Some foreign dignitaries with a completely different religion recognized Christ and brought a gift. Herod did not. Instead he plotted to kill the Christ child. What gift do we bring (Matthew 2:1-12)? The powerful often do not seek to give others recognition but to remain in power. It’s something that we see in our western democracies and is the same story no matter the form of government down through history. The story of the wandering astrologers, the Magi tells us that things are about to change. Non-Jews would soon be embraced by God. Herod did not offer a gift. He feared change, feared that his position may be about to be taken away. When we hear of a change in God’s way of doing things, we can choose to fear and threaten or bring a gift to the Messiah.
How can we bring people of different religions to Christ? Over the years I’ve seen many different approaches all the way from outright insults to arguments showing them the “error of their ways” and numerous more tactful approaches. How about letting God bring them to Christ? That’s what happened to the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). How God did it is also interesting. Magi were astrologers among other things. How would God bring an astrologer to Christ? God has used many ways to reveal himself to people. In this case he used their own religion and revealed his purpose in a manner that they would understand, a star. There is nothing to be found of Old Testament language of condemnation for these pagans, but rather a gentle leading to the place of Christ’s birth even using elements of their own faith.
The western tradition of three magi comes from the number of gifts that they gave. Eastern traditions suggests that there may have been twelve. While they were certainly high officials, it is a myth that they were kings. That idea possibly arose around the 8th century in trying to retrofit Psalm 72:11 which was not meant to be quite that time-specific in nature. The names Melchior (a Persian scholar or king), Caspar (an Indian) and Balthazar (an Arabian) are also probably also fictitious embellishments because they came from one country (Matthew 2:1-12). The Christmas Nativity Scene is often but not always a montage of two events, Jesus born in a stable and the magi visiting him later in a house. What is significant is that among the first to recognize Jesus as ruler of Israel were foreigners.
How does Israel’s Babylonian Captivity tie in with Christmas? What if our country was conquered by a foreign nation and large numbers of our population were exiled, taken captive for about 60 years? We have never experienced that, but historically native Americans and African Americans have. English history in Australia and the U.S. State of Georgia was begun by exiling prisoners to form a population base. During Israel’s captivity the current Babylonian Hebrew alphabet began. Jeremiah, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Daniel and several deuterocanonical books recorded it. Many Jews never returned home. It was probably also their first major contact with the Magi, who were the sacred class in ancient Babylon. Their knowledge was a mixture of astrological superstition, semi-scientific alchemy, magic and early Zoroastrianism. It was descendants of this group who honored Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:1-12).
Ever since we were children we have heard of the visit of the Magi after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1-12). Who were they? The Greek term is magoi. Friberg  defines this as wise men of the Magian religion, magicians or sorcerers. Louw and Nida prefer “men of wisdom who studied the stars.”  An ancient historian, Herodotus of Halicarnassus  called them interpreters of omens and dreams  who perhaps still sacrificed to Persian gods. They were possibly baptized into the church many years later by the apostle Thomas while on his way to plant churches in India . Why did pagans show more belief than followers of God? Herod had access through the Jews who had even easier access, but most of them chose not to be interested. What is our reaction to the birth of Jesus?
 Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Baker's Greek New Testament Library. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000. BibleWorks, v.3
 Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1989, United Bible Societies
Jews were deported from their own land into Babylonian captivity during the 500’s BC. At that time the chief of the magi was Nergal-Sharezer. They were the wise men of Babylon, priests, physicians, alchemists and astrologers. Their influence was widespread throughout much of the middle east. They most likely came into contact with teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures during the Jewish Babylonian captivity and mixed them into their own religion. Many Jews did not return from exile in Babylon and may have had further influence on the religion of the magi. The particular magi who came to visit the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12) could have come from virtually anywhere east of Jerusalem such as Persia, Babylon, Arabia, or India. It was 500 years later, a long time. National tragedy can be used by God to bring people to Jesus.
When the wise men from Babylon or Persia inquired about Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12) they had no idea of the politics involved. They only wanted to worship the Messiah and seem to have naively believed that others would too. However, there were a lot of power plays threatened by this news. Israel was ruled by a brutal foreign king, Herod, who was a client of the Roman Emperor. Herod was vulnerable. He had encountered trouble with Rome and Jewish zealots before and had brutally murdered many other potential rivals. Jewish leaders had made an uneasy peace with the devil by cooperating with Rome and its puppet king Herod. They had profited by this compromise and zealots rising up to free Judea were a threat to their arrangement. The kingdom of heaven and its Messiah were a political threat all around.
When the Magi inquired about Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12 they said that they had come to worship him. This upset Herod who plotted to kill Jesus. These wise men of the east did not come merely to honor Jesus, but to worship him. When Jesus was tempted by Satan he was told to bow down and worship the devil. But Jesus replied that worship is something reserved only for God (Matthew 4:10), and he told the devil to leave. In Greek, the same wording is used for when a leper, a synagogue leader, the disciples, a gentile woman and Zebedee’s wife also worshiped Jesus (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17). Although it is popular for people to think of Jesus as merely a good man, he was God with us.
