Saturday, December 09, 2006

We Three Kings...

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." ” Matthew 2:1-2 NASB

Of all the characters involved in The Kingdom Gospel, and especially the nativity story, the magi are the most mysterious. For two thousand years scholars have speculated on the number, origin and nature of this group trying to fully explain their significance. For the storyteller, what matters most is not who they were and where they came from, but that they came at all, and how the locals responded to their presence.

Matthew does not specify a number, but generally we have come to accept the idea of there being three, one for each of the gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We have also named them; Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, names representing three different races. They are described variably as wise men, astrologers, kings and magicians, all of which in varying degrees can be associated with Matthew’s word ‘magi.’

For the Biblical storyteller however, as much as their possible background is of interest, what remains of greatest importance is what the gospel does tell us. And that is this: the magi had come to worship the promised King of the Jews and not only thatthey were Gentiles. In this proclamation of their purpose the magi reinforce the purpose of the Kingdom Gospel, to help Matthew’s church understand that the barriers to God were coming down. No longer would the promise of the Messiah be for the Jews only, as foretold by the prophets, all nations will come to worship at his feet.

Of interest too, is the reaction of Herod and “all of Jerusalem.” We know from other historical accounts that during this time there had been a number of people claiming to be the Messiah. Most of them were ignored or quickly proven to be false, so one would expect that Herod would regard this as just one more false alarm and shrug it off. And yet, he doesn’t. In fact, he takes it very seriously and begins plotting to take the life of the child. Why? Why does he react the way he does? And why is all of Jerusalem afraid of the magi’s message as well?

Let’s go back to the story. What sets this announcement apart from all the others who claimed to be Messiah? The answer is the presence of the magi.

Imagine for a moment you are King Herod. A number of astrologers from Persia or beyond arrive and tell you that they have looked at the stars and have determined that the time has come for the fulfilment of the prophecy of the coming Messiah. And unlike others with such claims, they come to Herod freely admitting they don’t know who it is. They only know that now is the time for the King of the Jews to be born and would Herod please be so kind as to point him out.

For Herod, and all his cronies throughout Jerusalem looking to hold onto their power, the surest sign that this is the real deal is not great orations by a would be prophet, not the performance of miracles, not even the raising of an army to drive out the Romans. Since Jesus is just a child none of these things have happened yet. No! – for them the proof that this is a threat that must be taken seriously is Gentiles are coming forth to worship Him. In a world where Jews are despised and looked down upon by most of the nations around them, the only reason magi from any nation would come to worship the King of the Jews would be because He truly is the Son of the Most High. In Herod’s mind, only the birth of the true Messiah would bring Gentiles into their midst.

And so he agrees to help the magi, for his own reasons of course. He doesn’t know who the child is any better than the magi; so, after consulting the scriptures, he sends them to Bethlehem. His hope is that when they find him so will he. But God, as always, is one step ahead of those who would thwart his plans for mankind. He sends the magi home by another route.

If there is anything we can learn from the magi, it is the need for us to keep the stories of God close to our hearts. The magi, by their own devices, were able to determine at least part of the truth. They were able to look at the stars and know that the time had come for the Messiah to be born. They knew that the Jewish messiah was a true object of worship, worthy of their reverence even though they were not of the Jewish faith. But they didn’t know all they needed to know. Had they been able to consult the writings of the prophets for themselves they would have known where to look for the Promised One.

Many of us today, even among Christians, have it in our heads that we can figure it out all by ourselves. We are looking for a custom religion that we cobble together from insights that we pick up from a variety of sources along the way. But the fact remains that without the written Word we have only a portion of the information we need. Without the truths to be found in the Bible, we do not know where or who to worship.

And knowing the Bible is no guarantee either. The chief priests and the scribes had the text before them but failed to see the deeper truth of the words because their focus was not on God’s plan but on their own interests. They were not so interested in keeping the faith as they were in keeping control. The spirit of their worship was distorted by their own self interests.

By placing the story of God in our hearts rather than just keeping the facts about God in our heads, we ensure that both the desire and the details work together. In this way we will know where and who to worship and be better equipped to do so in spirit and in truth.


(Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 4)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Birth of a King (Matt. 1:18-25)

1And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.” Matthew 1:19 NASB

Try to imagine for a moment what it was like to be Joseph. Here you are, a respected man in the community, a tradesman, and one day you discover your fiancĂ© is pregnant, and you know full well it wasn’t you. What would go through your mind?

The newspapers and other media carry stories everyday of men who discover they’ve been betrayed by their girlfriends and go off the deep end and kill both the woman and her lover. And truth be told, in first century Palestine, nobody would have blamed Joseph if he had done the same. In fact, if he had brought her before the council, the whole village of Nazareth would have picked up a stone and helped him.

But not Joseph, son of Jacob. He is a righteous and compassionate man who, despite the betrayal, seeks to minimize the negative effects of the situation for all concerned. This tells me a very important thing. God was not only careful about choosing a mother for Jesus, but He was very careful to choose a good man as the foster-father as well. In Joseph God found not only someone who would provide a line to the Throne of David, but a man who could be trusted to look out for the young Jesus and raise Him well in the traditions of his people.

In this act also, we see a singularly remarkable man. After having made up his mind what to do about Mary – he has a dream. In this dream he is told the child is in fact the progeny of the Holy Spirit; that Mary carries in her womb the Son of God Himself; the fulfilment of all that Israel has hoped for. A lesser man would have shrugged it off as a crazy dream, but Joseph steps out in faith and does what the angel in the dream has told him to do. He adopts the Son of the Most High as his own and gives Him his name - Yeshua, in Greek - Jesus.

And in so doing, Joseph solves the dilemma we mentioned near the end of our last episode. The link in the chain is mended. In Joseph’s world an adopted son had all the same rights and privileges as one born of a man’s own seed. By naming Jesus on the day of his birth, and formally when they present him at the temple, Joseph declares to the world, “This is my son, the heir to all that is mine.” In that moment Jesus becomes a rightful heir to the throne of David. A human being adopts the son of God as heir to the throne of David so that one day God might adopt all of humanity as heirs to the throne of righteousness.

But another thing happened in that moment as well. While it is true that Joseph’s act of adoption guarantees his place in history, at the same time it ensures that place is only as a footnote. Like many men married to famous women, Joseph becomes “Mr. Mary.” And like John the Baptist, it seems that he must decrease so that Jesus and the Father may increase.

In Joseph we find ourselves a hero in a person who, in any other story, would be a minor character. His righteousness and compassion, his willingness to step out in faith (we’ll see more of this later) and his unwavering obedience make him a role model for any husband or father living today. Indeed, he is a shining example for anyone concerned about their place in life. Joseph demonstrates better than any other in scripture that it must never be about us, about who we are or what we do. The focus must always be on God the Father. He alone is what matters; even Jesus said this was the case.

Jesus knew that his entire ministry was about pointing people to the Father in heaven. In this he had the best role model possible in one simple tradesman - his earthly father - Joseph.


(Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 3)