Friday, December 23, 2011

The Christmas Gift Part Six - Wise Men: Giving to the Gift

It’s funny that on Christmas we give presents to everyone except Jesus. The Wise Men (Magi) were the first ones to get it right. They arrived fashionably late (approximately two years after Jesus’ birth), yet their excitement to see Him remained vibrant. And they came prepared with gifts:

“The star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh” (Matthew 2:9-11).

The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” when God came to us in human form. Epiphany has been linked with these men from the east since the fourth century. Whether there were three or three hundred we don’t know. However, we do know they were the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus as the Son of God.

Magi were astrologers and sorcerers – not the sort of person you would expect to find worshiping Jesus. God had spoken against these practices hundreds of years earlier as idol worship. So how did these guys get into the Christmas story?

A lot is revealed about the Magi in the twelve verses in which Matthew tells their story. We learn:
  • They were truth seekers
  • That God rewarded their efforts     
  • They left the comforts of home and family in order to find Jesus
  • When they saw Him, they worshiped
They cashed in on God’s promise that anyone who wants to find Him, will. “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you’” (Jeremiah 29:13-14).

These guys impress me with their tenacity. We don’t know how long they searched the sky before they found the Christ star. And they traveled for months before arriving in Bethlehem. No wonder they were so happy when they finally saw Jesus!

In faith, they came prepared with presents - to honor His position as King and to show their desire to be at peace with Him. Gold was appropriate for royalty and the incense and myrrh symbolic of Jesus’ mission as a priest and sacrifice.

Once they saw Jesus, the Magi were probably anxious to get back to their families. Imagine how excited they were to tell everything that had happened! As the first Gentile missionaries, they took the Good News about Jesus to the east: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, emphasis mine).

The Magi leave us an example to follow at Christmas. My family has a tradition of giving a present to Jesus on Christmas Eve. Each of us writes what we will give Jesus in the coming year on a 3x5 card and we put it on the tree. Then on Christmas morning, we share with each other what we have written. Last year, I rededicated my mouth to Jesus, to use for His glory. This year, I am claiming Him as my ultimate security – not my husband, or money, success, or the approval of others.

What will you bring to the Gift of Christmas?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Christmas Gift - Part Five - Herod: Jealous of the Gift

Jealousy is often referred to as a Green Monster. That’s what it turns us into if we let it take control. In the movie Spiderman, a wealthy scientist became intent on murder, when his jealousy of Spiderman’s power took over.

Despite the wonder of this time of year, jealousy threatens to take away our joy as well.  Every commercial is aimed at our greedy hearts and desire to have as much (if not more) than the next guy. The joy of Christmas morning is spoiled by brothers and sisters arguing over presents, or complaining about what they received in comparison to their friends.’
Jealousy has left a trail of blood in monarchies throughout history, as kings and queens murdered their own family members in order to secure the throne. Here are some details of what happened to King Herod because of his jealousy:

“Many historians think that Herod's downfall began with his possessive love for his wife Mariamme...He demanded that Mariamme be killed if he [didn't] return [from an expedition] alive, unable to bear the thought of another man with her.

Later, Herod became convinced by his sister that Mariamme was scheming against him. He had her put on trial and executed. Despite being responsible for her death, Herod's torment was intolerable. He saw visions of Mariamme. Perhaps in a futile attempt to replace his love for Mariamme, Herod became polygamous. The story of Herod became more tragic still when, for fear of being usurped, he executed three of his sons.

Herod's life was one of ruthless political expediency...”   (

Interestingly enough, King Herod wasn’t even Jewish. He was an Edomite – a brother tribe that had warred against the Jews ever since Jacob and Esau fought in their mother’s womb. Herod was appointed to the throne by Mark Antony as a favor, and his allegiance was to Rome, not the Jewish people. From his actions, we can see even Rome’s concerns took second place to his own.

Then enter the Magi, carrying the wonderful news that a new King has been born and they’re on their way to welcome Him. Herod went into a panic. He was already insecure and grasping. He was also ignorant of scripture:

“He had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel”’ (Matthew 2:4-6).

