‘The King’s Speech…’

‘The King’s Speech…’

Great leaders are remembered for their speeches as well as their accomplishments – George Washington for his Inaugural address as President, Abraham Lincoln for his iconic Gettysburg address, and Martin Luther King for his Washington Speech, ‘I have a dream…’.

Today we turn to the introduction of a most memorable speech – Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 5, verses 1 through 12.

In chapter 1 Matthew introduces Jesus as God’s long-promised king, a descendent of the great King David (1:1). Foreigners, the Magi, came from the East and worshipped him as king (2:1-6). At his baptism Jesus is called God’s ‘Son’, a title reserved for the kings of Israel (3:14-17; cp Psalm 2). And by the close of chapter 4, we learn that people have come to hear Jesus from the reaches of the vast empire that David and Solomon had ruled in the golden age of Israel’s history some thousand years before (4:23-25).

But there is something unexpected about the opening chapters: Matthew doesn’t record one word from Jesus himself. It seems deliberate. Matthew wants us to know that when we do hear from Jesus, we are not simply hearing from a ‘nice guy’, but from the great king. The Sermon on the Mount, we could say, is the King’s Speech!

Matthew chapter 5 opens on a new scene. A huge crowd had gathered on a hillside and Jesus used the natural amphitheater to address the two groups of people present – followers and a large crowd of onlookers. And despite the diversity of his vast audience, Jesus’ words are electrifying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

Known as Beatitudes each line in his introduction begins, Blessed are … Blessed is sometimes translated happy, but that identifies just one aspect of the meaning. To be blessed is to receive God’s approval and as this is God’s universe, God’s blessing is the greatest honor anyone can receive. From the outset Jesus’ words challenge us. Do we want the blessing that comes from celebrity status because we are perceived to be successful? Or do we truly want, above everything else in life, God’s blessing?

The first beatitude reveals that the really blessed are the poor in spirit. Jesus isn’t speaking here of the materially destitute or the psychologically impoverished, the spiritual elite or the prayerful mystics. He’s referring to the spiritually destitute.

Poverty in spirit is exemplified by the tax collector in Jesus’ story in Luke 18:9-14. Over against the pride of the Pharisee, the tax collector humbly and honestly prayed from a corner in the Temple, ‘God, Be merciful to me, a sinner’. Poverty of spirit is the admission of our failure to love and honor God first in our lives.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”, Jesus continues. These people grieve for personal failure before God. They also mourn because, even dimly aware of God’s purity, they see how the world without God lives in darkness. They weep because of the erosion of truth, because of the greed, cynicism, and lack of compassion evident everywhere.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Meekness isn’t a reference to the weak or insipid. It is a strong word, referring to the deep, selfless resolve to serve the best interests of others. Meekness is not insisting on your rights. It’s thinking of others before self – and hence not being on the front foot with criticism. No one of us is perfect. Jesus himself is the supreme example of true meekness.

The meek learn to look at life from God’s viewpoint and are content. Their egos are not so inflated they think they must always have more. In Christ they see themselves as possessing everything (2 Cor 6:10; cp 1 Cor 3:21-23). Furthermore, a billion years into eternity (if we can speak of eternity in terms of time), God’s people in the new heaven and the new earth will still be rejoicing that this beatitude is literally true. They will be grateful that by grace they learned to be meek during their initial threescore years and ten.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” (5:6). Hunger and thirst are vivid images of desire. Righteousness suggests justice and truth. To hunger for righteousness is to long that our lives reflect the mind and will of God. There’s an inner longing for heaven where righteousness and justice will prevail.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (5:7). Mercy embraces forgiveness for the guilty, and also compassion for the suffering and needy. The promise isn’t mercy from others but significantly from God himself.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Throughout the Bible the heart is the center of our being – of who we are. Purity in heart is indispensable for our relationship with God, or to use Jesus’ words, for seeing God.

Purity of heart isn’t outward conformity to rules. Rather, our heart, our thoughts and attitudes need to be pure. ‘What do you think about when your mind slips into neutral?’ Jesus asks. ‘What dominates your private thoughts? Do you let your mind linger on sights that have tempted you? Is the real inner you expressed in your outward words and actions?’

