Shakespeare, Jesus, and Lawyers (Part Two)

Please read Matthew 15:1-20 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare the following remarks.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

Legalism is an attempt to hide behind the law or manipulate its details to force your will on others.  There are some peculiar laws on the books around the country, so pick your hiding spot carefully.  Here are a few humorous examples.

In Huntington, West Virginia, firemen may not whistle or flirt at any woman passing a firehouse.

In the entire state of Georgia it is illegal to use profanity in front of a corpse lying in a funeral home or in a coroner’s office.

In Boston, Massachusetts, no one may take a bath without a prescription.  I wonder who polices that law?

In Norco, CA, all persons wishing to keep a rhinoceros as a pet must first obtain a $100 license.

This one is true too: in Wichita, Kansas, before proceeding through the intersection of Douglas and Broadway, a motorist is to get out of their vehicle and fire three shotgun rounds into the air.  I’m looking for a volunteer to try that one out!

Owners of flamingos in Juneau, Alaska, may not let their pet into barber shops.  How does anybody in Juneau GET a flamingo?

In San Francisco, California, it is illegal to pile horse manure more than six feet high on a street corner.  Based on what little I know about San Francisco, I’d guess politicians are allowed to stack it as high as they want.

I’m sure there is an interesting story behind all these laws, explaining how they got on the books.  But the point simply is this: man-made laws are vulnerable to misuse.  They are not the ultimate authority in the life of believers.  Our allegiance is primarily to the laws of love that were instituted in the Old Covenant and affirmed by Jesus in the New.

REVIEW from Part One

  1. The Picky (1+2).

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (lawyers) were “picky” in the usual sense that they fussed over details, abused the Law to further their own ends and in the unusual sense that they were trying to pick a fight with Jesus.

  1. The Pig in a Poke (3-9).

As per the usual meaning of this expression, the Pharisees and lawyers were attempting to convince Jesus and everyone within earshot they were handling a serious problem.  Jesus exposed their hypocrisy instead of accepting their definition of “serious.”

NEW for Part Two

  1. Prodding the People (10+11).

Sometime in this brief conversation a CROWD had formed. What Jesus intended to be a private rebuke became a “teachable moment” when He turned to address the CROWD as well as the disciples and the religious leaders.

He used the religious professionals’ complaint about hand-washing to teach the people about true discipleship.  For our sake, here’s what the Law of Moses taught.

One, “defilement” was a condition of spiritual and moral impurity (aka “uncleanliness”).  The word literally meant “to make something common.”  That means that something that had previously been sacred (devoted exclusively to God; special), was now just “ordinary.”

Two, the Law penalized the unclean/ defiled sinner by putting the offender out of the temple and sometimes outside the community too.  In the most serious situation, the Law required the offender put out of LIFE.  (Jesus’ quote of Leviticus 21:17 in verse four is an example of the ultimate penalty.)

Three, there were detailed laws about how an unclean/defiled person could become clean again.

The Law made an abstract concept like “sin” concrete & costly by requiring an animal sacrifice to cleanse the guilty party.  This is one appeal of legalism; it’s easier to think concretely than abstractly.

In contrast, here’s what Jesus said: “Food eaten with unwashed hands does not make the eater a sinner.  Instead, the things that come out of the mouth (i.e., our words) are things that make us sinners.”

  1. The Parable (12-14).

The scene changes again between vs. 11+12.  Jesus and His disciples went into a private home where they could question Jesus.

We forget that the Jews of Jesus’ time had a begrudging respect for the Pharisees: they were seen as “super religious” in a culture where religion was still seen as a good thing.  Even so, people didn’t to follow their example: it was just too demanding.

This explains the deference of the disciples in verse twelve, where they asked, “Do you realize what you’re saying is making these guys mad?”  They were also curious about this new, more assertive attitude Jesus showed.  Otherwise, who cares?  After all, you can’t live your life worrying about all the opinions of all the people.  Making decisions to avoid offense is one of the worst bases for making decisions.

Jesus needed to relieve them of the assumption that these people were reliable spiritual guides.  That’s why His reply in vs. 13+14 is so unequivocal.  It is as if Jesus replied, “You think that was offensive?  Check THIS out!”  What followed was a two-part parable (as Peter identified it in verse fifteen).

The PARABLE promised that God will set things right.  In this world, hypocrites may be allowed to prosper, but sooner or later, God Himself will uproot them.  Two chapters earlier, Jesus gave an extended parable about a wheat field where that was later sown with weed seed.  He explained that the wheat represents the true children of God and the weeds the false and evil people who reject God.  Making a point very similar to v. 13, Jesus promised God Himself will separate the wheat from the weeds and make everything right.  As God did not write their TRADITION, anyone guided by it was NOT His planting.

Jesus commanded, “LEAVE THEM.”  He meant, “Don’t be fooled by their legalism.”  Those who followed their teaching were “the blind being lead by the blind.”  This is irony with a sharp point, folks.  These religious authorities would puff themselves up by putting others down, calling themselves “leaders of the blind.”  Jesus turns their egotism against them and says that they blinded themselves to the truth.

  1. Peter in a Pickle (15-20).

He was often the first to ask questions everyone wondered about but didn’t dare ask (as happened in verse fifteen).  Peter wondered how God would “uproot” them and/or how they would fall into a pit.

The problem with being the first to ask is that he bore the brunt of Jesus’ rebuke (16): “ARE YOU [also] STILL SO DULL?”  This sounds harsh, but this kind of language fit Jesus’ role as a rabbi: bringing rebuke/correction was part of their job.

But these statements contradict our watered-down, wimpy version of Jesus.  The Gentle Shepherd is just one side of His character.  We need to also see Jesus as a radical man who was dangerous, dragging His disciples into all kinds of troubling situations.

In vs. 17-19 Jesus drew an analogy from the obvious function of the human body in regard to eating.  Food and water are introduced to the body by the mouth, are used by the body, and then disposed of by the body.  It was ridiculous to assert this process resulted in an immoral state.

The things that DO have a moral effect are a person’s words and deeds.  For example, MURDER, ADULTERY, SEXUAL IMMORALITY, and THEFT are all sinful acts.  FALSE TESTIMONY and SLANDER are examples of sinful words.

These are the BAD FRUIT of which Jesus spoke in chapter seven.  They identify a “bad tree,” regardless of mere appearances may say.

Jesus’ teaching was that hand-washing is not a moral act.   Anyone who attempts to make their self look good by observing a legalism like hand-washing rituals is a hypocrite.  What makes and marks a person as godly or ungodly is what’s in their heart, not what’s under their fingernails.  Real faith changes us to the core; it does not settle on the skin and it does not allow evil and selfishness to be excused or exercised by something as petty as legalism.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

It would be a shame to let this opportunity go by without telling a lawyer joke or two.  Here’s some gleaned from the Reader’s Digest.

First, a bit of actual courtroom dialogue: Attorney: “Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?”
Witness: “All of them. The live ones put up too much of a fight.”

Next, a favorite diversion of ours: jury duty.  When an 88-year-old mother was called for jury duty, she had to submit to questioning by the opposing lawyers.

“Have you ever dealt with an attorney?” asked the plaintiff’s lawyer.

“Yes. I had an attorney write my living trust,” she responded.

“And how did that turn out?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Ask me when I’m dead.”

Finally, do you know who invented copper wire?  Two attorneys fighting over a penny.

<Retrieved from http://www.rd.com/jokes/lawyer/ on 6/29/17.>

We can laugh about these things and should.  Quality of life is diminished when we allow petty people to wind our crank.  Its safer to just laugh at them.

But we need to be deadly serious about legalism.  Legalism is a sin.  It is a disguise that hypocrites wear to mask their true identity.  It is a means to abuse others and/or benefit self.  It is false.  It is not of God.

Let us be done with legalism.  Let us take seriously the condemnation Jesus leveled at hypocrites and avoid being one.  Have this Scripture in mind and take an honest look in the mirror.  It begins there.

