Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Shepherd and The Sheep

Oh the irony of the upside-down birth of Jesus in Luke 2!  After hearing that the long-awaited Savior had been born, the angel told the shepherds of the sign that this is Christ the Lord.  They would find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a manger.  The first part of the sign, while not anything unusual, evokes thoughts of not only the beginning of his life, but the end of his life.  At the end of his life, he was wrapped again but placed in a borrowed tomb rather than a manger.  We know that in both cases, he did not remain there, but arose to perform his redemptive ministry.  

The second part of the sign was highly unusual.  He was placed in a manger, where livestock may have eaten before.  This may remind us that Jesus is the bread of life, and that we have no life apart from him.  But this scene seems too domestic and mundane for the King and Lord.  What a contrast to the earthly king who was living in a palace.  As I reflected on this, I wrote down the phrase, "Domestic Divinity."  I do not know if I had heard this phrase before, or if it just appeared in my thoughts.  There cannot be a more domestic scene than this.  When people put up nativity scenes, what strikes me is how domestic they often appear.  I realize that nativity scenes try to compress several stories about Jesus into one scene, but historically, the Magi do not belong there because they came later.  The manger, barn, animals, and shepherds make for a very mundane and domestic scene.  Yet God typically glories in the mundane and the ordinary.

This scene from Luke two reminds me of several passages.  In Zechariah 10:2, God said, "2 For the household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd."  A recurring problem was the lack of spiritual and moral leadership in Israel.  Kings, false prophets, priests, and fathers often turned to false gods and led the people away from God.  Without proper shepherding, the people were devoured.  The people were sheep without a shepherd.  

What was God's plan for this?  In Ezekiel 34, God condemned the leaders, whom he referred to as shepherds, for not exercising spiritual and moral leadership.  The result of their failure was the scattering of the sheep.  They had become prey to predators.  God then declares in verses 11-12, "For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness."

God fulfills this promise in Christ.  In John 10:11, Jesus declares that he himself is the shepherd.  He said, "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus came to those who were like sheep without a shepherd to save and care for them.

What an irony, then, that the first to tell of the coming of Jesus were literally shepherds.  These shepherds, whose job was to care for and watch over the sheep, came to the barn and saw the lamb of God.  The lamb of God is the good shepherd.  The lamb has become the shepherd, and the shepherds have become the sheep!

This reminds me, that even though I benefit from fellowship and leadership from people, I must let nothing take the place of the leadership of the good shepherd.  The people had their shepherds, but despite this, Jesus saw in Matthew 9:39 that they were like sheep without a shepherd.  Only Jesus can lay down his life for his sheep and take it up again.  Only Jesus can renovate our hearts through the Spirit as we submit to him.  Only Jesus can redeem us and give us life more abundantly.  

Sunday, December 13, 2020

In Whose Company Do They Stand?

This time of year, I see the beautifully crafted nativity scenes, which compress several of the stories of Jesus' birth and infancy into one scene.  Some people use these as teaching tools for children.  I sometimes like to go back and read the stories as they have been handed down from the scriptures.  This helps to separate all of the cultural baggage that has been attached to these scenes.  

One of the stories that has captured my interest in the past several years have been the stories of the magi.  In earlier times, they were portrayed as kings.  You can see this reflected in the art of the period, and even in many of the nativity scenes today.  There were church leaders that at one time claimed these were kings of the east and used this story in their list of arguments to justify a Christian monarchy.   It is interesting that after the renaissance, you begin to see them no longer portrayed as kings.  Perhaps this had something to do with the rejection of Christian monarchies and state churches.  The art of the period sometimes portrays the magi as wearing the scholar's garb.  Instead of kings, they were referred to as "wise men."  All of this may reflect the value of the rebirth of learning during that era.  They are usually portrayed as being 3 in number of differing races, perhaps to reflect that Jesus came to be king of all peoples.  Sometimes they have been portrayed as twelve in number.  One line of tradition even gave them names.  I find it interesting that this is not unusual with enigmatic characters in scripture, such as the Nephilim in Genesis 6.

The fact is, we know nothing about them except that they were called "magi" who came from the east.  I find it interesting that if you add the letter "c," the word becomes magic, which is what these men did for a living.  

