Kip Burke writes, “Jeremy, an 11-year-old boy who lives in a working-class neighborhood of a small Midwest city, has lots of things on his mind. His science project is overdue, his little sister is sick, and his mom’s new boyfriend is a jerk. On the bright side, though, he’s had one big success: he’s been adopted into a strong, caring family—the Stone Killer Crips.
“Surprised? The fatal attraction of street gangs isn’t limited to kids living in the poverty-ravaged cores of large cities, gang experts say. Despite the abiding fear of being killed or imprisoned, America’s kids are responding to the lure of gangs because of a vacuum in the structure of their lives that goes beyond race, income or location. To these kids it seems that gangs may be the only strong institutions in a world where family and community are crumbling. According to those who work with them, kids who join gangs are simply looking for a stable family with rules, structure and acceptance.”
Gangs draw in people who have a hole at the core of their being that longs for acceptance and belonging—that longs to be noticed and cared for.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when Jesus teaches us how to pray, he begins right there—at our most foundational and deepest longing: our need for relationship. The opening words of the prayer Jesus teaches are an invitation to and assurance of relationship: “Our Father.”
We have a tendency to take these two words for granted, but the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked by the invitation to call God “our Father.” From their perspective, God was so holy and so aloof from them that they could not say aloud the name of God. Even when coming upon the name of God while reading the Scriptures, they would have to skip over the word, leaving the word unspoken. But Jesus had the audacity to invite them to say to God, “Our Father.”
When the good news of Christ reached into the Greek and Roman worlds, the Greeks and Romans were just as shocked at the idea of speaking to God as “Our Father.” In Greek mythology, the gods were distant from and cold toward mortals. A student of Aristotle stated bluntly, “It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus,” and it would be equally absurd to think of Zeus loving any human. In fact, in Greek mythology, when Prometheus took pity on human beings and gave them fire, Zeus was so furious that he condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock on a remote mountain, where every day vultures attacked him, tearing at his flesh and eating his liver, then every night the liver grew back so the torture would be repeated endlessly. The Greeks and Romans had no concept of God loving people, but Jesus had the audacity to invite them to pray to God, “Our Father….”
For many people, the term “Our Father” has been corrupted by negative experiences with their earthly fathers. Those whose fathers neglected them end up expecting God to ignore their prayers. Those who fathers abandoned them expect God to turn his back on them and walk away. Those whose fathers drove them hard, demanding perfection, imagine that God is never happy with them. Those whose fathers abused them expect God to lash out at them or to act cruelly toward them. Those whose fathers were pushed around by others or by life look at God as weak and helpless. Those whose fathers lacked integrity have a difficult time putting their trust in God. This may be why Jesus invites us to pray, “Our Father in heaven….” Jesus wants us to know that the God we speak to in prayer has not been marred by the corruption of this earth. “Our Father in heaven” is holy and true and untainted by earthly sin.
When Wycliffe translator Ray Elliott began translating 1 Peter 5:7 into the Nebaj Ixil tribal language in Guatemala, he faced the problem of communicating a concept that was foreign to the Nebaj Ixil people. The verse, in English, reads, “Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you.” But to all of Ray Elliott’s attempts to communicate this verse in Nebaj Ixil, the indigenous translator, Cu, consistently replied, “We can’t say that!” Finally Cu asked Ray Elliott, “You mean God really does care for each person as an individual?”
When we begin our prayers with the words, “Our Father in heaven,” we are reminded that we have called out to a God who truly does care for each person individually.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair spent much of her life trying to remove God, yet she wrote into her personal diaries at least a half-dozen times the plea, “Somebody, somewhere, love me.”
There is a longing at the core of all of us to know that “Somebody, somewhere” loves us. When we pray, “Our Father in heaven,” we are reminded that we are deeply and personally loved by the God of the universe, “Our Father in heaven.”
Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king, and it is a prayer for justice and compassion within the nation. Psalm 72 is a prayer for the leader of the nation to govern the nation with justice and compassion. It begins: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”
Verses 12-14 add, “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”
There is no question in this psalm that the leader of a nation only leads the nation well when he or she governs with integrity while pursuing justice and compassion for all the people of the land (“liberty and justice for all”).
