The Torch – Issue 5 2016

Produced and published by Torch Trust
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Contents

Greetings!

Easter is celebrated on different dates around the world, according to the different Christian traditions. But Christmas is one Christian festival which has the same calendar date the world over (although some countries celebrate it on the 24th). So although the actual date is the same, the readers of The Torch magazine celebrate Christmas in very different ways. For one thing, quite a number of our readers are in the Southern hemisphere and the days are warm, whereas at Torch House in the UK it’s the middle of winter and we are already wondering whether it will be snowing at Christmas.

Wherever we are, and however we celebrate it, Christmastime presents an opportunity to remember the amazing fact that in Jesus the creator God visited his own creation. Such a cosmically significant happening would surely have had a fanfare to announce it. Indeed the Bible tells of a new and bright star appearing and of a display of heavenly glory with angels singing. But it seems that the star went largely unnoticed and only a few wise men acted upon this stellar message and made an international journey to the place it signalled and there worshipped the infant Jesus. And the angelic display was seen only by some shepherds on a hillside in Palestine.

The Christmas baby grew up in a rural carpenter’s home and began to reveal his identity as the unique Son of God only at age 30 and even then he started in rural communities. When he came to the attention of the authorities they were sceptical. The most hostile community leaders were the very people who said they were on the lookout for God’s messenger, the Messiah. He was hounded to death by execution. His resurrection was disputed and only a little over five hundred saw him alive after death and just a small group saw him ascend, making the end of his earthly visit.

The extraordinary thing is that today there are many individual churches around the world where more than 500 people gather to worship Jesus! Across the world there are over 2 billion Christians! In a thousand different ways most of them will celebrate the coming of Jesus on or around 25th December 2016.

What happened in obscurity in the Middle East two thousand years ago was and is of global significance. The love of God expressed in sending his Son to be our Saviour still transforms people and families and communities.

So we who work with Torch Trust send our special greeting to you this Christmastime, wishing God’s blessing upon you, your family and your community. And in the New Year ahead may God’s presence be known among you and through you as you serve the Saviour that came as a baby, lived an example to us, died to redeem us and lives to inspire us to continue to tell the story of his coming, to the glory of God.

Gordon Temple

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Christmas reflection

By Tibor Miklos

[Tibor Miklos is a Hungarian blind man who, with his family, has set up a ministry of outreach to visually impaired people in Eastern Europe. The ministry is known as the Bartimeus Foundation. Tibor shares some thoughts with us.]

Migrants and refugees and the lives of Europeans have been in the news as never before. As of today, millions of people in Syria alone have been forced from their homes. In desperation over one million people have flooded to the deceptive allure of European wealth and security.

I reflect on a similarity with the Christmas story. At the time of Jesus´ birth, the great Caesar Augustus had issued a decree which resulted in everyone having to go to his own town to register. Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire, was a strong dictator afraid only of insurrection and intrigue. He wanted to know who his subjects were, no matter that they may be driven from their homes to register.

So for Joseph this meant going up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem the town of David in Judea, because he belonged to the house and line of David. At best an inconvenient journey – Joseph must travel at the decree of a ruthless dictator who claims to be divine.

Consider the irony. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. But there is more than just a forced journey. Mary is pregnant but there are questions about the child she carries. Mary knew who the real father was, Joseph had been consoled in a dream, but the neighbours? What speculation, suspicion and attempts at shame surrounded this lonely pair as they made their way south?

And when they arrived they were only met with rebuff and refusal, for there was no guest room available for them. Does no one care? Can no one understand? Is there no compassion? Imagine for a moment the possible despair, loneliness and solitude in the midst of the mixed sounds of creatures who can give no advice and little comfort.

And then what?

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. All they could cling to was the reminder of a promise given months before: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger. Imagine for a moment what might have happened or what could have happened. It was not uncommon for people of the Roman world to simply leave unwanted children to the elements. It was accepted Roman abortion. It would have solved so many issues of shame and suspicion. But Mary makes her choice on the basis of a promise; she wraps the child carefully, quiets the child on her breast until he falls asleep and lays him gently in the animal’s feeding trough.

They now become migrants for the greatest event of history. It will be at least two years before they return home, but for Mary and Joseph, Nazareth will never really be home again. They are not only migrants, but more than that, they are now pilgrims and ambassadors and their destiny is much more than their home. They have ushered God himself into the human race in order to bring peace and purpose to all.

And so we too ponder how God is at work in the largest migration crisis since WWII.

How can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? (Romans 10:14–15).

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made
him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5: 20–21.)

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A Pause for Christmas thought

God became man to turn creatures into sons; not simply to produce better men of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of man.

C S Lewis

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The story of Elizabeth from Luke’s Gospel

[These readings are taken from The Message version of the Bible, Copyright © by Eugene H Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.]

Chapter 1 verses 5–25

During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zechariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honourably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.

It so happened that as Zechariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was paralysed in fear.

But the angel reassured him: “Don’t fear, Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you – many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.

“He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened sceptics – he’ll get the people ready for God.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”

But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time – God’s time.”

