A soft answer …

A couple of weeks ago, the pastor at Keawala’i Congregational Church — where we go when we’re on Maui — gave us all a heads-up. Westboro Baptist Church may picket them in the near future.

Westboro is the church that’s been known to picket the funerals of fallen soldiers, declaring to the grieving families that their children died as God’s punishment for America’s falling-away from God.

It appears the issue that has these people torqued has to do with a transgender student at a local high school, and they’ve already paid a visit to the island once to show how much they figure God is offended. Keawala’i, the pastor said, may be in their crosshairs on this second visit.

“So, if they do,” he said, miming giving someone a hug, “make sure you give them lots of aloha.”

A soft answer turns away wrath, / But a harsh word stirs up anger.

The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, / But the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness.

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, / Keeping watch over the evil and the good.

A wholesome tongue is a tree of life, / But perverseness in it breaks the spirit.

— Proverbs 15:1-4

Wise words, both by the pastor and King Solomon. When someone is in your face with a disagreement, especially when they’re using Scripture quotes — or even a religious tone — to back up their position, our “fight or flight” response kicks in, and our desire is to meet them on their level.

But Jesus Followers are advised (if not commanded) to overcome that fleshly reaction and defuse the situation with a “soft answer”, or, as Paul writes,

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

— Romans 12:21

If a person’s argument is not founded in love of God or love of others, love the person anyway: lay out the welcome mat, offer them a cup of coffee and a place to sit down. Don’t try to engage them argument-for-argument. because their own “fight or flight” response will kick in and you’ll never get anywhere.

And pray that God will take control of the entire situation. Remember that just because you disagree, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

I haven’t mentioned my book, God At Work – a Testimony of Prophecy, Provision and People Amid Poverty, for a while. That’s because I had another think about it and re-worked it a little. Basically, after reading Charles Price’s foreword and doing an interview with John Fischer on his BlogTalkRadio show, I realized they were focusing on the stories of the Downtown East Side, rather than the building of The Lord’s Rain. So Part The Second is now Part the First, and the book is back in circulation. It’s available by clicking on the link above, or online through bookstores.

Faith, Patience and a Tarrying Lord

That’s an expression you hear some old-school preachers use some times: “If the Lord tarries”.

“If the Lord tarries, I’ll see you next week.” “If the Lord tarries, I’ll visit Africa next year.”

It’s about declaring a desired plan, but leaving open the possibility that God may have other plans we don’t know about, that would cancel anything we planned to do — like the Second Coming.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”:

whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.

Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”

James 4:13-15

But throughout history, we’ve wanted to do things in our time, and not as the Lord wills.

When Stephen, one of the seven disciples chosen to take care of the daily distribution to widows, was accused of blasphemy, he launched into an account of the history of the Israelites.

“This is he [Moses} who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us,

“whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected. And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt,

“saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods to go before us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’

“And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.”

Acts 7:37-41

In other words, they got impatient, waiting for Moses to come back from meeting with God, and created their own idol — a golden calf — to worship and even gave it credit for leading them out of Egypt.

When Moses found out, he threw the calf into the fire, ground it to powder, mixed it with water and made the Israelites drink it.

In the same way, it feels like our society has done the same thing with Jesus. He was taken up into Heaven nearly 2,000 years ago, and what have we done? We have anticipated His return. Maybe we misconstrued Jesus’ saying that “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things [the signs preceding His return] take place” (Mark 13:30), thinking that He meant a “generation” the way we mortals measure it — from parent to child. I believe He actually means a different kind of “generation”: the Holy Spirit generation, which isn’t measured in human years.

Nevertheless, haven’t we — as a society — started asking, “Where is He? We do not know what has become of Him”. In His absence and our impatience, we have given up waiting and made idols of our own to worship, be they money, science, human intellect or New Age icons.

We need to beware: when Jesus does come down, perhaps people who still cling to the idols will be forced to swallow them, as the Israelites were with their golden calf.

So where is He? Is the Lord “tarrying”? That’s not for us to say.

But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night …

Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:8-10a, 13

So let’s hang in there! Let’s get rid of the idols in our lives and return to God in our worship! And let’s make sure that those around us don’t perish, either, when that day comes!

Indignation, Peter, and #WDJTUTD

The other day, I got an invitation to sit in on a conference call with some members of an evangelical association. The topic is concern about new legislation being brought in by the government. I’m going to guess that it involves restricting what churches and preachers can do in certain situations and will be declared “another assault on Christianity”.

