Have you set out your nativity scene (or scenes) yet? Which people from the story are on your mind this Christmas? Every year, God brings one segment of the scene into the spotlight for me, and I find myself thinking about him/her/them throughout the holiday season.
This year for me, it’s the wise men. I know why. I recently started working for a nonprofit that supports internationals and the wise men were the first non-Jews…the first border-crossers…to worship Jesus.
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 when it rose and have come to worship him.” –Matthew 2:1-2
The magi came to worship him.
What’s east of Jerusalem? When I was a kid, I thought these guys were from China and places close to China. After all, the song says, “We three kings of Orient are…” To me, the Orient was where Oriental people lived. (No offense. It was the late 1970s. “Political Correctness” wasn’t a thing yet.) Little did I know that the Orient includes Arabia and that the “near East” was just as exotic as the “far East.”
Also, I thought they were kings. (The song is so wrong!!) They were more like Daniel and the guys who served with him: astrologers, scientists, magicians.
Star-watchers from the near East. That’s Persia, southern Arabia, and Mesopotamia (NIV Study Bible notes for Matthew 2:1). These days, we know these areas as Iran, the Saudi Arabia/Yemen/Oman/U.A.E., and Syria.
They were internationals. And they worshiped Jesus as a king. Before anyone other than the shepherds of Judea realized it, these foreigners knew Jesus was something special.
I’ve written about all the characters in your nativity sets. Find the one the Holy Spirit has put on your mind this Christmas and dig into their story. You might learn something new. You might grow closer to “the one who has been born king of the Jews.”
Remember too, “King of the Jews” is what Pilate wrote on the placard above Jesus’ head when He hung on the cross (John 19:19).
The holiday season is over, the decorations and leftover wrapping paper stored away for next year (except that one dishtowel that just got washed. Every year, there’s something left out!). Our nativity scene Mary and Joseph have moved back into their storage box, while the real Mary and Joseph moved out of the stable into a less drafty and more appropriate home. They will still receive one very interesting set of visitors, however. The final characters in our cast of Christmas are the Wise Men.
Sorry, Mr. Hopkins
The wise men would have brought an entourage and created a spectacle as they walked through Jerusalem.
As much as I love “We Three Kings,” it’s not a very accurate song. (No offense, descendants of John Henry Hopkins, Jr..) These so-called “kings” were wise men or astrologers, sometimes called magi (Latin for ‘magicians’), along the lines of Daniel in the Old Testament (e.g. Daniel 2:2). Also, we have no documentation that there were three of them. That number is assumed because of the three gifts listed by Matthew. It’s reasonable to think that Matthew simply listed a few example gifts after saying the men “opened their treasures” (2:11). It’s also reasonable to assume these men didn’t travel alone. Probably well-respected officials in a king (or kings) court(s), they would have brought an entourage and created a spectacle as they walked through Jerusalem.
Where did they come from? We don’t actually know. It wasn’t the Orient (back to the inaccurate carol) as we think of it today, meaning Eastern Asia. By “Orient” Mr. Hopkins meant the Near East: Persia, Babylon (where Daniel most certainly left a legacy), or the Arabian Peninsula. I know that frankincense is produced in Oman and Yemen, so they could have come from there.
Wise, Yes, but Neither Subtle nor Sophisticated
We can’t give the wise men any points for subtlety. Look what they did! They just waltzed into Jerusalem and started asking around about a new king. Herod was the king. He liked being king. He liked it so much that he killed anyone who threatened him. Then some foreigners in fancy clothes showed up and started looking for another king. Word got back to him quickly. (The text doesn’t say they went straight to Herod. Verse one just says they came to Jerusalem.)
To be wise men, it seems to me that these guys were rather unsophisticated, at least regarding how things worked in Jerusalem. They thought people would know about this new “king of the Jews” when Jesus had been born in a stable, cast aside by the world. They also thought Herod would be interested, if not excited. Well, he was interested…in a way. When Herod heard “the word on the street,” he held a conference with his own wise men to get the backstory. Then, he secretly (Had you noticed that before? I hadn’t. Matthew 2:7) called in the wise men and pointed them in the right direction. Look how Jim Key portrays Herod in Cotton Patch Gospel by Harry Chapin. (Watch the first thirty seconds, or watch the full five minutes to learn the repercussions of this situation.)
Undaunted by Obstacles
The wise men arrived in Jerusalem only to learn that no one had even heard about a new king. In fact, they had still further to travel; their only lead was that one verse from Micah, so they couldn’t be certain of an answer when they got there. Yet they didn’t give up. (Okay, so it’s only five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but this is still a good point!)
