Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Meaning of the Gifts of the Magi

Matthew records the story of the Wise Men, students of astronomy, who knew the ancient Jewish prophecies. They came from lands east of Israel, possible Chaldea, Persia, or Arabia, to worship the newborn King of the Jews. Wealthy, educated, skillful in their craft, and respected, these men journeyed by camel across the hot, dry deserts, braving many perils, to bow before this Child who was born a king.

No other child in history has been born a king. A young prince must first be educated and trained in the duties of kingship. And the king must die before the prince can be crowned king.

Not so with Jesus. The King of kings and Lord of lords, the Creator of all things, left the palaces of heaven, where He has been King from eternity past, to come to a lowly stable to be laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, that He might show us the Father.

The Wise Men recognized His kingship. They had seen his star as it rose. Many have speculated as to the nature of the Star of Bethlehem, but God had prepared a supernatural phenomenon. As they studied the heavens, the Wise Men observed something unusual. They knew the planets and the stars, but this was unique, and it prompted them to leave what they were engaged in to follow the light.

They wanted to worship the newborn King. To worship is to acknowledge the worth of, to give adoration, to express reverence, awe, and gratitude. The purpose of true worship is to bless God, not to get blessed. The wonder of worship is that as we bless God, He blesses us. True worship--to worship God in spirit and truth--brings great comfort to our hearts.

When the Wise Men entered the house where the young child was with Mary, His mother, they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, out of their own treasures they offered Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These three gifts reveal three great truths that comfort, uplift, and undergird us.

Gold Courtesy
The first gift, gold, is significant in that it was a symbol of royalty--a fitting gift for a king. It recognized the sovereignty of the One to whom it was given, the Christ-Child, that He is the Sovereign Lord.

What does it mean that God is sovereign? First, no one controls God but He himself. But He is no despot. He rules over all people and all things with justice, wisdom, and grace. Because He is a benevolent sovereign, we can depend on Him and trust Him with the things we cannot understand.

Philippians 2:10 tells us that sooner or later everyone shall bow the knee and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The choice we have is when. If we, like the Wise Men, bow before Him in this life, we receive eternal life with Him. If we refuse to bow before Him in this life, we will be forced to acknowledge Him as Lord in the afterlife, but we will spend eternity separated from the light of His presence. The choice is ours. Will we be wise like the Wise Men?

Frankincense Courtesy
The second gift of the Wise Men was frankincense, a whitish resin or gum-like substance taken from a tree and used in worship in the Tabernacle and Temple. Burning coals were taken from the altar of burnt offering and placed on the altar of incense in front of the holy of holies. The incense was sprinkled on these coals and a sweet, fragrant smoke arose toward heaven, symbolizing the prayers of the people of God.

The altar of incense in the Tabernacle had four horns, one in each corner. Horns in the Bible represent power. These horns indicate that we have power in prayer. The altar was crowned with a ledge of gold that kept the burning coals of incense from falling to the ground. The crown gives us confidence that our prayers will not fall to the ground; they are never wasted.

Golden rings were attached through which poles were inserted so the altar of incense could be carried whenever the Israelites traveled. This reminds us that wherever we go, we can touch God in prayer, and He will hear us no matter where we are.

Giving frankincense to Jesus at His birth foreshadowed that Jesus is our great intercessor, our great High Priest, who receives our prayers and intercedes on our behalf to the Father. As the incense was placed on the altar by man, and as it burns, ascends upward, so our prayers begin in our hearts and ascend heavenward to God. Jesus is waiting to receive our praise, our petitions, and our supplications.

Frankincense reminds us that God wants to hear how we feel. He wants us to release our burdens and offer up our innermost groanings to Him. With the Psalmist we can say, "Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering" (141:2, NLT).

Myrrh Courtesy
The third gift of the Wise Men was myrrh, a bitter substance obtained from trees in Arabia. Myrrh was used for embalming the dead. Thus, this gift symbolizes the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins. Because He faced the same testings we do and experienced what it was to be human, Jesus, the Son of God, identifies with every pain we suffer. He feels our infirmities and the the seasons of pain and sorrow we all suffer. And just as Jesus was sustained by His Father in sorrow and did not sin, so He will sustain us in our suffering.

When William Barclay, the great Scottish preacher, buried his 21-year-old son who had drowned, he said, "God did not stop the accident, but He did still the storm within my heart, so that somehow my wife and I came through that terrible time on our own two feet. When things like that happen, there are just three things to be said: One, to understand them is impossible. Two, Jesus does not offer us solutions to them. What He does offer us is His strength to accept what we cannot understand. And three, the fatal reaction is a grudge against God, but the one saving reaction is to go on living and find in the presence of Jesus the strength and courage to meet life with steady eyes, knowing the comfort that God too is afflicted in my affliction."

