Day 1 – The Creation
Before our world began, there was nothing…except God! Then one day God started making things – out of nothing!! He said: “Let there be light!” and suddenly light appeared from nowhere.
God was clever like that. He called the light, day; and the darkness he called night. The next day, he made the sky, which was a lovely shade of blue and stretched as far as the eye could see. On day 3, God separated dry land from wet seas and planted trees and grasses on the land, to be watered from the sky above. God was rather pleased with all this and on the fourth day he placed in the sky, a sun to rule the daytime and a moon to rule the night-time.
The night was still a little dark, so he sprinkled stars in lovely patterns alongside the moon. God liked the stars. On day 5, God made fish to flop and birds to flap which was fun – he admired their freedom. So, on the sixth day he made animals and they were free too – some to run, others to crawl, yet others to jump about. They put a big smile on God’s face when he looked at them all. But God wanted to make something even more special – an animal that was just like him. So, on day 6, God made human beings, who could think and speak and make things, just like he did.
When he saw the man and the woman, he loved them, and they loved him too. “The seventh day will be a day of celebration,” said God. So, he stopped making things. And everything that God had made stopped too and shouted out loudly to thank God for all he had done.
Day 2 – Adam & Eve
God made a beautiful garden for the first human beings to live in. “This garden is to be your home,” said God. “Because I made it, you do not own it. But it is your job to look after it – to tend the plants, to care for the animals.” Adam and Eve looked at their wonderful new home and were very very happy. But they were also intrigued. For God had told them that they could eat anything for their food, except for the fruit of a tree at the very centre of the garden. This fruit would give them knowledge of what was good and what was bad and that would make them too much like God. The fruit of this tree became extra tempting to the two of them – it looked juicier and tastier than any other fruit.
A snake shuffled up alongside Eve one day and whispered in her ear, “Why don’t you try the fruit God says you cannot have? It won’t do you any harm.” It was too much for the two of them. Eve bit into the succulent fruit and then Adam took a mouthful too. As soon as they’d eaten, they knew they’d done the wrong thing. God had given them the freedom to do whatever they wanted, except for one little thing and now they’d let God down. They were so ashamed that they hid themselves away in the garden.
When God came to walk with them in the cool of the evening, he eventually found them cowering behind some bushes. “What have you done?” God said. But he knew in an instant that they’d disobeyed the one rule he’d given them. They didn’t love God like he loved them. He could never trust human beings to choose wisely again. So, God was sad when Adam and Eve left the garden for the big wide world beyond. He still loved them as much as ever. He just hoped that one day, they’d learn to love him back.
Day 3 – Noah
After Adam and Eve, most of the people on earth continued to behave quite badly. They didn’t look after God’s world or the animals in it. And they fell out with one another all the time. Until Noah came along.
Noah was a good man, an honest man, a man God grew to like. God spoke to Noah and told him to start building an ark – a boat so big that two of every animal in the world could live inside it. Noah wondered why God asked him to do this, after all he lived miles from the sea. But he did it anyway and when the ark was finished, animals from all over the earth arrived in twos and filled the boat. Then it started to rain. It rained like it had never rained before. Noah and his family climbed aboard the boat, closed the door tight shut and shortly afterwards the boat began to float. Higher and higher it rose in the water until the seas topped even the mountains.
There was nothing left of earth beyond the ark of animals and the sea they floated on. After 40 days the rain stopped and the flood began to drop. When Noah’s ark eventually came to rest towards the top of a mountain, the earth began to reappear – first the mountain tops, then the hillsides and the valleys. The sun dried out the land and Noah opened the door of the boat and released all the animals he had saved from destruction. They scampered out across the new earth and in no time at all, the world was filled once more with life. Noah looked up to the sky, where God had painted a rainbow across the heavens to show that he would never let the earth be destroyed again.
For his part, Noah and his family remained forever true to God and made their home upon the earth once more.
Day 4 – Abraham
Years passed after Noah’s family made their home again upon the earth.
Few people were as good as Noah, until God noticed one person who stood out from all the others – a man called Abraham. Abraham was very wealthy. He had a beautiful home; he had wife called Sarah, whom he loved very much; he had more sheep than you could count. The one thing that Abraham and Sarah did not have was children. So, they prayed to God every day, for a son or a daughter, but no child came. Abraham’s faith in God was so deep that he believed that their prayers would be answered eventually. But when they got so old that they had given up hope of ever having a child, God finally spoke to Abraham. “I want you to leave your home and go to a place I will show you,” he said. “And I will give you as many children and grandchildren as there are stars in the sky.”