In the text, the word, "magoi" is the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts 8, and for the so-called Bar-Jesus, known as Elymas in Acts 13.  Both are negative examples.  Simon is an example of wickedness through wanting to profit off the Holy Spirit, and Elymas is an example deceit and opposition to righteousness.  In the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar had magicians in his group of wisemen.  In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar suspected their ineptitude and deceit because he demanded that they interpret his dream without telling them the dream.  If they were able to tell both the dream and the interpretation, then they will have demonstrated their true ability.  If they were not able, Nebuchadnezzar planned to have them all killed.  Of course, Daniel was the one who could accomplish this, not through magic, enchantment, or astrology, but by the revelation of God.  Pharaoh also had magicians in his employment.  They were repeatedly bested by the signs Moses and Aaron performed.  What is comical is that when the Nile and all of the streams were turned to blood, Pharaoh's magicians responded by making more blood.  At the second plague when the frogs swarmed over the land, the response of Pharaoh's magicians was not to make them go away, but like the blood, make more plague rather than decrease it or make it go away.  They were not able to reproduce the third plague, which were the gnats.  When the sixth plague came which consisted of being covered boils, the magicians were afflicted with them and were not able to stand before Pharaoh.

Ancient Jewish literature mocks magicians as fools.  There were often called "wisemen" in the ancient world.  The term "wiseman" was a more expansive term than it is today.  It refers to anyone educated or trained, whether it was in a trade or as a scribe.  An example of this can be seen in the craftsman who constructed the tabernacle.  They were called "wise" in their trade.  Ancient Jewish literature acknowledges that magi were "wisemen," in that they were trained, but they were wise in the area of foolishness.  A prominent of example of the foolishness of magicians in Jewish literature is Balaam and his talking donkey.  Even though he was some kind of soothsayer who pronounced omens, he had no wisdom or spiritual discernment.  An angel of the Lord was ready to strike him down, and what saved him was not his discernment or his soothsaying skills, but it was his talking donkey whom he proceeded to beat after it saved his life!  Like Bug's Bunny would say, "What a maroon!"

For us today, our assessment is probably similar.  How would regard someone who has a PhD in crystal balls, astrology, wizardry, voodoo, etc.?

However, the magi of Matthew 2 stand in a completely different class than this.  We usually do not class them in the same category as Pharaoh's magicians, or Simon, or Elymas.  We usually class them as being among those who acknowledged Jesus as King of the Jews.  The irony is that the Jews rejected him.  Herod tried to destroy him by killing every baby close to his age in the city he was born.  The Jewish "wisemen" of the first century, which would have included people like the scribes and Pharisees successfully plotted to have him crucified.  If they were wise before, they have now become fools.  In Matthew 11, John pointed out how they rejected John when he came fasting, accusing him of having a demon.  Next, they rejected the Messiah when he came feasting, denouncing him as a glutton, drunkard, and a friend of sinners.  Then Jesus declared in verse 19, "Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds."  Those who accepted Jesus displayed wisdom, and those who rejected him displayed folly.  Jesus then points out that if the signs he had performed in Jewish cities had been performed in gentile cities, they would have repented long ago.  After this, Jesus prays these words in verse 25, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will."  

I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 1:20-31:   "Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

This passage reminds us that true wisdom from Heaven is not the same as worldly wisdom.  It says that Jesus "became to us wisdom from God."  Not many who are wise by the world's standards are called.  Their worldly wisdom is a stumbling block.  In their worldly wisdom, they consider the message of the cross to be foolishness.  Yet the exact opposite is true.  The passage says that God chose the foolish things to shame the wise.  This seems to be what is happening with the Magi in Matthew 2.  

History remembers the magi of Matthew 2 as "wise men."  This is appropriate because they came to worship Jesus as King.  They do not stand in the company of all the other magi in scripture, but stand in the company of those who accepted the kingship of the Christ.  If they were fools before, accepting the Lordship of Christ turns them in another direction.  Matthew 2:12 says that after they had worshipped Jesus, they did not return home the same way.  How poetic.  Following Christ puts you on a different path, which is the path of righteousness and wisdom.  The way of wisdom is not the broad way that leads to destruction, but the narrow way that leads to life.

In meditating on all of this, I ask myself the question, "In whose company do I stand?"  Do I stand with Christ and my brothers and sisters in Him, or am I enamored by fleshly power, worldly wisdom, and earthly influence and wealth?  Do I cherish the simple wisdom of Christ, or am I blinded by worldly wisdom with all of its elite titles, degrees, and worldly honor?