Why Don’t Wise Men Seek Him?

During the Christmas season, Christians across the world think of the Nativity, with its Holy Family, angels, shepherds, manger, and Wise Men. Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the shepherds were Jews; unimportant and even unnoticed in their society. The Wise Men were probably Gentiles from the land of Parthia, formerly Persia, in the East. Most likely they were sent on an official diplomatic mission by the Parthian government to find this long promised ruler. Their caravan was probably large, rich, and well-guarded. The Wise Men were among the wealthiest, most educated and most respected men in their society, and they sought Jesus.

Christians understand that Jesus was a Man. He is also God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Jesus Christ gave everything to His followers, and He demands everything from them in return. Christianity has long been a religion of the poor and the outcast. Paul wrote that not many believers in Corinth were considered the wise, mighty or noble of their society (1 Corinthians 1:25-27). Jesus taught that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-25). Nonetheless, these wise, rich and noble men from Persia sought Jesus. Why?

There is a plethora of cards, bumper stickers and mugs in the modern world that say “Wise men still seek Him”. While it is true that those with genuine wisdom, as revealed in Proverbs 4, still seek Him, many people considered wise, noble or rich in modern society do not seek Him. Why not?

We cannot conclusively know why the ancient Wise Men sought Jesus because we know so little about them. They may have been Jews from Sheba, modern Yemen. We don’t even know how many there were. However, Matthew’s account provides some useful hints about why these ancient Magi sought Jesus, and modern wise men do not.

Seeking a Man

First, the Wise Men sought a Man. The Parthian leadership was weak, and these magi were on an important mission. Thus they spared neither expense nor hardship in their quest. Parthia needed a mighty king to inspire her people, to structure the nation, and to protect them from enemies. They knew that no man would be perfect, yet only a man could do what needed to be done.

However, leaders can be problematic in modern democratic society. The great man makes us wonder why we are not great. He expects people to be their better selves, something that most of us don’t seriously want to do. His very existence calls into question our belief that all men are essentially equal. Our pride makes it hateful to us to submit to any man. Like the Christian recording artist Randy Stonehill sings in The Dying Breed, we “cheer while we hope that he will fall.” Leaders are demanding. The greater they are, the more they give to and require from their followers. As the greatest man in history, Jesus is the most demanding of all.

Developing men is difficult. Education often fails to make people change their behavior, even when such behavior change is in their long term best interest. Virtuous character is even harder to build. It takes mentoring, self-sacrifice and years of life to raise a few children to maturity, and even then a few may depart from their upbringing. The only real way to develop a person is one on one, as families do and as apprenticeships did long ago. Twenty-first century man has little patience for such a process.

In the modern world, we seek methods more than men. We develop machines, processes and procedures to handle every possible contingency and expect people to use and follow them. We design jobs and pick people to fill them. Workers are pieces in a puzzle rather than team members creatively accomplishing a shared mission. Since people sometimes crash cars, we develop cars that drive themselves. As machines did in the Industrial Revolution and Frederick Taylor did with Scientific Management, we handle organizations as machines and men as parts.

Governments try to engineer risk and hardship out of the lives of citizens with layer upon layer of restrictions and regulations. They attempt to guarantee not only equal opportunity but equal outcomes for people, irrespective of individual desire, capability, effort, or character. Personal freedom, which is harder to measure, is sacrificed on the altar of equality and efficiency, which is easier to measure. Making sugary drinks illegal, regardless of individual preference or use, is a classic example. Having given up trying to make individuals better, we use the law to limit their freedom.

Though there are advantages to such “process thinking”, it often results in a “process focus”. The process, the efficiency of the system, or the eventual profits become the focus, instead of the people affected by the process. Thus factories are judged by the number of items produced and profit gained rather than by the well-being of workers, customers, and society. Hospitals rate themselves on how many patients they treat rather than how well their patients live.

Clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) are a good example of how process thinking can devolve into process focus. CPGs provide steps and algorithms to guide clinicians on how to care for a patient with a certain complaint, such a chronic low back pain. They are written by experts in their field who have systematically examined the latest medical evidence. As such CPGs can reliably guide how a busy primary care provider handles an uncomplicated patient.

