One of the most frequently seen symbols of Christmas is the star. You will find stars on Christmas trees, above manger scenes, in Christmas cards, on wrapping paper, and among many people’s outdoor decorations. At our former house, I always climbed up on our roof and fastened a large lit star at the top of our chimney. The stars we find at Christmas are meant to remind us of the star that indicated to the Magi that a king was born in Israel.
For centuries, astronomers have debated what exactly the “star” mentioned in Matthew 2:2 and/or in Matthew 2:9-10 was. Jesus is thought to have been born in 5 or 4 B.C., prior to the death of Caesar Augustus in 4 B.C., so astronomers focus on what could have been seen in the sky between 6 and 2 B.C. William Barclay comments, “In the years 5 to 2 B.C., there was an unusual astronomical phenomenon. In those years, on the first day of the Egyptian month, Mesori, Sirius, the Dog Star, rose heliacally, that is at sunrise, and shone with extraordinary brilliance. Now the name Mesori means ‘the birth of a prince,’ and to those ancient astrologers such a star would undoubtedly mean the birth of some great king.”
Nelson’s Bible Dictionary notes, “Various attempts have been made to explain the star in scientific terms. Since the wise men were Babylonian astrologers, it is reasonable to assume they were men who had seen the star during their regular observations of the heavens. Men who were familiar with the night sky would readily identify any new object. Some scholars suggest that a supernova, or exploding star, recorded by Chinese astronomers at about the time of Christ, might have led the wise men to Bethlehem. Others argue that a rare alignment of planets in the sky signaled a highly unusual event to the astrologers. The appearance of a meteor or an unidentified comet has also been suggested.”
Astronomer Mark Kidger puts all the possibilities together and remarks, “We find a series of events so unique that they can happen together only once in every several thousand years.”
However, Nelson’s Bible Dictionary concludes, “None of the proposed explanations fits this description adequately. Matthew obviously understood the star as an occurrence beyond the reach of rationalistic explanations.”
From angelic visits to fulfilled prophecies to the virgin birth to the appearance of a “star” that leads magi to the newborn king, the Christmas story is filled with elements beyond the ordinary, for the Christmas story is the good news of the Divine stepping into our world. An unexplainable “star” is a fitting symbol for the miracle of Christmas, for a star shines light out of darkness, bringing sparks of hope—which is precisely what Jesus does!
An artist once painted a picture of a wintry twilight. Leafless trees, heavily laden with snow, stood before a dark, dreary house, lonely and desolate in the midst of a cold storm. It was a sad, hopeless painting. Then, with a quick stroke of yellow, the artist put a light in one window. The effect was magical. The entire scene was transformed into a vision of comfort and cheer in the midst of the storm. This is the good news of Jesus’ birth into our world!
May the stars you see during the Christmas season remind you that Jesus is the Light of the world who came to transform our darkness by the light of his presence!
As Christmas draws near, you can expect to see many angels. You will find an angel at the top of most Christmas trees and above the roof of many a manger scene. As you receive Christmas cards, count how many include an angel. And how many Christmas cookies in the shape of an angel will you eat this December? On top of that, count the number of Christmas carols you listen to that will mention an angel.
An angel (or a host of angels) pop up over and over again in the Biblical Christmas stories. It was an angel who spoke to Zechariah of the coming birth of John the Baptist. It was an angel who announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, persuading him not to divorce Mary. An angel told the Shepherds that the Savior was born in Bethlehem, then a multitude of angels burst forth in song, declaring, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The English word angel comes from the Greek word aggelos, which means simply “messenger.” In ancient times, an aggelos was like an envoy, sent with a message, gifts or resources from the king. In the Bible, angels are heavenly beings who were sent by God to do the bidding of God.
At various places in Scripture angels are dispatched by God to guard people, to care for person’s needs, to fight spiritual battles on behalf of people or a nation, and to bring God’s messages to people. Angels are a wonderful part of the Christmas story, announcing the coming birth of John the Baptist and the conception and birth of Jesus, but let’s keep their role in proper perspective. Angels are the bearers of good news; they are not the star of the Christmas story.
Imagine a woman who is in love with a man who has been forced to live far away from her. Every day he mails a letter to her, expressing his devotion to her and his longing to be with her. One day a package arrives at the woman’s home. In the package is another letter, telling her again of his deep love for her. Also in the letter is a diamond ring, with a note attached, asking, “Will you marry me?”
This woman appreciates the mail carrier who has faithfully delivered each wonderful love letter to her, but it would be a colossal mistake on her part if she would run down the street after the postman, throw her arms around him, and declare, “Yes, I will marry you!” It is not the postman who has daily poured out his sentiments of love to her. It is not the postman who put his life-savings into a diamond engagement ring for her. It is not the postman who longs to embrace her in his arms and take her as his wife. All that the postman did was to deliver the letters and the package on behalf of the one who sent them.
