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As Christmas approaches, take time to prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus by following along through these four weeks of advent readings written by those who call Bethlehem home today. The anticipation of the birth of the Prince of Peace is one that compels us to consider a way of life that reflects that reality. Follow along in the upcoming weeks with your family, small group or church body and engage with the readings, reflection questions and practical implications for Christ’s coming this advent season.
Devotion by Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College
Hope and renewal are very important themes in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke on the reversal of the exile: the restoration to the land and the rebuilding of all that was destroyed… and much more! “New” is the key word here.
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord. Jeremiah here is talking about a new era, a new reality. New days are coming! The prophets spoke of a time in which eternity invades our reality, creating new times. They spoke of a time in which God intervened in our world.
Jeremiah 33 speaks of a new covenant. At the center of the new covenant is the mediator of this covenant, the new son of David, the righteous Branch. Jeremiah, like the other prophets, could not speak of a new reality and of blessings to come without referring to the Messianic figure! The person of the Messiah is central to Jeremiah. Hope is rooted in Him. In essence, the Messiah will be everything the kings of Israel and Judah were not. His reign will be wise and just. He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land!
What Israel was missing will be realized in this figure. What the oppressed and poor needed – the Messiah will achieve!
There can be no newness without the righteous Branch. There can be no forgiveness, no restoration, no circumcision of the heart, and no new creation apart from Him. The biblical hope points to the king from Bethlehem.
The prophetic message was simple: an alternative reality is possible – because God will speak it. And with this renewed sense of hope, the future breaks into the present, and the divine into the human. This is one of the most important features of prophetic hope. The future breaks into the present, and the divine into the human. This changes everything!
The world is in need of the biblical prophetic imagination. The world needs prophets who dare people to hope, to think of the unthinkable: of an alternative reality. And the church must embody that alternative reality by becoming an alternative community.
Jeremiah teaches us that hope is possible, and we live in times when hope is desperately needed. Today, Palestine a place that has seen one tragedy after the other, one conflict after the other. As a pastor in Bethlehem, I talk to people all the time; and it seems that most people – especially young people – do not look positively to the future. When we look around us, like the people in the days of Jeremiah, we see occupation, extremism, destruction, and this leads to despair. Is hope possible? Jeremiah reminds us that renewal is possible. We can continue to hope.
Bishop Munib Younan of the Lutheran church in Palestine always says: “As long as I believe in a living God, then there is hope!”
When people visit us in Bethlehem, and see the difficult situation and the separation wall, they ask me, “How do you get hope?” And I always answer by pointing towards Jerusalem: “There is an empty tomb there that reminds us that life will overcome death, light will overcome darkness, and love will overcome hate”.
This Christmas season, and as we “wait in hope”, we remember that Jesus has come. The righteous Branch of David has come. The one who brings peace and justice has come. We no longer have to wait for a savior. We are now called to walk in our kings’ footsteps. When the king comes back, will He find us busy working in His Kingdom, producing fruits of peace and justice? Will he find us feeding the poor, comforting the afflicted and challenging the evil and unjust systems of our world? Will he find us showing the marks of His lordship by loving one another?
Questions for Reflection:
- Why was it important that the Messiah according to Jeremiah is marked with justice and righteousness?
- How do we wait in hope today?
Isaiah 61: 1-4
Devotion by Dr. Madleine Sara, Guidance Specialist and Christian Counselor at Bethlehem Bible College
In many countries, the atmosphere is full of the new season. Here in Palestine, however, the situation remains the same until the month of December, which marks the beautiful season of Christmas. It is awaited by adults and young people, by the poor, the rich, the simple and the educated. This season suggests a letter of hope and joy.
Our presence in Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus, is a privilege for all who live in the Holy Land, but it is not unique to its inhabitants, who suffer from oppression and humiliation by their occupiers. This is not unfamiliar for Jesus, who was born in a very similar situation to those living in this country today, who have also lived and grown up in its difficult circumstances. He was a living example of a humble, influential, loyal and obedient leader. But why was Jesus different in His outlook and orientation towards life and the situation? How did He deal with the crisis?