Now this seemed impossible. But Abraham believed in a God who kept his promises, so he packed up his belongings without a second thought, and travelled to the east for miles until God told him to stop. It was an unlikely place, but Abraham settled in the land of Canaan far from home, far from people he knew, but still close to the God who travelled with him.
In time, God’s promise was fulfilled, not once, but twice. Abraham was father first to Ishmael and then to Isaac, and through them and their children came descendants as numerous as the stars. God loved Abraham’s family, and Abraham’s family worked hard to love God back.
Day 5 – Jacob
Not all of Abraham’s descendants were as faithful to God as Abraham was. Take his grandson, Jacob, who thought more of himself than he did of others; and who often thought more of himself than he thought of God!
If Jacob could get ahead in life by tricking people, he would do it. His twin brother, Esau, was born only moments before him, but it’s said that Jacob arrived into the world clutching greedily at his brother’s heel. Now, as the elder brother, Esau would inherit all his father Isaac’s wealth, when his father died. And this made Jacob so jealous that he played a big bad trick on Esau. He waited until his brother was very hungry and then persuaded him to swap his future inheritance for a bowl of stew! And then Jacob dressed up and pretended to be his own brother, so that Isaac would bless him with wealth when he died instead of blessing Esau.
Esau was furious that Jacob had tricked him and stolen his wealth. Jacob had to run away for fear that his brother would kill him for what he’d done. So, he ran far from home and he worried for his future. He wondered if Esau would ever forgive him. More than that, he wondered if God would forgive him. Perhaps God didn’t love him anymore? Jacob slept in the desert under the stars. And as he slept, he dreamed. A ladder stretched from heaven to earth, upon which he saw angels climbing up and down. It felt like a sign that God and he were still connected, that God loved him still, even though he had tricked Esau.
Like Abraham, he believed that God would always care for him and his family. Which is just what happened. Esau forgave Jacob and the two brothers became friends again. Jacob had 12 sons – Jacob’s was the most important family on earth because God loved them like no other.
Day 6 – Joseph
A father shouldn’t have favourites, but Jacob did! Of his twelve sons, he loved the younger two the most, Joseph and Benjamin. And even then he preferred Joseph to Benjamin. Jacob spoiled him rotten and that made the other brothers angry. So, when Joseph met them in the fields one day, flaunting the latest, fancy, multicoloured coat that Jacob had given him, the brothers’ tempers snapped. They grabbed Joseph, tore his coat and punched and kicked him till he cried with pain.
Just when they were wondering what to do with him next, along came a group of slave traders bound for Egypt, far away. They would see the end of Joseph once and for all, so they sold him to the traders. Then they went to tell Jacob the untrue news: Joseph was dead and all that was left of him was his ripped-up multicoloured coat.
Even as an Egyptian slave, Joseph did well. But he ended up in jail for a crime he did not commit. And there, he gained a reputation for telling people what their dreams meant. So, when Egypt’s pharaoh was troubled by bad dreams, someone called for Joseph. “Your majesty,” he explained to Pharaoh, “7 years of good harvests will be followed by 7 years of bad ones. You must build big barns to store away grain for the famine to come.” Pharaoh was amazed and put Joseph in charge of the barns, which saved the Egyptians from going hungry. Back home, Joseph’s brothers were starving.
They would go to Egypt to beg for food. When his brothers did not recognise him, Joseph played a trick to test their love for Jacob. He arrested Benjamin for stealing, but the brothers knowing it would kill their father if Benjamin did not return home, offered to take his place. From this, Joseph knew his brothers to be good and true men now. “I’m your brother, Joseph,” he told them. “Bring Jacob here to Egypt. You will all make your home in this place and will never go hungry again.” His brothers were overjoyed to see Joseph. And so was Jacob, who had found again the son he thought he’d lost.
Day 7 – Miriam
Joseph and his brothers were known as Israelites.
Their families grew very big living in Egypt. After many years, there were so many Israelites that Pharaoh grew afraid that they would overrun the country. Something would have to be done, so he made life very hard for them. He turned them into slaves and they had to work hard from early morning until late in the day. Still their families grew, so Pharaoh made a new law. All Israelite baby boys were to be thrown into the River Nile. One couple had a baby just at this time – a boy called Moses.