Excuse me, but dozens of people getting their heads chopped off for being Christian is an “assault on Christianity”; certainly the report by the Bishop of Truro for the then UK Foreign Secretary spells out atrocities around the world that are far worse than what we see in North America; in fact, any “freedom of expression” issues in North America didn’t even move the needle in that report.

Being aware of such legislation is valuable, because, like finding out about symptoms of an illness, we then know what to pray about. But we have to remember that we followers of Jesus are a different breed. We are expected to preach the Gospel, whether it’s legal or not, and when someone threatens us for it, keep pointing people towards God, and not our own “victim status”.

And when [the Captain and officers] had brought [the apostles], they set them before the Council. And the high priest asked them,

saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look: you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”

But Peter and the other apostles answered and said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

— Acts 5:27-29

And the apostles were willing to go to jail, be beaten or executed, rather than stop preaching the Gospel. And what were they preaching, after all? Were they naming sins and condemning people? No: they preached that Jesus came to earth “to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:31)

Recall Peter’s sermon, which I talked about yesterday: it was all about the new hope in Christ — not the degradation of the world. It was about God fulfilling His promise of sending a Savior — not about sins that made us need to have a Savior. That message brought 3,000 souls to Christ in one day, and more and more as the days progressed.

That should tell us something. Rather than cry out, “Help! I’m being suppressed!”, let our example and our words of peace be incontrovertible. It’s no crime to spread good news, even if it’s made a crime to believe and to declare that some things are an offence to God; if we’re as effective as Peter was in proclaiming Jesus, those “offences” won’t have a chance.

Here’s a challenge for you: is protesting “restrictive” laws or declaring something is an offence to God a way of deflecting attention from the fact that we’ve fallen down on the job we’re supposed to be doing?

#WDJTUTD = What Did Jesus Tell Us To Do?

He told us to spread the Good News, to heal people, to demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit and show the love that God has for all of us. He didn’t tell us to protest and complain “This is so not fair!” As Jesus Followers, we’re part of a counter-culture that’s been around ever since Calvary. It’s what makes us different.

The Pharisee Gamaliel advised his colleagues that if the doctrine Peter and the Apostles preached was really nothing, then it would wither and die within a generation; but if it was of God, it would not go away, and they would be putting themselves in a very awkward position by opposing it.

Let’s remember that. If we stick to our “playbook” and not get distracted by the things the enemy wants us to fuss about, we’ll see more people come to Jesus. And that, after all, is the name of the game.

Was something "missing" from Peter's sermon?

But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words.

“For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.

“But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel …”

— Acts 2:14-16

And Peter goes on to deliver the first Evangelical sermon, describing the prophecies that point to Jesus as the Messiah and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (which those who witnessed the commotion in the upper room had written off as drunkenness), and “with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying ‘be saved from this perverse generation’.” (Acts 2:40)

And 3,000 people came to Christ in that moment.

But as you read Peter’s sermon, you may notice something missing, and I believe that is the key to the sermon’s success. He doesn’t mention sin.

He doesn’t accuse people of being bad and hellbound: he declares the Good News that the Messiah, the One who had been promised for generations, has come, conquered death, and enabled all people to come closer to God.

Yes, he refers to “lawless hands” and the unjust crucifixion of Christ, but he tempers that by saying that Jesus was “delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) — in other words, that everything that happened was according to God’s plan all along, and the people involved were only playing their part.

He also calls on people to “be saved from this perverse generation” — but he doesn’t dwell on how the generation is perverse or whether the people he’s speaking to are necessarily part of it.

Instead, Peter exhorts them: he encourages them with the news of the love God has for His people. He says, in effect, “Come on! I have seen the Lord! Let’s follow Him out of the darkness!” (Much as Peter’s brother, Andrew, said to him at the beginning of their walk with Jesus (John 1:41).)

And that evangelizing worked. Three thousand people that one day; more, as the days went on. Paul brought others to Christ by pointing them towards God — consider his speech at Areopagus (Mars Hill), where he helped them to know the “unknown God” — rather than pointing them at themselves and their sin.

That needs to be our focus as we talk to our NBFs* today: a better way – the only way – and that any troubles we have in our lives can be resolved by turning to God through Jesus Christ. Admittedly, there are challenges, especially when it comes to intimating that sin is a root cause of our problems. People do get their backs up when it’s suggested they might be responsible for things going wrong in their lives.

