How wonderful and intriguing is the Christmas story! And not least is that dramatic part of it which tells of the visit of the wise men (or Magi). This visit of the “wise men” is in actual fact probably a little post-Christmas; Matthew’s Gospel alone records the incident and there is no mention of a “stable” or a manger, and Mary and her baby appear to have been found by the magi in a “house”. Reflecting this, their visit is celebrated in the Anglican Church calendar two weeks after Christmas day. Hence this post-Christmas blog. I hasten to add, however, that it is a very happy act of traditional license which puts the whole narrative together, since none of the meaning of the story is lost and, providentially (it seems to me), the traditional story ministers beautifully to the faith and imagination of children. That is important because the Christmas story indelibly underlines the value of children to God. Jesus, in being “made man”, lived in a womb, was born a baby and grew up as a child. Bringing up a child, therefore, is a great and important calling; no child should be an “afterthought”, much less an intrusion! They deserve an introduction to Jesus in such a beautiful and appropriate way.
But there are, however, profound lessons for adults in the visit of the Magi. The main lesson stems from the fact that we have Magi (the number of them is not specified in Matthew, and neither is their precise status) who come “from the East” in order to worship this King who is to be born to the Jews. These men are not Jews; very clearly and significantly they are Gentiles. All the other participants in the Christmas story are Jews, even Jesus himself, and he is to be King of the Jews. The Magi have come to do homage to the king and to worship him. The true significance of this is that they are the forerunners of those who through the coming ages were to fulfil the great prophecy of Isaiah concerning his Messiah in which God said, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). It resonates well with the remarkable account in Luke in which Jesus was brought into the Temple a month or so after his birth, and Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit, spoke prophetically over the child with very similar words, “my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel” (Lk. 2:29-32). There is no doubt that this is exactly as Matthew understood the coming of the Magi; it was not just a gratuitous wonder story for the ignorant and illiterate, but a real event of great prophetic importance. These Magi were both fulfilling prophecy and also pointing prophetically to what the future would hold. He is saying to us in this story “Jesus is not simply Saviour to the Jews but to all mankind”. It is worth noting in this connection that Matthew not only begins his gospel with a focus on the Saviour and the “world”, but in his concluding chapter he leaves us with Jesus saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt28:18).
We are all familiar with the theme of the nativity of Jesus being attended by poverty and identification with the poor. Jesus was indeed a king but was not born in a palace, and his angelic heralds spoke to working shepherds not to royalty. But the Magi do not fit into this theme. Whether we can legitimately call them “kings” may be in doubt, but they were clearly men of very considerable substance, standing and wisdom, and professionally as astrologers would at the very least stand close to kings. They were important enough to stir the whole city when they arrived in Jerusalem asking where the King of the Jews was to be born, and Herod took them very seriously (Matt 1:3). Their exalted positon gives a further prophetic dimension; as they knelt before the child Jesus they represented the wisdom of the world submitting to the Christ of God, and they pointed to a fulfilment of Isaiah prophecy, “many nations will be amazed at Him, and kings will shut their mouths because of him” (Isaiah 52:15).
We need to recognise that we are very much in our own times a witness to the prophetic truth of this story. Some of us, for example, have lived long enough to see tens of millions of people from all over the world becoming Christians and kneeling before Jesus. We have, for example, seen China not only drawing level with the U.S.A. economically and militarily, but also in terms of its Christian population. A century ago that would have seemed an impossible development on all those fronts, and least of all in the spiritual dimension. More recently, despite all the carnage revolution and war in the Middle East we have seen thousands upon thousands of Arabs coming to Jesus. The striking feature of these huge waves of conversions has been that they have taken place not for political or economic gain (producing “rice Christians”), but against the strongest political and religious persecution. They have been the result of the “power of the Holy Spirit”. Looking at the world from our place in the West it is almost as though we are hearing those words coming across the globe saying again, “We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him”! In addition the miraculous manifestations of visions and healings by which many of these modern “Gentiles” have come to Jesus are equally reminiscent of the manifestation of the star of the Magi. I have listened to such testimony at source and their authenticity is not in doubt.