In Matthew 2:1-12 we are introduced to Herod. The name applied to a dynasty of foreign Edomite (i. e. Idumean) kings. As clients of Rome their rule included Galilee and Judea during the time of Christ. They were known for military expertise, cruelty and being lovers of luxury. As subcontractors to the Roman Emperor, they enforced Roman rule, took taxes in the form of money, food and merchandise, and kept order. While taking taxes for Rome, they were also free to take for themselves. The excessive tax burdens led to unbearable poverty which, along with the imposition of emperor worship, led to frequent revolts by zealots. It was a precarious position with threats all around. So, the kingdom of God, while not of this world, was understood as a political force by the disciples, Jewish leaders and the Romans.
The gifts given to Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12 were gold, frankincense and myrrh. The number of the wise men is taken from the three gifts, but they could have been as many as twelve people according to eastern tradition. Gold was a gift for royalty. Frankincense and myrrh are aromatic herbs with healing properties . Frankincense comes from the sap of Boswellia trees and used for incense, perfume and anointing oil (Exodus 30:32-34). As a gift it possibly symbolized Jesus' high priestly office. Myrrh comes from the sap of Commiphora trees, is bitter and another ingredient of anointing oil. As a preservative is was used to anoint the dead and thus foretold Jesus’ death on the cross. The gifts may have been seen as prophetic and symbolic of Christ as king, high priest and suffering savior.
As we examine the story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12), let us ask ourselves what gifts we bring to the Christ. The Magi did not bring money, though that would have been a very useful gift for Jesus’ parents, but we do have other things that we can offer. One of the greatest gifts that we can bring to Jesus is our attendance in his presence every chance we get. We call this discipleship. As we listen to what he has to teach, we offer a gift by putting it into practice. He calls that being doers and not just hearers of the word. That means that we show love to God and neighbor, that we show compassion to others, that we forgive as he forgave, that we practice the way of self-sacrifice offering our whole selves to him.
Of about a million Jews living in Babylonian captivity only about 42,000 returned to Jerusalem. The rest remained in the Persian Empire. Unlike their relatives who had returned they had peace and protection for a thousand years. Over the next 1500 year history of the diaspora in Babylon, the head of the Jewish community was always a descendant of king David and had noble status in community life. Here the current Hebrew script was invented and the Babylonian Talmud was written. As Jews intermingled with Babylonian society and some possibly even intermarried, the Hebrew Scriptures would have eventually influenced local religions. Median Priests, the Magi, had great prestige in Babylon. Their political power included approving who would be king and they appointed judges. They believed in one god and were influenced by ideas of a Messiah (Matthew 2:1-12).
Can we have eyes to see the things of God like Simeon (Luke 2:22-40)? There is something that we can do and something that only God can do. Hebrews 11:1 helps us understand that faith sees things that the eyes do not. But, all good gifts come from God. Can we do something that helps us build faith or do we just wait passively on him? Romans 10:17 seems to indicate that there is something that we can do, listen to the words of Christ. Listening is not reading. Attending a church where especially the words of Christ are preached each week is an important way to allow God to build faith in us. The second part of our question is that none of us can see anything unless God chooses to open our eyes to see.
When Simeon saw Jesus he took him in his arms and praised God for a personal revelation that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (Luke 2:22-40). He also said that many would speak against Jesus so that their hearts would be revealed. Do we realize how our hearts are revealed in conversation? When we judge and criticize others, are we not judging and criticizing the One who forgave them all their sins? Simeon blessed Jesus’ parents and told Mary that a sword would pierce her soul. Does a sword pierce our souls every time Jesus’ name is cursed or he is belittled in the media? We are not told how the Holy Spirit revealed these things to Simeon, nor how he recognized salvation in a small baby, only that he was moved by the Spirit.
How did Simeon see God’s salvation (Luke 2:22-40)? It seems that what he saw with his eyes was a poor family that had just journeyed the 60 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. A popular saying is: seeing is believing, but that is not faith. Faith is the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). In faith, Simeon could see beyond the obvious. In what seemed like a daily scene at the temple, he saw God’s salvation. Those closest to Jesus could not yet see when, at age twelve, he went missing. When his parents finally saw him, they did not yet understand that he would have been in his Father’s house (Luke 2:48-49). Sometimes in churches those closest to the leaders do not see what others do, God’s salvation at work, seeing the sacred in ordinary people.
What is on your bucket list of things to do before you die? For Simeon it was to see the consolation of Israel, the Messiah. In his own words, he had seen God’s salvation (Luke 2:22-40). We say not to sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff. There is only one thing that is big in life, to see the salvation of the Lord. Everything else is small stuff, insignificant by comparison. If we see the salvation of the Lord in our lives, then even our worst fears like cancer or being killed in a terrorist attack are not so bad. Jesus said not to be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Cancer or terrorism cannot kill the soul. Have we yet seen that most important thing in life, salvation?
