Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas a Day Late

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Trying to type/blog anything about Christmas before Christmas was just not in the cards for me. Between last minute "before holiday" stuff I had to finish in my business, preparing and presenting the "Christmas Sermon" at church last Wednesday, rehearsals/memorizing lines for our new year's eve production, and all the general busyness of getting ready with my family to celebrate the holiday on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, well -- no time to sit at the computer and think deep thoughts. And even when I now have a chance to type out these thoughts, I am unfortunately a victim of my own capriciousness. Please forgive me for the scattershot nature of these thoughts.

But on the morning of Christmas Eve, I saw a news article on potential scientific explanations for the Star of Bethlehem, and it got me thinking about some things. About how Jesus, as the Son of God, as the Lord of the Universe, as the "Word made flesh" (see my note from last year on the subject, which was the topic of my Christmas Sermon, at chose to reveal himself to the world, both at the time he was born and down through history.

Jesus' entry into our world was a bit of a paradox. He was God, created the world (see John 1), and was truly the "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." But he did not enter the world in a way in which the people of his time would have expected a King, let alone God, would have presented Himself to us. Instead of grandness, power, and glory, Jesus entered the world in humility, poverty, and obscurity. (See Philippians 2:5-8). People who were not paying attention to the subtle cues that were given missed it completely. And that meant most of the people of Jesus day.

Then again, sometimes the clues were not so subtle, but were meant for a select audience. For example, the Shepherds mentioned in Luke 2.

We don't know much about the shepherds, but from their reaction to what happened, I presume they were a lot like many of the rural, farm-community folks I know here in the U.S. Hard working, frugal, and devout. Working so hard, they had to stay up all night in order to take care of the sheep. Rough around the edges, perhaps, but basically faithful, patriotic citizens of Israel who were, deep down, hoping for the coming of the Messiah and the deliverance he would bring. Many of them may have been a little more than rough at the edges -- as a rough a life as being poor and dependent on the agricultural industry of the ancient world probably led to as many hard drinking, hard living types as we would find in any American community today. They were sinners, imperfect, and I bet they knew it. Yet, their cultural values were probably honorable -- they just lacked a real connection to God, a connection that went beyond culture, ethics, or family ties.

And then, as they were working one night, the sky is split by an other-worldly light, and an army of angels appears in clouds around them singing. They are told that the hope of the universe, the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams as a nation, as a culture, and as individuals is wrapped in a blanket, sleeping in an farm animal's feeding trough in a cow stall back in the center of a backwoods town not far away. Then they go check it out, find its true, and their lives are transformed with hope, and they spread the news to anyone that will hear.

The shepherds' first encounter with Jesus -- with the real, living, personal Jesus, the "Word made flesh" (see John 1:14) -- was a supernatural experience. I wonder how many people, both then and today. miss out on encountering the reality of who Jesus is and what he would mean in their lives because they can't deal with the supernatural, or aren't willing to move beyond an intellectual approach to their faith. I think there are many times God offers us supernatural "moments," opportunities when he opens up the sky for us, even in subtle ways, to reveal the reality of who He is, and we aren't willing to accept it, or pay attention to it.

I met Jesus for the first time in a manner quite similar to the shepherds. I was raised in the church, immersed in its culture, and trying my best to be devout. I was also, though, a little rough around the edges. I had done some things that I was rather ashamed of, and had helped cement a sense of separation from God. I was still trying though, thinking that if I worked at it hard enough, I'd have some sort of breakthrough and be right with God. But my "faith journey" at that time was very much on hold, very much void of positive results, sort of like the shepherds, just waiting there in the dark, not knowing if anything would happen. Then, just like the angels in the fields around Bethlehem, the Holy Spirit suddenly broke into my darkness with the light of the Gospel -- the truth that salvation comes through faith, and my sins were forgiven, and there was a God who wanted to walk with me and make me a new creation. I "ran to meet him" like the Shepherds, and found it all to be true, and like them, my life has never been the same. I found what I was looking for, but only after what I was looking for grabbed me in supernatural power and showed me the way.

I think there are a lot of folks, especially those raised in the church, who miss the supernatural cues,and wind up waiting out in the dark, in the fields, rationalizing away the last few dozen visits from the angels that point the way to the manger.

But its the second half of the Christmas story we all know that got me thinking about this. The other group of strangers who were drawn to seek out the Christ child. They too were drawn by a supernatural event. But it was much more subtle, and appeared to be an even that only they would have noticed.

I am, of course talking about the Magi, the "wise men," who are mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew's telling of the Nativity story.

Unlike the Shepherds, these guys were not "working class." Nor were they even on the radar when it came to the plan of redemption the Messiah of Israel would provide. The Magi were foreigners. Gentiles. Pagans. At heart, enemies of Israel. If they were not polytheists (some historians argue they were Zoroastrians), they believed in a God whose very purpose and concept was at odds with the God of Israel.