However, CPGs are geared to the “average” person with a given complaint and therefore cannot take into account variations and needs in individual patients. As long as these guidelines remain guidelines, allowing each physician to modify the care he or she gives to suit the person, CPGs are good. When insurers refuse to pay for services outside those recommended by the CPG, when lawyers sue clinicians because they departed from the CPG, and when the government refuses to permit deviation from the CPG, these “guidelines” become rules. Health care providers lose the freedom to tailor treatment to their patients and families. People suffer.

Christians cannot make this mistake. No matter how hard it is to develop men and women, we must do it. Processes and machines can and should get better, but not at the expense of people. Men, not nations, live forever. It is in men, not things, that we must put our resources. The Savior made no inventions and wrote no procedures. Instead He spent three years with twelve men and about 100 other followers.

The Wise Men of the Bible sought Jesus because they needed a man, not a policy or a procedure, to solve their problems. Modern wise men do not seek Jesus because they seek a machine or a process to solve their problems.

Seeking the Creator behind the creation

Second, the Wise Men looked to nature to find evidence of Him. They did not ignore the natural world and were not anti-intellectual. Rather they were experts in the arts of astronomy, history and prophecy. In their time, they were second to none in admiration of the world around them. As much as they learned from and enjoyed nature, however, they did not end their inquiries with the natural world. The Magi scoured creation for evidence of the Creator. As is the case today, there were as many world views as people in the ancient world. Nevertheless most people included some idea of God in how they understood reality. Even into the 18th century, great men of science like Isaac Newton sought to know the Creator through His creation.

How differently do we do things in the 21st century? Not only do we ignore God in our inquiries, but we define science so as to intentionally exclude God. The natural world thus becomes an end in itself. Only the material world exists; there is no spiritual world. Nature does not reflect the glory of “something beyond” because in this mindset there is nothing beyond. The idea that the universe is entirely material is an assumption made on philosophical grounds. There is no scientific proof, nor can there ever be, because science is limited to the material.

Believers in the Lord must reject this assumption. The fact that the universe is bound by time (it had a beginning and will have an end) is proof that something exists outside the universe. That something is God. No matter how many Nobel Laureates and university philosophy chairs say that there is no God, they cannot prove that statement. Though skeptics refuse to see it, the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

Paul Brand (1914-2003) was a Christian missionary, orthopedic surgeon, and pioneer in leprosy research in India. Having retired to Seattle, in 1996 he spoke to family medicine residents at the Madigan Army Medical Center. Though 82 at the time, Dr. Brand described his work with a lilt in his voice, a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye. A few months earlier he had been walking along an uneven sidewalk, caught his foot on a crack and toppled over. As he fell he felt his opposite leg stiffen and his body rotate in the normal reflexive attempt to stay standing. Dr. Brand hit the ground, but could not help marveling at the beauty and complexity of the human body. Though in some pain, this elderly servant of Christ saw his Lord through the glory of what He had made. He loved the creation, and even more loved the Creator that he saw behind it.

The Wise Men of the Bible sought Jesus because they wanted to find the Creator behind His creation. Modern wise men do not seek Jesus because they refuse to believe that there is anything behind nature,

Seeking for the good of others and the glory of God

Third, the Wise Men sought Jesus to save their nation. Parthia was in turmoil, with a weak and aging king. Civil war was a real possibility. The Magi wanted to find the Child, worship Him, and possibly bring Him to their people. Meanwhile Herod wanted to find the child in order to murder Him. They had the interests of their nation at heart while he pursued his own interests. The Wise Men hoped to ensure the well-being of their countrymen, while Herod hoped to ensure the rule of his dynasty. The Magi sought peace while Herod wanted bloodshed.

Moderns, perhaps even more than our forebears, want peace, but we want it on our own terms. Peace that allows me to do my own thing in my own way is good, while peace that requires hardship is not. E-contributing money to a cause is as much as many will do. Most of us would not travel hundreds of miles over several months in a dusty and dangerous caravan, as the Wise Men did, to find peace. Many of us don’t trouble ourselves for others’ peace at all, even when people across the world or in our neighborhoods are sick, hungry, or being persecuted. Few of us are in a position to initiate slaughter as Herod was, and few of us would admit to being willing to do it if we had the chance. The good of others, much less the glory of God, barely appears on our radar screen.

