Friday, January 30, 2009

Being a Good Samaritan

Every time I hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, I can’t help but think of the time I was the priest or the Levite, and passed by on the other side of the road.

My wife and I were on vacation about 10 or so years ago, and we were pulling into the parking lot of a restaurant to have dinner. This parking lot was shared by the restaurant and another building. As we were pulling into the lot by the other building, I notice a rusted old car sitting there in front of the other building, looking like it was abandoned. I thought to myself that it was very thoughtless of somebody to abandon their junker in somebody’s parking lot. How rude!

As we drove by this car, I noticed two things. First, this other building was a pawn shop. And second, this rusted old car that was parked in front of the pawn shop had two people sitting in it: a man and a woman, just sitting there staring straight ahead, not moving.

As I drove past this car on my way to the restaurant, I suddenly realized what was happening. I’m pretty sure this young couple was pawning something valuable to them, such as their wedding rings, as a last desperate measure. As I was getting out of our car at the restaurant, I looked across the parking lot. The couple was slowing getting out of their rusted hulk, and I could sense how forlorn they were, even from a distance.

As we entered the restaurant, I glanced back and saw them slowly, reluctantly, making their way towards the pawn shop. At that point, I could have run over to them and given them some money, maybe enough to see them through the next couple of weeks. But I didn’t – I was the priest and Levite who passed by without stopping to help. I could have mentioned what I saw to my wife, but I knew she would insist in giving the couple some money, probably a lot of money, and I didn’t want to do that. After all, we were on vacation – we needed the money ourselves, or at least so I thought.

We can rationalize anything, can’t we? Yet the money we might have given them would have only meant the difference between eating at a good restaurant once or twice, and having a simpler meal. So I kept quiet, and the sight of that couple haunts me to this day – I can still picture them clearly in my mind. I missed out on a blessing because I was so selfish and uncaring.

When an opportunity to help someone presents itself, don’t let it go by without doing something. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 (NRSV): “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why We Do What We Do (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of a discussion on why we do the bad things we know we shouldn’t be doing, and why we don’t do the good things we know we should be doing.

Doing What We Shouldn’t

The flip side of this is that we often do things we shouldn’t be doing. Again we read about Paul’s frustration with himself in Romans 7:19b: “I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” NLT

Why is that? Why do we consciously break God’s law and often hurt other people when we know better? This happens for a number of reasons:

1. Propensity to Sin

First, we do wrong things because we have a propensity to sin. It is called “original sin” and it is sometimes referred to as our “sin nature.” We inherit this sin nature – unfortunately it’s in our DNA. That doesn’t mean we’re helpless, that we shouldn’t be able to control ourselves. It just means that we’ve got a lifelong struggle against the warring factions within ourselves. It’s sort of like those old cartoons that showed a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each telling the person what he should do.

2. Temptations

Second, we do wrong things because this world is filled with temptations that appeal to that sin nature. Some of the things of this world are very alluring, and so we give in to those temptations which appeal to our weaknesses. We are bombarded with temptations through the media, through our own desires, and even from friends, family, and co-workers.

3. Worldly Involvement

Third, we sin because we get involved too much in the world, and don’t spend enough time learning about and serving God. Paul gave this analogy to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:4: No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs — he wants to please his commanding officer. NIV

Likewise, we shouldn’t want to get caught up in worldly things, because we want to please Jesus. I admit that isn’t easy – we are surrounded by a culture that encourages materialism and all kinds of immoral and unethical behavior. Yet if we worship regularly, attend a Bible study, pray often, and spend time with Jesus every day, we will be much less vulnerable to temptation. Then we can put the world behind us as Paul wrote in Romans 12:2a: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds… NRSV

Our Hope

Is there any hope for us? Yes, there’s hope for us, because God has provided his people with grace. In the Methodist tradition, it is called “Sanctifying” or “Perfecting Grace.” It simply refers to the fact that once we have made a conscious decision to become a follower of Christ, the Holy Spirit works within us to improve us. The point is, God does not leave us helpless and hopeless – we have the Holy Spirit to help us, guide us, and empower us to resist evil in all its forms.


I urge you not become discouraged, but keep your focus on Jesus. Make your relationship with Jesus a priority, and you’ll find your life greatly improved. When you have such a deep relationship with Jesus, worldly temptations lose their power over you. Here are six steps to overcoming temptations:

1. Look Inward, and examine what is causing you to give in to temptations. Ask God to reveal anything within you that may be part of the problem. Assess what your weakness is and then seek God’s help in dealing with it.