In Luke 2:22-40 we learn that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day. Thirty three days later his mother observed the purification rites (Leviticus 12:2-8). The family’s offering was doves or pigeons without a lamb because Jesus’ parents were poor. The consecration or dedication of a firstborn to God was replaced by the tribe of Levi serving as the ministers. However, the firstborn were to be redeemed by each family through an offering. There are three infant ceremonies in modern churches: 1) dedication is a historically recent idea modeled on the dedication of the firstborn in the Old Testament, 2) the blessing of a little child is modeled after Jesus’ blessing of the little children, and 3) infant baptism which among other things asks that the Holy Spirit be the major influence in the rearing of a child.
What does it mean that Mary found favor with the Lord (Luke 1:30)? It was an unexpected grace from God. The word “Rejoice!” translated here as “Greetings!” was used in the prophets to the daughters of Zion. Mary represents of all the daughters of Zion. Then we have the greeting we know from our liturgy, the Lord is with you. It had a double meaning. Mary was troubled by this greeting. Like Peter recognized after the catch of fish that he was a sinner and told Jesus to go away (Luke 5:8), so too Mary recognized that she was a sinner and was afraid in the presence of a holy angel from God. The angel gave her the equivalent of an absolution from her sins telling her not to fear and that she had found favor with God.
Zechariah may have been a high priest but Gabriel said that he lacked faith, doubting the angel’s message. So, he was struck speechless until his son, John the Baptist was born. Gabriel also foretold Christ’s birth to Mary and she said, let it be according to your word. She was an ordinary peasant girl, but she believed and was blessed. This contrast of faith between those exalted in this world and those of humble backgrounds is a backdrop to the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Faith (Luke 1:39-56). Mary sang that God is mindful of humble people. She sounded out, my soul magnifies God who favors those who honor him. She caroled that God scatters the proud and brings down rulers, but he exalts the humble. Mary sang that God fills the hungry but sends the rich away empty.
Speaking in an unknown language is not necessarily the “initial evidence” of being filled with the spirit. Elizabeth’s experience contradicts that theory. She was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in a known language (Luke 1:39-56). She said what is now a famous expression repeated often as a prayer: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Others were spirit filled and evidenced craftsmanship (Exodus 31:3; 35:31), movement in a mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), prophecy (Luke 1:67-68), being led into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), known tongues (Acts 2:4), wisdom (Acts 6:3-5), saw visions (Acts 7:55), healing (Acts 9:17-20), missionary feats (Acts 11:24), insight (Acts 13:9-10) and joy (Acts 13:52). Tongues experiences exist but are not always evidence of being spirit-filled.
Modern interpreters love to spread doubt, such as claiming that the Magnificat was not written by Mary. Mary’s song could have easily been written down while she spent three months at Elizabeth’s home during her pregnancy. The introduction clearly states, “And Mary said” (Luke 1:39-56) and is supported by many scholars. It is a song of outrageous faith that dares to believe that the poor will be saved, even though they continue to be trodden down, even in our day. It is a message of hope in present and continuing oppression by the powerful. It dares to claim that the rich are in reality empty and that the humble are filled with good things. The birth of the Savior of the world in a stable to poor peasants is a continual reminder of God turning things upside down.
 Henry, Hugh. "Magnificat." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 22 Dec. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09534a.htm>.
We marvel that God chose a virgin (Luke 1:26-38) that she gave birth in a stable. We may have selected a palace. Our priorities are all wrong. We believe that home-ownership is so important. King David was a nomad, but later had a palace and a house. He wanted to build God a house (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16). God does not need one. God promised to build David a different kind of house, a dynasty which would last forever. Jesus is David’s descendant, a king whose kingdom will last forever. We are just nomads passing through. Our homes change hands. Even our bodies are only temporary homes. We await a permanent spiritual body from heaven. Buying land and owning a house is not really the most important thing in life. Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is.
Imagine being a young teenage girl, twelve or thirteen years old, engaged to be married in a year. An angel appears to you in your bedroom in your parents’ home. You are initially frightened. The angel tells you not to be afraid. He tells you that you are highly favored and will bear the Savior of the world while a virgin (Luke 1:26-38). You are young and inexperienced in life. You are unsure of yourself. You are unsure if your betrothed will still want to marry you. You are unsure if people in your village will reject you or stone you. You are unsure what your own parents will say, but you have that innocent faith that young people often exhibit, who have not yet faced life’s faith-destroying trials and disappointments. She says, let it be as you said.
Elizabeth called Mary the mother of our Lord (Luke 1:43). Jesus is God the Son and it was natural to call her the mother of God. However, some went further than that and elevated Mary to virtual God by claiming that she remained a perpetual virgin and never sinned, yet if Mary never sinned, why did she need to sing of her need for a Savior (vs. 47)? So, the Church has struggled with Mary. Catholics have tended to idolize her and Protestant have overreacted and ignored her. Luke 1:26-38 helps us find the balance, correcting both Catholics and Protestants. In a manner similar to the original creation story (Genesis 1:1-2), the Holy Spirit would come over Mary and the Son of God would be in her and her faith would be an example to us all.