Followers of Christ live for Him and for others; not for ourselves. Instead we consider others more important than ourselves and put their needs first (Philippians 2:3-5). We have been crucified with Christ, have His mind, and live in Him (Galatians 2:20).

Truly wise men and women have always sought Jesus for the glory of God and the good of their people. Wise men and women today do not seek Jesus because they are interested in their own glory and perceived good.

Conclusion

While men who are truly wise will seek Jesus, most men and women who are considered wise in modern society will not. Part of this is human nature; if you can “make it” on your own, why rely on someone else (Proverbs 30:7-9)? Yet another part of this is our modern culture. Despite the oft-heard lamentation of a lack of leadership in the world, moderns fear and despise strong leaders such as Jesus. We want machines and methods, not men, and certainly not a God-man, to make our lives better. We reject the Creator behind the creation for fear that He will judge our actions and make us do something that we don’t like. Finally, we do not seek Jesus because we want our own perceived good and glory, not the good of others and the glory of God. That is why “wise men” today don’t seek Him.

In fairness, “wise men” of the past did many of the same things, which makes the Magi of Matthew that much more remarkable. Enabled by the Holy Spirit, Christians can and must do better.

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More Christmas Traditions to Celebrate

Celebrations at Christmas time can be far more than just good food and good presents on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Starting in late November and ending in early January, families can celebrate other traditions of Christmas for a whole month. This teaches important truths to children, develops important family traditions, and is a lot of fun!

6 December – Saint Nicholas Day (Sinter Klaas Day)

Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, Asia Minor, who was born around 15 February 270 and died on 6 December, 346 AD.  He was born to a wealthy family, but chose to use his wealth to help the poor rather than trying to grow wealthier.  His generosity soon became legendary, and though he was never officially canonized, he has been recognized as a saint over the ages.

Legend states that as he was walking past a house in the poor part of the city, he overheard a young woman crying to her father that she could not marry her beloved because she had no dowry.  That night, dressed in his red Bishop’s robe, he secretly tossed some money in to their house through an open window.  A second daughter had the same problem, and received the same kindness.  The last daughter needed the same, but when Nicholas came, the windows were closed.  He climbed to the roof and dropped a bag of gold coins down the chimney, were the landed in the girl’s stocking that had been left to dry.  Nicholas was discovered, and he spent the rest of his days ministering to others in God’s love.

Saint Nicholas is venerated throughout the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, and well admired by Protestant Christians as well.  European children will find candies and toys in their shoes on the morning of December 6, placed there on the night of the fifth.  The American icon Santa Claus comes directly from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”.

12 December – Gross Day

This holiday, which I learned from Mr. McDonough, my Spanish 2 teacher at California High School in Whittier, California, is on the 12th day of the 12th month, because 12×12 = 144, one gross.  On that day, he was also famous every year for planting a dead tree branch in a pot and hanging a 30-6 shell from it. Mr. McDonough called it his “cartridge in a bare tree.”  It is a fun time to eat a gross of something or do a gross of something, or even eating or doing something gross.

13 December – Santa Lucia Day

Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) was an Italian Christian who was martyred by Diocletian in Sicily around 300 AD.  Legend states that she spent her days helping Christians hiding in the catacombs, bringing food and other supplies to sustain them.  To keep both hands free, she wore a crown of candles.

In Scandinavian tradition, 13 December was Lussi night (Lussinatta), the longest night of the year in the unreformed Julian calendar.  Lussi was a witch, and she, along with her retinue of evil spirits and dead people, flew through the air looking for victims to steal away.  Sometimes Lussi would come down the chimney and steal children.

When large numbers of Scandinavians followed Christ, the holiday changed.  Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) is a young woman who brings lights and sweets to the people in December 13th.  She wears a crown of candles (lights) in her hair and leads a procession of others, each holding one candle.

Santa Lucia Day is another example of Christians taking something evil and changing it for good.

 

25 December – Happy Birthday to Jesus

Though many people celebrate Christmas, few celebrate it as a birthday party for Jesus. While we give presents to one another, it is also important to give presents to Him. In our family we have a birthday cake, sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, and have the youngest child present blow out the candle. Sometimes we give money or gifts to a charity for Jesus’ birthday. This is yet another way to remember what Christmas is really about, and have a good time doing it.

