Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chicago Journalist's Post-Christmas Message


Patrick Kampert

Well, Christmas is over. Maybe you’re bummed out that it’s over. You had a real time of blessing with the Lord and with your family, and there’s a bit of a post-holiday letdown. Or, maybe you’re relieved it’s over. You survived another holiday with your dysfunctional family, and now you can exhale. But after you exhale, be ready to receive, because maybe you haven’t unwrapped an important gift from God yet.

You know, Christmas may not be our most important holiday – that would be Easter – but it’s significant enough that we shouldn’t say it’s over just yet. Because it’s not. Not if you haven’t exchanged gifts with your Creator yet.

Two thousand years or so ago, Christmas wasn’t over yet. Just ask the wise men, ask the Magi. Christmas lasted a long time for them. We don’t know exactly when their journey started – the biblical text isn’t clear on that – but there’s a good chance their trip last many weeks, not just a few days.

They were following a star that sprang up out of nowhere and lasted long enough for them to follow it halfway across the civilized world in the year 2 or 4 or 6 B.C. – the death of one of the King Herods leads to some disagreement about just what year it was. And that star was so significant that people still talk about it – and look for it – to this very day.

Just a few weeks ago, in early December, the Chicago Tribune had an astronomy chart in the paper. It seems that this year, less than a month ago, Venus and Jupiter held a meeting in the sky with a crescent moon. If you went outside and used the Tribune’s graphic as a guide, you could witness this very bright celestial conference. Here’s what the paper said about this:

“Some historians think that a planetary conjunction like this in 2 B.C. may be the source of the star of Bethlehem story related in the Bible.”

So the star that the wise men saw is still making news today in our sophisticated, scientific age. Now, I don’t know if Venus and Jupiter getting together is what the wise men – and the people of 2008 – saw. It’s possible. It’s also possible that the God who created this universe and a trillion stars is definitely capable of creating some special effects that make “Star Wars” look like a toddler’s first drawing. Some men pass out cigars or candy when their child is born. So, when the Son of God was born – a one-time miracle in history – it’s certainly possible that God the Father thought a little celebration was in order. And He had the keys to the fireworks factory.

In the Christmas story, you can find all sorts of inspiration and lessons from the various people who were part of this incredible moment. From Mary, you can gain some insight about purity, about humility, about doing the right thing even if everyone, including your family, doesn’t understand.

From Joseph, we get a reminder on some of the key things our pastor Tim Mengler has been teaching us. Humility, definitely. And listening for God. What is He trying to say to you? Joseph certainly listened. Over and over, he listened. God spoke to him in a dream urging him not to dump Mary because she was pregnant out of wedlock. Later, Joseph listened when God warned him to take Mary and the baby to Egypt so they would be safe. And later, an angel spoke to him – again in a dream – to say it was safe to move back to Nazareth.

And what about the wise men? They seem like very minor supporting characters in this piece of history. And yet, I think in a way we should be able to relate to them (and the shepherds) more than most of the other people we encounter in the first two chapters of Matthew.

So for a moment, let’s get rid of some of the cultural clutter that’s piled up around the wise men like a dollar store full of fools’ gold, phony frankincense, and imitation myrrh.

First, we have to admit that out nativity sets are faulty – and the fact that they were made in China has nothing to do with it. In the real Nativity, the wise men were probably still on their journey on the day Jesus was born. They probably didn’t make it by the second day. Or the third or the fourth or the fifth. In fact, some theologians speculate that the wise men didn’t see Jesus face to face until he was about 2 years old.

Look at the text in Matthew 2:11: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they fell down and worshiped him.”

I don’t remember being born in a house or even an inn, do you? So they’re not in the cave, not in the stable anymore. They’re in a house.

So the wise men didn’t make it to the manger. Neither did we, so we have something in common with them. So who were these guys anyway? Well, they were Magi. Some of the historical evidence is hazy on this, but you could say they were a cross between astronomers, scientists, and astrologers. Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: “That doesn’t sound very ‘Christian.’ “ Heck, it doesn’t even sound very Jewish. And it shouldn’t, because the wise men were Gentiles. And so are most of us in this room. If you’re a follower of Christ, God has graciously grafted you into His tree of life. Heck, most of us weren’t even raised in true Christian homes.

But God uses a lot of improbable people throughout history. Remember, the first people to get the birth announcement about Jesus were the shepherds. They were considered so low-class that they didn’t even stay in the town itself. They lived outside the town. God used someone who persecuted Christians named Saul, a coward named Peter, and a hooker named Rahab. That should remind us that He can and will use us too if we let him.

So who else were these wise men? Well, they probably weren’t kings. They were probably very influential in their home country; they were scholars and they were rich. They were on a very long, very expensive journey. But unless a king was fighting a war, he wouldn’t be so unwise as to leave his kingdom for a long period of time, because he probably wouldn’t have much of a kingdom left when he got back. So, kings? No, they’d need a Burger King crown to be considered kings.