Pretending enthusiasm, Herod said, “Let me know when you find this King so I can worship Him too.” But when God warned them in a dream to go home another way Herod’s jealousy grew into murderous rage. To ensure the death of his rival, Herod sent soldiers to kill every child in Bethlehem two years old and younger.

I must confess I sometimes struggle with Jesus' right to rule in my own life. Not only in the daily decisions of life when I want to do things my way instead of His, but even on His birthday. When Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, I war with a selfish desire to skip church so we can relax and enjoy the day with family.

How sad is that? It’s His birthday and I want to celebrate it by staying home to have my own party. I am jealous of the one hour it takes to go worship, because it interrupts my agenda for the day. I am fighting over the throne that is rightfully His.

I have had to ask for forgiveness to get a grip on what the Day is really all about. He understands our human frailties and graciously forgave me. And now that I’ve worked through it, Sunday can be a day of joy and praise for the Birthday Boy, the true Gift of Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Gift Part Four - Simeon and Anna: Anticipating the Gift

photo by Selaphotography
In case you haven’t noticed, men and women are different. You can spring an impromptu trip on most guys and they can be packed and ready to go in fifteen minutes. Not most women. Half the fun for us is the anticipation.
We want to plan out what clothes, shoes and jewelry we will take. And we like to look forward to what we’re going to do there, and maybe do some research online. We love  anticipating the gift, the gift itself, and reminiscing after we get home.

Yet when it comes to promises, both men and women look forward to their fulfillment with equal expectation. And we can all get discouraged. Moses and the prophets said the Messiah who would come to rescue His people, but hundreds of year went by and He didn’t come.

The nation of Israel went into captivity, and He didn’t come. The Romans gained power and conquered the entire known world, and the Messiah didn’t come. Many Jews gave up hope that He ever would. However, there were still a few who continued to watch and pray.

Two of these faithful ones were in the temple the day Mary and Joseph took Jesus for His dedication:

"There was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God...Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’” (Luke 2:22-35)

Nothing about Jesus’ arrival had been ordinary so far; why should His Dedication Day be any different?  Simeon, came to the temple by invitation of the Holy Spirit, and saw the answer to his prayers. Jesus hadn’t even begun His years of ministry, yet Simeon had faith He would fulfill His mission.

Simeon’s prophecies were right on the mark too. God revealed to him that Jesus would not be a military hero, as many expected, but a Savior from our worst enemy – sin. What an incredible man of God he must have been!

The second person Joseph and Mary met in the temple was an old woman:

There was also a prophetess, Anna…She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38).

Anna stayed at the temple all the time. It’s true that a widow had fewer options for survival then, but she could have chosen differently . Instead, she devoted her entire life to God, in anticipation. She worshiped and prayed expecting results. Her devotion was rewarded. And she spread the news to everyone else anticipating His arrival.

I wonder if I had lived back then, if I would have been as faithful as Simeon and Anna. On this side of the cross, we have the advantage of knowing how God’s plan all fit together.These two prayer warriors encourage me to keep on praying for God’s promises still to come. I have to admit I spend more time anticipating Christmas and fun times with friends and family than Jesus’ promised return. I do pray earnestly for others to be saved, but find myself caught up in the stuff of this world.

If I had been Simeon, would I have followed the Spirit’s leading to the temple? Or would I have dismissed the voice as too many matzo balls the night before? If I had been Anna, would I have boldly told other believers that I met the Messiah in the temple? Or would I have kept it to myself, afraid they would think I was a foolish old woman?

God has given us the greatest Gift of all time in His Son. And He’s not finished yet! The world holds its breath in anticipation of the final chapter:

“The created world itself can hardly wait for what's coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens” (Romans 8:18, Message).

Are you eager and ready for Jesus' return?

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Christmas Gift Part Three - The Shepherds: Amazed by the Gift

What gift have talked about the most over the years? If you’re like me, you told all your friends how excited you were about it. Maybe even showed it off to anyone who was interested? Have you reminisced about the day you received the gift and how it was presented?