But that’s where testimony comes in. Even if you just say, “I realized that my troubles came from being disobedient to God,” and that by turning to Him, strength and solutions started to come, you put your own personal stamp on the message. No one can argue with your experience.

Nor can anyone argue with this, which is probably the greatest evangelical message of all:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

“For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

— Matthew 11:28-30

Even as we compile an “end-times checklist“, looking at the various things happening that fit in with what’s supposed to happen just before Jesus returns, there is some good news. Our prayers for rain in Australia have been answered! There’s more on the way for the weekend in New South Wales and Queensland, and that should give the firies (firefighters) some respite. We need to keep focusing our prayers on the people who’ve lost their homes and for the animals who’ve suffered in the fires, and certainly, we can’t say, “Thanks, God – we’ll take it from here!” As with any instance where He has pulled us out of a disaster, we need to take it as a reminder to keep drawing closer to Him. That’s especially true in the immediate recovery period, when rebuilding one’s life is more than one can handle with one’s own strength.

One of the latest additions to that checklist is the report of a mysterious new virus in China. As of last night’s news, there had been nine deaths and 400 cases. In a country of – what – 1.5 billion people, does that constitute an “outbreak”? Certainly, the news media say so, but here’s the thing to note: the fear of an outbreak can be destructive, too. Keep focused on God, and hold onto the faith in His ability to keep us healthy!

The End-Times checklist (a living document)

  • tsunamis
  • stronger, more intense, more concentrated hurricanes
  • earthquakes
  • volcanic eruptions
  • civil wars
  • wars between countries
  • deadly, incurable diseases
  • mass starvation
  • mass shootings
  • terrorism
  • die-offs of coral reefs and various forms of ocean life
  • deaths from drug use, and a “harm reduction” mindset based on the idea that drug addicts are not worthy of healing
  • a general “me-first” attitude in society
  • wildfires in California
  • phenomenally destructive and unprecedented bushfires in Australia
  • new disease reported in China
    • Coronavirus a/k/a COVID-19

Thinking about that dream …

This post — admittedly belated — initially ran two years ago and again last year for Martin Luther King, jr. Day. I think it’s still something to consider.

Today, my cousins and friends in the USA celebrate Martin Luther King, jr. Day, and it will be a time to discuss how far race relations have come — or haven’t come — in the years since Dr King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.

Lately, there has been a lot of focus on diversity and identity, essentially breaking people up into discrete groups, based on outward characteristics. But was that the spirit behind Dr King’s dream?

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood … that … one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

He wasn’t talking about Black Power, or pride, or even affirmative action: he was talking about unity and brotherhood, as James Taylor reminds us.

King wasn’t the only one with that theme around that time: Kath Walker, an Australian Aboriginal poet and activist, wrote:

I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind,

I could tell of crimes that shame mankind,

Of brutal wrong and deeds malign,

Of rape and murder, son of mine.

But I’ll tell instead of brave and fine,

When lives of black and white entwine,

And men in brotherhood combine — 

This would I tell you, son of mine.

— Kath Walker a/k/a Oodgeroo Noonuccal 1920-1993

So … not “power” of any one race over another, and not separation based on race or history; not talk of revenge against former oppressors or even special consideration; but brotherhood and integration. The Apostle Paul would appear to agree:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile), there is neither slave nor free; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

— Galatians 3:27-29

In Canada, there is a similar situation involving First Nations. The “reserve” system and specialized programs — not to mention other policies put into practice over the generations — have served to segregate First Nations people from non-Indigenous people. That runs counter to Paul’s principle of unity and brotherhood among anyone who has put on Christ.

So we can wring our hands now and look back on the past 50-plus years and wonder why Dr King’s dream seems even farther away now than it did then. But I believe one of the reasons for the setback has been that the progress that has happened was achieved through legislation — forcing change down people’s throats in an attempt to find a quick fix. The changes have been cosmetic and did not address root causes — including bitterness on the part of those who felt they were the losers in the world’s zero-sum thinking where if one person wins, someone else has to lose. True change starts in the heart, and moves forward through prayer, unconditional love and PATIENCE.

That was, after all, the way Jesus came into the world; He started as a baby, whose birth had been prayed-for by devout, patient people (like Simeon and Anna at the Temple), growing into a man, eventually arriving at His time to appear to the world.

