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.
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)