Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Fourth Wise Man That Wasn't

[For your Christmas enjoyment, and maybe a little edification, I offer this short story I wrote a few years back.]

           The assembly had disintegrated into raucous shouts and groans only minutes after the Grand Vizier had called it to order.  He should have known that this would be the case, since Balthasar and his colleagues were known for their controversial notions.  Why, the vizier wondered, did they insist on putting such ludicrous theories forward?  Legends surrounding that foreign master of the magi of long ago had been nearly erased from their collective memory, but now Balthasar was bringing them up again.   The suggestion that the appearance of one particular conjunction of stars was the fulfillment of some long-forgotten promise of a king with universal significance strained the patience of even the most open-minded of the wise.  And this was no time to be thinking about off-beat ideas that could derail the progress the magi had been making.
            The Vizier let his thoughts turn with satisfaction to the steady increase in importance that their exclusive fraternity had experienced during his leadership.  The world’s leaders were once again interested in what the wise men from the east had to say.  It had been a rough few centuries for them, ever since Alexander and his armies had swept through Persia like a grass fire in late summer, displacing not only the old empire, but the old empire’s advisers as well.  Now, following the disintegration of Greek rule and the ascendancy of the Romans, kings throughout the east (and even toward Rome in the west) were seeking out the magi once again. 
            They had carefully protected and cultivated their reputation for special wisdom, studying their books and rehearsing their legends.  Those who practiced the magic arts could always amaze, but such tricks did little more than keep the general population in awe.  It took the vast reservoir of facts and insights gained over centuries for the skillful wise man to create in his king or prince that sense of dependence that secured the magi’s power.  Rulers, fearful of the threat of the Romans or the challenge of the Parthians, were offering great wealth and honor to obtain the services of some of the magi for their courts.
It was at such an opportune moment that Balthasar chose to present his ideas and plan, asking his compatriots to risk the ridicule of all those kings and princes whose support has been so difficult to regain.  And for what purpose?  To follow an unfamiliar star foramtion toward the heart of unfriendly territory to find this mysterious king of a people that has no real political significance.  The Jews groaned under Roman rule through the puppet king, Herod (an obnoxious and vain man whose enemies had a nasty habit of dying untimely deaths).  They had no need of magi—new king or not.  They needed a better army than Rome’s, and no one seems to have found one. 
            The Vizier thought about Balthasar’s words.  “We believe that our ancient master, Belteshazzar, was more than just a wise man,” he had proclaimed once again.  “His wisdom was unparalleled in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, who believed him a prophet of the one true God.”
            This had sparked the first reaction among his fellow magi, of course, for their own belief in one god had put them at odds with much of society.
            Balthasar had continued, “Belteshazzar received many visions and dreams that spoke of the future of his people and of the kingdoms that would rise and fall around them.  His words accurately foretold Alexander’s rise and fall, and the coming of the Romans.”
Some of the magi scoffed at this, others bristled at the suggestion that one of their number had accurately foretold what so many others had missed.
“He predicted the coming of a king among his people who would be God’s deliverer of mankind.  We believe this new star is the announcement of that king’s birth.”
No more could be said above the assembly’s shouts of derision.  Balthasar’s friends, Melchior and Gaspar, both touched his arm and shook their heads in disappointment.  They were alone in their convictions, and their fellow magi would not listen any further.
Most of their number had left the meeting place, but those three still stood together, talking quietly among themselves.  The Vizier felt compelled to speak to them.
“I told you it was useless, Balthasar.  No one wants to be reminded of old fables that put most of our ancestors in an unfavorable light.”
“The truth about our past is reflected in our stubbornness today,” replied the old man. “Daniel’s (Balthasar slipped into using Belteshazzar’s Hebrew name) truthfulness was not diminished by the jealousy of the other magi then, and we believe we can trust what we have learned through studying his life and teachings.  Why can’t a man like yourself see that our plan holds out the promise of a discovery beyond any of our wildest dreams?”
The Vizier thought for a second before replying.  “You are correct in saying that, if you are right, your discovery might be amazing.  But consider the risks.  This proposed expedition will cost you more than just your fortunes.  If you are wrong, your reputations will be lost forever, as would that of anyone willing to go with you.  You are staking all on the words of a long dead sage.  You believe the deliverer of the world may be born among an enslaved people, and that a star has appeared to announce this?  No, my friends, your quest is too ridiculous to imagine joining.  I urge you to forget this nonsense, stay at home, and enjoy your privileges and prosperity.  Few have what you possess.”
“That is true, wise one.  But we have decided we would trade all we have to discover if God has truly sent this promised King.  If such a king has been born, then we will gladly lose all else to know of him.”
What would it be like to discover the savior of the world, the Vizier wondered.  Certainly such a journey, with a company of genuinely interesting (if slightly unpredictable) men in search of this king would be remarkable.  But it would undoubtedly be for nothing.  No, he would not go.  He would do what magi did best—go with the established wisdom.  And the established wisdom was that money and power in one’s possession secured all the future you could hope to have.
“Farewell, my friends.  I shall miss your company.  When you return, I shall do what I can to help you get back to your normal lives here.
“Thank you, wise one,” Balthasar replied, “but if we return, we believe we will have news that will keep life from ever being what it was.”
As they left his presence, the Vizier said to himself that if that were to be the case, then perhaps it would be best for them not to come back.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown, Yellow Springs, and Bethlehem