One wonders: what if people had opted to pray for integration and softening of hearts between the races, and then waited patiently for God to do His work? Instead, people got impatient and wanted change NOW. Did that change really happen?

What if people had determined to love and forgive others, no matter what they did to them? What if people had determined they would stand on God’s promise, because the “effectual, fervent prayer of the righteous [person] avails much”?

Is it too big a stretch to say that today, we could well be joining hands as brothers and sisters with “lives of black and white (and red, yellow and brown) entwining”? Is it too big a stretch to say that God would have come through faster and more decisively than we could ever have imagined?

Praise God, the Cross allows us to get back on track as soon as we make the decision to turn to Him. It’s a calling on each and every one of us, and it’s never too late to start.

"If My people …"

“When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among My people,

“if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

— 2 Chronicles 7:13-14

That passage keeps coming to mind when I look at the fires in Australia, the volcanic eruption in Philippines, the cyclone bearing down on Fiji and the earthquakes in Puerto Rico. There’s also been talk of a new “mystery illness” that’s broken out in China.

But while the end-times checklist makes for an unmistakable call for us to lead more and more people to Christ so they’re not left behind when the Lord does return, there’s something else that’s key to our role as “God’s People”. It may even be easier, in some cases, than overtly evangelizing.

That is to turn to God, ourselves.

The Lord’s promise is that if “My people” pray and turn to Him, He will heal the land. He doesn’t say that all people have to be the ones praying: just that His people had to pray. The impact of that prayer is not simply on our land and home, but on the land of those around us.

Remember that Elijah prayed first for drought, and then for rain (James 5:17). When Jesus set out on the Sea of Galilee with the disciples and later calmed the storm, “other little boats” were in the vicinity (Mark 4:36). They would have been just as threatened by, and just as saved from, the storm as the disciples were.

In other words, our prayers affect not just us, but those around us, regardless of the other people’s “belief systems”.

So if we are “God’s people” — that is, not necessarily “perfect” in the self-righteous sort of way, but if we love Him above all, put everyone else’s interests ahead of our own, and submit our ways to His ways — we have a responsibility to pray. We pray for specific situations, but also continue to seek His face, ask Him to expose whatever wickedness still lives inside us and turn to Him to heal it; and as we do that, He promises to heal the land.

Not just our land, but that of those around us.

There’s our marching orders. Let’s march!

Truth on fire

NB: this is about the ongoing bushfire situation in Australia. If you, like many of us, want to contribute financially to relief efforts, here is a piece about some legitimate organizations that are raising money. And, at the end of this post, I’ll give you the link to an effort particularly close to my heart.

Having spent the last two months in Australia, I can tell you this: the bushfire situation is BAD. The story is the lede on every newscast and the front-page of every newspaper; the word “unprecedented” comes up almost as much as “quid pro quo” in the US media this past fall; and there is hardly a person in the country who is not, in some way, affected: they’ve either experienced the fires first-hand or they’re within four degrees of separation of someone who has.

People are praying, and praying mightily, for rain and God’s intervention.

“Our hearts cry out to you for those who have lost loved ones, and those who have lost properties in the wake of these ravaging fires. Father we pray, in your mercy, restrain the forces of nature from creating catastrophic damage; in your mercy protect human life.” the prayer reads. “Guard those volunteers, rural fire service personnel and emergency services who selflessly step into the breach to fight these fires. Guide police and authorities who help evacuate and shelter those who are displaced.  Bring comfort and healing to all who suffer loss.”

— Special prayer by Most Rev. Glenn Davies, Archbishop of Sydney

Part of our human nature is to look for an easy answer to a complex problem that appears to be out of our control. Blame the Australian government, which has a hard time acknowledging that climate change is real. Blame the environmentalists, for the unfounded reason that they opposed the practice of “back-burning” — burning off potential fuel for fires in order to prevent bad ones from happening. It doesn’t matter what the truth is: find someone to blame, and you’ll feel better.

Rev. David Robertson, in his blog The Wee Flea, has done a masterful job of dissecting the arguments all around, with a follow-up piece on truth in general. It’s timely, since people can be left crying out, “What is truth?”

When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”, how little he knew that he was staring The Truth in the face.

And now is the time to remember the truth that we Bible believers are privy to: Jesus warned us there’d be days like these.

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.”

