Here Come the Pagans

Matthew 2:1-12

The story of the “wise men from the East” has embedded itself firmly in our Christmas practices. On the church calendar, their story is the centerpiece of Jan. 6, the day we call “Epiphany,” which marks the end of the Christmas season.

On the nearest Sunday, it’s not unusual to add three crowned characters to our church nativity scenes, often accompanied by camels. We sing “We Three Kings.” We read the above story found in Matthew.

And yet, I’m not sure we always grasp the identity of these visitors, which means we may also miss the significance of their trip.

Matthew’s gospel is very sparing in details about these travelers. Writing in Greek, he simply referred to them as magi, as if he expected the audience of his day to know exactly what that meant.

Our problem arises because at some point in history, what it meant to be a magi was largely lost by western culture, resulting in English translations using words like “kings” or “wise men.” The former is largely inaccurate, despite the popular hymn; the latter is accurate but so general that we gain little in terms of understanding.

Fortunately, researchers in the last couple of centuries have developed a better understanding of these travelers’ background. One hint lies in the fact that magi did make it into the English language in words like “magic” and “magician.”

It helps if we understand the religious practices of the lands east of Israel in Jesus’ day, places we now think of as dominated by Islam—modern-day Iran and Iraq, for example. We have to remember, Islam did not exist until about 600 years after Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. One of the dominant pre-Muslim religions in the area was Zoroastrianism.

Historically, the Zoroastrian priests were known as magi, and they practiced all sorts of activities the Jews and even the Romans would have considered the province of pagans: astrology, divination, and other activities considered to be magic. Often, the magi used these practices to advise their kings.

It is revealing that Matthew chose to incorporate the story of the magi’s astrological discovery of Jesus and their visit into the birth narrative of Jesus. In the book of Acts, the works of similar magi are presented negatively, as a force working against God.

Matthew mentioned the magi to make a larger point, however. The birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of the dreams of the world, not just the dreams of the Jewish people. Through Jesus, God was speaking to all people in a way they could understand.

Matthew also was demonstrating that the Jews should have recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of their desire for a messiah. Even far-away “pagans” were able to use what the Jews would consider forbidden practices to spot Christ’s arrival.

We live in a culture today where many people are like the magi. There is a goodness about them and a fascination with all things spiritual, to the point that interest in astrology and magic are on the upswing among generations where church attendance is in decline.

If the magi in the book of Matthew are any indication, people with general spiritual interests at least may be open to hearing the story of God among us.

They will need a shining light to guide them. Christian, you may be that light as you gently connect their desire for goodness with God’s great plan of redemption.

Lord, help us to better understand how we can lead people with differing spiritual practices to Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Push Comes to Peace

Luke 6:27-31 (NRSV)

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”


I suspect a lot of good Christians wince at this radical teaching of Jesus, immediately imagining a dozen or more scenarios where these precepts seem impractical.

We are in good company. The church—by that, I mean the great, historic, traditional church stretching back to the earliest days of Christianity—has always struggled with how to live into Jesus’ teachings while contending directly with a world full of dangerous evil.

Facing imminent attack? Well, you may find Just War Theory helpful. And there are many other situations where theologians have acknowledged it can be more loving to take a naturally repulsive action than to take no action at all.

For example, turning the other cheek is a noble response, but if in doing so you endanger the lives of people dependent on you, then a different strategy may be in order. Much of what Jesus said is about witnessing to others, and allowing unnecessary harm to happen makes for a poor display of Christ’s love.

Let’s not, however, turn those rare compromises into an excuse for avoiding what Jesus would have us do. It’s particularly important we follow these teachings when a pacifist response could transform another’s soul.

Verbally assaulted? Be the one who responds with kindness.

Confronted with great need? Do something about it, even if the people in need somehow seem unworthy by worldly standards.

As we deliberately practice Jesus’ teachings in everyday situations, perhaps we will find new and creative ways to apply them to major conflicts.