We women tend to get a little excited about the day our beloved proposes. Even if he doesn’t have the ring then, the way he “presents” his gift of love is a special story we like to tell. We talk about this amazing gift for the rest of our days. It made us feel special, wanted, valued, and unique.

That’s what God did for the shepherds when He sent an angel their way the night of Christ’s birth. Unlike a wedding proposal from someone you’ve dated a while, this was totally unexpected. I’m sure the shepherds felt pretty special and valued – once they got over the shock. No one else would have made sure a bunch of shepherds got the news of the King’s arrival.

What was it that prompted God to send this invitation to the outcasts of society? Shepherds weren’t in town much since they had to constantly care for their flocks, . When they did come, they weren’t allowed to mingle with others or enter the temple for worship, because their work made them unclean (unacceptable according to Jewish law). Not to mention that they didn’t smell very good.

It’s so like God to invite them to the party. Not only did they hear about it, they were the only ones there that night!  Imagine their surprise when they found out no one else knew about this wondrous event. So, after worshiping the Christ child, they told everybody they met about the angels' message and what they had just seen.

They didn’t worry then about being accepted. They didn’t agonize about what people would think of them. They didn’t care whether everyone believed them. They were so excited they had seen angels and bowed at the cradle of the King that they couldn’t hold it in. I bet they talked about it for the rest of their lives.

Can’t you just see these shepherds retelling the story around the campfire at night? I’m sure their children and grandchildren heard about it until they knew it by heart. Every traveler who stopped to rest probably got an earful from these shepherds too.

And of course, when Jesus began His public ministry, they probably tried to go hear Him teach. Most likely they nudged the person next to them and said, “Hey, an angel told us about this guy the day He was born. I got to go see Him. It was amazing! I’ll never forget that night…”  

I’ve had some pretty humbling experiences in my life, but unlike the shepherds, I’ve never been looked down on by society. I feel welcome at church and get to participate in all aspects of worship. Maybe I take that too much for granted.

It's amazing that God himself has invited us to welcome His Son to the world. We have the freedom to come into His presence daily and get to know Him personally. And even though we are sinful and unclean compared to Him. Jesus has opened the door for us to come directly into the presence of God!

“Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” (2 Corinthians 9:15, Living)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Christmas Gift Part Two - Joseph: Protector of the Gift

There’s something precious about the way husbands look after their wives when they’re pregnant. Even the most capable, athletic, and independent woman is suddenly treated as special and fragile. And we love it! After all, there’s a new life growing inside our own body.

We are constantly aware our baby is completely dependent on us for survival. (How often do you see a pregnant woman with her hand resting on her tummy?) Pregnancy also brings out a tender protectiveness in her man.

Suddenly he’s opening doors for her, watching what she eats (not always a plus!), making sure she gets enough rest, and rubbing her aching back and feet. After all, this child came from his own body. It is evidence of the love they share; a gift from the hand of God.

Have you ever wondered how Joseph must have felt about Mary's pregnancy? At first, he thought she had broken their engagement vows. He began planning a quiet divorce, until God revealed the truth to him. Joseph had to endure all the same assumptions and ridicule heaped on Mary. Yet he accepted it as part of the plan. But what exactly was his role?

Jesus wasn’t his child, and yet Joseph fulfilled his fatherly responsibility as protector and provider. Scripture doesn't tell us how this couple felt about each other, but I like the possibilities presented in the movie Nativity. They show how Joseph wins Mary’s admiration through his tender sacrifice and concern.

The book of Matthew supports this portrayal of Joseph’s character:  
  • Joseph was devoted to God and keeping His law, yet full of mercy (Matthew 1:18-24)
  • When God spoke, Joseph listened and obeyed, every time – even in the middle of the night (Matthew 2:13-15)
  • His first priority in life became the protection of his wife and the Christ child (Matthew 2:19-23)
Imagine how this must have played out over the years. Joseph and Mary had other children and all the normal parental responsibilities. Add to that the training and education of the Savior. No pressure there! But Joseph quietly did his job. So quietly, in fact, that there are no direct quotes from him in the Bible. And there is no mention of him after Jesus reaches the age of twelve. What happened to Joseph? The Bible doesn’t say. All we know is that he did his part as Jesus’ earthly father.

