Monday, December 24, 2012

A Bunch of
Wise Guys

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”.
Matthew 2:1

Right before Christmas, Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and a supporting cast of characters emerged from their hiding place under the basement stairs and formed a vignette on our dining room buffet. As a child, this for me was the most important part of Christmas. Somehow, it felt that their presence made Jesus himself feel very, very real.

One thing that confused me was the wise men. The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in early January. Why did they get a separate holy day? They were part of the Nativity set along with the shepherds. They were there too, weren’t they?

Tradition names three wise men: Caspar, Melchoir and Balthazar. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t mention how many wise men there were, only the gifts they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Isaiah 60:6 gives a glimpse into the makeup of the contingent who showed up on Herod’s doorstep.

“A multitude of camels (from the eastern trading tribes) shall cover you (Jerusalem), the young camels from Midian and Ephah, all the men from Sheba (who once came to trade) shall come, bringing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”(emphasis mine)

Matthew 2:3 states the arrival of the Magi not only upset Herod but also all of Jerusalem. Three men on camels would have gone unnoticed in the bustle of the busy city. A caravan of Magi, complete with their security force caused an uproar and for good reason. So, who was this bunch of wise guys?

According to Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, the Magi during the rule of Cyrus the Great became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian (Babylon) empire. Later under Xerxes their scope of influence was extended to strategic military planning. Afforded considerable privileges they were an integral part of the empire’s government.

One unusual responsibility they held was the selection, and if necessary, the removal of the king. Herod’s realm, Palestine, was once under Persian domination. At this time in history, Rome was experiencing internal difficulties. The emperor was old. The retirement of Tiberius, the Roman general, left a vacuum in military leadership. Rumblings of revolt in Armenia shortly proved successful. The only thing preventing the Parthians from re-establishing claims to the extreme provinces of the Roman empire, was its own internal struggles.

The Magi were familiar with Jewish beliefs including prophecies of a coming Messiah/King. Daniel, during the Jews exile in Babylon, was probably a Magi. These men understood the significance of the star announcing the birth of the hope of the Jewish people.

“I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh; There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel…”                              Numbers 24:17

Matthew 2:7-12 details the rest of the story. Herod met privately with the royal visitors and pumped them for information about this king they sought. The religious leaders and teachers were consulted. They pointed to Bethlehem as the place to find him. Herod sent the Magi on their way. He requested they return on their way home and share the exact location of this new monarch so that he, Herod, could go and pay his respects also. Resuming their journey, the Magi were delighted to find the star once again pointing the way. Finding the object of their search, they worshipped the Christ child and presented their gifts. Being a bunch of “wise guys” they heeded the warning they received in a dream and returned home via a different route. This gave Joseph, also warned in a dream, ample time to take Mary and Jesus safely to Egypt.

“Truth is stranger than fiction” and in this case the truth is much more intriguing than tradition. The Magi weren’t at the stable; they visited the family in a house much later. Their inclusion into the Nativity scene serves as a reminder of their willingness to undergo the arduous trek to find the new king, not a re-enactment of historical fact. The bible doesn’t mention that the arrival of a bunch of wise guys in Bethlehem even raised an eyebrow. Did the residents of this little town know something their big city counterparts didn’t? I wonder…..

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Show and Tell

“Jesus said go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor.”
Matthew 11:4-6

When you go to church what do you hear and see? Do you hear good music or anointed worship? Do you receive a word from God or a sedative? Do you see the power of God demonstrated? Do you leave the same way you entered or are you transformed?

Jesus employed a simply ministry strategy, Show and Tell.

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Matthew 9:35

Jesus introduced people to the Kingdom of God in word and action. As a result, lives were changed. Paul, the apostle, successfully copied this method.

“My message and preaching were not with wise and persuasive words but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power.” 1 Corinthians 2:4-5

Acts 28 relates Paul’s adventures on the island of Malta. En route to Rome and an audience with Caesar, Paul was shipwrecked. He, along with the other survivors, found shelter on Malta. While helping build a fire, Paul was bitten by a poisonous viper. Not one to panic, he shook it off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The impact on those who witnessed this was, “they changed their minds and said he (Paul) was a god”,
verse 6.