Commentating on this psalm, Kenneth Way remarks, “The Davidic king must express godly character through social justice. He is commissioned here to defend the poor, deliver the needy, and crush the oppressor; to have pity on the weak and needy; and to value life/blood and redeem people from oppression and violence. All of these royal responsibilities are expressions of God’s values. This is what God’s justice looks like. God cares about the poor and the oppressed, and so should the king…. The point is that we also should care about such things. Just as Israel’s king was to embody God’s values in order to promote human flourishing, so we all as God’s royal images should embody God’s values. Social justice is what the Torah is all about! At least half of the laws in the Pentateuch are about the gritty details of social justice. At least half of the commandments in the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments] are about loving one’s neighbor. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul made this point crystal clear: loving our neighbor is one of the ways they speak of fulfilling God’s whole law.”
One of the aspects of this psalm that I find particularly fascinating is how the psalmist weaves together on the one hand the call to the leader of the nation to govern with justice and compassion and on the other hand the hope for bountiful crops. Verse 3 prays, “May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.” And verse 16 prays, “May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.”
In an article entitled “Bread for the World: Toward an Agrarian Reading of the Psalter,” J. Clinton McCann explains, “When justice and righteousness are done, the result is shalom. In verse 3, ‘the mountains bear shalom’ [McCann’s translation]. Why the mountains? Because it was the hill country where Israelite farmers grew their food. It was the monarchy’s responsibility to create a legal system (justice) and a web of social relationships (righteousness) that would protect small farmers and their land, precisely so that ‘the mountains bear shalom’—that is, food.”
May we join with the psalmist in praying for the leaders of our nation, and may we pray for justice and compassion…and for abundant crops and for human flourishing…to fill our land.
From Matthew’s Gospel, we know that Magi from the East journeyed to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus, but we know very little about these Magi.
We don’t know who they were. Many scholars speculate that they were priests or astrologers. Not until the 5th century did anyone refer to them as kings. Father Benedict Thomas Viviano argues that some of them were likely women.
We don’t know where they came from. Most scholars believe they came from Babylon or Persia or Arabia, but others have suggested that they may have come from Yemen or India or from as far away as China.
We don’t know how many arrived in Bethlehem. Because Matthew records three gifts given to Jesus (gold and frankincense and myrrh), many people assume that three Magi brought three gifts (one gift per Magi). But in Eastern thinking, Magi usually numbered 12. Perhaps it was a smaller contingent that came to Jesus, or perhaps there were as many as twelve who showed up in Jerusalem and then in Bethlehem.
And we don’t know when they arrived. Matthew records that Herod questioned the Magi about the exact time they saw the star, then Herod sends soldiers to strike down all the babies in Bethlehem up to two years of age, so the Magi may have arrived in Bethlehem up to two years after the birth of Jesus.
What we do know is that the Magi brought gifts to Jesus, and the giving of gifts has been forever connected to the celebration of Christmas. Modern Christmas carols even include the story of a little drummer boy presenting to Jesus the gift of his drumming.
Yet the greatest of the Christmas gifts was not gold or frankincense or myrrh but the gift that God gave to all humankind: the gift God gave of himself, coming into our world as one of us to live among people and to die for us.
Jesus himself told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In Romans 5:8, Paul writes, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
The greatest gifts are those that are given out of love. And love that is given is the greatest gift of all. Great love is what God gave to us in his willingness to be born as one of us. And great love is what Christ gave to us in laying down his life for us.
O. Henry tells a wonderful Christmas story entitled The Gift of the Magi. It is the story of Jim and Della, a young couple who are deeply in love with each other. On their first Christmas together, each wants to give to the other the best Christmas gift possible. The problem is they are desperately poor. Della wants to buy for her husband a platinum chain for his cherished gold pocket watch, but she can scrape together only $1.87. Out of her love for Jim, Della makes the ultimate sacrifice: She cuts and sells her beautiful, long, thick, brown hair. From the sale of her hair, she comes up with enough money to buy the chain.
Meanwhile, Jim sets out to buy a lovely set of combs for Della’s gorgeous hair. Not having sufficient funds, Jim makes the ultimate sacrifice: He sells his cherished pocket watch to buy the beautiful combs.
Both Della and Jim sacrifice their prized possessions to give a gift of love to the other that is no longer useful. You might conclude that what they did was a foolish waste of their resources and that everything turned out wrong. Indeed, in the final paragraph of the story, O. Henry concedes, “I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.”
Yet in the next lines, O. Henry affirms the worth of their gifts on the basis of the love with which they were given. He writes, “But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest…. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.”
When we give love, we imitate the gift God gave in giving himself.
Psalm 71 begins with a plea for God’s protection—for God to be for the psalmist a Rock and a Refuge: “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.”
