesus would be great, that He would be called the Son of the Most High God, that He would rule God’s people, that His reign and His Kingdom would have no end.

Such a one certainly deserved the finest of things, even on the day of His birth, but that did that did not happen for Jesus. He was born in a barn. His first bed was a manger - a feeding trough. His first clothes were swaddling cloths.

Jesus was born of a virgin. That fulfilled a prophecy of Isaiah about a Savior.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That fulfilled a prophecy of Micah about the Savior.

By whom Jesus was born and where He first appeared in human form fulfilled both those prophecies. They are, thereby, proofs that Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate this season, is the Savior. 

With that in mind, let’s think about a bird related to Christmas.

Several weeks ago, as our Music and Worship Ministry discussed this year’s Advent celebration, they suggested that, if possible, the messages would, in some way, include some thoughts on various birds often associated with Christmas.

I did some research and discovered there are quite a few birds that are thought about this time of year, including the bird for today - the French hen.

French hens are mentioned in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, which was written to teach the Christian message during a time of persecution many years ago. French hens are mentioned as the gift on the third day of Christmas, the number three standing for the three gifts mentioned at the end of I Corinthians 13, which are faith, hope, love, all of which, the Bible says, will last.

Applying that to this Christmas season, what a wonderful privilege it is to have the faith to believe Jesus is the Savior. What a wonderful gift is offered to those with faith. The gift of hope. Hope based on the love of Jesus. A love strong enough that He did leave Heaven to come be with us to teach us and become our perfect sacrifice.

But there is something else I find interesting about French hens. When I did a bit of study about them, I discovered that despite the word “French,” which make the hens sound somehow fancier, French hens are still just chickens. As in plain, common birds.

Remember Mary was plain and common. Remember Nazareth was plain and common Remember Bethlehem was plain and common. Yet Mary and Nazareth and Bethlehem were all used by God.

What hope that gives us. We do not have to be rich and famous to be used by God. For any of us who the world does not recognize, even we can be used. We will be used as we have faith, hope, and love, which are gifts that will keep us with Jesus, who, by whom and where He was born, proved He is the Savior.

In a moment, a closing carol, but listen. If you do not know Jesus as your Savior, will you take care of that, even now? Ask Him for the faith to believe in Jesus. Ask Him for the hope that will bring you. Accept Jesus’ love.

Pray a prayer of acceptance if you need to do that. Otherwise, let’s sing O Little Town of Bethlehem.

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 

The silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth 

The everlasting Light:

The hopes and fears of all the years 

Are met in thee tonight,

For Christ is born of Mary,

And gathered all above,

While mortals sleep, the angels keep

 Their watch of wondering love.

O morning stars, together 

Proclaim the holy birth!

And praises sing to God the King,

And peace to all on earth.

How silently, how silently,

The wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts 

The blessings of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming,

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still,

The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem! 

Descend on us, we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in,

Be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels 

The great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us,

Our Lord Emmanuel!

Lord, what Isaiah and Micah prophesied about the Savior, You fulfilled. Help us, each day of this glorious Christmas season, to celebrate that fact. Help us, even when we feel plain or common, to celebrate. Help us to have faith in You, hope through You, and love from You. Thank You. Amen.

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