We also don’t know how many wise men there were. Could be 3. Could be 2. Could be 20. The Bible is silent on this, even if the Christmas songs are not. The figure of “We Three Kings” probably comes from the three types of gifts that the wise men brought – gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts were certainly God’s provision for a family that didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, the odds are good that these gifts helped finance the family’s escape to Egypt and their living expenses when Herod came looking for the baby king.

All these gifts had significance. The gold was for royalty. This was the newborn king, after all. The other two were quite prophetic, though. Frankincense was usually tied in with worship in the Bible. When you have some time, check out Exodus 30, Leviticus 2 and Nehemiah 13 to see illustrations of this. And myrrh was linked to suffering. Jesus was offered a mixture of myrrh and vinegar on the cross, and myrrh was one of the things Nicodemus brought with him to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. The other interesting thing about frankincense and myrrh also was indicative of Jesus’ destiny. They’re very fragrant, but you have to crush them to get the aroma. You pierce the skin or the bark of the plant. In fact, the resin from myrrh is white when it’s inside the plant, but when it’s exposed to the air, it turns red. Sort of reminds you of human blood, doesn’t it?

Now, you may not think you have much money compared to these wise men. You may not think you have very much in common with them. You may not even think you’re very wise. But I’ll let you in on a little secret – the wise men weren’t always so wise. In fact, they were a little clueless and foolish at times. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate to that!

Contrary to how we often remember the traditional story, the wise men did not make a beeline for Bethlehem when they saw the star in the East. What? Where does it say that? In the Bible. Look at the first two verses of Matthew, Chapter 2:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.”

They came to Jerusalem. They had to ask where Jesus was. They didn’t know where to find him.

It’s very possible that the star had disappeared temporarily at that point. We do know that later, after they got instructions from Herod and the chief priests and scribes, they headed to Bethlehem and the star led them to the exact spot where Jesus was living. They may have also gotten a little confused because Bethlehem is only 10 miles from Jerusalem. And if the star was bright enough to light their way for 2,000 miles, it was probably pretty bright around Jerusalem, not just Bethlehem.

But they probably headed to Jerusalem because it was the capital, and any self-respecting king would be found there. Except, Herod was a bloodthirsty guy who didn’t know anything about this baby king. And he certainly wasn’t going to turn over his throne without a fight.

The wise men were a little clueless because they didn’t know the Bible. They didn’t know where to look for Jesus. I certainly need to know where to find Jesus a little better – how about you? The Bible is where Herod has the chief priests and scribes look to find a road map for the wise men.

Now, we have the benefit of hindsight because we know how the story ends. It ends in the slaughter of a bunch of toddlers in Bethlehem by an angry king. But it must be said that the wise men were a little clueless because Jerusalem was the last place and King Herod was the last person they should have gone to. If ever there was a good time for men not to ask for directions, this was it!

OK, we’ve established that the wise men were all too human. Just like us. But what were their good points? What qualities did they have that we should want to emulate, that we should even dare to pray, “Lord, make me like the wise men.”

Here are four key areas. And we’ll start with the flip side of the wise men’s detour to Jerusalem:

Wise men and women are bold in their faith. When the wise men came to Jerusalem, everybody knew it. It wasn’t three men and a baby; it wasn’t three men and a donkey or even a camel. This was a big entourage. When the wise men arrive in Jerusalem, and they start asking around for this new king, Matthew 2:3 says that “when Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

So why were they troubled? It couldn’t have just been the size of the caravan. There’s no indication they brought troops with weapons with them. No, Herod and the city were troubled by the fact that these people were searching for the new king and had come to worship him. Apparently, the people of the city liked the current arrangement with Herod just fine. They were ticked off that these guys claimed that the Messiah had been born.

Does your faith ever get you into trouble? I’m not saying we should go looking for trouble or come up with some contrived gimmick to call attention to ourselves. But does your openness with your faith ever cause a stir? Every time I speak or write, I’m preaching to myself – and that certainly includes this topic. But sometimes even those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus for a long time have to beware of getting too comfortable. God says we are aliens and strangers in this world. Don’t sink too many roots in your creature comforts, just in your traveling companions.

Let’s look at another quality that makes the wise men worthy of imitating.

Wise men and women count the cost, and give their all. Can we go back to the wealth of the wise men for a minute? Yes, they had money. More than we have. Yes, they gave Jesus and his family extravagant gifts. But think about the journey itself. They brought many people with them. Think about the planning that had to go into that. The provisions for the people and the animals. This was no scenic, stroll in the park. Traveling was dangerous. They would be gone for a long time. Would they find their home and their possessions secure when they returned?

So, they may have been giving their all. And before they recruited the people to go with them, before they purchased the supplies, before they started following that star, they had to ask themselves a question. They had a decision to make. Was it worth it? Was it worth everything they had to find this Jesus and follow him?

Let me tell you a more recent story, from the year 2007. Our friends Dave and Kelli are missionaries to Hindus and Muslims, both here in Chicago and overseas. Last year, they were in the United Arab Emirates. There are many foreign workers there. Dave was asked to speak at the first-ever prayer meeting and Bible study for a group of workers from India who are Christians.