The eyes of our Savior, Lord Jesus, have penetrated the material world and the reality before which everyone stands, bound and helpless. Christ began His ministry by proclaiming the words of Isaiah 61: 1-3. “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.” He started His ministry by proclaiming these words as a declaration of reformation, freedom and a new order of life. Being unhappy with what was going on, He knew the role He should take.
Imagine this scene of Christ proclaiming these words publicly in an occupied country: He speaks words of healing for the tormented, freedom of prisoners and the captives all in the midst of the reality of humiliation and occupation by the Romans. Meanwhile His people are still waiting for their christ, the war commander, who will reign and return the kingdom to Israel. It’s no wonder the clerics rejected this simple man, and no wonder that Herod feared the baby and planned to kill and get rid of Him. Jesus came to announce a change of situation, and this was a threat to every man of authority and power at His time.
Today we live in a similar atmosphere, with no announcement of a change of situation. Any such declaration would imply engagement with a war or leading a revolution to achieve the desired change. Christ, however, did not participate in any violent movements, nor bow to the tyrannical authorities. He lived His words, His declaration and principles under the circumstances of life. He was the desired change, and He applied it daily.
As the holiday season approaches, many are still weeping over the ruins of our country and the conditions of the occupation, which limits us; but there are those who look, wait and move with the same message of Christ that He began with by using those anointed words. They look at their message to shape the way of the future by working hard in their jobs and living as someone who digs the way toward the freedom of future generations.
Being a Palestinian woman, teaching theology, serving the gospel, and preaching the Word of God, I see my role to be the same as that of my perfect ideal, Jesus Christ. If it is at the College, then my role is to meet my students, to empower every weak soul, to comfort every grieving heart, and to send hope and strength to the next generations, with whom we can prepare a better future. I encourage us not to underestimate the small things. Influencing one person can impact the whole family, and in return, the extended family. I, then, walk towards the place of my ministry, which focuses on the psychological recovery of girls and women who suffer from past experiences and broken relationships. I see a number of those who have experienced the healing of broken hearts and the freedom from mental bondage without inciting violence against those who abused or humiliated them. I see them venture into life with a look of hope, strength and a new ability to influence and change.
So as Christ was able to prepare the future, I have a role to play in preparing it too. My eyes have a big impact on what will happen. What do you see around you? I feel sorry when I see some people focusing on reality, while ignoring the power of their eyes for the future. Each of us has eyes that understand, recognize, analyze, infer and move toward what we see, which can be something better.
When my students ask me why I am staying in this country, and why don’t I think about emigrating to get a better life, I tell them I live the best life in the center of crises. I tell them my call: “To prepare a better future for generations after me. The best place to be is where the will of God for my life leads me and not the life of luxury, material excess and political freedom, but the freedom of the captives, the healing of hearts, and the comfort of those grieving. It is where I see a future of beauty, joy and praise instead of ashes, weeping and desperate spirits.” Thus, through me and through those whom I prepare, the best is achieved: “To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1: 79.
What is important is how we receive the crisis. There are those who escape or become angry and disgruntled at the circumstances, and there are those who interact with the circumstances to realize that they have a role to play and a message to give.
Lord, in the light of your birth, I thank you for placing us where we must be, in the midst of darkness and the shade of spiritual, psychological and physical death, to be the instrument of light that guides the feet of those who are lost and hopeless in the path of peace. For we know that You alone are our inner peace that prepares a peaceful and bright future.
Question for Reflection:
- In what ways are you reacting to the circumstances around you? Is it in fear and anger, or with compassion and courage? How can you begin to make small changes in your responses to difficult situations?
Devotion by Yousef al Khouri, instructor at Bethlehem Bible College
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Where can we find joy? Millions of people around the globe are longing for joy and hope. Fear is taking over many restless hearts. People are traveling from place to place, from one job to another, seeking joy. They cannot obtain it, however. While we are celebrating advent and lighting candles in anticipation for the birth of the Light of the World, Paul provides us with a map where we can find joy and hope. In his epistle to Philippians, Paul writes that joy always comes from faith and trust in the Lord. It does not depend on circumstances but on the One who is sovereign over everything, and His throne is not shaken by anything.