2. Along those same lines, admit you are weak and are a sinner. The first step in any kind of recovery is admitting you have a problem.

3. Look to the Lord, meaning keep your focus on Jesus, as I mentioned earlier. When Jesus is part of your daily life, you’ll be in a better position to resist temptation.

4. Recognize that this is a spiritual issue more than anything else. We have to understand that we are in a spiritual battle, as Paul clearly tells us in Ephesians 6:12-13a:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God. NRSV

5. Get into God’s word so that you are equipped for this spiritual warfare. When you spend time every day in prayer and studying God’s Word, you’ll be less inclined to do things that are against God’s will.

6. Pray regularly for God’s help. We’ll never achieve perfection in this life, but we can continuously improve when we submit to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Draw closer to God, and you won’t be disappointed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why We Do What We Do (Part 1)

In Romans 7 the Apostle Paul cries out in frustration:

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?

Not Doing What We Should

Sometimes we all feel that way – it seems we can’t do anything right. Before we know it we’ve done something to displease God or a loved one, and we wonder if we’ll ever improve. Then we read the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, and we question whether we could ever be so caring and as generous as he was.

I believe that’s why the parable of the Good Samaritan and similar teachings are in the Bible – to remind us that we are called to a higher purpose.

•We are called to get out of our comfort zones – although we should never put ourselves in danger, of course.

•We are called to make sacrifices to the glory of God.

•We are called to help others as opportunities present themselves and as we are urged to do so by the Holy Spirit.

When we help others, it is as if we were helping Jesus himself, as we read in Matthew 25:37-40 (NRSV):

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

As mentioned earlier, the Apostle Paul was obviously frustrated with himself, that he didn’t always do the right thing either. We can see his frustration in Romans 7:21-24a:

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! NLT

More on this subject in a future post.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More Thoughts on Obama’s Inauguration

Everybody has been saying what an historic event President Obama’s inauguration is, and it reminded me of all the historic events I have lived through in my 60+ years. I think the first historic event I was really aware of was the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, and the end of the Korean War which followed shortly thereafter. I remember President Eisenhower making a speech to the nation on TV (a novelty back then) and announcing a truce. Here’s a list of some of the historic events I especially remember:

-The launching of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957;
-The Civil Rights struggle in general (thanks to on-the-scene TV coverage), especially the mowing down of peaceful demonstrators with fire hoses;
-The election and inauguration of John Kennedy in 1960 and 1961 respectively;
-The Cuban missile crisis, especially the evening when President Kennedy spoke to the nation on TV (we thought that by the next day we might be at war);
-The assassination of Kennedy on November 22, 1963 (and those next few days glued to the TV as events continued to unfold);
-The speech by Lyndon Johnson saying he would not run for reelection in 1968 (we hoped the Viet Nam war would soon be over);
-Most of the terrible events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and the riots which followed), and of Robert F. Kennedy – it seemed as if the country were coming apart;
-The first landing on the moon in July of 1969;
-The killing of Kent State students by the National Guard;
-The resignation of Richard Nixon (and the months preceding it);
-The taking of hostages from the American embassy in Iran in 1979;
-The collapse of the Soviet Union and the freeing of the Eastern European countries from communist rule;
-The Challenger disaster;
-The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993;
-The burning of the Waco compound in 1993;
-The first Gulf War (especially the evening the attack began);
-The new millennium (and the hopes and fears associated with it);
-The housing, financial, and economic meltdowns of 2008;
-The election and inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

A lot more happened, of course, but these are the events that I vividly remember and that made an impression on me. I have images in my mind for each of those e vents – from TV coverage, pictures in Life Magazine, or pictures from newspapers. I have lived through exciting times, both good and bad. I just hope and pray that from now on, most of the excitement will be of a positive nature.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some Thoughts on Obama’s Inauguration

Everybody has been saying what an historic event President Obama’s inauguration has been, and it is truly historic - and even monumental - for any number of reasons. I’m glad I am alive to see it. Living though this particular period in our history reminds me that these are unusual times: an economic situation that rivals the Great Depression in terms of its potential impact (but hopefully won’t last as long); two wars, at least one of which is highly unpopular; significant loss of wealth for nearly every American to some degree; large and well-established companies going out of business (and potentially going out of business); and a population that is demoralized and somewhat pessimistic).