Psalm 24 asks, Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord? They who have clean hands and a pure heart,… and in The Letter to the Hebrews we read, Make every effort… to be holy;  without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).

The pure in heart are blessed in that they will see God. While this will be especially true in the new heaven and the new earth, it’s also true now. Our perception of God and his ways, even our fellowship with him, depends on the purity of our heart.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” Jesus says (5:9). Jesus isn’t talking about those who yearn for peace, but all who work at making peace. Jesus is the greatest peacemaker ever – through his cross, making peace between us and God by removing the stain of sin that separates us. His death also makes peace possible amongst all men and women.

Jesus isn’t only speaking about gospel peacemaking. He is also saying that his followers are to be peacemakers, seeking solutions to ease tensions, to reduce conflict, and to ensure that people understand one another. This isn’t easy, especially when we personally have been hurt by others. It’s very easy to forget that ‘a soft answer turns away wrath’, and that we shouldn’t allow ‘the sun to go down on our anger’ (Ephesians 4:26). To be a peacemaker means that we don’t bear grudges or nurse our anger.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10-12). Jesus here restricts the blessing to all who suffer persecution because of righteousness — people who are determined to live as Jesus lived. Persecution can take the form of physical hardship, torture, imprisonment, death. But there are more subtle forms: mocking and personal rejection. This beatitude is potentially the most searching, for if we never experience some kind of rejection for our faith in a fallen world, are we truly a follower of Jesus?

Who then are the truly blessed? Jesus expects our lives to change radically. Instead of self-sufficiency in our relationship with God, we need to understand our poverty. Instead of dismissing unbelievers, mourn for a world that ignores God. Instead of playing for power to achieve kingdom ends in a fallen world, walk the tougher path of humility and service. Hunger for truth and righteousness. Show mercy, pursue purity, and work for peace. Reckon on the reality that life won’t always be easy for God’s people. But, Jesus says, stay with me.  It will be worth every bit of it.

Prayers. Lord, you have taught us that whatever we do without love is worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you: grant this, for the sake of your only Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your holy word. May it be a lantern to our feet, a light to our paths, and strength to our lives. Take us and use us to love and serve all people in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘The King’s Speech…’

‘Expect the Unexpected…’

Heraclitus, the 6th century BC Greek philosopher observed, ‘Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is hard to discover and hard to attain’.

Come with me to Matthew chapter 4, verses 12 through 25. Matthew records that following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus began his public ministry in the region of Capernaum in Galilee – the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Back in the 8th century BC powerful Assyrian forces had gathered in that very region preparing to conquer the northern kingdom, Israel (720BC). Yet into that darkness Isaiah the prophet spoke of the day when a light would dawn on the northern horizon, and God would honor Galilee of the Gentiles (Isaiah 9:1-2).

In chapter 4, Matthew tells us that Jesus began his public ministry in the north – not in the capital, Jerusalem. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, he said.

An Unexpected Message. The kingdom of heaven is not a location but rather refers to God’s supreme rule. Jesus’ words at hand implied that with his presence this had taken on a new immediacy. His words would have awakened the hopes of God’s people who lived with the expectation of the coming of God’s king, the Messiah. Prophets such as Samuel, Isaiah and Ezekiel had spoken of such a time (2 Samuel 7: 11b-13; Isaiah 7:14, 9: 6-7, 11:1-5; Ezekiel 34:23-24).

But Jesus’ call for repentance may well have come as a surprise, for the king was expected to bring in God’s reign of peace and prosperity. He would judge the nations: the time for repentance would be over. The work of the prophets, including John the Baptist, was to prepare the way for the king’s coming.

But Jesus was still calling people to repent, suggesting that there were deeper truths he needed to address before he revealed himself in all his awesome glory, dominion and power.

The real issue Jesus sees with all of us is that we have a heart problem. Heart in the Bible is not just the pump that sends the blood around our bodies, nor is it the seat of our emotions. It refers to the real us.