 

 

 

Shakespeare, Jesus, and Lawyers (Pt. One)

Please read Matthew 15:1-20 in your Bible.  Then examine the following to see if your spirit agrees.  I have prepared these remarks using the NIV.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

“Few people are unfamiliar with the phrase, The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Rueful, mocking, it often expresses the ordinary person’s frustration with the arcana and complexity of law. Sometimes it’s known that the saying comes from one of Shakespeare’s plays, but usually there’s little awareness beyond that. This gap in knowledge has inspired a myth of ‘correction,’ where it is ‘explained’ that this line is intended as a praise of lawyers.

“Whoever first came up with this interpretation surely must have been a lawyer.  The line is actually uttered by a character ‘Dick the Butcher.’ While he’s a killer as evil as his name implies, he often makes highly comedic and amusing statements.

“The “kill the lawyers” statement is the ending portion of a comedic relief part of a scene in Henry VI, part 2. Dick and another henchman, Smith are members of the gang of Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne. The build-up is a long portion where Cade makes vain boasts, which are cut down by sarcastic replies from the others. For example:

JACK CADE
I thank you, good people:- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

DICK.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

“The audience must have doubled over in laughter at this.  Far from being ‘out of context’ the usage is more true to the original than most people know.

“In fact, Shakespeare used lawyers as figures of derision on several occasions.

“As long as there are lawyers, there will be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever.”

(Posted in 1997 by Seth Finkelstein at http://www.spectacle.org/797/finkel.html, retrieved on 06/19/17.)

  1. The Picky (1+2).

The Pharisees & lawyers were “picky” in the usual sense that they fussed over details, abusing the Law to further their own ends. Everyone knew the hand-washing regulations were not part of the Law given to Moses but were only a tradition started by rabbis.  In Jesus’ time these rules were not widely enforced, so these guys were trying too hard to find fault with Jesus.

Here is one example of their tradition regarding hand-washing: “If a man poured water over the one hand with a single rinsing, his hand is clean: but if over both hands with a single rinsing, Rabbi Meir declares them unclean unless he pours over them a quarter-log or more.” (M Yadaim 2:1)

The Pharisees and lawyers were also “picky” in that they were trying to pick a fight with Jesus.  They wanted to make Him look like a bad Jew. Note that these religious professionals were from Jerusalem.   They went all the way up to Galilee to find Jesus and “put Him in His place.”  In spite of their effort, all they could find to confront Him about was the behavior of his disciples at dinner time.

This sounds petty to us and it was petty, but not in the minds of these religious leaders.  When people are being legalistic, petty matters are molehills made to sound like mountains.  This is a word of warning to us about legalism; it is used because it provides a cover for pettiness.  Complaints that may be true in principle but not practicality are being used this way.  Be wary of this practice.

THE TRADITION OF THE ELDERS was a body of rules written by religious leaders over several generations called the “Halakah.”  The Pharisees attached a great deal of importance to this document and attempted to meet its requirements every day.  It was so complicated that a new profession arose to help people navigate its requirements: these are the TEACHERS OF THE LAW mentioned here.  We might call them “temple lawyers.”

Literacy was still not a common skill, so these TRADITIONS were largely maintained orally; the rabbi would train his students in them by having them recite them aloud.  This rote method of teaching was the main way these TRADITIONS were preserved in succeeding generations.

  1. The Pig in a Poke (3-9).

Continuing our earlier connection with English literature, we understand the expression “buying a pig in a poke” to be an old English phrase that refers to buying something without seeing or knowing anything about it first.  A “poke” is another word for sack.  (The word “pocket” is derived from it – a “pokette” is a small sack.) It is not wise to buy without first opening the sack to check the condition of the pig!

The Pharisees attempted to sell Jesus a “pig in a poke” in their criticism of His disciples’ lack of hand washing etiquette.  However, Jesus wasn’t buying it.  He opened the sack and exposed the contents.  Jesus exposed their legalism as hypocrisy – choosing their own traditions over God’s Law

God’s Law was clearly stated: children are to honor (obey) their parents.  Exodus 20:12 is the 5th Commandment; “HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER, SO THAT YOU MAY LIVE LONG IN THE LAND THE LORD YOUR GOD IS GIVING YOU.”  Jesus also quoted Exodus 21:17 which gave the penalty for violating this commandment: death.  Think God takes this seriously?  Yes, He does.

Jesus said this clear command had been nullified by a tradition created by the kind of people who were accusing Him.  Leviticus 27:9+16 allowed for property and real estate to be designated as “Corban,” a state of dedication to the Lord (see Mark 7:11).  This was to last until the next Year of Jubilee.  Perhaps on this basis, they created a rule that a man could dedicate assets to the temple.  If so, when his parents appealed to him for help, he could say to them, “I’d love to help you out, but my property is given over to the temple and I’m strapped for cash.”

With that kind of clear self-interest, the religious leaders created a way to make money and an excuse for the living to refuse all requests for philanthropy.  In our time, it would be a combination tax shelter and charitable trust.  Or it might be “fraud.”  Jesus’ point is simple; hypocrites will attempt to wallpaper their crimes in pages from law books in order to excuse their violations of God’s Law and/or make themselves appear godly when their hearts are nowhere near God.

In case you’re not yet seeing it, let me assure you this is a full-bore rebuke by Jesus.  It is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus referred to the Pharisees and lawyers – or anyone – as HYPOCRITES.

Jesus quoted from Isaiah 29:13 using the Word of God to expose the true intent of their hearts.  In effect, He rebuked them saying, “You believe you’re preserving traditions, but in reality, you’re guilty of the same hypocrisy the prophet Isaiah exposed.”

They replaced true faith which resides in one’s heart with superficialities.  Instead of enacting the will of God, they misused the Law to force their will on others.  The result: their worship was wasted because the rules they followed were just human notions, not the will of God.

Legalism is one of the disguises hypocrisy wears to conceal ungodliness.

We must understand what legalism is.  I offer the reader five views of the subject that will attempt to define this sin and enable us to avoid manifesting it in our daily living.

Legalism is a complicated attempt to create rules that make us look good while relieving us of the hard work of character.

Legalism is an attempt to cloud the condition of the heart by burying the matter in complications.  It is the old “smoke and mirrors” approach to misdirection.

Legalism mimics God’s Law, but is thoroughly man-made.  It is thereby not authoritative for all who believe.

Legalism misuses tradition by asserting that the old ways are the only right ways.

Legalism is selfishly motivated and attempts to please one’s self; where true righteousness is focused on God and desires to please Him.  We humans seem to have an infinite capacity to make excuses and manipulate words to justify self and/or condemn others.  We need a higher authority.

The Jewish religious leaders in this passage are long dead and so are some of their teachings.  But the practice of legalism is alive and well.  It has users in the Church and outside it; the dogmatism of “political correctness” is a modern manifestation of legalism.

Indeed, the practice of legalism is so common (inside and outside the Church) and its consequences are so serious, the Lord has impressed on me the necessity of studying this passage in detail.  Part Two will examine further aspects of Jesus’ condemnation of legalism.

Love Without Limits

(Please read Matthew 18:21-35 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Those of us of a certain age will recognize the name W.C. Fields, the rest of you will have to google it.  A famous comic actor in the black and white era of motion pictures, Fields played mostly grumpy old men in his movies.  It turns out that off-screen, he was a grumpy old man and a drunken rascal.

W.C. Fields was also a notorious atheist.  That’s why a friend of his was astonished to discover Fields, at the end of his life, reading the Bible.  He asked Fields, “Why in the world are you reading the Bible?  Are you looking for answers?”

The comedian replied, “No, I’m looking for loopholes.”

Looking for loopholes.  That pretty well describes human nature doesn’t it?  We want maximum gain with minimal effort.  We expect to be rewarded above and beyond our lukewarm commitment and selfishly motivated actions.  Justice and mercy are things we want when they benefit us, but are far less concerned about them for the sake of others.  Particularly for people whom we do not happen to like.