Therefore, we sing with Moses and the Israelites: “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” Exodus 15:2 (ESV)
The Lord is the giver of peace and hope, despite any hardships, and joy and rejoicing reside in Him and in His hands. Interestingly, Paul, while writing his epistle to the Church of Philippi, he underwent a similar experience to that of Palestinians. The Roman Empire detained him in Rome for his faith. While residing in a dark prison cell, and waiting for unknown fate, he writes one of the most encouraging, hope and joy filled letters to a church that was enjoying the freedom and the flourishing economy of Philippi. Like Paul, there are millions of Palestinians who reside under imprisonment within a wall that surrounds their cities and towns. About two million Palestinians live in a massive prison, a 25 foot high wall, which stretches for 440 miles, and all with minimal access to natural resources and life essentials. Nevertheless, they share hope and joy with others around the world. They still can rejoice in God’s work in spite of disappointments and oppression. They are able to turn tear gas containers to Christmas ornaments. A symbol of hatred and death has been transformed by the power of faith to a piece of art that conveys hope and life. Hence, Rafeef Ziadah, as Palestinian-Canadian poet, was correct by saying, “We teach life, Sir!” referring to Palestinians.
Many of my students grew up during the second Palestinian uprising. Their families experienced the Israeli siege of Bethlehem in 2003 when they had to stay home for forty days due to the Israeli army invasion of the town. They were traumatized, and so much of what they have suffered is still alive in their memories. However, their love for the Lord and diligence in studying the Word of God encourages everyone. They were able to find joy and hope in what they do through trusting in the Lord and His goodness to them and their people. That joy that does not depend on circumstances but relies on faith in a sovereign Lord. They are longing to experience peace and waiting in hope for justice. Nevertheless, they have Godly peace for perseverance. As the Church of Philippi brought joy to Paul’s heart, I believe the Palestinian Church brings joy to the Father’s heart and encouragement to the Church around the world.
Lastly, I would like to ask you to stand with us, Palestinians waiting in hope: would you rejoice with us for God’s work among Palestinians, and pray for His peace and justice to come?
So here I wait in hope of You,
My soul’s longing through and through
Dayspring from on high be near
Daystar in my heart appear.
Christy Nockels – Advent Hymn
Questions for Reflection:
- In this season, how do the words of Paul to the Church of Philippi speak to your life?
- What steals or gives joy and hope in your life?
- How do you share hope and bring encouragement to others? Think of one person that you would like to be a source of encouragement to in his/her life.
Micah 5: 2-5
Devotion by Grace al-Zoughbi, Head of the BA Department at Bethlehem Bible College
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans [b] of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
5 And he will be our peace
when the Assyrians invade our land
and march through our fortresses.
We will raise against them seven shepherds,
even eight commanders.”
I simply could not be more privileged that I was born in Bethlehem! Like many other aspects of my life, I do not take living in this magnificent city for granted. I love everything about this little town where I was raised, and continue to live. Glancing at its hills on a sunny or a rainy day takes me back to images from the first century when Jesus walked in my very land, where His feet brought the good news of salvation. My heart leaps for joy when I read the vivid Bible stories that took place in Bethlehem. From the story of Naomi and Ruth, the great grandmother of King David the Bethlehemite, who psalmed the beloved “the Lord is my shepherd” on one of those hazy hills, to the story of our precious Savior’s birth, the theme of salvation remains uninterrupted.
Long before Jesus was born, the prophet Micah proclaimed a powerful prophecy. Micah’s well-known prophecy is often quoted during the Christmas season. Micah’s prophecy highlights two things: Not only does he speak about Bethlehem as least of the clans of Judah, but he foretells about the Shepherd who will come out of Bethlehem! The unique truth is that the majesty and greatness of this Good Shepherd has reached the ends of the earth. From a very lowly place, Bethlehem, the King of Kings is bringing salvation to the ends of the earth, attracting many to His love, forgiveness and newness of life. Bethlehem was so lowly that it was not counted among the possessions of Judah. It was too small a town. It could never have been a distinguished place. But because of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, it has become the “Mother-city of the whole earth”, according to John Chrysostom.