Like everyone else, I was stunned and saddened beyond words as the reports of the slaughter of Newtown, Connecticut's children came in.  20 youngsters died at the hands of one marauding murderer who killed his mother first.  We will learn more about him and the heart-wrenching losses suffered by families in the coming days.  I appreciated the governor of Connecticut's words, saying that "Evil visited" Sandy Hook School yesterday.  It was and is evil in our world that impels such violence and harm.  We must pray for the families who suffered loss of children, and those who lost parents, friends, co-workers, and spouses.

Even as those reports continued today, we left the house for me to officiate at the wedding of Matt Brooker and Hannah Lamos, two wonderful young people in our Grace family and students at CU.  It was an joyous morning, more informal than most weddings, and simple as could be.  The happiness in their faces was what I love to see on any wedding day, and their shared desire to exalt Jesus and celebrate with their families was a blessing to me.  It was a celebration with unmixed joy.

Matteo di Giovanni's "Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem", 
1488.  Note how the artist made the crime look as if it was in his
own time.  The innocents are slaughtered in every age.
What a contrast in emotions I went through in 24 hours:  sadness at the tragedy of so many in Connecticut, and joy at the sight of this newly married couple.  It seems almost bizarre that one can go through such a large swing in such as short time.  In fact, it isn't just a "swing," but rather the co-existence of sadness and joy in the same day.

Tomorrow, we gather for the third Sunday in Advent, with its theme of Joy.  We should remember that the joy we celebrate in Advent and Christmas is always accompanied, in this world at least, with the continuing presence of sorrows and sadness.  Even in the Christmas story, we learn of both great joy, as manifested by the wise men when they saw the star and it led them to Bethlehem, and horrendous sorrow experienced by the parents in that tiny village just days later.  It really was a little town, probably with only few dozen families.  But since Herod had heard that the future King of the Jews had been born there, he sent his soldiers to kill all their youngest children.  I just read this past week that it probably was about 20 children that died--just the same as in Newtown.

 By God's intervention, the murdering Herod did not find Jesus there, for Joseph had been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt.  By God's intervention, Adam Lanza killed himself before he could kill more victims.  I wonder if the families of Bethlehem ever knew why Herod attacked them as he did--there is no indication that they did.  The grieving families in Newtown will never know why their children died yesterday.

Such tragedies remind us of the destructive power of evil, and of the Evil One whose sole purpose is, like the thief described in John 10, "to steal and kill and destroy."

But in the midst of such tragedies, joys still come.  Messages from faraway loved ones bring smiles.  Couples get married.  Kids come home from school.  Families and friends get together at Christmas.  It is God reminding us, "Yes the world is evil.  But evil does not always win--will not always win."

Advent is the season of longing and anticipating the coming of Jesus.  That longing should get stronger in the face of heinous evil.  And it should get stronger when the joys that come our way provide a foretaste of what life will always be like when Jesus takes up his throne and kingdom here.  God allows both because they are the realities of life in a fallen world where the hope of redemption and renewal is offered in Jesus.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Forgiving the Seriously Fallen

Two matters came my way today that both made me stop, think, and wonder.  The first was a question from a friend who knows a Christian man (former church worker and teacher) who is facing serious jail time for molesting underage boys--repeatedly.  Much like the Jerry Sandusky case, it has generated a lot of hatred and recrimination, and it has devastated his wife.  He expresses repentance, remorse, regret, sorrow--you name it.  He will be punished for his crimes, and should be.  But Christians, including some that my friend talked to, hold out no hope of this man ever being changed, or even worthy of redemption.  Society and mental health professionals tend to agree that he is hopeless.  Christians join others in saying they hope there is a special place in hell for such people.  But will he be in hell?  Could he be truly saved and that messed up?  The question that I was asked: has this become the unpardonable sin--perhaps not to God, but to us?  Do we just let such people be locked away and forget about them?

The second was an article I'd actually seen when it popped up in my email in a newsletter I read.  I saw the title Going to Hell with Ted Haggard, and wasn't sure I'd be interested.  Then I saw it was the most-read article of any week that this long-time Christian publication has been on the web, so I thought I would read it.  It was convicting.  I'd urge you to click on the linked title and go read it.  Now.  I'll wait.