Let me ask, why do we hurt people we love? Why, in this technologically advanced world are there still divisions within nations and wars between nations? Why is there still so much injustice? It has to do with the desires of our hearts – in our relationships with one another, and especially in our relationship with God. When Jesus was once asked what is the greatest commandment, he responded, saying the first and greatest commandment is that we should love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength (Mark 12:30).

An Unexpected Call. It was the practice for good teachers or rabbis in Jesus’ day to have disciples with them. “Follow me, Jesus said to two fishermen, Peter and Andrew, who were brothers. It wasn’t a command but rather a call. They had choice: they could follow or remain where they were.

But notice Jesus wasn’t just calling them to be followers – to listen and to learn; he was also inviting them to join him in becoming fishers of men and women.

The prophet Jeremiah had spoken of ‘fishing for men and women’, meaning catching men and women for judgement. But the mission Jesus was inviting Peter and Andrew to join him in, was to rescue men and women from judgement – an unexpected call.

Two other fishermen, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also invited to join Jesus in this mission. All four immediately left their families and businesses and followed Jesus.

Jesus wasn’t asking them to sell up their homes or businesses. But such was his impressive nature or his teaching that they were willing to leave their businesses in the hands of others and follow him.

An Unexpected Compassion. With deft brush strokes Matthew introduces us to the pattern of Jesus’ ministry – preaching the good news of the kingdom, as well as healing the sick, and exorcising the demon possessed, at a word and in a moment of time.

Today, the notion of miracles, especially those recorded in the New Testament, are dismissed because ‘we now know the laws of nature’. Against this Dr. John Lennox, Oxford Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy responds: ‘The laws of nature that science observes are the observable regularities that God the creator has built into the universe. However, such ‘laws’ don’t prevent God from intervening if he chooses. When he does, we are able to identify the irregularity and speak of it as a miracle’.

If Jesus is God’s unique Son – not just a man, but God in the flesh – if he speaks and acts with the authority and power of God, it is quite consistent for him to be able to perform what we call ‘miraculous’ feats. Indeed, if the Bible is authentic – and it claims to be so – we should expect the unexpected.

Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus wielded such extraordinary power that crowds came in droves from near and far – even from far away Jerusalem.

But there is another layer to Jesus’ acts of intervention: they were temporary. People were only restored for a time; they would still all experience death. Wouldn’t the Messiah conquer even death itself?

Here was another potential unexpected twist. Jesus presents us with so much expectation and hope, but he also leaves many questions unanswered.

Three unexpected themes: Jesus commands us to repent, for God’s rule has taken on a new dimension; we need to sort out our relationship with him while we have time. He calls us to follow him and play our part as fishers of men and women: helping others to find the truth. Jesus cares for us at all times, intervening in our lives for our good, giving us a taste of the perfection and joy to come.

What will you do with Jesus? He is both extra-ordinary but very ordinary. He does the expected but constantly says and does the unexpected. But shouldn’t we expect this?

A prayer. Lord God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: mercifully accept our prayers, and because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do nothing good without you, grant us the help of your grace, so that in keeping your commands we may please you both in will and deed, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘The King’s Speech…’


Predictions about the global economic outlook for the new year are not encouraging. Nor is the news of the ongoing aggression by Russia in Ukraine. Given the rise of powerful despots and divisions within western democracies, is there anything that we can do?

Two and a half millennia ago the Jewish people were in exile. In 586 BC Babylonian forces had rampaged through Judah, conquering Jerusalem, razing its walls and its temple to the ground. Political obliteration seemed inevitable as the cream of the population was taken to Babylon.

Yet the extraordinary thing was this: Judah’s morale was not destroyed. There was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Isaiah, one of the prophets who had spoken of God’s impending judgment on the nation, had also sounded a voice of hope.

“Comfort, comfort, my people,” Isaiah chapter 40 begins and in the following chapters the prophet speaks of a ‘Servant’ whom God would raise up to rescue and restore his people.

Isaiah tells us that God’s plan involved Cyrus, an insignificant prince from the north of Babylon. Despite humble beginnings Cyrus rose to defeat the Babylonian forces and paved the way for the Persian Empire under Darius. With his rise to power Cyrus had the authority in 520BC to decree the release of the Jewish exiles, permitting their return to Jerusalem and the restoration of their city – a miraculous event. Isaiah speaks of Cyrus as God’s anointed (45:1).

