Archive for December, 2011

Gaining Wisdom on the Wise Men

Posted on December 26, 2011. Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , , , , |

Pisces A1

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I analyzed our manger scene today as I was putting it away and noticed a few things. The angel doesn’t look like the warrior I blogged about in October. Joseph and the shepherd look pretty normal I suppose. But Mary looks a bit older than the teenager she probably was. She certainly looks better than I did after just having a baby. And then there’s the three wise men. I have no idea what they would have looked like, but I do know one thing, they weren’t at the manger for Christ’s birth.

Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth tells that the magi came to where the child was: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). Notice a few things here. First, Christ is no longer described as a baby, but as a child. Second, there is no mention of Joseph or any shepherds that were there the night Jesus was born (Luke 2:16). Third, the wise men came to a house not a manger where we know Jesus was born (Luke 2:16 again). Also,when Herod gave orders to kill the all the boys in Bethlehem after Christ was born, he didn’t order all the infants killed, he ordered all those who were “two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16). There you have it, the magi weren’t there that night. Next year maybe we should just place them off to the side a little.

So, other than them not being there that night, what else do we know about these guys? Like, how did they know where to find Jesus? Of course, the star! While that was a great answer for Sunday school when I was 5, the response should probably be a little more developed for adult Christians.

Most of us know a little something about the prophet Daniel, it usually involves a lion’s den or “writing on the wall.” But in a nutshell, after the Babylonians conquered Judea in 605 BC they dispersed the Hebrews, bringing some of the ruling class (well-educated, military personnel, craftsmen, etc) to Babylon for assimilation. Sometimes the best of these men and women came to the Babylonian court and one of those chosen was Daniel. Daniel became well-respected and eventually head of the Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men (Daniel 2:48).

For those of us a bit dusty on our world history, most ancient cultures had a religious caste system of well-educated men, in Babylonian culture they were called “wise men.” These wise men would have undoubtedly maintained religious and historical scrolls from across the empire including the Hebrew scrolls of which Daniel obviously had knowledge.  The Babylonians were conquered by the Persians who were conquered by the Parthians, all near-eastern cultures that shared similar court structures. The Parthians were the other major empire in force at the time of Christ’s birth, in addition to the Romans of course. Thus the high-ranking wise men would have had diplomatic access to a Roman governor who also would have received them, unlike regular nomads.

Back to our wise men.  These scrolls they read contained the signs and prophecies for Christ’s birth (in addition to some great gift-giving advice). Numbers 24:17 claims a “star will rise out of Jacob,” Jesus’s forefather (Matthew 1:2). Some scholars claim that since the wise men would have had astrological training, they may have seen something in the constellation Pisces, which was associated with the Jews. But, the “star,” where it came from or what is was, remains in large part a mystery.

Bottom line is that there is a logical explanation for the arrival of the magi due to their station in the empire and the prophecy scrolls they would have had access too. It was not a random event and they weren’t just creepy old men looking for young children (though it’s probably safe to assume they had mustaches). And though they weren’t there the night Christ was born, their timing had a purpose that was bigger than filling out my nativity scene. So, I guess they can stay.

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Biblical Gift Giving

Posted on December 22, 2011. Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , , |

White IPod nano

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There’s only a few days left before Christmas, which means there’s not too much time to do that last-minute shopping (men). There are a lot of resources dedicated to helping you to determine the perfect present. But did you ever wonder what the Bible has to say about giving gifts? If you think about it, it’s actually natural to look there. After all, one of the theories behind why we give gifts at Christmas is because the wise men gave presents to Jesus. If you read to story of the magi coming to check out little JC, it actually gives two pretty good tips for gift giving:

# 1 Give a gift for the recipient, not you.

We all know them: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But why on earth would the magi give a small child these gifts? They sound like gifts that the wise men would want, not a little boy. I bet he wanted a race-car bed or at least a nice dradle. But these gifts are actually pretty well thought out and were themselves probably based off of prophetic scripture that described Jesus and his life.

One of the Old Testament prophecies was that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David (2 Chronicles 6:16, Isaiah 9:7). That would of course make Jesus of noble blood. What was, and still probably is, the gift to give royalty? An iPod loaded with the President’s speeches. Just kidding, that would be gold.

On to the next gift. Incense has been associated with religious ceremonies, sacrifices, and praying to deities for thousands of years. Catholics today continue to use aromas during mass. Daniel 7:13 claimed that the Messiah would be both man and God on earth. The frankincense reflected that the magi knew the child was holy, as well as human.