The last time I preached on this passage was 20 years ago.  At that time, God was using a peculiar method to teach me about mercy.  God used Woofie to give me daily opportunities to show forgiveness.

Woofie came into our lives as “Wolfie;”  we changed her name to make her sound less aggressive.  The change of name had no effect on her nature, however.

Woofie was the poster dog of the local Humane Society.  Really.  She was a stray who’d been hanging around a cemetery, barely eking out a living, in bad shape when she was caught.  Life on her own did not prepare Woofie to be a house dog.

She loved everyone in the family and hated all other life forms.  She was a barker.  A jumper.  She bolted every chance she could get, so we had to devise an elaborate and strong pulley system to let her outdoors.  One of her favorite tricks was to walk up next to Melanie and bump her with her backside, sending Melanie, then a toddler, sprawling and bawling on the floor.  When we watched a movie and ate popcorn, she would bark angrily if you didn’t frequently flip a kernel her way.

The story has a happy ending.  Woofie lived with us for more than a decade.  She peacefully lay down to sleep one day and never awoke again.

What eventually made the difference was love.  And forgiveness.  Lots and lots of forgiveness of her canine sins.

Now, twenty years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We adopted Rue from the Sioux Falls Humane Society just before Christmas and her list of doggie offenses is growing.  I must be a slow learner to have to go through this again!

  1. The occasion: Peter asked a question.

Rabbis (Jewish teachers) are and were tasked with applying the Law of Moses to everyday life.  When they did so, they tended to use a very legalistic approach.  They taught that a person might be forgiven three times for a repeated sin.  On the fourth occasion, however, no one was required to  forgive something a fourth time.

It’s possible that when Peter offered the number SEVEN, he was surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus had commanded in 5:20. (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”)  Or Peter may’ve settled on SEVEN since that was seen as “the perfect number,” the number for God.  (Six is the number for man; always one short.)  In either case, Jesus had just been talking about the steps in restoring fellow church members from sin to forgiveness and this sparked Peter’s questioning mind.  He wanted to know if there were any loopholes in this matter of forgiveness and restoration.

In the first part of His answer, Jesus one-ups Peter and adds a second seven.  (In some texts it’s plus seventy, in others, it times seventy.  Since we’re NOT dealing with a legalism here, the difference makes no difference.)  Jesus sometimes uses humor and exaggeration to make His point and I believe that’s what’s happening here.  SEVENTY-SEVEN and 490 are both ridiculous numbers if you intend to make it a law.  Who would have the capacity to keep such a command?  How would keeping an exhaustive count of offenses make anyone feel better or make you more godly?

No, SEVENTY-SEVEN is obviously a metaphor for a limitless number.  Once they’ve had a chuckle over the first part of His answer, Jesus goes on to tell them a story that will justify effectively limitless forgiveness.

  1. The one main point of the parable: “Forgive one another as you have been forgiven by God the Father.”

We will show how Jesus’ parable develops this truth in just a moment.  For now, we note the large strokes.

The KING is God the Father.  Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, He forgives the massive, impossible-for-us-to-fix debt of our sin.

We are the unforgiving servant when we take out our petty anger on the people around us, who are represented by the FELLOW SERVANT.

The unforgiving servant had no mercy, so he received justice instead; justice in the form of judgment.  The warning in v. 35 could not be clearer: people who are unwilling to forgive will miss out on God’s forgiveness.

  1. The sub-points of the parable:

One: The debt the king forgave was impossible to repay.  In Jesus’ world, it was possible for servants of a KING to amass a debt in the course of their service to the king.  They were tasked with managing their master’s assets and logically their management wasn’t always successful.  In such cases, the master didn’t write a loss off, but held the manager accountable, counting the loss as a debt owed him.  (This system sounds a bit like riding a tiger; choose carefully which end you face!)

Even so, this amount is another purposeful exaggeration: Jesus used an impossibly large amount of money to create the impression that the debt was impossible to repay.  For context, I refer you to a 2010 article by Philip Massey who calculated the debt to require 200,000 YEARS of labor to repay.  The 2010 equivalent, his math said, was $7.04 billion.

– OR, the net worth of Bill Gates.

– OR, more than the national debt… in 1917!!

<Retrieved from http://chimes.biola.edu/story/2010/oct/27/parable-two-debtors/ on 1/6/17.>

The king did the math and realized that even if he sold this man’s entire family into slavery (as he did in v. 25), it would not make a dent in his losses.  His original motive must’ve been to get what he could and make an example of this servant and his horrible mismanagement of the king’s funds.

He orders the servant and all his family and possessions seized for the debt.  Our sympathy may naturally go to the servant, but think about it: if the indebted servant realized the debt was impossible to pay, his pleading with the king to be PATIENT, promising to repay all, was a lie.

Let’s note the character of the KING on the basis of his response to his servant’s plea.  His character is substantiated in v. 27: it was PITY, not the empty promise of repayment that motivated the king to cancel the servant’s debt.  Let there be no doubt this king is a figure symbolizing God the Father.

– Each person’s sin is an insurmountable debt, a problem we can’t fix.

– Not because of our empty promises to be good, or anything else we can do, the debt is cancelled.

– Does this help you understand the incredible seriousness of your sins AND the depth of God’s forgiveness?

– Remember, the money is a metaphor; the actual situation is even more dire, for the wages of sin are DEATH (RMS 6:23).

Two, the debt the servant did not forgive was tiny in comparison.  The modern value of A HUNDRED SILVER COINS would be up to $45,000.  That is a princely sum for most of us, I would guess, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to $7.04 billion.

This is a third exaggeration, a sum chosen carefully by Jesus.            On the one hand, it is not so small a sum of money that a person could easily forgive the debt and not miss it.  A needy or greedy person would be motivated to insist on repayment.  On the other hand, it is not so large a sum that it compares at all with the debt this servant’s master had JUST CANCELLED.

In v. 29, the second servant’s plea reads almost exactly the same as the plea the unforgiving servant has just made with the king.  Here Jesus is using irony to make sure that we connect the unforgiving servant with the one who owed him money.  The unforgiving servant takes the place of the KING and the second servant takes his place.  Though the debts are very much different, the situation, through the wording, is very much the same.  What is different is the outcome.

It is a terrible, immoral deed that the unforgiving servant does to his peer, throwing him in prison over this comparatively tiny debt after he has been forgiven so much (30).  What he did was as illegal as it was immoral.  According to the law of the land, you could not sell a person into slavery for a debt that was worth less than the person’s life.  In other words, the unforgiving servant was trying to not only recover his debt, but make a profit too.  This detail exposes the unforgiving servant as greedy, not needy.

Three, the king’s justice is an example of God’s justice.  The injustice of the unforgiving servant’s actions was not lost on his peers.  Jesus says they were GREATLY DISTRESSED (31).  Probably at some personal risk, they went to the KING and told him what had happened.  This makes even more sense if the actions of the unforgiving servant are illegal AND immoral.

In vs. 32-34 we are pleased to see that this KING, who was so good-natured as to forgive such a massive debt, also had a good sense of justice.  He was indignant at the unforgiving servant’s actions and rebuked him for his pettiness, his unwillingness to demonstrate the same kind of mercy as he had recently received.

In righteous anger, the KING delivered a just condemnation of the unforgiving servant.  The word translated in the NIV as JAILERS is really too tame a choice of words.  It should read “torturers.”  The justice and mercy of the KING are a stark contrast to the greed and injustice of the unforgiving servant.

Four, let unforgiving folk be warned (35).  God’s justice is perfect; He knows who is guilty and the punishment always fits the crime.

This warning could not be more clear.  Unforgiving people betray the true status of their soul as themselves being unforgiven.  There is a cause and effect relationship between being shown mercy and giving mercy.

This warning could be more serious.  Our eternal destination is at stake.  Just as the unforgiving servant was handed over to the “torturers,” so can an unmerciful person expect only the wrath of God.