How many people give up just short of the finish line? In my life, I’ve been tempted to give up writing (as a career) several times in the last few months, but I keep thinking that results/answers may be really close! Compared to 1000 miles (the distance from Babylon to Jerusalem), five miles is easy. I’ve run five miles before. It’s not that far.
The wise men also didn’t give up when the star stopped above a humble house in a humble town in what many considered the armpit of the Roman Empire. Look at verse 11.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.
Walking into that little house wasn’t what they expected, but it was what they sought.
They went to Jerusalem, the capital city, expecting to find an honored king. He was born King of the Jews, after all (2:2). So walking into that little house in Bethlehem wasn’t what they expected to be the culmination of their journey. But it was what they sought.
How often do we seek God’s will with expectations or assumptions already in our minds? How often do we reject His provision because it doesn’t look right in our eyes? Oh friends! If the Holy Spirit has been leading me like the star led the wise men, then the answer is correct even if it looks paltry! I’m tempted to use more exclamation points here because this is BIG! And it just came to me right now as I was writing!! Cry with me at how often we think we have a better idea than God…how often we reject His perfection for our predictions!
The wise men got it. They humbled themselves. “They bowed down and worshiped him,” and then they responded exactly as we should. They opened their treasure chests—their valuable possessions—and gave Him the best gifts they had. Giving is a natural part of worship. They didn’t skimp or stutter. In those days, frankincense was more expensive than gold.
What about the gifts?
Here’s a random question: What did Mary and Joseph do with those weird gifts? Did they keep them forever? Maybe…just maybe…those gifts funded their trip to Egypt and their resettlement costs. It’s expensive to move. Mary and Joseph fled in the middle of the night (Matthew 2:14). They didn’t have time for a yard sale, and they couldn’t post a bunch of furniture on Craigslist. Maybe they sold those expensive things along the way. Isn’t that a beautiful idea? I have no clue, really, but this would have been a beautiful expression of God’s provision. The day before they have to move, a bunch of strangers load them down with relatively useless but very expensive gifts. Praise God!
Alpha and Omega
And now, one of the most beautiful parts of the story…and a great way to close this series.
In calling wise men, through the special star, God reached out to the highest level of society. In calling the shepherds, through an angel, He reached out to the dregs of society. The wise men were Gentiles. The shepherds were Jews. The wise men travelled a long way, spending much money to see Jesus. The shepherds walked into town. Do you see how broad God’s love is? When God says, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 22:13), He is using a literary device. It means that He is the ends and everything in between, like we say, “From A to Z.” This is what we have with the nativity visitors! Through Jesus’ coming, God reached out to the rich and the poor, the important and the overlooked, the near and the far, the fast-tracked and the outliers…and everyone in between. That means he reached out to you.
The days after Christmas are some of my favorite days in the year. If the weeks leading up to Christmas are a continual intake of air, culminating in an explosion of wrapping paper, cookies, and candle-lit Silent Nights, the days after Christmas are a long, slow exhale filled with reflection on the closing year and anticipation of the year to come. Maybe that’s why I like to ruminate on Simeon and Anna (although she’s not in this post), those ancient players in the closing scene of our Christmas tableau.
Identifying with I AM
We know so little about Simeon. We don’t know what tribe he claimed, what sort of family he had, or how old he was. But what we do know is the most important thing about him. He was righteous and devout. His identity (at least from this distance) is wrapped up in his relationship with God.
Story Break: What is the first thing people say about you? I pray that people say of me, “She loves Jesus” before they say anything about my career, my family, or my status in society.
Living with Expectancy
Simeon’s faithfulness over the years had created an enviable intimacy with God. Here we are, thirty-three years before Jesus sends the Comforter (a.k.a. the Holy Spirit; John 14:16-17, 26), and Luke says the Holy Spirit was already on Simeon. That means he operated in God’s will on a daily basis as he heard from the Holy Spirit and obeyed. As a result (and maybe as a reward), God promised him that he would see the Messiah before he died. In faith, Simeon believed the Lord before it ever happened and, like Abraham, God credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
Mary wasn’t the only expectant one
in the Christmas story.
When Simeon got the impression that he should go to the temple that particular day (2:27), he knew something was going on. Perhaps it wasn’t the first time God had called him there. Perhaps on other days he had ministered to the needy, counseled the hurting, or just spent the day in worship. Regardless, he knew there was a purpose in the calling, and he entered with expectancy.
