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.

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!

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 24

Manger

Luke 2:1‑20

The Greek word (φάτνη phatnē), derived from the verb, pateomai (“to eat”) is usually translated “manger” in the New Testament. A manger is a feeding trough for animals, and in ancient Israel near Bethlehem it was probably an area cut out of the rock wall of a cave used to keep sheep.

How was Jesus’ birth? On that amazing day, Joseph and Mary, finding no room for themselves and their unborn child in an inn, were forced to take refuge in a cold, damp cave used as shelter for animals. Mary would have looked for the most comfortable place and, since animals were there, brushed away the manure. As a poor girl from Nazareth, she was used to the smell. Mary probably had no bed or birthing stool, so she would have laid back or squatted down in whatever hay was available and in the clothes she was wearing.

Did the innkeeper’s wife and her friends help the young mother deliver? Did Mary have an experienced midwife to coach and encourage her? Were fears a constant companion, at least before the pain became so bad that she could think of little else? Did she regret that she could not be at home with her mother, family and friends? The angel had promised that she would deliver a son, but he did not promise that she would be physically healthy afterwards.

If Joseph was alone, would he know how to deliver the baby? Childbirth was not a man’s business in Ancient Judea. Would he be able to care for the child once it was born? Did fears and doubts nearly overwhelm him, for knowing that many women died in or shortly after childbirth? How could Mary help him? Mary had seen other women have babies and helped a few, so she knew what to expect, but Joseph probably had no idea. If Mary was alone except for Joseph, she would have tried to talk him through it. Did the shadowy cave, probably illuminated by a single torch, add to his fear?

After Jesus was born, the attendant laid him on Mary’s breast, where he began to nurse. There may not have been salt to rub him down or water to drink and clean. Mary lay back to rest. Joseph, trembling with fear and excitement, watched carefully over them until he too collapsed into sleep, praising God for His goodness, yet exhausted from the night.

How can infinite glory, sublime beauty, and awesome power give way to sickly poverty, flawed appearance, and pitiful weakness? It is impossible to fully understand the glory of God in heaven, and equally impossible to understand how low Christ had to stoop when he came to earth.

As we read again the time-honored story of our Savior’s birth, listen to the words, and dive deeply into each part. What part of the story speaks loudest to you? Is it the actual birth, the shepherds, the angels, Mary or Joseph? What do you treasure and ponder in your heart concerning this story and its meaning for your life? Each time you hear the Christmas story you learn and marvel at the love of God for us. Let the words sink deep within you and praise the Lord for His matchless gift, Jesus the Christ. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Away in a Manger

Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay

 

The cattle are lowing
The Baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
‘Til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And fit us for heaven
To live with Thee there

 

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 23

Cross

John 1

December 23 – Cross

John 1

Crucifixion, a method of execution and torture invented in the 6th century BC, was practiced for the next 700 years by the Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Carthaginians, and Romans. First, soldiers scourged the victim until he was weak and bloody. Many victims died. Then, executioners fixed a cross beam to a tall post, attached the condemned man to it with ropes or nails, raised the cross, and anchored it in the ground.   Over the following hours to days hanging on the cross, gravity impaired blood flow to the brain and heart, breathing was nearly impossible, and birds and insects ate the torn flesh of the defenseless man. Soldiers were not allowed to leave and so they often broke the lower legs of the victim, making it impossible to support the body with the legs. Breathing became impossible and death followed in minutes.   Crucifixions, known in ancient times as the most horrid of all executions, were done in public, well-traveled places.   The body was left on the cross to be consumed by wildlife and to rot, further dishonoring the deceased and warning others against following the same path.

Jesus Christ was the Son of God and God the Son, Savior of the world. He is the one whose birth we celebrate in two days, and He was crucified. Unlike most victims of crucifixion, Jesus’ body was taken off the cross and he was buried in a borrowed tomb. He died as a sacrifice, taking the sins of His chosen ones on Himself and paying the ultimate price, in the most heinous way possible, so that we might live, now and forever, in fellowship with Him. Christmas has no meaning without Jesus’ death.

But His death was not the end of the story. Jesus Christ, the Sinless One, could not be held in the grave. Almighty God transformed Jesus’ body into a glorified, living one and Jesus left the grave, in absolute victory over sin and death. Because Jesus died and rose again, those who know him can be certain that we will do the same. After showing Himself to many people and offering many proofs of His resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us (Acts 1, John 14).

The empty cross, generally favored by Protestants, signifies the risen Lord. Worship, acknowledging and celebrating the ultimate worth and glory of God and the profound mystery of His work, is the only reasonable, and acceptable, response.   How do we worship the Lord? We trust Him to care for us, we obey Him in every way on every day, and we enjoy Him in everything He is. This manifests itself by prayer and Bible study, by working hard in our jobs, our schools, our churches, and our families, by trusting Him to work ultimate good in everything we do, by finding joy and purpose in our activities, and by enjoying rest, food, recreation, and the other wonderful gifts He has provided.