Myrrh. I’m sure Mary was thrilled that these guests came bearing gold and incense, but as a mom the last thing I would want to be reminded of was how my son going to die. Myrrh was associated with funerals, so bringing it might be today’s equivalent of giving an urn at a child’s birthday party. “Gee…thanks.” Obviously, everyone dies, but prophecies told that Christ’s death wouldn’t be a minor event, nor would it be ordinary (see Isaiah 53). Instead, it would be the pinnacle of history until his final return.

Great gifts that were well-thought out for Jesus. But, as we all know, even when you try your hardest, the gifts won’t always make the cut, bringing us to the next pointer:

#2 Don’t be crushed when the recipient re-gifts.

So, the wise men came, gave the gifts, made camels out of balloons, and left. After that Mary and Joseph put the gold in a 529 plan, burned some frankincense in the nursery, and saved the myrrh for later. Wrong – “After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (Matthew 2:13). Verse 14 indicates Joseph didn’t mess around and instead left that night.

One problem though, they weren’t rich, as indicated by Joseph’s sacrifice of two pigeons at the temple (a poor man’s sacrifice Luke 2:22-24, Lev 12:8). A trip from Israel to Egypt wasn’t going to be cheap. If only they had something worth its weight in….Of course this is just speculation, but many scholars believe that those lovely gifts didn’t stay in the family long. It’s more likely the gifts were resold to pay for the trip and costs associated with living in a foreign land for a few years, something the new parents wouldn’t have been able to afford on a young carpenter’s income.

There’s no way of knowing if the magi knew their gifts would be sold. But if they were wise (hah) and knew Herod was out to kill Jesus, it makes sense they brought gifts fit for a god, a king, and a martyr that would also fetch a good price on the road. Almost like it was meant to be. I doubt they would have been too upset or pouted that they could have just gotten a gift card and saved themselves the trouble.

Bottom line, when it comes giving gifts, remember it’s always about the recipient.

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Happy Hanukkah (or Chanukah, or Chanukkah, or Chanuka, or חֲנֻכָּה‎)!

Posted on December 18, 2011. Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , , , , , |

Despite what the politically correct police would have you believe, there really aren’t that many religious holidays going on right now. There is just Christmas and Chanukah.

Hammer specific

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Lots of people assume Chanukah is ‘Christmas for the Jews’ – not so. The Jews have other holidays that are much more ‘important’ like Yom Kippur or Passover. But those aren’t around Christmas so Christians don’t pay too much attention (ironic because they actually mean something to our spiritual history too). But what about Chanukah? Should Christians care about the Festival of Lights? After all, Jesus celebrated it (John 10:22).

I personally like Chanukah because it is an example that reminds Jews AND Christians that our faith is anything but blind. Did you know that Daniel prophesied the events leading up to Chanukah 383 years before they happened? Let’s see, 2011-383=1628. In 1628, the Puritans were settling into a little place called Salem, Massachusetts (talk about irony…). That would be like one of them predicting Osama Bin Laden’s death this year. Here’s how it went…

In Daniel chapter 8, Daniel (who was exiled to Babylon after the Babylonians conquered the nation of Judah in 605 BC) is living at the palace of Belshazzar, which helps scholars date the texts around 551 BC (Daniel 8:1). He has a vision of a two-horned ram (the Medo-Persian Empire), a goat (the Greek Empire) with a long horn (Alexander the Great) which was later replaced by four horns (Ptolemy – Egypt, Seleucus – Syria/Persia, Cassander – Macedonia/Greece and Lysimachus – Thrace/Asia Minor). Out of one of the horns, the Greek one to be exact, came a small horn who was Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Daniel 8:3-9). This is where our story picks up.

Antiochus IV tried unsuccessfully to invade Egypt. In 168 BC on his way back to Syria, he stopped into Israel and ordered his troops to seize Jerusalem on the Sabbath. There, he entered Solomon’s Temple (a big no-no because he wasn’t a Jew), put up a statue of Zeus, and slaughtered a pig (an unholy animal) on God’s altar. The Jews refer to this event as “the abomination the causes desolation,” which Daniel also prophesied about in Daniel 9:27. Antiochus continued with his ‘Hellenization‘ by outlawing Jewish scripture and religious customs, including circumcision.