They had no choice but to hide him from the Egyptians. After three months, Moses had become rather noisy and more difficult to hide. So they made a special floating baby basket, laid Moses in it, and hid it among the reeds at the edge of the river Nile. Moses’s sister, Miriam, watched over the basket to make sure the baby boy was safe. As Miriam looked on, she saw the Pharaoh’s daughter arrive to take her daily swim.
When Pharaoh’s daughter noticed the unusual floating basket, she had her servants bring it to her. Imagine her delight, to open it up and discover a beautiful, bright, beaming baby. She fell in love with it at once even though she knew it was an Israelite baby boy. She was sure that her father would let her keep it. What should Miriam do? She had to think fast! She ran to Pharaoh’s daughter and asked: “Would you like me to find an Israelite mother to come and nurse it for you?” And that’s what happened. Miriam saved her brother from certain death, by running to tell her mother what had happened. Pharaoh’s daughter appointed Moses’s mother to be the nurse to the baby and Moses grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh. But Moses never forgot he was an Israelite and never forgot how much he owed to Miriam, his wise, brave sister.
Day 8 – Moses and the burning bush
Moses grew up in the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace. But the Israelites suffered badly because the Egyptians treated them harshly as slaves. Moses thought of the Israelites as his real family and he felt their pain. One day he came across an Egyptian soldier beating an Israelite and to stop this he ended up killing the soldier. Pharaoh would be furious with him, so he ran away to another country where he looked after sheep.
But God felt the suffering of the Israelite slaves too. He decided to send someone special to rescue them from Egypt. That special someone, he decided, would be Moses. So, when Moses was tending the sheep one day, he came across a bush that was on fire, but the bush did not burn up – the fire just kept going. Moses stepped closer and then a voice spoke to him from the bush: “Moses, stop where you are and take off your shoes, for it is holy ground that you are standing on. I am the God of your ancestors – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have felt the pain of my people, the Israelites, and I have chosen to rescue them through you. Moses, you will lead my people to freedom!”
Moses was terrified. He tried every excuse not to do what God was asking of him: “Pharaoh will not listen to me!”; “I am too old!”; “I am a quiet man, who does not speak persuasively!” But God answered every excuse, until finally Moses realised that when God calls you to do something, it is very hard to resist. His faith in God made him strong enough to do anything. So with words he didn’t even know he had, he challenged Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves; with energy he thought had left him in his youth, he led the Israelites out of Egypt; and with power and determination he freed God’s people and set them on a journey to a land that would become their new home.
Day 9 – Moses and the Ten Commandments
Freedom for the Israelites was sometimes harder than they had imagined. They didn’t want to be slaves, so it was great that they had escaped from Egypt. But the new home that Moses had promised to lead them to was far away and to get there they had to travel through the wilderness. That was a deserted place. The few animals that lived there, scratched out a life that was tough. Food was hard to come by. It was boiling hot during the day; it was icy cold at night. How on earth were all the Israelites ever going to survive in such a place? So no sooner than they had discovered the joy of no longer being slaves, than they started to grumble to Moses about the freedom they were supposed to be happy about. “It’s too hot!”; “It’s too cold!”; “We’re hungry!”; “How much further do we have to go?”; “We were better off living as slaves in Egypt!” The grumbling turned into a cascade of complaints and Moses was the target of every criticism. Even when God provided them bread from thin air every morning, they still complained – “We’d like to eat meat too!” they said.
For every complaint, Moses turned in faith to God, and God provided an answer to satisfy his people’s needs. However, in spite of God’s care of them, the Israelites began to lose faith in God and they began to wonder about following other gods instead. Moses knew that if they lost their faith in God, they would begin to behave as badly as people did in the time of Noah. They needed some rules to follow even in their freedom. Rules that would keep them faithful to God and loving towards one another. So when they arrived at Mount Sinai, a holy mountain, Moses climbed the mountain and talked with God, and returned to the people with two tablets of stone on which were written ten commandments. If they followed these commandments, it would guard their new found freedom, keep them close to God, and make them good neighbours to one another.