Story Break: I used to think such a relationship with God/the Holy Spirit was a New Testament thing, some remarkable outpouring of the Spirit meant for that time. As I’ve grown in understanding how God works in the world, however, I have personally experienced that kind of leading…that urge to go to a certain place or speak to a certain person. It’s not mysticism or mental instability. It’s a clear impulse of the Holy Spirit that’s distinguishable from your own good ideas. There’s no “ought to” guilt or “have to” compulsion, just an impression or an implanted knowledge which results in obedience. When that happens (which is not as often as I would like), I automatically start looking around for what God is doing in that place or with that person. The prayer is, “Okay God, you brought me here. What now?” I expect something to happen because God is clearly at work.
Proof of the Promise
When Simeon saw the Baby Jesus, the Holy Spirit worked in his heart so that he recognized Jesus as the Messiah. In Him, Simeon held proof of the long-ago promise: the personal promise to him that he would see the Messiah before he died, and the universal promise that all nations will be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-2).
Simeon’s statement of praise gives us further evidence of this. He was expectant on a universal, for-all-time scale, saying, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel (2:32). He was also expectant on a personal, daily scale; my eyes have seen your salvation (2:30).
As a Christ-follower repeatedly obeys, he or she comes to see more and more of God’s plan unfolded on both scales, and that person begins to expect to see God working.
God likes shepherds. Just think about it. Moses was a shepherd for forty years. David was a shepherd before he became king. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). Of the twenty-one verses that Luke devotes to Jesus’ birth, thirteen of those are about the shepherds. That’s almost two-thirds.
Hired field hands. Unskilled labor. It was one step above unemployment: the graveyard shift, with constant exposure to the weather and meager pay, no education requirements and minimal on-the-job training. It was boring, thankless, and smelly.
So you have to ask, “Why?” (At least I have to ask. Maybe you don’t, but I ask God a lot of questions.) Of all the options God had…of all the population segments he could have chosen (even among the working class)…why choose shepherds? I think the answer is in the question. It’s one of those surprising things God does that is so very far from what we would expect of God, which is why He does it. Can we just delight in that fact for a second?
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
The shepherds could celebrate
God chose them exactly because they were such an unlikely choice. Because the wise, the strong, the important all try to take some of the glory for themselves. As Paul puts it, they boast in front of Him. But shepherds? They knew better than to boast. They understood their proper position before the God of the Universe. They could just celebrate without self-consciousness. Oh, that we were all a bit more like the shepherds…except without the stink.
Let’s take a look at a couple of interesting things about the shepherds.
They don’t doubt.
The shepherds went to Bethlehem for the spectacle, not because they were skeptical.
After the angels leave, the shepherds don’t sit around and discuss what just happened. They don’t wonder if they hallucinated, neither do they question what the angel really said. In other words, they never doubt the veracity of the angels’ message. When they say, “Let’s go…see this thing” (2:15), they go for the spectacle, not because they are skeptical.
This response demonstrates an already-burgeoning faith because they haven’t actually seen anything yet. Later, Jesus will say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
When they got a word from God, they “hurried off” (2:16). Yep—hurried. Not “wandered,” not “made a plan.” Do we hurry to grab a bigger chunk of what God is doing? I know I’m more likely to doubt, then pray, then plan, then get distracted…until the opportunity has slipped by unheeded and I’m found disobedient despite having received a clear word from the Lord.
They start sharing.
As soon as the shepherds see Jesus in Bethlehem, they start spreading the word. I imagine they crowd into the stable (or whatever it is), some peeking in through the windows, some carrying baby lambs, some leaving their shepherd’s crooks outside the door. After a few “oohs” and “ahhs,” it dawns on them that this news is too good to keep to themselves. One by one, they remember someone they know in town, maybe a relative or the guy who runs the candle stand, and they step away to find that person. In a few minutes, they come back half-leading, half-dragging a still-groggy cousin or a grumbling shopkeeper. Those secondary people realize what has happened and are “amazed at what the shepherds said” (2:18). They, in turn, go back to get even more people. Perhaps this is what Mary “treasured up…and pondered in her heart” (2:19).
The shepherds were counted worthy of greeting the Messiah!
Only later do the shepherds return, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (2:20). They were counted worthy of greeting the Messiah and of telling others! We’ve also been counted worthy, haven’t we?
I had always thought of Joseph…when I bothered to think about him at all…as the strong, silent type, playing a supporting role for the stars of the Christmas show, Jesus and Mary. In the cast of Christmas, his role seemed rather minor, more of a passenger than a driver. But then one year, God stopped me there in Matthew 1. I slowed down and really considered all the challenges Joseph faced, all the moments when he could have acted differently, and all the faithfulness he demonstrated in just two chapters of the Bible. He is the human driver of this story and a man who deserves our attention.
Joseph had at least
four angelic dreams.
