Posts Tagged With: magi

Wise Men and Wisdom

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:9–11).

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True wisdom comes from God and directs its attention to God. The wise men worshiped Jesus, because divine wisdom led them to do so. Worldly wisdom would have led them otherwise. “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Paolo Veronese [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, many churches celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the wise men who visited Jesus. This feast brings the Christmas season to an end, but it also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the wise men and the nature of biblical wisdom. We can recognize that true wisdom has both a divine source and a divine focus. It comes from God and it directs us to seek our greatest needs and desires from Him.

The wise men sought a meeting with “he who has been born king of the Jews.” While in their homeland (possibly Persia), they had seen a star which led them to believe that a great king had been born for the Jewish people. So, they came to meet this great king. First, the went to the most logical place to find a king of the Jews: the palace of King Herod. There were no newborn princes there. So, they went to Bethlehem where, according to Old-Testament prophecy, the Messiah would be born. The star directed them to the home of a poor young couple and their baby boy. Against common sense, they offered their royal gifts to this working-class poor baby.

True wisdom did not submit to common sense: It followed God’s direction. They found the king of the Jews, not in a royal palace, but in a common family’s home. They worshiped God where He chose to reveal Himself, not where it would seem to make sense.

When we read the Old Testament, we usually associate “wisdom” with King Solomon. First Kings 3:12 tells us that God gave him “a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.” Solomon’s wisdom is the fount from which most of the Book of Proverbs flowed.

Although the book does not specifically say it is written by him, Ecclesiastes is also usually ascribed to Solomon. Many Christians believe he wrote it near the end of his life, as he reflected on his greatest accomplishments and deepest disappointments. The passage at the beginning of this post is one of many from that book, reflecting his discovery that his boldest pursuits were “vanity and a striving after wind.”

If you wonder what that phrase means, step outside, catch the wind in your hands, and then bring it indoors and place it on your table. It will not work. You may feel the wind hitting your hand, but when you close your fingers around it, you will realize you have nothing. The air molecules that have pelted your palm immediately float elsewhere leaving you with nothing.

This illustrates how many live our lives. We grasp for something, and we find we have nothing. Or we grab hold of something, and we find that we have gained something worthless. We fool ourselves into believing one of life’s great lies: That happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of personal significance or meaning in life can be found in the things of this world.

Take time to read Ecclesiastes. Although written thousands of years ago, some of Solomon’s temptations and frustrations sound very current. He sought and achieved great wealth. He amassed power and influence. He pursued pleasure. He thought great building projects or other noble accomplishments would bring him satisfaction. Yet, throughout his life, he learned that all of these things could be lost in a moment. He would one day pass his wealth on to his heirs, and may one day be forgotten by his descendants. (I wonder if anybody has ever gone to ancestry.com and traced their family tree back to King Solomon? Probably not.) Those things that seemed to bring joy, satisfaction, and significance all seemed to end in emptiness, vanity, and chasing after wind.

However, this was not a cause for despair:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).

The flaw of worldly wisdom and common sense is that it focuses on everything that happens “under the sun” and does not recognize its source and focus in God Himself. The pleasures, passions, and purposes we often seek are temporary; a focus on God Himself is eternal.

I wonder about the aftermath of the Magi’s visit. Magi were usually employed by their king, so their visit was probably intended to be as much political as spiritual. Yet, they did not find what they expected. They did not cut a political treaty for their king with a powerful ruler. Instead, they left their gifts with a poor family and came back with nothing more than stories about a baby that somehow inspired them to worship. Yet, they had worshiped God incarnate, and Scripture testifies to this day of their faithfulness. We do not remember their names and their homeland is not specified, but we know that God remembers them. He says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Most importantly, God invites us to seek our joy and significance by worshiping His Son instead of the things of this world.

It is not common sense, but it is wise.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shepherds, Wise Men, and Ordinary People

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 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 those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:8–16, ESV).

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Nativity scene at Franciscan church in Sanok, Poland. Photo by Silar (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The nativity scene (or crèche) is one of the most popular Christmas decorations. Many homes and churches display one throughout Advent and Christmas. According to tradition, it was invented by St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) as a simple teaching aide to help people remember the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. All the key players are present: The Virgin Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a few shepherds, three wise men, one or two angels, and a bunch of animals. In a society when most people could not read, such a visual aide was necessary to teach a central story of the Bible.

It may not tell the story perfectly. For example, the shepherds came to visit the baby Jesus possibly within 24 hours of his birth, whereas the Magi (who were not kings) came possibly as late as two years later, when the Holy Family was now living in a house. Nevertheless, we can see the main figures in the account of Jesus’ birth together in one location at once. However, it works as an effective story-telling device.

The story of Jesus’ birth has become so familiar to most Christians, though, that many of us miss a few key points. Consider the key characters:

  • Mary was a virgin, but could anybody really believe that? An unwed woman could be pregnant in only one way: via premarital sex. In a very religious society, the punishment could be as severe as stoning. At the very least, she could face rejection by the community, perhaps even her parents and immediate family. The best she could hope for would be a quiet divorce by her husband and a life of shame and rejection (betrothal was legally binding). She actually got better than she hoped for.
  • Joseph was a working-class artisan, probably living day-to-day. Although we think of him as a carpenter, he may have engaged in other skilled work with his hands to build and repair things. Could he really believe Mary’s excuse, that the baby was sent by God and she had not had sex with another man? If he married her, it would suggest to the rest of the community that he must be the real father. One can only imagine how his carpentry business would fare when he is known as the reprobate who could not control himself until his wedding night.
  • The shepherds: We like to think of them as gentle souls who spent their days taking care of cute little farm animals. However, most people in Bethlehem would have a different perspective: a bunch of dirty, uncouth rogues who smell like sheep droppings, among the outcasts of society. They may not be as bad as tax collectors and harlots, but they would still not be likely to get an invitation to celebrate the birth of a King.
  • The wise men or Magi were perhaps some of the worst pagans a Jew could imagine. Tradition refers to them as kings, but they may have been emissaries for a king. Magi were actually astrologers, who made their living engaging in a practice deemed abominable in the Old Testament (see, e.g., Isaiah 47:13–15).

Who is missing from this story? The Roman emperor with his appointed regional vassal King Herod, the wealthy, the religious elite, the powerful, etc. The people whom we would most likely include in a strategy to save the world from certain doom are not in the nativity scene. God chose to send His Son into the world through the womb of an ordinary woman, one whose family would never appear in the historical records otherwise, into a very ordinary family, in a small town within a politically insignificant occupied territory within in a pagan empire. He chose to reveal His Son first to people from the outer fringes of society and pagan astrologers who found out about Him via a condemned occult practice of observing omens.

However, you do not need to be left out of the nativity scene. Jesus came to invite you to have eternal life with Him and His Father. While the world worships at the altar of materialism and Santa Claus, join the shepherds and wise men to bow before the Son of God in the manger. Invite Jesus to take His place at the center of the most ordinary aspects of your life, so that Christmas can remain with you every day.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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