Day 10 – Ruth
The Bible tells story after story of individuals who became heroes of faith. One such hero was Ruth. She is unusual because she wasn’t an Israelite at all. She was from Moab a long way from Israel. That is an Israelite woman called Naomi had settled with their two sons. Ruth had married one of Naomi’s sons, but when he had died, Ruth and Naomi were left alone to fend for themselves. Naomi decided to go back to Israel, where she had family. “You must stay here,” she had told Ruth, “with your own people, your own family.” But Ruth was having none of it. Naomi would most likely die if she made the journey back to Israel on her own. Ruth would go with her, and when she arrived there, so she told Naomi: “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”
They journeyed together and arrived back in Israel, but when they got there they had no work. To get food, Ruth had to follow behind workers collecting grain at harvest time and gather up the scraps that remained. But this got Ruth noticed. Boaz, who owned the field, was a relation of Naomi’s and he admired Ruth’s persistence and loyalty in looking after her mother-in-law so well. He ordered his workers to leave extra grain behind in the field so that Ruth could collect enough to eat. Naomi soon realised that Boaz was fond of Ruth and she encouraged the two of them to get closer until finally Boaz proposed marriage. Not only did Ruth take Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God to be her own, she also became part of the family of the Israelites through Boaz.
She eventually gave birth to a son called Obed, and one of Obed’s sons was called Jesse. It’s Jesse who gives his name to the Jesse Tree – but more of that, later!
Day 11 – Samuel
Samuel was only a young lad but he already had a job – as helper to Eli, an elderly priest in a little village called Shiloh. In the darkness of the night, Samuel should have been sleeping soundly, but something had disturbed him. He heard a voice. “Samuel! Samuel!” the voice called. Samuel thought it must be Eli calling from his bed. He ran to Eli’s side, “Here I am!” he replied obediently. But Eli was confused: “I didn’t call you, Samuel, you must be hearing things!” he said, “Go back to bed, boy.”
No sooner than he had laid down his head on his pillow than Samuel heard the voice calling again: “Samuel! Samuel.” He ran even faster than the last time to Eli’s bedside. Here I am, Eli! What can I do for you?” he said, as he burst into the room. “Go back to bed, Samuel!” the old priest replied, “You’re keeping me awake, lad!”
Samuel went back to bed again, feeling just a little silly. So, when he heard the voice again, he was a little worried about going back to tell Eli. “Eli, here I am, you called?” he said. Eli now realised what was happening – it was God, not he, who was calling to Samuel. “Go back to bed, Samuel,” he said, “and when you hear the voice next time, say: ‘Speak to me, Lord, and I will listen.’”
Samuel returned to bed and when the voice spoke his name again, Samuel did as Eli told him. Then Samuel listened to God and began a long career passing on God’s messages to the Israelites. Samuel had become the first in a long line of prophets, who could hear what God was saying to them and who spoke God’s truth and wisdom to his people.
Day 12 – David and Goliath
David was small but his brothers were big. So, when the time came for Israelites to fight against the Philistines who had come to conquer Israel, David’s brothers had to go, leaving little him to look after the sheep. However, being a shepherd was a dangerous job. If hungry mountain lions turned up to make a meal of his sheep, David would have to stand tall and see them off using his favourite weapon – a sling. He would take a stone, the smoother the better to make it fly straight and true, place it in his sling, whirl it round his head and fire it off. On his day, David could knock a lion out cold. David was the best of shepherds.
Goliath wasn’t just big, he was huge – bigger than two of David’s brothers put together. When the challenge came to fight one to one with Goliath, no Israelite brave enough could be found. That is, until David came visiting his older brothers, bringing food from their father, Jesse. “I’ll fight him!” he said. His brothers laughed: “You’re too small!” they said. “You’re too weak!” But David had faith in God, the faith of his fathers, Abraham, Jacob and Moses. What he lacked in size, he made up for in heart. So, David went out to meet Goliath armed only with his favourite weapon – a sling. Goliath threw back his head and roared with laughter when he saw David approaching. But David slipped a smooth round stone into his sling and whirled it round his head. And when Goliath had finished laughing and looked back down it was just in time to see the stone that was to hit him square in the middle of his forehead.
He fell to his knees and dropped to the ground with a thud that sent shivers down the spines of all the Philistines. They ran for their lives from little David. As for David, his reputation in Israel grew with his size as he got older and he eventually became the greatest leader that Israel had ever seen – the best of shepherds, but to people not sheep!
Day 13 – Elijah
Not all of Israel’s kings were as good or faithful as David. King Ahab was one of the worst. He did not care for his people like a good shepherd. His faith in God was so weak that he began to follow the gods of his wife, Jezebel. That made God cross, for he longed for the people of Israel to be faithful towards him and King Ahab was leading them in the wrong direction. So, God used prophets to speak wisdom to the people. And during the reign of King Ahab, one prophet stood out head and shoulders above all the others. His name was Elijah.