Luke records two conversations with Gabriel the archangel, one with Zechariah the father of John the Baptist and one with Mary the mother of Jesus. Zachariah and Elizabeth were praying a long time for a child, but when Gabriel announced the answer to their prayers Zachariah did not believe. And so he was mute because of his unbelief until John was born. In Mary’s conversation with Gabriel she also had questions but responded by saying that she is the servant of God and to let it be according to His will. Like the Old Covenant old and expiring, Elizabeth bore John in her old age. Like the New Covenant, Mary was in her youth. Like ancient Israel under the Old Covenant, Zachariah approached the situation in disbelief. Like the New Covenant, Mary approached the situation in faith (Luke 1:38).
Mary chose faith (Luke 1:26-38) but she had another choice. She could have chosen unbelief. She could have chosen, as the Israelites did, to complain. We too have the same choices in front of us. Faith or unbelief. Complaining is one of the evidences of a lack of faith. When we complain we are looking to circumstances around us instead of God. We are looking to the visible instead of the invisible. We are really a mixture of both. Instead of letting God be in control, we want to take control. We want to hurry God and try to manipulate circumstances instead of waiting on his mighty hand. We want to call God a liar instead of waiting on him to save us in his good time. Do we complain or simply accept God at his word like Mary?
How great an example of faith can a woman be? How great an example of faith can a teenager be? Imagine how the angel’s news (Luke 1:26-38) would have seemed to Mary. Here she was a virgin in her early teens. To be an unwed mother during her engagement period would have been a great scandal. What would her parents think? What would her groom think? What would the neighborhood gossip be? Would she be stoned as a sinner? Would her child forever be called a bastard? Yet, the angel reassured her that she had found favor with God. Would she believe the promises that her son would be great and his kingdom would never end? The faith of this young teenage girl is an example for all women and men as we wait for the Lord’s Coming.
Some Christians make a big deal over the Greek word rhema. Some even go so far as to say that a rhema (supposedly a spoken word) is for today and that the logos (supposedly the written word) is for yesterday. This leads some to put more faith in a so-called “word of knowledge” than the Bible. The whole idea is a word of ignorance and not knowledge at all because the words rhema and logos are often used interchangeably. One such instance is in Luke 1:29, 38 where Mary was troubled at the spoken word (logos) of an angel and then after the angel finished, she expressed her faith in his spoken word (rhema). Ignorance aside, Mary has become for us the model of someone who waits for the advent of our Lord, not in fear but in faith.
Mary was a virgin (Luke 1:26-38), engaged to Joseph. It is strange to our culture that girls were betrothed at age twelve to fourteen* and would have married about a year later. But, is our society really superior? Young males produce the most testosterone around 18. Young females reach sexual peak a few years later. Do we expect them to wait and be abstinent during their peak sexual years until they finish their education, their career is developed and they can prepare for marriage? It is a very difficult request and most young people in our culture are not able to comply. At the same time our businesses and media profit by placing sexual temptation before the young. Our culture leads the young into unwed sex and all the problems associated with that. How dare we judge their culture?
*Philip King and Lawrence Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2001), p. 37.
What is the number one job of a minister of Jesus Christ? Is it to point people towards a big television ministry, a large church, to seek a popular following, gain political clout in a large denomination, be given an important title, chase educational pedigree or something else? A person can have all of those wonderful things as good as they may be, yet still not be doing the most important job of a minister of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist did not have the advantage of any of those great and lofty things, yet he did the right job and even though his ministry was a lonely wilderness outpost, Jesus called him the greatest of all. He fulfilled the most important job of any preacher. He humbly pointed people away from himself and towards Jesus Christ (John 1:19-28).
What is witnessing? Some people seem to think that it means we make statements like we are saved and ask others if they have been born again. John 1:6-7 says that John the Baptist was a witness, yet he did not use any such language. He was sent (apostled) from God as a witness. John’s witness consisted of statements that he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet. He said his job was to be a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. When we ask what witnessing is, the first place we should look is the Bible, not a tract. Many of our ways of doing things have been invented by faulty human beings. We should constantly reevaluate the way we do things and realign them with the inspired Word of God.
In the early church, before the books of the New Testament became official as one work, some churches did not have all the Gospels. And so a controversy arose as to whether or not Jesus was God or a created being. It is known as Arianism and a form of it is still believed today by some groups, most notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Athanasius of Alexandria in Egypt used John 1:1-18 to counter this wrong idea. Not having all the New Testament meant parts of the puzzle were omitted. It is simple enough to see in the very first verse of John that the word (Logos in Greek) was God. It is also simple enough to see that through the Word (Jesus) all things were made. Without him nothing was made. He was not created, but created all things.
John (1:11-12) wrote that some receive the Word of God, Jesus. How do we receive a word? Is it not first by listening? Faith comes from hearing the word (Romans 10:14-17). Even when reading the Bible for personal reasons, an ancient practice was to read aloud, because then it was also heard. Public reading of the Bible in the congregation, making it clear and giving the meaning is also an ancient practice (Nehemiah 8:7-9). When preachers avoid the Bible, especially the words of Jesus, the sheep are not listening to “the Word.” Why do we say we believe in Jesus if we don’t listen to him? Why do we go to a church where Jesus may be quoted in the Gospel text for the day every Sunday, then ignore him in our politics, business practices and marriages?