Paul attained celebrity status instantly. Publius, the island’s official, opened his home and entertained Paul and his traveling companions. Publius’ father was ill. Paul prayed for him and the man was healed. An island wide miracle crusade erupted and, “the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured”, verse 9. There isn’t any record of Paul preaching to anyone, although I believe it is safe to assume that he shared the gospel. “A picture is worth a thousand words” and the visible demonstrations of the power of God spoke volumes.

Do you think the pervasive negative attitude toward Christianity might shift if, in churches across the board, people entered sick and left healed? What if food, water, gas or whatever shortages were alleviated by believers partnering with God in miracles of multiplication? Could tangible demonstrations of Kingdom power lend credence to sermons preached? People would get the message even if the speaker couldn’t string two decent sentences together.

Modern society is fascinated with the supernatural. As spirit beings, this part of our nature finds the limits of our natural world boring and confining. We know there has to be more. Just because something is supernatural doesn’t mean it’s good or from God. Unfortunately the church has dropped the ball in this arena and the vacuum created has been filled with the demonic. This never produces positive results.

Christians have come up with some nifty excuses to explain away our powerlessness. Jesus made it clear that working miracles and manifestations of Kingdom power were hallmarks of all believers, not just a special group of “super Christians”.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I’ve been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask anything in my name and I will do it.” John 14:12-14 (emphasis mine)

We’ve got Jesus’ permission to imitate Him and do what He did. When we do this, God gets glory. In a culture captivated with the paranormal why not give people a healthy dose of the real thing? So, how do we do what Jesus did? Follow His example.

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself, he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also. John 5:19

Jesus followed His Father’s lead and it required faith on His part as well as the people He ministered to. God uses unconventional methods to produce miraculous results; prepare your self to look foolish. It takes faith to pull this off, and faith is what pleases God.

“Talk’s cheap, takes money to buy land”; “Put you money where your mouth is”; “Put up or shut up”; these drive home the point that actions speak louder than words. Our nation and the whole world face problems on a scale beyond the scope of human intellect and wisdom. Demonstrations of the power of the Kingdom of God are desperately needed. These will go a long way to touch the lives and reach the hearts of those whose minds and ears are closed to the gospel. Keep it simple, Show and Tell, and watch God make the impossible possible.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

You Can Afford It.

A gift opens the way for a giver and ushers him into the presence of the great.
Proverbs 18:16

Moses received detailed plans for constructing the Tabernacle including the altar of incense and the rules governing its use. Twice daily an offering was burned on the altar in the privacy of the Holy Place. The recipe for this incense was spelled out in detail and the formula was used strictly for the Tabernacle rites. Violation of this law resulted in banishment from the community, Exodus 30: 34-38.

“Tanchuma (Tetzaveh 14) concludes that incense is the most intimate and personal of sacrifices, for all other sacrifices are brought on the outer altar of stone, whereas incense is burnt on the inner altar of gold, in the proximity of the Holy of Holies, where God’s spirit dwells…

The Holy One, Blessed is He, declared: Of all the sacrifices that Israel offers to Me, there is none so dear as the incense. Sin offerings, guilt offerings and even burnt offerings atone for errors and misdeeds. Only the incense is pure, for it is offered solely to give Me joy as Proverbs 27:9 states: Ointment and incense rejoice the heart.” Tehillim, Psalm 141

According to the Chumash, the Jewish sages exegetically determined that there were eleven ingredients in the incense. One was galbanum which has a foul aroma. Eleven is the number of imperfection. Neither the priest making the offering, nor the incense, were perfect. God loved it. He enjoyed it so much He required a double dose daily. Had He demanded perfection in this offering He’d never get it. Provision was made for imperfection.  

Of all God’s creation, time is the only thing man possesses and controls how it’s used. Prayer is designating a portion of our time to God. When we bring a gift of our time in the form of prayer we are ushered into the Presence of God. We bring Him joy and have His undivided attention.