Elijah heard God’s voice clearly and he spoke God’s words to Ahab even more clearly. He told King Ahab that he and Queen Jezebel were leading the people astray. Ahab and Jezebel were so angry with Elijah, that they promised to kill him if ever they could find him. Elijah ran for his life. He ran as far as Mount Horeb where tried to hide while he waited for God to speak with him again.
On Mount Horeb, Elijah looked out for God. He stood at the entrance to a cave looking out at the sky. The wind and the clouds swirled round and round until they became a hurricane that split the rocks around him. But he could not find God in the hurricane. When Elijah stood and looked again for God, he felt the ground begin to shake under his feet as a huge earthquake suddenly rocked the mountainside.
God must surely be in the earthquake! But no! When the mountain was then engulfed by fire, Elijah was certain that God was to be found in the fire – after all that is how God had met with Moses. But no! It was only when the fire died down that Elijah heard a whisper in the silence. It was God, who spoke to refresh Elijah’s faith and to give him the strength to bring the people of Israel back onto the paths that God had marked out for them. Elijah learned that it is often in silence, that God’s voice can most clearly be heard.
Day 14 – Jonah
Jonah was a good man. So good that God used him as a prophet to speak a word of warning to ordinary people when they were forgetting to love like God loves. The people of Ninevah were bad people, rotten to the core; they had strayed so far away from God, that he was not even a distant memory. But God had not forgotten the Ninevites. “Jonah,” he said one day, “I have a little job for you! You will go to Ninevah and speak to the people to remind them that they are to love one another, like I love all people.” Jonah was horrified! The Ninevites? They were good for nothing. God should not be forgiving that lot. Jonah thought he knew better than God. So, despite God’s instruction to head for Ninevah, he hopped onto the next boat for Tarshish in exactly the opposite direction! This was not a good move. Even as the boat left the harbour, the storm clouds were gathering. Out at sea, the thunder clapped, the lightning cracked, the wind tore through the sails and the waves crashed over the boat. The sailors were terrified. They threw their cargo overboard to save their little ship from sinking. In the corner of the boat sat Jonah. He knew why the storm was raging all around them. “This is my fault,” he said to them. “God told me to go to Ninevah for him, but I have done the opposite and now we will all die! Throw me overboard to save yourselves!”
The sailors did as Jonah told them. No sooner was Jonah thrown into the sea than he was scooped up in the mouth of a huge fish and swallowed whole. There in the belly of the fish, he had three days and nights to think about how he had failed God by ignoring his instructions. When he came to his senses, he said sorry to God and the fish belched him up onto the seashore not far from Ninevah. So Jonah went to the people after all. He delivered God’s Word to them. And the Ninevites turned themselves round to live in God’s ways, just as Jonah had been turned around by the fish when he was heading in the wrong direction.
Day 15 – Jesse Tree
Our story so far is about people of faith. It is a history of the journey that people of faith have made with God. It tells of how some people failed God – like Adam and Eve, who hid from God; like Jonah, who tried to run away from God. It tells of how other people have always been faithful to God – like Noah, who was a good man when all around were bad; like Moses, who listened and acted faithfully when God asked him to do something hard; like Ruth, who cared for her mother-in-law by making Naomi’s God her own. It tells of the struggles that people have in staying close to God – like Jacob, who sometimes fought with God; and Elijah who wanted God to be as powerful as fire but found him in silence. It is a history which gathers all these people into one family tree, centred on Jesse, the father of David, the greatest of all Kings. It’s all about Jesse’s family tree.
When King David died, the Israelites wondered if there would ever be a king like that again. They lost hope that their family would ever be really close to God. And when the Israelites found themselves slaves again but this time in Babylon, far from the home that God had promised them, they wondered if God had given up on them altogether. They needed someone to rescue them from slavery again, but who could that be? It was as though the family tree of Jesse had been cut down to just a stump.
One man spoke hope to the Israelites. The prophet Isaiah announced that: “Out of the stump of Jesse will grow a shoot, and that shoot will bring freedom not just the Israelites, but to the whole world.” And from that time onwards, people were on the look out for a new and extra special person to draw everyone closer to God than they had ever been before. The rest of our Jesse tree stories point towards that person.
