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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.