The Magi were likely Medes, from the area of the middle east that today is part of Iraq and Iran. They were a class of religious astrologers who brought star gazing, science, and the occult together in a highly specialized art form. These were the ones who were initially asked to interpret the dreams of the Kings of Babylon in the Book of Daniel. They followed the paths of the stars in order to predict the future and interpret the current spiritual condition of the world around them. This type of divination was forbidden by the Mosaic law, and would compare today with what are considered "dark arts," "black magic," or witchcraft. Yet, in the ancient world they were well respected as artisans of their craft, and were world famous for what they did. While some Christian traditions view them as "kings," they were more likely the servants of the kings of the Median and Persian empires of that day, which meant the wealth and power of those ancient kingdoms were probably at their beck and call.

The scriptural account relates that these "wise men" had observed a star in the East which had meant that the "King of the Jews" had been born. In Matthew 2:9, the star "went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was." Modern scholars dismiss this kind of stellar behavior as a myth. But there is some evidence from ancient history that something was afoot in the heavens at that time. Some rare comet activity was reported and an unusually bright assembly of stars was reported by ancient Chinese astronomers. But recently, a British Astronomer named Mark Thompson has reported a particular set of stellar anomalies occurred around the time we believe Jesus was born which could have caught the eyes of the star-gazing Magi.

Thompson says that between September in the year 3 B.C. and May in the year 2 B.C., the planet Jupiter and a star called Regulus passed very close to each other three times. These three “conjunctions” were caused “by an astronomical phenomenon called retrograde motion, in which a planet will appear to stop its normal eastward drift through the night and instead drift back toward the west for a period of several weeks,” according to a report in Britain’s Telegraph. “This happens because the outer planets in our solar system are orbiting the sun at a slower rate than the Earth and so our planet occasionally overtakes them.”

Thompson says that among astronomers, Jupiter is known as the king of planets, and Regulus is known as the king of stars. Their passing so close to each other three times would have been considered highly significant by astronomers of the day.

Thompson says that the retrograde motion would have meant that Jupiter was traveling west, which fits with the description in the Bible that the wise men came from the east.

Interestingly, this would probably mean that the "star of Bethlehem" as we know it today -- this incredibly bright star that would have drawn a lot of attention in the night sky -- was probably not observable to the naked eye, or at least not noticeable to anybody BUT somebody who focused all their attention on the heavens. This would have been like a coded message to the Magi.

And the greatest irony is that any pious Jew of that day would have condemned this kind of practice, not to mention any evangelical Christian of today. Astrology predicting that the Messiah would come? That's as off the charts as finding spiritual messages on a Ouija Board.

Yet, God allowed this, somehow. He sent a supernatural message to a group of pagan people, who were most likely not even remotely interested in searching for the Jewish Messiah, or in offering him homage or worship. But this subtle message, written in the night sky, was as overt a signal to the Magi as the angels were to the shepherds. And because the Magi were apparently morally and ethically committed to whatever religious system would allow for the stars to predict history, they were compelled to travel thousands of miles to find the Christ child, bring him gifts, and worship him as the King of Kings.

I am amazed when I think of this, because I know of people who were like the Magi who ended up being attracted to Jesus. People who came from different cultures and non-Christian faiths who experienced supernatural events that pointed them to consider the message of the gospel. People who had dedicated their lives to hedonism and selfishness, who considered Christianity and faith a load of poppycock, who saw something compelling, either in the Bible, or in something someone said, or an incredible series of circumstances that caused them to conclude that there must be something to the concept that Jesus was the Son of God. People who have had near-death experiences or been under the influence of drugs, and heard the call of God in their "visions," and when they regained consciousness or sobriety realized it really was the God of the Universe calling to them.

As I thought about this, it struck me. There were three audiences who got to worship the Christ before he grew into an adult. There was the captive audience of his family, his mother and the man who would act as his earthly father. The shepherds, working class and rough. And the Magi -- pagans, foreigners, outcasts among the Jews. Not a high class member of Israeli society among them. And, all of them had had a supernatural experience to draw them in to Jesus.

So I think we sometimes need to adjust our focus. The rough and tumble, the people of the street. Those to whom we can't relate or even those we would consider the enemies of the church or Christianity today -- God loves these people as much as he loves any of us. Jesus came to reach them. The Christmas stories in the gospels make this clear.

I must continue to expand my vision as a follower of Christ. I must be open to have people who I would never expect to be interested in Jesus to have such an interest. I must be open to the concept of those who I do not understand, or perhaps don't care for very much, to be called into the Kingdom. And most of all, we cannot brush off the supernatural call of God that makes a personal connection with each of us -- whether it takes shape through biblical prophecy, or seems to rear itself from unexpected sources. The story of the Magi make it clear that God will work to reach people who are open to Him in ways that defy our religious conventions. Jesus, his saving grace and power, and a living relationship with Him goes beyond our expectations.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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