What is the earliest origin of any celebration of Christ’s birth? Is it in European traditions of evergreens and yule logs, the story of Nicholas of Myra, or ancient pagans observing the winter solstice? John 1:1-18 tells a story worth celebrating that is older than time itself. Before our world began, the Word was with God and that Word was later incarnated, became flesh, and lived among us. Who cares what pagans did 3,000 years ago, how commercialism has twisted the story of a kindly man from Turkey, or even what Europeans did with trees! There is a celebration worth remembering any day of the year, the most important birth in all human history. Let’s forget the darkness of a world that rejects the light. There is a light shining in the darkness which the darkness cannot extinguish.
Change is scary for people. We tend to demonize those who change things. Even in the church when the bishop announces the need for change some suspect him of a hidden agenda. Changes made by mere human beings can be scary because we tend not to trust them. Even if it is God making the changes, we still tend to be wary. In John 1:6-28 we read of John announcing an upcoming change in the way things were done. However, he announced that the agent of change would be none other than the Light. When asked if he was the Messiah, or Elijah or that prophet, he stated clearly that he was not. He said simply that his purpose was to be a voice admonishing people to make the way straight for the one who would institute change.
What happens if we refuse to change? Remember the vacuum tube? The electronics revolution of the 20th century possibly began with the vacuum tube. The first general-purpose computer, the "Eniac" was built in 1946 with 17,000 vacuum tubes. It took 1800 square feet of floor space and consumed 150 kW of power. Although there is still a niche market for vacuum tubes, the industry has largely died. You can still buy them from a small company in Memphis, but they no longer dominate the market and companies that refused to change died. How dangerous is refusing to change? In John 1:6-28 John prepared the way for massive changes in God’s covenant relationship with humanity. Throughout church history change has always been difficult. The Gospel does not change, but the culture does and churches must adapt or die.
Two opposing points of view are a dialectic. The two can coexist peacefully or not. We may not be comfortable in making peace with those who hold a different point of view. We can live in peace and seek common ground. Perhaps one view is wrong, both are wrong, or both have certain elements of truth and some kind of synthesis is possible. The new covenant replacing the old brought all of the above. John announced messianic changes (John 1:19-28). Conflict came immediately from those in opposition or antithesis to Jesus. Eventually a synthesis of the old and new was possible. Circumcised Jew and uncircumcised Greek worshiped together. The law was not discarded but fulfilled in the new law of love for God and neighbor. Those entrenched in the old system found change difficult, while others readily moved forward.
John came to point people to the Light (John 1:6-28). He was not the Light but a witness of the Light. Imagine people living in almost total darkness, who have never seen light believing that they live in the light. Those who live in the true light can see the difference, but those who have never seen it are fooled by their lack of experience into believing they have the best of everything. So it is with this world. Let us not be fooled by the politics, the advertising, the fashions and the deceit of this world into trading in the Light of Christ for the darkness of empty ideas. Light has come into the world and it is that Light that we celebrate at Christmas. Like John, the church is not that Light. Jesus is that Light.
God sent John to testify about the Light that was about to come into the world (John 1:6-28). The Jewish leaders sent delegates to ask him some questions. When a religious leader speaks it is important to ask ourselves by whom the person was sent. Is it merely a human ministry or divine? That is not always an easy question to answer, but there are clues in the message given as to the sending authority. John did not claim his own authority, but pointed others to the true authority. It is only human to want to wield authority and be recognized for being somebody. Bishops, pastors and preachers do not have authority to change the Gospel into something other than that taught by Jesus. Humble servants of Jesus Christ know that their job is to point to him.
Why did Mark quote Isaiah 40 in Mark 1:1-8? Isaiah gave comfort to Jews in Babylonian exile. John prepared for the ministry of Jesus Christ. The message to Jewish captives was a highway in the wilderness leading straight home to Jerusalem. They had gone into exile — punishment for national sins. God would make amends for their suffering. Like sheep lost in the wilderness, their shepherd would bring them back home. Our world is currently in exile from God, held captive in spiritual Babylon to sin and corruption. Our home is heavenly Jerusalem and the way home is Jesus Christ. Isaiah pictures a flattening whereby the low will be elevated and the exalted will be brought low. It can picture a leveling, difficult terrain made easy to journey. Jesus is the way. His burden is light (Matthew 11:30).
Isaiah’s message (40:1-11) continues into Mark 1:1-8. God instructs his angels to comfort his people, to reassure Jerusalem that her punishment will soon be over. A voice from God’s angelic council urges fellow angels to build a highway from Babylon to Jerusalem so that the exiles may return home. John's cry for repentance is a voice crying in the wilderness of the mission to all nations, that a highway has been made to return to God. What should be the content of that preaching? Everything in this world is transitory and erratic but our God's promises are sure. The bringer of good news is to cry out, announcing God's triumphant return, like a warrior returning with power, bringing a reward with him. He gathers the little lambs of his flock into his arms and gently leads nursing sheep.