Although today’s cross is the simplest form, many of the other symbols which use the cross combine this form. The cross with Jesus’ body hanging from it, the crucifix, used in Catholic churches, reminds us of Jesus’ death. When the cross stands on three steps, it represents faith hope and love. When it is combined with a crown, it shows the victory we have over death, and when it is shown with the circle, it represents eternity. Each of these symbols represents a segment of our belief and our heritage as Christians. We have so much to be thankful for, how can we fail to worship Him each day?

 

 

 

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 22

Shell

Genesis 1; Job 38-39; Jonah 1

Life on earth would not exist without seas.  Seas modulate temperatures on the earth’s surface, provide water, supply food, and function in a million different ways to make our earth what it is.  The sea is also a source of amazing power.  According to the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, a fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20×1013 watts. The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. According to the 1993 World Almanac, the entire human race used energy at a rate of 1013 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% of the power of a hurricane.  The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 killed over 200,000 people, more than the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  80% of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of the sea. 

Shells are common symbols of the sea, and scallop shells, familiar worldwide and for all of recorded history, are commonly used as representative of all shells. 

For all of the breathtaking power of the sea, the power of God is far more.  He made the seas, the land, the sun, and even the universe.  He controls everything in His perfect sovereignty.  Scripture tells us that God set the limits of the sea, that He is the great Creator, and that He commands the sea and the creatures therein to do His will.  Jesus, God the Son, calmed a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee with just His word. 

Mankind prates about our seemingly amazing power.  Armies wreak havoc across the globe, scientific advances come at dizzying speeds, and medicine tempts with the promise of enormous life spans.   Nuclear energy, the same energy that runs the stars, seems the most promising, and the most terrifying, force in the universe.   Man stands at the summit of learning gained over more than 6000 years of human history and proudly proclaims the death of god and the supremacy of humankind in the universe. 

How quickly we forget that God made these things, and gave us the knowledge to use them for our needs and pleasures.  He can continue to bless us, or He can withhold His blessing, but what He does will be influenced by our pride, which He hates, or our humility, which He loves.  Our evil deeds will condemn us, but our good works, rooted in knowledge and the love of Jesus, will be richly rewarded.

Even as seashells remind us powerfully of the sea, let the sea remind us of the amazing power and love of the Lord.  The sea’s bounty provides water, food, oxygen, work, recreation, and many other needs and wants of life, and the sea’s anger can result in terrifying carnage and destruction.  God is infinitely more powerful, and He is always good. 

 

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind.
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill all the world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.

 

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 21

Butterfly 

I Corinthians 15 

Butterflies, among the most beautiful of insects, are found almost everywhere on earth.  Since they fly during the day, are so plentiful and so approachable, mankind has long known about their intriguing lives.  Thus butterflies provide a wonderful example of the transition to eternal life for those who believe in Jesus.    

Beginning as an egg, the caterpillar stage, which signifies the mortal life of man, is slow, bulky, and unattractive.  Vulnerable to birds and other predators, caterpillars poignantly remind us of our weaknesses and limitations in this earthly frame.   As the caterpillar becomes a chrysalis or pupa, which gives the appearance of no life, we see an illustration of death, with the cocoon serving to remind of the grave lying just ahead of each of us.  But what looks dead to us is alive to our Lord. Almost imperceptibly the cocoon weakens and then suddenly bursts. The butterfly soars forth in the sky with a new body and beautiful wings. So our human body after death is committed to the earth, and our spirit emerges into life everlasting. Eventually our bodies, too, are raised in eternal glory.  Thus the butterfly is the special symbol of the resurrection.

In many ways, these stages symbolize life on earth as well.  From the ugliness of lives enslaved to sin to the exquisite beauty of the butterfly, we too change as we accept new life in Christ.

The most awesome fact in history is that a man, Jesus Christ, rose from the dead.  The Bible, extrabiblical writings, archaeology, and many other sources support beyond reasonable doubt the genuine life, unquestionable death, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.   As Paul tells us in Corinthians, the greatest promise in all the ages is that since Jesus Christ rose from the dead, since He escaped the final power of the grave, so we who love Him will do the same.  Can there be any better news than this?

Christmas has no meaning without the rest of the story, that God became man on earth, lived a sinless life of service, was killed by His enemies, and rose again in a glorified body to eternal life.  This fact changed His disciples from cowering after the Crucifixion to towering after the Resurrection.  All other facts, accomplishments, and glories of the earth become very small in light of this amazing story. 