Dear Lord, help us to identify opportunities to practice what you have preached, swallowing our emotional responses so we may instead demonstrate your love. Amen.

Giving and Receiving

Proverbs 3:9-10

Honor the Lord with your substance
    and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.

As we launch into the first work week of 2021, let’s think about what we plan to dedicate to the Lord this year, supporting the work of the church.

It’s good to start a new year deliberately praying about how we will participate through our tithes and offerings in the kingdom work that will happen. If we seek guidance from God, we will find clear answers, and from there we can make commitments satisfying to our souls.

In the Old Testament, a “tithe” usually is a reference to 10 percent of what a herd or field produces. That concept, of course, can apply to monetary income, too.

Mainly, I want us to understand the value of thinking in percentages—a percentage commitment can be made before we know for sure what we will receive. Wherever I have led as a pastor, I have encouraged people to write down a percentage commitment early in the year and post it where they will see it regularly, for example, on a bathroom or dresser mirror.

Once you’ve faithfully and bravely done all that, the rest is just a matter of following through.

I have to be careful with what I next say. The above proverb also promises abundance to those who make and keep such commitments. I don’t want to sound like a prosperity gospel televangelist, saying $10 will return to you for every dollar you contribute.

But simultaneously, I will always affirm that a life lived with God, a life where we conform our resources to God’s unselfish plan, is better than a life where we simply look out for ourselves. After all, we live as reflections of the God who rained manna where needed, who turned a few loaves and fishes into great abundance, and who gives us eternal life through the cross.

As we are blessed through our close walk with God, we may even find ourselves making offerings above our basic commitments, if for no other reason than to show gratitude.

Lord, guide us in regard to how we are to use our resources in 2021. We trust we will receive our daily bread; knowing that, we seek to better understand the purpose of any abundance we see. Amen.

Into 2021!

John 3:16 (NLT)

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.


If there’s anything we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that we have no idea what a year might have in store for us. With one exception.

I have no insight regarding when the pandemic will end. I do have high hopes for the vaccine, and I’m praying for something resembling normal worship during the Easter season. (Easter Sunday will be April 4.)

I’m also praying that wonderful events during 2021 will lift us up globally. Perhaps a powerful outbreak of the Holy Spirit, another true Great Awakening regarding Jesus Christ’s work in this world? I would so like to see that happen.

About that exception I mentioned: I can promise you this, the grace poured out on us by God will remain available. It has remained available in 2020, and it will always be available, until we turn off the calendar and simply stand before God in full, rejoicing and worshiping our savior into eternity.

By “grace,” I mean the love God continually shows us despite the fact we do not deserve it. It is a great, continuous gift, one we simply have to agree to receive.

Grace is available even before people acknowledge God exists. It tugs at us; it exists as a feeling there is more to life than what we simply see.

Grace washes over us and into us at the moment we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. From then on, grace changes us, as much as we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.

Based on the truth of ever-present grace, I can say that 2021 will be an important, powerful year. People will find Jesus Christ and eternal life through simple belief. People will grow to be more like what God would have them be.

Any more good news will simply be additional evidence of how much God loves us.

Have a blessed, grace-filled 2021!

Out of the Fire

2 Peter 3:8-13 (NRSV)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.


The Apostle Peter paints a cataclysmic picture of Christ’s return. It is an image of the universe melting away in an unimaginable heat. The earth remains, stripped bare, its people exposed before God, their inner holiness and evil undeniably on display.

Peter’s words could be just mind-boggling symbolism, of course. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, symbols are a simple way of understanding a more complex reality.

If we believe the Bible is communicating God’s truth, then we have to acknowledge the experience of judgment will be at least as overwhelming as what we see here, and likely more so. We will come face-to-face with our holy creator while stripped bare of our pretenses and self-delusions.

Peter’s letter is a call to ready ourselves, to plunge into our own personal purifying fire. It should help us to know this: What comes out of the fire is far greater than what went into the fire.