What does the word Christ mean? It means anointed one and in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament priests, kings and prophets were all anointed ones. Mark 1:1-8 introduces Christ as a conquering king, anointed priest, and a prophet. What do the words Son of God mean? Greeks may have thought of sons of gods like Hercules a son of Zeus. Jews might have thought of a king. Both may have thought of a conquering hero but the story includes the puzzle that he must be crucified. To understand the conundrum we must read the rest of Mark. John prepares the way for the Lord. Who is the Lord? Mark quoted Isaiah 40:3 where the Lord is Yahweh, our God. John appears as a prophet, wearing garments reminiscent of Elijah. John points to the greater one, Jesus.
What do the words the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1-8) mean? The end has not yet come and we proclaim the good news to all nations. What is that good news of Jesus Christ? Isaiah 52:7; 61:1-3 prophesied of good news of peace, salvation, freedom, release, comfort, the Lord’s favor, beauty, joy and praise. The advent of Jesus begins the fulfillment of that prophesied good news. In ancient Greek society the word gospel was a shout of victory, we won! Throughout the Roman Empire it also celebrated the birthday of Caesar as a god. To ancient hearers the words the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ shout, the beginning of the victory of the Savior of the world. Is the cross victory? Are Jesus’ sufferings triumph? Jesus conquered sin and death.
In ancient Rome the birthday of Emperors was proclaimed as good news. People worshiped them as gods. We are not much different, but politics is bad news. Even Christians focus overly much on political agendas and human beings who boast great things, but in reality have no answers. The world is run by highly intelligent, very well-educated people who don't have a clue, because the real problems and their solutions are spiritual in nature, not carnal. When writing his Gospel, Mark used language familiar to ancient people used to promote Roman Emperors, but instead of proclaiming political good news, he pointed the way to Christ. In contrast to this world's inability to solve its problems, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" as it says in Mark 1:1 is real good news indeed.
How many baptisms are there in the Bible? Mark 1:1-8 mentions a baptism of repentance, a baptism in the Jordan and a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere we read of a baptism of fire, the baptism of water, the baptism of repentance also called the baptism of John, baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is also like a washing (Acts 22:16) and a death (Romans 6:3-4). Jesus’ death on the cross is referred to as a baptism (Mark 10:38). It is tied in with spiritual circumcision (Colossians 2:11-15). Israel was baptized into Moses (1 Corinthians 10:2-5). Even though we find so many baptisms described, Paul reminded the Ephesians that there is essentially only one baptism (Ephesians 4:6). All Christians are baptized into Christ (Galatians 3:27).
Politics has changed over the millennia. We have tried autocracy, dictatorship, fascism, monarchy, aristocracy, patriarchalism, theocracy, plutocracy and various forms of democracy. Some may conclude that we are still under an idiocracy, government by fools, or a kratocracy, government by the strongest. Philosophers are already formulating the next great forms of human government, meritocracy (where the more intelligent lead), technocracy (where the more technically savvy lead), bankocracy (led by banks), corporatocracy (where corporations lead), uniocracy (where every bill is electronically submitted to public vote). There is one common thread to all forms of human government, human weakness. As long as we believe that we can solve our own problems we will continue to leave the true solution out, Jesus. Jesus’ coming will save the world when the culmination of all human efforts would lead to total destruction (Mark 13:24-37).
Advent is a time of hope for the world. It is not the next election, the next great political movement, the next great religious movement or even our favorite sports team winning the season. Passages such as Mark 13:24-37 reveal that the outcome of all human systems, even our own, is failure. It also reveals that ultimate justice for the downtrodden is not a political revolution. It also reveals that ultimate form of government is not found in any form of human government. It is not the political left or right. It is not in any of the leaders of this world. The great achievements of our time, whether in science, technology, space, medicine, engineering, transportation, communications or the Internet have not solved our most urgent human problems. In Christ’s advent there is the solution to all humanity’s problems.
What is Christmas? It is a great variety of things. It is about stress, gift-giving, sentimental moments, family time, a holiday with pagan origins, materialism, Santa Claus and retail sales. Early in Christian history, the Church saw in this time an opportunity for spreading the good news of the coming of Christ. Ever since then in the noise surrounding this time of year, that message still manages to get through. Even in Shinto Japan, department stores play music containing words of the gospel. In the midst of our Christmas frivolity is a serious message. Mark 13:24-37 points out how serious that message is. We need world peace. One of the main messages of Christmas is that he who came once will also come again in great power and glory to gather his chosen ones. He alone can bring peace.
Every generation of the church has predicted the second coming in their lifetimes. Even though they got the dates wrong, they were right in a way because Jesus will return someday. The problem with predictions is that we are clearly told in the Bible that nobody knows the day or hour (Mark 13:24-37). But, what if Jesus returned tonight, how different would our day be? That is the essence of the passage, to treat each day as if it were our last, because one day we will be right. Who would we speak to? Who would we give one last hug to? Who would we apologize to? What would we set right? What have we left undone? What kinds of prayers would we say? What would no longer have any importance and what would suddenly take on great importance?