All of the above have happened before, but not all at the same time. These are truly unusual times, and things could conceivably get worse before they get better. We as a people may be tested in ways that haven’t happened since the 1930s and 1940s. I hope we will turn to God in our times of trouble – I believe that is the only way we can get through these unusually tough times.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Miracle on the Hudson

Yesterday (Jan. 15) a plane landed in the Hudson River off Manhattan, with no deaths and minimal injuries. The plane stayed afloat and many boats appeared within minutes to rescue the survivors. This incident has been called the “Miracle on the Hudson”.

The term “miracle” implies divine intervention, something supernatural that often goes against the laws of nature. Is that what occurred? Look at the facts:

-The engine problem occurred where the plane, having lost power, could glide over to the river and land.
-The plane didn’t break up when it hit the water.
-Most of the passengers didn’t have to go into the frigid water or spent only a very short time with part of their bodies in the water.
-The plane stayed afloat long enough for everybody to evacuate.
-Boats appeared almost immediately to rescue the passengers.

Certainly the skill of the pilot and the thorough training of the crew contributed to the good outcome of this accident. Looking at the facts, however, I do believe there was divine intervention as well. Let’s give praise to God for his protection!

As I’ve said before and this airplane accident demonstrates, God doesn’t always stop something tragic from happening – although I suspect he does much more than we realize. For example, if the plane had just missed those birds, nobody would have known how close they came to hitting them and how God spared them.

When something tragic does happen, you can be sure God is there with you – to help you, guide you, give you strength, and give you comfort. However, if you ignore God for most of your life, then you won’t be receptive to God’s help in times of trial. That’s why it’s a good idea to life a life close to God by being a follower, attend weekly services, pray daily, and study the Bible regularly. Then, when things get tough, you’ll be tuned in to God and be able to enjoy the peace that only he can give.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why We Need a Savior Part 2

In an earlier post I wrote about why we need a Savior. In summary:
-God is holy and can’t have anything to do with sinful people.
-God is just, and requires a penalty must be paid for wrongdoing.
-God is merciful, and had Jesus pay the penalty on our behalf, because the penalty is so large we could never pay it ourselves.

With this in mind, the question becomes, “How do we respond to this loving and merciful act of God?”

How We Respond

The daily devotional I read (In Touch Magazine, Atlanta, Georgia) spelled out how we are to respond in the following day’s article. That article starts out with this introduction:

“The more we understand the contrast between God’s holiness and our sinfulness, the clearer the magnitude and depth of His grace will become. This knowledge will cause us to turn to Him in:”

Then the article lists three actions we should take:

1. Confession of our sins

The first thing we do in response to God’s grace is to acknowledge that we have done wrong and need forgiveness. The article puts it this way:

“The prophet Isaiah, upon seeing God’s holiness, clearly grasped his own uncleanness. In a similar way, recognizing the Lord’s perfection will lead us to realize our own unrighteousness. We may think we’re doing okay until it becomes clear that God’s standard for us is to be holy—without sin. Only through faith in Christ can we meet that standard. The first step is admitting we are not the good person we thought ourselves to be. Rather, we are sinners in need of divine help. Confession is also to be a regular practice of all believers.”

The article references Isaiah’s visit to heaven, where he found himself before a perfectly holy God. Here’s his reaction to being in the presence of a totally holy and righteous God (Isaiah 6:5):

“Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” NIV

We think we’re OK, but compared to God and God’s standards, we fall very short.

2. Acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice

The next step, after confession, is a conscious decision to accept God’s gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life. The article has this to say:

“On the cross, our Savior gave up His life so that we might be reconciled to God. By receiving His sacrifice as our own, we enter into a personal relationship with the heavenly Father. He offers forgiveness of our sins and adoption into His family because we have accepted the atonement Jesus made on our behalf.”

As I said before, it must be a conscious and deliberate acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice for us, sometime called “Making Jesus your Savior.”

3. Commitment to His Lordship

The third step is sometimes called “Making Jesus your Lord.” The article explains it this way:

“When Isaiah heard God’s call, ‘Whom shall I send?’ he answered, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ (Isa. 6:8). Because Jesus is our Lord, His purpose is to guide our life. As we grow in awareness of His grace, we will be increasingly motivated to live a life of obedient service.”

Another way of explaining this is that you make Jesus the priority in your life – no thing and no body is more important.


The article ends with these words:

“Ponder the impact of God’s amazing grace on your life. Let your gratitude lead to one of these responses.”