There is one great difference between the story of the Magi and the story of Gentiles coming to faith in our own generation. The Magi were at the beginning of the process. We are at a point where the end seems to be coming into sight. As Christians, amid all the chaos and troubles of our time, we need to keep a clear grasp of the fact that the fulfilment of God’s purpose in bringing in the fullness of the Gentiles is moving at a pace we have never seen before. The world is currently a great harvest field and the reapers are very busy. Whatever else this year may bring forth, it will certainly bring widespread additions into God’s harvest. This is a fact which makes it possible to respond to the call to “Rejoice in the Lord!” whatever the outward circumstances. It should stimulate us to look for His Coming – the real Epiphany!
What about “Herod’s Men”, and the dark shadow they cast over the story of the “Wise Men”? It is certainly not something appropriate for children to linger over with its gruesome description of the destruction of children. None the less, it puts a focus on one of the most disturbing features of reality that we are all too often seeing on our screens and reading in the news. Commonly described in art and literature as the “Massacre of the Innocents” the murderous work of Herod’s men is disturbingly prophetic. It is as much a part of our modern world as is the ingathering of the Gentiles. Indeed it is part and parcel of the story of that ingathering throughout history. Herod’s men have always been around and are still very much with us!
Herod the Great was the archetypal autocrat; paranoiac and intensely jealous for his position, power and wealth. He was vicious, cruel, scheming, clever and utterly ruthless, and he had gained his power and maintained it by those means. Hearing of this new birth of a king from the magi, he immediately perceived a serious threat and so the child must be removed. If the child could not be identified every suspect child must go. But unhappily Herod is not just found in history. We can find a very considerable number of “Herods” in our modern world. Every day one or another of them is in the news. Some are petty tyrants, some rule very large countries. Like Herod of old they tangle with anything and anyone which has the true flavour of Jesus about them. Christians are an immediate threat to their pride and position, and to the reign of fear that alone keeps them in power. As creatures of darkness they hate the light of Christ. The sword is quickly out and the men that wield them move ruthlessly about their business of suppression. It was precisely in this way that Jesus himself died; though in his death the wrath of men was seen to work out the purposes of God, for no tyrant can suppress the Living God.
So today we see not only a world in which the Gentiles are coming to Jesus in their multitudes, but a world in which the “powers that be” are all too ready to respond with the sword. The story of the Wise Men is no fairyland fable. It is a hugely prophetic paradigm for our times. Our eyes need to be keenly focussed on working for the light to shine more and more on the Gentiles, and focussed on those who in our generation live and suffer under the shadow of Herod’s sword.
Bob Dunnett 04/01/18
“EMMANUEL – GOD WITH US”
“The Word became flesh”
“He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”
For me one of the most exciting things about the Christmas story is the sheer exuberance and blatant joy with which it revels in the “other worldly” and the supernatural. We have angels manifesting themselves and speaking out heavenly announcements, angels in great numbers gloriously filling the night sky; we have the miraculous birth of John the Baptist and then an even more miraculous virgin birth for Mary; we have a very bright star hovering over the birth place of Jesus, having been followed by magi from the East. There are some, of course, who would feel much more comfortable if all this were reduced to “folklore”, and the Christian faith kept securely to the “rational” and the “ethical”. Indeed that is what many “Christian” scholars and commentators have actually striven to do, and still strive to do. But, happily, the story of Christmas is not about man and his “rationality”; it is a story about GOD. God is on the scene at Christmas and revealing something of his hidden glory that we don’t normally see.