We are a little like Joseph. Believers are entrusted with the treasure of Jesus Christ. And our job is to protect that gift. As Paul said to young Timothy: “Guard what has been entrusted to your care” (1Timothy 6:20). “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us" (2 Timothy 1:14).

Jesus is no longer a helpless baby; He is the risen, reigning King. Yet, there are still ways we can protect Him. Joseph protected Him from gossip; we can protect Jesus’ reputation by standing up for Him and being worthy of His name. Joseph protected Jesus by doing whatever the Father told him to do. Our obedience (even when we don’t understand why), keeps Jesus alive in our hearts. Joseph made sure that Jesus grew in strength and maturity. When we nurture our relationship with Jesus, we strengthen His power to work in and through us.

Even if I am never quoted; even if I disappear into history without a trace - I want to spend my life making sure Jesus lives in me. If His purpose is fulfilled through me, that will be enough. How about you? Are you willing to protect the Gift of Christmas no matter what it takes?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Christmas Gift Series - Surprised by the Gift

Here we are, already heading for Christmas at the speed of light. This year, I’ve been thinking about Jesus and how He is the ultimate gift. I hope you will join me as we look at the following people in the Christmas story and how they responded to God’s magnificent package of joy and salvation. And how we experience many of the same feelings they did. Today’s reading is about how Mary was "Surprised by the Gift," then:

  • Joseph: Protector of the Gift
  • The Shepherds: Amazed by the Gift
  • Simeon and Anna: Anticipating the Gift
  • Herod: Jealous of the Gift
  • Wise Men: Giving to the Gift
Mary: Surprised by the Gift

Have you ever received a surprise gift? Sometimes it comes from an unexpected source, or at a time we least expect it. Sometimes, the gift itself is so lavish words can’t express how we feel.

I have been blessed many times by unexpected gifts. My husband likes to surprise me with generous and sweet little reminders of his love. I usually know what I’m getting ahead of time for my birthday, anniversary, or Christmas. But often there are surprises tucked into my card or stocking that take my breath away – gift cards, candies, a surprise getaway for two. I often feel a mixture of excitement and guilt; always feeling I should have done more for him.

Unexpected gifts of service are also wonderful, but can be hard to accept. Years ago, my sister came to visit me during my last stages of pregnancy. She offered to give me a leg and foot massage. I had never had one before and it sounded heavenly. I exulted in her pampering touch, but was embarrassed by my hairy legs. I had stopped shaving when my belly grew too big to bend over that far.

Gifts are such wonderful things and we love to get them. Yet we often feel uncomfortable or self-conscious in receiving them. Sometimes we worry what others might think. They might think we’re spoiled or unworthy of such lavish attention.  Mary must have had her doubts when the angel told her she would soon receive a little package named Jesus.

This was definitely an unexpected gift. She wasn’t even married yet! What would Joseph think when she told him she was pregnant with the Messiah? Would her friends and family believe her? Would they think her undeserving? Would they assume she made the whole thing up?

Yet, Mary didn’t refuse the gift or argue with God about His extravagance. She graciously accepted her role and praised God for His gift. Her prayer reveals an amazing understanding of scripture for such a young woman:

 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49).

I want to respond to God’s gifts like that. Even if they look suspect at first. The key seems to be an understanding of His character and plan. If God is good and, “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17, emphasis mine), then how can I doubt? And yet I so often do.

Mary was able to look beyond the humiliation of public censure, Joseph’s suspicions, and a long trip in her third trimester. She gave birth in a stable (attended by a man she hadn’t even been intimate with yet), and several moves when God spoke to Joseph in the night. She accepted all this as a gift, because she knew it was an honor to bring the Savior to the world.         

The way we respond to our discomforts and trials, as well as our blessings and victories, reveal Emmanuel – “God With Us” – to the world. If we trust Him and graciously accept whatever He gives, knowing there’s a bigger plan, even unexpected gifts will delight us and motivate us to praise.