Christina Fox remarks, “In practical terms, a rock is a place to hide behind. Its clefts and caves provide shelter from beasts and storms and enemies. A rock is also a foundation upon which we stand or build. It is solid and sure. Rocks are used to build walls and fortresses to protect those within. A massive rock, like a mountain, is immovable; it stands firm through the fiercest storms and battles.”
That’s what the psalmist longs for from God. It’s what we long for in God. We long for God to be for us a rock in whom we find shelter and protection from all forces that come against us. We long for God to be the solid and sure foundation upon which we can build our lives and stand securely. We long for God to be the certain and immovable support to our lives that no storm or battle can topple.
My dictionary defines “refuge” as “shelter from danger or trouble.” We tend to think of a refuge as a particular place or institution in which we can find safety from pursuit or danger. To say that God is our refuge is to say that God is the One we run to when we need a safe place to rest from the stresses and troubles that pursue us.
In her book The Confident Women, Ingrid Trobisch writes of the Kiga tribe in East Africa that refers to God by the name Biheko. The word means “a God who carries everyone on his back.” In the Kiga tribe it is only mothers and older sisters who carry children on their backs, but in seeking to understand the nature of God they could find no better word than to see God as Biheko, the “God who carries everyone on his back.”
This is what we are seeking when we run to God as our refuge. In our times of trouble and weakness, we are looking for God to pick us up and carry us on God’s own back, like a mother caring for her beloved child.
The Bible holds a high view of shepherds, with David writing a beautiful psalm about the Lord being his Shepherd, and with Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. But common Jewish culture did not look favorably on shepherds. In his book Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias points out that shepherds were not allowed to hold a judicial office in Israel and were not even admitted as witnesses. Citing the writings of rabbis from the time of Jesus, Jeremias reports the popular opinion of shepherds: “Most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land.” A Midrash—an ancient Jewish interpretation on the Bible—on Psalm 23:2 argues, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.”
Nevertheless, it was shepherds who were tasked with the responsibility of caring for sheep in Israel. About the depth of their care for the sheep, Ray Vander Laan writes, “Shepherds in Israel don’t drive the sheep; they lead them along the narrow paths that still crisscross the Judean hillsides. ‘This is the way to go,’ the shepherd says to the sheep. ‘Follow me.’ And the green pastures of Israel are not belly-deep alfalfa; they’re sparse tufts of grass springing up in a sometimes unbelievably rocky landscape. From one moment to the next, the sheep depend on the leading of the shepherd and the sufficiency of the grazing he provides….
“The shepherd isn’t always out in front, leading his sheep, however. As the sun sets on the Judean hills, with their confused tangle of trails, steep cliffs, and deep wadis, it becomes increasingly difficult for the sheep to follow the shepherd and increasingly likely that they may misstep, fall, or get lost. Then, in the lengthening twilight, when the sheep must pass through the darkest shadows in the deepest wadis, the shepherd drops back and walk with them.” (Echoes of His Presence, p. 27-28)
Perhaps the angels announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds because God wanted to make it clear that the good news of Christ’s arrival on earth was for all people—even the most excluded. Or perhaps it was because God knew that shepherds especially would understand the significance of God coming to walk among his people. Or perhaps it is simply that shepherds happened to be around when the angels could not contain their excitement aboutthe birth of the Savior and burst out into song in the hills above Bethlehem.
For whatever reason it was, shepherds are forever associated with the story of Jesus’ birth, and, with connection to the shepherds, the candy cane has become a beautiful symbol of Christmas.
Legends have claimed that the candy cane was invented by a choir director in Cologne, Germany or by a candy maker in Indiana to bear witness to the spiritual truths of Christmas, but evidence points against the authenticity of such legends. Nevertheless, the candy cane does resemble a shepherd’s crook and contains some wonderful symbolism to remind us of the deeper meanings of Christmas:
- The candy cane is made of hard candy which can remind us that Jesus is the Rock that we can depend upon.
- The candy cane begins as pure white which can remind us of the virgin birth and Jesus’ sinless nature.
- The candy cane is striped with red which can remind us of the stripes of scourging Jesus received and of the blood he shed for us in dying for our forgiveness.
- The candy cane is made in the shape of a shepherd’s crook which can remind us of the shepherds who came to greet the newborn Savior or which can remind us of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. Or the “J” shape of the candy cane can stand for Jesus.
- The peppermint flavor of the candy cane can remind us of the gift of spices which the Magi brought for Jesus.