But as we read on, we learn from Isaiah chapter 49 that God had greater plans for his Servant. In verse 1 we read God’s words:  Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!

God’s people were crying out for rescue, but this Servant doesn’t speak directly to them. Rather he speaks to the world at large, the islands and distant nations. The mission of this Servant is not just to God’s people, but also to the nations. His vision is global.

Yes, his work would involve the restoration of Judah, for in verse 5 we read: And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—

But there is something more. A needy world is waiting to hear the truth about God: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

In fulfillment of his promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3b), God’s plan is to extend his salvation to the nations. And, while verse 7 says that God’s Servant will suffer at the hands of the nations, a day would arrive when they – and even their leaders – would come to him.

Centuries before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah was opening a window on elements that would characterize his life. Wise men did come from the East to pay him homage at his birth. People from around the world have been coming to him ever since.

As we look back on Isaiah’s words through the lens of the New Testament we see that he was right. God’s king has now come. In his words and his actions Jesus revealed that he is God in the flesh. He not only taught with great authority but he also revealed God’s compassion for a needy world – feeding the hungry and healing the sick, overcoming the powers of evil and even raising the dead. But most of all, he dealt with our greatest need – our selfish, broken relationship with our Maker. Once and for all, at great cost to himself, he offered himself to die the death we deserve.

As yet, most people don’t know about Jesus, let alone acknowledge him as Lord. Many who do know about him may agree that in Jesus we have the greatest moral teacher who has ever lived. To follow his teachings, the world would certainly enjoy peace: nowhere did he ever encourage violence or evil. In fact, even when he was betrayed in a most ugly way, he told one of his followers to put away his sword. Jesus taught and exemplified truth and love, compassion and peace.

The Getty Music Compassion Hymn sets out the theme of God’s love and compassion and his commitment to rescue the lost:

There is an everlasting kindness You lavished on us when the Radiance of heaven came to rescue the lost; You called the sheep without a shepherd to leave their distress for Your streams of forgiveness and the shade of Your rest… / How beautiful the feet that carry this gospel of peace to the fields of injustice and the valleys of need – to be a voice of hope and healing, to answer the cries of the hungry and helpless with the mercy of Christ / What boundless love, what fathomless grace You have shown us, O God of compassion! Each day we live, an offering of praise as we show the world Your compassion.

The 17th century philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal observed: ‘Humanity despises religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is just to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men and women wish it were true, and then show them that it is’.

Will you join me in praying for God’s grace to let the light of his love and truth shine in our lives? Will you join me in praying that the Lord will open our eyes and give us the words to say to family and friends so that they too will come to learn of God’s goodness and compassion through reading one of the Gospels? John’s Gospel using TheWord121 (www.theword121.com) is a good place to start.

A prayer. Almighty and everlasting God, ruler of all things in heaven and on earth, hear with mercy the prayers and petitions of your people, and so grant us your peace all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘The King’s Speech…’

‘Amazing Grace…’

A close source pointed me to an article by Marylynn Rouse in Christian Heritage London, about the 250th anniversary of Amazing Grace. She comments, ‘It’s not often that a pop song in the charts can claim to have been around for 250 years. John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace featured in hit parades all over the world in the 1960s and 70s, but was written for New Year’s Day 1773.

‘Newton was then curate-in-charge (senior minister) at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney, Buckinghamshire. He took for his text 1 Chronicles 17:16,17 – And David the king came and sat before the Lord, and said, Who am I, O Lord God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in thine eyes, O God; for thou hast also spoken of thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast regarded me according to the estate of a man of high degree, O Lord God.

‘Newton began his sermon by saying “The Lord bestows many blessings upon his people, but unless he likewise gives them a thankful heart, they lose much of the comfort they might have in them.”

‘His objective then was to arouse in his listeners “a thankful heart”.’