Meanwhile, the congregation waiting for Zechariah was getting restless, wondering what was keeping him so long in the sanctuary. When he came out and couldn’t speak, they knew he had seen a vision. He continued speechless and had to use sign language with the people.

When the course of his priestly assignment was completed, he went back home. It wasn’t long before his wife, Elizabeth, conceived. She went off by herself for five months, relishing her pregnancy. “So, this is how God acts to remedy my unfortunate condition!” she said.

Chapter 1 verses 39–45

Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and travelled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zechariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,

You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me?
The Moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!

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New Testament characters

By Michael Stafford

1. Elizabeth and Zechariah

We begin this new series appropriately with two characters who feature in the Christmas story – Elizabeth, a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus and her husband Zechariah. Unlike Mary, Elizabeth was an older woman “well on in years” (Luke 1:7) and yet she and her husband had not welcomed any children into the world. For a married woman to be barren in that culture was a thing of shame, as children were seen as a blessing and inheritance from the Lord and vital for continuing the family line, not to mention being an “insurance policy” for the parents´ old age.

1. An Angelic Visitation

Zechariah was a priest who served in the Temple in Jerusalem from time to time:

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be great in the sight of the Lord     he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah     to make ready a people prepared for the Lord”. (Luke 1:8–17).

Not surprisingly, Zechariah found this promise hard to believe! Elizabeth was well past the age for child-bearing and, humanly speaking, it was impossible for her to become pregnant but, as the angel later said to Mary – “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Sadly Zechariah’s lack of faith resulted in punishment – the inability to speak.

2. A Prophetic Greeting

Elizabeth’s pregnancy was well advanced when she was visited by her relative, Mary, who had made the long journey from Nazareth in the North to Judea in the South. No doubt she had heard the news of the miracle that was taking place in Elizabeth’s life and longed to speak with her and share together their amazing experiences.

Elizabeth was left in no doubt that Mary’s baby was someone even more special than her own, as the baby inside her moved and kicked in excitement as soon as Mary appeared. Then Elizabeth became a prophetess – she proclaimed ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’ (Luke 1:42). She instinctively knew that Mary’s baby was in fact “her Lord”. This was an amazing thing to say of an unborn baby, and can only have been said by the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth then commended Mary for her faith in believing what the angel had told her – something even more incredible than the message given to Zechariah – that a virgin could conceive and bear a son. We can imagine the wonder and the joy as these two women shared together about their experiences with the angel, and their gratitude to God who was so blessing them. Mary supported Elizabeth for the remaining three months of her pregnancy before returning to Nazareth. (Luke 1:56)

3. Naming and Praising

Once the baby was born, it was necessary to give him a name:

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John”. (Luke 1: 57–60)

Note: the name John in Hebrew means “God has been gracious”, no doubt reflecting the grace of God in giving a son to this elderly couple.

The people were surprised that he was to be given a name which was not to be found in the family. It was customary for the first born son to be named after his father, so why this departure from tradition? Apparently Zechariah was deaf as well as dumb, since they had to make signs to him to ask what he wanted to call the baby. Remembering the command of the angel, Zechariah wrote “His name is John” (Luke 1:63). Then he recovered his speech (and presumably his hearing also).

Zechariah was not slow to praise God for the miracle that had occurred, and soon turned his praises into a song which was also prophetic of what this special child would be. Perhaps this was the answer to the question the people had asked: ‘What then is this child going to be?’ (Luke 1:66).

The song, which is to be found in Luke 1:67–79, speaks generally of the people of Israel and God’s salvation and redemption of them from their enemies. It then turns to specific prophecy about Zechariah’s son, John:

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”

This defines exactly what John was to do – to be a herald of the coming Messiah, and prepare people for that coming by preaching repentance and salvation.

As we approach another Christmas, we can look back to the coming of the Saviour and give thanks for the greatest gift that God has ever given – his own beloved Son.

Elizabeth and Zechariah were humble people who were part of God’s plan for the coming into the world of his Son. We can also have a part in that plan if we acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus and accept humbly his will for our lives.

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Let the scriptures speak

Luke 1:26–38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

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Because Mary believed

(taken from UCB Word for Today)

Blessed is she who believed, for these will be a fulfilment of those things which were told her from the Lord. (Luke 1:45).

When the angel appeared to Mary he asked her to believe the impossible. Neither had she any way of knowing how much depended on her obedience, or that heaven was already preparing for the Messiah she would deliver. What she did know, however, was that when God speaks, it’s your job to believe him and say, I’m ready ...Let it be with me just as you say” (Luke 1:38).

You say you believe God can do the impossible (Luke 1:37). Yes, but doesn’t it blow your mind to think he can do it through you?

Mary not only believed God, she staked her reputation and her future on that belief. Faith always precedes fulfilment! Listen:

Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfilment of those things which were told her from the Lord (Luke 1:45).

The moment Mary believed, things began to fall into place. And the moment God speaks to you, everything you need to fulfil his plan for your life will fall into place too. He just needs to get you to where you need to be.

Just as Mary couldn’t imagine the result of her obedience, neither can you. God’s already got a plan to save your loved ones; to meet your financial needs; to salvage your marriage; to heal you, and to put things together. The question is: will you believe him and do what he says?

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