Notice the sequence of events here in Matthew 1 and 2. (I had it backward until just the other day, so don’t be embarrased.) First, he learns that Mary is pregnant, then there’s a time of indecision, then the dream with an angel, then officially taking pregnant Mary as his wife. Even after the Baby is born, we’re only part-way through the story. In another dream, he gets another command—this time to run away to Egypt so that Jesus doesn’t get killed. A couple of years later, the same angel appears again to tell him it’s safe to go back to Israel, but on the way, he learns (in yet another dream) that Judea isn’t safe enough, so he relocates his family to Nazareth, in Galilee. By the way, all these moves fulfill all kinds of prophecies. Check your notes in you study Bible if you want to dig into that aspect of the story.
Let’s take a few minutes to step into Joseph’s sandals back there in Nazareth at the very beginning of this story…
The News that Wrecks a Life
Joseph doesn’t get the benefit of a pre-conception angelic announcement. He hears about Mary’s pregnancy the old-fashioned way: word of mouth. I want to think that Mary told him. (See last week’s post for more about Mary.) I hope it wasn’t the town gossip, the guys at the barber shop, or a nosy aunt.
Think about all the emotions he must have experienced after he heard the news…
Skepticism: Was Mary telling the truth about the Immaculate Conception? (You don’t get to use that phrase every day…) As wonderful as she was, what was the likelihood?
Joseph was more interested
in doing the right thing
than in saving his reputation.
Compassion: He liked, maybe even loved, Mary and he didn’t want her to be exposed, judged, and stoned according to the Mosaic law (Deut 22:22-24). He needed to find another solution for their dilemma. Note that he has already taken ownership in the situation. He could have simply rejected Mary the moment he heard the news, but he was more interested in doing the right thing than in saving his reputation.
Anxiety: If he didn’t expose Mary, people would think poorly of him because either (a) he was a push-over for taking a ‘tainted’ woman or (b) he lacked the self-control to wait for their wedding night.
Shame: Having already entered into a marriage contract with Mary and her family, Mary’s action reflected poorly on him regardless of what he decided.
Fear of the future: No matter what he did now, his carefully-planned-out life was about to crumble at his feet.
From the moment Joseph heard the news about Mary, I think he was praying. Maybe he called in a couple of trusted friends to pray with him; maybe he went to his rabbi.
Joseph’s faithfulness to the law and his years of studying the Scriptures
prepared him for this situation—whether he knew it or not.
How long did he pray? We don’t know. At some point, Mary went to Elizabeth’s for three months, so it could have been as long as that. Or it might have been less than one day. Finally, he decided to divorce Mary quietly (1:19). But then he fell asleep one night…
The Dream that Changes Everything
That first dream must have been the most welcome event EVER (1:20-23). I’m sure there was a radical shift in Joseph’s emotions afterward!
Relief: Mary hadn’t lied or been unfaithful. In fact, she was the top choice of God Himself! He had chosen a wife well.
Confidence: God not only saw his situation, but actively orchestrated it. Even though life still wouldn’t go back to normal, he knew God was sovereign (in that experiential way, not just because he’d read it in a book).
Fear of the Lord: Such sovereignty wasn’t to be taken lightly. In the future, he would pay careful attention to God’s workings and follow Him even more closely. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
Heredity: For forty-two generations (Matthew 1:17), the Hebrew people had been watching for the One who would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2). Even before that, God foretold of the One who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Like the author of Hebrews talked about such a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), perhaps Joseph felt those generations looking now to him.
Responsibility: Joseph knew his Scriptures. He knew all the Messianic prophecies. He knew how long his people had been waiting. Now God had chosen him to be the earthly father of the Messiah…to teach him how to live in the world, how to be a Jewish man, how to honor God through following the law. That’s pretty significant.
Acceptance: I think Joseph released that carefully-planned-out life, exchanging it for the exhilaration of true obedience.
I’ve never had a dream in which an angel appeared to me and told me what to do. I wish I had. Some of the decisions I’ve had to make would have been much easier! You probably feel the same way. These days, we have the Holy Spirit, so God doesn’t often resort to dream appearances. We still go through the same emotions though, as we pray and search for His answer. Joseph woke up from the dream and obeyed. That’s our model.
Joseph to Mary: “Let me
share your shame.”
There’s something else here that’s really beautiful and encouraging for us. God provided Joseph as a partner for Mary. Yes, in the marital sense, but also in the spiritual sense. Throughout the Scriptures, He rarely asks individuals to “go it alone” (except for the prophets). I think of Daniel and his friends, David and Jonathan, Mary and Martha, the disciples going two-by-two. In Joseph, Mary had the firm pillar she needed to support her…even if he wasn’t much help with the childbirth.
I hope you’ve seen something fresh in Joseph today. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!