Peter would have been familiar with Malachi’s Old Testament prophecies of a day when God’s appointed one would come to act as a “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” purifying what has been tainted by sin. The prophecy is not so much about the refining process as it is about what comes out, gold and silver in their purest forms.

After his images of fiery destruction, Peter also alludes to the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” We submit ourselves to purification by God’s Holy Spirit not out of fear, but in joy, knowing God’s purifying work through Christ will establish a greater way of living. We ready ourselves for a place in the new creation.

So, how do we submit?

Many of you have made that first step, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. Those of you who have not—well, Peter makes clear that God is patient until the time of patience ends.

Our faith leads us to a new level of engagement with God. The early Methodists had a simple set of rules to live by as they pursued holiness. They are just as instructive for us today.

First, do no harm. What are we doing that damages others? How do we stop doing those things?

Second, do good. Again, the principle is very simple. Do we do good in every way we can, whenever we have the opportunity?

Third, stay in love with God. I’m borrowing Rueben Job’s paraphrase of John Wesley’s more elaborate statement, “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” By this, Wesley meant participating in public worship, studying God’s word, receiving communion, praying, and abstaining from activities that can distract us from God.

When we follow these rules, we open ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And we do not regret the loss of any sin that is burned away.

Lord, make us ready. Amen.

We Are Family

Matthew 12:46-50

While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”


The fifth of the Ten Commandments is, “Honor your father and mother.” When we remember how important family is in Jewish culture, Jesus’ above statement becomes more startling.

Family was important to Jesus, of course. He was an obedient child; likewise, as he was dying on the cross, bearing the burden of the sins of the world, one of his concerns was who would care for his mother.

As important as family is, however, there is a greater concern. Even family cannot interfere in our relationship with God. Walking with God, understanding God and following God’s will are the most challenging and critical activities in our lives.

It can be tough when God’s will for us is out of alignment with what the family wants. I will always remember a little girl in the Czech Republic who learned in Vacation Bible School the story of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. She lived in a nation with a shockingly high percentage of committed atheists, a vestige of communist rule.

Having learned how to tell the story on her own, she said, “I will tell my family. But it will make my grandmother very angry.” The interpreter and I teared up simultaneously.

Jesus knew such conflict would arise when he said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52.)

If you and your family are aligned in the pursuit of God’s will through Jesus Christ, know what a tremendous blessing you have. And if you are not so blessed, know that your global family prays for you, and that through your witness, your biological family has hope.

Lord, give special strength and new gifts of the Spirit to those who go about the particularly difficult task of telling non-believing family members the Good News. Amen.

From Glory to Horror to Hope

Matthew 2:13-18

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

So strange—at this point in the Christmas story, we’ve heard of angelic announcements and a virgin birth, events so miraculous they’re highlighted in the night sky, drawing wise men from distant lands. And then this horror happens.

As terrible as the slaughter of these innocent children is to contemplate, perhaps the account does help us process the horrors we have seen. It’s not unusual for people to ask, “How can God let such things happen?”

Well … evil remains in the world, doesn’t it? Satan and all beings who follow Satan’s lead see their impending destruction in Christ’s arrival. Their ongoing response is one of fury, an unleashing of the irrational anger at the core of their being.

Like Herod, any self-centered human can experience how frustration leads to anger, and anger can turn violent. There’s also a general brokenness to the world, the result of uncountable generations of sinful decision-making going back to the original break between humanity and God.

So even at the time of the birth of Christ, horrors persisted. And horrors will persist, for a time.

God has provided the solution, though. Somehow, the solution even will be mysteriously retroactive, wiping away every tear, to quote Revelation 21:4. We also can look to the concluding verses in Jeremiah 31:15-17, to which Matthew alluded after telling the tale of the Bethlehem children:

“There is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.”

The work of Christ does not yet relieve us of the horrors we have witnessed or experienced, but it will. That great truth, mysterious as it is, should give us hope in all circumstances.

Lord, as we confront the dark realities of our world, give us a deeper understanding of how very temporary you will prove them to be. Amen.

Merry Christmas!

Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.