— Matthew 24:6-7

He doesn’t refer to “catastrophic bushfires” in as many words, but He does talk about “tribulation” like we’ve never seen before (Matthew 24:21), so I think we can say pretty confidently that what we’re seeing in Australia fits into that category.

And then what?

Jesus returns. Exactly when, we don’t know and aren’t supposed to: but the fact remains that these things are happening, the Bible “called it” thousands of years ago, and our “marching orders” in light of this are to point people to Jesus Christ so that no one is lost when He does come back.

Sorry: let’s change that perspective. We are to point people to Jesus Christ so that as many people as possible join Him when He returns, bringing with Him the New Jerusalem.

Fires, famines, earthquakes, incurable diseases, terrorism and struggles between “tribes” all look like bad scenes to be lamented. But they are all precursors of unimaginable glory, and we have to keep that in mind.

And that is the Truth. In that Truth is the Hope we so desperately need.

The Australian bushfire fundraising effort that is particularly close to my heart is one my daughter has taken on: all proceeds from one of her songs will go to three charities that are helping with bushfire relief. Read more about it here.

The Peace of Jerusalem

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

“May they prosper who love you.

“Peace be within your walls, prosperity within your palaces.”

— Psalm 122:6-7

This passage gets stuck in my head every so often. The senior pastor at Gospel Mission, the late Bob Brown, would include that in his prayer before every service, and as a bit of a biblical noob at the time (I still am, and truthfully, who isn’t?), I wondered what “peace of Jerusalem” meant.

After all, Jerusalem has been anything but peaceful ever since it was founded, and especially when David would have been writing that Psalm.

Three different religions lay claim to Jerusalem as their spiritual home, and the idea of recognizing Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, as Israel’s capital is geopolitical dynamite. So it’s understandable that David would call us to pray for its peace.

But what is the peace of Jerusalem? Is it an absence of war? That lovely situation would be a sign of peace, but is that what “peace” is all about?

Let’s get the obvious answer out of the way: Jesus Christ is the “peace of Jerusalem”. He is the Great Unifier, the Holy Equalizer, sent to bring all peoples — Jews, Muslims, professing Christians and everyone else — together in one family of God.

But what, for that matter, is Jerusalem? Are we only talking about the physical city, or something else?

Let’s try this. Jerusalem is a state of being. It’s that ideal situation where we are in true communion with God, walking with Him, talking to and hearing from Him, and living the life He wants us to live.

(We can say the same thing about our society, but let’s apply this to our individual lives for now.)

Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)

John describes New Jerusalem as something astoundingly beautiful and glorious: isn’t that exactly what we want in our own lives? And that happens to us when we draw closer to God. Something else happens, too: sin and the other things that have separated us from God in our previous lives don’t have a chance.

But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

— Revelation 21:27

And we know how to be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life: through Jesus Christ.

The enemy will try to steal us away from our “Jerusalem”, just as Nebuchadnezzar hauled God’s people off to Babylon. We get tempted, sometimes fall, and can be left thinking we’re stuck in Satan’s quagmire forever. But just as Ezra and Nehemiah did, our Jerusalem can be rebuilt. There will still be those trying to prevent that from happening, but when we have Jesus, the peace of Jerusalem, we have the joy of the Lord to keep us strong.

So when we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, I believe we’re not praying for a physical city, which has been a bone of contention for millennia; but for the manifestation of New Jerusalem in our own lives and in our world.

From all, for all – an Epiphany about the Wise Guys

So on Friday, I teased about “more coming” about Jesus and inclusivity, but that was pre-empted by current events yesterday. But here’s the thing: if current events — like the possibility of nuclear war, fires and a cyclone whacking Australia, floods and unexpected volcanic eruptions and new outbreaks of deadly diseases worldwide — mean we have to step up our efforts to lead our non-believing friends (NBFs) to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, we have a big barrier to overcome.

That barrier is the notion that Jesus Christ is “exclusive”.

Now, you can say “Jesus came for you and me” until you’re blue in the mouth, but that sounds like just so much propaganda for an NBF. Showing what’s written in Scripture, though, goes a long way towards demonstrating what God has in mind.

That motivation is to save us from the things that had been harming us, and the coming of a Messiah — a Saviour to bring deliver God’s people back into His favour — had been predicted for centuries. Prophecies had spoken of Him and people had been waiting, praying for Him to come. Of course, many people thought the Messiah would be a military leader, which was not what they got. Indeed, it was John the Baptist who pointed out, “Behold! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, 36). That was a novel concept.