Are you grateful for what God has done for you in Jesus? When God calls you, do you answer ‘Here am I. Send me!’? Have you made Jesus your Lord and your Savior? If so, good! If not, why not? What’s holding you back? Seriously consider making that decision now – accept what God is offering. Your life will be so much better, both now and in the hereafter.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Why We Need a Savior Part 1

I think many people don’t really understand why Jesus had to die on the cross. Many don’t understand why we need a Savior and Redeemer. Those titles Savior and Redeemer easily roll off the tongue, but what do they really mean? I recently read an article in a daily devotional put out by Charles Stanley (In Touch Magazine, Atlanta, Georgia). The article describes briefly but clearly why we need salvation – why we need a Savior and Redeemer. I want to read each section of the article and then expand upon it so we hopefully have a clearer idea of why the Cross is so important.


The article starts out with a brief description of grace:
“Grace is God’s favor and love shown to mankind. We cannot earn it or ever be good enough to deserve it. To truly appreciate His grace, we need to comprehend certain truths about God and ourselves.”

Grace is behind the whole plan of salvation – God didn’t have to save us, or do anything for us. That’s what grace is all about – unmerited, undeserved favor.

God’s Holiness

The article continues with the first of God’s attributes that relate to our salvation:

“First, God is perfectly holy, so He cannot allow sin in His presence. When Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree, their intimate connection with Him was broken. Since all future generations inherited their sinful nature, every person is born with a disposition that is bent away from the Lord.”

God, being perfectly holy and righteous, can have nothing to do with sin. As an illustration, let me give you an example of our family dog when I was a kid. The dog would occasionally get a case of wanderlust and take off. She would be gone anywhere from a few hours to overnight. When she finally came home, she stank and was filthy. I have no idea how she got that way, but it was like she had rolled around in a sewer. While we loved that dog, we couldn’t let her in the house or have anything to do with her until she got a bath. Once the filth was removed and she was clean, the dog could resume her rightful position within the household as the family pet.

It’s a similar situation with us. God can’t have anything to do with us until we are cleaned by Jesus Christ. He loves us, and provided a way for us to be in rightful relationship with him – accepting what Jesus did for us on the Cross.

God’s Justice

The next section of the article has to do with God’s justice:

“Second, God’s character is just. As a result, He requires payment for all sins. The penalty He demands is death (Romans 6:23), not just physically but also spiritually through eternal separation from Him.”

The article referenced Romans 6:23, which says: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NIV) Our American system of justice, while flawed, does demand that a penalty must be paid for breaking the law. While lawbreakers are often jailed and occasionally executed, monetary penalties can usually be paid by anybody – just as long as they’re paid. Likewise, God, in his mercy, permitted someone else – Jesus – to pay the penalty that is rightfully ours.

As an illustration of somebody else paying for my transgression, let me tell you about my speeding ticket in Providence, Rhode Island. I was leaving Providence for good, and the evening before I was to leave, I got a ticket from a city cop. I decided not to pay since I was leaving for Pennsylvania, several states away. I was home for a couple of weeks, then went off to graduate school in New York. While I was home, I received a summons that required me to pay $50 for my infraction or show up at court. I tore it up, and then went off to New York, figuring the City of Providence would never bother to track me down. A couple of months later, I got a call from my mother. She asked, “Did you get a speeding ticket in Rhode Island?”

“Uh, yes, why do you ask?”
“Because a town cop came around to arrest you, but I paid your fine right there and took care of it. You owe me 50 bucks. And don’t ever to that again!”

The arm of the law is longer than I thought, stretching across several states. The law in this case didn’t care who paid – it was just that the penalty had to be paid. Although I did have to pay my mother back – immediately – God wants only our devotion and loyalty, not as payment but out of love and gratitude.

God’s Love and Mercy

The last attribute that the article discusses, after God being holy and just, is God’s mercy:

“Finally, we have a merciful God who does not treat us as our actions deserve but instead extends His grace toward us. He devised a plan that would affirm His holy nature, meet the requirements of His justice, and enable us to become members of His family: He sent His Son to accomplish our salvation. Born as a human being, Jesus lived a perfect life and fulfilled the Law. He alone qualified as the one who could satisfy divine justice. Christ took our place, bore our sins, and experienced God’s wrath over our rebellion—all so that we could be reconciled to the Father.”

“God made this provision for our salvation while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8). Have you acknowledged your sinful state and received His forgiveness through faith in Jesus? If so, are you expressing ongoing thankfulness for His grace?”