We fear terrorism, economic collapse, political change, crime, government interference in our freedoms, the weather, climate change, and a host of other things. Yet, is all this bad news good news? Mark 13:24-37 is very clear that the good news of coming world peace is preceded by bad news. The fig tree is one of the last trees to bud around the end of spring indicating that summer is near. Today’s bad news actually indicates coming good news. Christ’s return is near. Bad news quickly gives way to great joy. The bad times just prior to Christ’s return immediately give way to the best news of human history. How do we prepare for that? Like firefighters prepare ahead of time, we must be ready. World events will require faith. Let’s draw near to God now while we have time.
An acquaintance once told me that since childhood he “outgrew God.” Do we no longer need God to sustain our lives? He is not absent. Perhaps at Advent we remember Christ’s first and second comings, but forget his presence, thinking that he is absent and that we no longer need his daily providence. Places like Mark 13:24-37 speak of his second coming in clouds with great power and glory. But, Jesus came, comes and is coming. How? Advent celebrates Jesus first coming, his birth as God with us. But it also celebrates his present coming, his mysterious presence with us in communion and his gracious daily saving of our lives. And it also celebrates his final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the age. Is Christ absent? He is as close as our every heartbeat.
According to some experts, the Gospel of Mark was compiled immediately after the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. The temple was destroyed and Jewish patriots were crushed. Though the prophecy in Mark 13:24-37 was made prior to the Jewish War, Mark was possibly influenced in his emphasis by the recent abuses of a human government. After such a national tragedy hope was needed. Jesus is in charge of the cosmos, not the brutal Roman rulers. This prophecy is not about any hopes for a kinder human government. There is no such hope in any human government. The prophecy is about the only real hope for all our problems, God establishing his government through Christ in a new age. Jesus gave a foretaste of it by healing, teaching and caring for the poor. That’s why we pray thy kingdom come.
There is a lot of talk today about failed states, usually meaning either the historic failure of Communism or in more recent times, countries which have failed economically. But, if the truth be known all countries are failed states. That’s why in the democratic world we regularly fire failed leaders and elect new ones. If previous leaders had not failed we would have passed laws to keep them in office. But, all human states have failed. We have failed to curb greed, stop crime, solve poverty, steady inflation, cure diseases, prevent child abuse and reverse climate change. According to Mark 13:24-37, before the second coming, states will fail to prevent worldwide catastrophe. At the same time, it is good news, because at the Second Coming, Jesus will bring an end to all failed states and introduce peace at last.
Where is salvation? If we listen to the deception of television advertising too long we may be inclined to believe that salvation is in the latest fashion fad, pharmaceutical drug, diet or other product that is over-hyped and under-delivers. If we listen to certain televangelists, we may believe that salvation is available in false promises of health and wealth for sending “seed money” to them. If we listen to the entertainment industry too long, we may believe that salvation is to be found in easy sex, big cars and aberrant lifestyles. If we listen to the deception of politics we may believe that salvation is either on the left or the right. In the end, it all leads to great calamities like those mentioned in Mark 13:24-37, but the next chapter of human history reveals true salvation in Jesus.
In Mark 13:5, 9, 23, 33-36 a warning is repeated over and over. Take heed! Be on guard! Watch out! Be alert! Each time it is a warning against deception, persecution and the neglect of prayer. In our comfortable western churches we sleep and slumber. We are a complacent community, doing our small bit for God on Sunday and little more. We get distracted by petty church politics and arguments over trivia, yet we must awake! There’s work to be done, our Father’s work! Spiritual warfare is all around us. The world is about to explode and we must get busy with the Lord’s work. Our job is not to worry about such world woes, which God in his wisdom will allow. Our job is to watch, pray, to be about our Father’s work and endure to the end.
In Luke 18:11 we see the wrong kind of thanksgiving, filled with pride and arrogance. It is the kind of thanksgiving we hear people pray sometimes even in church. It is praying like, “Thank you God that we are the best.” Such lack of humility is a kind of self-delusion, a lack of willingness to face the truth. In Luke 17:11-19 is the exact opposite, the right kind of thanksgiving. It is exuberant, enthusiastic and demonstrative thanksgiving. How many of our more reserved church members go wild when their favorite sports team wins, but express unenthusiastic, halfhearted and passionless thanks to God, unlike the Samaritan who gave thanks? Psalm 107:1, 8, 15, 21, 31 helps us see the right kind of thanks. We thank God for he and his goodness, unfailing love and wonderful deeds for humanity.
In Luke 17:11-19 and 18:11 contrasts two thanksgiving prayers, a Jewish Pharisee and a Samaritan leper. Samaria contained a mixed-race people who only recognized the books of Moses. There was racial and religious tension between the two groups. Luke recorded James and John wanting to punish them, the Good Samaritan story and this thankful Samaritan. He also wrote Acts and recorded Philip’s Gospel work in Samaria. The Pharisee was physically pure. The Samaritan was unclean. The Pharisee believed he was better than everyone else. The Samaritan knew he was not. The Pharisee gave thanks in the holy temple. The Samaritan was on a road but also at Jesus’ feet. The Pharisee was thankful for what he has done. The Samaritan was thankful for what Jesus had done. The Pharisee praised himself. The Samaritan praised Jesus. What about us?