This warning could not be any more certain.  The unforgiving servant was exposed and justice was rendered.  He may have gone away from his first encounter thinking he’d fooled the king but his true nature emerged and he was dealt with justly.

Several years ago, on a beautiful spring day a man walked along a country lane to enjoy the sun.  He chanced upon a farmer plowing his field with a mule.  He was having a tough time of it.  The mule was not very responsive.

The visitor waved to the farmer and motioned for him to come over to the fence.  The farmer mopped his sweaty brow as he came over to the fence to greet his friendly visitor.

“Say,” the visitor said, “I’m not one to tell a man how to do his business, but I think that mule would be more cooperative if you’d say ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ to him when you wanted him to turn.”

The farmer considered this advice for but a moment and replied, “Reckon that’s so, but that mule kicked me five years ago and I haven’t talked to it since.”

Holding a grudge against people makes about as much sense, doesn’t it?  As this parable makes plain, grudge-holding and all forms of being unforgiving and unmerciful have no place in the life of a follower of Jesus.

Instead, just the opposite is true.  A claim to faith by a person or a church is proven by a character of mercy.  This quality of a fellowship (church) is also necessary to attract and retain new people in a church.

Turns Out You CAN Go Home

(Please read Matthew 2:19-23 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I used the NIV to do my research.)

Matthew 2:19-23  X  “Turns Out You CAN Go Home”  X  EBC = 12/25/16

One of the offbeat things that 2016 brought us is “fake news.”   This is something entirely fictitious masquerading as an actual news story.  People put this stuff on the Internet for various reasons, but the common factor is that it’s fake.

In case you missed it, there was an example of fake news in the Twin Cities just last week.  Some guy got it in his head that the new stadium was a waste of tax payers’ money and should be opened up as a shelter for the homeless on that especially cold night.  So he “tweeted” that it would be.

A friend of his “re-tweeted” this as if it were a real news item.  That fellow had 14,000 followers, many of who “re-tweeted” this item as if it really were accurate.  Announcers calling the Minnesota Vikings game on TV talked about it during their broadcast, and the whole messy lie took on a life of its own.

Other examples abound.  Fake News is nothing new.  Anybody here heard about Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds?”  It has been suggested that dead children and grieving mothers in ISIS video are just actors.

Having more access to information does not necessarily mean we have more access to the truth.  It means that, more than ever, we have to exercise good judgment to discern what is true.

As believers, we have an alternative to “fake news.”  For about 2000 years we’ve been calling it “good news,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim Stanley wrote an article entitled “Sick of fake news? Try the ‘good news’ about Christmas” for the London Telegraph.  I like his take on our more wholesome alternative to fake news.

“How do we test if faith is real? Look at what it produces. It is outwardly, indisputably more beautiful and magnificent than its secular alternative.   As my evidence, I won’t just cite the eyewitness accounts or the corroborating evidence from Josephus or Pliny. No, I cite love.

“You’ll think I’m mad. Love is just a concept, say the philosophers, or an evolutionary quirk, say the biologists. Society doesn’t seem very interested in talking about it; it’s out of style. The news, fake or otherwise, is dominated by evil.

Stanley cites a letter from an American agnostic who found a surprising alternative in Christianity: “Right now, I am struggling to accept the basic Christian doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, second coming) because I feel the Christian tribe may be the right tribe for my family. We just finished watching a BBC miniseries about the birth of Jesus, which was so beautiful and moving compared to secular TV. My nine-year-old really enjoyed it.”

“That the events of two thousand years ago inspire all of this suggests, to me, that there has to be something to them. People wouldn’t turn their lives around over a myth – any more than the critics of Christianity wouldn’t waste so much energy trying to debunk a childish delusion. We do this big Christmas festival thing for a reason. Because deep in our soul, we connect the love on display in the nativity with our own needs and experiences.

“Some people have found 2016 depressing. It’s had its ups and downs. But evil trades in doubt and we should resist it. The fake news is that mankind is lost. The good news is that it can be saved.”

<Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/23/sick-fake-news-try-good-news-christmas/ on 12/23/16.>

  1. This event itself.

Verses 19-22 relate the third dream.  For the first and only time Joseph hesitated.  The angel’s message from God was simple; there was no longer any threat to the Christ-child, so it was time to come home.  King Herod died in 4 B.C.  This makes it possible that he did not live long after ordering the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem.

By Herod’s own will and the prerogative of Caesar Augustus, Herod’s kingdom was divided between his surviving sons.  Matthew recorded Archelaus was given jurisdiction over Judea (Jerusalem), Samaria, & Idumea (south).  His brothers Philip II ruled Galilee (north) and Antipas Galilee and Perea (middle).

The angel’s command was to go to THE LAND OF ISRAEL, which Joseph understood as being Judea, a province ruled by Archelaus.  Joseph was concerned about his family’s safety if they settled anywhere in Judea. He had good reason to be concerned: when Archelaus was king over Judea, he ordered the killing of 3000 people during the observance of the Day of Pentecost.  This massacre caused widespread rioting and got Archelaus in a great deal of trouble with Rome.  Later, in AD 6, a joint delegation of Jews and Samaritans went to Rome and pleaded Augustus to remove Archelaus from power.  Caesar agreed, and banished Archelaus to the frontier – the middle of Europe – in a place that would be called “Vienna.”  Archelaus was replaced by a governor appointed by Rome, which is where Pontius Pilate will come onto the scene when Jesus is grown to manhood and accused by the Jews of treason.  (Pontius Pilate was the fifth man to hold that title.  He was no great statesman and could be ruthless like Archelaus.)

Clearly, this account in Matthew 2 happened before Archelaus’ banishment.  No doubt reports of this grave abuse of power reached Joseph and other Jews living in Egypt.

God heard Joseph’s concern and sent a fourth dream, diverting the Holy Family to the province of Galilee, which was ruled by Antipas, not Archelaus.  Antipas was no real prize either, as the Gospels tell us he was the man who would order the death of John the Baptist and interrogate Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

The fourth dream and Joseph’s compliance are recorded in vs. 22+23.  Put yourself in Joseph’s place for a moment: all these dreams.  Are you worried about sleeping?  Do you lay down and think, “OK, what’s it gonna be tonight?  More angels bossing me around?”  So the family settled in Nazareth.  In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems like Nazareth is a new community, but Luke tells us it was the place from which both Joseph and Mary originated.

If you were looking for a place to “hide in plain sight,” Nazareth was a good choice.  It had a population of just 500-1500 people.

  1. The significance of the event.

The safety of the Christ-child is the most significant outcome.   Having preserved Him from Herod’s rage, the infant Jesus is now preserved from the lethal tyranny of Archelaus.

It proves that returning to Bethlehem was out of the question.  It was in the territory ruled by Archelaus and he was deadly crazy like his father.  It would have been the first place Archelaus would have looked if he followed up on his father’s bloody crusade against the new king.  Most importantly, growing up in Bethlehem was simply not God’s plan.

Another significant aspect of event is the fulfillment of prophecy (23).   Matthew is not directly quoting any single Old Testament prophet and that is why he used the plural term PROPHETS.  His statement is a summary and restatement of Scriptures he memorized from the Hebrew version of the Old Testament and that is a partial explanation why we can’t find this quote directly in the Old Testament.

Nazareth was an obscure town 70 miles north of Jerusalem.  It was a place of lowly reputation, especially among the city folk in Jerusalem.   For example, in John 1:46, Nathanael asked “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  He found out something good had come out of Nazareth; Jesus.  He would go on to become one of Jesus’ disciples.  Another example: in Acts 7:25, when Christians were referred to as “the Nazarene sect,” it was intended as an insult.

Some people denied Jesus was the Messiah based on their false assumption that He was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.  It became a point on which they sneered at Jesus (John 7:41-43).