So they get to the compound where the workers live, and some Arab guys in their late teens or early 20s – who don’t like foreigners or Christians – start mocking and insulting the Indian believers. They ignored it, and kept walking, heads down, because they knew their position in that society. Then the young men noticed that everyone was carrying Bibles. That really set them off.

Dave and Kelli and the Indian Christians managed to get inside the compound and close the gate. Then the young men started throwing rocks at the gate. The meeting took place in a small house, if you can call it that, about 12 feet by 12 feet. There was one small window and one door.

The Indian believers started singing, and they heard the gate crash open. The jeering and the insults got louder. They sang some more, and the persecution continued. Dave started speaking, but Kelli had a hard time paying attention. You see, there have been similar attacks where the locals will toss gasoline bombs through the window into small gatherings like that, then block the door so no one inside can get out alive. Just because the people inside dare to follow Jesus.

That didn’t happen this time. The Arab landlord showed up and told the bad guys to clear out. Dave and Kelli got a taste of how many Christians throughout the world live. You see, you really have to count the cost as you choose to follow this king born in a manger. There was more going on in that manger than meets the eye. And the baby who was born there grew up to be a man who said things like, “So, therefore, any of who does not renounce all that has cannot be my disciple.”

While you chew on that for a minute, here’s a third good thing about the wise men.

Wise men and women in the 21st century walk in community. The wise men didn’t pull a Clint Eastwood like in the new “Gran Torino” movie or in the spaghetti westerns. They didn’t do a “Terminator” or a “Rambo” and go solo. They traveled as a group. I’m sure it wasn’t easy doing a 4,000-mile round-trip when you don’t have seats in business class. Try doing it in the Middle East on foot. The animals smelled, the people smelled, and some of them may actually have had different ideas about which way to go than the wise men. And when God warned the wise men in a dream to head back home by a different route – to avoid Herod at all costs – that meant a big detour, perhaps south to Hebron so they could carve a wide path around Jerusalem without their large traveling party being seen. Now, do you think there may have been some complaining about the extra miles?

Here in the U.S., our story picks up 1,700 years later. We declared our independence from England in 1776. And independence has been a major character trait – and sometimes a major character flaw – in most of us ever since. Between text messages and Facebook and Twitter, we can be more connected than ever before – without the messiness of actually having to interact with each other. We don’t have to deal with physical hardship and smells too much, but we are more aware of our emotional and psychological state than any people who ever lived. And that can keep us apart.

Except we’re not happy in that state either. A recent study by Harvard University showed that we are more isolated than we’ve ever been, and we have fewer people to turn to when times get tough. And consider this – there’s a psychologist right here in our own backyard, John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago. In the research he’s done for his new book, he proves that our need for social connection, our need for other people, is hard-wired into our brains.

Now, who do you think put it there? And why did he put it there? Gordon Dalbey, the author of a book called “Healing the Masculine Soul,” says simply that “The wolf loves the lone sheep.” We are easy prey for the enemy of our souls when we isolate ourselves. I know it’s not easy sometimes, because we all have wounds from being betrayed when we opened ourselves to others. But we need to keep pressing on, to pray for protection, and to risk getting to know each other.

We need each other because, like the wise men, our journey is not easy. Community is not easy either, but it is highly valued by Jesus. We need to value it, and practice it intentionally. Look around for a second. Look to each side of you, look in back of you, look in front of you. Jesus said, this is your family.

You can probably guess the last thing we should like about the wise men:

Wise men and women fall down and worship Jesus. When the magi reached their goal, when they found Jesus, Matthew 2:11 says, “They fell down and worshipped him.” I don’t know about your Christmas decorations, but our nativity set got that wrong too. One guy is kneeling, another is kind of genuflecting, and the third one is standing stiff as a board, or a piece of porcelain, as the case may be!

My posture isn’t always the greatest either. And that’s not just when we’re singing a song and my voice is quiet and my hands are in my pockets. Worship is everything you do every minute of the day. But Jesus is a God of second chances. He gave the wise men a second chance when they lost sight of the star, when they had to stop for directions. Matthew 2:9 says, “Behold, the star they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

The star went before them. That means that Jesus led them directly to himself. He does that every day, including today, beckoning us all to follow him.

And when the wise men got the second chance, did you catch their reaction? They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. Now, doesn’t that sound a little redundant? Perhaps. But it’s also emphatic. It tells us just how grateful they were. They were ready to celebrate! Why?

Because Jesus gave the greatest gift of any Christmas to all of us who will accept it: eternal life, and the promise that the Holy Spirit will live inside us while we’re on this earth.

The wise men may not have been kings, but all of us who follow Jesus are princes and princesses. You may not feel like royalty, you may not think you look like royalty. But you are. You’ve been adopted by the King of Kings. Ephesians 3:6 says we are children and heirs of God, who share in his glory – as well as his suffering. Don’t forget that last part.

So be bold and come to Jesus. Count the cost and give Jesus your all. Walk in community. Fall down and worship Him. Give him the gift of yourself. He already gave His life for you. If you haven’t yet, unwrap the gift of salvation today. Think about what gift you’d like to give Him, and what gift you’d like to receive from Him, because the Bible says that God delights in giving good gifts to his children.

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