Likewise, it is not the angels in the Christmas story who pour out their love to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, a band of shepherds and the world; they merely proclaim the good news of God’s love for us. Yes, angels appeared in the sky above Bethlehem, singing out the good news to the shepherds, but it was God-in-Jesus-Christ who lay in a manger as the newborn Savior of the world. Angels will appear again at the empty tomb on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, but it is Jesus who died on the cross for our sins and who rose from the dead to conquer death. Angels announce the good news, but we must always keep in mind that it is Jesus who is the good news!
Chuck Swindoll once wrote, “Lord, I’m drowning in a sea of perplexity. Waves of confusion crash over me. I’m too weak to shout for help. Either quiet the waves or lift me above them—it’s too late to learn to swim.”
David could identify with that prayer of desperation when he composed Psalm 69. The psalm begins, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”
For David, his tears and inner turmoil had to do with a multitude of enemies opposing him and insulting his God. For us it may have to do with health concerns for ourselves or for a loved one. It may have to do with family conflict. It may have to do with the feeling of being abandoned by someone you care about. It may have to do with financial worries. It may have to do with chronic pain or declining capabilities. It may have to do with some other struggle or trouble in your life that leaves you feeling like you are sinking in deep mire and weary with crying.
We may feel embarrassed by our tears, but our tears are part of God’s healing process for the agony of our souls. Writing in the Harvard Health Blog, Leo Newhouse states, “Researchers have established that crying releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, also known as endorphins. These feel-good chemicals help ease both physical and emotional pain.”
In his book In the Company of Jesus, Bill Donahue remarks, “What is more elemental to the human soul than the shedding of tears? It separates us from all other living things. Animals don’t sob uncontrollably at the loss of a fellow member of the species or mourn their dead for days. To weep is to express the soul of humanity. It’s how we communicate love and grieve loss.”
In his book on prayer, Philip Yancey shares, “A man who serves as the grief pastor of a large church in Colorado reminds me of the value of tears. John spends much of his time visiting the sick and dying, and most weeks he conducts at least one funeral. In addition, he has two children of his own with life-threatening genetic disorders…. John says, “Sometimes there is no happy ending, and we’re simply suspended in grief. When I’m with suffering people, I feel like a deep-sea diver accompanying them into the depths. Come up too fast, and you’ll dangerously decompress. We need to stay with the grief for a while, feel it, let it out. Maybe we can see things through tears that we can’t see dry-eyed.”
Perhaps this is why so many psalms voice the agony of one’s soul. Perhaps this is God’s way of accompanying us into the depths, where we can feel our own agony and let it out in safe and healthy ways. Only then can we venture up from the depths of agony and declare, as David does at the conclusion of Psalm 69, “For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds. Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it; the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.”
Sometimes it seems to us that evil abounds in this world and that nobody does anything about it.
Where do we find God in this? Does God sit idly back, enjoying the goodness of heaven while doing nothing about the evils in this world?
Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
Where does this leave God? Is God passively accepting evil in our world? Is God as guilty for the evil in our world as are those who perpetrate it?
Psalm 68 lifts up a prayer for God to take a stand against evil. In the opening verses, the psalmist prays, “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those wo hate him flee before him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God. But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy.”
Verse 30 prays, “Trample under foot those who lust after tribute; scatter the people who delight in war.”
Psalm 68 does not only pray for God’s justice, it also assures us that God is working in our world for the good and against the evil. Verses 5-6 announce, “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land.”
Verse 21 adds, “But God will shatter the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways.”
Psalm 68 enables us to keep in mind a vital truth about God: God gets angry over the damage that evil brings on people.
About such anger, David Seamands writes, “‘But,’ someone continues to protest, ‘I don’t understand this anger of God business—it scares me.’ Maybe it will help if we ask, What is the alternative to the anger of God? The alternative is not a God of love, because…love and anger are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other. The alternative to anger is apathy, which would mean an apathetic God who is morally neutral and indifferent to the outcome of the battle between good and evil. That would make him a God who sits on the moral fence of the world and says, ‘I don’t care what happens to them. Let them sin if they want to, that’s their business. I’m not going to interfere in their lives.’ So whenever the biblical picture of a holy God who gets angry about sin seems old-fashioned and frightening, try to imagine something a whole lot scarier—an apathetic God who doesn’t care. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world like ours if God were personally indifferent and morally neutral. That would be a terrifying nightmare.
“It is the reality of a holy God who is irreconcilably opposed to all sin that makes life tolerable in a world like ours. For this means that God cares enough to get angry when we sin, because He cares enough to want the very best for us. It means, too, that we know which side God is on—He has declared Himself on the side of right and righteousness. That’s comforting—not scary!” (Freedom from the Performance Trap, p. 76-77)
Jerome, one of the early church fathers, claimed that late in his long life, the apostle John kept repeating Jesus’ command, “Love one another,” explaining, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if it be fulfilled, it is enough.” As Christians, the focus of our lives should be in loving one another, “because it is the Lord’s command, and if it be fulfilled, it is enough.”