Finally, in this event some scholars see a repeat of the Exodus.  In the original Exodus, the nation of Israel was delivered from slavery to Egypt.  While it is true Jesus also came out of Egypt, but unlike the Israelites, He was tested in 40 DAYS, not 40 YEARS, and He was faithful to do the entire will of God.  He left Egypt a child, not a slave.  His mission was not to found a new nation, but appeal to God’s people to believe in Him as their Messiah and so be saved.

With more than a tad bit of cynicism, Arden Dier reported on a recent event that does not portend well for the new year.  This prediction is based on a relic that bears an odd resemblance to a “Magic Eight Ball.”

“According to legend, a woman collected the blood of Saint Januarius, or San Gennaro—the once pious bishop of Naples who was beheaded as Christianity was under attack around AD 305—and preserved it in a glass vial, reports Seeker.  Then a ‘blood miracle’ in 1389: the congealed blood liquefied. The archbishop of Naples now performs this ‘blood miracle,’ shaking the vial in front of thousands until the blood liquefies.  This occurs on three significant days each year, the most recent of which should have been Dec. 16. (Mount Vesuvius erupted on that day in 1631, and Naples was said to have been protected by the saint.) And yet last week, it didn’t.

“One website claims that when the blood miracle—which is ‘not quite sanctioned by the Catholic Church,’ per the Week—has failed to work, 22 epidemics, 19 earthquakes, four wars, and various other tragedies have followed. When the blood last failed to liquefy in 1980, an earthquake struck 30 miles from Naples, killing 2,400 people. The blood also remained congealed in 1939, the year World War II began.

“But ‘we must not think of calamities,’ says the local abbot, per the Catholic News Agency.  ‘We are men of faith and we must pray.’”

Whether this report worries you or not, having faith and praying is always good advice.  I can absolutely guarantee 2017 will be a good year if you commit to being more faithful and give more time to prayer.  It may not be “good” in the way you’re envisioning right now, because that’s up to God to decide.  But I hope we can all agree that any year which sees us drawing closer to God is a good year in the most important sense.

These first two chapters of Matthew are secretly about Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph.  We have seen how God guided Joseph by supernatural means – through his dreams.  It would be easy to be cynical and discount dreams, just as we might find the “Blood Miracle of Naples” to be a little hard to swallow.

Instead, let’s give credit to Joseph for being faithful and obedient.  Let’s give glory to God for the greater miracle of the life of Jesus.

Murder and Grief

(Please read Matthew 2:13-18 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

BOB SMIETANA (Bob.Smietana@LifeWay.comis senior writer for Facts & Trends.

“Check into a hotel room this holiday season and you’ll likely get a Wi-Fi password along with your room key. You’ll also probably find a copy of Gideon’s Bible.  More than three quarters of hotels (79 percent) say their rooms feature religious material, according to a new survey from research firm STR, which focuses on the hospitality industry.

That’s up slightly from 2015, when 77 percent of hotels had religious material.

“Hotel Bibles made headlines this week, after Marriott decided to drop Bibles from the amenities offered at several new high-end hotel brands.

‘It’s because the religious books don’t fit the personality of the brands,’ a Marriott spokeswoman told the LA Times.

“The more expensive a hotel, the less likely they are to stock Bibles in their rooms. According to STR’s research, 57 percent of luxury hotel rooms have religious material.

“By contrast, 89 percent of economy hotel rooms have religious material. Small hotels (69 percent) and big hotels (70 percent) are less likely to have religious material than mid-sized hotels (86 percent).  Hotels in small towns (83 percent), off the Interstate (89 percent), or in the suburbs (83 percent) are more likely to have religious material than those at resorts (61 percent), in urban areas (67 percent), or by the airport (74 percent).

“Bibles have been a staple at hotels for more than a century, with many placed by the Gideons International, a Nashville-based Christian nonprofit, since 1908.  Founded by traveling businessmen, the Gideons placed their first Bible at the Superior Hotel in Montana in 1908.

“Hotel Bibles make up only 2 percent of the Bibles the Gideons distribute, according to the group’s annual report. More than a billion Bibles have been distributed worldwide since 1908—and almost 100 million were handed out in 2015.

“Craig Warner, executive director of The Gideons International, says a Bible offers comfort for travelers who may be far from home.

‘Travel can be stressful. And life can be stressful when travelling,’ says Warner. ‘It’s in their hour of need that people find a Bible in a hotel room. They may not be a person of faith but they still recognize other people find hope and purpose in God’s Word. For hoteliers, Bibles remain a service for their customers.’”

That is an appropriate item of good news on this Sunday when we look at Joseph’s second act of obedience in traveling and taking his family to Egypt.

<Retrieved from http://factsandtrends.net/2016/12/09/despite-worries-hotel-bible-remain-almost-as-popular-as-wi-fi/#.WFQC71UrLcu on 12/16/16.>

  1. This event fulfilled prophecies.

Hosea’s prophecy is quoted by Mathew in verse fifteen.  Compare Matthew 2:15 with Hosea 11:1; “WHEN ISRAEL WAS A CHILD, I LOVED HIM, AND OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.”

What the prophecy meant in Hosea’s time.  Israel became a nation after they left Egypt.  On the most immediate level, this verse looks back to that time.  For example, in Exodus 4:22-23 God instructed Moses to refer to Israel as His SON.  Israel enjoyed this relationship with God because God chose them.  We see this emphasis repeated in the NT, where the Church consists of the ones God has chosen and called out of the world.  In Hosea’s prophecy, this is the first part of God’s promise that after a time of experiencing His wrath, His people will be restored.

What it meant in Jesus’ time.  In the history of God’s people there was more than one occasion when they fled to Egypt for safety.  (Even a king, Jeroboam, did this.)  God condemned them for a lack of faith.  They put more trust in the chariots of Egypt than in Him.  This happened so often that there was a sizeable collection of Jews in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt.  This means Joseph would have had no problem finding a place to stay.

What’s interesting is that Jewish historians of the time accepted the account of Jesus’ family living in Egypt as historical fact.  They went a step further and claimed He learned magic there and His miracles were practices of that magic.

What we’ve said repeatedly about Matthew is his intent to show Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy.  Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Matthew picked up this verse from Hosea and recognized it as a prophecy that referred to the Messiah, though there was nothing there to indicate that before Jesus was born.

Matthew quoted Jeremiah’s prophecy in verse eighteen.  Here’s what we found in Jeremiah wrote in 31:15: THIS IS WHAT THE LORD SAYS: “A VOICE IS HEARD IN RAMAH, MOURNING AND GREAT WEEPING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN AND REFUSING TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE HER CHILDREN ARE NO MORE.”

What it meant in Jeremiah’s time.  RAMAH was a city 5 miles NORTH of Jerusalem.  BETHLEHEM was 6 miles to the SOUTH.  Perhaps the point is that the anguish of the grief in Bethlehem and the infamy of the crime against her would be so great that people on the opposite side of the city would be aware of it.  According to Jeremiah 40:1, RAMAH was also the staging area where the people of Judah were assembled and then deported to Babylon.  I’m sure that was an unpleasant association for the Jews.

RACHEL was Jacob/Israel’s favored wife, the mother to Joseph and Benjamin.  According to Genesis 35:19, Rachel was buried in Bethlehem where she died in childbirth.  (Her tomb is a holy site revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to this day.)  This is akin to saying that Rachel would weep in her grave, sharing the grief of the people.

But if you read further in Jeremiah 31, to v. 17, God comforted Rachel with the promise that the people would be restored to Judah and He would make a new covenant with them at that time (see vs. 31-34).  In spite of all this unpleasantness, these verses are part of a promise of comfort.

What the prophecy meant in Jesus’ time.  The death of the male children in Bethlehem was another grief-stricken event in a history of having suffered cruelty at the hand of Herod.  It must’ve reminded people like Matthew of the grief suffered by their ancestors.  This verse was an emotional and spiritual connection between those who suffered tragic loss at Herod’s hand and their forebears, who suffered loss at the hands of the Babylonians.