One of the words used by Christians for the partaking of the bread and wine is Eucharist. It comes from the Greek word for what Jesus did that night he instituted one of Christianity’s most sacred rituals, he gave thanks (Matthew 26:27). The Greek word for thanks is from eucharisteo. It is in one sense a thanksgiving “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup.” Thanksgiving is part and parcel of the Christian life every day of the year, not just once a week or once a year. Praise and thanksgiving are vital parts of Christian worship. In the story of the thankful Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19) we can see how only one demonstrated any thanks. The other nine may have been thankful in heart, but they did not show it. In worshiping God we also give thanks.
In the story of the thankful Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19), ten were healed but only one was pronounced saved by his faith. Were the other nine healed apart from their own faith? Without thankfulness are we not completely well, even though our disease is cured? Is giving praise to God part of being completely healed or saved and not just physical healing alone? Could it be that faith is part of being completely well? Could it be that without thanksgiving our faith is not complete? Could it be that there is a spiritual component to wellness that goes beyond mere physical healing alone? Could it be that complete wellness includes body, mind and spirit? Jesus saves us now from earthly troubles and forever from death. Eternal salvation is pictured in the Bible as eternal healing, wellness far beyond medical science?
Amos was a prophet with a dire warning to any nation which tramples on the heads of the poor and denies justice to the oppressed. (Amos 2:7) Excuses are hollow justifications for greed and selfishness. While the selfish party, the poor continue to suffer. They oppress the poor and crush the needy and say, 'Bring us some drinks!' (Amos 4:1) Campaign contributions are bribes, an assumed obligation to do the donor's bidding. Our politicians oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in our courts (Amos 5:12). Amos issues a dire warning against any nation or people who stomp all over the needy and the poor of the land (Amos 8:4). That nation is cursed by God and will be punished. He echoes Matthew’s message (25:31-46) to relieve the poor.
The setting for the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is the last judgment at the great white throne (Revelation 20:11-15). Is that judgment according to what people said or did? Words are cheap. True faith is revealed in action by deeds. The judgment is of all the nations, not just the Church. Matthew’s six examples represent human suffering. Other passages include widows and orphans while the Good Samaritan looked after an injured man. Notice that when speaking of all nations, Jesus uses the term brothers and sisters. What does the Holy Spirit say to us? Do we see the suffering as brothers and sisters? Do we have hearts of charity towards those in need? Following Jesus Christ our Savior is to participate in salvation of the world including saving the suffering as we are able.
Does the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) teach salvation by works? God was kind to us, not because of any good deeds we may have done. By the washing of regeneration in baptism, we were born from above. With our new birth, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives by giving us participation in God’s loving nature. As Christians we are sanctified by faith (Acts 26:18) and by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). Good works are evidence of a sanctified life (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7) and faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Saving faith is a living faith shining with the bright light of good works (Matthew 5:16) including good deeds like helping the needy. So works don’t save us but they are visible evidence of a living faith.
Jesus’ Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) is a serious warning personally and nationally. How does it translate to our responsibilities as Christians? How does that work in our national politics? How does that translate to our support for welfare? When we look at a homeless person do we see Jesus? The word for “stranger” is really “foreigner” in Greek. How does that translate to the way we view immigrants personally and nationally? When we look at a Mexican, do we see Jesus? How does looking after the sick translate to health care reform? How does it translate to hospital and prison visits or is that just for pastors? What are legitimate complications and what are just excuses? Is our response to the Gospel evidence of a living faith with good deeds or a dead faith without works?
|The Poor Will Be Glad:|
Joining the Revolution to
Lift the World
Out of Poverty
An acquaintance of mine was involved in church sponsored relief in Florida after a destructive hurricane. He noticed how some churches also had large crews to repair their church buildings. Once they had repaired those buildings they packed up and left. My friend and his team stayed on to look after the needs of people. This is a part of the Gospel that’s easy to miss. It is described in Matthew 25:31-46. Repairing church buildings while people outside are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, in need of hospitality, sick, and in need of a visit is a woeful example of our Christian calling. Is it time for some of us to repent? Is it time to get out of our holy places and live the Gospel on our streets by clothing and feeding Jesus Christ in the needy?
|The Social Gospel|
Some Christians criticize the idea of a social gospel as an excuse for liberalism. But that is not completely true. Social responsibility is a part of the complete message of the Gospel. Probably one of the best places to go to understand that is Matthew 25:31-46. This important passage deepens Jesus' descriptions of being a light in Matthew 5:13-16 where he described it as good works, and Matthew 25:1-13 where he described the need to have oil to light our lamps. Good works certainly entail pious deeds such as prayer. However, good works also involve deeds of charity such as feeding and clothing the poor. This side of good works is what some term the social gospel. When this “social gospel” is spurned as liberal it becomes an excuse for not obeying Jesus Christ in social responsibility.