As we begin a new calendar year, it’s worth pairing two great themes in Isaiah chapter 40, Comfort, and in chapter 60, Glory.

With the Babylonian conquest in 586BC, Isaiah’s first readers had lost their city, the temple (the symbol of God’s presence) and their king. We can only begin to imagine their reaction to Isaiah’s words in chapter 40, for he was now telling them that the time of God’s judgment was over. God had not forgotten them: they would have a future.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

There’s a timelessness about these words, for they speak to us all as we face life with its difficulties, challenges, and suffering. In the midst of our cries from the heart, ‘Comfort’ speaks of God’s tenderness.

The theme continues in verse 11: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom…’

Isaiah knows that in tough times only a big God can sustain us. And our God is a big God. Only he can overrule our world when it is falling into chaos around us. Only he can say to us with any degree of credibility, ‘Comfort’.

Isaiah continues by awakening us to God’s awesome majesty and kindness, with questions such as, ‘What is God like?’ Can we compare him to the great ones of the world? Some try to pose as gods! Nebuchadnezzar, the great emperor of ancient Babylon, tried it for a while. So did Augustus Caesar and other Roman emperors. So too, do some autocrat leaders today.

To which Isaiah responds: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to nought and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing…

We search the universe in vain for an adequate comparison to God’s majesty. There is nothing we might worship – be it science or technology, intelligence or wisdom, military might or political power, or even the sun or the stars – that can be compared with him. Yet our world today has walked away from the very thought of God.

‘Is God kind and compassionate?’ we ask. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Isaiah says. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable (40:28).

No matter how heart-breaking our situation, no matter how perplexing, we remain in the hands of a kind and limitless intelligence. He knows what he’s doing. Events that trouble us don’t mean that God’s hands have slipped from the helm. We may not always understand his ways, but we have every reason to trust him.

Indeed, God is good and caring: He gives power to the faint, and gives strength to the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, and note this: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (40:29).

Walk and not faint. That’s what we need when life is tough and incomprehensible.

In times when resentment, bitterness and pain make it hard to believe and hard to pray, hard to sing and hard to read the Bible, we need to turn afresh to Isaiah 40.

Which brings us to Isaiah chapter 60: Glory. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising… I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it (Isaiah 60:1-3, 22b).

The darkness of this world will one day give way to light, gloom will give way to glory. Isaiah 60 prepares us for the coming of God’s king in all his glory. It speaks of the city God has planned for his people – the new Jerusalem where, as Revelation 21:1-4 tells us, there will be no more pain or suffering, crying or death. Above all we will know the deep joy of God’s presence with us.

But this city lies on the other side of a cosmic divide. Isaiah’s words will only be fulfilled through the personal intervention of God himself. Only then will we be delivered from the pain of our present world.

Miraculously, the exiled Jewish people in Babylon returned to Jerusalem in 520BC. It is a picture of a far greater promise – forgiveness and new life for all God’s people in a city where there will be a perfect freedom we can only dimly understand. It will involve the manifestation of God’s King in all his majestic power and glory. And, come what may, it will happen. No human authority, no evil power is greater than God’s.

As we begin a new calendar year, how important it is that, as we look forward, we also look back with thankful hearts to the greatest blessing of all that God has given humanity – the coming of his king amongst us and, through his death and resurrection, the offer of a full and free pardon and forgiveness for all who turn to him. We can face the future with hope and goodwill in our hearts.

No wonder on a New Year’s Day, two hundred and fifty years ago, John Newton penned the words, Amazing Grace…

With thankful hearts may you know the blessing of God’s joy and peace in this New Year!

A prayer. O God, who by the leading of a star revealed your beloved Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith, may after this life enjoy the splendor of your glorious presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘The King’s Speech…’

‘Wisdom for the New Year…’

An op-ed on Christmas Eve four years ago in The Australian (12/24/18), referenced a lecture by Dr. George Weigel.

The article noted that Weigel ‘argues that Christianity, including the values highlighted at Christmas, has an important role to play in revitalizing democratic, market-oriented societies … These are struggling on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere, including Australia, producing unrest, instability and disillusionment.’