Luke 2:7 reports that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
This is commonly understood by people that Jesus was born in a barn because no hotels in Bethlehem would give a room to Joseph and Mary. But Ken Bailey, who spent much of his life in the Middle East argues against this popular understanding. In his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Bailey contends, “Joseph was returning to the village of his origin. In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family, with its connection to its village of origin, is important. In such a world a man like Joseph could have appeared in Bethlehem, and told people, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi’ and most homes in town would be open to him…. In every culture a woman about to give birth is given special attention. Simple rural communities the world over always assist one of their own women in childbirth regardless of the circumstances. Are we to imagine that Bethlehem was an exception?…. To turn away a descendent of David in the ‘City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village…. Mary had relatives in a nearby village. A few months prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary had visited her cousin Elizabeth ‘in the hill country of Judea’ and was welcomed by her…. By the time, therefore, that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they were but a short distance from the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. If Joseph had failed to find shelter in Bethlehem he would naturally have turned to Zechariah and Elizabeth.” (p. 25-26)
The word generally translated as “inn” in verse 7 is the Greek word katalumati. It is translated in Luke 22:11 as “guest room.” In Luke 10:34, Luke uses the word pandoxeion when he wishes to refer to an “inn.” It is not that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in an inn, but that there was no guest room available for them. Ken Bailey explains, “Simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests…. The main room was a ‘family room’ where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rests of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day. Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the twentieth century.” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 28-29)
A popular misunderstanding of the Christmas story is that coldhearted innkeepers turned Joseph and his very pregnant wife away. It is more likely that a family in Bethlehem opened up a portion of their home to Mary and to Joseph even though their “guest room” was not available. Yes, the baby was laid in a manger (a feeding trough), but out of generous hospitality rather than coldly turning them away. And we are invited to do for Jesus what that Bethlehem family did for Mary and Joseph. Martin Luther expressed this beautifully in a poem:
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep,
I too must sing, with joyful tongue,
That sweetest ancient cradle song,
“Glory to God in highest Heaven,
Who unto man His Son hath given,”
While angels sing with pious mirth,
“A glad New Year to all the earth.”
Psalm 23 is looked upon as the Psalm of the Good Shepherd (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….”). Psalm 70 seems to me to be the Psalm of the Cast Sheep.
The psalm begins with the psalmist expressing a need for God’s help from enemies who seek to harm him. It sounds a lot like the dilemma of a “cast sheep.” In his book Beyond Forgiveness, Don Baker tells us about “cast sheep”:
“[Cast sheep] was a term I came to appreciate a number of years ago when Martha and I lived in the county. Sheepgrazed near our home and we enjoyed them immensely. Each morning we would go to the window, first thing, and check on their well-being.
“Early one morning I noticed one lying near the fence on its back with all four legs extended straight upward. I walked over to it, gently nudged it with my foot, and perceived no signs of life whatever. I called the owner and said, ‘Mr. Harlow, one of your sheep has died.’ He said he would be right over and hung up the telephone. Within a few minutes he drove his truck up to the sheep, hopped out, walked over, and spent considerable time kneeling over what appeared to be a lifeless animal. He then stood up and called to me, ‘Don, come here; I want to show you something.’
“‘This sheep is not dead,’ he said. ‘This is what is known as a cast sheep. Every so often a sheep that is heavy with wool or heavy with lamb will lie down, roll into a slight recess in the ground onto its back, and will find itself unable to get up. When that happens the sheep is cast or helpless. There is no possible way that a sheep can survive that position for very long. The gases begin to ruminate in its belly, the joints stiffen and atrophy, and it if it’s left to itself, it will die.’
“I watched him as he gently rolled that sheep onto its side and began massaging its limbs and body. After a brief time the legs began to relax and occasional muscle twitches seemed to confirm the fact that it was alive. It wasn’t long before that gentle shepherd placed his hands under the belly of that sheep, lifted it onto its wobbly legs, and began slowly walking it until it was able to stand by itself.
“Oftentimes I’ll use that story to describe the condition of the many ‘hurting people’ that are to be found in a church…. I’ll ask the staff if they know of any ‘cast sheep’ and then we’ll pray for them and devise other ways to be of encouragement.”
The writer of Psalm 70 was like a cast sheep, knocked on his back and needing help. Thus the psalm concludes with a desperate plea: “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!”
As Don Baker points out, “Many hurting people…are to be found in a church.” May we keep an eye out for those who may be “cast,” and may we seek to encourage and support them.