  1. This event contrasted Jesus and Herod.

Herod is the vicious king who stopped at nothing to protect his throne from all perceived threats.  Herod’s character flaws are well attested in the Bible and by non-biblical ancient historians.  For example, Josephus wrote whole volumes about Herod’s ruthlessness.

From these verses we learn Herod…

– Intended to kill the newborn King of the Jews (13).

– Was furious at the Magi for not returning to him as ordered (16).

– He ordered the death of the male children (16).

He may have seen this as a measured response.  After all, it was only boys, only boys aged two years or younger, and only in Bethlehem (a very small village).   The actual death count may have been low, not enough to justify emotionally-charged words like “slaughter” and “massacre.”

But these facts only make it more chilling, don’t they?  That Herod struck at this specific group in this ways is cold-hearted and calculated.  It was carefully measured, enough to eliminate the new king, but not so much to arouse the population of Jerusalem to wrath.  Verse seven told us that Herod met with the MAGI secretly to inquire about THE EXACT TIME THE STAR HAD APPEARED.   His purpose was to be able estimate the age of the newborn king.  Herod was crafty – he was preparing to meet the threat on his own if the MAGI failed.  Combine that with verse sixteen where Herod targeted all Bethlehem boys up to two years old and you can estimate Jesus’ age when these events took place.

Jesus was the Prince of Peace, an innocent child.  This fact doesn’t need any more explanation does it?  The contrast between these two historical figures could not be greater.

            This week I read an interview Bible Gateway held with popular Christian author Max Lucado about his book, Because of Bethlehem: Love Is Born, Hope Is Here (Thomas Nelson, 2016).  A couple of their questions and his answers apply to our study of Matthew 2:13-18.  (By the way, Max Lucado is the author we’re quoting in our Advent candle-lighting devotions.)

ON THE SUBJECT OF KING HEROD:

            “While the Christmas story is full of beauty and wonder, there’s a bad guy. Describe the message his life offers.

            “Max Lucado: We can learn a lesson from the sad life of King Herod. It’s always better to step down from the pedestal than to be pulled off of it. Like the innkeeper, Herod missed an opportunity to see Jesus. God did everything necessary to get Herod’s attention. He sent messengers from the East and a message from the Torah. He sent wonders from the sky and words from Scripture. He sent the testimony of the heavens and the teaching of the prophets. But Herod refused to listen. He chose his puny dynasty over Christ. He died a miserable old man. The path marked Pride will lead you over a cliff. The path marked Humility will take you to the manger of the Messiah.”

ON THE SUBJECT OF JESUS, GOD INCARNATE:

Why did God decide to be become a human and go through everything he did?

            “Max Lucado: A chief reason is this: he wants you to know that he gets you. He understands how you feel and has faced what you face. Jesus is not “out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help” (Heb. 4:15–16 MSG). Since you know he understands, you can boldly go to him. Because of Bethlehem’s miracle, you can answer these fundamental questions:

– Does God care if I’m sad? Look at the tear-streaked face of Jesus as he stands near Lazarus’s tomb.

– Does God notice when I’m afraid? Note the resolve in the eyes of Jesus as he marches through the storm to rescue his friends.

– Does God know if I am ignored or rejected? Find the answer in the compassionate eyes of Christ as he stands to defend the adulterous woman.

– Does God understand you? Find the answer in Bethlehem.”

This is why we return to these Bible passages year after year.  We need to be reminded that God revealed the full extent of His love in Jesus Christ.  During Advent, it is our job to do the same.

(Should you like to see the video version of this message, please look up “EBCSF” on YouTube.)

Hostile Witnesses?

(Please read Matthew 2:1-12 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV for these remarks.)

You may have heard the phrase “hostile witness” in a TV courtroom drama.  The practice of designating someone a “hostile witness” is quite rare in actual courtrooms; or so I’ve read.

Witnesses for the opposing side are always treated as “hostile” in the sense that they’re going to testify against you.  And normally, witnesses for your own side are “friendly” in the sense that their testimony will help you make your case.

Without complicating the matter, asking the judge to declare one of your own witnesses as “hostile” allows the attorney to ask more leading questions of the witness.  Instead of questions that must be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” the lawyer can ask questions where the answer is more complex and the answer is implied or included in the way the question is worded.

<Researched at http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/business-career/legal/hostile-witnesses? on 12/8/16.>

The thing about hostile witnesses on which I want to focus is that they’re generally believed to be more objective about an issue because their bias would be contrary to the case at hand.  Take the Magi, or wise men, as an example.  They were not Jews.  They were not Christians, because that term had not been coined yet; the Founder of our Faith was still learning to talk and perhaps be potty trained!

These were not people who would lie or exaggerate to make a case for Jesus as the Son of God, let alone as the King of the Jews.  Their actions were directed by their pagan beliefs and superstitions, not by faith or any philosophy supportive of the Jews and their God.

As we will see, an exciting part of this account is that these non-Jewish men recognized Jesus as the rightful King of the Jews nearly three decades before any Jewish folk came to that discovery.  Their recognition of the Christ-child is something God accomplished – in part – outside His usual means of revelation.  He used people who were not His people to confirm that He had indeed kept His promises.

Here we are at the “Three Kings,” or the “Wise Men,” as they have been called over the ages.  Here is the part of the Christmas story that has the most effect on the cultural celebration of Christmas.  The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas flows from the gifts of the magi to baby Jesus.  Just think of economic impact if they had composed poetry in His honor instead?  How would the American retail sector survive without the annual influx of cash in December?

Forgive me that skepticism.  What matters here is that the Magi witnessed to the true identity of the Baby in Bethlehem.

  1. The magi provided a pagan witness to Jesus’ identity.

Who they were: astrologers and court magicians who gave advice to kings.  Their beliefs bear a resemblance to the beliefs of a number of modern Americans: henotheism.

Wikipedia defines “henotheism” as the belief in and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities. Ancient peoples were extremely territorial and they believed that the gods were too; the popular superstition was that all gods existed and competed for worshipers and space on earth through the nations that they patronized.

This is the religious flipside of the modern politically correct view of “tolerance” set in a religious context.  While people of those cultures were competitive about their beliefs, they weren’t at all concerned about disproving the existence of anyone else’s gods.  These men were not Jews and they did not start out as believers in Jesus in any sense that would be familiar to us.

In this context, men like the MAGI were schooled in the beliefs and practices of many religions and sought to learn from them all.  They wanted to use their knowledge to divine the future and thereby establish their usefulness to the governing powers of their time.

As superstitious people do even in our own time, the MAGI believe that there was a cause and effect relationship between the movement of the stars and the actions of people.  Astrology was one of the tools they used to try to divine the future.

What they did is more important to our study: they came from Persia looking for a king.  They were seeking a KING OF THE JEWS, a political figure. We might conjecture they were seeking knowledge or political influence; we aren’t told whether their motives were selfish or not.  It seems more likely to me that they spotted this star, reported it to their king or nobleman and that person sent them on a quest to find the king and open relations with them.  In this case, their motive is primarily duty.  This would have been an extension of their job.

There are three clues the text gives us to measure the status of the MAGI and the effect of their visit.

– Verse three shows they were taken so seriously that the question they asked DISTURBED King Herod and the entire city of Jerusalem.

– In verse four we read the king called together ALL THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND TEACHERS OF THE LAW to research the answer to the Magi’s question.  The key word here is ALL.  The Magi were given VIP treatment!

– In verse eight, Herod attempted to use them to flush out the child-king.  Once exposed, he undoubtedly planned to have the child killed, which is how Herod dealt with all threats to his throne.  This implies Herod’s respect for the Magi in the sense that he was to some degree certain they would succeed in their mission.  If they found the newborn king, you can be Herod wanted to be first in line right behind them!