The article references Romans 5:8, which says: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (NIV) We also read about God’s merciful act in Colossians 2:14:

He canceled the debt, which listed all the rules we failed to follow. He took away that record with its rules and nailed it to the cross. NCV

God could just let us suffer the consequences of our acts – he is under no obligation to save us from the penalty of our sins. But in his mercy, God saved us, as we read in Colossians 2:13:

When you were spiritually dead because of your sins and because you were not free from the power of your sinful self, God made you alive with Christ, and he forgave all our sins. NCV

God didn’t have to send Jesus, but out of love and mercy, he did, as we read in John 3:16-17:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” NIV

We can either stand condemned, or can accept what Jesus did on our behalf and have eternal life. John 3:18 puts it simply:

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” NIV

How we respond to what God has done for us in Jesus will be discussed in a future post.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Another Example of Religious Intolerance

Below is an article I read on 1/8/09:

Michael A. Newdow, who attempted to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, has again filed a lawsuit in an attempt to keep religion out of the presidential inauguration. Newdow brought similar suits four and eight years ago.

He and other groups, such as the American Humanist Association and the Freedom from Religion Foundation who have joined him in the lawsuit, are requesting that the words “so help me God” be removed from the president’s oath of office and that the prayers of invocation and benediction be eliminated from the ceremony, as well. The lawsuit argues that the prayers and religious references “are completely exclusionary, showing absolute disrespect to Plaintiffs and others of similar religious views, who explicitly reject the purely religious claims that will be endorsed, i.e., (a) there exists a God, and (b) the United States government should pay homage to that God.” A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments on Jan. 15.

Rev. Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist, has been asked to lead the invocation and Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist, is scheduled to deliver the benediction. (from The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing email newsletter, 1/8/09. Copyright © 2009, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved)

Here is another case in which a small minority is trying to dictate what others can and can’t do. President-Elect Obama is a Christian, so he is willingly swearing on a Bible and saying “so help me God.” Nobody is forcing him to do so. The United States is not “paying homage to that God” but acknowledging that “that God” is important to many people. For Newdow et al. to try to make such changes to the way we do things infringes on the rights of others and is the height of intolerance, religious bigotry, and arrogance. Let’s hope this lawsuit is tossed out of court for being frivolous.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Middle East, Again

Once again we are faced with a crisis with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Once again, some terrorist group – this time Hamas – is goading the Israelis into a military response. Once again, the Europeans are demonstrating their long-standing anti-Semitism by defacing Jewish synagogues and demanding Israel stop attacking the Palestinians, but notice they don’t criticize the launching of rockets by Hamas into Israel.

The main criticism of Israel is that they are over-responding to the Hamas rocket attacks. Let me put this in perspective. Let’s say a Mexican anti-American terrorist organization took over Tijuana, Mexico, and launched 30-70 rockets a day into San Diego, just across the border. The people of San Diego lived in constant fear, air raid sirens were being sounded throughout the day, innocent civilians were being randomly killed by these crude rockets, and the Mexican government did nothing to stop these launches. What would you expect our government to do?

(a) Say “those poor Mexicans have some grievances against the US, so we should try to placate them” even though their aim is to bring us to our knees?

(b) Continue to pressure the Mexican government and other Latin American leaders, even though they have showed themselves to be sympathetic to the terrorists and share their views?

(c) While doing the above, use military force to stop the attacks on our territory?

I think number “c” is what every American would expect its government to do in such a case. Israel gave the Palestinians sovereignty over the Gaza Strip with the understanding that the Palestinians would behave themselves. Look what has happened. Israel has the right and the duty to protect itself and its people against any terrorist attacks, no matter what form they take, especially given the radical agenda of Hamas.

It is sad that innocent women and children in the Gaza get injured or killed, but that’s exactly what Hamas wants. They hide in schools and hospitals, they put innocent civilians in harm’s way, and then the sympathetic press duly notes the civilian casualties. Let me be clear: Hamas does not care about the Palestinian people – they are expendable for the “greater cause” of wiping Israel off the face of the earth.

Pray for peace in the Middle East, and part of that prayer could be for Hamas to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Thoughts on Epiphany

This past Sunday was Epiphany Sunday, and Tuesday, Jan. 6, is the actual day of Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus. Below are some thoughts on the Wise Men (or Magi) and the famous Star.