It is significant to note that when Paul writes instructions to children and parents and to slaves and masters, his focus is not primarily on fulfilling one’s role but on living out love in whatever position a person would find oneself.
In Ephesians 6:1-3, Paul instructs children on how they should live. He begins by telling them, “obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Then he quickly shifts the focus to something higher than mere obedience. In verse 2, he writes, “‘Honor your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’”
According to Webster’s Dictionary, to honor someone is to esteem that person, to credit value to that person, to treat that person with respect, or to confer distinction upon that person.
That sounds a lot like what Christ did for us. Despite our sin—despite the disrespect we have shown to God through our sinfulness—Christ determined that we were so valuable and esteemed in his eyes that he was willing to give his very life for us.
It is entirely possible to obey a person without loving that person, but it is incredibly difficult to honor a person without loving them. Thus Paul shifts the focus from mere obedience to honor. He calls children to credit esteem to their mothers and fathers—regardless of their shortcomings—even as Christ has done toward us.
When Paul turns his attention to parents (“fathers”) in Ephesians 6:4, his focus is not on their role and authority as much as it is on love. He concludes his instructions to parents by writing, “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” but he begins by stating, “Do not provoke your children to anger.” This is a concern that grows out of love for children.
One of the great ways in which children are provoked to anger is through neglect—the withholding of love. Many years ago, a mother and father wrote to The Kansas City Star, “It is too late for us because the damage has been done…but maybe if we share this letter it will help other parents.”
To this, they attached a letter their son had written: “Dear Folks, Thank you for everything, but I am going to Chicago and try to start some kind of new life…. Remember when I was about six or seven and I used to want you to just listen to me? I remember all the nice things you gave me for Christmas and my birthday and I was real happy with the things for about a week at the time I got the things, but the rest of the time during the year, I really didn’t want presents. I just wanted…for you to listen to me like I was somebody who felt things too, because I remember even when I was young, I felt things. But you said you were busy…. If Donna ever has children, I hope you will tell her to just pay some attention to the one that doesn’t smile very much because that one will really be crying inside. And when she’s about to bake six dozen cookies to make sure first that the kids don’t want to tell her about a dream or a hope or something, because thoughts are important to small kids…. I think that all the kids who are doing so many things that the grownups are tearing their hair out worrying about are really looking for somebody that will have time to listen a few minutes and who really and truly will treat them as they would a grownup who might be useful to them…. If anybody asks you where I am, tell them I have gone looking for somebody with time because I’ve got a lot of things I want to talk about.”
When Paul addresses “masters,” in Ephesians 6:9, he takes a similar approach as he did with “fathers.” He focuses not on the role, authority or rights of a master over a worker. He focuses instead or their commonality: Both have “the same Master in heaven.” And he focuses on loving and respectful treatment, telling masters to “do the same to” their workers as he had instructed the workers to do to their masters: “Doing the will of God from the heart,” rendering “service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord…knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.” And he warns masters, “Stop threatening them.”
In all of our relationships and in all of our roles in life, it keeps coming down to this: Love one another, “because it is the Lord’s command, and if it be fulfilled, it is enough.”
Psalm 67 begins with a request for God’s goodness and blessing to be showered upon us: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us….” But the psalm does not end simply with a request for God to be good to us (or to me). The psalm goes on to express the hope that God’s blessings toward us would result in others being drawn to God: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the people praise you.
Colin D. Smith points out, “This psalm reminds us that God doesn’t just bless us for our own good. His face doesn’t shine upon or among us simply to make us feel better, or so we can know that God is pleased with us. As God’s people, we are the means by which He demonstrates His love and power on the earth.”
A basic principle of the Bible is that God blesses us not so that we can selfishly cling to God’s blessings for ourselves but so that we can be a blessing to others.
Harry Emerson Fosdick offers an analogy that conveys this truth: “The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water. It flows down, clear and cool, from the heights of Herman and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of it, for the Sea of Galilee has an outlet. It gets to give. It gathers in its riches that it may pour them out again to fertilize the Jordan plain. But the Dead Sea, with the same water, makes horror. For the Dead Sea has no outlet. It gets to keep.”
In The Peter Principle, Stan Toler shares an example: “I was a church planter at one time and felt impressed by the Lord to send $50 to some missionaries. When I shared with my wife what had been laid on my heart, we took a look at our checkbook and found $54 in our balance. Not much room for error there. She said, ‘Honey, I wasn’t raised quite like you, but I trust you and have faith in your stewardship commitments. Let’s do it.’ So I wrote the check and sent it to the Carters in Arizona, who were ministering to Native Americans in a small reservation village. Even though I knew it had been the right thing to do, I did begin to wonder how we were going to manage.