In some parts of the world we can see butterflies at Christmas, and in others we cannot.  Either way, let us remember how this simple creature so demonstrates our lives in many different ways.  And let us also remember that Christmas is the time to understand how this blessed holiday fits into the overall scheme of God’s redemption. 

Joy to the World

 

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,
And Heav’n and nature sing,
And Heav’n and nature sing,
And Heav’n, and Heav’n, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 20

Triquetra

I Peter 1:2

The Triquetra is a design consisting of three equal arcs, and has a long history of use in religious rituals.  It has been found on rune stones in Northern Europe and on early Germanic coins, and resembles the three equal and interlocking triangles of the Valknut (Knot of the Slain Warriors) associated with the God Odin of Old Norse mythology.  The Triquetra was used in Celtic art, and is associated with the modern Neopagan movement including the Wiccan “Book of Shadows”.

Symbols have great power to communicate, and groups from time immemorial have used one another’s symbols to share their messages with themselves and others.  The Swastika, for example, is Sanskrit, used by Hindus and Buddhists in religious ceremonies for thousands of years before being appropriated by the Nazis before World War 2.  As we have seen so many times in these Christmas devotions, Christians have also taken symbols and changed their meaning to communicate the awesome power and love of God.   The Triquetra is another example of this practice.

The Triquetra is considered to be one of the most beautiful and satisfying of the symbols of the Trinity because of its intricacy. The three equal arcs of the circle denote equality of the three Persons of the Godhead. The lines run continuously and therefore express their eternal existence. They are interwoven which expresses their unity. The center forms an equilateral triangle, which is itself a symbol of the Trinity. Each pair of arcs combines to form a “vesica pices” or fish bladder which is taken to be indicative of glory in many traditions. The Carolingian Cross is a cross made of four Triquetras.  So in the Triquetra there is the complex expression of equality, eternity, unity and glory in this essentially simple form.

We have looked at many symbols related to the Triune God this Christmas season because understanding His nature is so important as we live our lives.  God is our Father, our Friend, our Comforter, our Healer, our Creator, our Sustainer, our Judge, our Advocate, our Teacher, our Provider, and everything else we need, both now and in eternity.  The three persons of the Trinity help us understand and communicate how God truly is everything to us.

During the Advent season, we seem to think that we need so many things, presents, decorations, and treats, in addition to our normal needs, to be truly happy.  We must remember, and help each other remember, that if we have a relationship with our Lord, we have everything already.

Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 19

Heart

Deuteronomy 6:5; 1 Samuel 16:7; 2 Chronicles 12:14; Psalm 9:1; 51:10; Proverbs 16:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 5:8; Hebrews 3:15

The Hebrew word for heart (לב leb) is used 593 times in the Hebrew Old Testament.  It is a masculine noun which can mean “the center of a thing” (i.e. the heart of the earth) or the physical blood pumping organ.  Most often, however, it refers to the inner nature of a person, including his thoughts, fears, and innermost feelings.  “Leb” also refers to the place where a man’s wisdom and understanding reside, and to the seat of the will.  “Hardening one’s heart” is willful disobedience to the command of God.  The Greek word (καρδία kardia) is found 160 times and has similar meanings in the New Testament.

In our Scripture readings today, we discover that we are to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, that God searches our hearts, that the heart controls the will, that we should thank the Lord with our hearts, and that we need the Lord to create in us a clean heart. We also learn that the heart can speak out wisdom, the heart is desperately wicked, we should be pure in heart, and we should not harden our hearts against God.     

Popular culture tells us that we have no control over the “affairs of the heart”.  We “fall in love”, completely beyond our ability to resist.  We tell our adolescent children that since they are unable to resist the temptation to sexual sin, they should use “protection”.  We tolerate theft, greed, murder, sexual impropriety, gluttony, and all other types of sin because “he was desperate”, “that’s just the way he is”, “she was mentally ill”, “he had a bad environment”, or “the system drove her to it”.   We refuse to acknowledge that medical diagnoses can have moral components…and causes.  Rejecting the truth that a holy God has absolute power and authority and will judge our thoughts, words and deeds, punishing us for our disobedience, we struggle to explain the world in ways that will let us behave the way we want.

Mankind has no more power to forestall the judgment of God than we do to change the rotation of the planets.  He is sovereign, and our efforts to break His laws only result in us breaking ourselves and those around us.

Jesus, fully God and fully man, understands our nature, our weakness, and our sin.  He died and rose again so that by following Him, we can be free from the tyranny of wickedness that defines us.  He will surely judge, and those who do not accept His love will bear the full responsibility for their sin.  But in His grace, God has given us a way out.  He will create in us a clean heart.  He will search out our hearts and root out the evil within them.  He will bring those who love Him to eternal life.  This Christmas season, let us remember to control our hearts, and to worship and enjoy Him who will finally make them clean.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

 

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heav’ns all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing. 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long,
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

All ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.