Day 16 – Zechariah
Zechariah was an old man. He worked in the temple in Jerusalem, 1000 years after the time of King David. It wasn’t an especially important job, but then Zechariah wasn’t an important person. He was ordinary, just like you and me. His wife, Elizabeth, was ordinary too. They were both faithful to God and they had both wanted one thing all their long lives. Like Sarah and Abraham all, those years before, they wanted a baby, a child of their own. For years they had prayed hard to God, but now they were so old, that having a child was impossible.
One day, Zechariah was getting on with his work in the temple, when he heard a voice: “Good morning, Zechariah.” He looked up to see an angel standing in front of him. As if that wasn’t startling enough, the angel went on: “You will be pleased to know that God has heard your prayers. You are to be a father. In just a few months, you and Elizabeth will have a child.” You could have knocked Zechariah down with a feather. He stood there with eyes wide open and a mouth to match. He wanted to speak, but no words would come. The angel went on: “You must name him John, as a sign that God is going to be gracious not just to you and Elizabeth, but to the whole world. John will open people’s ears and eyes, so that they are ready to receive the Special One who will bring everyone close to God.”
When the angel had gone, Zechariah ran home to tell Elizabeth, but still he couldn’t speak. So he took a pencil and wrote down all that the angel had told him. A few months later, Elizabeth had news for Zechariah: “I’m expecting a baby,” she whispered in his ear. And Zechariah’s heart was filled with joy.
Day 17 – Mary
It was a time for angels – messengers from God delivering good news to startled people. After Zechariah, it was Mary who came face to face with an angel. She was minding her own business, when suddenly an angel appeared. “Don’t be frightened, Mary,” the angel said, “you are favoured by God. You are to have a baby, just like your cousin, Elizabeth.” Mary was shocked by the news: “But surely I’m too young to have a baby, and Elizabeth has got to be too old?” The angel smiled that smile that only angels have: “You forget, Mary, that nothing is impossible for God!” To be honest, Mary didn’t really want a baby right now. She was going to marry her boyfriend, Joseph, who was a good man. But what would he think of her if she told him she was pregnant? He would surely call off the wedding?
The angel continued: “Your child will be special. So special that the whole world will know his name for the rest of history. He is the child that everyone has been waiting for. He is the child that is a new shoot growing out of the Jesse’s family tree. He is the child who is to connect everyone to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses and Miriam, to Ruth, to Samuel, to great King David himself. He is the child who will draw the whole world close to God as God planned long ago. Because of that, you must call him Jesus, for he will free all people from themselves and make them one with God.”
Mary didn’t know what to do. It was difficult to turn down God: “I am God’s servant,” she said, “let things happen as you have said.” The angel left her, and Mary planned to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, for advice.
Day 18 – John the Baptist
When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s child rolled around inside her with excitement that Mary’s baby was nearby. The connection between John and Jesus was already a close one. Elizabeth knew at once that Mary’s baby was to be the special shoot of Jesse that everyone had been waiting for. She was pleased that her own baby would be preparing the people of Israel for the arrival of Mary’s baby, Jesus.
When at last the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, everyone had names to suggest for the child. It could have been Nahum, or Daniel, or Seth. But when the suggestions were being made, old Zechariah got more and more excited. He wanted to speak until he was fit to burst, but still he was unable to say a word. “Pass him his pencil,” said Elizabeth. And Zechariah wrote quite steadily and calmly: “His name is John!” And with that, Zechariah’s lips were opened and he gave thanks to God for the birth of their child in his old age.
John grew up to be a preacher. One of the best preachers ever, though his message was always the same: “Turn away from the lives that you are leading and return to the God who gives you life in abundance. Walk in God’s ways.” The people loved John and they came to him in droves at the banks of the river Jordan, where he would wash them in the river water as a sign that they had turned their lives around. But this was to be just the start of people’s turning back to God. John was getting everyone ready for the time when Jesus would come and not just immerse them in water, but would instead plunge them into the life and freedom of God’s spirit. “When Jesus comes,” John promised, “nothing will ever be the same again. You will feel God’s spirit moving inside you, making you closer than ever to God. Just you wait and see!”
Day 19 – Joseph
Joseph was not a man of many words. He was more likely to be banging nails into wood with a hammer or cutting planks in two with a saw than he was to be chatting about this or that. He was a carpenter, a joiner, a skilful maker of tables and chairs. The people in the village of Nazareth loved Joseph, for his quietness and kindness – he was a good man who loved God.