“The next day I went to the post office, and, amazed, I picked up a letter from a student at Asbury Theological Seminary who had been one of my roommates at college. The letter read, ‘I just had you and Linda on my heart and felt impressed to write you. I’m enclosing a check for you, knowing you will probably put it in the offering plate next Sunday, but it is not for your church it is for you.’ Fifty bucks!
“When the check we sent arrived in Arizona, Doug Carter called immediately. ‘Stan, your check just arrived. What timing! We had an appointment with the doctor for our daughter, Angie, but we had no money to pay the bill. I was just about to make the dreaded phone call to tell the doctor, but I paused to look at the mail first, and there it was. The Lord was right on schedule, wasn’t he?’
“How could God touch a poor church planter on the shoulder and say, ‘Send $50 to missionaries in Arizona,’ even though he knew the church planter needed it, and at the same time touch a student at Asbury Theological Seminary on the shoulder and say to him, ‘Send $50 to the Tolers’? A cynical person might ask, ‘Why didn’t God just impress the Asbury student to send his $50 directly to the missionaries in Arizona?’ To the first question I say, that’s how God works. To the second I suggest that God wanted to pour out his blessings on three families instead of two.”
Keep this in mind always: God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others.
“You are #1! You are the center of your universe! What you want is of highest priority!”
Such messages are common in our culture, but they are not the message of the Bible. Ephesians 5:21 summarizes God’s message to us: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The word translated here as “be subject” is the Greek word hupotassomenoi. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature states that this word has to do with “submission in the sense of voluntary yielding in love.”
How different the Christian message is from the world’s message.
The world tells me to “win through intimidation.” The Bible tells us to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The world tells me to demand my way, my rights, and my wants. Scripture challenges us to yield to the other person out of love.
The world tells me to grab hold of whatever it is that I want. But God calls us to let go and to give away.
The world tells me to look out for myself. But Christ calls us to look out for one another.
This counsel is not presented in Scripture merely as a theoretical talking point. God means for us to live this out in the most basic relationships of our lives. Therefore verse 21 is followed by direct applications to wives and husbands.
Let’s begin with Paul’s words to husbands. In verse 25, Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
Wow! This is a tremendously challenging command!
Consider how Jesus loved his disciples at the Last Supper, when he got up from the meal to wash their feet. He cared for Peter who would deny knowing him. He cared for Thomas who would doubt his triumph over death. He cared for Judas who would betray him. He cared for disciples who would run away and hide. He loved them unconditionally and forgivingly. That is how we are to imitate Jesus in the most basic relationships of our lives.
Or consider how Jesus loved the church as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he sweat blood for the church. He did not put his own wishes and wants first, but said to God, “Not my will but yours be done.” This is what it means for us to yield voluntarily in love, and this is what we are called to do in the most basic relationships of our lives.
Other ways in which Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her include:
- He gave his time and attention to people
- He was compassionate in his dealings with people
- He was always honest with people
- He was forgiving
- He was tender in the way he cared for others
We are called to imitate such love in our marriages and in the most basic relationships of our lives.
In verse 28, Paul adds, “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.”
Consider the implications of this. When my stomach begins to growl, I get something to eat. When I feel worn out at the end of the day, I go to sleep. When I cut my finger, I put a Band-Aid on it. I pay attention to my needs and attend to them. Ephesians 5:28 challenges me to be as attentive to the needs of my wife as I am to my own needs. It challenges us to be mindful of and responsive to the needs of others in the most basic relationships of our lives.
When we turn our attention to Paul’s challenge to wives, it is important to keep in mind that the primary purpose of this passage is not to tell wives how to treat their husbands, but to tell Christians how to treat one another. In the Greek, it is verse 21 that commands us to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The word for being subject never appears in verse 22. Literally, verse 22 says simply, “Wives to your husbands as to the Lord.” Being subject is inferred from verse 21, as one practical example of Christians being subject to one another.
When Paul cites the reason being that “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church,” we tend to jump to the conclusion that Paul is arguing that the wife should give in to the husband because the husband is the “boss” of the wife. The word “head” is, indeed, used that way in ancient Greek literature, but it is actually a different Greek word (archon instead of kephale) that is used in such a context. The word Paul uses, kephale, is closer to our use of the word “head” when referring to the source of a river. Paul seems to have in mind the Biblical story of Eve being made from Adam. The focus here seems to be that Eve came to life from Adam as the church came to life through Christ. The call to wives to yield voluntarily to their husbands is because of the interdependency of woman coming to life from man and men coming to life through women. It is a focus on love within the relationship more than on role or domination.
In the most basic relationships of our lives, we are drawn back to verse 21: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”