6 January – Three Kings Day (Epiphany)

Epiphany is the Greek word for “manifestation” or “striking appearance”. As such it describes the appearance of the Magi (wise men or kings) to pay homage to Jesus, the infant king.

As much as we like the image of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the stable, surrounded by animals, shepherds and wise men, the real birth of Christ probably did not happen that way. The wise men, according to the Gospel of Matthew, did not arrive until later, after the Holy Family had moved into a house. It is not clear why Joseph and Mary didn’t go quickly back to Nazareth, but perhaps the census took longer than we would expect and so they decided to settle down in Bethlehem. Either way, Jesus was probably 12-18 months old when the wise men came.

While the Eastern Orthodox church celebrates the visit of the magi on 25 December, to account for the delay, Western church tradition celebrates the coming of the wise men on 6 January, the twelfth day after the Nativity. They gave three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there is no mention of how many wise men came. Western tradition teaches that there were three, a Persian scholar named Melchior, an Indian scholar named Caspar, and an Arabian scholar named Balthazar.

  1. Syrian tradition – Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Homisdas
  2. Ethiopian tradition – Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater
  3. Armenian tradition – Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma.

Families traditionally exchange presents on Epiphany and some cultures have parties or other events to commemorate the coming of the kings.

Conclusion

The Christmas season is exactly that, a season, and not merely a day. Regardless of one’s denomination or affiliation, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, celebrating Jesus’ birth in other traditions is a fantastic way to build family unity, have fun, and better understand the mystery and magic of the Coming of Christ.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The English Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in England in 1780 as part of a children’s book, Mirth without Mischief.  The song’s earlier history is shrouded in mystery but it may be French. The meter is irregular, especially notable in the drawn out “Five golden rings”. Most of the earliest citations of the song do not include music, but English composer Frederic Austin wrote an arrangement in 1909 that is the one most often used today.

 

The song appears to be a silly tune about increasingly grandiose gifts given the singer by his or her True Love, and that may indeed be all that the song is. In his article How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas, Canadian hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar suggested that the song uses ordinary imagery to convey religious truths. Some priests and chaplains have supported these claims, stating that the song was used as a catechism for children during periods of persecution.

 

We may never know the real origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but we can use the song today to teach and remember some basic truths about our Christian faith. For that purpose,  some of the possible meanings of each day are listed below:

 

December 26, Boxing Day – A Partridge in a Pear Tree

 

Symbolic of Jesus Christ on the Cross

 

Boxing Day/St. Stephens Day

 

According to one legend, in the Middle Ages, peasants were expected to bring Christmas gifts to their noble masters to thank them for land and protection.   Though in poverty, they had little choice.  During his reign, Good King Wenceslas of Bohemia (907-929 AD) changed the tradition by presenting gifts to his peasants.  The song Good King Wenceslas came from this tradition. Eventually Boxing Day became a holiday celebrated in the Britain, Canada and Australia to thank one’s subordinates for their contributions with gifts. 

 

December 27 – Two Turtledoves – Old and New Testaments

 

December 28 – Three French Hens – Faith, Hope and Love

 

December 29 – Four Calling Birds – Four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

 

December 30 – Five Golden Rings

 

Five Books of the Law (the Pentateuch) – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

 

December 31 – Six Geese a Laying

 

Six days of Creation (Genesis 1-2)

1.    Day 1 – Light and darkness

2.    Day 2 – Water and the Heavens

3.    Day 3 – Dry land, grass and trees (vegetation)

4.    Day 4 – Sun, moon and stars

5.    Day 5 – Sea creatures

6.    Day 6 – Air and land animals and man.

7.    Day 7 – Rest

 

January 1 – Seven Swans a Swimming

 

Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:3-8)

1.    Prophecy

2.    Ministry

3.    Teaching

4.    Exhortation

5.    Giving

6.    Ruling (administration)

7.    Mercy

 

January 2 – Eight Maids a Milking

 

Eight beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-11)

1.    The poor in spirit

2.    Those who mourn

3.    The meek

4.    Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness

5.    The merciful

6.    The pure in heart

7.    The peacemakers

8.    The persecuted

 

January 3 – Nine Ladies Dancing

 

Nine fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22)

 

January 4 – Ten Lords a Leaping

 

Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17)

1.    Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.