OK, welcome back.  Interesting to contemplate, isn't it, especially the statement by the atheist that the thing that keeps him from ever becoming a Christian is that we say that God accepts you just as you are, but when one of us in the church falls publicly, we tend to "eat our own."

As a church with multiple children's and youth ministries, we take protection of children seriously.  And as believers in the high and holy calling of a pastor/overseer/elder, we know that the public sins of leaders can have far-reaching consequences inside and outside the church.  Yet, does the gospel of grace extend to repentant child molesters, and if so, is it grace strong enough to make them a functioning part of a local assembly?  And does God's grace ever forgive and restore fallen leaders to any usefulness beyond sitting quietly in the shadows?

I guess I have another question to wrestle with in my "No Easy Answers" series.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Good Resource and a Gift Idea

I've come across two very different things that I believe would be helpful for some of you who come to the blog from time to time.

First of all, let me suggest an excellent blog post by Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition site on A Few Things To Consider Before Supporting Gay Marriage.  It is an excellent defense of the idea that government did not create marriage, but regulates and favors it for reasons that are beneficial to society.  It puts the debate on the right terms.  If you have friends who think that this is "no big deal," this article has some arguments that might help them reconsider.

And, for those looking for an excellent gift idea for parents with younger children, may I suggest Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd-Jones?  This is the same author who wrote The Jesus Storybook Bible, the children's Bible story book I recommend and bought for my grandson.  This is a devotional geared toward kids, and a good tool for leading into spiritual discussions in a natural way.  I have included it in the recommendations of books in the right column--you can go to directly from there.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Stories of this and that...

Sad Follow-Up to a Good Deed
The feel good story of last week was about the NYPD officer who generously purchased shoes and socks for this homeless man on the street during a cold night.  The picture here, snapped by a tourist, went viral and the officer became a hero.

Many commented on the story, saying it restored their faith in humanity, and wishing that everyone would just be as kind as this officer.

Happy ending, right?

No.  for here is the follow up story: Homeless man grateful for boots, but barefoot again.

What happened?  If you read the story you will discover that the homeless man is hiding his "valuable shoes" to protect against theft.  Further, he wants a share of any profit from this picture (there wasn't any), and he has abandoned a family who would care for him if he would stay with them.

We would love to believe that homeless people need only a helping hand or a gift to make things better.  But the multiple levels of brokenness due to sin and the Fall lead to some people making continually bad decisions and sinful choices.

I have nothing but praise for the officer's intent and actions.  But I also think there is an important reminder that, in a fallen world, simple solutions often fall short of real change--especially when those solutions can only deal with symptoms, and not the heart.

Ravi Zacharias on the Problem of Pleasure
I listened to Ravi's podcast on the dangers of pleasure, and found it very instructive.  One quote stuck with me.  "The price of all pleasure is pain.  For a true [legitimate] pleasure, the price is paid beforehand.  For a false pleasure, the price is paid afterward."

How true!  True pleasures come as we discipline ourselves, walk in obedience, and then experience reward. Illegitimate pleasures promise so much, but are followed by the various prices of guilt, sorrow, and disappointment.

Whatever happened to Rob Bell?
I was asked this question by someone recently (I don't remember who), and it came up again in a discussion in the office.  So, when I saw this, I thought I could answer the question.  It seems that Bell's book, Love Wins, not only caused Bell to fall under great criticism for what seems a rejection of orthodox teaching on the doctrine of eternal punishment, but cost Mars Hill Bible Church about 3,000 members.  Bell left the church and moved to southern California, where he hopes to launch a "faith-inflected" talk show.  The church is now pastored by Kent Dobson, son of Grand Rapids pastor Ed Dobson.

The article recounting all of this is here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Why We Celebrate Advent

[I have had a few requests for an explanation of Advent, and why we celebrate it.  So I am posting something I wrote for another setting to give some background and perspective.]

Celebrating Advent
Who celebrates Advent?
Christians have a history, but we also have a history of forgetting our history.  Because of this, we have churches that celebrate certain days, and other churches that don’t.  Some churches used to celebrate certain occasions but have stopped; others have begun celebrating days that they didn’t used to.   It would probably surprise most English-speaking Christians that in our early “Protestant” days, we celebrated Christmas and Advent; then, under the influence of Puritans who felt that anything not specifically commanded in Scripture should be disallowed, we stopped celebrating it.  Some of our Puritan and Baptist forefathers went so far as to urge the banning of any public displays for Christmas—and disciplining members who celebrated or even said, “Merry Christmas.”  However, as time went by these groups relaxed their anti-Christmas views, and by the middle of the 19th century, almost all Protestants were once again celebrating Christmas.  However, Advent was not universally restored.   Churches that followed the traditional church calendar (six seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, and two stretches of what were called “ordinary time”) celebrated it, while those who ignored the other seasons ignored Advent, too.  But many churches, including ours, are rediscovering the ways that Advent can be a blessing to our lives as we move toward Christmas.