It is a brave (or even “impertinent”) person who would seek to put God in a rational box, and deny Him any activity or creativity beyond our normal common human experience. Take the angels for example. God, as creator has brought into being an extraordinary wonderful planet perfectly fitted for the equally extraordinary creation of human beings. His creativity in the universe still goes on, baffling and amazing us. On what reasonable basis, then, can one deny Him creating a whole myriad of other beings, spiritual beings, in some other realm where He has a more “visible” existence? On what reasonable basis can we deny these spiritual beings access to this creation of ours when God so wishes? We have to “let God be God”, and angels be angels! If we have any faith in God at all, we must allow him to be infinitely bigger than our own comprehension. We simply cannot tie him down to our own human experience and understanding. If we do we betray a lack of grasp on the sheer greatness of God!
Part of our problem as Christians is that we tend by default to make him in our own image and make him much smaller than he is, as though he were tied down by the normal rules and regulations of this creation. We need to remember that he made this creation and he is much bigger than this creation. He can, and does, add the miraculous touch to the normal workings of the world; he can make things work out differently in our lives in answer to prayer. He can “tweak” the natural processes as he wishes – and he indeed does! When we start to acknowledge him and walk in fellowship with him the course of our lives will change and change for the better, and the providences of our lives will also change for the better. So we need to rejoice in the greatness, the power and the glory of God!
The supreme miracle of Christmas, however, is of course that God “took on” human flesh in the person of Jesus. Inevitably, therefore, there had to be a virgin birth where the “Father” (so to speak) of the Child could only be the life-creating Holy Spirit, the One who alone is “The Lord and Giver of Life”. But at the same time the miracle happened on account of the simple faith of Mary, the woman who was to bear the child. What a challenge that simple faith in a big God is to us! At the human level we need to believe more in our God, and more in his power and willingness to use it on our behalf.
What does the “incarnation” say to us? I always think first of the fact that it puts immense value on us human beings. I want to exclaim with the Psalmist, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” God has not “taken the form” of an angel, but he has taken human form! In reaching out and identifying with us God indicates how precious we are to him. Drinking in this truth should in no way breed in us proud complacency, but humble thankfulness, and it is intended that it should produce in us a profoundly deep inner satisfaction and peace. Equally, if we want any basis for our attitude toward other human beings in this world, then we may find it spelt out crystal clear in this human birth of Jesus, the Son of God. His identification with us means we are to treat other human beings with the greatest respect, and we are to be careful with human life at all its stages. Human life is sacrosanct.
Sometimes we hear or read the comment that Jesus became human in order that we in our turn might become divine, and in that way his incarnation brought us our salvation. That sounds wonderful and logical, but it is a statement to be carefully clarified. In the first place it is not the purpose of God to make us “divine” or “give us divinity”. We are human beings, a creation of God, and will always remain so in the world to come. Divinity is not something we are destined for. However, what is true, and is indeed wonderful, is that we are destined to be filled with the Spirit of God and to be people in whom God dwells by his Spirit; our humanity will be shot through with the divine presence. Moreover, the extraordinary fact is that we can begin to experience something of this destiny even now, for already the Holy Spirit has been poured out and indwells those who follow the Christ. We already have a glorious “first instalment” of the kind of being we shall be in the world to come. Our glory will be, not that we become divine, but that God will live in us and fill us with his nature.
We need also to keep in mind the fact that wonderful though it is, the incarnation in itself is not sufficient to bring to us the forgiveness of sin by which alone the Holy Spirit may come and dwell with us and inside us. The incarnation can teach us of the love of God for us and for humanity, it can teach us of the “humility” of God and his great grace, and it can teach us something of the lengths to which God was ready to go on behalf of humanity. In a real sense it was truly a sacrifice on God’s part for us. But it was not the sacrifice for sin that alone could bring us back into the presence of God, forgiven and cleansed and thus ready for the indwelling Spirit. That took place on the cross. It was there that a perfect and totally innocent human being voluntary took on himself the punishment due to the rest of humanity on account of its sin, the punishment of being “cut off” from God. Such a spotless sacrifice could not have taken place without the incarnation for only in such manner could a “second human and sinless Adam” have been born.
The cross became possible because of the incarnation; the incarnation found its purpose fulfilled in the cross; the baby was after all presented prophetically with myrrh.