‘If free politics and free economics are to produce a genuine human flourishing, Weigel says, the strength of the public moral culture, flourishing institutions that earn public confidence and a concern for the common good are vital. Christmas offers a chance to reflect on such issues and to take stock of the bigger picture…’

While it is not my purpose here to explore the relationship between Christianity, politics and a free-market economy, let me observe that the article is similar to ones often found towards the end of a year, calling for a reawakening of the meaning and application of the real Christmas story.

Articles like this invite us to focus on the themes of the poverty and weakness, the love and compassion embedded in the birth of Jesus – all of which are true.

But here is a problem. Driven by the trickle-down effect of writers who have adopted Nietzsche’s anti-theology – that God is dead – our culture tells us that the Bible is a series of fanciful stories and fictious stuff.

But this conflicts with the opening lines of the longest Gospel – Luke. Dr. Luke wants us to know that he was writing history, not fiction. He followed the principles of writing adopted by historians such as Thucydides. Furthermore, he tells us that he verified his account with eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, people who had been with Jesus during his public ministry – the ‘keepers of the Jesus record’.

In their various ways the four Gospels witness to the reality of Jesus as God who has come amongst us as one of us. His public life reveals his authority and his compassion for a very needy world – especially our need to be rescued from our self-love – captured by the line: ‘me, myself and I’. We have turned aside from the true love and worship of our maker.

Matthew chapter 2 provides an example of true worship. In verses 1 through 12 he records that Magi – wise men – visited Jesus from the far East to bring him gifts and worship him.

In chapter 1 Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the town where Jacob had buried Rachel and where King David was born. Known from that time as the City of David, the prophet Micah spoke of Bethlehem as the place where God’s Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2).

The legends that have developed around the magi following a star and visiting the baby Jesus in Bethlehem shroud the veracity and the surprise of Matthew’s account. He doesn’t mention the number of the wise men who visited Jesus, nor does he say they were kings. Nor does he tell us their names. Who then were these people who travelled so far?

The Magi were a tribe of priests in ancient Persia and were known for their study in astrology – making predictions from the stars. In the ancient world the movement of the stars and the planets was understood to frame the orderly pattern of the universe. Any interruption to this was seen to mark some new significant event that would impact the human story.

Piecing together the astronomical studies of the past, it seems that the Magi observed a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that occurred in 7BC around the time Jesus was born. In an age before telescopes, the conjunction would have given the appearance of a very bright star which some of them followed.

Coming from Persia where the Jewish people had been in exile in the 6th century BC they would have known the Jewish Scriptures which include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers chapter 24, verse 17: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;…

The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter occurred three times in 7BC, suggesting that when it had first appeared the Magi travelled westward to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Given the distance, they would have arrived there about the time of the third planetary conjunction. It was when they were in Jerusalem that they learned of the baby’s birth in Bethlehem – as Micah had foretold.

Matthew records: Going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Their gifts were prophetic: gold, a gift for a king – the greatest king of all time lay before them; frankincense, used by the priests – the highest priest of all was the one they saw; myrrh, for the burial of the dead – this baby, born to be king would be crowned through his suffering on a cross. Significantly, and to us surprisingly, these highly respected, wise, non-Jewish men fell on their knees and worshipped this baby.

At the time when Matthew wrote this Gospel account, non-Jewish peoples from across the known world were acknowledging the crucified and risen Jesus as their king and savior. Matthew here is highlighting yet another facet of the fulfillment of the prophetic promise concerning God’s King: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… (Isaiah 60:3).

Articles that call for our world to revisit the Christmas story are a fresh illustration of the way Jesus Christ fulfills Isaiah’s words. They give us the opportunity to take people around us to the true story revealed in the Gospels. And while the percentage of Christians in the US has fallen, Christianity is still the majority faith.

Let me ask, are you praying for family and friends that they might turn to the King of Kings – in repentance and worship? Are you looking for opportunities to live out and pass on the very best news our troubled world has received?

A prayer. Lord our God, you have given us the life of Jesus in his home as an example: grant that all Christian families may be so bound together in love and service that we may rejoice together in your heavenly home; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘The King’s Speech…’

‘Christmas – Giving and Getting’

‘What is Christmas all about?’ asks Charlie Brown, in Charles M. Schultz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.