But that’s for another time. Do you notice how, when Jesus finally did arrive, the people who had been waiting for Him hardly noticed?

He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.

— John 1:11

Jesus’ birth was proclaimed by the Angel Gabriel to

  • a teenage girl
  • her fiancé
  • her cousin
  • a group of shepherds
  • a group of observers of signs

It’s that last group that really fascinates me.

“The Adoration of the Magi”, by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1450-1500

We don’t know much about the “wise men”. We don’t know how many there were, except that there was more than one: it’s because they brought three gifts — frankincense, gold and myrrh — that’s made us assume that there was one wise man per gift. Nor do we know how long after Jesus’ birth they arrived: Bosch, like many of us, assumes they arrived shortly afterwards and the baby was still in the stable; others say they came as long as two years after, hence Herod’s decree to kill every male child two years old and younger. (I tend to think Herod might have been casting a wide net, to make sure they got his “challenger”.)

But the fact that we don’t know much about the Magi is another of God’s ways of drawing us close to Him by causing us to contemplate the scene. And when I contemplate the scene, I come up with this.

Several soothsayers, mystics and wizards, in different locations, see the bright star. We’re not told that they came from the same country — just that they came from east of Jerusalem — so they could have come from Arabia, China, India, Iraq; possibly even, as Bosch suggests, from Africa.

They see the star, and like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, say to themselves, “This means something!” They search the holy books to figure out what it means, or they were already aware that a star over that location meant the birth of the King of the Jews; in any event, they want to be there to see it. So they saddle up and start riding.

With God’s exquisite timing, they all meet up on the road to Jerusalem. “Where are you going?” “To Jerusalem, for the birth of the King of the Jews!” “No foolin’? That’s where I’m going!”

So they all arrive in Jerusalem expecting to see a big festival to welcome the King, and find …


Everyone is going about their daily business, so they start asking around, and word gets back to Herod that these foreigners are looking for a King of the Jews.

Herod invites them over, and then asks his own religious scholars where the Messiah is to be born; they tell him and he tells the wise men, instructing them to report back where He is, so he can go and worship Him, too.

The Magi go, they see Jesus, present their gifts, then are warned in a dream not to report back to Herod but to take a different route out of Judea, and leave.

Now, here’s the point of all this. The Magi went on their journey(s) because they had spotted an unusual star in the sky and determined it was a sign.

Ye shall not eat any thing with the blood: neither shall ye use enchantment, nor observe times.

— Leviticus 19:26 (KJV)

The New King James Version says God’s people are not to “practice divination or sorcery” — and in any event, that commandment is given in the same breath as the commandment not to eat blood. That’s how serious it is.

And yet, the Magi made their living by observing stars and other signs.

In other words, God announced the birth of the Messiah in a “language” understood by people who were practicing the very things that God had forbidden His people to do.

He will reach people by any means necessary. Hold that thought.

Now, look what else happened.

And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

— Matthew 2:11

The Magi “fell” when they came into Jesus’ presence. They didn’t bow; they didn’t kneel: they fell. I’d say they had a Holy Ghost, Pentecostal experience, the way some of us do when the Holy Spirit overwhelms us and causes us to go weak in the knees, shake, cry and laugh — often all at once.

Then, they were “divinely warned in a dream” (Matt. 2:12) not to go back to Herod.

In other words, they arrived in Bethlehem as “observers of signs”, but left, in communion with the Holy Spirit. We don’t hear about the star, ever again.

(I’m a little sorry we don’t hear about the Magi again, either, but that’s for another time of contemplation.)

Now, one more thing: why do you suppose the religious experts in Herod’s court didn’t catch on? When Herod asked them where the Messiah was to be born, why do you think they didn’t say, “You ask, because …???”, or say to the Magi, “What star?”

Because they were religious. They wouldn’t dream of observing signs. What’s more, they thought they knew the lot, and that when the Messiah came, they, as learned religious types, would know.

They had stopped seeking.

In these times, our NBFs are seeking, and nothing that’s been presented to them — including Jesus Christ in the form of Christianity — has filled the bill. Scripture tells us that those who come into Jesus’ presence “go their way, rejoicing”. Jesus’ presence is available to us all — that’s proven in Scripture — so even as our “end-times checklist” grows longer, it’s up to us to show others the reasons we have to rejoice!