  1. The magi set an example for us to follow.

They are an example of seeking. The MAGI undertook such a long and difficult journey, so we can safely say they were highly motivated.  Further, they were motivated enough to leave their homeland with only a general destination in mind; they knew they had to go to Judea.  As Jerusalem was the capital of Judea, they likely went their first.  As they were court officials they knew how to behave around a king and may have carried papers that officially introduced them.  It’s logical to assume they went to Herod first.

Once Herod directed them toward Bethlehem, verse nine tells us the STAR took over and somehow directed them to the exact place in the village where Jesus and His family resided.  In spite of the way the scene is depicted on Christmas cards and in crèches, the MAGI did not appear on the same night as the shepherds (see Luke 2:1-20).  Based on the next passage (2:16), we think the MAGI arrived two years after Jesus’ birth.  This does not mean their search took them two years.

The point is this: they completed their quest.  They were OVERJOYED at seeing the STAR and having it guide them on the last leg of their journey to the new Jewish king.  (In fact, the original language is redundant, bordering on gushing; “thy rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.”)

They did what they were commanded to do back in Persia: find and open relations with the new king.  They BOWED DOWN AND WORSHIPED HIM.  Normally, this phrase refers to the respect given royalty but it does not rule out the devotion offered to divinity.  The MAGI gave expensive gifts to the baby Jesus; gifts befitting a king.

In this, the MAGI accomplished their mission.  But I believe they must have immediately sensed there was more to this child than had been revealed to them by the STAR and Herod’s religious researchers.  As we will learn next week, the three gifts served a practical purpose.  Joseph was commanded to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt.  The GOLD, FRANKINCENSE, and MYRRH could be sold/traded/spent there to provide the small family with the resources they needed to survive.  This was Providence at work.

Have you ever wondered why they followed through in this way?  Why weren’t they surprised to find a “king” in a peasant’s house?  Why didn’t they assume they’d made a mistake and turn for home?  My guess it was the STAR.  It was the STAR that had started them on this journey and it was the STAR that lead them to the end.

I wonder how highly motivated we are?  The availability of information and the abundance of churches can make finding Jesus pretty easy.  Or is that the case?  Have we complicated matters with our endless options and minute variations?  Are we compromised by worldliness?  Has our culture put blinders on us so we see only what is directly ahead and have only a partial conception of the bigger world and our even-bigger God?

They are an example of obedience to God.  In verse twelve, the MAGI received a message from God in much the same way Joseph had back in 1:20; IN A DREAM.  There is no mention of an ANGEL appearing in their dream and it is a warning, not a command.

Think about two things here: One, how seriously these superstitious men would have taken a dream.  Interpreting dreams was part of their daily work, so the dream was, like the STAR, a very effective way for God to get their attention.  Two, we see God’s grace in sparing them from Herod’s violence.  Don’t doubt for a moment that a violent, sinister man like Herod would hesitate to use torture to extract the information about the child’s exact whereabouts from them if they returned to Jerusalem.  We’ll talk more about Herod next Sunday, but he was paranoid and very near the end of his life at this time.  He would have had no hesitation to hurt and kill the MAGI in order to get at the new-born KING OF THE JEWS.

Also in verse twelve, we see the MAGI taking seriously the warning they were given as they RETURNED TO THEIR COUNTRY BY ANOTHER ROUTE.   Remember, back in v. 8 King Herod had specifically commanded them to come back to Jerusalem and report their findings to him.  To not do so was to risk his wrath, and thereby risk their lives.  This is no small decision.

Ruthless and powerful, King Herod was a very real threat; but they chose to give more heed to a dream they all had shared.  Not everybody would be wise enough to heed God more than the king.  Do you suppose that’s why we call them “the wise men?”

Years later, when the baby Jesus had become a man He said in MTW 10:28, “DO NOT BE AFRAID OF THOSE WHO KILL THE BODY BUT CANNOT KILL THE SOUL.  RATHER, BE AFRAID OF THE ONE WHO CAN DESTROY BOTH BODY AND SOUL IN HELL.”  I would say that the MAGI are an example of someone who possessed this wisdom.

            In his sermon entitled, “The Wise Men Worship The King” Pastor David Anderson made the following observations about the MAGI and their unique place in the NT story of Jesus.

  • These Magi are not identified with perfect precision.
  • Educated speculation says that they were likely the priestly caste of the Medes and Persians.
  • Daniel refers to the “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams”
  • These Magi are called “wise men” because they were people of learning. Think of these folks as a mixture of being the elite, the intellectuals, and the religious priests of their culture.
    • They were like science-math-literature-priests.
    • They were astronomers/astrologers.
    • Star-gazing book worms.
    • And they were Gentiles.
    • There is no indication they were kings.
  • And there is no indication that there were only three of them. There were three gifts, but this doesn’t prove a thing.
  • Sorry to ruin the Christmas song, “We Three Kings from Orient Are.”

So what do we take away from the account of the Magi’s visit to the Christ-child?  What can we learn from these events and how can we put it to work in our lives?

We can follow the example of zeal and dedication in following God that the Magi showed in seeking the newborn king of the Jews.  They set out on a long and difficult journey to a foreign land with very little to guide them.

We, on the other hand, have all the information we need and don’t need to move an inch to find Jesus.  What’s required from us is faith.

The Magi recognized Jesus as King and responded appropriately: they worshiped Him and  immediately obeyed His command.

(If you’d like the video version of this message, look up EBCSF on YouTube.)