2.    Thou shalt not make any graven image.

3.    Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.

4.    Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.

5.    Honor thy father and mother.

6.    Thou shalt not kill.

7.    Thou shalt not commit adultery.

8.    Thou shalt not steal.

9.    Thou shalt not bear false witness.

10.Thou shalt not covet.

 

January 5 – Eleven Pipers Piping

 

Eleven Faithful Disciples

1.    Simon Peter

2.    Andrew, Peter’s brother

3.    James, son of Zebedee

4.    John, James’ brother

5.    Philip

6.    Bartholemew

7.    Matthew

8.    Thomas

9.    James, son of Alpheus

10.Simon the Zealot

11.Judas, brother of James

 

January 6, Epiphany – Twelve Drummers Drumming

 

The 12 points of the Apostle’s Creed

 

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.

6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

9. The Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,

10. The forgiveness of sins,

11. The resurrection of the body,

12. And life everlasting.

Amen.

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 25

Five pointed star

Matthew 2:1‑12; Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16

Today is Christmas Day, the day of Christ’s birth, the advent of the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel, and the Savior of the World.  All that we have learned in the past 24 days has pointed to this day, one of the two most wonderful in the year. 

The symbol for today, the five pointed star, reminds us of the last part of the Christmas story, the star that guided the Magi, who came sometime in the first 12-18 months of Jesus’ life.  Mary and Joseph were directed by God through an edict of Caesar Augustus to Bethlehem, 80 miles to the south. They had little choice to go.  The shepherds were called by the glorious sight of angels in the heavens to go to Bethlehem, a few miles away. They had great incentive to go.  But the Wise Men, nobles in the Parthian empire, were neither forced by Caesar nor enticed by glorious angels.  They traveled the 700 miles because they saw the star, and were looking for a king.     

Many have tried to identify Christ’s star, and there are some fascinating astronomical events that occurred around the time when Jesus was born.  A conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7-6 BC (occurring only once every 805 years).  Chinese and Korean records identify a nova or supernova in 5 BC and a comet in 4 BC, respectively.  Other rare astronomical findings occurred around the same time, making those few years a period of unusually great activity in the heavens.

The Magi were part of a hereditary priesthood, probably of Scythian origin and often holding great political power, first identified in the 7th century BC.  Over time, the religion of the Magi was incorporated into Zoroastrianism, and came to closely resemble Judaism.  The first Biblical mention of the Magi is in Babylon (Jer 39:3, 13), when Nergal Shar’etser is mentioned as a high official in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar.   During his reign, he made Daniel chief of the Magi (Dan 4:9).  In the ensuing centuries, the political fortunes of the Persians and the Jews were tightly linked as well, fighting against the Macedonians, Seleucids, and Romans.  When the Magi, de facto king-makers in the Parthian empire, visited Jerusalem looking for a Jewish king, Herod’s fear was completely understandable, though his action was evil.  One wonders why the Magi didn’t take the Holy Family back with them to Babylon to wait for Jesus to grow up and then make Him king.  Perhaps they tried.

God used the Magi, the Wise Men, for His holy purpose.  Probably their discovery made a difference in Parthian politics, and their example has attested to the truth of Christ throughout his ministry.  Certainly they gave concrete proof to Joseph and Mary about their unusual child, and they financed their sojourn in Egypt.  Today the five pointed star, the Star of Epiphany, is used to symbolize the Magi’s role in Christmas.  It is placed on the top of the tree and represents the manifested nature of God. The five points symbolize the head, two arms and two legs of a man.

God used the “star” and the Wise Men to accomplish His perfect purpose.  With our lives centered around Him as a planet orbits the sun, so we will accomplish His perfect purpose in our days. 

As these Christmas celebrations draw to a close, let us review each of them, remember their meanings, and consider their impact on our lives.  By so doing, we can heighten our awareness of God and His great work. Until next year!

Silent Night, Holy Night

 

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Savior is born
Christ, the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Silent night, holy night,
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing
Alleluia to our King;
Christ, the Savior is born,
Christ, the Savior is born.

 

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht

 

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!