Joseph was deeply upset when Mary told him her news. “Pregnant! But you are engaged to me,” he said. Joseph was thinking things through that evening. He knew they could now never marry, but he still loved her and he didn’t want the villagers to think badly of her. Perhaps she could go away for a while and have the child away from the village, then nobody would know? As he was thinking late into the night, he drifted to sleep and began to dream. Before him there stood an angel with a message to bring to him: “Joseph! Know that Mary is a good and faithful woman. What she has told you is true. She has conceived a child by God not man. She will be a wonderful wife to you and a loving mother to her child. Name the child Jesus, for he will bring freedom to all people by making God present with us.”
When Joseph woke up, he did what he was told in the dream by the angel. He took his wife-to-be home with him and looked forward to the time when he would become father to the most special child on earth. Joseph promised himself that as Jesus grew up he would teach his son to be a carpenter too.
Day 20 – Journey to Bethlehem
There was something special about Joseph that Mary only found out about when the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, issued a command that everyone in the Roman empire had to go back to their hometown. She discovered that Joseph wasn’t really from Nazareth at all, but that he had family ties to Bethlehem, a village close to Jerusalem. But Bethlehem was a special place in itself, because King David had also come from Bethlehem. Joseph was part of King David’s family, a proper member of Jesse’s family tree. So, Joseph himself was special, even before he became father to the baby Jesus.
Mary was not pleased that at almost nine months pregnant, she was going to have to travel 75 miles on the back of a donkey along bumpy roads to Bethlehem. But there was no choice. Whatever Caesar said, people had to do. There were no exceptions. Joseph did his best to make the journey comfortable for Mary. They had plenty of rests, enough to eat and drink, they took their time. So much time, in fact, that when they arrived in Bethlehem, all the hotels were already filled with people. There was nowhere for them to sleep, let alone to deliver the baby if he came.
At the last inn in Bethlehem, weary Joseph asked one more time for a place to rest their heads for the night. “There are no beds left,” said the innkeeper. He looked at poor Mary: “But I have a stable out the back, with soft straw to lie down on. You can use that if you want. It might smell a bit of animals, but It will be warm and cosy for Mary.” It was the best that Joseph could find, so he and Mary and the donkey went out around the back of the inn and settled down for a quiet night’s sleep.
Day 21 – Shepherds
It was strangely busy on the hillsides around Bethlehem, where shepherds were watching over their sheep. The men could hear the sounds of the town’s night-time frivolities across the cold still air. These shepherds were rough; they were nobodies, who didn’t even count when it came to the census that was taking place all around the Roman empire. They weren’t craftsmen like the carpenters or stonemasons. They weren’t clever like the accountants or the tax collectors. They weren’t wise like the priests or teachers. But, for all their roughness, they knew a beautiful world and it seemed to them as they looked up from their campfire that the stars that night were as bright as ever the world had seen. In fact, as they looked, the stars were getting brighter by the moment, and larger too. And there was a rising crescendo of singing as well – a heavenly harmony that filled the air around them and their souls within. When the sky itself was filled with angels swirling all around, a single angel spoke: “Don’t be frightened. I bring you news to make your hearts sing. This night, in David’s city, a child has been born who is to bring God’s love to all people, from the lowest and the least to the greatest and the most important. Go to Bethlehem, where you will find the child lying in a manger, and celebrate this incredible moment.”
The angels’ song faded and the stars regained their shape and place in the sky above. But the shepherds had heard the angels’ message and picked up their belongings. They ran helter-skelter down the hillsides, in through the gates of the town and searched through the backstreets for the stable and a manger with a baby. They were not to be disappointed.
Day 22 – Birth
Christmas night in Bethlehem was anything but quiet. The town was awash with the sound of old friends bumping into one another for the first time in ages because of the census. People were laughing and making merry into the early hours. Mary wondered if she would ever get to sleep. The straw under her body was warm enough, but prickly through her clothes and she was uncomfortable from carrying the baby inside her. Then she had a feeling that she had never known before but had been waiting for these past nine months. The baby was on its way and, for Mary and Joseph, the night was about to get even busier.
Back in Nazareth, the village midwife would have been on hand to help. But tonight, Joseph was on his own. He got everything ready – water to wash the baby, a clean knife to cut the cord, a manger filled with the softest hay he could find. Then he settled down to see Mary through the hours that would follow. She squeezed his hand hard when the contractions came; he squeezed her hand softly in between. He whispered gently: “Not long now, my love. Be strong. And soon your joy in God will be complete.” The baby broke out into the world with a healthy cry that made Mary smile through her pain. Joseph cut the cord, wiped him clean and rubbed in salt and oil before wrapping him tightly in linen cloths. Then he laid him in the manger where he slept quietly.