Enter Mattathias, a Jewish priest who was ordered to sacrifice to Zeus and eat pig meat (unlike everything else, heresy does not go better with bacon). Mattathias refused and eventually killed a Greek soldier. He and his five sons fled into the mountains where other Jews joined them for a few years of guerrilla warfare targeted against the Greeks. Mattathias’s son Judas ‘The Hammer’ (or in Greek, Maccabeus) defeated the Greeks after three years of fighting we now refer to as the Maccabean Rebellion. The Jews stormed Jerusalem, entered the Temple, and relit the Menorah in the Holy Place thereby rededicating the Temple to God, not Zeus. Unfortunately, they only had enough oil to last a day, but amazingly it lasted eight, which was just enough time to prepare and consecrate a new batch. And that was the first Chanukah.

Back to Daniel (in 551 BC), “Then I heard two holy ones talking to each other. One of them asked, ‘How long will the events of this vision last? How long will the rebellion that causes desecration stop the daily sacrifices? How long will the Temple and heaven’s army be trampled on?’ The other replied, ‘It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the Temple will be made right again'” (Daniel 8:13-14).

Sacrifices were made once in the morning and once in the evening. Amazingly, 1,150 morning sacrifices and 1,150 evening sacrifices works out to three years, one month, and twenty-five days. Remember, in 168 BC Antiochus defiled the temple and stopped sacrifices – how long did that last you ask? They resumed 165 BC…hmmm.

Why don’t Christians celebrate the Festival of Lights? Frankly, it’s because we aren’t Jewish. Not in the religious sense, though obviously that matters too, but in the cultural sense. Unless you are a Jew who converted to Christianity, you are a Gentile, and it’s just not a part of our culture (if someone knows a better reason, I’m all ears). There’s nothing wrong with us celebrating Chanukah, it’s just not something Gentile Christians usually do.

So, if you wish someone a merry Christmas and he tells you he’s Jewish, wish them a happy Chanukah. It’s what Jesus would do. Literally.

(Note: for more information, read Hal Seed’s Future History. That’s what I did.)

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Why We Don’t Do Santa

Posted on December 11, 2011. Filed under: Culture | Tags: , |

Scrooge McDuck

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Yup, we’re one of ‘those’ families. Our kids won’t wait in line to sit on Santa’s lap. They won’t write him letters explaining what they want and how good they’ve been this year. The only ‘spies’ on our shelf are a few Russian authors. Simply put, we don’t do Santa.

Most people don’t bother asking why we chose to pass on this tradition. They simply assume we are some sort of holiday Scrooges that want our children to be misfits among their friends. While we may eventually take pleasure in their torment when they are teenagers, for now, that isn’t the case. Nor do I think that Christians who do Santa are ‘bad’ or ‘less Christian.’ I just know it isn’t for our family.

As it is traditionally played out, the story of Santa contradicts what we are teaching our children on multiple levels. First, there is the bit about telling them a story that is, simply put, a lie. If Christians are called to imitate Christ, I don’t know how to do this while also condoning lying. God does not lie (Num 23:19). He is truth (John 14:6). I know that’s a bit simplistic, but that’s what’s great about the truth. Once you start dressing it up with caveats (“Well, I did it and I’m okay,” “Yes, but he’ll miss out on the magic of Christmas,” or “I know, but I really want to see her face light up”), chances are you’re justifying lies rather than living for the truth.

This ‘white lie’ builds from its little details of flying reindeer into ultimately teaching kids that being good gets you in with Santa (some parents even use this as leverage to blackmail good behavior). But, this lie contradicts the most basic tenant of Christianity we are trying to convey to our kids. There is nothing we can ‘do’ to be with God; it is only by grace we are saved (Eph 2:8-9). That was the whole point of Christ coming to earth. We all fall short, so we need a savior (Romans 3:23).

On a less cosmic but still important note, the Santa story teaches kids that there are ‘free lunches.’ Milton Friedman and JC would both have a problem with this one. “A hard worker has plenty of food, but a person who chases fantasies has no sense” (Prov 12:11). “Those unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thes 3:10). You don’t get something for nothing. You work for it, or someone (that would be the parents) did for you. It’s Christianity 101 meets economics 101 (hm, I feel another post coming on…).

Now, even if I could get past all the above, there’s still the problem that today, like it or not, Christmas is a consumer holiday, not a Christian holiday. Most of us (myself included) are more concerned with the shopping, cookies, gift exchanges, pagan conifers, decorations, ugly Christmas sweaters, fairy tale traditions, and even ‘the family and friends’ – not Christ. While some of these may be more noble than others, they aren’t what the holiday is really about. For some of us, it takes a politically incorrect “Charlie Brown Christmas” to remind us. And while downplaying Santa and his elves won’t guarantee that my kids will focus on Christ this time of year, it certainly eliminates much of the competition (what 5-year-old thinks salvation from Jesus is better than a Wii from Santa?).