When A Charlie Brown Christmas was first released (December 1965), the overwhelming positive response took the television network executives by surprise. It was watched by forty-five percent of the television viewing audience that night. And now, over fifty years later it is still a Christmas classic and continues to draw millions.

Tired of the commercialism of Christmas, Charlie Brown wants to know its real meaning. We see Snoopy’s answer when he enters a Christmas lighting and decoration competition. For Sally, Charlie Brown’s young sister, it’s all about getting.

When once again Charlie Brown asks his question, Linus responds by taking center-stage and reading from Luke 2:8-14:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid: for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth, 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, good will amongst those he favors’.

In an interview, Charles Schultz’s wife, Jeannie commented that her husband pushed back against the idea that there is no place for a Bible text in a cartoon. He insisted that the Bible is not just for God’s people – it is for everyone.

Schultz understood that Christmas is the twinning of Giving and Getting. God gave; we get or receive.

Indeed, this Advent season I have been drawing attention to the way, some seven centuries before Jesus was born, Isaiah foretold that a young woman would conceive and give birth to a son who would be named Immanuel – God with us (Isaiah 7:14).

But that is not all. In Isaiah chapter 9 we read that into the darkness of Israel’s experience at the time, a light would dawn in the north, the region of Galilee: Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who are in distress, Isaiah says.

Galilee was the region that had been subject to the Assyrian invasion. As Isaiah chapter 9 unfolds we read that a day of joy would come (verse 3); the signs of war would cease (verses 4 and 5); and the shadow of death would disappear. For, as verse 6 of chapter 9 says: To us a child is born, to us a son is given…

The sign of the dawning of the new day in God’s purposes would be something weak and insignificant – the birth of a baby. Yet, as Isaiah foreshadows, the government will be on his shoulders. His name was to be called, wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (9:6).

Through the lens of the New Testament we see the beginning of the fulfilment of these words – the first instalment, as it were. Matthew chapter 1, verses 21 through 23 records the words of the angel to Joseph: ‘(Mary) will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’.

So often we simply do not appreciate the full weight of this event. We may believe the baby born in Bethlehem to be the Son of God, but how often do we let the intense meaning of this birth pass us by?

How often do we pause and reflect on the reality that divinity walked the streets of Jerusalem? That infinite Wisdom and Power humbly took on human nature? That God poured his heavenly resources into rescuing us, even though it meant the violence and horror of a crucifixion?

It is for our sake that Christ condescended to such monumental humiliation. The lowly birth in Bethlehem points to Christ’s voluntary decision to set aside his glory for our sake. He came and he gave, to enrich us.

Because of God’s gift to us, we will want to respond with true repentance and deep thanks.

We will also want to emulate, no matter how feebly, the unspeakable generosity of God’s gift. Because God gave, we will want to live God’s way and to share with others the gift of joy and hope. Not condescendingly or aggressively, but graciously and generously.

There is a story about a fourth century bishop in Turkey. One Christmas he wanted to express his gratitude to God for the gift of Jesus. Going into a slum area of the city carrying a heavy sack on his back, he knocked on the door of one of the little mud houses and was greeted by the dirty faces of three young children. Taking the pack off his back he gave them each a warm woollen coat before disappearing back to his own home. The bishop was Nicholas of Myra.

The story of Nicholas, now thoroughly commercialized, is nevertheless a good example if true; a useful parable if a legend. He felt the weight of the words of Paul the Apostle in Second Corinthians, chapter eight, verse nine: For you know the generous gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Here is the greatest reason of all for Christian giving – and not just at Christmas.

You may want to find a way to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas with your family.

You may also want to give a special Christmas gift for the ministry of your church or a gospel mission. You may also like to make an end of year gift here to the ministry of the Anglican Connection. (Gifts in the US are tax deductible.)

May you know afresh the joy and rich blessing of God’s love this Christmas!

A prayer. Almighty God, you have given us your only Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be borne of a pure virgin. Grant that we, being born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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