In the same way the incense was exclusively used for offerings, our prayers are to God alone; no other person or thing. With Him as the sole object of our time and attention, prayer deserves to be a special event. This doesn’t rule out or negate spontaneous prayer. Circumstances and situations arise and warrant them.

The incense offering highlighted the importance of incorporating specific times for prayer into our daily routine. How and when the offerings were made was spelled out, but the length of time spent fulfilling that duty was at the priest’s discretion. There isn’t a universal perfect amount of time to pray; every day and every person is different. What matters is we designate a time to spend alone with God daily.

As the holiday season descends the familiar dilemma arises – what do you give someone who has every thing and needs nothing? God falls into this category. For Him, the perfect gift is imperfect prayer offered by imperfect people who refuse to let their imperfections keep them from giving God the best they have. Why not splurge on God this year, you can afford it!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

“I Don’t Feel Like It!”

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Ghost you may abound in hope.”
 Romans 15:3 ESV

Joy and peace in believing sounds at times like an oxymoron. They seem more like the result of a promise or hope fulfilled than helpers while waiting for that manifestation to appear. Walking by faith for me more often resembles a roller coaster ride than a smooth cake walk. The longer the wait the greater the challenge it is to keep joy and peace center stage. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s usually how things play out.

Paul understood our need for supernatural assistance in this area. Holy Spirit’s power keeps us abounding in hope. Biblical hope isn’t wishful thinking. “Hmm, if I won the lottery I’d….” It’s the confident expectation that what one believes will come to pass.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Proverbs 13:12

It’s hard to stand for a protracted period without evidence of progress. Joy and peace sustain us through the wait. My problem is keeping these two rascals in place; they seem to sneak out and slip away too easily.

I know all the “right” things to do: pray, focus on God’s Word, pray more, sow into other’s lives, pray longer, guard my thoughts and speech, pray without ceasing; all these work. Things break down because of me. I don’t faithfully do them because “I Don’t Feel Like It.” As opposed to flowing in Holy Spirit’s power I’m gritting my teeth and digging in my heels; self effort as opposed to supernatural strength. Proverbs 13:12 stresses the importance of joy and peace while believing: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” Discouragement and fatigue arise and paint a hopeless picture. “Just quit” they whisper, “you already feel like giving up. Don’t fight it anymore.”

Ignore the lies. Proverbs 13:12 also reminds us that hope fulfilled is as “a tree of life.” This isn’t a scrawny “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree”; imagine a mighty sequoia. A tree of life has roots that hold it steadfast in adverse conditions. Fully mature and developed, the tree sustains itself and provides for the needs of others. The natural realm mirrors the spirit realm. Real trees take years (groan) to grow to maturity; no short cuts there or in spiritual growth.

Joy and peace are states of mind, not emotions like happiness. Feelings are facts but not always the truth. This unusual example illustrates the point. When MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology was developed and the first machines built, the factory offered free screenings to the employees. One worker discovered he had an inoperable brain tumor and subsequently died as the result. This man felt fine, a fact. The truth was, despite his feelings, he had a terminal illness. If I feel unhappy it doesn’t mean I don’t have joy. Confusion and uncertainty don’t mean I’ve lost my peace. My feelings may mask the truth but my faith walk isn’t determined by how I feel. It’s based on what is true.

Telling our self and others “I Don’t Feel Like It” when it comes to doing what’s necessary to maintain my joy and peace is a cop out. We’re all experts at doing what we don’t want to. We get up and out of bed in the morning when we’d rather sleep in. We go to work when we’d rather be anywhere else but there. We’re nice to people when we’d rather chop them off at the knees. We pay our taxes even though we know some of those responsible for spending them are incompetent idiots. I can even eat chocolate cake when I would rather have vegetables; just kidding about the vegetables not the chocolate cake. We know how to do what’s necessary. We can maintain joy and peace. Some days are easier than other and Holy Spirit provides the power moment by moment. When you, someone or something else tries to move you off target firmly tell them, “No, I Don’t Feel Like It!”