They were all exhausted, but just then four breathless shepherds burst in through the stable door. “It’s true!” they said. “Praise the Lord!” And four rough shepherds, the lowest and the least, knelt at the manger and gave thanks to God. Then they returned to the hills, filled with joy at what they had seen, leaving Mary, Joseph and Jesus to sleep through till the dawn.
Day 23 – Wise Men
If the shepherds were the lowest and the least, but also the first people to see the baby Jesus, then some rather more important visitors were travelling towards Bethlehem from far away in the East. They were foreigners to Israel, but they were also astrologers, wise men who could read signs in the stars above them. For weeks one special star had caught their attention – it spoke of a new and important King to be born and they had followed the star so that they could welcome this new baby into the world. The star drew close to Jerusalem, so the wise men halted their journey and tied up their camels, so that they could visit King Herod in his palace and find out where the baby was. Herod was anxious and jealous when he heard the news. A new King? Another King? But he was King! He pretended otherwise to the wise men. “How fantastic!” he said. “I have consulted with the most learned people in Jerusalem and they tell me that the baby will come from Bethlehem. Go there, and when you have found the child, come back and tell me where he is, so that I too may come to thank God for his birth.”
When the star moved again, the wise men followed further, until it rested above the place where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were. They dismounted from their camels and found the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms which filled them with happiness. And then, these great and learned men, these wise foreigners dropped to their knees just as the lowly shepherds had done and thanked God for the birth of the new King. Acknowledging God’s gift to the world in Jesus, they brought their own gifts, expensive gold fit for a King, sweet-smelling frankincense to show the baby’s connection to heaven, and myrrh to signify that Jesus’s life and death would change the world forever.
Day 24 – Flight to Egypt
It was a day for angels. God’s messengers needed to get to work, and quickly. Even before the wise men had returned to him, King Herod was making plans to have rid of this new baby boy, born to be a King to Israel. The wise men were sleeping after their long journey to Bethlehem, but they were disturbed in a dream by an angel: “Do not go back to Herod,” the angel said, “return to the East by a different route.” Which is what the wise men did as soon as they awoke. They said goodbye to Joseph and Mary, took one last look at Jesus, and then mounted their camels for the long journey home, steering well clear of Jerusalem, where Herod waited with a smouldering anger that would soon ignite into violence.
Once done, another angel visited Joseph this time, again in his sleep: “Run Joseph! Flee Bethlehem as fast as you can with Mary and the child. Herod is incandescent with jealous rage. He intends to search for Jesus and kill him.” So in the middle of the night, Joseph woke Mary and they packed up their belongings. Mary gathered Jesus up into her arms and the three of them and their donkey set out from Bethlehem. They journeyed as refugees from their own country, crossed the wilderness, and entered the desert as they headed for asylum in Egypt. As they travelled, they remembered the journey that the Israelites had made when running from slavery in Egypt some 2000 years earlier. Now Egypt would be their place of safety not slavery.
And there they stayed until Jesus was a toddler and King Herod was dead. After that, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up as a child.
Day 25 – Brightest Star
In the birth of Jesus, a new shoot sprouted to restart Jesse’s family tree of faith. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, King David’s hometown. Joseph is also a descendant of David and therefore part of the Jesse tree.
But it is faith that really unites this Jesse tree of characters. People of faith who have tried and failed to be close to God like Adam and Eve. People who should never have had faith, but because of their compassion and care drew so close to God that they were adopted into Jesse’s tree, like Ruth. People who have received and believed God’s special promises, like Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses. Prophets who have tried to turn around the people of Israel when their faith has become weak, like Elijah and Samuel. People, who around the time of Jesus’s birth received special messages from angels that helped them to play a part in the Christmas nativity story.
The Jesse Tree is now focused on the brightest star, the new shoot for God which tips the top of our tree. For Jesus is a bright light for the world that shines in the darkness that is all around. Jesus is the light of the world and will bring the love and life of God to all people.
The darkness of this world will try to extinguish the light, but as we remember the story of Jesus in the coming months, we will discover that God’s love can never die, but will live forever in those men and women who have a heart for faith.