Now Paul never addressed Santa, but he did talk about something similar. In 1 Corinthians chapter 8, Paul told the Corinthians not to get too worried about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols since they all knew the idols didn’t exist (and food was still good!). In the same way, adults know Santa isn’t real and the presents ‘from’ him still bring happiness and joy. But Paul did warn that there were others who didn’t realize the idols were fake and that those were the people who would look to leaders with ‘superior knowledge’ for guidance. He said that the actions of these leaders, shouldn’t be a stumbling block for the ‘weak’.

Now, food isn’t Santa, I get it. But as a parent, I hope I’m the one with ‘superior knowledge’ and that the kids are the ‘weak.’ I can’t do something out of peer pressure or tradition, especially if it could be a stumbling block for my kids’ faith. How can I teach them about truth, honesty, grace, and hard work not to mention massive floods, giant fish, or the dead rising from the grave expecting them to see me as an authority while I simultaneously feed them lies in the name of ‘fun’ or ‘magic’? Some might get past this or possibly ignore it, but my husband and I can’t.

So, while I realize that most of you don’t agree with me, hopefully you can understand where our family decision came from. We didn’t come to it lightly and know it’s a bit weird, but it is what’s best for our family. And if you don’t like it… Bah humbug.

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Jesus: Gandhi or Patton? Part II

Posted on December 4, 2011. Filed under: Culture |

As I wrote in my last post, too many people paint Christ as a dove. Think of all the pictures of Jesus you saw growing up. He was usually a slender white guy dressed in light linens with piercing blue eyes, more often than not with dirty blond hair (how many Palestinian Jews have blond hair and blue eyes?). More often than not, he was telling a parable of some sort to a group of happy children, or being baptized with doves singing all around. If you’re Catholic, he was probably emaciated and dying on a cross. But who would crucify a sickly Mr. Rogers? Is this really what Christ was like? And if we’re called to be like Jesus, does that mean we should be meek and mild?

The Bible doesn’t speak too much to what Christ looked like, but something tells me a carpenter, someone who works with his body everyday, would be lean yes, but not frail and malnourished. The armed guards who came to arrest Jesus drew back and fell to the ground when they realized which man they were to seize (John 18:4-8). Doesn’t sound like someone who was weak and sickly looking. The Bible also says he “wages a righteous war,” that his eyes are like “flames of fire,” his robe is “dipped in blood,” and he will rule with an iron rod (Rev 19:11-16). Simply put, “the Lord is a warrior,” not a pushover (Exodus 15:3).

What about other ‘heroes’ of the Bible? Sampson ripped apart a mountain lion’s jaw and brought the temple of the Philistines down with his bare hands (Judges 14:6, Judges 16:30). David was still a boy when he had already killed mountain lions and bears, trash talked the Philistines, killed, not to mention beheaded their best man, Goliath (1 Sam 17:26-51). Joshua achieved a 31-1 record on the battlefield. Abraham attacked and conquered his enemies in the dead of night when he rescued his nephew Lot (Gen 14:14-16). And it’s not just the men; remember Rahab, one of only 4 women cited in Jesus’s genealogy? She was the one who risked her life by hiding Joshua’s spies in Jericho (Joshua 2:4-21). These aren’t weak, timid, or gentle followers of God. They are strong and assertive. They take pride in their God, provide for their families and their fellow men, even when that means doing so at the edge of a blade (or cracking a few lions’s skulls).

So are we supposed to be blood-thirsty man-eaters? Well what else would you expect from a religion with a zombie god-king? On the contrary, each of these men (and women) received their strength from God and acted in according to His will. In fact, whenever they deviated from God, they did so at their peril and the peril of those around them. When David decided he’d rather let others wage his war, he gave into temptation and slept with another man’s wife, ultimately killing that man and David’s love-child (2 Sam 11). When Joshua lost control of his people, he was defeated in battle (Joshua 7). And of course, there was Adam. Once he lost his spine, we got the fall of man (Gen 3). Only Christ stood his ground and was with God 100% of the time.

Turns out Christ wasn’t a Gandhi or a Patton, he had the best of both. And like Christ, we shouldn’t be afraid to fight the enemy, confront those who persecute us, provide for our families, and spread the word of God. Take comfort that being a Christian doesn’t mean a boring life of playing with baby lambs or keeping any feeling that isn’t joy or happiness to yourself. Being a Christian calls for boldness and strength. It means being a warrior for God.

This blog entry is dedicated to my husband who is a warrior in every sense of the word.

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