Where did Advent come from?
Advent goes back into the 4th century, around the time Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire.  During that era, churches became very creative in their new-found freedom as many new people began to attend Christian services but with no understanding of what Christians believed.  Out of this situation, churches began to follow regular lesson plans for worship, both in the elements of worship services (the liturgy) and in the schedule of what would be taught (the church year of seasons mentioned above).  People did not own Bibles, but the Bible would be taught systematically through the year.  In this way, it was hoped that the basic truths of the faith would be passed on as people did certain things every week, recited certain words, heard certain scriptures read regularly, and celebrated particular seasons in order.  

Advent was the first season of the year, and it was meant to remind Christians that we were in need of a Savior.  The sense of longing and waiting that Israel had known was adopted as the Christian attitude of longing for Christ’s second coming.  The season involved both calls to repentance and preparation (similar to the message of John the Baptist) and joyful anticipation of the Messiah.  It usually began with a feast, then moved into fasting, and ended with feasting again.

What about Advent traditions?
Different traditions associated with Advent sprung up throughout the various countries where it was celebrated.  One set of traditions involved the development of four themes of Advent.  There has been some variation in them, but the third Sunday of Advent was always marked by the concept of joy.  We have taken as our themes the order of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love—themes that were prominent in many places that celebrated Advent.

Another tradition involves candles.  Typically there were four Advent candles in a wreath.  Often one of the candles would be pink (for joy), for the third week, and the other candles would be purple, symbolizing both repentance and royalty.  Each Sunday, and throughout the week, the candle for that week would be lit, with each week adding another candle.  Many wreaths would have a white candle in the middle, called the Christ candle.  It would not be lit until Christmas Eve, which began the traditional 12 day Christmas celebration that would end on January 6th.    

So why do we choose Advent?
Churches like ours that have adopted the celebration of Advent believe that it is a positive replacement for Christians of the general “holiday spirit” that focuses more on presents and some nebulous call to be cheerful.  Instead, we choose to focus on the One whose birth is being celebrated, and specifically on why He came and what His coming promises to all of us.  We also want this to be a time of intentional reminder that we are still waiting for the completion of our hope.  Christian faith is still pointed toward the future and the coming of Jesus back to this world.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent Reflection, Week One--Hope Lives!

After our Sunday dinner, I told Kathy that today was when my Christmas season begins.  Yes, our house has been decorated for a few days.  Yes, I have been listening to Christmas music for a few days now.  And yes, I've done some Christmas shopping, with more still to do.  But for me, our opening Sunday of worship in Advent marks the true start of my celebration.

Arriving at the church building and seeing it decorated for the season was the first step.  May I say that the folks who decorate our facility every year do an amazing job, and this year is no exception.  I feel like I'm walking into a Christmas card!  Then, our musicians always do so much to use regular worship music and Christmas songs together to draw us into just the right focus of our hearts and voices.  I'm so thankful for all of the talented people who sacrifice hours and hours of practice time in order to make our music seem so effortlessly done.

This year, we've added having different families light the Advent wreath in the service, and that is great for at least two reasons.  One--it let's families participate in a unique way in our worship time.  And two--my hand usually shakes when I have to light the thing, and I'm so glad that someone else has to do it!

I personally enjoy the preparation of Advent messages and trying to weave our themes into the service.  This morning, we were thinking about hope, and I had the privilege of looking at the subject through a study of the  story of Joseph as seen in Matthew 1.  Here was a man who had the birthright of being a king, but one whose throne was long dormant.  Yet his hope was not in his nation, nor in his bloodline, but in the promises of God.  His faith led to his being labeled "just" or "righteous," meaning he received right standing before God by faith.  This led to a heart of compassion, a will to obey God, and a devotion that didn't lead him to expect God to bless him specially because of his faithfulness.  He had hoped in God, and he saw his hopes begin to be realized in ways he never expected.  You can go to our church website to see or hear the message.  Follow this link.

Of course, today continues to be a celebration.  We will be going to the annual Cedarville University Christmas Concert, a highlight of our Advent beginnings every year.  Following this, we'll be with families from the church for an Advent dessert (we are doing desserts and dinners in homes in place of one big Advent dinner at the church).

This has been, and is continuing to be, a very good day.  Best of all, it's because everything we are celebrating and anticipating in Advent points to the glorious realities yet to be revealed!