Furthermore, Micah’s striking declaration that Jesus will be our peace is the message that our world desperately needs today. Jesus continues to shepherd His flock faithfully and diligently. Where there is confusion, hopelessness and depression, He brings peace, and calms the storm. In fact, peace is probably the greatest dream that the long-standing residents of Bethlehem currently have. The rapidly declining Christian community yearns for peace. How ironic that the city where the angels sang triumphantly “peace on earth” lacks peace more than anything else!
These are often God’s ways and purposes; He will lift the lowly, but He will oppose the haughty and the proud. In His own way, He will bless us with overwhelming peace that passes all understanding. Only He can accomplish and establish peace and help us to overcome the turmoil. His ways are different than the world’s. As Christmas is approaching, many hearts are severely troubled, due to injustice, hatred and greed. Our prayer is that all eyes will behold the beauty of Him whose “origins are from of old, from ancient times,” so that He shall be our real peace every day of the year.
Questions for Reflection:
- In your own context and relationships, how can you demonstrate that Jesus is our peace?
- In your small or bible study groups, give a few examples where you experienced Jesus as your good shepherd.
An idea: You may want to post a prayer on social media remembering the Christians of Bethlehem during this Christmas season.
Isaiah 52:7-12 English Standard Version (ESV)
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
11 Depart, depart, go out from there;
touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves,
you who bear the vessels of the Lord.
12 For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight,
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
This hymn here comes after a call to the people of God in verse 1 to “awake, awake”. This call counters a litany of social and political problems that the people of God were experienced, which have in turn filled them with a sense of despair and worthlessness. They were defiled, enslaved, sold, oppressed, and mocked. The word “nothing”, which is repeated twice in the preceding verses, captures this clearly: the people of God were sold for nothing and taken away for nothing. This social reality can have a powerful crippling effect on people. Those who are treated as nothing eventually come to feel that they are nothing. Such people cannot be stirred to live a life of confidence, joy, and love when they have sunk so low.
As has been expressed in the previous devotions, these verses aptly describe the feelings of the majority of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians. We experience oppression, humiliation, and fear constantly, almost on a daily basis. This has led many of us to anger, bitterness, and resignation –others have left Palestine altogether. The persistence of this suffering has led many to become disillusioned about any possibility for the end of this suffering, and a dawning of a new reality of justice and peace.
But no matter the circumstances, the verses here challenge us, the people of God, to see ourselves, not as our enemies see us, nor even how we see ourselves, but as the LORD sees us. In his eyes we are both beautiful and strong (v. 1). We are his people that have honor and dignity (vv. 4-6). No one that the LORD values can be worthless, no matter what indignities they have suffered. This valuation by God ends with God declaring “Here I am”. This renewed presence and of God among his people and his intervention in their circumstances leads to the hymn in verses 7 to 12. The excited news that breaks out here and demands to be sung from the rooftops is that God is reversing the circumstances of his people and redeeming them. Redemption is earth’s great song. “The LORD returns to comfort his people. Rejoice, salvation is here!”
When God comes, nothing is held back. The wonderful victory of God is a cause for all the pent-up emotions to break forth. Cities rejoice and waste places shout for joy for they will be rebuilt. God’s
people will be delivered from bondage, encouraged in despair, strengthened in weakness,
forgiven in guilt, and restored to fellowship with God. Yes, desolate places will be
rebuilt, but more to the point, the waste places of the people of God, and of the people of the
world, will be rebuilt. Break forth; shout joyously!
This is our expectation this Christmas season. As He has visited us here in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago, the LORD will come back again to comfort and redeem his people. And so, the awake call in verse 1 is a call of expectation and preparedness. “Wake up”, he tells us, “you are valued, you are dear to me, and I am coming for you. Be prepared. I want to find you clothed in strength and joy when I arrive, for salvation is nigh”.
Join us as we celebrate the coming Savior and King and prepare ourselves for his comfort and salvation!