That's the message of myrrh--that "God too is afflicted in my affliction."

In the uncertainty of this New Year, may we remember the gifts of the Magi. Gold reminds us that we can trust in the sovereignty of God. Frankincense prompts us to tell the Lord in prayer whatever is on our hearts. And myrrh assures us that God too suffers in our afflictions.

May you have a blessed New Year!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

God's Christmas Gift

For Christmas, I'm sharing the Prologue I wrote for our church Christmas play this year:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.

And the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth, male and female He created them, in His own image, and breathed into them the breath of life.
God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.
The Lord God planted a garden, and there he placed the man and the woman. And God said, “You may eat of every tree in the garden except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day you eat of it you will surely die.”

But the serpent tempted them, and they did eat of the forbidden fruit.
Immediately, their fellowship with God was broken, and they were cast out of the garden so they could not eat of the tree of life and live forever in their sinful condition.

But God did not leave them without hope, for He promised, “I will put enmity between the serpent and the woman, and between the [serpent's] seed and her Seed; He shall bruise [the serpent's] head, and [the serpent] shall bruise His heel.”

The world was plunged into the darkness of sin, but the Promise of a Savior shone a glimmer of hope that the people who walked in darkness would one day see a great light.

To cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, God killed a lamb to begin teaching them that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.”

Many dark years passed. Then the Lord God found a man who worshiped Him. He said to Abram, “Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you … and you shall be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Through Abraham, God would prepare a nation to bring forth the Savior.
Later, God gave Moses the Law. The sacrificial system would point to the day and help people to understand when God would give His only uniquely begotten Son as the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….
(Scripture passages from Genesis 1, 3, John 1, New King James Version.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Christmas I Learned to Pray

It was December 1950 or 1951 in Juneau, Alaska, and I was 5 or 6 years old. Most families did all their shopping by catalog in territorial Alaska. We kids spent hours pouring over the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog, studying page after page of toys and dolls, looking for what we wanted for Christmas. 

As I turned a page, my eyes fell upon the most beautiful doll I'd ever seen--a bride doll dressed in lace and tulle, a veil over long, blond curls that could be combed and styled.
I ran to show my mother. "This is what I want for Christmas!"

With sadness tingeing her voice, she said, "Oh, honey, you'll have to pray and ask Jesus for that doll. We don't have enough money to buy presents this year."

My parents operated the Bethel Beach children's Home home by faith. As many as thirteen children, nine of them under five and two babies in cribs--orphans, neglected or abandoned children, and others with only one parent and no one else to care for them when the parent worked--lived in a big house on the beach just outside of town. Some parents were able to pay a little; those children placed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or welfare were subsidized. 
Bethel Beach Children's Home in Juneau, Alaska, c. 1950
I am the girl in the back row next to my dad
My dad worked full time to support our family and the home while my mother cared for all the children, did the cooking, the laundry, and the cleaning, usually without other adult help. Both of them provided us with a lot of love and Christian training.

That year, every night until December 24, when I knelt to say my bedtime prayers, I asked Jesus to give me that beautiful bride doll for Christmas. My request wasn't very significant to anyone but me. You might even say it was selfish. It certainly would not change the course of history if I didn't receive that doll. 

But that Christmas morning when, wide-eyed with expectation, we children tripped down the stairs and peeked into the large living room, we discovered gaily wrapped presents under the tree for each child. The tags all said, "From Jesus." When I unwrapped my gift, the beautiful doll I'd prayed for lay inside.

Years later, my mother told me the rest of the story. That Christmas Eve, Behrends, the only department store in Juneau, had called my parents to come down to the store and pick out gifts for all the children in their children's home. Among the unsold toys she found a bride doll for me.

That Christmas, this young girl learned that the God who created the Universe cares about every detail of her life, including what she wanted for Christmas. And to this day, that sense of my Heavenly Father's love has never left me.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

I Corinthians 13 for Christmas

I collect paraphrases based on 1 Corinthians 13. Years ago, I found this Christmas version. I don't know who wrote it, but it reminds me to focus on the message of Christmas and not get caught up in the tinsel and commercialism. This is a repeat blog post from last year. I don't know about you, but lest I get too involved in preparation for the holiday, I need this reminder every Christmas!

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkle lights, and shiny balls but do not show love to my family, I am only a honking horn or clanging bell.

Courtesy Google .com
If I slave away in the kitchen baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals, and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime but do not show love to my family, I am just another cook; it means nothing.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and hand-crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties, and sing in the church choir cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point of the season.

Love stops cooking to hug a child.

Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband.

Love is kind, even though I am harried and tired.

Love doesn't envy another's home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn't yell at the kids to get out of the way but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love doesn't give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who can't.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will endure.

"The greatest of these is love."

What is your biggest challenge to demonstrating your love at Christmas?

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