O come, let us adore Him!
And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth
Peace among men of goodwill” Lk 2:14
“Yet midst the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain has rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
the love song which they bring:
O hush the noise ye men of strife
and hear the angels sing”
Rev. Sears 1849
Christmas is close upon us, and this year no doubt, as with previous years, our Christmas cards will bring the word “PEACE” to our attention. Many cards will simply have on the front just this word “PEACE” in large letters against a suitable and richly coloured background. It should strike a deep chord. Peace is the deep longing and need of innumerable people all over the world. Everywhere, from needy individual hearts right up to the whole world of the nations, the cry is the same, a longing cry for peace. But it constantly escapes us. Yet this is the great promise of Christmas. This is what the angels sang about in the Christmas story, “peace on earth”; this is what was being offered; this peace is at the heart of Christmas. This is a very great gift; peace of heart and the deep serenity that surrounds it are worth more than a mountain of riches. Peace is a facet of “the pearl of great price”.
For most people Christmas brings a temporary respite of parties, presents and festivities of different kinds. But “peace on earth”, where does that fit in? That seems like wishful thinking. It seems to belong to the “fairy story” bit of Christmas. The great traditional carol which starts off with the verse, “It came across the midnight clear that glorious song of old……..peace on earth, good will to men” continues, however, with the verse quoted above which speaks of the “world suffering through the woes of sin and strife”, of “two thousand years of wrong” and “man at war with man”. We can relate to that sentiment. It is certainly not wishful thinking, nor a fairy story. Violence, wrong-doing and strife make up the stark reality of life.
The author was right to bring into his carol the sober reality of the strife of human existence. The Christmas story is not just a blind or ineffectual wishing of peace upon people. It goes much deeper than that. It recognises the fact that the world (that is people everywhere) has lost real peace and needs to know how to reach peace. It not only proclaims peace but shows the way to find it. The heart of the story is in the birth of a child, who is named by the angel as “Jesus”. Biblical names mean something, and “Jesus” means “Saviour” or “God saves”. His life’s work was enshrined in that name. He came to save people from their inherent propensity to selfishness and strife. In other words he came to challenge the fundamental problem of humanity, which is human “nature” as we know it. People have an inbuilt tendency to do the very things that destroy peace in their lives, and in Jesus God wants to do something about that problem.
Running through the bible there is one very simple proposition concerning our human living, and that is that righteousness of life and peace are inextricably linked together. We are told quite bluntly that “there is no peace for the wicked” (Is. 48:22) but “the end of the upright man is peace” (Ps 37:37), and (more poetically), “righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10), that is to say righteousness and peace “belong” to each other, they are united in the most intimate of ways. Peace cannot be dis-associated from character and godliness. So the Christmas story comes not simply with a vague wish for peace but with a clear challenge to live righteously and uprightly.
The Christ child has a fundamental role to play in this. It is not simply that he was born to live a model life of righteousness himself, something for us to copy. Our problem of living uprightly is much deeper than that, for we do not have within us the resources to live a truly upright life. He was born first to bring forgiveness to each one of us, since each one of us has failed in the walk of righteousness, and second to impart to us his own Spirit by Whom we may receive the inner resources and motivation to live uprightly. Both of these can come to us, not so much by his life as by his death. The Cross saw him bear the punishment of our sins, and his resurrection led to him securing the gift of the Spirit of God to infuse us with both a longing for godliness and with the power to be godly.
Christmas, then, is not just a party time! It’s a time of challenge. The challenge is to acknowledge our need of peace, our need to live in a godly manner in order to obtain it, our need to find the resources for godliness in Jesus and our need to come to him in faith and commitment. Where this is done peace will come, where this is rejected “Woe and strife will continue to prevail.
The Christmas message is not peripheral sentimentality, but a fundamental need everywhere in our world.
There are many who will find great peace by simply going into their own room and “kneeling at the manger” in commitment.
Bob Dunnett 1/12/17