A Saintly Stepfather

(Please read Matthew 1:18-25 in your favorite Bible.  I have used the NIV as a basis for these remarks.)
There was the little boy who approached Santa in a department store with a long list of requests. He wanted a bicycle and a sled, a chemical set, a cowboy suit, a set of trains, a baseball glove and roller skates.
“That’s a pretty long list,” Santa said sternly. “I’ll have to check in my book and see if you were a good boy.”
“No, no,” the youngster said quickly. “Never mind checking. I’ll just take the roller skates.”
A less materialistic little fellow came closer to the real meaning of Christmas. A store owner was doing some last minute Christmas shopping with his young son when he saw another store owner with whom he had been friends for some time. The two of them exchanged greetings and spoke with each other about what a financially profitable season it had been for their respective stores. The small boy overheard his father say, “This has been the best Christmas ever.”
As the store owners parted company, the father and son continued their shopping, but the father noticed his son had become very quiet. He inquired as to his son’s silence, and his son replied, “Dad, you just told Mr. Johnson that this was the best Christmas ever.”
His dad replied, “I did, son. The economy is great, and people are really spending.”
“O.K.” the son replied, “It’s just that I always thought the first Christmas was the best one.”
<Retrieved from http://www.tonycooke.org/holiday-resources/christmas_illustrations/ on 12/2/16.>
More than any other holy day, Christmas has been co-opted by our culture, turning it into something irrelevant to the event itself. We know from church history that the church took Dec. 25th away from the pagans who were celebrating the winter solstice. Now it seems they want their
holiday back.
The important thing to we who believe is keeping our perspective in order. At Christmas, we celebrate one of God’s signature events. He became one of us. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man at the same time is a fact that taxes our knowledge and our imagination, but is wholly necessary for a saving faith.
Whatever reason others may have to observe Christmas in their own way, ours is to look to the Incarnation, the in-boy revelation of God, and rejoice that He came. This is why we return to the biblical texts year after year, reaffirming the faith we have received as a heritage and work to pass along as a legacy.
Last Sunday we looked at the family tree of Jesus. There we saw an important if neglected figure in our history of faith, a man named Zerubbabel. He set an example of perseverance and devotion to doing the will of God that we would do well to follow.
Which leads us to today. At the top of that family tree we found the name Joseph. Joseph, we should observe, was NOT the biological father of Jesus. While Matthew includes Jesus at the very top of Joseph’s family tree, this is not for the usual reason. It is not a relationship of blood that bound Jesus to Joseph.
As we shall see, God is the Father of Jesus. One of the persons of the Trinity would, from Jesus’ birthday forward, be known as “God the Son” because he accepted a human body that God the Holy Spirit made for Him in cooperation with a brave little lady named Mary.
Out of convenience and respect we refer to Joseph as Jesus’ “father,” but it would be more accurate to say that he was Jesus’ “stepfather” or “adoptive father.” I do not make this point to take anything away from Joseph. He too is a great man of faith who sets an example for us to follow.
1. Joseph made a wrong but kind decision (1:18-19).
It was a wrong decision because he did not know the true means of Mary’s pregnancy. Verse eighteen clearly tells the reader the cause of Mary’s pregnancy: THROUGH THE HOLY SPIRIT. Since he believed that Mary’s pregnancy was disgraceful, Joseph decided to DIVORCE her.
It was kind decision because he did not want to expose Mary to disgrace or harm. Joseph writhed on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he was FAITHFUL TO THE LAW. The Law had a very strict penalty for adultery; death by stoning (see Leviticus 20:10). On the other hand, Joseph wished to spare Mary of both kinds of suffering if he could. If he extended her mercy, that outcome could be avoided. However, there was still the court of public opinion and the DISGRACE Mary would face in the community.
Joseph resolved his dilemma by his decision to keep the DIVORCE and its cause quiet. He wanted to keep Mary and her pregnancy out of the public eye as much as possible. In this instance, Joseph is an example of the classic struggle between law and grace, between holiness and love. Knowing how to balance these sometimes complimentary virtues is one essence of wisdom.
2. God’s messenger changed Joseph’s mind (1:20-21).
The word “angel” literally means “messenger.” The ANGEL OF THE LORD APPEARED TO JOSEPH IN A DREAM to deliver God’s message about the truth behind Mary’s pregnancy.
Let’s note the specifics of the message.
The angel addresses him as JOSEPH, SON OF DAVID. Especially in Matthew’s Gospel, it is essential to note that Jesus came as the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament to send a Messiah. One aspect of the Messiah is that he would continue the dynasty of David, being one of His descendants. We looked into this last week. Though Joseph is not Jesus’ father, it is still important that he be a descendant of David, and that fact is affirmed again by the angel.
DO NOT BE AFRAID TO TAKE MARY HOME AS YOUR WIFE. Of what was Joseph AFRAID? Based on the context, we can assume he was afraid of violating the Law. He may have also feared public ridicule or retribution.
This statement is puzzling if we don’t understand that culture’s wedding traditions. When the marriage was arranged and agreed-upon, the couple was considered to be married in every way until the wedding day. Then the wedding was held and the union consummated for the first time. What looks to us as an “engagement” is a different relationship in their culture. In this case, as Mary’s “reputation” was already under suspicion, Joseph was told to move up the wedding date and immediately include Mary in the home he had made for the two of them.
WHAT IS CONCEIVED IN HER IS FROM THE HOLY SPIRIT. Mary was not, as everyone assumed, guilty of adultery. She had not cheated on Joseph. Just the opposite; she had been faithful to both Joseph and God. The truth of the matter was that her pregnancy was a miraculous act of God.
SHE WILL GIVE BIRTH TO A SON…YOU ARE TO GIVE HIM THE NAME JESUS…HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS. HIS PEOPLE are the Jews. Jesus’ own description of His mission was to the nation of Israel first.
FROM THEIR SINS = Jesus came to save people. Sin leads to death. The sacrifice of blood is God’s cure for the problem of sin and Jesus’ blood would be shed for that purpose.
3. Interlude: explaining prophecy (1:22-23).
As we’ve observed, Matthew is very concerned about Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, so, no surprise that 22 verses into his Gospel, we have the first citation of fulfilled prophecy. This is not part of the angel’s message, it’s an aside delivered by Matthew. Let’s note the specifics.
THE VIRGIN WILL CONCEIVE AND GIVE BIRTH. This is obviously a supernatural, miraculous occurrence. Both Matthew and Luke go to lengths (as we’ll see in v. 25) to let us know Mary’s pregnancy was this miracle.
To be clear – the conception of Jesus was supernatural; a miracle. The birth of Jesus was completely natural and typical. Mary shared the experience of every mother from Eve onward.
SHE WILL…GIVE BIRTH TO A SON, just as the angel predicted to Joseph in v. 21. As we see later in the passage, this is exactly what came to pass.
THEY WILL CALL HIM IMMANUEL might, at first glance, seem contradictory with the angel’s instruction to Joseph to name Him Jesus. Note that THEY, not “you” will call Him Immanuel. This is a name others will bestow on Jesus. The meaning of this name or title is literally “God with us;” Jesus was God present in the flesh. What is more significant than the name itself is what it tells us about Jesus; He would be GOD WITH US.
4. Joseph completely obeyed God (1:24-25).
WHEN JOSEPH WOKE UP means he didn’t waste any time. Joseph was obedient in time and in the fullness of the angel’s instructions.
It’s my pet theory that the wedding date was moved up and perhaps it was observed without the usual fanfare and the customary week-long party. I speculate that it was early enough in Mary’s pregnancy that no one else knew about it and a quick wedding might mislead others into thinking Jesus was Joseph’s son.
This theory has only a little support in the Bible. In Matthew 13:55, when Jesus returned to Nazareth after beginning His ministry, the people of Nazareth remarked, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” If they had ever known about Mary’s pregnancy before consummating her relationship with Joseph, they forgot about it. I like to think that Joseph was such a kind-hearted man that he was willing to endure a slur on his character rather than let Mary take the heat for something she clearly had not done; be unfaithful to him.
Joseph is such a faithful man he took the command of God one step further and did not insist on his conjugal rights: HE DID NOT CONSUMMATE THEIR MARRIAGE UNTIL [after] SHE GAVE BIRTH TO A SON. This, of course, fulfilled the prophecy entirely, maintaining Mary’s virginity until the birth of Jesus. Also, Joseph followed through on all the angel’s instructions and GAVE [Mary’s son] THE NAME JESUS.
For all kinds of reasons, Christmas has occasionally been a tense, hotly contested holiday. One of the recurring stories is non-Christians complaining about how the holiday gives Christianity too much of the spotlight.
You may remember that our former governor Bill Janklow was not one to let complaints bother him too much. When criticized about having a nativity scene on display, Janklow prepared to let every religion put something on display in the Capitol, and even set aside an “empty corner” for the use of atheists.
Tony Cooke and David Beebe came up with a cute and insightful look at the conflicts of Christmas. They took a popular poem and wrote their own version of it. The titled it ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas.
‘Twas the fight before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a creature was peaceful,
Not even my spouse.
The bills were strung out on our table with dread,
In hopes that our checkbook would not be in the red.
The children were fussing and throwing a fit,
When Billy came screaming and cried, “I’ve been bit.”
And Momma with her skillet, and I with the remote,
She said, “You change one more channel and I’ll grab your throat.”
When on the TV there arose such a clatter,
I sat up on the couch to see what was the matter.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
The cable was out, it was my worst fear.
“The Cowboys, the Celtics, the Raiders, the Knicks,
Without the sports channel I’d soon need a fix!”
And then in the midst of my grievous sorrow,
I remembered the times I had promised, “tomorrow…”
“Not now, my children, but at some soon time,
Dad will play with you, and things will be fine.”
Now under conviction, I looked at my wife,
Where was my kindness? Why all the strife?
My heart quickly softened; I now saw my task,
Some love and attention was all they had asked.
I gathered my family and called them by name,
And told them with God’s help I’d not be the same.
We’ll keep Christ in Christmas and honor His plan.
No more fights before Christmas—on that we will stand.
My children’s eyes twinkled; they squealed with delight.
My wife gladly nodded; she knew I was right.
It was the fight before Christmas, but God’s love had come through,
And just like He does, He made all things new.
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We redeem the days of Advent by following the faith example set for us by Joseph.  In addition to being faithful to God’s will, Joseph showed grace.  He demonstrated personal holiness in his full devotion to God and gracious love in the sacrifices he made for Mary and by adopting Jesus as his son.