The Visit of the Magi

That Star of Bethlehem has fascinated people for 2,000 years. What’s also fascinating is that these pagan gentiles from the East would make a long trip to see the Jewish Messiah. How is it that that they would know about the promised Messiah, or even care? Obviously they had considerable knowledge, because they were very explicit when they showed up in Jerusalem and asked (Matthew 2:2):

“Where is the baby who was born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” NCV

The Magi knew this “King of the Jews” had recently been born, and they felt compelled to come and worship him. We, knowing what he has done on our behalf, should feel even more motivated to know, love, worship, and serve Jesus.

The Magi-Who Were Those Guys?

The word “Magi” (plural) or “Magus” (singular) is the root of our word “magician.” A “Magician” in those days was a holy man, such as a pagan priest, or an astrologer – not somebody who pulled rabbits out of a hat. For example, magicians are mentioned regarding Pharaoh’s dream:

In the morning [Pharaoh’s] spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:8, NRSV)

We also read about pagan magicians in Babylon in Daniel 2:27-28a:

Daniel answered the king, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…” NRSV

From what we know, these Magi were most likely astrologers from either Persia or Babylon. Since they were pagans, how would they know about the Jewish Messiah, and why would they care about his birth?

To answer that question, we have to look briefly at history. There was a large number of Israelites scattered throughout the Middle East. This was because most of the Israelites had been forced out of their home-land, first by the Assyrians, and later by the Babylonians. Only a handful of Israelites ever returned to their homeland – the rest stayed in Jewish enclaves scattered throughout the Middle East. Because of this large number of Jews in the region, their sacred Scriptures became known by pagan holy men. Most likely these Magi had studied the Hebrew Scriptures, so they knew of the promised Messiah.

These Magi correctly understood that the Messiah was coming into the world to bless all people, both Jew and Gentile. So when the Magi saw specific signs in the sky, they knew this was a message from God that the Messiah had recently been born. These signs were so compelling that they traveled to Jerusalem to find this special baby who was to bless the world. If the Magi were so motivated, we also should be enthusiastically following the guiding light of the Holy Spirit.

The Star-What Was It?

How do we explain the star, which was so revealing to the Magi? The star is a mystery, but we have some hints that might help to explain it. Of course it might very well have been a supernatural event, since this star seemed to move as we read in Matthew 2:9:

After the wise men heard [King Herod], they left. The star that they had seen in the east went before them until it stopped above the place where the child was. NCV

Because these Magi were most likely astrologers, the star may also have been a conjunction of several stars and planets. Since the universe moves with mathematical precision – which shows God’s orderly plan – we can go back and recreate the night sky at that time. Sure enough, there was a conjunction that would point to a momentous event for the Jews. This conjunction involved stars, planets, and constellations that would be meaningful to astrologers who were also familiar with Hebrew Scriptures. This in no way endorses astrology, but it shows that God can use any means to communicate with us. So let us always be alert to what God is communicating to us, which today is mostly through his Word, the Bible.

Concluding Thoughts on The Visit of the Wise Men

I the story of the Wise Men and what immediately follows, we see both joy and sadness, good and evil. We see the goodness of the wise men, who inconvenienced themselves to make the long trip to worship and give presents to the Christ child. We see the evil of King Herod, who was jealous and paranoid. We see the joy of the wise men finding the Christ child, as we read in Matthew 2:11b:

They bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their gifts and gave him treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. NCV

We see sadness in that Mary and Joseph had to literally run for their lives in the middle of the night to save the Christ child from Herod after being warned in a dream. Matthew 2:14 tells us:

So Joseph got up and left for Egypt during the night with the child and his mother. NCV

Of course all of this shows that Jesus – even from infancy – wasn’t immune from the trials and tribulations of life. We, too, aren’t immune, as we’ve seen, but we can be encouraged because God is with us. Just as the angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt for safety, God will help us and guide us through whatever we are facing. God does provide as well. For example, I’m sure Mary and Joseph – who were poor – used the gifts of the Magi to finance their trip to Egypt. Most likely they lived off those gifts until they could get established in Egypt and Joseph could set up his carpentry shop.

We have to remember that unlike New Year’s resolutions, which are here today and gone tomorrow, God is with us forever. So let us remember to look to God as we read in Psalm 46:1-3:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging. NIV

So let our prayer for 2009 be what the psalmist prayed in Psalm 40:17:

Lord, because I am poor and helpless, please remember me. You are my helper and savior. My God, do not delay.